Category Archives: history

The Electrical Outlet and How It Got That Way

Right now, if you happen to be in Noth America, chances are pretty good that there’s at least one little face staring at you. Look around and you’ll spy it, probably about 15 inches up from the floor on a nearby wall. It’s the ubiquitous wall outlet, with three holes arranged in a way that can’t help but stimulate the facial recognition firmware of our mammalian brain.

No matter where you go you’ll find those outlets and similar ones, all engineered for specific tasks. But why do they look the way they do? And what’s going on electrically and mechanically …read more

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Posted in connector, Engineering, Hackaday Columns, history, household, mains, Original Art, outlet, plug, socket, standards, wiring | Leave a comment

The Aluminum Wiring Fiasco

Someone who decides to build a house faces a daunting task. It’s hard enough to act as the general contractor for someone else, but when you decide to build your own house, as my parents did in the early 1970s, it’s even tougher. There are a million decisions to make in an information-poor and rapidly changing environment, and one wrong step can literally cast in stone something you’ll have to live with forever. Add in the shoestring budget that my folks had to work with, and it’s a wonder they were able to succeed as well as they did.

It …read more

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Posted in aluminum, copper, electrical grid, Featured, history, home, mains electricity, mains wiring, Original Art, wiring | Leave a comment

Inside Mechanical Calculators

For as busy as things can get at the grocery store on a typical afternoon just before the dinner hour, at least the modern experience has one thing going for it: it’s relatively quiet. Aside from the mumbled greetings and “Paper or plastic?” questions from the cashier, and the occasional screaming baby in the next aisle, the only sound you tend to hear is the beeping of the barcode scanner as your purchase is tallied up.

Jump back just 40 years and the same scene was raucous, with cashiers reading price tags and pounding numbers into behemoth electromechanical cash registers. …read more

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Posted in accumulator, adding machine, calculator, carry, carrying, Curta, Engineering, Hackaday Columns, history, mechanical, multiplication, nine's complement, Pascaline | Leave a comment

Firing Bullets Through Propellers

Early airborne combat was more like a drive-by shooting as pilot used handheld firearms to fire upon other aircraft. Whomever could boost firepower and accuracy would have the upper hand and so machine guns were added to planes. But it certainly wasn’t as simple as just bolting one to the chassis.

This was during World War I which spanned 1914 to 1918 and the controllable airplane had been invented a mere eleven years before. Most airplanes still used wooden frames, fabric-covered wings, and external cable bracing. The engineers became pretty inventive, even finding ways to fire bullets through the path …read more

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Posted in aerial, airplane, combat, Engineering, Fokker Zentralsteuerung, gear, history, machine gun, Original Art, propeller, synchronizer, weapons hacks, world war I, WWI | Leave a comment

Beeping The Enemy Into Submission

In July 1940 the German airforce began bombing Britain. This was met with polite disagreement on the British side — and with high technology, ingenuity, and improvisation. The defeat of the Germans is associated with anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes, but a significant amount of potential damage had been averted by the use of radio.

Night bombing was a relatively new idea at that time and everybody agreed that it was hard. Navigating a plane in the dark while travelling at two hundred miles per hour and possibly being shot at just wasn’t effective with traditional means. So the Germans …read more

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Posted in antennaa, battle of britain, britain, Engineering, Featured, guidance system, history, jamming, Knickebein, radar, radio hacks, Wotan, wwii | Leave a comment

Another Reason to Learn Morse Code: Kidnapping

Morse code — that series of dots and dashes — can be useful in the strangest situations. As a kid I remember an original Star Trek episode where an injured [Christopher Pike] could only blink a light once for yes and twice for no. Even as a kid, I remember thinking, “Too bad they didn’t think to teach him Morse code.” Of course odd uses of Morse aren’t just for TV and Movies. Perhaps the strangest real-life use was the case of the Colombian government hiding code in pop music to send messages to hostages.

In 2010, [Jose Espejo] was …read more

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Posted in colombia, farc, Featured, history, morse code, music, musical hacks, Original Art | Leave a comment

Hacking When It Counts: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those that struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.

That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, …read more

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Posted in bird, bomb, Curated, guidance, gyro, hacking when it counts, history, missile, operant conditioning, organic control, Original Art, pigeon, wwii | Leave a comment

Space Escape: Flying A Chair To Lunar Orbit

In the coming decades, mankind will walk on the moon once again. Right now, plans are being formulated for space stations orbiting around Lagrange points, surveys of lava tubes are being conducted, and slowly but surely plans are being formed to build the hardware that will become a small scientific outpost on our closest celestial neighbor.

This has all happened before, of course. In the early days of the Apollo program, there were plans to launch two Saturn V rockets for every moon landing, one topped with a command module and three astronauts, the other one containing an unmanned ‘LM …read more

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Posted in apollo, Apollo Lunar Module, Engineering, history, LESS, moon, Moon landing, nasa, Original Art, Space Escape | Leave a comment

Barbara McClintock: Against The Genetic Grain

The tale of much of Barbara McClintock’s life is that of the scientist working long hours with a microscope seeking to solve mysteries. The mystery she spent most of her career trying to solve was how all cells in an organism can contain the same DNA, and yet divide to produce cells serving different functions; basically how cells differentiate. And for that, she got a Nobel prize all to herself, which is no small feat either.

Becoming a Scientist

McClintock was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. From age three until beginning school, she lived with her …read more

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Posted in Hackaday Columns, history, Nobel, nobel prize winners, Original Art, women in technology | Leave a comment

Hardware Heroes: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

There are some notable figures in history that you know of for just one single thing. They may have achieved much in their lifetimes or they may have only been famous for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes, but through the lens of time we only know them for that single achievement. Then on the other hand there are those historic figures for whom there is such a choice of their achievements that have stood the test of time, that it is difficult to characterize them by a single one.

Such is the case of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the subject of today’s  …read more

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Posted in Brunel, civil engineering, Engineering, Featured, Hardware Heroes, history, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, slider | Leave a comment