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Did you know you could subscribe to Retro Thing by email? You'll receive a weekly update to ensure you're always in touch with the past. You can subscribe to our newfangled RSS feed, too.
Yes, we're talking about that Porsche. At the tender age of 26, Ferdinand Porsche built a four wheel drive gasoline-electric hybrid car.
Although famous for his conventional automobiles, Porsche got his start at the Béla Egger Electrical company in Vienna, Austria, where he designed an electric hub motor. Fatefully, he joined coach builder Jakob Lohner & Co. in 1898.
Porsche incorporated a pair of hub motors in the first Lohner-Porsche design, which resembled a carriage with electrically powered rear wheels. It was easy enough to create a four wheel drive version simply by adding two more motors to drive the front wheels, and that's exactly what Porsche did to create the Toujours-Contente, intended as a record-setting racer. The vehicle required almost 2 tonnes of lead acid batteries to run, severely hampering performance and practicality.
To solve the car's weight problem, Porsche added a gasoline engine that ran a generator to power the electric drivetrain; the world's first series electric hybrid. He even raced such a vehicle, which was capable of hitting speeds of up to 60 km/h. The constant quest to improve performance ultimately proved to be the downfall of his electric designs, as he concluded that internal combustion combustion engines were far better suited to automotive use.
Dr. Porsche joined Austro-Daimler in 1906 and eventual rose to become the company's managing director. By the late 1920s, Porsche found himself as a technical director at Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart. His vision of a compact, lightweight Mercedes-Benz vehicle wasn't popular, and he departed. Porsche formed his own design firm in 1931, eager to revisit his small car concept during the depression that gripped Germany.
Here's a look at his second attempt, the NSU Typ 32, built in 1934. After a few more iterations, the concept eventually became Hitler's "people's car" - the Volkswagen.
WWII intervened, and - ironically - the Beetle was reborn after the war in a ruined car factory under British control. Ownership of the Volkswagen company was eventually transferred to the West German government, and production increased from a mere 9,000 cars in 1947 to a stunning 575,000 cars by 1959. The people's car had finally arrived.
Six interns and a couple of volunteers at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum spent the summer scanning over 1,300 vintage aviation posters.
Intern Amelia Brakeman Kile explains, "This marks the first time the poster collection, which includes graphic art published from as early as 1827 up to the twenty-first century, has been accessible to the public as an archive, since the majority of it has remained in storage in Suitland, Maryland. The collection provides a wealth of information related to balloons, early flight, military and commercial aviation, and space flight, documenting aerospace history and technology while providing a window into popular culture."
Japan’s first miniature transistor radio, the TR-55, was introduced by Sony in mid-1955 at a price of 19,900 Yen ($55). It was available only in Japan and achieved modest success. However, Sony's second transistor radio was much more interesting - especially for DIYers.
The TR-2K radio kit was released a few weeks after the TR-55 at the bargain price of only 5,700 Yen ($16). They achieved the low cost by eliminating the internal speaker and amplifier and making buyers do all the assembly work themselves.
The company struggled for a couple of years until the international release of their TR-63 “Transistor Six” shirt-pocket radio in 1957. Instead of shoehorning in traditional components, the TR-63 was designed around all-new miniature devices. It was the smallest radio ever manufactured, selling over 100,000 units in four different colors. More importantly, it established Sony as a credible international brand.
I wonder if anyone still has an unbuilt TR-2K kit sitting around on a shelf? Assembling one could result in the best unboxing video ever.
It has been eight long years since the arrival of Windows XP. It was a dramatic improvement over Windows 95 and I vividly remember installing it within days of release. In fact, XP went on to become the most popular operating system in the world with 66.2% market share in August 2009 (despite the introduction of Windows Vista several years ago).
Fast forward to last weekend.
I found myself standing in my favorite independent computer store fondling a copy of Windows 7, but couldn't bring myself to take it home. $120 is a lot of money, especially when my office shelf is littered with countless abandoned versions of Windows dating back to the paleolithic era.
So I bought a shiny new 500 GB hard drive instead. It cost a mere $49 and offered much needed room for my ever-growing media collection.
To celebrate my sudden change of heart, I held a low key Windows XP relaunch party yesterday afternoon. Four hours and sixteen glorious reboots later, my new drive held a brand new install of Windows XP. My machine was snappier than it had been since 2007. Best of all, I still have $70 in my pocket to squander on something far cooler than an operating system.
Besides, this is Retro Thing. The occasional leaky boiler and stripped gear is to be expected around here.
Shav La Vigne recently sent us some photos of a tiny Sony TR-8 radio with a plea for more information. For once, we didn't have much to say. All we know is that it was Sony's first micro radio, released in 1963.
Sony managed to cram 8 transistors onto the tiny hand-soldered circuit board in an astounding display of miniaturization for the early sixties. However, I suspect the tiny size made it extremely expensive to manufacture.
If you can tell Shav more about this diminutive receiver, please leave a comment.
Post Star Wars, the world went robot crazy. It seemed as if any kind of toy robot had a better chance than ever of being successful. Lots of robots were modeled after stubby & feisty R2-D2, a cute friendly droid that any kid could imagine as his best friend. If the official Star Wars robot toys weren't enough, there were plenty of other robot ranks to explore on toy shop shelves.
As a boy, I once got a funny little robot for my birthday. It wasn't a character from any comic book or cartoon that I knew of, and yet there was a rather complete toy line at my local Toys R Us. All I knew is that the name on the package was "Qonto", and at under 2" he was small enough to be R2-D2's pesky little brother. When childhood's playtime was over, this little robot stood sentry on my shelf for years as I always had a sneaky liking for the little guy. I remembered his name, but not the unusual spelling. This year as my birthday approached, I racked my memory banks and finally got the robot mystery all figured out.
It appears that Qonto was a character on a Japanese TV show that never made it stateside called San Ku Kai (which I'd really like to see...). In the intro sequence you can see the live-action prop robot that this toy is based on (at around the 45 second mark). Bandai manufactured die-cast figures of the robot, and sold them here in the US as "Bandai Investment Die Cast Collection" for some imagined high-end robot collector market back then. I only ever got the little figure (which was available in a variety of colors) since he was 97 cents, but last week for my birthday I was able to buy the old saucer toy in its box, and am happy to report that it's even better than I remembered.
The "Space Saucer" has that classic UFO shape with Qonto as its pilot. The center section hinges out, with a cleverly weighted rotating interior. Qonto stays upright no matter what angle the ship is - and you all know that when you mess up a robot's equilibrium, they get madder than a wet hen. The spaceship also boasts spring-loaded landing pads with wheels, secret hatches, and a front mounted gun that was undoubtedly originally meant to shoot little missiles (shooting toys were neutered in the late 70's after a child choked to death on a plastic missile). Overall Qonto's spaceship has a much nicer construction & finish than a typical child's toy of the time.
The packaging is interesting as it portrays the toy to be both a collectible for adults, while at the same time it's safe and fun for children. The original price sticker is for $7.95, so it wasn't priced out of range of other toys of the time. There is no mention of the original TV series or backstory on the box either, we kids were on our own (do toys always have to have a storyline built in?). I wonder what the marketing tack was for Qonto? If the toy store is out of R2-D2 figures, perhaps mom will pick up an equally cute little Japanese robo? Perhaps the only way to compete with the Star Wars toy juggernaut was to position this as something a bit better? The cutesy flying saucer was suddenly out of step with the gritty realism that Star Wars showed us, so perhaps it was wise to market this to adults.
All that matters to me is that the saucer was a good enough toy for me to remember it for at least 30 years, and when I found another one and it came in the mail recently I really did feel like a kid again opening the box. To answer your next question, yes... I was making jet noises and ray gun sound effects the whole time. When it's your birthday you get to make the rules, and if you're good you can come over for cake and I'll let you play with my new spaceship.
san ku kaï (french dub)
Don't ask how, but I once had a really nice long talk with Mr. Wizard's son in law about the state of science in childrens' lives. I complained that toy stores have few toys that aren't a character tie-in, and the aisle dedicated to classic hobbies and science is gone. No more chemistry sets or model rockets. In their place are what I like to call "boogerology" sets - playsets that lure kids into liking science by emphasizing the gross things that come out of all of us. That's fun, and there may indeed be some learning going on, but that kind of thing shouldn't be the only option.
We've seen lots of attempts to make science fun, of course. Even Mr. Wizard's low-key 1950's TV approach was fun, and made science practical and accessible. Today, Mythbusters is a great show with the same goal. They even upped the stakes by adding an explosive element to many of their experiments. I do genuinely admire their work, but sadly there are lesser shows that have only taken a single charred page from Mythbusters' book - that it's cool to blow stuff the hell up. Just don't try to make it seem more important by superimposing a poorly thought out science lesson on top.
I have no objection at all to making science more practical and fun - not just for kids, but for everyone. The danger is that the pursuit of fun and ratings can mean dumbing the original lesson down so far that there's little of practical value left. Also annoying is that some of the boogerology sets I mention above feature bufoonish "mad scientist" types which flies in the face of all the things I learned about respecting chemicals and electrical current, and that can't be good in the long run.
Now, let's give equal time to a discussion on behalf of buffoonery and blowing things the hell up.
Who knew that the field of launching 100 pound anvils into the air is crowded enough to have a world champion? It's Gay Wilkinson, and here's a video of him launching an anvil.
Black powder? Check.
Carved up legal pad + Acme Anvil Sealant (peanut butter)? Check.
Impossibly short fuse? Check.
Fortunately no one here is pretending this is science, though this is a case where it wouldn't be out of place to make elements of this "demonstration" into part of a physics lesson. Overall it reinforces one of the greatest lessons I ever learned in life. Learning is important, but sometimes it's just really cool to blow big stuff up.
[Thanks to my friend Eric Franks @ videopia.org]
Doesn't this image paint a distinguished picture of personal jet flight in the Space Age? The MS 760 jet first flew on July 29, 1954. It was initially designed as a 4-seat communications and training aircraft. In all, 165 aircraft were built for the French Air Force, as well as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Alas, it never caught on as a weekend civilian "getaway" vehicle because of its price and steep learning curve.
The French military retired the aircraft in 1997, but more than two dozen of these machines have been restored for private use in the USA - someone quickly figured out that these aircraft are fast and relatively inexpensive to fly and maintain. The Paris Jet has a maximum speed of about 432 mph (695 km/h) and a very respectable maximum ceiling altitude of just over 39,000 feet. It offers a maximum range of approximately 1300 statute miles (2,092 km) and an initial climb rate of just under 2500 ft/min. This definitely isn't an old Cessna 172.
A restored MS760 will cost a six or seven hundred thousand dollars, but JetSet offers fractional ownership for $60,000, which includes 25 hours of flight time per year. There's also a $1,100 monthly maintenance fee and additional flight hours will run $1,100 each.
[October 2009 update: JetSet has reached an agreement with SOCATA for the purchase and transfer of the type certificate and associated rights for the world’s first Very Light Jet (VLJ), the MS760 Paris Jet. And, led by Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, retired from the United States Navy, a new two-ship, aerobatic-formation jet air show team has been formed to showcase the MS760 for the 2010 air show season. - thanks, Natalie!]
Unbelievably, the Vulcan Cylinder Record Company still manufactures phonograph cylinders. Their modern process incorporates a molded resin cylinder that is considerably more robust than historical recordings. Each is hand crafted in Sheffield, England and their catalog is available by mail order. They can even make custom cylinders from your recordings, if such a thing tickles your fancy.
Prices start at £13, with hits like the 'Charleston Fox Trot' and 'Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now' priced at £15 each. Incidentally, one of the main reasons cylinders fell by the wayside was that they were challenging to duplicate in large quantities. A standard record can be duplicated using a stamping process, but you'd be lucky to get 100 copies from a master cylinder before the artist had to re-record it.
The photo features Thomas Edison (circa 1878) with an early phonograph recorded on tin foil. The glass plate negative is part of the Library of Congress collection, and the high resolution scan underscores the simplicity of the era - the base and fittings of the machine are well worn from constant use, and the foil appears to be partially recorded. As for 31-year-old Mr. Edison, the grime under his fingernails reveals that he spent the vast majority of his time squirreled away in his machine shop.
The first eight Pocketeers hit the UK in 1975. I was an impressionable 7-year-old when they appeared in local shops and it didn't take long for them to overrun my school, accompanied by their tell-tale rattle.
Predictably, the Pocketeers (sold in the USA as Tomy Pocket Games) were compact enough to slip into a pocket. Most were games of skill that required manipulating tiny ball bearings, but several incorporated thumbwheel-driven magnets hidden under the playfield that controlled little cars or horses.
Over the course of the next few years, British toymaker Palitoy produced a total of 46 Pocketeer titles under license from Tomy. New titles were introduced yearly and it seemed as if the craze would never end. Sadly, as with all toy crazes, things came to a grinding halt in the early eighties when a new breed of microprocessor-controlled handhelds captured the attention of kids worldwide.
My son is now a precocious 7-year-old and his Nintendo DS accompanies him everywhere. He grew up in a world infused with mp3 players, computers, video games and DVDs, yet I think he'd see these clever little mechanical toys as something really special...
We had a great response to our post unveiling the new Stylophone Beatbox. There aren't any video demos out there yet that really explain what the Beatbox does in English, so here's ours.Pick up a Stylophone Beatbox ($25.50), standard Stylophone ($19) or the sleek Stylophone Studio Black Limited Edition ($19.50) through one of our links and a portion of the sale will support Retro Thing.
Pinballers from as far away as British Columbia, California and Washington will converge in Toronto to vie for the title of 2009 Canadian Pinball Champion from October 23 to 25, 2009 at The Playdium Store. Gary Stern, president and owner of Stern Pinball Inc., will preside over the final round and award the winner the grand prize and title of 2009 Canadian Pinball Champion. Other events include a Donkey Kong Challenge and a free kid's (15 and under) pinball tournament on Saturday.
Shopping for a machine? More than 120 arcade games, jukeboxes, pinball machines and pool tables will be up for sale at an auction on Saturday, October 24, 2009 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
BBC Radio 6 is rebroadcasting The Great Bleep Forward, a four part series from 2004 that looks at the birth of electronic music.
The Beeb blurb says, "The story of modern music is one of subversion and experimentation, of heroes and villains. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if the real subversives didn't wear leather and denim but smart suits and white lab coats? What if the true experimentation wasn't with LSD but with DX7's and S900s? What if the real heroes of music aren't John, and Paul, Mick and Keith, but Ralf, Florian, Robert and Wendy!
The Great Bleep Forward is a series four programmes, presented by
Andrew Collins exploring the history of electronic music. Hear the
first baby's cry of the moog synthesiser, embrace the difficult
childhood of prog rock, grapple with the 'experimental' teenage years
of the New Romantics and discover the middle aged maturity and
nostalgia of the present day. You'll also get a sense of the sound of
The series features interviews with many of the key players in the development of electronic music including Robert Moog, Kraftwerk's Ralph Hutter, Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, Factory's Tony Wilson, Thomas Dolby, The Human League, Primal Scream, A Guy Called Gerald, Zoot Woman and Grandaddy."
The scope seems a bit broader than the recent BBC 4 Synth Britannia documentary, which focused on a handful of pivotal years in the early 1980s. [thanks, Stuart!]
Listen to The Great Bleep Forward online (until Oct 26, 2009)
Watches are beautiful machines that can last a lifetime if well cared for. Many of the world’s best timepieces come from Switzerland, but remember that even a lowly $19 Casio calculator watch keeps almost perfect time and should last a decade or more.
My advice? Keep it cheap. It’s possible to find brand new mechanical watches with jeweled mechanisms for under $100 (like the brilliant Seiko 5 series). Several Russian companies also make decent mechanical timepieces based on vintage Swiss designs, although quality can vary considerably.
Digital watches are a dime a dozen these days. Drop by a low-end department store and you’ll find dozens of choices for less than $20. But don’t forget that 30 years ago digital displays were new and exciting. People marveled at tiny glowing LED digits. There has been a recent resurgence of affordable LED watches, probably driven by a realization that they can now be produced for next to nothing. I suspect this trend will soon flow into low-end department stores as well, so don’t bother spending lots. Just wait a few months and you might be able to pick up a new LED watch for next to nothing at a post-Christmas blowout sale.
Classic Retro Thing