Another “close, but no cigar.”

November 10, 2011

The New York Times Science section ran a piece on Tuesday about a project to build a working model of Babbage’s planned analytical engine.  It was a cog and gear driven ‘computer’ that read punch card data and instructions.  The article implies that it was the first such device, and so, the ancestor of all modern digital computers.

Close, but not quite.  Before the Victorian Babbage, there was  the 18th century Jacquard and his loom.

These huge machines read complex instructions on punch cards, made Lyons a dominant force in the silk weaving business, and were recognized by Babbage himself , as well as the future leader of IBM, the firm that put punch cards into the popular mind, as an important precursor and inspiration for the analytical engine.  Not to mention, that the looms actually worked, while the analytical engine never got off the drawing board.

The story is well and comprehensively told in this very fine book:  Jacquard’s Web.


Hot Type Eulogy

August 14, 2011

The leviathan at the top here is a linotype machine that produces a line of set type in hot lead.  Yes, the operators punch in the letters on the keyboard, and the type is cast as they go from molten metal.  This supplanted hand-set moveable type that had been around since Gutenberg, and it was the state-of-the-art in large printing operations for one hundred years.  On July 2, 1978, the last ‘hot type’ edition of the New York Times, which had the biggest ‘fleet’ of  linotypes in the newspaper world, was set in lead, and the paper went digital.  Farewell to etaoin shrdlu is a wonderful short film that captures that evening and takes us through the entire process of composing the pages of the newspaper as it was done then, and shows how, the morning after, it continued to be done, digitally.

I have always found linotypes fascinating:  they look for all the world like Rube Goldberg fantasies, but they work!  And the idea of casting lines of type from molten lead on the fly seems somehow bizarre – how could such a process survive in the modern world?  Well, it couldn’t.  As several people remark, the linotype took the automation of mechanical printing about as far as it could go, far enough to last 100 years, but it had to end.  Composing fourteen lines a minute can’t stack up in the Age of Information when computers can do it at 1000 lines per minute.

Of course, in 1978, the computer systems were used to produce printed columns of type which were still pasted up into complete pages.  Like much else in the film’s tour of the brave new world of digital printing, this is gone too, and now pages are composed completely digitally, the way so many of us lay out throwaway pamphlets in Pagemaker, or whatever software is cheapest today.

Here’s the opening view in the film:  the title refers to the first two columns of keys on the keyboard that an operator would hit to denote a line with an error, or something like that – I didn’t quite get it.

A close up of the lead set type of the front page of the New York Times.

Molten lead, ready to be cast into type at the press of a key.  That’s why they call it hot type!


Self-Portrait

October 9, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond (1978)

October 8, 2010

  

A video I created as a summer student at NYU using 5-inch tape reels and a very heavy recorder with a bulky camera.  Editing resources were extremely crude.  I’ve cleaned it up a bit, but the quality suffers from thirty years of sitting in a crate.

Music by Saint-Saens.  My world.


Blind Shear Ram!

June 22, 2010

Ever since reading the NYTimes article on the details of the BP blowout, the phrase, blind shear ram, has been reverberating inside my head!  I love the sound of it.  So powerful, macho-mechanical, almost apocalyptic!  The last resort…that failed!  The failsafe mechanism.  We must…ac-ti-vate…the blind-shear-RAM!!

The last time I heard a word like this in the news was probably when MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue among the nuclear wargame crowd.  Or perhaps it was in 1980, during the summer transit strike in New York City when the term Gridlock, with all of its ominous and terrifying connotations of complete urban dysfunction, made its way into public consciousness.  (I was told at the time by a former classmate, that a magazine of critical theory had devoted an entire issue to the term!  If anyone has a citation, send it please!)

Bind shear ram.  I just realized what other association was lurking there.  I read a novel by Stanislaw Lem many years ago, Fiasco!  Is that appropriate, or what!  In the beginning of the story, a mining engineer is working on Venus, sitting in the top of a gigantic robotic ‘man’ hundreds of feet high.  He gets stuck, is going to die, so he activates the last resort safety mechanism.  His body is rammed into a cylinder and immediately supercooled to preserve him for a future time when they may have figured out how to unfreeze him without turning him to mush.

Memory does funny things.

 


Red Scare Irony

November 29, 2008

allen

Did the Joe McCarthy Red Scare produce anything good?

The other night I was at a gathering of people who were mostly quite a bit older than I am.  I spent some time talking with a fellow who has endowed a local cultural organization, the Puffin Foundation.  He’s a socialist from way back, and he was blacklisted during the 50′s.  That meant that many jobs were totally closed off to him, and I guess he didn’t have the inclination or resources to set himself up as an independent professional.  So he did things the good old American CAPITALIST way, and he went into business.

Turns out, this commie had a good head for capitalism, and he ended up getting rich.   He gave a lot of his gains to his workers in benefits, stock ownership and stuff like that, but he still had  plenty of filthy lucre from his exploitation of their labor left over, so he set up a foundation.  It hosts interviews, art exhibits, performances, and lectures, and it is a wonderful resource for the region.

What was his business?  Machine screws!  As an engineer and sometimes tinkerer, I know all about Allen screws, those fasteners with the hexagonal shaped hole that tightly fits a bent piece of metal that you insert to torque the screw down. They fascinated me as a kid by their precision.  Such pieces are the foundation of industrial society.  Before they existed, fasteners were made by hand, individually.  Then someone built a metal lathe to create them more precisely, but of course, that lathe was built with hand-machined fasteners.  That was the end of the artisan screw, however.  From then on, machines were used to make machine parts from which more machines could be made, bigger and better.  Without that, industrial capitalism would have stalled in its tracks.

He broke the monopoly on fastener distribution in the USA.  How’s that for a pinko!  I hope Tailgunner Joe is turning over in his grave.


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