Bill Hammack of UIUC built and built-up the “Engineer Guy” Youtube channel into one of the most popular and respected technology-focused sites on the platform.
Then, he disappeared for four years. His audience checked in periodically in the comments section but there was not much information to be had other than hints that he was still with us and might someday return.
The pendulum of modern engineering has swung to asserting that digital models can always represent reality faster, cheaper, and better than any physical manifestation of it. Mockups, prototypes, and test articles are out, “Digital twins” and augmented reality are in. More’s the pity. While much can be represented in CAD/CAM, the compute horsepower required to mimic the real world drains budgets as fast as it drains the power grid. Very few have the savvy to accurately represent the range of physical phenomena in bits and then know when the model can be trusted. The craftsmen who enabled the preceding revolutions are in retreat and in exchange we get ever increasing development times and costs despite the glowing promises of hype men and the C-suites that golf with them.
In that spirit, Oregonian Peter Dibble looks back fondly at Modulex, a Lego spinoff for architects to present concepts to their clients. An ingenious change in dimension yielded bricks ideally suited to metric and Imperial drawing scales. Sliceable parts, slopes, ridges, and custom colors yielded a system that grew well beyond its original intent into project management and signage. A Mark-1 eyeball can look at, around, and into such a physical representation and get some idea of its strengths and weaknesses. Digital design software and Lego’s surprising hostility to the product line unfortunately sealed Modulex’s fate as a modeling tool. The company lives on for signmaking.
The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm. The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast. The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.
The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight. Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals. Jeff Quitney (**) has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation. It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved. I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.
The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers. ‘Color In Sight’ resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’ A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind. I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip. I had a similar feeling about Helvetica’s Paula Scher. Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels. Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products. I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.
(*) But not impossible by any means.
(**) 24 November 2023: Video link updated due to Jeff Quitney’s channels being taken down
At one time there were several Youtube channels that found, cleaned-up, and uploaded public domain training films and other documentary-style educational videos for a grateful audience. wdtvlive42 and Historia-Bel99TV were summarily deleted a couple of years ago. This week the hammer fell on Jeff Quitney who had presented over five thousand films that he had spruced up. Youtube does not seem to have an appeals process. They first demonetized him based on (most likely spurious) copyright claims against music that was part of a few of the soundtracks. Now, his channel has just disappeared. Fortunately he has at least partial backups at Bit.Tube and Vimeo. His goal is to ultimately have everything restored but that will take considerable time. I’ve linked to him many times and have found at least temporary replacements from the Internet Archive as well as from other Youtubers. Still, it is a shame what happened to him.
Periscope Film of Los Angeles still exists, providing watermarked films from their commercial library. Let’s hope they remain and grow.
Addendum 7 April 2019: Looks like he’s making Vimeo his go-to site for old and new videos. Click the image to go to his Vimeo page.
Click the image to go to Jeff Quitney’s Vimeo Channel
Addendum 10 June 2023: Jeff’s Vimeo site is down, as well.
Before the laser came the maser and before that the radar that let civilization live long enough to create the other two. We think that vacuum tubes have been completely overcome by their solid-state, fully integrated and integratable semiconductor rivals but they soldier on in niches where very high powers have to be sent out of antennas either to other antennas or to scatter back from targets. Here’s a superb old video explaining the ‘klystron‘, a name fragrant with the aroma of old school pulp science fiction. They’re still in use as are Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers (TWTAs, pronounced ‘tweetas’) along with a few other devices that are coming up on nearly ninety years of life.
It is easy to forget how the development of lasers and nonlinear optical devices came as logical outgrowths of the earlier work at much longer wavelengths – storing power in one medium and exchanging it to another all by playing games with resonances and the speed of light. The Handbook allows the reader to rediscover these links, often for the first time. It is not also surprising that places strong in the one such as Stanford; home of the brothers Varian, Edward Ginzton, and William Hansen of klystron fame, became so strong in the other with Schawlow, Hänsch, Siegman, Byer, and Harris. Of course, Bell Labs also falls into that category but it hardly bears repeating since it was so strong in so many areas.
As time marches relentlessly on, it slowly erodes what you think you know – especially those things you never knew in the first place. Despite all of its cruft, marketeering, and self-promotion there’s still a small corner of the internet that hews to its educational roots. The structure of subatomic particles like protons and neutrons is not conceptually easy, the mathematics reserved for a few. Eugene Khutoryansky’s colorful and surreal videos do a great service in making abstract concepts concrete. The underlying classical music soundtrack is in subtle contrast to the extremely non-classical physics.
Integrated electronics make us forget about them. Tiny packages with millions of transistors encapsulate so many functions so effectively that we don’t or can’t know what all they do. This is a boon to manufacturers since repairing anything is all but impossible. In the not-too-distant past, these functions or a small subset of them, had to be implemented in metal. Techmoan does a stellar job of rediscovering old technology. Prof. Bill Hammack of UIUC is also a master of this. Here he explains how the whiffletree mechanism enabled the IBM Selectric typewriter to work its magic. Beware – it is easy to lose a day watching his other videos and searching on the nuggets he finds.