Oddly, when I was young and in school, history was not something I was interested-in at all. Nowadays, history in general has become a bet of a pet project and something I enjoy learning about. Not that I find _all_ history interesting, but seeing how people lived centuries ago is just plain fascinating. Very specifically, though, a major interest of mine is the history of technology. Not limited to just computing equipment, I have an interest in researching technologies ranging from the development of the steam engine (specifically early engines such as the Newcomen), to military technologies such as the submarine.
Given my location in the Niagara Region, and connections as an engineer, I have had unique opportunites to see many interesting things such as several generating stations in the region. Since it is difficult to get access to many of these places, I have documented them here so others can marvel at them as well. Other pages describe bits of technology that are of historical interest (like the Strowger telephone switch) or that I found just plain interesting.
Early Electrical Technologies
I have had a rare opportunity to tour a number of old generating stations in Niagara including the Canadian Niagara Power Company's Rankine generating station at the top of Niagara Falls. This recently retired plant supplied 25Hz power to industries for 100 years and was the first large-scale power generator on the Canadian side of the falls. Continuing from where the Rankine story leaves off, a tour of a second older generating station, the Sir Adam Beck 1 Generating Station in Queenston, Ontario. This plant began as a 25Hz station and has been updated gradually to become a 'modern' plant. Several of the photos on this page were taken during a rare opportunity to witness an upgrade to new generators. Finally, the the oldest operating generating station in Ontario, Decew Falls is 110 years old and still operating! Awarded an IEEE Milestone award, this plant originally employed 66 2/3 Hz and was one of the first to use high voltages for long distance transmission.
I also have an extensive collection of books outlining the works of Nicola Tesla including translations of his original works. Most famous for the high voltage coil that bears his name, I have always admired the mad genius who brought us, more importantly, three-phase power (exploited by Westinghouse as the distribution method for AC power at the turn of the century. The three-phase system figures prominently in the development of power systems, especially in Niagara where the Rankine plant (above) was one of the first to use this system (which was newer than the two-phase system employed across the Niagara River in the US at the time at the Adams generating station).
Places of Interest:
And no matter how you feel about Edison (since some consider him a genius, and others an exploiter), you have to appreciate the fact that he really "invented inventing" on an industrial scale. This photo, taken at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn MI, shows Edison's Menlo Park lab where the incandescent light bulb was perfected. (The upright glass apparatus on the left side of the room was a Sprengel vacuum pump which used falling mercury drops to produce a vacuum good enough to make the lamp work.
Early Steam Engine TechnologiesThe Newcomen steam engine was really the first practical engine in widespread use, mainly for pumping water from mines in England - If you've ever seen Burke's Connections series (which I consider one of the best science/history series ever) you realize the importance of this engine in the industrialization of the Western world. I've documented a surviving engine, 'Fairbottom Bobs', now located at the Henry Ford museum at Dearborn, MI.
Early Telephone TechnologiesAn introduction to early telephone switching technologies including uniselectors and the Strowger relay which operates in two axes. This relay, developed in the later 1880's by a funeral director, paved the way for modern automatic telephone exchanges and direct-dialling by subscribers.
Early Electronics & Computing TechnologiesOne on my interests in electronics is how they built computing circuits in the 40's through 60's (i.e. without the aid of logic chips and, before that, utilizing vacuum tubes). As an example consider a digital frequency counter built in 1967. This counter (originally from an HP Wave Analyzer) used only eight transistors for a counter and some funky optical-logic to decode the counter output to decimal. This type of circuitry was used extensively in the late 50's and early 60's for computing devices.
An enormous interest of mine is vintage computers, of which I hold a small collection of some classic machines from the 1970's and 1980's. The oldest machine in my collection is a DEC PDP-8/F from 1972 which features a front panel with loads of switches and lights. Other machines include a PDP-8/A, PDP-11/34, and a number of machines built by Ohio Scientific including one which features three separate processors (a 6502, 6800, and Z80).
If you're into the history of the integrated circuit, or vintage computers, here's a few must-reads ...
- Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, outlining the development process of a new Data General minicomputer in the 1970's including the incredible process of debugging the machine!
- Inside Intel: Andrew Grove and the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Chip Company by Tim Jackson. Aside from covering Intel itself, the story provides insight into development of the entire industry including such key technologies as DRAM, the CPU, and EPROM.
Vacuum Tube TechnologiesWho can resist the warmth of the vacuum tube! Since I built my first one-tube radio from a Radio Shack P-Box kit I was fascinated with these little glass wonders. I wasn't always a big fan of tubes, especially in the 70's listening to people run-on about how the tube was superior to the transistor .... I'll give you that the tube might add interesting properties to audio being reproduced through it but all-in-all, the transistor was a more efficient device. Having said that, I'm waxing nostaligic about tubes these days especially since I still see them popping-up in places like laser power supplies where switching 15,000 volts just isn't easy with a solid-state device!
I have a collection of odd tubes, my favourites being low-voltage (1V filament like the 1T4 and 1R5 variety used in battery-operated tube portable sets like the one below) and special-purpose miniature tubes like a 6CW4 Nuvistor (an ultra-miniature tube in a metal can the size of a transistor, smaller than a CK722 transistor ... I have a few of those, too) and 9004 acorn tubes (a UHF diode which can operate at frequencies up to 850 MHz ... amazing in the 1930's when it was developed).
My favourite radio, a Continental M-500 portable tube radio. This 4 tube superheterodyne set used a large 67.5 Volt B battery and a D-Cell to power the filaments of the 1-volt tubes - an 1R5 for an RF amp and local oscillator, 1T4 for an IF amp, 1U4 for second IF and detector, and 3S4 for an AF amp. Click on the photo to the left for a better photo or on one of these other photos of this radio including the Circuit Diagram showing tube placement, A view of the entire rear showing the large B (67.5 volt) battery and D-size small filament cell (All tubes had 1.5 volt filaments in this unit), and a close-up of the actual circuit which was hand-wired. The can is an IF transformer operating at 455KHz. The beige jack with four terminals in the lower left is for headphones.
If you like tubes you've got to check out Mikes Electric Stuff in the UK featuring a huge assortment of antique glass tubes (geissler, vacuum tubes, etc.) as well as tesla coils, lasers and other high-voltage stuff. This guy has a really extensive collection of bizarre tubes ranging from Geissler tubes to large mercury vapour rectifiers. Another cool tube site is The Virtual Valve Museum.
20th Century Military Technologies
Growing up, the Cold War was in full swing, and this certainly influenced my interests. On TV, spy thrillers such as Mission:Impossible were all the rage. Looking at those episodes now, much of that "impossible" technology is now, indeed, here!
And so, I have an interest in military technology. I have always found the rate of technological development during wartime fascinating. The development of both aircraft during WW-II and submarines during both wars are good illustrations. Aircraft, for example, progressed from primitive, slow, piston-driven machines to jet-powered fighters resembling those of modern times in only six years during the second world war. Perhaps the most amazing plane of the second world war was the Messerschmitt Me262. Although introduced too late in the war (1944) to save the Luftwaffe from defeat in WW II, a total of 1430 such planes were built. The plane itself was powered by two Jumo-004 jet engines, the first of which were problematic but this was not surprising given the date! Its maximum speed was 540 mph, an unheard-of speed for the 1940's!
And of particular interest was the Horten flying wing, an experimental plane developed by the Germans during WWII. The first versions of this plane had pusher-props run from piston engines but later versions used jet engines, built by BMW.
Being an espionage buff, naturally I'm also intrigued by enciphering technologies and codebreaking. I've provided a glance at the workings of the German Enigma enciphering machine as well as links for further reading. This machine was instrumental to the Germans in WWII and the cracking of the Enigma code was a major contribution to the war efforts of the allies. At the college, I have developed a simple Enigma encryption system based on a PIC16F84 microcontroller chip which we used as part of an interfacing project in a microprocessor design course I taught previously.
Places of Interest:
The Buffalo Naval and Serviceman's Park (less than a 1 hour drive from Welland) houses three world-war two era warships.
The USS Sullivans is a destroyer which saw action in WWII and Korea. The 376 foot long vessel was commissioned in 1943 and had a full complement of 310 men. A well laid-out walking tour route takes visitors just about everywhere in the ship (tours like this, allowing visitors essentially everywhere including the engine room, are rare).
The USS Croaker is a Gato-class submarine originally commissioned in 1944 and converted to a hunter-killer sub in 1953. The claustrophobic diesel-electric sub is 306 feet long and had a full complement of 81 men (for which I only saw three heads ... hmmmm). Finally, the USS Little Rock, at 610 feet in length, is a guided missile light cruiser with a full complement of 1400 men. Originally launched as a light cruiser in 1945 the ship was converted to carry and launch Talos missiles in 1960.
The largest museum of its type in the world, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (at Wright-Patterson AFB) boasts a huge collection of aircraft and missiles spanning from the dawn of aviation until the present day. Pictured here is a Titan-1 ICBM from the cold war gallery. One of the first ICBMs deployed (circa 1959), this liquid-fueled missile (which used liquid oxygen as an oxidizer) was slow to respond to a threat, taking over fifteen minutes to fuel and raise the missile on an massive elevator to launch position at ground level. The missile was stored in an underground silo, empty of fuel but pressurized to maintain shape (an empty missile could not even support it's own weight). When required, the missile was filled with fuel and oxidizer, raised to the surface, and then fired. It was hence superceded by the storable-fuel Titan-II and later the solid-fuel Minuteman-I which could be fired much quicker (these could be launched from within their underground silos and so response times was much quicker).
To give you an idea of just how large the museum is, this B52 is parked inside just one of the three (and soon, four) massive hangars housing the collection of aircraft! The musuem currently covers 17 acres.
If you're into military history, I might suggest a few decent books I have read ...
Ever since I had seen Das Boot I've been interested in the history of the submarine and have enjoyed reading a number of books on the subject including:
- Submarine by Tom Clancy. A fascinating, non-fictional look at modern submarine operations.
- The Navy Times Book of Submarines by Brayton Harris, a truly excellent account of the use of submarines in both World War I and II
- Dark Waters by Lee Vyborny, the story of the NR-1 - the smallest nuclear sub ever created and used in the cold war
- Under Pressure by A.J. Hill, the story of the dramatic rescue of the post WW1 submarine S-5. A very engaging book written in a storylike style
- Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag which details submarine usage in espionage activities during the cold war
On the topic of the development of the atomic bomb:
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. A 788 page work tracing the complete development of the bomb from the 1910's to it's dropping on Hiroshima in 1945.
- A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry by Sharon Weinberger & Nathan Hodge. This was a surprisingly refreshing look at "nuclear tourist" sites such as Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and missile silos. The book was written in a surprisingly engaging style!
Other interests include espionage especially during the cold war period. A few good books I've read on that topic include:
- Hidden Secrets by David Owen, on espionage and spy techniques
- The Wizards of Langley by Jeffrey Richelson, outlining espionage activities and techniques during the cold war
- The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll, a true story outlining the hunt for the infamous German computer hacker Markus Hess during the late 1980's.
Finally, I find the development of the early spaceflight program interesting, especially the development during the Mercury project:
- Flight by Gene Kranz is the best account of the development of the early spaceflight ptogram I have ever read. I highly recommend this book and gave several copies as Christmas gifts to colleagues. Required reading for all engineers!