Notes about technology

April 4, 2017 permalink

Ibm Punched Card Typography

Norbert Landsteiner wrote up a post about something that’s retro-technology-typography-nerdy beyond even my usual limits and understanding: a thorough explication and an interactive demo of how the late-1940s IBM 026 key punch (the typewriter keyboard/workstation machine that operators would use to poke the holes in the computer program punchcards of that era) was able to also print tiny human-readable letters and words at the top of the cards for easy reference.

Basically IBM encoded the alphabet and other special characters onto a clever postage stamp-sized print head that would run along the top of the punchcard, with wires to each “dot” enabling the printing of each encoded character in turn, effectively an early dot-matrix printer. (it’s not easy to see, but if you squint at the image you’ll see that the red dots form the “A” character, upside-down — you’ll see it more easily if you play with the demo and choose other characters)

IBM Punched Card Typography.

July 24, 2012 permalink

First Computer Graphics Film at T Satellite

Now that I have a retina display, I want a screensaver that looks as good as this 1963 AT&T microfilm video:

This film was a specific project to define how a particular type of satellite would move through space. Edward E. Zajac made, and narrated, the film, which is considered to be possibly the very first computer graphics film ever. Zajac programmed the calculations in FORTRAN, then used a program written by Zajac’s colleague, Frank Sinden, called ORBIT. The original computations were fed into the computer via punch cards, then the output was printed onto microfilm using the General Dynamics Electronics Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm recorder. All computer processing was done on an IBM 7090 or 7094 series computer.

July 16, 2012 permalink

Kyle Mcdonald on Getting a Little Lost

I’ve learned you have to be careful when you get lost in an idea. As an artist, you have to get a little lost. Otherwise you won’t discover anything interesting. But you have to avoid getting so lost that you’re unable to walk away and keep exploring.

July 6, 2012 permalink

Internet Protocol over Xylophone Players

Somehow I missed a lecture and demo of this new networking technology in Austin back in May: Internet Protocol Over Xylophone Players (IPoXP) (PDF whitepaper), which puts a human element in the middle of sending IP packets from one computer to another. From Wired UK:

As an LED lights up, the human participant strikes the corresponding key on the xylophone. Piezo sensors are attached to each xylophone, so that they are able to sense when a note is played on the other xylophone. The Arduino for the receiving computer senses the note and then converts it back into hexadecimal code. And when the second computer sends a return packet, the order of operations is reversed.

The data can be sent at a rate of roughly 1 baud, which is still faster than the earlier, um, IP over Avian Carriers technology.

Assuming the musicians don’t get bored. It takes about 15 minutes to transmit a single packet, assuming the musician doesn’t hit any wrong notes. That’s rare, though, apparently. Geiger told NetworkWorld: “Humans are really terrible interfaces.”

Pedant note: yes, they are using a glockenspiel in the photo above, not a true xylophone, but I guess X is a cooler letter to have in your acronym…

(Via ACM Tech News)

January 23, 2012 permalink

Bell Labs Hamlet from 1885

Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:

Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings.  The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.

The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.

(Via PhysOrg)

January 2, 2012 permalink

Marconi, Hacked in 1903

Want to expose a rival’s poor security implementation? What better way than to demonstrate the weakness in public, in front of a gathered crowd? From a New Scientist story of very early 20th-Century hacktivism:

LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. … Mentally decoding the missive, Blok [Fleming’s assistant] realised it was spelling one facetious word, over and over: “Rats”. A glance at the output of the nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” it trilled.

The radio-hacker was Nevil Maskelyne, a magician and rival inventor who was interested in developing wireless technology but who had been frustrated by the broad patents granted to Marconi. Bonus trivia: Nevil’s father was John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and inventor of the pay toilet, and his son was Jasper Maskelyne, a magician and inventor (see a family connection here?) who allegedly helped develop some of the famous optical diversions and camouflage trickery for the British military during WWII (his inflatable tanks remind me of the Potemkin Army thing I posted a couple of years back…)

December 2, 2011 permalink

Banaphone Invoked Computing

Banana Phone And Pizza Box Laptop PC – Invoked Computing For Ubiquitous AR

Usually “augmented reality” involves using a camera device to view an overlay of information or digital control on top of a video screen of some kind (say an iPhone or webcam/desktop), but this is kind of the opposite: having a camera+projector system that can map your intents onto everyday objects around the house for “invoked computing”.

Mostly I share this because I like this bananaphone demo:

There is a banana scenario where the person takes a banana out of a fruit bowl and brings it closer to his ear. A high speed camera tracks the banana; a parametric speaker array directs the sound in a narrow beam. The person talks into the banana as if it were a conventional phone.

(Via PhysOrg via ACM TechNews)

October 6, 2011 permalink

Rip Steve Jobs

I remember when Wired ran their May, 1997 issue, focusing on the downfall and imminent demise of Apple with this striking (and to some, controversial) cover. Most of their “101 Ways to Save Apple” suggestions are in hindsight nonsensical (merge with Sega to make games!), a few were prescient (build a ~$250 PDA phone that can do email!), but one definitely stands out as the prize winner:

50. Give Steve Jobs as much authority as he wants in new product development. … Even if Jobs fails, he’ll do it with guns a-blazin’.

He definitely didn’t fail, by anybody’s standards. It’s hard to think of many individuals out there who have had a bigger impact on popular computing and technology, not to mention who have led the charge for design and innovation as still-relevant business ideals in the 21st Century. RIP Steve Jobs.

July 30, 2011 permalink

Visual 6502

Archeology Magazine has a feature story about the “digital archeologists” behind Visual6502, the group “excavating” and fully remapping the inner workings of the classic 8-bit MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. That might not sound interesting, but if you’ve been alive for more than 20 years you know the chip: it was the heart of early home computers ranging from the Apple I and Apple ][ to the Atari game consoles all the way up to the Nintendo NES.

Very cool and all, but in case you’re still not interested, here’s some excellent trivia slipped into the article:

In the 1984 film The Terminator, scenes shown from the perspective of the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, include 6502 programming code on the left side of the screen.

Whaaat!? The SFX team working on The Terminator went so far as to copy actual assembly code into their shots? That’s pretty awesome! So where’d they get it? It was copied from Apple II code published in Nibble Magazine (even the T-800 enjoys emulators when its not busy hunting down humanity, I guess).

Bonus nerdery: check out this HTML5 + JavaScript visual simulation of the 6502 chip. Holy smokes!

(Via Discover, photo from the Visual6502 site)

November 13, 2010 permalink


Eyewriter 2.0 + Robot Arm = Livewriter. Combining the FFFFAT Lab’s inspirational Eyewriter project (named this week as one of Time’s top 50 inventions of 2010, and now glasses-free!) with their GML RoboTagger Sharpie Magnum-wielding robot arm, kids were able to try out the eye-tracking graffiti system to print out giant-sized tags of their own names. These projects touch on so many of my favorite areas of interest, so very cool.

July 8, 2010 permalink


From the New York Times obituary for Louis Moyroud, co-inventor of the phototypesetting Lumitype machine that revolutionized the newspaper industry in the 1950s:

Then, in the early 1940s, Mr. Moyroud and Mr. Higonnet — electronics engineers and colleagues at a subsidiary of ITT (formerly International Telephone & Telegraph) in Lyon, France — visited a nearby printing plant and witnessed the Linotype [the older Victorian-era printing process that was still in use] operation.

“My dad always said they thought it was insane,” Patrick Moyroud (pronounced MOY-rood) said. “They saw the possibility of making the process electronic, replacing the metal with photography. So they started cobbling together typewriters, electronic relays, a photographic disc.”

The result, called a photo-composing machine — and in later variations the Lumitype and the Photon — used a strobe light and a series of lenses to project characters from a spinning disc onto photographic paper, which was pasted onto pages, then photoengraved on plates for printing.

If you’ve ever seen the older lead-alloy-fueled “hot metal” Linotype process you’d agree: it was crazy.

(Photo of the Lumitype/Photon wheel by Flickr user Jeronzinho)

July 5, 2010 permalink


The world’s only working (modern) Pallophotophone plays 80-year-old NBC radio broadcasts:

The pallophotophone was an early audio recorder created by GE researcher Charles Hoxie in 1922. Rather than using magnetic wire or lacquer disks, the device captured audio waveforms on sprocketless 35 mm film as a series of 12 parallel tracks reflected from a vibrating mirror. It was used to record some of the world’s oldest surviving radio broadcasts on Schenectady, New York radio station WGY between 1929 and 1931.

As a forgotten optical medium, I guess its more modern analog would be laserfilm discs. Sort of working along the right path, but just not practical compared to other media coming out at the time. There’s more about the rediscovered pallphotophone recordings on the GE Reports blog.

(Via Coudal)

June 30, 2010 permalink

Abner Mercury Memory

From a recently declassified history (PDF) detailing the NSA’s computing equipment up to 1964, comes a description of their house-sized computer ABNER’s mercury-powered memory banks:

A succession of pulses (signal or no-signal) travels through an acoustic medium, say mercury, from one end to the other of a “delay line.” […] At the input end of the line is a crystal that converts an electrical pulse to a mechanical wave which travels through the mercury to the other end, where another crystal reconverts it to an electrical signal. The series of electrical signals is recirculated back to input, after passing through detector, amplifier, and driver circuits to restore the shape and strength of the pulses. Also, in the part of the cycle external to the delay line are input and output circuits and “clock” pulses for synchronization. In mercury, the pulses travel at the speed of sound, which is much slower than the speed of electrical signals, and thus the delay in going from one end of the line to the other constitutes a form of storage. […] In ABNER, the mercury tank was a glass tube about two feet long; the delay time was 384 microseconds, or eight words of 48 bits at one-megacycle-per-second rate. Thus the 1,024 words were contained in two cabinets holding 64 mercury delay lines each.

ABNER was named after comic strip character Li’l Abner, reportedly because it was a big, hulking machine that “didn’t know anything”.

(Via Bruce Schneier)

June 11, 2010 permalink

Iphone Resolution

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy lucidly explains display resolution, clearing up arguments about the iPhone 4’s retinal display technology:

Imagine you see a vehicle coming toward you on the highway from miles away. Is it a motorcycle with one headlight, or a car with two? As the vehicle approaches, the light splits into two, and you see it’s the headlights from a car. But when it was miles away, your eye couldn’t tell if it was one light or two. That’s because at that distance your eye couldn’t resolve the two headlights into two distinct sources of light.

The ability to see two sources very close together is called resolution.

DPI issues aside, the name “retinal display” is awfully confusing given that there’s similar terminology already in use for virtual retinal displays

May 20, 2010 permalink

Uncanny Vallery in Richardson Texas

From the Visual Science blog, Life and Love in the Uncanny Valley:

David Hanson’s robots are by now somewhat familiar faces, including his Einstein robot currently being used as a research tool at Javier Movellan’s Machine Perception Lab at UCSD, and the punk rock conversationalist Joey Chaos. A less familiar face is that of Bina Rothblatt, the blonde at the end of the table in the above photograph. Bina is a robot commissioned by Sirius Satellite Radio inventor Martine Rothblatt to look like her beloved wife.

Hanson Robotics is in a house in the neighborhood where I grew up in Richardson, Texas. They’re doing some interesting work in robot aesthetics and materials, crafting convincing android-type replicants in a studio environment that’s busy around the clock. Flickr user steevithak has a nice photo set up of some of the robots they were tinkering with in 2009.

May 12, 2010 permalink

Potemkin Army

The Discover blog reports on a Potemkin army:

Russian balloon maker Rusbal is working on an order from the country’s defense ministry to supply full-scale inflatable military models. The realistic-looking hardware is used in battlefield positions and to protect Russian strategic installations from surveillance satellites, distracting snoops and protecting real combat units from strikes. They can look like real vehicles in the radar, thermal, and near infra-red bands, so they’d even look right through night-vision goggles.

And now from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act V Scene IV — you know, the cool part where the incoming army disguises itself as the Birnam forest):

    Let every soldier hew him down a bough
    And bear’t before him: thereby shall we shadow
    The numbers of our host and make discovery
    Err in report of us.

Nothing much new, then. Simple visual misdirection is the magician’s greatest asset.

See also:

  • Edison’s Warriors, a great article in Cabinet about the U.S. 3132nd Signal Service Company in WWII, a sonic deception team that created strategic disruption using wire and tape recordings with acoustical engineering help from Bell Labs
  • Operation Bertram
  • The Ghost Army

April 25, 2010 permalink


At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.

From Brett McLaughlin’s post on O'Reilly Radar asking why publishers and vendors are still using the term e-books when it’s simply literary content that’s appearing on a different platform. You could also argue that the term book itself is beginning to get slippery. In any case, “ebooks” has been sounding dated for a while now, so I’ll give him that.

March 20, 2010 permalink

Rapid Prototyping with Ceramics

If you’re the sort of lab that’s engineering a method of printing ceramic materials using rapid prototyping machines, I suppose it’d make sense that you’d already have made some real-life polygonal Utah teapots! I never thought about it before, but for the 3D graphics humor value I really, really want one of these now. You can read about the Utanalog project and see finished photos (and a video explaining the whole thing) over on the Unfold blog.

February 9, 2010 permalink

A Telephonic Conversation

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world,—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise, or sorrow, or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.

Mark Twain, writing an article for the June, 1880 issue of The Atlantic on the oddity of telephone conversations. Still relevant in our age of disjointed retweets, wall posts, and other overheard messages.

(Via Discover)

February 1, 2010 permalink

Animascope Automated Animation Process

A circa-1966 industry ad for Leon Maurer’s Animascope process for producing animation on the cheap: animation without drawing and with fewer pesky artists! Similar to but different than rotoscoping, this process used high-contrast photography and actors in contrasty costumes with their skin painted white and contour lines painted on. The performers would then be filmed dancing around under bright light on a black-lined stage, and the resulting photography could be composited onto traditional background plates. Weird, but sort of a primitive version of mocap, and done for the same economical reasons.

(Via Cartoon Brew – for more info on the process, a good place to start might be this comment left by Brew reader Kustom Kool)

January 24, 2010 permalink

Visions of the Amen a Voice Responsive Kinetic

Visions of the Amen, a voice-responsive kinetic sculpture by artist Mitchell Chan (demonstrated in this video by soprano Ashleigh Semkiw). The software is written in Processing, the hardware is controlled by the ArtBus interface being developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kind of like a real-world oscilloscope.

(Via Make)

January 17, 2010 permalink

The GML Robotagger: Automated Calligraphy

GML (Graffiti Markup Language) drawings from are converted into DXF via a small Processing utility. Motion paths for a robot arm are developed from these DXF files using Rhino and MasterCam. The ABB IRB-4400 series arm is wielding a 2″ Montana Hardcore marker. Developed 11 January 2010 by Golan Levin and Jeremy Ficca in the CMU Digital Fabrication Laboratory (dFAB).

Concept: Evan Roth, F.A.T. Lab
Programming & Production: Golan Levin
Machining & Motion Planning: Jeremy Ficca

Co-produced by the CMU STUDIO for Creative Inquiry and the CMU Digital Fabrication Laboratory, in cooperation with FAT Lab and For more information please see

The GML RoboTagger. Automated calligraphy via the Graffiti Markup Language and an industrial robot arm gripping a giant Sharpie or Montana Hardcore magic marker. Tele-tag.

There’s a bit more about the project on Golan Levin’s blog.


January 10, 2010 permalink

The Fat Lab Crew Put the Markup Back in Markup

GML = Graffiti Markup Language from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

The FAT LAB crew put the markup back in markup language, with their week dedicated to creating new applications and standardizing their existing work around a Graffiti Markup Language, an XML archive format describing tagging and gestural drawing. Rad.

See also: the new DustTag and Fat Tag Deluxe iPhone apps.

December 7, 2009 permalink

This Creative Destruction Began in the 60s As

This “creative destruction” began in the ’60s, as did many things that we now both love and regret, and it was initially a spinoff of a project funded by US military agencies. […] Mephistopheles came to Faust in the form of a poodle. After all…in some versions of the story, he cannot enter your house unbidden — you have to invite him in, like a vampire.

From Internet Antichrist, a thoughtful piece by David Byrne on the the development of the ARPANET, psychoacoustics research at Bell Labs leading to vocoders and Kraftwerk, the rise of digital recording and transmission, and the possibility of the near-future demise of physical media and risks to personal privacy. The market forces of creative destruction.

September 19, 2009 permalink

Heres a Toast to Alan Turing Born in Harsher

here’s a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we’re sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
– very carefully scripted but at least it’s not encrypted –
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?

September 18, 2009 permalink

Laser Cave Prototype

Interactive Audio Visual installation for
Mekanism’s “After School Special” art show
location: gray area foundation for the arts

concept/construction : suryummy
visuals : suryummy
audio : suryummy, herbie hancock, various manipulated retro logos
software : VDMX

This is like a model of the world I wanted to live in when I was a kid, somewhere between Tron’s MCP mainframe world, Cybertron, and Marble Madness.

(Via Make)

August 9, 2009 permalink

The So Called Mother of All Demos the

The so-called “Mother of All Demos”, the technology presentation given by Doug Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute, which introduced to the world a number of useful developments: hypertext, the computer mouse, timesharing, email, video conferencing… And this was a bit over forty years ago, just before the ARPANET went online. Pretty amazing times.

The videos are available in more digestible chunks over on Stanford’s MouseSite.

August 4, 2009 permalink

First TV Broadcast: Papier Mâché Felix the Cat

This papier-mâché Felix the Cat was the first image to be broadcast over experimental television in preparation for the first public RCA broadcast in 1928. Black and white and made of durable material, they had him revolving on a turntable, beaming out as a tiny test image so engineers could adjust the signal. Early TV technology fascinates me.

There’s more good info on early test patterns over at Design Observer.

December 23, 2008 permalink

In 1903 the Specialty Watch Company Helios Built

In 1903, the specialty watch company Helios built a trial run of miniature Boilerplates. The master of the hoax, an expert on Victorian automata, Paul Guinan, “tried” to “rebuild” one of these. The head resembles gas masks that soldiers wore in World War I, but as ornamental brass. The chest is as tubular as a Franklin stove, but gleaming with Baroque detail. Its knobby limbs were fully articulated , like an armature for special effect stop-motion seventy years later, or a thing in The City of Lost Children. […] For over a century, thousands of boilerplates have come down to us. They wait patiently. Patience has always been a virtue of the boilerplate; and of all hoaxes, including the Wizard of Oz himself.

Norman M. Klein, in Building the Unexpected. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p179.