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Yet another automatic revolver: The Union.


As you may remember, Ian at Forgotten Weapons has been chronicling the various automatic revolvers that have been made over the years. Except for the Mateba Unica, they're generally rare (with appropriate price tags, of course.) This variant on the theme follows the trend: there were only 300 Union Automatic Revolvers made. Of those 300 it's hard to know how many survived. In fact, it's hard to know if all 300 actually made it to market!

The gun was designed by Charles Lefever, of the famed Lefever shotgun family, and intended to sell in the low end of the revolver market. It was chambered in .32 S&W (short), throwing an 85 grain bullet at a leisurely 700 feet per second, and intended for close-range self defense.

According to Ian the guns were far too expensive to build relative to their price point, and it's likely that the company never made a dime on them. The Union Firearms Company of Toledo, OH also tried marketing an autoloading pistol designed by J.J. Riefgraber. Less than 100 of those guns were made, and the company closed its doors after those two failed attempts at capturing a market.

Charles Lefever, however, did go on to success. He went to work for the Daisy company and designed what is probably the second-best-known BB gun in the country: the pump-action Daisy Model 25. Depending who you talk to, the company made somewhere between 15 and 20 million of those light, handy spring-powered rifles since its introduction in 1914.

Ian managed to get his hands on a Union revolver, and
posted a video about it on his blog. He also posted the sales page for the gun from the Union catalog (with only two products, it couldn't have been much of a catalog!)

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Photography of NASA


When the Space Race against the Soviet Union started in 1957 we entered into a period of great technological progress. We discovered things that had never been discovered, designed things that had never been designed, and went were mankind had ever gone before. It was an exciting time to watch what we could do, both as a nation and as a species, when we put our collective mind to a singular task. NASA became the preeminent research and engineering organization on the planet.

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When we think of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions we inevitably think of the rockets and space capsules and lunar landers that were the stars of the show. That wasn’t all NASA did, however, and behind the scenes they were building new structures purpose designed to build, test, house, and launch the new wonder machines. When they weren’t pushing the boundaries of space exploration they were working to push our broader understanding of flight into uncharted territory.

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As it turns out,
NASA has a Flickr account full of historic images of man, machine, missions and structures that go way beyond shots of astronauts on the moon. It's a great way to waste some time on a starry summer evening!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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More on the Webley-Fosberry.


Folks, be aware that I’m phoning it in today. That's right - too much to do, not enough time to do it all, and I'm feeling very lazy this morning to boot. So, I'm going to let Ian over at Forgotten Weapons do the heavy lifting today!

He recently wrote a piece on his blog about the Webley-Fosberry Automatic Revolver. This is a rather rare and valuable arm, and one I've never had the privilege of handling. Someday perhaps I'll get luck, but in the meantime Ian's reporting will have to do.

Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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Video of the Webley-Fosberry automatic revolver!


Ian at Forgotten Weapons recently posted a good video overview of the Webley-Fosberry automatic revolver, showing its operation and some interesting details about its function.



He also has a
good article on the history of the gun, which you can read on his site.


-=[ Grant ]=-
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Another automatic revolver - and boy, is this one weird!


Ian at Forgotten Weapons has done it again! This time he's got the scoop on the
oddest revolver ever made: the Norwegian Landstad Model 1900.

I won't steal his thunder by saying any more, but will instead urge you to click on the link and read his article. It's like going to the freak show: you can't believe such a thing exists, but you can't stop staring in morbid fascination!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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Even I learn something now and again!


Ian over at Forgotten Weapons has done it again: come up with a gun I didn't know existed. In this case, it's a revolver I'd never heard of.

He recently posted a picture of the three commonly known automatic revolvers - that is, revolvers that rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer after every shot, as opposed to having the shooter's trigger finger do that work. Most people have heard of the Mateba Unica, or the Webley-Fosberry, but far fewer know about the uber-rare Union automatic revolver (the picture is the first time I've actually seen a Union.)

Turns out the Spanish firm of Zulaica y Cia made one as well, and of course he managed to track down a picture. (Surprise - it’s even a decent-looking piece!) But that’s not the end of the autorevolver story, Ian says; it seems there might be a Belgian self-cocker, and he's investigating.

If you don't read Forgotten Weapons regularly, you're missing out on the best historical information in the world of firearms.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Quick - how many B-29 bombers still fly?


B-29 In Flight


Several years back I told the story of my Father and his history with the famous B-29 Superfortress bomber. He loved that airplane, and never missed a chance to read or watch anything and anything about Boeing's first modern strategic bomber.

As it happens he and I went aboard the only flyable B-29 in existence, the Commemorative Air Force's 'Fifi', when it visited Oregon many years ago. Of the nearly 4,000 built, only Fifi can still take to the sky. There are 21 others in various museums around the globe, but she's the only one who can still stretch her wings.

If a group of B-29 enthusiasts have their way, however, she won't be alone for long.
'Doc', made in 1945 in Wichita, KS, is back at its birthplace being restored to flying status. Restoration started around 2000, but was suspended in 2007 when Boeing sold off the old plant where the work was being done. When that happened the plane was mothballed and the group which spearheaded the effort went dormant.

Hope is not lost, however, because in February a new non-profit group took ownership of the craft and the restoration has now resumed.

Apparently most of the difficult work has already been done, but that doesn't mean getting the thing into flying condition is going to be cheap or easy! The group is looking for donations and volunteers, and
they have a website where you can do both - or simply learn more about the plane and their dream of flying her once again.

I wonder - will Fifi be jealous?

-=[ Grant ]=-
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How to de-Cosmoline a gun.


I'd actually had something else planned for today's blog, but it was pretty lame compared to this!

Over at
Forgotten Weapons, Ian posted this video about how to remove Cosmoline: that sticky, nasty, smelly but highly effective rust prevention grease so commonly used on military arms.

Some people really get addicted to the stuff; me, I hate it. I admit that it does its job remarkably well, however, and even though I generally admire things which work well I still can't work up much enthusiasm for this!

Everyone has their own little tricks and techniques for dealing with Cosmoline, but the hot water bath method is the easiest and quickest way I know to get rid of the petroleum goo. If you've never had the pleasure, here's your introduction!




-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Remnants of DC. No, not that one.


The early days of electrical service in the United States were a race for acceptance between two separate systems: Direct Current (DC) was the province of Thomas Edison, while Alternating Current (AC) was pushed by his rival, George Westinghouse. Since Edison was the first to install complete electrical distribution systems (from generator to outlet) in New York in 1882, DC got a big headstart in the market. Many buildings installed DC-powered elevators and ventilation systems to take advantage of this new technology.

The problem with early DC power distribution were the transmission losses. DC power had to be sent to the customer at the voltage they’d actually be using, which is relatively low (Edison feared using high voltages in homes.) Low DC voltage loses a lot of power in heating up the wire in which it travels, limiting the distance that it could span. Users had to be very close to the generating station (or vice-versa), a distance measured in city blocks.

The Westinghouse AC system, in contrast, allowed long distance transmission of electrical power with minimal losses because AC voltage could be easily, cheaply, and efficiently stepped up for transmission and then stepped down where it entered the building. Higher voltages result in far less transmission losses, which in turn allow for much larger and more efficient plants located some distance from the end users.

The first commercial AC system, designed by Westinghouse, William Stanley, and Oliver Shallenberger, was installed in Buffalo, NY in 1886. Its adoption, however, was limited by a major problem: there were no efficient AC motors available to power ventilation and elevator systems. As a result, DC continued to make inroads in NYC and certain other cities in the east.

It wasn't until Nikolai Tesla, whose own AC system failed against the Westinghouse empire, turned his energies to inventing a practical AC motor that progress was made. (While Gallileo Ferraris probably beat him to the polyphase motor - and Shallenberger was working on one as well - it would be Tesla who got the credit.) The polyphase AC motor was efficient and relatively cheap to install, and would be the final nail in the coffin of the inefficient DC distribution system. By 1928 even Edison's own company would switch to supplying AC to its customers.

Except, as it happened, in a small section of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison had started their AC conversion in 1928 but some buildings refused to change over. Why should they? Their DC motors worked just fine, and replacing them would be very expensive; in some cases, entire elevator systems would need to be scrapped. ConEd took the long view and made the conversions as they could, when older buildings were remodeled or torn down to make way for newer, all-AC buildings. It would take a while.

The result of that long process was that, as late as 2007, ConEd was still supplying DC current to a small handful of buildings near the Mid-Manhattan Library. In that year they finally stopped the flow of DC current those few customers still used.

That didn't mean that all of the DC systems were gone, however.
A story about the changeover in the November 14, 2007 edition of the New York Times tells us that the few remaining buildings still using the old systems installed AC-to-DC converters of their own to power their equipment when ConEd finally cut them off - 79 years after telling them they needed to switch.


-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Up, up and away!


By now you probably realize I'm a sucker for cool technology, and one of the things I like are the new generation of multipurpose mountable cameras like the GoPro video cams. It's amazing what can be done with this gear!

The myriad of mounting options plus the superb image quality means that we're commonly seeing images of things that twenty years ago we wouldn't have. That's not to say it couldn't have been done, only that it was both more difficult, a whole lot more expensive, and not nearly as flexible.

But let's go further back. I'm thinking a bit over a century ago - how would you have gotten cool aerial photos without things like radio remotes and ultra small imaging sensors? (Did I mention that airplanes were not yet in common use?)

If you're Dr. Julius Neubronner, you make yourself a special camera and a special mounting system. Then you get yourself some pigeons (the feathered kind, not the easily taken rube kind.)

Yes, I said pigeons. Besides his work in pharmaceuticals, Neubronner was known for his pigeon photos. In your face, GoPro!

DIY Photography has an interesting article on the making of the images, complete with pictures of the pigeons carrying their cameras and some of the pictures they returned.

As I always say: everyone needs a hobby!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: An old code is a good code.


When I was in grade school, before the internet and the Kindle, there was the Scholastic Book Club. A couple of times a year the SBC would roll into the library, where students could peruse the offerings and order their choice of books. The orders would be delivered to the school a few weeks later.

One such fifth-grade order found me in possession of a book on codes and ciphers. This was fascinating to me, especially the part on code breaking. Finally a practical use for all that math I'd been studying! With that book I taught myself to break the most common historical codes, and even at one point challenged my classmates to produce a code that I couldn't crack. The efforts were almost comical - simple substitution ciphers, mostly - but every so often they'd throw me a curve. I managed to break every one, however.

Cryptography has remained an interest ever since. Though I haven't tried to invent - or crack - a code since I was a kid, I still follow stories of code breaking with keen attention. If they're combined with historical lore, so much the better!

It should not come as a surprise, then, that I found this WIRED Magazine article so intriguing: a
250-year-old code from a secret society. It's as if that Scholastic Book on codes and ciphers morphed with another childhood reading favorite, the Mad Scientist's Club, and time-traveled to the screen of my iMac. I couldn't NOT read it!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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Testing gunpowder, circa 1850.


One of the modern conveniences which we take for granted is smokeless powder. It's stable, predictable, and stores for a very long time. It's also not hygroscopic, meaning that it doesn't readily absorb water - a really good attribute for a propellant!

This wasn't the case with early gunpowder, which we now refer to as black powder. (Even that's not quite accurate, as the black powder of today is considerably more reliably formulated than that which was available in the 19th century, let alone before.) In the days of percussion arms, powder was not as consistent as today - and that's before factoring in the non-dessicated storage conditions! As a result it was often necessary to test a keg of powder to determine how good it was. How do you do this without things like piezoelectric pressure transducers and electronic chronographs?

The answer was the eprouvette. While the form might vary from country to country (or from maker to maker), the idea was to fire a measured charge the suspect powder in a device that had a known amount of resistance. The amount of resistance that the powder charge could overcome was used to compare to other, known lots of powder.

The
Firearm Blog recently showed some great pictures of a Belgian eprouvette, and the concept is very easily grasped. These are quite rare today; they were made in very small quantities compared to firearms. Have a look and marvel at what our ancestors went through just to keep from blowing themselves to pieces!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Pioneering color.


Early color photography was focused (if you'll pardon the pun) on using what is known today as "additive" color: that any color can be produced by combining specific amounts of red, green, and blue light. The idea was that you could expose three pieces of film or glass plates through red, green and blue filters. Once processed, they could then be viewed simultaneously through their respective filters and the results would (in theory) produce realistic color.

This was difficult enough with a still image, but imagine trying to make it work while the films are moving through a projector! The earliest successful color motion pictures, known as Kinemacolor, exploited a trait of human vision called "persistence". Persistence simply means that once an image is viewed, it takes a little bit of time before it disappears completely in the viewer's mind.

Persistence is why motion pictures of any sort work: each still frame is projected for a fraction of a second, and while your visual system is clearing itself the next image, ever so slightly different than the first, is projected. Your mind doesn't see the extremely small time gap between the two, and the result is what looks like continuous movement.

Kinemacolor used persistence in a novel way: the individual frames would be exposed through a rotating filter that was synchronized with the shutter. The camera exposed the first frame through a red filter, then the next through a green filter, the next red, the next green, and so on. It also ran the film through the camera at double the rate of a normal black-and-white film so that each frame pair would take the same time to pass as a single frame of black-and-white.

When the film was projected, the reverse happened: the synchronized filters projected the first (red) frame through the red filter with which it was exposed, the second frame through the green filter, and each successive frame pairs were done the same way. Persistence and the high frame rate combined to fool the mind into seeing a single color image.

Kinemacolor wasn't perfect, however. Aside from registration problems which led to color fringing, it also didn't reproduce all colors very well because of the missing blue spectrum. Still, it was successful enough that quite a number of very early British films were made in the process.

As it happens, Kinemacolor wasn't even all that revolutionary. Turns out that it was a simplified version of a
system worked out by London photographer Edward Turner. His system, conceived in 1899, used all three additive colors to produce very lifelike images. In 1901 and 1902 he made some test films using his process, but he died suddenly in 1903. A fellow by the name of Charles Urban acquired his work and used it to “invent” the much simpler (and cheaper) Kinemacolor process. In 1937, Urban donated a large archive of his work, including the Turner films, to the London Science Museum.

The Turner films weren't recognized for what they were until just a few years ago, when the Museum decided to unlock the secrets of the odd looking movies. Those test films were never seen by the general public, but just a few weeks ago the Museum’s hard work paid off: you can now - 110 years after they were shot - view them as Turner intended.




-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: A guitar is not an axe.


Only an axe is an axe, and here is a cool video of the making of one - by hand, the old fashioned way.




Yeah, I want one too.


-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: A four-wheeled namesake.


Many years ago I visited the now-defunct Harrah's automobile museum - the real, original one, not the neutered National Automobile Museum that currently bears the "Harrah Collection" monicker. It was amazing; I saw
cars from companies that I didn't even know existed. One of the more interesting activities was having my picture taken with the two cars that bore my names: A Grant and a Cunningham. I had no idea those cars existed until I was standing next to them.

The
Grant company sold what were apparently unremarkable vehicles, and was in business for a scant nine years. Cunningham, on the other hand, was a storied firm with an impressive pedigree.

James Cunningham, Son & Company of Rochester, NY was founded in 1862 as a
carriage manufacturer. In fact, they became one of the largest such firms in the country. They were known for quality above all else, and were usually among the most expensive coaches available. They made the switch to automobile production in 1908, making both gasoline and electric models. They maintained their well-received focus on quality, and their first models sold for a whopping $3,500!

By 1916 they'd developed a 442 cubic inch V-8 engine which would become their trademark. By 1921, their town car model was selling for $8,100 - when a Ford Model T Runabout could be had for $370 and their four door sedan for only $725!

Around 1928 Cunningham's interests changed to aviation, and they dropped auto production entirely in 1931. In 1938 the company was reorganized to build electrical switching apparatus, which they did until the mid-1960s. The
aircraft division, a joint venture between Cunningham and a fellow named Robert Hall, continued in business as an aircraft component maker until being closed in 1948.

Today all Cunningham cars are exceedingly rare and do not come up for sale very often. I've not seen another outside of the Harrah museum. In their heyday, though, driving a Cunningham - whether horse or mechanically powered - was the mark of sophistication and style (and a not-insignificant income!)

Here are a couple of videos of Cunningham autos; this first I included just because I like the word “Phaeton”!





-=[ Grant ]=-
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My Adult ADD strikes again!


I had a number of things I wanted to talk about this morning, but something shiny (and Italian) caught my eye and I've forgotten about everything else!

Forgotten Weapons posted an amazingly cool video of a Lorenzoni Flintlock Repeating Pistol. These things are almost mythical; I'd seen a drawing of one, but never any really descriptive pictures let alone an operational video. Ian got his hands on one and shows it off; I now have a much better understanding of the design and operation.

What struck me was the quality of workmanship. Remember that this thing is circa 1700, long before modern machine tools. Notice how precisely everything fits; listen to the sound of the barrel being unscrewed, which gives you a feeling for how exact the threads are. This is amazing for any era, let alone three centuries ago!

Note also the attention to detail; at the 42 second mark, where he's showing off the magazine, you can see the little "bump" of wood on the stock which matches the hinge protrusion, serving to keep the hinge pin in and also preventing the hand from contacting a metal edge. The maker could have simply rounded off that end of the hinge and staked it so the pin couldn’t come out accidentally, but that wouldn't have been nearly as intriguing!

Looks like you don't need CNC machining equipment to do good work! (Which reminds me: I really need to do an article on the misconceptions which abound about the capabilities of CNC. Most people really don't have a clue and use those three letters as an indicator of quality. 'Taint necessarily so.)

-=[ Grant ]=-
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The Treeby Chain Gun.


Forgotten Weapons is rapidly becoming my favorite firearm blog, simply because they cover neat stuff - usually, stuff that I've never before encountered. Take the Treeby Chain Gun, for instance. How else would you increase the firepower of a rifle during the era of muzzleloaders?



What struck me about this design (other than how close they got to the centerfire self-contained metallic cartridge) is the resemblance to a belt-fed machine gun. The chain is nothing more than a connected belt of linked muzzleloading cartridges, and they could have easily designed it to use a longer chain length - or even a split chain, giving them in effect a belt fed muzzleloader.

If the Henry was the rifle "they load on Sunday and shoot all week", Imagine the reaction to a 100-shot repeater!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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It's deja vu all over again.


Long-time readers may remember that I'm a big fan of the
Shorpy Historical Photo Archive site. In fact, it's one of the few that's in my "favorite" RSS feed tabs in Safari. I never get tired of seeing what they've come up with!

Last Friday they showed a picture taken in 1909 of a gentleman (I assume it was a man) dressed up in protective clothing and holding a pistol. Labeled "
dueling with wax bullets", it strongly resembles what today we refer to as "force-on-force" training. Everything, it seems, has been done before!


Photo courtesy of Shorpy


Check out the Shorpy site for a very LARGE version of the picture.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Technology ain't what it used to be.


One of my little obsessions is simplistic technology. This usually means older technology, that which is less complicated and (ironically) many times better for us and our environment.

It was with tremendous joy, then, that I stumbled upon a great website devoted to Luddites like me:
Low Tech Magazine. There you'll find articles on simple technology, obsolete technology, and even technology myths. It will probably vie for a large portion of my recreational time; well, when I get any it certainly will.

(Yes, I realize the contradictions inherent in extolling the virtues of old technology on a computer network. I consider such juxtapositions an art form.)

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: And we thought we were SO hot back then.


It's fun to go back in time and revisit our earlier lives. I can remember leisure suits (though thankfully I was only a teenager when they were popular), when gas prices hit $1 for the first time ("a dollar for a gallon of gas? What's this world coming to?"), the first "brick" cel phones (only the truly important, really rich, or incredibly vain carried them), and looking at computer magazines drooling over 5mb hard disk drives. ("Five megabytes, all in one place!? What a wondrous time to be alive!")

I remember when the first PCs came out with a hard drive as a very expensive option. The Shugart ST-506 drive was 5mb capacity and cost something like $1500; it was soon replaced by the ST-412 10mb drive which was considerably less expensive and thus far more popular.

When MS-DOS v3.0 came out it supported a FAT16 file system architecture, which allowed drive sizes up to 32mb. There was a sudden jump to the larger capacity, and there were several 30mb or 32mb drives to choose from.

Up to then drives for microcomputers were all of the 5.25" size. When 3.5" disks debuted we thought that it was a miracle of miniaturization! Little did we suspect that things would get much smaller and of much higher capacity very quickly. What a wondrous time to be alive!

That was nothing, though. For some time I had a DEC PDP-11/70 in my garage, complete with a
DEC RM02 Hard Disk Unit. That hard drive was the size of a dishwasher, weighed over 400lbs, used a removable five-platter disk pack measuring 14" in diameter, and held - get ready for it - a grand total of 67mb of data!

Today I have a couple of 1tb drives in a RAID the size of a box of graham crackers. What a wondrous time to be alive!

Ten years from now I'll probably be laughing at that statement.

This was all brought to mind by a
neat article on the downsizing of computer storage at the Colganology blog. (For those of you who aren't familiar with Colganology, it's...different.) Lots of great pictures, too, though I notice he doesn't have any of the RM02....pity.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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Monday Meanderings: Safety rules, big revolver, and juries.


I hope everyone enjoyed my little SHOT Show recap last week. Between recovering from a nasty cold (which I picked up in Vegas) and being a bit tired of talking guns, this morning is going to be all linky, no thinky.

-- Over at the
Geek With A Gun blog, there is a discussion about my recent post on safety rules. He doesn't entirely agree with me, which is okay - the important thing is that he's THINKING about the rules and their effect on those who hear them, rather than doing the knee-jerk "the four rules are immutable" routine. The more people who understand that any rule which requires people to pretend something is doomed to failure, the better off we'll all be.

-- As you may know, I've become a fan of the Forgotten Weapons blog. This morning I checked my RSS feed to find that they have an article on the
Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon! (Hey, it's a revolver - it's topical for this blog!)

-- There was an interesting article published in TheJury Expert, which is the journal of the American Society of Trial Consultants, back in September of 2009. In it, Glenn Meyer did a little test on the
effect of firearm appearance on the opinions of a mock jury. The results were a little surprising.

Happy Monday!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: A short history of Unix, and a caution for the future.


A couple of months ago I brought you the news of the sad
death of Dennis Ritchie, the co-developer of the Unix operating system. As it happens, his death occurred just before the 'official' anniversary of the birth of Unix - the publishing of the first Unix manual in November of 1971.

Spectrum, one of the publications of IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), has a
great article of the birth and impact of Unix. It's a must-read for anyone interested in computers or the history of technology.

One thing in the article struck me: that an original copy of Unix did not exist until it was recreated (and only then after great effort) by some software engineers. It's interesting to think that a vital part of technological history was essentially lost, and might have remained that way had someone not cared about it.

Electronic creations are fleeting; they're jettisoned wholesale when new and better creations are introduced, and nowhere is that more true than with software. We upgrade our software and throw out the old versions; the media deteriorates or the ability to read it is lost. It's hard, for instance, to find an actual copy of any early software for any computer, let alone the more obscure stuff. Software is planned obsolescence in its highest form, and one where the old literally disappears permanently at a keystroke to make room for the new.

The topic of preserving our technological heritage is one I think about frequently. There are many early and important computers which no longer exist; in a few rare instances, like the first version of Unix, enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to build replicas. The Colossus project in England is a perfect example, without which we would have no record of the pioneering machine or the people who built it.

There is only one SAGE - the largest computer ever built - left in existence, and it is non-functional. These and many more achievements, and the people who made them, are fading into obscurity.

This is of particular interest to me as an author. My work here on this blog (and the rest of my site) exists only as ones and zeroes on a computer somewhere. At some future point all of what I've done will simply disappear; electronic copies of my book can disappear too, no longer left to future discovery on the dusty shelves of some thrift store.

Nooks, Kindles and iPads may in fact be the future of reading, but I'd still like to see paper books available if for no other reason than to serve as a marker to future generations: we were here, this is what we did, and you don't need to restore some ancient device (if it's even possible) just to read them.

'Ephemera' is the term used to describe things that weren't meant to last, things that were never expected to leave an imprint on the world. If we're not careful, everything we do - and our very existence - will end up in that category.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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Monday Meanderings: holidays, old guns, my book.


I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving weekend - ours was filled with windstorm destruction and a blown head gasket on my primary vehicle. My spare time for the next couple of weeks will be filled with hauling debris and fixing an engine. Why can't these things happen in summer, when it's nice to be outside working?

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Thanksgiving weekend seems these days to be filled more with thoughts of football than of peaceful coexistence with one's fellow man. Here in Oregon we had our annual Civil War Game - Oregon State University versus University of Oregon, the prize being the opportunity to play in another game of some sort. (No, I don't follow college football - does it show?) I personally find it rather sad that folks can tell you who's playing, why they're playing, who the head coaches are, and even the names of a couple of ousted coaches from a college clear back in Pennsylvania - but can't name five of the top physics programs in the country.

(Just for the record, this is not age-related curmudgeonliness - as my siblings will gleefully tell you, I had precisely the same opinion as a kid.)

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Someone (could have been
Tam, but I’m not absolutely positive) recently turned me on to a cool gun blog: Forgotten Weapons. Lots of great stuff about guns you may not even know existed, presented with a decidedly scholarly bent. Immediately became one of the few in my daily RSS feed.

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A couple of days ago I found out that my new book, The
Gun Digest Book of the Revolver, is being sold in the U.K. by Amazon. As of this morning the folks across the pond only had two copies left, which sounds as though it's a big seller over there. Then again, they may have only ordered three copies total - this realization serving to keep my ego in check!


-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another blow to film.


Many years ago I was sitting in a small room at the Eastman Kodak Marketing Education Center near Rochester, New York. In that room were a number of movers and shakers in the photographic industry, talking with some Kodak VPs about the state and future of the business.

At one point they asked us what we felt was the biggest threat to photography. When my turn came, I told them that in ten years photography would cease to exist, to be replaced by what we then called electronic cameras. My belief was based on the fact that video cameras had, in less than five years, destroyed the home and serious amateur movie business. I reasoned that the same would happen to film photography, and for the same reasons.

The Kodak folks were nothing if not self assured, and they told me I was dead wrong in both my analysis and predictions: "people will always want to hold their memories in their hands", said one executive, and another chimed in that "real movies will always be made on film."

I was wrong about the timeline - it took twice as long for digital photography to take hold as I had thought, and the last bastion of silver halide on acetate as a common imaging medium has in fact been the movies. But that, too, has changed. Another era is ending before our eyes.

That’s because the major makers of movie cameras - Arriflex, Panavision, and Aaton - are now focusing exclusively on digital, and are no longer making film cameras. These companies have discontinued the production of all film cameras simply because no one buys them anymore. The rise of HD video, and their immediacy coupled with lower production costs, is making video the dominant form of movie production today.

There is certainly a place for film, and film production itself has not completely disappeared, but the used market is glutted with 16mm, 35mm, and even 70mm cameras - enough so that the makers of these things,
according to an article in at collider.com, have decided that there is no longer any need for new examples to be produced.

It's fun to be vindicated, at least occasionally.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Great Communicator.


President Reagan was given that nickname during his tenure in office, but all Presidents before and after have needed to stay in touch with the world around them. Lots of stuff to deal with when you're the CEO of a superpower, and being able to reach out and talk with anyone and everyone is pretty high on the priority list.

Seems simple in the days of cel phones, but it's not. The President needs fault-tolerant communications that work even where he can't get any bars on his iPhone, which is why he’s usually accompanied by a communications team. Back in the 1960s, that team - and their huge amount of radio gear - took up an entire rail car. And then some.

These pictures, from the JFK library and hosted at cryptome.org, are of the Presidential train communications car shortly after President Kennedy's inauguration. The White House Army Signal Agency, which in 1962 was eliminated and its functions transferred to the Defense Communications Agency, was responsible for the operation and upkeep of the assets.

Known as the General Albert J. Myer Car in honor of the
first commander of the Army Signal Corps, it contained all of the radio and telephone equipment needed by the President and his staff while on the train. When stopped at a station the car’s switchboard was hooked into the local telephone exchange. While underway, all communications were handled via high frequency (HF) radio. It even had a separate (locked, of course) cryptography room!

Presidential train travel had effectively ended during the Eisenhower administration, and I was unable to find out of the equipment was ever actually used by Kennedy's staff. The Myer car was still being held in a ready state in Harrisburg, PA as late as 1970, but its fate beyond that point is uncertain.

It was reported to be awaiting restoration at the Gold Coast rail museum in Florida when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, and later was rumored to have been transferred to the custody of the National Park Service's Steamtown historic site. Today no one seems to know where it is or even if it still exists.

(To correct a piece of misinformation: the train itself was NOT called the Ferdinand Magellan. That was the name of the President's private Pullman car, which was sold to the Gold Coast museum in 1959.)

It is a fascinating glimpse into state-of-the-art communications in the early '60s.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The rocket's red glare, and lots of it.


Down in Florida's Everglades, well hidden from casual view, is the remnant of an idea: to build solid fuel rocket motors for the Apollo space missions.

In 1963 the decision between solid or liquid fueled boosters for what would be the Saturn V rocket had not yet been made, and there was stiff competition between supporters of the two ideas. General Tire Company, which had a subsidiary named Aerojet General, was solidly (pardon the pun) on the side of solid fuel.

They put their money where their mouths were, investing millions to build a rocket assembly and test facility in what was the middle of nowhere. They built facilities to make the fuel and assemble the rockets, a 150-foot-deep silo to test fire the motors, and even a canal to transport the finished rockets through their swampy surroundings to the Atlantic ocean.

The Aerojet-Dade facility, as it was known, built and tested only three motors -- but they were the largest and most powerful solid fuel rocket motors ever made. Liquid fuel was eventually chosen for the Saturn V, and in 1969 the facility was abandoned. Aerojet walked away, leaving everything behind -- including the third rocket still sitting in the test silo!

Someplace Else has a great recap of the whole Aerojet story, including some pictures of the last rocket in the silo. Florida's Forgotten History has a wonderful gallery of recent pictures of the abandoned plant, including the silo. Astronautix.com has some more technical information and pictures, including one of Test #2 -- at night! (Think of the Independence Day celebration you could have with that thing!)

I'll leave you with this brief video documentary, shot by
Coffee and Celluloid Productions. Have a good Fourth!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Space Miami - Aerojet-Dade Rocket Site Documentary from Coffee and Celluloid on Vimeo.


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Containing my desire.


I've worked on many Colt Police Positives in .32-20, and it's a cartridge which has always intrigued me. I'm not one to believe that it would make a good defensive tool, but there is more to shooting than just that!

I've often thought that I'd like to have one of the long-discontinued Marlin 1894 CB in .32-20; it would make a great farm & varmint cartridge in the hotter loadings, and loaded to moderate velocities would make a dandy squirrel gun.

Tempering this is the realization that I don't need yet another cartridge to reload, having too many as it is. The thing about the .32-20 is that it's just so darned (pardon the expression) cute. I don't know why this is, but the cartridge reminds me just a bit of the scraggly tree in the old Peanuts Christmas special: "all it needs is a little love."

I’d pretty much gotten over my lust for that gun (oooooh, look at the half-length magazine tube!) in that caliber when, just a few days ago,
The FIrearms Blog put up an article on the .32-20 cartridge. Now the madness will start again; the voices in my head are already tempting me.

Pardon me while I channel my inner Shatner: Must...resist...urge...to...buy!

Seriously though, it's a great article about a neat cartridge. Go read.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: All steamed up.


On more than one occasion here at the Revolver LIberation Alliance I've griped that all of the 'cool stuff' seemed to exist back east. ("Back east", for a child of the west such as myself, might mean anything from ‘east of the Mississippi River’ to ‘all lands to the right of the Rocky Mountains’. Take your pick.)

I've lamented about the old subway tunnels we don't have, to the gigantic industrial machines that are absent from our part of the world. It turns out, though, that there is a very cool place darned near in my backyard: the last operational vintage steam powered sawmill in the United States lies right here in my own Willamette Valley!

Hull-Oaks Sawmill was built in 1938, a time in which steam was still a most viable way to power any large machinery. The main steam engine which powers the gigantic bandsaw blade, is an Ames Iron Works twin cylinder that was built in 1906. It's still running strong, and according to the mill's owner suffers fewer breakdowns than any other piece of equipment in the mill. So famous is this particular engine amongst steam aficionados that there are companies selling
working models and kits.

There is a
great story about the mill at thisiscarpentry.com. Lots of pictures! There are even multiple videos on Youtube of the mill in action - like the one below. Yes, I'm planning to visit the mill as soon as the weather warms up!

-=[ Grant ]=-












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FRIDAY SURPRISE: In praise of the M-1965.


The
M-1965 Field Jacket, to be precise. Or, if you prefer, the ever-so-GI nomenclature of "Coat, Cold Weather, Field."



I'm not a general fan of, or expert on, military stuff. There are people who are, and more power to 'em, but I'm only interested in the gear to the extent that it benefits me. The M-1965, fondly called the "M65", benefits me greatly!

The M65 was the standard issue coat for the United States military from 1965 until 2009. It was the result of several redesigns to the original M-1943 field jacket that served our troops in WWII. The M-1943 got a makeover in 1950 and again in 1951, but in 1965 it attained the form we know and love today.

The M65 has four large pockets, all of which close with heavy-duty snaps. The cuffs close with Velcro tabs, which are my only complaint about the jacket. (You may recall me saying that I hate Velcro!) That's easily remedied by the installation of a couple of brass snaps, a modification to the original that I highly recommend. Other than the Velcro, the rest of the coat is pretty much bombproof.

I don't know how well it served our troops, but I can tell you that it makes the perfect knock-around farm coat. It's incredibly durable, wind resistant, and with the optional button-in quilted liner is very warm. The only real downside is that they're not terribly water resistant. The cotton in the fabric blend absorbs a lot of water, but a can of silicone waterproofing spray significantly improves the situation. This is especially important in the rainy climate of western Oregon!

One of the best things about the M65 is the freedom of movement it affords the wearer. I'm a short guy whose shoulders are broader than average for short guys, and I have trouble with arm movement on many coats. Extending my arms forward usually tightens the material on the upper back, while the sleeves slide up the forearms and the cuffs bind enough to severely limit the reach. This combination results in extremely uncomfortable movement, but the M65 is cut in such a way as to allow for that kind of athletic activity. If you have to actually do things outdoors, as opposed to standing around and looking pretty, the M65 is what you need.

The coat was originally made in olive drab, later in woodland camo, and finally in desert camo and the new digital (ACU) patterns. My favorite is the old OD color with the heavy brass zippers, though I have a couple of early woodland examples as well. I wear them for any dirty or rough outdoor activity, from building structures to cutting trees, and I have yet to wear one out.

The quilted liners, being of light and fluffy nylon construction, don't usually fare as well. That's not a problem, because liners are readily available on the surplus market and are cheap; I bought a very large box full a few years ago when my local surplus store had them for a buck apiece!

M65s are commonly available at your local surplus store and are still made and sold new on the civilian market by government contractor
Alpha Industries.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: A fountain of information.


It has become something of a trend amongst the latest hipsters to declare an interest in the fountain pen. It might be said that I find this whole business a tad amusing, not because I think the fountain pen to be out of date but because my interest in them often goes back further than some of these newcomers have even been alive.
(Get off my lawn!) Wait long enough, and everything comes back into fashion.

I received my first fountain pen as a high school graduation gift in the late 1970s. It was a Cross Century and came in a set with a matching ballpoint and a pencil. What happened to the latter two pieces is a mystery, but I still have that fountain pen. In fact, I'm looking at it as I type this. I've added more to my collection as time has progressed, but I still have that one.

Over the years I'll admit to not being completely faithful to the fountain pen, but in the last few years I've gone back to it as my primary writing instrument. My handwriting these days is all in printed letters (I long ago forgot how to write in longhand), and I don't do as much of it, but I still scribble notes and fill notebooks with bits of information, ideas, the occasional drawing, and sometimes a shopping list. I have perhaps four pens that I use regularly, and several more in storage that I ink up and use only occasionally.

Why a fountain pen? For me, it's the fact that they require no hand pressure. The nib of the pen simply rests on the paper, and no additional force is needed to get ink to flow. As I near the half-century mark I find that the joints of my fingers are not standing up to the kind of abuse they used to, and anything which reduces the wear and tear on them is most appreciated!

There is another aspect to the fountain pen, though I fear putting too much emphasis on it lest I be labeled as a closeted environmentalist hippy. (
Tam and her eco-friendly bicycle currently have that schtick sewn up like a hemp shirt, and heaven forfend I should intrude!) The fact is, however, that disposable writing instruments are wasteful. A quality fountain pen is a lifetime purchase that needs only a supply of ink to keep working. Nothing ends up in the landfill or gets thrown away (except the ink bottle, which is usually glass and easily recycled.)

Of course, for a gadget freak like me the fountain pen provides limitless opportunities to indulge! There are perhaps a hundred (maybe more) fountain pen manufacturers around the world still making pens, with price points from a buck (I'm not kidding) to several thousand dollars. You can find nibs (the part that touches the paper) in sizes ranging from extra fine to broad; no matter how or what you like to write you can find a line width to suit. There is also a large quantity of vintage pens available should one prefer the ultimate in recycling with a retro flair.

Ink makers? There are probably fifty brands of ink that come in a literal rainbow of colors. I'll bet you never knew that black ink isn't just black, did you? Yes, black ink comes in shades. There must be a couple hundred different blue inks, more blue-black inks than you could probably ever use, forests full of various greens and browns, and reds that range from blood to fire - and everything in between. If you want the perfect ink to match your personality or mood, you can find it for your fountain pen.

There is, truly, something for everyone in the fountain pen world.

I'll leave you with some pen snapshots I did a few years ago. The first is a couple from the German maker Rotring (probably my favorite pens), the second is of a Duke (one of the better Chinese pen makers), and the last is a no-name pen that my wife likes (yes, she’s into them as well. Makes gift giving around our house easy!)












-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Admit it - you've wondered about this too.


In 1791, the French Assembly decided that the purpose of capital punishment was to end a miscreant's life, not to cause him unbearable pain. A committee was formed for the purpose of devising a pain-free method of execution that was suitable for both upper and lower class undesirables. How egalitarian of them!

One of the committee members was a Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. While he was opposed to the death penalty, he believed that making it more humane would lead to its abolition. (The logic behind this escapes me, but apparently doctors often have this failing: one Dr. Richard J. Gatling, inventor of the gun that bears his name, believed that the creation of a terrible weapon would inspire people to no longer entertain the idea of war. Didn't work for him, either.)

The French committee eventually came up with a beheading machine, and because of the good doctor's promotion of the new "humane" method his name was associated forever with the contraption.

But just how humane is the guillotine?
This article at Damn Interesting raises all kinds of questions about just what happens at the instant one's head is separated from its support mechanisms. Personally, I hope to never find out!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cameras I Have Known - the Pentax KX.


I'm fickle, in that my favorite things change frequently depending on what's in my hands at the moment. "This my favorite! No, THAT'S my favorite! Wait - that one is REALLY my favorite!" Fountain pens, .22 rifles, hats, revolvers (of course), and cameras.

Especially cameras. It's hard to pick just one.

What I do know is that I've shot more frames through one model than any other, by a wide margin: the Pentax KX. I'm not talking about the modern digital incarnation, but the original, all metal, mechanical, manually operated film camera. It was, to my mind, one of the best products ever to come from Asahi Optical and one of the best 35mm SLRs that I ever used.


Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)


The KX is one of those machines that turned out to be a lot more than the manufacturer probably intended. Introduced in the mid-70s, during a time when many other legendary cameras were being manufactured, the KX proved to be a worthy "semi professional" camera of great durability and superb image quality. It was competitive with and contemporary to the Canon FTb, the Nikon Nikkormats, and the upper portion of the Minolta SR-T series.

The KX was a medium sized camera, and its features were common for the day: depth-of-field preview, mirror lock-up, 1/1000 second shutter, aperture display in viewfinder. What set it apart were a couple of things that its competitors didn't have: shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder and a new, sensitive but linear silicon blue meter cell.

The only camera that really compared to the KX was the Nikon FM, introduced at the end of the KX model run. It was as if Nikon had taken direct aim at the KX, for their new model had features to rival the Pentax veteran (except, surprisingly, the mirror lockup.) The only advantage the new Nikon had was the MD-11 (later MD-12) motor drive. Even with that they were behind the curve, as Pentax had made a special edition of the KX that took a drive as well: the rare KX-Motor body.


Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)


The KX-Motor was exactly like the plain versions, with the addition of the mechanics and circuitry necessary to run a slightly modified version of the attachable motor from the Spotmatic MD model dubbed the Motordrive II. There was no external indication, other than the baseplate, which indicated that this was a special-order-only camera. Since the entire KX model line was only made for three years, that makes KX-Motor one of the rarer Pentax products.

I owned a number of KX cameras, and was fortunate to count two KX-Motor bodies among them. At the time I knew they were uncommon but only now realize how rare they actually were!

KX bodies came in both chrome and black finishes. The black bodies were enamel over brass, which was the common construction method of the time. I once stripped the worn enamel off the brass pieces of one of the bodies, polished them until they were mirror bright, then applied clear lacquer to keep tarnish away. The result was stunning and I became known as "the guy with the gold camera." I later sold that body to a friend to fund my move to Olympus OM equipment...a story unto itself.

In use the KX proved to be a true photographer's tool. Controls fell perfectly to hand, everything worked smoothly, and the silicon blue meter was accurate down to ridiculously low light levels. Of course the quality of Pentax lenses was never in doubt, and the images produced by the combination of body and optics were always superb.

None of that would mean much if the camera didn't hold up. I admit to being rough on gear, to the point that the guy who repaired my cameras regaled his customers with stories about damage sustained by my cameras in various mishaps. Twenty years later he’s probably still telling them!

The KX was incredibly rugged even in my hands, and it's one of the very few cameras that I was never able to break to the point that it wouldn't function. I've broken many others, but despite the heavy use to which I put them never had a KX fail. (Wish I could say the same for Pentax's "pro" camera, the LX.)

KX bodies accompanied me on both personal and professional assignments, from standing in the middle of rivers to crawling around the dirty confines of a foundary and everything in between. I knew that I could always rely on them to bring back the images I needed. They weren't the flashiest or most impressive bodies (save for my special gold model), but they always delivered top notch pictures.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cameras I Have Known - the Kodak Retina IIIS.


At one time I was a devoted fan of Leica rangefinder cameras. I owned many of them over the years, culminating with a beat-up example of the much maligned M5 (2-lug) model. Like many photographers I held a special place in my heart for the legendary Leica M3, though mine was the less desirable (and thus cheaper) double-stroke version. One could say that I was something of a Leica snob, and that wasn't too far from the truth.

This makes my favorite rangefinder seem somewhat odd, because it wasn't a Leica.

At one point I picked up a Kodak Retina IIIS rangefinder for next to nothing, largely because I thought it would be a nice decoration on my bookshelf. Along with it came a 50mm f2.8 Schneider Xenar, a superb 35mm f2.8 Schneider Curtagon, and a 135mm Schneider Tele-Xenar. The camera and lenses were in near-mint condition, having been traded in on a more modern 35mm SLR with zoom lens.

The Retina series of cameras were made in Germany by the Kodak-owned Nagel Camerawerk. Most of them were small folding cameras, but the IIIS was unique: it was a solid body rangefinder with interchangeable lenses. It was a large, heavy camera compared to the Leicas (or the rest of the Retina series), but it boasted a large, bright viewfinder with automatically changing framelines and parallax correction!



Courtesy of the superb Retina IIIS article at www.cameraquest.com/ret3s.htm


The viewfinder was terrific, but the really great thing from my perspective was the shutter. The IIIS had a between-the-lens leaf shutter sourced from Compur, which meant that it could flash synch at all shutter speeds. More importantly it meant that the shutter was quiet. Very, very quiet. Next to the IIIS, a Leica M3 sounded like a bomb going off. Those who know the Leica cameras and their reputation for stealth might be amazed, but it was true; even the photographer often couldn't hear or feel the Retina shutter fire.

This made it ideal for surreptitious shooting, but especially for such things as concerts and plays. While the lenses weren't terribly fast, thus limiting their indoor capabilities, it was possible to make very good available-light shots with the camera. I did so on many occasions.

I also loved the depth-of-field indicators. They were two red pointers on either side of the focus point mark, and as the aperture was changed they moved in or out (in sync, one moving left and one moving right) to indicate the zone of acceptable sharpness. This was similar to the way the lenses on the Hasselblad cameras worked, and to this day I miss that unambiguous display.

Over time I grew away from the rangefinder in general, finding the newer compact SLRs to easily take their place. Except for the noise, of course. Today I'd love to have a good digital rangefinder camera, but the only one currently being made is the insanely priced Leica M9. (A solid contender, the Epson RD-1, was recently discontinued and the prices have skyrocketed well past "reasonable." There are some others that boast add-on digital viewfinders, but they stink. The viewfinders, I mean!)

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The day the internet died.


Yesterday was a monumental day in the history of the 'net: Duke University, the birthplace of Usenet,
shut down its Usenet server some thirty years after it first came to life.

Citing diminishing use and rising costs as the reason for the shutdown, this comes as sad news for those of us who cut their teeth on newsgroups. While there are other servers still hosting Usenet traffic, the closure of the Duke server is a sign that the end is near.

I spent far too much free time on Usenet in the '80s and '90s. Before the World Wide Web, Usenet was THE source of information and interaction on the 'net. If you know what DoD stands for, you spent a lot of time on rec.motorcycles; if you know who the KoTL is, you spent
too much time there!

There are people I "met" on Usenet with whom I still correspond. I first encountered Ed Harris, whose name should not be unknown to readers of this blog, on rec.guns. That was more years ago than either of us care to recount, and despite never having been face-to-face we've exchanged ideas, shared projects and even collaborated a bit on a training manual for emergency communications. There are others whose names would mean nothing to you, but mean a great deal to me.

With so many ISPs dropping Usenet access, people for whom the WWW is the whole 'net don't see the loss. For those of us who remember FidoNet gateways and
bang paths it's like losing an old friend.

Virtually, of course.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Water in the New World.


I found this on Digg a few days ago, and thought it was intriguing. There is much about the Mayan civilization's technology that we still don't know, and this is opens up another set of questions.

Makes the dream of time travel all the more tantalizing.

Maya plumbing, first pressurized water feature found.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cameras I Have Known - the Minolta XE-7.


The XE-7 is one of the cameras I've admired from afar, but never actually owned. This wasn't because of any lack of the camera itself, or of the superb Minolta lenses, but simply because it had been discontinued several years before I got involved in photography. The XE-7's successors weren't nearly as interesting, and their lack of a reliable "pro" camera throughout their history meant that there was no upgrade path. That left the XE-7 sitting on its own little photographic island.

But what an island it was!


Photo courtesy of Stan C. Reade Photo, http://www.stancreade.com


The XE-7 was rumored to have been developed "in conjunction" with E. Leitz, the makers of the famous Leica line of cameras. I'm not sure that was the case, as a tear-down reveals significant similarities to the XK model, introduced in 1972, and both preceded the rebranded Leica R3 version by several years. That assertion does, however, give one a good feel for just how well the XE-7 was built.

The shutter, sourced from Copal, was quiet and accurate. Film advance was as smooth as anything ever made in the 35mm field. Metering was predictable and accurate (as long as the aperture follower, which coupled the meter to the lens, stayed clean - a common weakness of all Minolta MC/MD mount cameras.) The camera was just a joy to use, and those times I took to the field with borrowed XE-7s were magical. The camera was responsive and easy to adapt to; the images were clean, clear, and had wonderful contrast.

Part of the stellar performance was, of course, due to the Minolta Rokkor lenses. Minolta produced some of the very best optics to ever come out of Japan; to this day, knowledgeable photographers wax poetic about the color rendition of their designs. (They were good enough that Leica bought several Minolta lenses, with no change other than mounts, to round out the lens line for their SLR cameras.)

The camera proved to be fairly rugged, the aperture follower issue notwithstanding. One of my colleagues had a pair of them that he used extensively while working as a photojournalist, and they looked like they'd been through a war zone. They still worked perfectly despite the abuse.

Sadly, the XE-7 was discontinued in 1977 to make way for the more modern XD series of cameras. While the XDs were certainly smooth, nicely functioning machines, they weren't the photographer's tool that the XE-7 was. It was because of the lackluster XD that I generally ignored Minolta, despite their uncompromising optics.

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: Regarding Minolta "pro" cameras - yes, I know all about the XK and the XK Motor. I also know, far too well, how unreliable those cameras were in actual use. The XK Motor, in particular, was perhaps the least reliable "pro" camera I've ever seen, with many examples making multiple trips to Minolta for repeated repairs. I liked the XK, and to this day feel the XK Motor to be one of the nicest-handling large SLRs ever made, but they just didn't have what it took in the durability department. More's the pity.
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What I did during Spring Break.


I just returned from a visit to Virginia Beach, where I attended the
Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Development (CFSID) course. I've been searching my brain for a one-word description of what the class is like, and this is the only thing that even comes close:

OhHolyCrap.

We spent 4 days and just shy of 60 hours learning the ins and outs of Combat Focus Shooting so that we could accurately and efficiently communicate the program to students. We spent the first of those day on the range...no, that's not quite right; for any other course it
would have been the first day, but for us it was roughly half of the first day, as the entire session ran well past 9pm. The rest of the week was spent not on becoming better shooters, but learning to be better teachers.

We studied a little of everything: anatomy, physiology, neurophysiology, psychology, philosophy, and more. By the end of the fourth day, which is when testing was done, my brain was fried. I don't even remember the final written test, but I do remember nearly passing out somewhere on page three (serious blood sugar drop, complete with tremors and sweating.)

Apparently I finished it. At least, I think I did!

This isn't like most other instructor courses. Most of the time, an instructor certificate is a matter of showing up, shooting well, and having your check clear. CFSID is different;
Rob Pincus is committed to producing good teachers, not just good demonstrators. That showed in the caliber (pardon the pun) of the people who were there, as I'd be confident in recommending any one of them as a competent and knowledgeable instructor.

There's a reason that, historically, less than 50% of Combat Focus Shooting instructor candidates pass the course. It's that tough, and takes a phenomenal amount of mental discipline just to make it through.

----

As it happens, my return trip routed me through Chicago, where I spent nearly three hours waiting for my next flight. Turns out that
Tam was in Chicago at the same time. Wish I'd known, I'd have loved to finally meet her.

----

We also got to study some (unintentional) modern art, courtesy of an ancient video projector that refused to hold a sync signal with Rob's new MacBook:



Yes, that's Rob Pincus getting all Warhol on his students.

----

I don't usually plug local businesses, but this one deserves it.

The day before I left, I discovered that my old camera had died. It powered up, but none of the controls worked. (It will still take pictures, but the exposure control is fried and the autofocus appears to be only sporadically active.) We had planned to upgrade our camera later this year, but this forced our hand: we needed it now.

I spent that day not packing, but running all over Western Oregon to find the camera I'd decided on. I finally found the body, but the lens I wanted wasn't in stock anywhere. I decided to pick up a used optic as stopgap measure, while I waited (and recovered financially) for the one I really wanted. Trouble is that none of the camera stores I called carried much (or any) used equipment. About that time I remembered seeing a yellow pages ad for a little one-hour photo place located in a small town fairly close to us. I had it in my mind that the ad said something about used cameras, and since phone calls are free I dialed their number. A pleasant young lady answered the phone and said that yes, they had used gear and that they had several suitable lenses for me.

What I found when I walked into
Focal Point Photography blew me away. This is a tiny shop, located in a small farming community in a rural area, and it is filled with photo gear. From Speed Graphics to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, these folks have a little of everything. Piles of used gear (literally), a surprising selection of lighting equipment new and old, even darkroom stuff, all stuffed (literally) into a two-story building in little ol' Dallas, Oregon. It was like going back in time, to what camera stores used to be before the age of big-box homogenization. I don't know if they do mailorder, but they're so accommodating I suspect they would. If you're looking for just about anything photographic, particularly if it's out of production and now hard to find, give them a call: (503) 623-6300.

I have no affiliation other than as a satisfied, if somewhat amazed, customer.

----

Now, I'm back to catching up on your emails!


-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: It certainly was.


I woke up this morning, completely sure in my mind that it was Thursday. As everyone else knows, it's actually Friday, which means I owe you a blog post, late though it may be.

TIME recently ran
this great slideshow of old computer hardware, photographed in a way you might not expect. Very nice work, and some detail of a rapidly disappearing past. Enjoy, and happy Friday!

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Good Morning, Dave.


Once upon a time, two geeks met in college. They had some neat ideas about the world of computers, and were anxious to put their ideas into production. They started a little company.

Shortly after they incorporated, they introduced a new computer - one that was more accessible, more flexible, and under the control of a single person. They didn't make many of them, and very few exist today, but with it they changed the face of computing forever.

No, I'm not talking about Jobs & Wozniak. I'm thinking of Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, and the company they founded -
Digital Equipment Corporation. DEC, as it would come to be known, introduced what was really the earliest commercial incarnation of the personal computer: the PDP-1.



The PDP-1 certainly didn't look like what we've come to expect of the PC. Nevertheless, it started the downsizing of computing power, and introduced a concept critical to the modern PC: user interaction, as opposed to batch data processing. This shift was the necessary step to creating true personal computers, and DEC got there first.

Interactivity opened up huge new vistas for the computer. The PDP-1 has the distinction of initiating things we now take for granted: text editing, music programs, and even computer gaming. (The very first computer video game, 'Spacewar!', was written for the PDP-1. Yes, you have DEC to thank for your Wii.)

DEC only made 50 PDP-1 machines, of which only 3 are known to have survived. All of them are currently in the collection of the
Computer History Museum. One is fully operational, and is demonstrated twice a month by running that historic computer game. They've got a terrific website that details the history and restoration of the PDP-1.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Witch is Back.


Back in '51, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire welcomed a new member to their staff: a computer. Today we don't even bat an eyelid when a new PC shows up in the office, but back then computers were a Big Deal. (After all, how many new staff members get their own office - the largest one in the building?)

The Harwell Computer, later to be known as "WITCH" (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), now occupies a unique position in computing history. It holds the distinction of being the world's oldest surviving computer with electronically-stored data and programs. All the original parts are present and it is capable, in theory, of being operated.



Though it hasn't been switched on for over 35 years, it is now
being restored to operational status at the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. They expect the restoration to be completed next summer, at which point the WITCH will be able to claim another title: oldest operational computer, beating out the Ferranti Pegasus whipper-snapper at London's Science Museum.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Gone fission.


Way back in the mid-70s I was a geeky high school student whose career dreams were split between playing trumpet in the Stan Kenton band, or designing optical systems for spy satellites. Kenton died in 1979, which quashed my first ambition, and a dismal showing in differential calculus (don't ask) convinced me that engineering wasn't my forte, either.

(What happened between then and now is a long story...)

Anyhow, back to high school. Our science teacher was an ex-JPL scientist who'd taken early retirement and ended up in our small Oregon town. This was a major score for a backward mountain community, and he was a wealth of information. I took every advanced physics and chemistry course our little school offered.

One day, he presented to the class what was then a very recent scientific find: the existence of a natural nuclear fission reactor. That's right, a nuclear reactor where atoms were split without human design or interference, and long before humans walked the earth. At the time, despite learning all the details, I found it hard to believe that such a thing had happened. I understood that it was theoretically possible, but it seemed fantastic that just the right physical conditions necessary to sustain natural fission had occurred anywhere.

But they had - more than once - in the tiny nation of Gabon in west Africa.
Here's a great story about the reactors were discovered (warning: science content)

Here's a Wikipedia synopsis of what happened.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: "Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!"


Portland, Oregon has for years had one of the highest numbers of movie theater seats per capita. Oregonians, it would appear, can't get enough of the silver screen. (Save for this Oregonian, who sees one theater movie every five years or so whether he needs to or not.)

It seems to have always been this way. Portland had a large number of neighborhood movie theaters up through the '60s, and many of those buildings are still standing. The theaters were converted to other uses, and some of them actually retained some of their former features. Finding and exploring those old locations is a hobby for some, an obsession for others.

Back in the early '80s, when I was doing some moonlighting as a commercial photographer, I was retained by an older gentleman to photograph the abandoned Egyptian Theater in northeast Portland. The theater, originally built as a vaudeville venue, had been converted to the newfangled "moving pitchers" in the early '30s. It operated until 1962, when it was closed and used as overflow warehousing space for the chemical company which had purchased the location.

The gentleman who hired me was a serious movie buff, and was writing a book on old Oregon theaters. He wanted me to shoot pictures of the interior of the Egyptian. (I got the job because i was the only photographer he found who could light an entire large interior without benefit of electrical outlets or a generator. The power in the building had been shut off for years, the wiring having been declared a fire hazard. I'll leave you to guess how I pulled it off.)

Once in the building we found many of the seats still in place; the entire balcony was intact, as were the Egyptian-motif decorations and appointments throughout. There were torn ticket stubs littering the floor and even remnants of coming attraction posters in the lobby.

When theater closed, the awning (shown in this 1933 photo) was removed, and the front of the building simply covered with a false wall. The ticket booth and original doors were still there!



It was a surreal experience, as if the building was simply waiting for the janitors to arrive to clean up for that evening's business.

The building was torn down in 1989; sadly, the book never materialized. I had a good time, though.

What brought this to mind was
this article at WebUrbanist about abandoned movie theaters across the U.S. (Somewhere in storage I have my shots of the Egyptian, but exactly where is a mystery. Until I can find them, you'll have to make do with WebUrbanist's article!)

-=[ Grant ]=-
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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Rodents aren't just for felines any more


If you're under 40, the name
Douglas Engelbart probably means nothing to you. It should, though, because a huge amount of the machine on which you're reading this sprang from his fertile mind.

Engelbart (yet another product of Oregon, having been born in Portland) worked at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) before the dawn of the personal computer revolution. Many of the things we now use without a second thought were developed by him, or made possible by his work: bitmapped screens, the graphical user interface (GUI), hypertext, and networking. The very birth of the internet occurred when his lab at SRI and it's counterpart at UCLA networked their computers to become the first two nodes of
ARPANET.

His greatest moment would have to be his "
Mother of All Demos" in 1968. In that presentation, he introduced to a stunned world the early working implementations of video conferencing, teleconferencing, interactive text, email and the aforementioned hypertext. It is, perhaps, the single most important event in the history of modern computing.

One of his inventions revealed for the first time at the Demo was a new invention: the computer mouse. It would take over a decade before his now-common pointing device finally reached the market (attached to the ill-fated Xerox 8010 Star Information System), and several years after that before it came to the notice of the general public (as an integral part of the original Macintosh.)



(John C. Dvorak, computer pundit, wrote in 1984 of the new Mac and Engelbart's invention : "The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a 'mouse'. There is no evidence that people want to use these things." Dvorak is not known for his prescience, which surprisingly fails to deter his continued employment.)

YouTube has the entire Demo available.


-=[ Grant ]=-
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