Inspired by the legendary Enigma encryption machine, The Coding Machine  is a perplexingly beautiful combination of art and science. Each coding wheel consists of 509 precisely machined parts. Mischievously, she refuses to publish details of the rotor wiring until someone decrypts the haiku published on her site.
Follow the jump for more photos.
Instructions: Insert paper. Press key with moderate force. Giggle with glee as letter magically appears. Repeat. Try pressing several keys simultaneously. Pry apart jammed type bars while muttering quietly. Repeat ad nauseam.
Many North Americans probably don't know the name of the German firm Märklin, but they are known the world over for producing fine quality model trains. Many hobby shop shelves in the U.S. are filled with cheap mass-market junk, so it may be hard to find (or justify) the expensive models that Märklin offers. Märklin has made a name for themselves by making high quality trains and other toys for more than 150 years, so their declaration of bankruptcy on February 4th came as a bit of a shock.
There are few things I actively collect (from what we've seen on Retro Thing, I'm sure that's hard for you to believe), but I've been a longtime aficionado of Märklin's Z-scale - the smallest commercially available model railroad gauge. At 1:220 scale, it's an amazing achievement especially considering that the line was rolled out in 1972. Sophisticated miniaturization may not be the big deal today that it once was, but it's still breathtaking to see a working model steam locomotive that fits inside a walnut.
Gakken's Stirling Engine kit is a deranged mechanical wonder. While most Stirling engines just sit on a desk and spin purposelessly, this one has wheels and a propeller and looks utterly fantastic.
Reviewer Bruce Rowe says, "I saw this and immediately wanted it.I couldn't justify spending the money on myself. So I bought it for my son. He is 19 years old and is very mechanical. Christmas morning, he opened it. 8 hours later, he had it running.
The kit has nice components. The instructions are complete (24 pages in Japanese). And, there are a whole bunch of tiny details to get lost in. The cylinder mount and the gears need to be carefully aligned. This is one of the trickier parts. If you have it misaligned, there will be too much friction for the engine to run. A gauge is supplied to make this step easier.
On the downside, this is not an easy kit. They are not kidding when they say it is for adults. You need to look at the pictures very carefully."
It's available in the USA from the Maker Shed for $119.99, and they offer an English manual [warning: pdf] if you'd like a glimpse of what you could be getting yourself into.
It's been a while since I've had to write on a manual typewriter regularly (though I wrote a prior post where an old manual saved my life). Even as a kid watching my father type on his IBM Selectric that sounded like a machine-gun nest, I was fascinated by all the mechanics that went on inside. As I pursued writing in high school, I bought a 1930's Underwood manual typewriter because it felt important to get in touch with what it meant to be a “real” writer.
Watching the Underwood's insect-like iron mechanisms give life to my words was occasionally an emotional experience (especially if I typed a little too fast and the typebars got tangled up). I really did feel in a way that the typewriter was alive, so I might not have been surprised when the machine sprang to life into one of Jeremy Mayer's sculptures.
Mayer has created a series of sculptures that capture the mysteriously delicate, yet sturdy, inner structures of living things using old typewriters. I'm mystified at the curves and supple shapes that are sourced from office castoffs, and how each piece is simultaneously alive and yet coldly robotic. Steampunk & “Naked Lunch” fans take note...
The USA in the 1970's wasn't just joyous corduroy and the golden age of game shows. In those days the USA faced serious economic recession because of oil embargoes. That could never happen again, right? Thankfully someone was able to send the “Shopping Calculator Pocket Adder” through time to the present day to help us avoid a similar fate.
The Pocket Adder is a handheld plastic gimmick with plungers that fall under your four fingers. Each click advances the numbered wheels to keep track of cents, dimes, dollars, and tens of dollars (the nickel gets short shrift, so I guess you just click “cents” five times). As you shop for your Kal-Kan and King Vitamin, just click off the prices on the Pocket Adder. It's mechanical innards will keep a running tab of what your shopping trip is going to cost when you hit the checkout.
The packaging is a reminder of something else. The 70's weren't all blacklight fuzzy posters and mod prints as the decade is often depicted on TV. For a lot of people, the 70's were aggressively earth toned. Remember when M&M's became cheerless and autumnal colored? That's the 70's this device hails from. A somber, penny-pinching 70's.
Sadly, time travel has been rough on the Pocket Adder - mine barely works. I remember seeing these in the hands of shoppers back then, so I know that some of them did function. I guess that makes sense... we eventually did get out of that recession, right? I don't know if this device could help us with our current national financial woes, but it does remind us how important it is to watch every single nickel. Click, click, click, click, click.
[Lisa Fritscher joins us this week as a guest author. I'll let her introduce herself... -Ed.]
I have a confession to make…I’m a geek. I have always been a geek. I got my first computer, a Timex Sinclair 1000, at the age of six. I used to play chess on that thing, although the whopping 2K memory meant that I could make my move in the morning, go to school all day, and then come home in time for the computer to make its move. Ah, the memories!
However, I have never been a math geek. Sure, I learned algebra when I was eight thanks to the Commodore 64’s Dungeons of the Algebra Dragons. But that just made me a gamer geek. I quickly learned that I didn’t really have to solve all the problems in order to beat the game.
A year ago, however, something happened that made me change my mind about math. My dad is an industrial engineer and a math and science genius. He went to college in the days when the calculator was just starting to take the place of the slide rule.
Anyway, he and I went to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. I love space and rocketry, and the museum had a large exhibit dedicated to Werner von Braun, one of the preeminent rocket scientists of the 20th century. The exhibit included von Braun’s slide rule.
Ever meet anyone who says they're a
voracious reader, and then you find out that they read only junky
romance novels & tattoo magazines, but don't remember any of it
anyway? I've always been a voracious reader, with the gift/curse that
I seem to remember a lot of what I've seen. This doesn't just apply
only to bookish pursuits... I remember ephemera like adverts on
buildings, oddball labels, and other literary detritus. That's why
for as long as I can remember I've known that the oddly-shaped metal
thing used to measure feet is labeled a “Brannock Device”.
If you've ever bought shoes you know what a Brannock Device is, though you may not have ever thought of it as having a name. Charles Brannock invented the foot measuring device around 1925 (he built the prototype with an erector set) as an answer to the other unreliable gadgets of the day. His shoe store became known for offering the best fitting shoes, and demand for his device grew. Eventually he started a company in New York to manufacture his namesake device. The company continues to operate today in a factory not far from the original site, and they still sell the same Brannock that they always have.
In a story that typifies the mythic
“American dream”, an individual saw a need for an invention,
later realizing great success with it. In fact, there was never a
shoe size standard among footwear manufacturers before Brannock came
along. The part of the story that's hard to believe these days is
that the dream continues in the same way that it always has. The sturdy aluminum device is still built to last (retailers replace their
Brannocks every 15 years or so as the numbers wear out), the
manufacturer resisting temptation to maximize profits by offering a
shoddier product. Brannock devices are still manufactured in the USA,
and have changed surprisingly little in the last 80 years or so.
In this world of multi-national conglomerates and faceless giga-corporations, it's good to remind ourselves that there are still those areas of endeavor where a single person with a good idea can fill a niche and prosper. It's enheartening to know that there are still at least a few companies that live on by producing a high quality product using local labor.
Years ago I was a teacher of computer graphics and video, and one day a student came to me in a panic. He needed a reference for the good people of the Financial Aid Office who were shuttering their doors in 15 minutes. No problem – I'd just go to the main office and bang out the note on a typewriter.
I scoured the entire computer department and there were no typewriters to be found. The dean of the department asked why I was causing such a rumpus, and when I explained he reminded me that it was the 90's and the computer department had no need of such paleolithic devices – even for a note that would take two minutes to type.
Frustrated, I fired up a computer and waited for it to boot. The laser printer lurched into action. A few minutes later all systems were go, I slammed out the note and sent it to the printer. A grateful but flustered student snatched the note from the printer and ran like a madman.
I hadn't chosen a font, so the note came out in the default typeface: courier. That's right, the font that every typewriter uses. I reflected on this, bringing up to my boss that after all that effort it still looked like I'd used a typewriter. He replied excitedly, “Yeah, isn't that great?”.
Nothing I said could convince him that a typewriter would have been a much better tool in this instance. He talked about all the things I could do with the document once it was in the digital domain, rather than discussing the actual need I had and that the computer had been more of an obstacle than an aid. A device that changes a two minute job into a ten minute job isn't always the best option.
Before you accuse me of being a Luddite, I'll admit that I could never go back to writing on a typewriter. Computers have made this task that defines my daily life much better, but there are times when a typewriter is exactly what you need. I'm a retro fan, but I don't just like old stuff out of a sense of winsome nostalgia. Sometimes those old things can still earn their keep.
Computer generated dinosaurs are amazing on the big screen, but if you're building a museum display you want something even more alive and in your face. Disney elevated entertainment automatons to a high art in his theme parks in the 60's, but his "imagineers" weren't the first to create animatronic beasties.
Here's a full page scan of an article out of a 1930's issue of Popular Science. The accompanying text is woefully short, but it gives you an idea of the work that went into presenting prehistoric titans as realistically as possible at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
With all the tag sales I go to here in Chicago, I'm surprised I haven't found out who's garage these old mecha-dinosaurs ended up in.
Scan of original article [thanks to the Modern Mechanix archives]
Any Thomas the Tank Engine fan will tell you that diesels should be watched carefully, lest they cause trouble. The Wensleydale Historical Railway in North Yorkshire, England does just that. They maintain a number of vintage locomotives and rolling stock including a 1960s-era Class 101 trainset similar to Daisy the temperamental diesel from the Thomas books. Parts of the line date back to 1848, but passenger service began to decline in the mid 1950s and freight service ceased entirely in 1992.
The Wensleydale Railway Association was formed in 1990 in a desperate bid to restore passenger service along at least a portion of the line. Help came from an unusual ally. The Ministry of Defense provided funding to restore a significant portion of the line to transport armored vehicles to Catterick Garrison - the largest British Army garrison in the world. The MoD was only too happy to allow the Wensleydale Railway to take over the line, and continues to use it to haul equipment today.
Passenger service resumed in 2003, and five stations along the line have re-opened. The Railway now owns a number of diesels, diesel multiple units and even several electric multiple units. Trains run three times a day, with daily service throughout the summer months. It's worth checking the schedule in advance, especially since there is sometimes steam service on the line.
If you're the sort who likes to take control of the action, the railway offers a day long driver experience course that includes a safety briefing, instruction and a supervised driving experience on a diesel multiple unit train, along with breakfast and lunch. The cost is £225, which is reasonable for the opportunity to drive a 32.5 tonne DMU.
Maxitrak in Staplehurst, Kent was founded in 1978. The company produces a stunning range of live steam trains such as 'Jack,' a 1:4 reproduction of the 1898 Hunslet No. 684 locomotive. The original is now in the Leeds Industrial Museum, but this 5-inch gauge reproduction can be yours for just under $25,000 if you skimp on accessories.
The 37-inch long locomotive is capable of hauling 10 adults under ideal conditions, with a working pressure of 900 psi. It weighs 170 lbs and features two gunmetal cylinders, Walschaerts valve gear and mechanical lubricator. Twin Sandboxes are mounted on the top of the boiler in line with the brass steam dome, giving this stunning locomotive a distinctive look.
You'll have to budget an extra $1000 or so for each open bogie passenger wagon or sit-aside trolly for your visitors, and rail costs about $12 per 2.5m length, not including points, rail bending, sleepers or track bed preparation. This is definitely not a cheap hobby -- you'll need tens of thousands of eurobucks for rolling stock and track, and lots of level land to set up your personal railway.
The company has a decidedly modern YouTube channel featuring over 100 videos of their miniature vehicles in operation.
Back in the day, our grandparents had to bang letters onto paper one-by-one. It took ages and was wickedly
errer error-prone. These days, young whippersnappers are more likely to text or email. I'd always planned to pick up a manual typewriter so I could write The Great Suburban Novel or whip off the occasional pompous "Letter to the Editor" by candlelight during a power outage. Regrettably, both Olivetti and Olympia discontinued their manual typewriter lines late last year.
All hope is not lost. myTypewriter.com offers a surprisingly broad array of vintage typewriters and ribbons. The one above is a restored 1928 Corona No. 4 portable, also available in maroon, green, red and basic black. It's yours for $395 plus about thirty clams for a spare ribbon. I'd prefer you to keep your hands off the red one, since I've got my eye on it. Don't forget to pick up a dicshunary, since spel-correcsion is also manual.
[originally published in August 2005, but the site is definitely worth revisiting.]
Visit myTypewriter.com to feast your eyes on dozens of stunning vintage manual typewriters.
I found these large wooden gears at a thrift store not long ago. They're gorgeous and old, but I can't figure out anything more about them. As you can see, they're quite big. The gears above are roughly the same size as the back tire of my compact car. The large wheel in the grass below is smooth (maybe for use with a belt?) and about 2 feet across.
These look like they've seen some use, but don't seem sturdy enough to actually have been used in a large mechanical device. How did they get worn in this way? Also interesting is the writing on the sides. These look like they could be catalog numbers perhaps? Like these were the example gears at the... uh... gear depot where you'd place your order? In-class science demonstration props?
As a boy I remember accompanying my father to the marble cutting plant he worked with. They had ancient and massive machines for slowly (we're talking days) sawing through slabs of marble that were two stories high. The large saws had massive wooden flywheels and exposed parts much the size of these things, so these gears must have been intended for something very, very large.
I'm calling out to all of you retro sleuths out there. The comments that you folks leave show that our readers have a lot of insight into a staggering number of different areas, so I'm hoping that some of you may have an idea of what these gears were used for. I love a mystery, but mostly I love a solved mystery. Click the "comments" link below to add your thoughts.
Classic Retro Thing