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Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“The airplane stays up because it doesn’t have time to fall”*…


paper planes

Three of the forty entires in a database of paper airplanes with easy-to-follow folding instructions: “Fold N Fly.”

* Orville Wright


As we send ’em soaring, we might recall that it was on this date in 2003 that the final scheduled flights of the British Airways Concorde brought an end to the era of supersonic passenger service that had begun in January of 1976.

300px-British_Airways_Concorde_G-BOAC_03 source


Written by LW

October 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men”*…




Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy…

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few… It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision—precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”…

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,… shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.”…

James Gleick reviews– and responds to– Simon Winchester‘s The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World:  “Masters of Tolerance.”

[Image above: precision engineering research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology]

* Theodor Adorno


As we contemplate craft, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Lewis Mumford; he was born on this date in 1895.  A historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and cultural critic, Mumford is probably best remembered for his writings on cities, perhaps especially for his award-winning book The City in History.  (See also The City— the extraordinary film that Mumford made with Ralph Steiner and Wiilard Van Dyne, from an outline by the renowned documentarian Pare Lorentz, with a score by Aaron Copland.) 

Mumford’s approaches to technology, its history, and its roles in society were acknowledged influences on writers like Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Thomas Merton, and Marshall McLuhan.  In a similar way, he was an inspiration for the organicist and environmentalist movements of today.

Unfortunately, once an economy is geared to expansion, the means rapidly turn into an end and “the going becomes the goal.” Even more unfortunately, the industries that are favored by such expansion must, to maintain their output, be devoted to goods that are readily consumable either by their nature, or because they are so shoddily fabricated that they must soon be replaced. By fashion and build-in obsolescence the economies of machine production, instead of producing leisure and durable wealth, are duly cancelled out by the mandatory consumption on an even larger scale.

– Lewis Mumford, The City in History



Written by LW

October 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”*…



Security, transportation, energy, personal “stuff”– the 2018 staff of Popular Mechanics, asked leading engineers and futurists for their visions of future cities, and built a handbook to navigate this new world: “The World of 2045.”

* William Gibson (in The Economist, December 4, 2003)


As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Charles Babbage; he died on this date in 1871. A mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Anxious to eliminate inaccuracies in mathematical tables, he first built a small calculating machine able to compute squares.  He then produced prototypes of portions of a larger Difference Engine. (Georg and Edvard Schuetz later constructed the first working devices to the same design, and found them successful in limited applications.)  In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.

Babbage’s other inventions include the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope.  A true hacker, he was also passionate about cyphers and lock-picking.



“I’ve never seen contraptions with so many dials and knobs before”*…


control panels

Control room, Klingenberg Power Station, Berlin, 1928. Photos by E.O. Hoppé.


Just one selection from the plethora of “dials, toggles, buttons, and bulbs” at “Control Panel.”

* “Lampy,” in The Brave Little Toaster


As we twist and turn, we might spare a thought for Guillaume Amontons; he died on this date in 1705.  A physicist who made formative contributions to the understanding of friction, he was also an accomplished designer of scientific instruments– perhaps most notably, the air thermometer, which relies on increase in volume of a gas (rather than a liquid) with temperature.  His approach led to the emergence of the concept of “absolute zero.”

amonton thermometer source

Amontons source


Written by LW

October 10, 2018 at 10:01 pm

“So sa-a-a-ad that you’re leaving”*…



It happened exactly 36 seconds into the song—a glimpse of the shape of pop to come, a feel of the fabric of the future we now inhabit. The phrase “I can’t break through” turned crystalline, like the singer suddenly disappeared behind frosted glass. That sparkly special effect reappeared in the next verse, but this time a robotic warble wobbled, “So sa-a-a-ad that you’re leaving.”

The song, of course, was Cher’s “Believe,” a worldwide smash on its October 1998 release. And what we were really “leaving” was the 20th century.

The pitch-correction technology Auto-Tune had been on the market for about a year before “Believe” hit the charts, but its previous appearances had been discreet, as its makers, Antares Audio Technologies, intended. “Believe” was the first record where the effect drew attention to itself…

And an era was born.  We’ve looked at Auto-Tune before (see here for an example of the difference the technology can make, here, and here); now, from our friends at Pitchfork, an in-depth history of the most important pop innovation of the last 20 years: “How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music.”

* Cher, “Believe”


As we pine for authentic imperfection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1901 that the Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated.  A phonograph manufacturer and record company, it operated on disc record patents that it soon licensed to the Columbia Record Company as well (reinforcing Victor’s position as the leading phonograph manufacturer).  In 1929, Victor was merged into RCA.


Written by LW

October 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The Master’s tools will be used to take apart the Master’s house”*…




Alan Abel, a professional hoaxer who for more than half a century gleefully hoodwinked the American public — not least of all by making himself the subject of an earnest news obituary in The New York Times in 1980 — apparently actually did die, on [September 14], at his home in Southbury, Conn. He was 94…

Long before The Onion began printing farcical news articles, long before the Yes Men enacted their first culture-jamming political pranks, there was Alan Abel. A former jazz drummer and stand-up comic who was later a writer, campus lecturer and filmmaker, Mr. Abel was best known as a perennial public gadfly, a self-appointed calling that combined the verbal pyrotechnics of a 19th-century flimflam man with acute 20th-century media savvy.

He was, the news media conceded with a kind of irritated admiration, an American original in the mold of P. T. Barnum, a role model whom Mr. Abel reverently acknowledged…

An American Original: “Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94.”

For more on the equally-glorious Yes Men, see here and here.

* Anonymous


As we find our way through fake news, we might spare a thought for John Augustus Larson; he died on this date in 1965.  A Berkeley, California policeman, he was the first American police officer to have an academic doctorate and to use polygraph– which he invented– in criminal investigations.

220px-John_Larson_in_1921 source


Written by LW

October 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Encryption works”*…



A SIGSALY terminal in 1943


During World War II, a British-American team that included Claude Shannon and Alan Turing created the first digitally scrambled, wireless phone known as SIGSALY…

Declassified only in 1976, it was a joint effort of Bell Labs and Britain’s Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, north of London. It had a scientific pedigree rivaling that of the Manhattan Project, for the British-American team included not only Shannon but also Alan Turing. They were building a system known as SIGSALY. That was not an acronym, just a random string of letters to confuse the Germans, should they learn of it.

SIGSALY was the first digitally scrambled, wireless phone. Each SIGSALY terminal was a room-sized, 55-ton computer with an iso­lation booth for the user and an air-conditioning system to prevent its banks of vacuum tubes from melting down. It was a way for Al­lied leaders to talk openly, confident that the enemy could not eavesdrop. The Allies built one SIGSALY at the Pentagon for Roo­sevelt and another in the basement of Selfridges department store for Churchill. Others were established for Field Marshal Mont­gomery in North Africa and General MacArthur in Guam. SIGSALY used the only cryptographic system that is known to be uncrackable, the ‘onetime pad.’ In a onetime pad, the ‘key’ used for scrambling and decoding a message is random. Traditionally, this key consisted of a block of random letters or numbers on a pad of paper. The encoded message therefore is random and contains none of the telltale patterns by which cryptograms can be deciphered. The problem with the onetime pad is that the key must be delivered by courier to everyone using the system, a challenge in wartime.

SIGSALY encoded voice rather than a written message. Its key was a vinyl LP record of random ‘white noise.’ ‘Adding’ this noise to Roosevelt’s voice produced an indecipherable hiss. The only way to recover Roosevelt’s words was to ‘subtract’ the same key noise from an identical vinyl record. After pressing the exact number of key records needed, the master was destroyed and the LPs distrib­uted by trusted couriers to the SIGSALY terminals. It was vitally important that the SIGSALY phonographs play at precisely the same speed and in sync. Were one phonograph slightly off, the out­put was abruptly replaced by noise.

Alan Turing cracked the German ‘Enigma’ cipher, allowing the Allies to eavesdrop on the German command’s messages. The point of SIGSALY was to ensure that the Germans couldn’t do the same. Part of Shannon’s job was to prove that the system was indeed im­possible for anyone lacking a key to crack. Without that mathemat­ical assurance, the Allied commanders could not have spoken freely. SIGSALY put several other of Shannon’s ideas into practice for the first time, among them some relating to pulse code modulation. AT&T patented and commercialized many of Shannon’s ideas in the postwar years…

The first wireless “phone”: an excerpt from William Poundstone’s Fortune’s Formula, via Delancey Place.

* Edward Snowden


As we keep a secret, we might recall that it was on this date in 1909 that Thomas M. Flaherty filed for the first U.S. patent for a “Signal for Crossings”– a traffic signal.  His signal used a large horizontal arrow pivoted on a post, which turned to indicate the right of way direction, and was activated by an electric solenoid operated by a policeman beside the road.

Flaherty’s was the first U.S. application for a traffic signal design, later issued as No. 991,964 on May 9, 1911. But though it was filed first, it was not the first patent actually issued for a traffic signal: Ernest E. Sirrine filed a different design seven months after Flaherty; but his patent was issued earlier, and thus he held the first U.S. patent for a “Street Traffic System.”

 source (and larger version)


Written by LW

September 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

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