Sunday, July 25, 2010

Of Stereroscopic Vintage Photos and Rock Bands

A reproduction Holmes stereoscope.Image via Wikipedia
I am too old to have paid much attention to Rock-and-Roll music beyond the mid-70's.  All the good stuff happened before then anyway.  But I was interested to read an article in the Arts Section of the New York Times about Brian May (the link is at the bottom of this post).  I could never have told you this, but Brian May was the lead guitarist in the mega-Rock-and-Roll band, Queen.  I also could never have told you that he is one of the premier collectors of vintage stereoscopic viewing cards.

You've seen these old cards: two dusty images that look identical, printed on cardboard.  They were the earliest version of the Viewmaster or now, 3D movies and television.  These cards were immensely popular with the middle-class both in America and in Europe during the latter half of the 19th Century.  For the first time, people got a sense of the reality of the photograph. Oliver Wendell Holmes was quoted as saying:

The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced.  The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture.  The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out as if they would scratch our eyes out.  The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make us almost uncomfortable.  Then there is such a frightful amount of detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity which Nature gives us.  A painter shows us masses; the stereoscopic figure spares us nothing...

Cover of "A Village Lost and Found"Brian May has written the first of three planned books on one of the photographic subjects that he collects.  The book is entitled, "A Village Lost and Found".  The village referred to is Hinton Waldrist, in Oxfordshire, west of London.  The village was photographed stereoscopically over the years by an early practioner of the art, T.R. Williams.  Nobody could identify the place in these old photos until May posted one online.  Within 36 hours, someone identified the location for him.  He has visited it many times since then, comparing current views to the originals in the old images.

The Library of Congress has a collection of over 52,000 stereographic images on a wide range of subjects. Maybe ten percent of these are online. 

But there was yet more to impress with regards to Mr. May.  After the band broke up, Mr. May eventually returned to the university to complete his studies.  He got his Ph.D. in astrophysics in 2008.  His thesis was entitled, "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud".  So now, it is Doctor May, Rock Star, to you...

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bethlehem Steel Blues

I was browsing through a website called SnagFilms which hosts documentaries and I came across a three-minute film on the sad aftermath of the failure of Bethlehem Steel in 2003.  This short video is worth a look.

Watch more free documentaries

The deep sadness in this film piqued my curiosity about this very successful company and its namesake town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Wikipedia has a great overview article on the company.  Fortune Magazine did a post-mortem on the company's demise back in a 2004 issue which was worth a quick read. 

The steel industry was once the bellwether of American industrial health.  Bethlehem Steel provided the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building, among a long list of other American icons.  It was not only one of the largest of the U.S. steel producers, it was also one of the largest ship-building and railroad car manufacturers in the country.  Now, the original steel mill site in Bethlehem is bare ground except for a new casino.  In some bitter twist of fate, the construction of the casino was delayed for a shortage of... you guessed it... steel.

What went wrong?  The answer is both complicated and simple.  The complicated answer involves the emergence of cheaper steel from newly-built mills in Japan and Europe following World War II, the dependence of U.S. industry on trade barriers for protection rather than reinvesting for innovation, arrogant management, huge legacy costs for retiree healthcare benefits, and a steelworkers union that refused to give an inch to a management that was equally obstinate.  The simple answer is that the steel industry ran its natural course and we no longer need to make steel.  That simple answer, like most simple answers, is also wrong.

Lehigh University has done a great job putting together a website called Beyond Steel that goes into many different aspects of the manufacturing and cultural history of the region.  I especially liked this picture of Bethlehem management taken in 1950.
You don't have to see any detail to know that this was an old, white guy's club. 

Unfortunately, we don't seem to learn much from the life cycles of companies and industries.  The early risk takers give way to the managers who drive up efficiency which leads to the management that pays itself enormous salaries for what seems like their God-given success which precedes the bankruptcy experts who dismantle the enterprise after it crashes.  We are seeing it now in banking.  The auto companies have also been recently knocked down a notch by their own arrogance.  The jury is still out  to see if they survive the long term.  After all, it took Bethlehem Steel almost thirty years to die.

But as the first film shows, often the biggest cost to a community is the disruption to families that have lived there for generations.  In the end, when a company fails, everybody loses.  Everybody.  If you look back at that picture of management, you can just make out five little statuettes on the back wall of the auditorium.  They represent the Customers, Employees, Management, Shareholders, and Suppliers.  Every one of them lost out. 

And we are left building casinos on old industrial sites which form a kind of scab on what was once the healthy corpus of our economy.  But, what the hell, this time around, the odds are with the house.
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Catalan Vaults: An Old Technology Gone Green

Florence Cathedral dome.Image via Wikipedia
Vaulted ceilings have been with us for millennia. The Sumerians and Egyptians were building vaulted ceilings more than five thousand years ago. Vaulting continued to develop over the course of architectural history and now dozens of vault forms exist.  Some time ago, I wrote a couple of different posts (here and here) about one of the most famous of the domes built in the early Renaissance, Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence.  This dome has fascinated architects for centuries, not only for its size and beauty, but because it was built without "centering", the temporary scaffolding usually used to hold the weight of an arch or dome while the structure is under construction.

I love architecture and architectural technology.  Who hasn't been left standing in awe seeing a 12th Century Gothic cathedral or looking at a Roman aqueduct?   So I was pleased to see that the August issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the Catalan Vault. The article highlights MIT professor, John Ochsendorf's design of the  Mapungunbwe National Park Interpretive Center in South Africa (pictured below).

Oschendorf designed the building to be made of locally-produced materials that don't depend on concrete. Hence, the project significantly reduced the energy consumption that would have otherwise been used to make concrete for the building. The building was honored as the World Building of the Year for 2009 at the World Architectural Festival held in Barcelona. 

How strong is a Catalan Vault?  Check out this miniature demo version that Ochendorf built at MIT.

The bricks are only an inch thick and held together by Plaster of Paris mortar.  It took a weekend to build this model.  And like Brunelleshi's Duomo, these vaults need no centering to build them.  Pretty cool.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Truing the Wheels of a Steam Locomotive

I read an article yesterday from the St. Paul Pioneer Press about a rail buff group in Minnesota that is refurbishing one of their prized old steam engines.  This engine, No. 261, was built in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company and was used on Milwaukee Road passenger and freight runs between Minneapolis and La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The engine, which has eight drive-wheels over six feet in diameter, had developed a problem:  the drive wheels were out-of-round and need to be turned on a lathe to make them run true again.  In the old days of steam locomotive maintenance, this was a common problem.  The engine was driven over a track equipped with a special area known as a Drop Table and the drive wheels were lowered into a pit for maintenance.  Drop Tables no longer exist, so this time they had to pick up the entire locomotive with two cranes and pull the drive-wheels out from underneath and then set the locomotive back down on its forward and trailing trucks while the repairs are being completed.

Members of the group were taking bets on how much the boiler and frame of the engine weighed as the could measure it when the cranes lifted them off.  The answer: 227,000 pounds. That's a lot of iron and steel (and it doesn't include the weight of the wheels).

I am always encouraged to see groups like this who work so diligently to keep prime examples of past technology operating.  The plan is to put the engine back to work after the wheels are turned.  No. 261 will be the largest, active coal-burning steam locomotive in the world. Impressive. (This photo and more in the Pioneer Press article).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nova Program: B-29, Frozen in Time

I watched an episode on Nova last night that I don't think is new, but I had never seen it.  The program was entitled, "B-29, Frozen in Time".  It chronicles the efforts of a group of aviation buffs to salvage a B-29 bomber that crash-landed on the Greenland icecap in 1946. The pilot in that landing did a remarkable job and the plane was in almost perfect condition after sitting out in the open for over sixty years.  The U.S. Government had given up any rights to the plane so it was available to anyone who could salvage it.

I was hoping that the PBS Video sight would have a link to the program but no luck.  However, I did find that someone on YouTube put the program up in a multi-segment format.  You can see the first one here and if you click through you can find the rest of the segments.

Even if you are not into old War Birds, I would highly recommend the program as a testament to the efforts of a group to achieve its goals.  It's also a very interesting look into the state of aviation technology at the end of World War II. I won't tell you how the program ends but you should watch it all the way through to the finish.

Hope you enjoy.

New (Old) Wax Cylinder Recordings

I am on a bit of a roll at the moment looking around various news websites for stories that relate to the history of technology.  Forgive me if this gets to be too much.  This phase will probably pass rather quickly.

I just read a very interesting story about recording on wax cylinders.  Now, this was not news in the late 1800s or even the early 1900s but it IS news if you want to do it today.  A British Steampunk band called The Band That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing, who loves all things Victorian, decided to release 40 copies of their new CD on wax cylinders.  However, they did not release a wax cylinder player thus the crew at the BBC Technology website decided to "give it a go" (as the Brits might say) and build their own wax cylinder record player.  You can see the results in the video below:

You can also read the full story at the BBC website here.

Thomas Edison (pictured above with his first recording device) was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park, not because of his electric lights, but because of his invention for mechanically capturing sound for the first time in history.  He thought his invention would be most useful as a stenographic tool for business and actually frowned upon the idea of using it for entertainment purposes.  But technology has this habit of morphing into forms that users want rather than what inventors conceive.  Clearly, the customers had spoken (no pun intended).


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Interesting Articles on the History of Technology

Just yesterday, I commented on how news stories on science seem to eclipse news stories on technology - at least technology outside of Silicon Valley Tech.  So much to my surprise, as I was reading the New York Times today, I find two articles directly focused on the history of technology.

The first actually was the lead in the Science Times section of the paper.  But despite the name of the section, the article by William J. Broad, entitled "Taking Lessons from What Went Wrong", is a great example of the kind of story I like to see.  The gist of the article is that at least one outcome of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be failure analyses that will make future drilling much safer.  Broad looks at a number of events beyond the current Gulf oil spill to illustrate his point.  His examples include the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge in 1940, airplane crashes, the explosion of the Hindenburg, and even the sinking of the Titanic.

Broad quotes the well-known author and Duke University engineering professor, Henry Petroski as writing in his book, Success Through Failure,

Failures...always teach us more than than our successes about the design of things. And thus the failures often lead to redesigns - to new, improved things.

The second article was in a more unlikely part of the paper, The Arts section.  In an exhibition review by Edward Rothstein, entitled "The Anatomy of a City Traffic Jam", I learned the Museum of the City of New York currently has an exhibit on the role of the automobile in the life of 20th Century New York City.  Not surprisingly, that relationship has had both its good and bad elements over the years.  I learned quite a bit from Rothstein's review.  For instance, in 1900 there were only 8,000 autombiles in the United States but 2,500 of these were owned by people who lived in New York City (only the wealthy could afford them).  The nation's first course in automobile design was taught in New York City in the 1890s.  Many of the early safety signals, including the stop sign, were first used in New York City.

I particularly liked this quote from the article:

[I]t is impossible to separate the development of modern New York from the automobile's evolution. The city and the car were both expressions of the technological hopes of early modernism. They reflected a wide-ranging sense of possibility, in which speed, ease and power would seemingly become available to all.

Some great stuff here.  I would recommend both articles to your reading.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Of Science and Technology

I was reading the local paper this morning.  On Mondays it has a section on Science and Technology with current stories and even reviews of blogs that might be of interest.  This got me thinking about the ubiquitous phrase, "science and technology".  You see this phrase everywhere and you might believe it represents one big concept.  But science and technology are very, very different beasts.  My dictionary defines science as:

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world.

The Latin root of the word, scire, means to know.  Science attempts to understand the world around us.  The goal is not to change that world.  Change is the domain of technology.  Again, my dictionary gives three definitions of the word technology:

the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry; the machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge; and the branch of knowledge dealing with engineering and the applied sciences.

The word derives from the Greek, tekhne, which means craft.

Another layer in the confusion over the word technology is that it has come to mean computer, internet, or electronic gadget technology.  If you are interested in "tech", you must be into the world of the geeks.  Anything that is written under that banner is generally about some company in Silicon Valley or a new computer virus or the latest iPhone.  Those are cool but our broader understanding of technology and how it affects us every day is very limited if we just consider those types of stories.

No, the stories of the broader issues in technology are all over the newspaper, not just in the Technology section. Let me illustrate using today's (July 19, 2010) New York Times.  Let's start with BP.  The Gulf oil disaster has been in the headlines almost every day for three months.  Today's news is that the new cap is holding so well that BP might just leave it closed.  Interestingly, the government is less optimistic that this might happen. There is even a hint that leaving it closed lets BP off the hook for some civil damages because the true rate of the oil spill will never be known.

The story at its heart is one of technology. The story includes the following description:

The cap that was eventually used was designed and built more or less from scratch, although off-the-shelf valves and rams were used.  And as with any engineering project, particularly one being conducted by remotely operated submersibles a mile underwater, installation procedures had to be devised and practiced.

A second story details that many people in the Louisiana Cajun population are looking to leave the Gulf Coast because of the damage caused to the fishing industry by the oil spill (translation: failed technology).

Another front page story in today's Times talks about how job training programs are falling dismally short of getting people back to work.  Part of this story is simply that there are five people unemployed for every job vacancy.  No amount of training can fix that problem.  But the second part of the story is that the needs for training keep morphing as the jobs that do exist become ever more technical.

One example of a program that seems to be working is in my old backyard of Minneapolis.  The Hennepin County Technical College is offering retraining programs to shift people from the manufacturing jobs of the past (which included mainframe computers) to something that the Twin Cities is very strong in - medical devices.  The article quotes Richard Kelley, who oversees the Hennepin Tech program, as saying, "Nobody wants to see a pacemaker stamped, 'Made in China'".  Many of the jobs that are open but unfilled are skilled technology jobs.  This is the dilemma we face as we have outsourced lower-skilled manufacturing jobs to Asia and Latin America.

I could go on but I think you get the idea.  Technology stories are everywhere - they are just not the "High Tech" stories found on the business pages.

So back to where I began, the phrase "Science and Technology".  You see a lot of interesting articles about the latest discoveries in science but you see very little in the news that speaks to what is happening in technology beyond Silicon Valley (if I might use that term to capture our current definition of High Tech).  We need more news about the rest of the technology spectrum.  It impacts our daily lives in ways much deeper than whether you get a new iPhone.  The stories are there, indirectly at least, but you have to read between the lines to find them.  I would just like to see them given a little more visibility.

Maybe that's the job for this blog?