Posts Tagged ‘machines’

The Holsman High-Wheeler

December 29th, 2010 No comments

Spotting this vintage 1909 ad for sale on EBay reminded me how much I love the Brass Era of automobile manufacturing, and the Holsman High-Wheeler in particular. If you have the brass, you can put in a bid for it; it’s up for bidding until the middle of January, and the bid at press time is a mere $36.95 — a pittance for a hundred-year-old newspaper ad, right?

The Brass Era is one of the names for the pre-World War I period when cars were fielded with many brass fittings. The Holsman model was part of a class of American cars known as high wheelers that were shaped, more or less, like the earlier horse-drawn buggies. Their high wheels (with solid rubber tires) made it easier to drive over the very rough roads that had been designed for horses, and for horse-drawn carriages with wooden wheels. Many of those tracks still had the ruts left by said wooden wheels.

Controlled by joystick, the Holsman High Wheeler, manufactured by Chicago’s Holsman Automobile Company in Chicago from 1901 to 1910. It was controlled by joystick, rather than wheel, like many old cars. According to, a tribute and resource page for collectors and historians, the motto of the company was “High Wheels Travel All Roads Because All Roads Are Made To Be Traveled By High Wheels.” Holsmans are rare. Of at least one model, the 10K, there is only one example in existence.

Creative Commons image by James Tworow

The Holsman page has some wonderful excerpts from period descriptions of the car. Here’s a sample that helps give you a sense of what it must have been like to operate one of those beauties:

The gasoline tank is placed in the seat back.  Steering is by means of a horizontal lever, similar to those used by many of the electric vehicles.  Throttling is accomplished by twisting the end of the steering handle.  The gear changing is done by means of a small hand lever shifting a short distance along the front of the seat.  A large side lever swings the countershaft to start, stop and reverse the movement of the vehicle in the manner previously explained.  The springs are all full elliptic, and the carriage is claimed to be absolutely vibrationless.  In front of the dash is a compartment, which holds the batteries and furnishes a storage space in addition.  There is also room for storage behind the seat.  The forward mudguards are arranged to swing with the front wheels.  A tool box is arranged under the floor just back of the dash.  The weight is about 900 pounds.  No differential is used, as the belts will slip enough to accomplish the object sought.

…Is it just me? Does that make you long for the glorious stink of mud and cow manure as you race at a breakneck speed of eight miles per hour to stop that scoundrel Dr. Berpopple from tying your fiancee to the train tracks so she can’t inherit the mining concessions from her ill father…or what?

High Wheels Travel All Roads Because All Roads Are Made To Be Traveled By High Wheels.”

Around the World in an Autogyro for Social Networking and Bowel Cancer

December 18th, 2010 No comments

Photo from Norman's JustGiving page.

Northern Irish pilot and cancer survivor Norman Surplus is back home in Larne, Northern Ireland, after surviving a crash in Thailand and making it to the Philippines.

He’s flying his amazing yellow autogyro, the G-YROX, around the world. You can help by following his progress on his Facebook page and donating to his effort. News about the voyage:

During take-off from a small airstrip at Nong Prue in Thailand, Norman and his gyro fell out of the sky. Thankfully Norman wasn’t hurt but his trusty GYROX ended up in a bad way. It took a while but repairs to the aircraft were eventually completed and a very relieved Norman set off once again on his journey. He reached the Philippines before red tape and bad weather called a halt on his progress for this year. He’s now back in Larne but come Spring 2011, he’ll be back in the Far East to restart his flight from where he left off.


The autogiro, autogyro or gyroplane, in case you don’t know, is that funky thing that’s neither a plane nor a helicopter; the rotors only provide lift after the vehicle is up to speed.

Apparently, one has never been flown around the world. Surplus left Northern Ireland on March 22 of this year, and traveled across Europe, to Greece, Crete, Egypt, Pakistan, Burma, etc. etc. etc.

If you’ve never flown in a small airplane, let me tell you that this kind of journey would be a mind-boggling feat even in a market-tested small civilian craft. The G-YROX is much smaller than a typical civilian plane; it is open-cockpit and is about the smallest thing I can imagine flying in short of a rocket pack. The craft is a two-seater, but he’s traveling solo. Surplus points out that it is structurally sound without the cockpit and body; it’s basically a metal framework.

If the photo above doesn’t drive home to you just how tiny this craft is here’s a screencap of Surplus wheeling the thing down the driveway at his home in Northern Ireland. To me, it looks kinda like a 1980s-era Honda Goldwing painted bumblebee colors.

So…can we all agree that Mr. Surplus survived bowel cancer with his intestinal fortitude very much intact, Pacific crossing or no Pacific crossing?

Surplus says in the wonderful short video on Vimeo (which I couldn’t get to embed):

It’s the only type of aircraft in existence that has never been around the world. It’s only been in the last ten years that we’ve had [an autogyro] that is capable of flying around the world. Notably, physically, the range of the aircraft has had to be extended to get across the great expanse of the North Atlantic. We’re going to be doing that by adding some special fuel bags to the back seat.

According to his Facebook page:

He has experienced highs and lows, flown over some of the most inhospitable places on Earth and seen sights that most can only dream about, but what makes this circumnavigation so special is that it is the first one where Facebook has been intimately involved. Norman has been using the power of Facebook to not only nurture interest in the flight but also to create new friendships with people who have been ready and willing to assist Norman when he arrives in their part of the world.

This has created a global community of fans and followers, who now have, via this page, a place to share their experiences about Norman and his adventure, meet other like minded people and catch up on the bits of information, news and photos that don’t make the main Norman and GYROX pages.

So feel free to share this page with your friends and if you have something you would like to post, that is directly related to this page, please do so by all means.

That Facebook page, again, is right ‘chere, and the trip has an offical website at The site promises the ability to track Norman’s progress around the world using SPOT GPS, which sounded pretty awesome, but it’s apparently down while he’s back in Larne.

The G-YROX is a Rotorsport MT-03 Gyrocopter, which runs on a 100-horsepower engine and travels up to about 100 miles an hour. You can find more information at the Rotorsport UK website, which claims that gyrocoptering is the fastest-growing aviation sport.

Craft roughly similar to Surplus’s (without the Transatlantic fuel bags) can be found used for around £75,000 in ready-to-fly condition.

There’s a great 1-minute video of him arriving in Pattaya, Thailand, from Pattaya People Media:

Here’s even cooler video of Surplus in Cairo — cooler because it underlines the painstaking nature of travel like this. Check out the blur of birds immediately overhead at 0:29. Not to spoil the suspense, but he does finally get off the ground at about 2:10.

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Bedford, England’s Forgotten Airship Legacy

October 22nd, 2010 No comments

The R101. Public domain UK government photo.

When German experimental psychologist Dr. Hugo Eckener set the first of his major airship records with the first intercontinental lighter-than-air voyage in the Graf Zeppelin in 1928, the Germans weren’t the only ones in the airship biz. The British Imperial Airship Scheme, aimed at providing lighter-than-air travel to the furthest reaches of the Empire,  had established a burgeoning operation at Bedford, about 90 minutes north of London. There, the Royal Airship Works operated out of the city of Cardington and giant airship sheds graced the village of Shortstown.

But by the time Eckener made the last of his record-setting voyages in the Graf Zeppelin, the 1931 Arctic flight, the Brits were pretty much getting out of the industry. Why? The disaster of the R101, which crashed in a field in France while on its way to India, killing 49 people (including 48 of the 55 crew). That essentially ended the British airship industry of the 1930s, until World War II revived it — not with airships, but with barrage balloons. Bedford became an important hub when Britain fielded 1,400 barrage balloons by mid-1940, designed to protect against dive bombers. London was then bombed for 76 consecutive nights starting in September, 1940, in what’s now known as “The Blitz,” in which Bedford’s barrage balloons made a lasting imprint on British visual history. And provided a later backdrop for a truly amazing Doctor Who episode.

A new exhibition at the Bedford Museum, in partnership with the Airship Heritage Trust, shows off Bedford’s airship history, including the R101 disaster. There’s an airship-nerd’s cornucopia of lectures through December 15, 2010, including including “Cardington – Behind Closed Doors” (saucy!), “The R101″ (spicy!) “The R100″ (also spicy!) and a particularly interesting-looking one, Hybrid Air Vehicles, which no doubt is inspired by the fact that U.S. military airships bound for Afghanistan are based at Bedford. These are the same aerostats (“blimps,” to the punters) that perform surveillance duties over U.S. war zones, as we here at Techyum got all hopped up about earlier this month, and Jane’s did a few days later.

If you’re an airship nerd who can’t get to Bedford, you’ll be disappointed to hear that the exhibition’s photo gallery is sparse. But in that event, you simply must (and I mean must) check out the Airship Heritage Trust’s amazing historical catalog of British airships, which has thoroughly engrossing articles on each ship, with photos, and their reference area, which has an FAQ, a bibliography, and even an airship crew organization chart.

Scientists Still Working on Slovenian Punchbot’s “Bitchslap Mode”

October 16th, 2010 No comments

Image: B.Povse, D. Koritnik, T Bajd, M Munih, via New Scientist.

On the sunny shores of the Adriatic Sea, they build my kinda robots. They also clearly know what academia’s all about.

Borut Povše at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia “persuaded six male colleagues to let a powerful industrial robot repeatedly strike them on the arm,” according to New Scientist.

No, this isn’t an attempt to streamline the dissertation review process in PhD programs. The study is being done “to assess human-robot pain thresholds.” But seriously now, folks, wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation in the faculty lounge?

New Scientist quotes Povše:

Even robots designed to Asimov’s laws can collide with people. We are trying to make sure that when they do, the collision is not too powerful. …We are taking the first steps to defining the limits of the speed and acceleration of robots, and the ideal size and shape of the tools they use, so they can safely interact with humans.

Povše refers, of course, to the Three Laws of Robotics brought down by Moses from Mount Asimov as related in Genesis 19:42. In case you’re wondering, they are as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I’m sorry, did I say they were from brought down by Moses in the Bible? What I meant, of course, is that they were pulled out of Belarussian-born American science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s ass in his 1942 story “Runaround,” and thereafter used throughout Asimov’s “Robot” stories and also his space opera “Lucky Starr” series.

In futurist and science fiction fan circles, Asimov’s laws are vastly more sacred than The Bible. After all, stories from The Bible were retold throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with, y’know, Adam and Eve replaced with slime molds, Pharaoh as a thirty-tentacled alien that craves human spleen, and Jesus rising from the dead as a satellite-based AI. Asimov’s laws, on the other hand, are treated routinely by fiction and nonfiction writers alike as if they were real laws, as opposed to fictional constructs used by Asimov to consider philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and individuality. (Asimov also didn’t like Hair, by the way — would you trust him?)

Anyway, as New Scientist was saying:

Povše and his colleagues borrowed a small production-line robot made by Japanese technology firm Epson and normally used for assembling systems such as coffee vending machines. They programmed the robot arm to move towards a point in mid-air already occupied by a volunteer’s outstretched forearm, so the robot would push the human out of the way. Each volunteer was struck 18 times at different impact energies, with the robot arm fitted with one of two tools – one blunt and round, and one sharper.

Yes, that’s the same Epson that makes printers; they’ll be integrating this technology into their next round of laser printers, so make sure you watch those serial commas. Anyway:

The volunteers were then asked to judge, for each tool type, whether the collision was painless, or engendered mild, moderate, horrible or unbearable pain…Ultimately, the idea is to cap the speed a robot should move at when it senses a nearby human, to avoid hurting them.

However, New Scientist quotes Baylor College of Medicine biomechanics specialist Michael Liebschner as criticizing the study: “Pain is very subjective. Nobody cares if you have a stinging pain when a robot hits you – what you want to prevent is injury, because that’s when litigation starts.”

But I think Liebschner is missing the point; this isn’t about the punchbots at all. It’s about what scientists will do to get answers.

The whole thing could be a godsend for science education. Can you imagine the good that could be done by melding this concept with Robot Wars? A Smack A Scientist reality show on NBC or, better yet, Spike, would get kids interested in science again. It’d be a sort of primetime Stanford Prison Experiment with punchbots. Punchbots that hopefully run amok right around Sweeps Week. Oh, wait…Haven’t I seen that show?

War of the Copterphages

October 1st, 2010 No comments

Image from

An epic battle is in progress for the soul (aka dollars) of the soooooooooper-high-speed attack helicopter market. Earlier this month, copter manufacturer Sikorsky announced that in its X-2 Demonstrator, pilot Kevin Bredenbeck had achieved a sustained speed of 250 knots, or about 297 miles an hour, in level flight, and 260 knots in a “very shallow dive during flight.” Sikorsky Program Manager Jim Kagdis said, “The 250-knot milestone was established as the goal of the demonstrator from its inception.”

That’s a pretty impressive goal. About 130-140 knots tends to be the speed of a fast helicopter. The manufacturer’s “never exceed speed” for the Bell Huey AH-1 Cobra, long the core of the U.S. attack helicopter fleet, is 190 knots; it’s 197 knots for Boeing’s newer AH-64 Apache, which is replacing the Cobra. The Sikorsky’s speed of 250 knots is an unofficial record for a helicopter.

But what Connecticut-based Sikorsky really has to worry about is not Seattle/Chicago’s Boeing or Fort Worth’s Bell, but our Cabernet-swilling friends across the pond, whose Gitanes will surely be extinguished to their delight when they cook along at 220 knots (250 mph) in Eurocopter’s hybrid X3, which was unveiled recently. You can read an analysis here, and can see it in action, and a discussion of the design concepts, below:

We may just find raspberry berets strewn across the countryside near Eurocopter HQ in Marignane, France. But while those suave pilots are busy tweeting “Sacre bleu! LOL“, people who don’t work at Jane’s Defence Weekly might wonder WTF is the difference between the two, and how important are those extra 30 knots to the real war out there — the battle for defense contracts?

Both the Eurocopter X3 and the Sikorsky X2 are compound helicopters or gyrodynes, with overhead rotor systems allowing them to take off and land vertically, but horizontal propellers that allow them to attain much faster speeds. The main design difference is that the Sikorsky utilizes overhead coaxial rotors, in which two parallel sets of rotors rotate in opposite direction. The system was tested on Sikorsky’s earlier S-69, a purely experimental aircraft. The Sikorsky X2 Demonstrator first flew in 2008.

Other coaxial systems are already in use, but have not neared the speed of the Sikorsky. The Russian helicopter bureau Kamov is known for using coaxial design; their Kamov KA-50 can achieve a speed of 204 knots in a dive.

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Yale Developing Computers Smart Enough to Drive Cars

September 16th, 2010 No comments

If you’ve ever been nearly run off the road by some Sunday driver, consider this: Would you feel safer or less safe knowing you were flipping off a robot?

Yale’s website features a release on a computer system being developed by Eugenio Culurciello at Yale and Yann LeCun at NYU, who presented their research yesterday at the High Performance Embedded Computing workshop in Lexington, Massachusetts. Dubbed NeuFlow, it’s a computer that processes information visually and, it’s hoped, may someday drive a car.

Although this feat is a standard in science fiction, it’s actually proven elusive to robot-builders. A three-dimensional world is, apparently, more than previous robot brains can handle. As the Yale release puts it:

Navigating our way down the street is something most of us take for granted; we seem to recognize cars, other people, trees and lampposts instantaneously and without much thought. In fact, visually interpreting our environment as quickly as we do is an astonishing feat requiring an enormous number of computations—which is just one reason that coming up with a computer-driven system that can mimic the human brain in visually recognizing objects has proven so difficult.

Now [Culurciello] has developed a supercomputer based on the human visual system that operates much more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Dubbed NeuFlow, the system takes its inspiration from the mammalian visual system, mimicking its neural network to quickly interpret the world around it….The system uses complex vision algorithms developed by [LeCun] to run large neural networks for synthetic vision applications. One idea—the one Culurciello and LeCun are focusing on, is a system that would allow cars to drive themselves. In order to be able to recognize the various objects encountered on the road—such as other cars, people, stoplights, sidewalks, not to mention the road itself—NeuFlow processes tens of megapixel images in real time.

Check out the video of NeuFlow in action above, or test your comprehension of wacky robot design schematics by looking at some of the details at Yale’s site.

US Navy Developing Variable-Strength Bomb

September 16th, 2010 No comments

Public Domain US Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Jessica Davis.

The U.S. Navy is seeking proposals for a “variable explosive bomb,” or VEB, that would allow pilots to vary the strength of ordnance by as much as forty percent, according New Scientist and weapons-wonk blog Strategy Page.

Varying the strength of a bomb just before dropping could be important in avoiding civilian casualties; often the danger of hitting civilians can’t be assessed until a pilot is almost on target. Plymouth, Minnesota-based weapons contractor ATK says it has tested a weapon that will fit the bill. According to New Scientist:

ATK’s approach is based on the principle that explosives can burn in two different ways. One is via detonation, in which the flame front moves at supersonic speed and produces a powerful blast. The other is deflagration, or subsonic burning, which causes little or no blast.

In ATK’s design the explosive can be ignited at both ends, one set to produce a detonation, the other deflagration. By varying the timing of these two ignitions, the proportion of explosive consumed by detonation can be altered in a controlled manner.


As Strategy Page points out, US troops in the field have used C-4 for years to boil water and perform other cooking tasks by igniting it, rather than detonating it. The brass aren’t always so stoked about this, but apparently it’s common practice.

Interestingly, the most common precedent for variable-yield bombs comes not from conventional weapon but from nukes:

Variable yield nuclear explosives have been around for decades, because it is easier to limit the amount of nuclear material that will be turned into a nuclear explosion. But it has proved more difficult to do this with conventional explosives.


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The Ultimate Phonecam: Aydogan Ozcan’s $10 Cellphone Microscope

September 16th, 2010 No comments

Back in November, the New York Times covered the invention by UCLA electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan of a $10 microscope that will work with a standard cell phone and could be used to detect water-borne pathogens. In addition to being about the coolest phonecam ever, it’s also important because in many parts of the developing world, cell phones are more common than safe drinking water.

This month’s The Scientist covers Ozcan’s invention in depth. Like ferinstance:

[The microscope] works by shining light from a tiny LED bulb through a blood or water sample loaded into the side of the phone. The light bounces off cells or microorganisms in the sample and scatters, creating holograms that are akin to shadows. The camera’s image sensor records an image of the hologram, and Ozcan’s device rapidly reconstructs that information into something that looks like a micrograph, showing cellular and subcellular details, such as the nucleus of a cell or projections on a cell’s surface. His device is even sensitive enough to discern different types of cells that look similar, such as granulocytes, monocytes, and lymphocytes, white blood cells that appear identical except for their differently shaped nuclei.

Because it’s portable and inexpensive thanks to its lack of lenses, LUCAS could be used to diagnose disease, check water quality, and monitor health in places like sub-Saharan Africa or rural India, where adequate medical facilities and resources are scarce. With a cell phone microscope, field workers could scan blood samples for malaria or TB parasites and track the health of HIV patients by doing CD4 cell counts quickly and easily, beaming the images to health professionals miles away.


Ozcan demonstrates some of the basics in the UCLA video above, too.

Google Instant: You’re Searching NOW.

September 9th, 2010 No comments

Look, it’s not like I have a problem with Google. I keep hating on the galaxy-sized faceless soulless vat-grown bot-controlled terrifying Megacorporation of Doom only because I love them so much.

But I do find it ever-so-slightly creepy that the Monsters of Mountain View KNOW I’ve been watching Season 1 of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles this week.

How did Google find out what I’m watching on TV? Surely not by sending a little person to crouch on my fire escape jotting notes on a steno pad every time someone says “Come with me if you want to live,” which is how I’d do it. Google probably does it the old-fashioned way — by remotely activating my webcam, like a high school teacher.

Anyway, knowing that this is Terminator week at Casa Roche, Google delivered the personalized cloud computing it’s decided we’ve been looking for (but just didn’t know it yet) since the first time Harlan Ellison had no mouth and had to scream with two fingers on a manual Olivetti at 120 words a minute (poor bastard). They know I’ve been thinking to myself, “Okay, so machines are evil — but that Summer Glau chick. She‘s not evil…right?”

Ask, and you shall receive! Google delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon to me about the dangers of letting your machines get too smart; said sermon wore a name badge proclaiming in dot-matrix letters: “HI! MY NAME IS GOOGLE INSTANT.”

That’s right. If you’ve been meaning to Google something, anything — you’re not sure what, but you’ll get to it, you guess, sooner or later — but you’re not so sure about the whole complicated pressing return at the end thing — what an ordeal! — you can finally liberate your creative impulse, leaving your pinky finger up your butt where it belongs.

Read more…

September Techyum—>Banksy Mash Note Part 2: Oil Spill Children’s Ride

September 8th, 2010 No comments

A brief post on directs me to this Banksy installation in Brighton, about 90 minutes south of London:

The piece itself is 4.28 million barrels of awesome, but but the happy kids riding it? Priceless.

Here’s a slightly better view of the thing:

oil leak installation by banksy

Image from