Saturday, December 31, 2005
What is the coolest airplane of all time from a design standpoint?
Ok, I know that's hard to say, since there have been so many unusual and interesting designs. But one school of design worth special note is the "flying wing." (I have special affection for the Crusader, a small, futuristic, 1930's plane of which I shall write more in the future)
The Palm Springs (California) Air Museum, is a museum focusing on World War II combat aircraft and the role their pilots. From what I can see online, they have a very large collection of working aircraft.
Notably, they have a working flying wing.
The museum's website promises a flight demonstration of
Northrop N9MB Flying Wing Flight Demonstration on Feb. 25, 2006 at the
Palm Springs Air Museum
745 North Gene Autry Trail
Palm Springs, California 92262
from the museum's website:
The Flying Wing, designed by Jack Northrop during the early 1940's is a most significant historical aircraft. This radical design was the precursor to the Stealth Bomber. The object of a political controversy, Stuart Symington, Sec'y of Defense under President Truman, ordered the original 13 Flying Wing aircraft and plans destroyed. Original Northup employees restored this Flying Wing over an eight-year period.
If you go, please post pictures and event reports
Friday, December 30, 2005
The period from 1876 to 1934, which coincides with the founding of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and ends with Edison's death is what I call “The Golden Age of Inventing”. In my opinion, no other period saw the introduction of as many culturally revolutionizing inventions as that window in time. The telephone, the airplane, radio, mechanical refrigeration, phonograph, assembly lines, and of course, the light bulb – all of these items changed society to an extent never seen before or after.
Golden Age/Edisonian era inventions were often the products of individual inventors, at least to the extent that almost all of the first half century’s inventions have “fathers” that is, people can actually name their inventor.
For example, the fathers of the airplane? The Wrights. Telephone? Bell. Refrigeration? Willis Carrier. The father of radio? Marconi (or Tesla? Okay, bad example.) Antibiotics? Alexander Fleming. Plastic? Leo Baekeland. The modern rocket? Robert Goddard. Assembly line? Henry Ford. Major inventions frequently had a face and name associated with it. Individual engineers and scientists were well known, even famous.
But after Edison, the face of inventing and innovation changed. Few second half twentieth century inventions of sweeping importance have a father (or mother), I think because individual inventors were swept away by the tide of industrial specialization. Innovation and invention became the province of committees, of corporate R & D departments, of product teams, of task forces.
Who invented the Internet? The I-pod? The digital computer? The CD player? The faces behind these are vague at best, or very subjective.
I asked some people I know to name one famous living scientist or engineer. Most couldn’t think of even one. Answers I got were: Carl Sagan (dead), Q - the gadget guy in James Bond movies (fictional), and Scotty on Star Trek (fictional and dead).
So, are there any? Please send comments with names of any real and living engineer or scientist with a level of fame on par with say, Gordi LaForge, or John Frink.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
I was interviewed for a newspaper article today because the writer was looking for similar but safer things to do on New Year’s Eve than fire guns up into the air. She thought my book Backyard Ballistics might be a source of better alternatives.
I must live in a relatively shielded environment because I thought firing guns up the air to celebrate something wasn’t really a common practice outside of, say, Baghdad or Beirut. Turns out I was wrong. There is apparently a long standing tradition among some regarding what the police call “celebratory firing.”
How dangerous is the practice of celebratory firing?
Well, a lot of people think that retired army General JS Hatcher’s book, called Hatcher’s Notebook is probably the most complete treatment of gun facts ever written. Hatcher describes several studies conducted to figure out just how dangerous this practice is. Bottom line of these studies, says he, is that the terminal velocity of your typical bullet coming back down varies a lot but is normally more than 200 feet per second.
And, other writers on the subject (there have been quite a few) say that tests on cadavers show that skin is punctured and underlying organs messed up (my words, not theirs) at bullet velocities that exceed 180 feet per second. And, since falling bullets typically strike people in the head or shoulders, this appears to me to be a very dangerous practice.
In Los Angeles county, many people have been injured and (according to some sources) killed by the practice, so many in fact, that celebratory firing is a felony.
Apparently, there is an unmet need for at-home nuclear particle accelerators. The Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News says that a man named Al Swank proposes to install a cyclotron in his home. Apparently, he wants to make nuclear isotopes for medical purposes. The neighbors are against it, so it’s controversial.
I don’t know if there’s much radiation associated with cyclotrons or not. If it makes radioactive isotopes, I can understand why they might be concerned.
From the news report: “Swank consults nationally and internationally on cyclotrons, the particle accelerators used to create radioactive isotopes. Swank built his first one as a West High School science student.
He plans to get a used cyclotron from Johns Hopkins University, and said it is due to arrive in April. He wants to use the accelerator to fulfill a medical need but also would like to employ it as a teaching tool for science classes, he said.”
So, young Swank made a cyclotron in high school? That’s pretty cool. Reader Fred Niell sent me a link to his web site. Evidently he made his own cyclotron as well back in 1995 as an entry in the Intel Science Fair.
The list of amateur nuclear particle accelerator builders might be pretty big. A google search turns up this low cost, built from scratch, one at Rutgers University, built by student Tim Koeth.
What do people do with cyclotrons in the basement? That’s a good question. Can you make meaningful quantities of transformed elements (say lead to gold)? What do you do with a electron approaching light speeds?
If you’ve built your own atomic apparatus, let me know what you do with it.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
2005 is the centenary of novelist Jules Verne's death. My favorite Verne book? From the Earth to the Moon (abbreviated as FTETTM). Verne's characterization of Civil War era technology enthusiasts is among the best and most lively descriptions of people like us that I've ever read.
Somethings don't change. The beginning chapters of FTETTM are wonderful; and relevant to the material published here, so over the next period of days or weeks, I'm going to republish a little at a time along with a comment.
From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
Chapter 1 The Baltimore Gun Club
During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland. It is well known with what energy the taste for military matters became developed among that nation of ship-owners, shopkeepers, and mechanics. Simple tradesmen jumped their counters to become extemporized captains, colonels, and generals, without having ever passed the School of Instruction at West Point; nevertheless; they quickly rivaled their compeers of the old continent, and, like them, carried off victories by dint of lavish expenditure in ammunition, money, and men.
But the point in which the Americans singularly distanced the Europeans was in the science of gunnery. Not, indeed, that their weapons retained a higher degree of perfection than theirs, but that they exhibited unheard-of dimensions, and consequently attained hitherto unheard-of ranges. In point of grazing, plunging, oblique, or enfilading, or point-blank firing, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn; but their cannon, howitzers, and mortars are mere pocket-pistols compared with the formidable engines of the American artillery.
This fact need surprise no one. The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers-- just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians-- by right of birth. Nothing is more natural, therefore, than to perceive them applying their audacious ingenuity to the science of gunnery. Witness the marvels of Parrott, Dahlgren, and Rodman. The Armstrong, Palliser, and Beaulieu guns were compelled to bow before their transatlantic rivals.
The desire to build interesting things, especially things that go whoosh, boom, then splat dates far back into American history. From the Earth to the Moon depicts the tradition in full flower circa 1865. But going even further back in American history, Benjamin Franklin’s amateur experimentation with electricity arguably makes him the Founding Father of the American Technological Underground. Anybody have a different opinion?
I'm told that Fairmont, Minnesota (down near the Iowa border) is holding a Fruitcake Launching Event, in which fruitcakes are shot out of catapults and other machines. There are other events as well, such as a fruitcake poetry contest, and decorating contest with prizes for ugliest and most beautiful cakes. If you don't have fruitcake or a catapult, there are some available to rent.
Dates: February 18, 2006
Fairmont, MN 56031 Info? Call (507) 235-5547
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
[After what Luke Helder and Chris Hackett allegedly did (X-plosive art 1 and 2, posted below), this almost makes sense by comparison. Which is something I rarely say about modern art.]
Thru March 5, 2006
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA, USA
Cornelia Parker is a British artist whose work is in some of the world's largest museums of modern art. Her best known work is Cold Dark Matter - An Exploded View (1991)
Quoting from the Chisenhale Gallery website:
"Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View consists of a garden shed and its various miscellaneous contents, which had been literally blown up by the army. The exploded shed was suspended from the ceiling of the gallery with a single light source at its centre."
The current San Francisco exhibition features her newer work of exploded art, Colder Darker Matter, and another blown up piece, both similar in concept, except the pieces come from two churches, one blown up by a lightning and the other by an arsonist. See it and ponder.
Ithaca, New York, the home of Cornell University, is staging the Light in Winter festival, a three day cultural festival with a strong science component. Most likely theoretical booms only at this event, but you never know. The highlight ( from a whoosh, splat, and boom perspective) would have to be the staging of Tom Schuch's play about Albert Einstein.
From the Light in Winter festival website:
Einstein: A Stage Portrait was voted Critics Choice, and received awards for writing,directing, and acting. The play brings to life the brilliant, dedicated, and sometimes controversial theoretical physicist, “a much too famous man whose reputation grew so out of proportion.” The setting is 1946, the bomb has dropped, the world has forever changed, and Einstein has invited the audience over to his home to “set the record straight.”
The other activity that piques interest is the performance of the Laurie Anderson (pictured above) work, The End of the Moon. This is a work featuring music for violin and electronics. What seems interesting is that Laurie Anderson is billed as NASA's first "artist in residence." I'm not sure what that means.
Also, Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, will discuss his new book, The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved. He is billed as "brilliant at discussing science and mathematics in a clear, simple way to show how they relate to our everyday world."
If you attend, please send me an event report, they are always welcome.
My new book, Adventures from the Technology Underground, published by Random House's Clarkson Potter comes out on January 3. I'm really excited about this book. The subtitle tells what it's about:
Adventures from the Technology Underground : Catapults, Pulsejets, Rail Guns, Flamethrowers, Tesla Coils, Air Cannons, and the Garage Warriors Who Love Them
Amazon has posted a really neat Flash based slide show on their website. You can also see the slide show by browsing to http://www.williamgurstelle.com/books4.php and clicking the link to Amazon or just type my name, Gurstelle, into the Amazon website's search bar and navigating to the the book.
" scientists James S. Brooks and Jos A. A. J. Perenboom have conducted a series of experiments at about 20 Tesla; numerous biological and organic specimens were placed in the center bore of a magnet, and positioned in such a manner that the diamagnetic repulsion was compensated for by forces of gravity, allowing levitation of the specimens." Quicktime movies of the floating frog are here.
While I don't know if any floating frogs will be present, I do see that the The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory will hold its 11th Annual Open House on Saturday, February 18 2005, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m in Tallahasee, Florida.
- Highlights include:
- Potato Canon -- demonstration that showcases projectile motion by shooting a potato into the lake behind the Magnet Lab.
- 900 MHz magnet – the laboratory's newest world record magnet that stands 16 ft. tall and weighs 30,000 lbs. Scientists use this magnet for chemical and biomedical research.
- New introductory video – repeat visitors will enjoy this new production that showcases the lab, its scientists, and their research.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
The previous post reminds me of another weird art-bomb story.
Remember Luke Helder, the UW student (my alma mater, hmmm..) who was accused of planting pipe bombs in mailboxes so that a map of their placement would resemble a smiley face? I looked him up on the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate locator. Looks like he's still in a mental ward, in a Rochester Minnesota prison hospital.
The Technology Underground can be a dangerous place. By nature, high voltage machines, warrior robots, rocket engines, and most of all, home made pyro are more dangerous than a pit bull with aids (and only slightly less so than the guy who infected him.)
A few months ago, I heard that Brooklyn performance artist Chris Hackett built a ANFO (ammonium nitrite - fuel oil) bomb and placed it into a suitcase. The word was that he attached a detonator attached to a cell phone. Apparently, if the phone rang, the suitcase would go off. Various blogs and newspaper reported that he built the device in name of creating a piece of performance art dealing in some way with 9/11.
Could this possibly be true? I don't think so, but I haven't heard much follow up on it. I understand that in 2003 Hackett did seriously injure himself with some other sort of home made pyrotechnic. According to the New York Post,
"On Jan. 24, 2004, Hackett blew up part of his face - suffering burns and a broken jaw - when a propane tank exploded while he was rigging it to fire a confetti cannon."
As Don Herbert, better known on television as Mr. Wizard, would always say, "Don't try this at home!"
Saturday, December 24, 2005
Archimedes, the great geometer, scientist, and mathematician of ancient Greece invented much technology that serves as the foundation for Technology Underground projects. Among his inventions: the "ship shaker"( a device for lifting and overturning enemy boats and ships); the archimedian screw; and various catapulta.
Along these lines, a friend of mine speculates that terrorists equipped with concave mirrors could wreak silent havoc on a city by burning holes with concentrated sunlight in water towers, bridge supports and so forth. He thinks they could simply aim their mirrors at the same spot on a target, and given enough people with mirrors, they could melt through anything if the day was hot and sunny. How that could happen
Some things just go together. Like peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs and baseball, or say, verbosity and blogging.
What else goes together often, if not always well? Look at British movie actor Orlando Bloom's recent film work. While I'm lukewarm at best regarding Bloom's acting ability and choice of roles, I do love catapults. Anyway, here is a few of the catapult warrior's recent movies:
Orlando Bloom Movies that Feature Catapults
- Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
- Troy (2004)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
What do all of these movies feature? They feature catapults. I didn't see all of these pictures, but I've heard they all have catapults. The CGI trebuchets in the LOTR movies were terrific. They really seemed to have modeled the catapult motion perfectly. Given the complex motion of the sling, that must have been difficult.
If you know of other recent movies featuring catpults, please post that info.
(note: this post is typed in TREBUCHET font)
Friday, December 23, 2005
Above, John Dyer of California, a very capable high voltage tinkerer.
Of all the Underground Technology events -- robot fights, rocket launches, catapult hurls, human powered vehicle races, and so on -- perhaps my favorite is the Teslathon.
A Teslathon is a gathering of high voltage enthusiasts who display the great electrical devices they've made in their workshops. The king of the show is a machine called a Tesla Coil, a great lightning maker that shoots arcs and sparks across rooms. There's other stuff as well like Jacobs Ladders, Marx Coils, and Van de Graaf generators, all of which are incredibly fascinating to watch.
Teslathons are typically not big public events. Mostly they are attended only by members of the HV community. But, if you hear about one and get permission to attend, it's pretty darn cool.
I see from the pupman.com mailing list (the online center for this hobby) there's one planned in Arizona on January 16. I'd like to try and go myself. I have a crummy little jacob's ladder, but I'm starting to think about actually winding the coils for the Tesla Coil I designed a couple years back.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Quotation of the Day: "His study was a total mess, like the results of an explosion in a public library." -- Douglas Adams
I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1974. As an engineering student, I took Chemistry 103 and 104 which I recall being very difficult classes. I vaguely remember learning about covalent bonding, equilibrium states, and atomic structure, but I don't remember much. The thing I do recall is Professor Shakashiri's Christmas lecture. Flames, smoke, color changes, odd precipitates -- the man could really make things happen in a test tube.
Now I see that 30 years later, the doc is still at it. The lecture is a hot ticket in Madison. This year it's being broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television on Dec 23 and Dec 25. For more info visit:
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
In the late 1990’s, one of the highest rated shows on cable television was a program called Battlebots. The Battlebots program consisted of a televised robotic cockfight between two radio controlled vehicles, generally powered by big electric motors and outfitted with weapons designed to inflict damage on its opponent to the point where it would not longer operate. For three minutes the two robots would bang and smash against each other, each trying to win the match by dominating its opponents. Domination could entail hitting its opponent so hard and so often with metal cutting says and pneumatically powered spikes, that it is reduced into a smoking pile of twisted metal. Or it may mean simply emerging from the match with one less scratch.
Television executives tracked a steady decline in viewership and figured out that the general public, at least, had had enough of the concept. After the fourth season, the ratings were such that the Comedy Central programming executives relegated Battlebots to Saturday night, which in television programming circles is where televisions shows go to die. Then, with little fanfare, the plug was pulled and the show was gone.
But Battlebots was just a television show, and for the technical expressives who built robots, this turned out be a good thing.
As long as Battlebots was on the air, this is where almost all nascent robot builders focused their attention. Perhaps a few dozen at most, out of the hundreds and hundreds of robots entered into the Battlebots tournament actually wound up on television. The great majority of builders and their bots took a long, expensive trip to San Francisco and only got to participate in a single match, or if they were lucky and won their first match, got the honor of fighting again. To actually attain the final rounds, a builder would need to win match after match after match. Only a small fraction of the hundreds of entered robots ever saw the glare of the television cameras.
With odds like that, the fun quotient for the average builder wasn’t high enough to justify a cross country trip twice a year, (the interval at which battlebots tournaments were held). When the show was finally cancelled, the focus shifted from a television show for television audiences to watch, to an activity that was all about material participation. There would be no more national audiences or bleachers filled with celebrities, (if indeed the personalities of Carmen Electra and Gary Coleman counted as celebrities.)
Instead, the robot fighting contests and tournaments became local and regional affairs, gritty and low budget for sure, but given the wide dispersion and higher frequency of events, more people could try their hand at building. The rules for building bots was loosened and the activity flowered and expanded from a small cadre of die hard enthusiasts into a more widely dispersed if not quite so serious community of robot builders.
Want to build a battling robot? Then check this out.
While I'm on the subject, the next few issues of Make Magazine will have a lot of my work in it. I've got an article on how to build your very own Reynst Combustor (a simplified pulse jet engine), a hamster powered night light, and a review of the Annual Manitou Springs Colorado Fruitcake Toss. All good stuff, yesiree, all good stuff.
By the way, I see Make is available at the newstand at Barnes and Noble and is available by subscription at Amazon or makezine.com
PS please email me or post information on any technology events that you know of. Submissions are always welcomed!
PS I'd like to hear about reports from launches that people have attended.
|1/17 : Atlas 5 Rocket Launch - Pluto New Horizons|
|1/26 : Delta 2 Rocket Launch - GPS 2R M-2|
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Technology Underground Event Update:
Date and place announcement for Arizona Flugtag
April 29, 2006 Tempe Arizona
The first Flugtag took place in Austria in 1991. Since then, the dream of flying hand-made machines into unsuspecting bodies of water has spread like wildfire. From Ireland to San Francisco, inspired pilots construct their own craft, the more outrageous, the better. The distances covered are not always impressive, but the artistry and the pre-launch showmanship are terrific
This year, it shot around 4330 feet, which isn't bad, but they've done better in the past.
It's off topic a bit, but reading about the Tookie Williams execution inspired me to bring out an article I wrote last year for THE RAKE, about the weird history of capital punishment and the bizarre Garry Commission.
1000 Dead MenWilliam Gurstelle 2004 - all rights reserved
Sometime in the middle of this year, the 1000th man condemned to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the U.S. will walk from a holding cell to a starkly lit, barren execution chamber. There, a team of guards and technicians will operate the state’s machinery of human destruction, carefully designed to bring about the quick and efficient death of the prisoner.
Like most of the previous 999 executions, this one won’t have much in the way of uncertainty or technical novelty. It will private, clinical, and most likely, pain-free. For that small favor, Condemned Man Number 1000 can thank an obscure New York bureaucrat named Elbridge Gerry.
In the late 19th Century, after a number of botched executions by hanging, that resulted in slow strangulation and/or decapitation, the State of New York began searching for a more humane method of capital punishment.
New York’s governor appointed a committee of experts to evaluate alternatives to hanging for convicted and condemned capital murderers. This committee became known as the “Gerry Commission,” after its chairman, Elbridge Gerry.
Under Chairman Gerry’s watch, 31 deadly ideas were brainstormed and described in the Commission’s March 1888 report to the governor.
In all likelihood, the Gerry Report is the most bizarre and grotesque report ever produced by a committee of government bureaucrats. For weeks, the plucky public servants brainstormed, researched and categorized all the ways of killing people they could think of. Then, they comprehensively, deliberately, and dispassionately examined the merits of each in alphabetical order.
In discharging their obligation, they duly considered and evaluated 31 possible methods of carrying out the sentence of death, many apparently dredged up the most hidden and ghoulish recesses of a bureaucrat’s sadistic soul. In the end, they came up with a list. Some of the more unusual suggestions included:
Beating to death with clubs
Blowing from a cannon (The commission became interested in this method of execution based on reports of its use in the East Indian army in the 19th Century. The commission notes two ways for carrying out this sentence. First, “the insurgent is lashed to the cannon’s mouth. Within two seconds of pulling the trigger, he is blown to 10,000 atoms.” Alternatively, “the living body of the offender is thrust into the cannon, forming, as one might say, part of the charge.”)
Boiling (“usually in hot water but sometimes in melted sulfur, lead or the like”)
Dichotomy (cutting a person in half)
Dismemberment (like dichotomy but even messier)
Exposure to wild beasts (In due diligence, the commission briefly considered the method of execution served on female criminals in Tonquin, (present day Vietnam). The commission noted the condemned were “tied to a stake and in that situation delivered to an elephant who seizes them with his trunk, throws them into the air, catches them on his tusks, and finishes them off by trampling.”)
Lapidation (to cause death by throwing stones)
Peine forte et dure (placing heavy weights to stop breathing)
Pounding in a mortar. In Proverbs 27:22, the Bible reads, “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.” This biblical passage prompted a religious Gerry commission member to consider “pounding in mortar” as a possible method of serving the death sentence. Presumably, this procedure would involve the condemned being placed in a large mortar or similar vessel and then pounded with an enormous pestle. This is much the preparation of a mint julep, except a condemned prisoner is substituted for mint leaves.)
Precipitation (throwing from a cliff)
Running the gauntlet
Use a little imagination, and you can envision the tenor of the debates swirling around the conference table of the Gerry Commission. On one side of the table might have been the dismemberment and stomping elephant advocates, sniping derisively at the beheading and garrote crowd about their relative daintiness, while the ‘blowing from a cannon’ promoters crowed about the sure-fire nature of their choice, as well as the state’s ability to raise funds by charging admission.
While some of these methods (e.g. boiling, crucifixion, and throwing from a cliff) may have possessed an impressive deterrent effect, few of them fit the commission’s objectives of speediness, humaneness, and efficiency in execution.
Brainstorming session over, the work of winnowing out the cruel, the unworkable, and the just plain weird ideas began. In the end, no ideas remained –- all were considered either too cruel or weird.
“Your Commission have examined with care the accounts which exist of the various curious modes of capital punishment. . . that have been used. The result (is that none of these) can be considered as embodying suggestions of improvement over that now in use in this State.”
The felons on New York’s death row, may (or may not) have sighed in relief, knowing that the whole mortar and pestle thing was off the table.
One 116 years later, Condemned Man Number 1000 will lie on the gurney as orderlies attach long tubes to the needle inserted in his arm. When the lethal drip starts, he may take a bit of comfort in knowing it could have been worse.
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