Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hot Rod Motorhead Edition

It's Labor Day weekend and that means it's time for the annual Goodguy's car show at the Kansas Speedway.

Over the years, my tastes have shifted from being a vintage car purist to having an appreciation of rat rods and hot customs. The rat rods are progressively becoming more extreme to the point where they are true Frankencars. The best ones today sat mere inches from the ground.

My favorite custom was a slavish reproduction of the Truckster from National Lampoon's Family Vacation.

Presented in no particular order, here are my favorite vehicles and motors of the day:

This sucker dynos at 760 HP

The perfectly rendered Family Truckster.  You can almost smell the despair.

Say Hello to Svetlana Optima

Svetlana is the latest typewriter to join our crew and the first to have a name other than the brand.

Why Svetlana?

Well, first she looked too curvy and attractive to be a guy typewriter. Much of our angular and aggressively mechanical anthropomorphic technology is to assumed to be male. It just isn't fair – ask either of my girls.

Second, Svetlana is an Optima Super typewriter built in the early 1950s in East Germany during the peak of the Cold War. With such an exotic heritage, how could we not give her a name?

To be honest, we struggled with choosing a name. Technically, as a German made in an Olympia factory which happened to be caught in the USSR she should have a popular German name. Elise, however, was already taken as one of our daughter's middle names.

So why not assume that her time spent in Canada (could not be legally imported into the U.S.) had something to do with Soviet espionage? I checked lists of Soviet spies in the US on Wikipedia and was amazed at just how many there were. Svetlana Optima has a nice ring to it; perhaps she was a double agent or one of James Bond's nemeses.

The Optima brand was relatively short lived and most likely the victim of central planning priorities. Many were designed for the export market including our standard QWERTY keyed machine which found a home in Canada.

Svetlana must have spent many years living in a basement before beginning her new life as a US citizen courtesy of ebay. She and her case reeked of mildew. I gave her the standard treatment of a full day dose of Kansas 100 degree sun with the superheated air from the air conditioner unit blowing through the chassis. That approach failed and I am happy to report that washing a typewriter, or at least a high quality one, in the sink is totally doable. Drying in said conditions followed by judicious oiling has made this machine as smooth as butter. One of my kids commented on how the keys are as easy to move as on their laptop. Smooth.

Svetlana is loaded with beautifully machined and cast steel and chromed steel parts. The body is cast aluminum with a moderately glossy coat of green paint. The only plastic I've found is in the lusciously green keys, adjustment grips and just under where the ribbons go. The ribbon smells just as bad as the machine once did so a new one is on order.

We love new ribbon day.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Toy Transformer

This is what happens to broken vintage technology in our house.

The Toy Transformer is one of my favorite junkbots. The transformer itself is pretty old school, low tech, but it looks interesting and it is close to 100% metal. That tends to be a recurring theme in our junk creations. The latest creations also incorporate salvaged switches, motors and LEDs.

The vacuum tube is the visual that makes this bot work. The combination looks somewhat authoritarian and strikes fear in the hearts of broken toys. The Transformer particularly enjoys the innards of Happy Meal toys, circuit bending and voiding warranties. He's getting pretty good with a soldering iron and wants a plasma cutter for Christmas (and an old Tickle Me Elmo – don't ask).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Greetings from the Mighty Oliver 9

Our typewriters have personalities.

It may sound strange, but the typewriters inhabiting the main parts of our house carry on conversations with the family. The Adler J5 is somewhat timid and afraid of water after being cooped up in someone's basement for years. It was almost inconsolable during the east coast hurricane. The Royal Quiet Deluxe is pretty much pristine having apparently been stored in its case in a closet. It is happy to have fresh ribbons and is neurosis free.

However, we have one petulant rock star of a typewriter currently residing in the kitchen: the Oliver 9. If a typewriter could command swarms of robotic minions to take over the world, this would be the one. And who can blame the Oliver with its highly patented and brilliantly marketed pedigree?

Early typewriters are several steps beyond awesome due to a wave of innovation and radically varying design philosophies. This was the era of first patents and attempts to work around multiple patents. For a good sample of typewriter history, go here:

The first commercially successful typewriters, designed by Sholes and Gliddon and later marketed by the Remington Company in 1873, were an upstroke design where the operator could not see the words. This is the machine that brought typewriting to the office and later to the masses.

I won't repeat the entire history of the Oliver Typewriter Company as it is lovingly detailed on Wikipedia. Their production run in the US lasted from 1896-1928. The fundamental design is a novel means to allow the typist to see their work in real time. This lead to a rather extreme and entertaining rendition of a downstrike design.

According to the Typewriter Database our Oliver was manufactured between 1915 and 1919. My best guess is 1915-16 given the lower end serial number. Someone has a very special birthday coming up.

I spotted the Oliver in a display case at a local antique mall where it sat unloved for almost a year. The first thing I noticed was the distinctive typebars. Arched on either side of the platen, this downstrike design delivers tremendous force. I had not owned a typewriter since college. Frankly, typing was my nemesis in the pre word processor era. I used to pay someone to type my term papers.

But this was one cool machine. I happened to visit the day the booth owner was cleaning up and he cut me a deal. A half can of brake cleaner, selective oiling and a fresh platen return cable later it types almost as good as new.

The act of typing with this machine is just darned cool for a tech junkie. I get to watch the mechanism at work and it types definitively. The key feel is surprisingly light for such a substantial piece of metal. The base is cast iron with conveniently located wings that the make lifting and moving a possibility; albeit a potentially hernia inducing one.

There are other distinctive features in this almost 100 year old machine. It has a three row keyboard with a full front/back platen shift mechanism – shift back for caps or forward for special keys. Our machine features an Oliver designed font known as “Printype”; an innovation meant to emulate the look and feel of contemporary books. Given inherent adjustment issues with the type bars, our Oliver produces a very organic and imperfect rendition of book text. However, we have never been able to jam keys as with more traditional designs.

One other prominent feature: other than the platen cover, keys and a couple of lever covers, this beast is made of solid metal.

The typewriter mechanisms relegated to the thrift shops of the world in the 1980s with the advent of personal computers settled on similar design principles with four rows of keys, easy tabulation and basket shift. While they may all look similar, they came in a range of build quality and precision. I just gave up trying to fix a cheapish 1960s ROYAL portable. A 1959 Olympia SF, however, is a finely honed piece of precision machinery that is a joy to work on. The Oliver isn't a precise device, but it is bombproof and gets better the more it is used.

I am constantly amazed at how well manual typewriters continue to work after years of neglect. As long as there are fresh ribbons, the best will still be running 100 years from now. I'm confident a remnant Nerd subculture will continue to appreciate the era of all metal machines.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The First Post (Overcoming Writer's Block)

Welcome to my blog! After several weeks of options paralysis, I decided it was time to write something.

This blog is dedicated to vintage technology. Yes, that is a broad subject area. I should narrow it down to one topic and write about it obsessively, but like a moth to flame I am attracted to a wide array of interesting bits of technology. After all, I have over 100 years worth of post Industrial Revolution objects to play with.

Since I was a kid, I've enjoyed taking things apart to see how stuff works. Now, between the Internet and a flood of old stuff leaving garages and basements, I can easily research and learn about my obsession of the week for no other reason than desire, and perhaps a bit of OCD. I grew up in the space race era and witnessed the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors to microprocessors first hand. As a photographer, I've shot with manual and auto focus film cameras and several generations of digital compacts and SLRs. Now I combine bits of both – but that is a different story.

In many ways, we are in a golden era of technology. Moore's law is evident in our daily lives with cameras on an 18 month product cycle and computing technology moving faster than most of us can keep up with.

There is another side of the golden era if, like me, you happen to enjoy old machines. In the last month, I've rescued a 1960s typewriter (Adler J5) and a 1973 pocket calculator (Sperry Remington 663) - each for $0.50. I also put together a circa 1978 gaming system (Sony Trinitron portable TV and Atari 2600) for all of $15.00.

The Adler is cleaned, lubed and no longer smells like someone's basement. It currently resides in our kitchen where it carries on a lively discussion with the kids. The mighty, four function 663 resides next to my laptop. It's bigger than my backup hard drive, but the display amuses me as it uses the same VFD technology as the instrument panel in my 2010 Prius and the keys have a really nice feel. As for the video gaming system, I'm still trying to decide whether retro gaming is all that. Maybe I will port the Atari to our LCD TV.

So what can you expect to see on this blog? My current obsessions include: programmable and toy robots, giant Japanese robots of the 1970s, manual typewriters, the maker movement, cameras and photography, Nixie tube devices, old books about technology, instruction manuals and catalogs and advertising featuring the stuff I love. And yes, there is a fair share of not-so-special tech bits that get repurposed into junk bots. Some are static and some have been wired with recovered electronics where possible.

Thanks for joining me. I'll post research and resource links as I go along. I just discovered the joys of the Typosphere and will most likely typecast some of my entries.

Next entry teaser photograph: