Think you’ve got what it takes to build a homebrew brushless motor? As [JaycubL] shows us, it turns out that a bldc motor may be living in pieces right under your nose, in scraps that so many of us would otherwise toss aside. To get our heads turning, [JaycubL] takes us into the theory of brushless DC motors operate. He then builds a homebrew brushless motor using screws, a plastic container, a few bearings, a metal rod, some magnets, and a dab of epoxy. Finally, he gives it a whirl with an off-the-shelf motor controller.
This isn’t [JaycubL’s] first dive into homebrew brushless motors. For the curious, he’s also assembled a fully-functional brushless outrunner motor with a paint can housing.
Sure, understanding the principles is one thing, but being able to take the leap into the real world and find the functional beginnings of a motor from your scrap bin is an entirely different story! [JaycubL’s], dare we say, finesse of understanding the principles behind motor design makes us wonder: how many other functional higher-level electrical and mechanical components can we bootstrap from bitter scrap? To get you started, we’ll point you in the direction of this CNC router that’s just a few steps away from one trip to the hardware store.
Thanks for the tip, [John]!
Filed under: hardware, parts
With the crazy extremes of light flux density that are possible these days, we’re putting quotation marks around “world’s brightest”, but it’s abundantly clear that this flashlight build is very much too bright. No, really. Why would you want a flashlight so bright that you have to wear sunglasses to look at anything that’s within a twenty foot radius?
Because you can. [Mads Nielsen] combined 18, one hundred Watt LED units with some giant machined heatsinks, fans to cool those heatsinks, lenses, and other hardware to make a device that turns electrons into photons at an alarming rate. Each chip-on-board LED package requires 32 Volts, and they’re pairwise in series so it’s a 64 V system. A boot converter pushes up the twelve LiPo battery packs up to the required voltage.
Even with the relatively high voltage, this thing sucks in 27 A, so the power supply is distributed among four of these boost converters. All of this means thick cables and a rather hefty power switch. When you’re designing something ridiculous, all of these little details come out of the woodwork. We’ve included part one of the four-part build video here, because they’re full of great detail. [Mads] has a lot more interesting LED-related info on his YouTube channel. You can watch the showing-off video on your own time.
Filed under: led hacks
A class in Brazil was given the assignment to make a board game. [Marcelo], presumably, heard his son lamenting how lame it was going to be if the board was just cardboard with some drawings on, and came to the rescue.A match meant to be.
Working with the class, they came up with the rules of the game. We’re not certain what those are, but it involves a regular game board, a flashing light circle with numbers, and a fusion between Operation and one of those disease transmitters commonly found at the doctor’s office. You can try to puzzle them out from the video after the break.
The brains of the board is an Arduino with an external EEPROM for all the sound effects and other data needed for this construction. Everything is laid out on a beautifully done home etched PCB. It’s too bad the other side of the board isn’t visible.
We’re sure the kids learned a lot working with [Marcelo]. It would have been nice if a traveling wizard came to some of our earlier classes in school and showed us just how much cool stuff you can do if you know electronics.
Filed under: Arduino Hacks
After scoring a non-functioning Gameboy in mint condition for $10, [Chad] decided it was time for a fun electronics project, so he ordered an LCD and bought a Pi Zero.
He started with a 3.5″ LCD off eBay for about $25, and got it running with the Pi Zero. It’s only 320×240 resolution, but hey, we’re recreating a Gameboy — not a smartphone. The next step was rather finicky: cutting up the case to fit the new components in.
Using a collection of files he whittled down the screen opening in the case to make room for the LCD, a few hours later and it looked surprisingly good.
From there he started laying out the components inside of the case, trying to figure out the best layout for everything to fit nicely. To power the unit he’s using a lithium ion battery from a Samsung Note which should give him some serious play-time. It fits right in where the game card is suppose to go.
To add some extra control functionality he’s added the game-pad buttons from a SNES onto the back where the battery door is, he’s also got a USB port on the side, a MicroSD card slot, and even a new audio pre-amp with potentiometer for controlling the speaker volume.
In case you can’t find a mint condition Gameboy case like [Chad] did, you could just print one from scratch
Filed under: nintendo gameboy hacks, nintendo hacks, Raspberry Pi
[Ilya Titov] has made a game console. Not just any game console, but an extremely small ATtiny85-based console suitable for putting on a key ring and assembled into a very professional product with PCB and 3D printed case. This is a project that has been on the go since 2014, but the most recent update is a new version designed for tighter and more easy assembly.
All construction is through-hole rather than SMD, and aside from the ATtiny85 the console uses an OLED screen, piezo buzzer, tactile switches and a handful of passive components. Power comes from a single CR2032 coin cell which sits under the screen. Best of all the PCB design is available as a PDF and the 3D printed case can be found on Thingiverse.
There are two games for the console, as well as the Breakout clone whose code is in the 2014 piece linked above he’s written UFO Escape, an obstacle-avoiding side-scroller. You’ll have to burn both game and 8MHz internal clock bootloader to the ATtiny85 yourself. There are no cartridges with this console, though if the processor sits in a DIP socket the game can be changed over simply by swapping processors programmed with the appropriate game.
He’s produced a full assembly video with some UFO Escape gameplay thrown in, shown here below the break.
We’ve featured many ATtiny85 hacks here at Hackaday, there is a joy in eking the most from such a minimalist processor. Some that stick in the mind are a very nicely executed watch on a ring, 8-colour VGA from an ATtiny, an NTSC transmitter, and the smallest MIDI synthesiser. Please, keep them coming!
[via Maidstone Hackspace]
Filed under: ATtiny Hacks, handhelds hacks, Microcontrollers
What can you do with a very good vacuum pump? You can build an electron microscope, x-ray tubes, particle accelerators, thin films, and it can keep your coffee warm. Of course getting your hands on a good vacuum pump involves expert-level scrounging or a lot of money, leading [DeepSOIC] and [Keegan] to a great entry for this year’s Hackaday Prize. It’s the Everyman’s Turbomolecular Pump, a pump based on one of [Nikola Tesla]’s patents. It sucks, and that’s a good thing.
The usual way of sucking the atmosphere out of electron microscopes and vacuum tubes begins with a piston or diaphragm pump. This gets most of the atmosphere out, but there’s still a little bit left. To get the pressure down even lower, an oil diffusion pump (messy, but somewhat cheap) or a turbomolecular pump (clean, awesome, and expensive) is used to suck the last few molecules of atmosphere out.
The turbomolecular pump [DeepSOIC] and [Keegan] are building use multiple spinning discs just like [Tesla]’s 1909 patent. The problem, it seems, is finding a material that can be made into a disc and can survive tens of thousand of rotations per minute. It’s a very, very difficult build, and a mistake in fabricating any of the parts will result in a spectacular rapid disassembly of this turbomolecular pump. The reward, though, would be great. A cheap turbomolecular pump would be a very useful device in any hackerspace, fab lab, or workshop garage.The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:
Filed under: The Hackaday Prize, tool hacks
[Robottini] released plans for his robot, Cartesio, that is essentially an Arduino-controlled plotter made to create artwork. The good part about Cartesio is the low cost. [Robottini] claims it cost about $60 to produce.
The robot has an A3-size drawing bed and is practically the XY part of a 3D printer. In fact, most of the parts are 3D printed and the mechanical parts including M8 smooth rod. LM8UU bearings, and GT2 belts and pulleys. If you’ve built a 3D printer, those parts (or similar ones) should sound familiar.
The Arduino uses GRBL to drive the motors from GCODE. [Robottini] has three different workflows to produce drawings from applications like Inkscape. You can see some of the resulting images below.
Filed under: 3d Printer hacks, Arduino Hacks
When the big annual meteor showers come around, you can often find us driving up to a mountaintop to escape light pollution and watching the skies for a while. But what to do when it’s cloudy? Or when you’re just too lazy to leave your computer monitor? One solution is to listen to meteors online! (Yeah, it’s not the same.)
Meteors leave a trail of ionized gas in their wake. That’s what you see when you’re watching the “shooting stars”. Besides glowing, this gas also reflects radio waves, so you could in principle listen for reflections of terrestrial broadcasts that bounce off of the meteors’ tails. This is the basis of the meteor burst communication mode.
[Ciprian Sufitchi, N2YO] set up his system using nothing more than a cheap RTL-SDR dongle and a Yagi antenna, which he describes in his writeup (PDF) on meteor echoes. The trick is to find a strong signal broadcast from the earth that’s in the 40-70 MHz region where the atmosphere is most transparent so that you get a good signal.
This used to be easy, because analog TV stations would put out hundreds of kilowatts in these bands. Now, with the transition to digital TV, things are a lot quieter. But there are still a few hold-outs. If you’re in the eastern half of the USA, for instance, there’s a transmitter in Ontario, Canada that’s still broadcasting analog on channel 2. Simply point your antenna at Ontario, aim it up into the ionosphere, and you’re all set.
We’re interested in anyone in Europe knows of similar powerful emitters in these bands.
As you’d expect, we’ve covered meteor burst before, but the ease of installation provided by the SDR + Yagi solution is ridiculous. And speaking of ridiculous, how about communicating by bouncing signals off of passing airplanes? What will those ham radio folks think of next?
Filed under: radio hacks
When [Vance] joined his local hackspace he sought a project to take advantage of the new tools at his disposal. His solution: an attractive LED colour wheel clock using neopixels driven by an NTP-synchronised ESP8266. Each neopixel illuminates a segment of the clock face through frosted diffuser, the hours are tracked as a red light, the minutes blue, and the seconds green. As each color passes another they are mixed, creating a changing colorscape. 12 neopixels are used, and the whole clock is mounted in a laser cut enclosure.
After an initial prototype on a piece of stripboard he created a PCB in KiCad, complete with space for a 3.3v regulator. This and the source code can be found on the project’s GitHub repository.
The resulting clock is a very high quality build as well as being attractive and useful in its own right. The video shows the color mixing in action, or at least the cyan and yellow products of it.
We like clocks here at Hackaday, and over the years we have featured a lot of them. Looking at light clocks, we’ve featured this Berlin clock and this Fibonacci sequence clock, but closer to the spirit of this project are the many ring clocks that have made these pages. There was this 200 LED ring clock, this huge circular LED clock with an interlocking PCB, and closer still to [Vance]’s clock, another ESP8266 ring clock design.
[via rLab – Reading Hackspace]
Filed under: clock hacks, led hacks
The piezoelectric effect is simple in its rules: Apply mechanical stress to a material and you generate an electric charge. The inverse is also true: Apply a voltage to a material, and it changes shape. This doesn’t work for everything, though. Only certain materials like crystals, some ceramics, and bone have piezoelectric properties. The piezoelectric effect is used quite a bit in electronics, so it’s no surprise that plenty of hacker projects explore this physical phenomena. This week’s Hacklet is all about some of the best projects utilizing the piezoelectric effect on Hackaday.io!
We start with [miro2424] and StrumPad. Strumpad lets you play a MIDI instrument by strumming, just like a guitar. A music keyboard acts as the guitar fretboard here – keys can be pressed to choose notes, but no sound is generated. When the strumpad is strummed, six copper strips act as capacitive sensors. Touching the strips determines which notes will be played. A piezo disc hiding below the circuit board detects how hard the notes have been strummed or tapped. The ATmega328 running the strumpad then passes the velocity and note-on MIDI messages on to a synth.
Next up is [Dan Berard] with Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Inspired by a project from [John Alexander], [Dan] created his own Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). The key to an instrument like this is precise movement. [Dan] achieves that by using a normal piezo disk. These disks are used as speakers and buzzers in everything from smoke detectors to greeting cards, so they’re common and cheap. [Dan] cut his piezo disk electrode into quadrants. Carefully controlling the voltage applied to the quadrants allows [Dan] to move his STM tip in X, Y, and Z. Incredibly, this microscope is able to create images at the atomic scale.
[Thatcher Chamberlin] is next with Low-Cost Touchscreen Anywhere. [Thatcher] used a trio of Piezo disks to make any flat surface touch sensitive. The three sensors are placed at 3 corners of a rectangle. Touches with the rectangle will create vibrations in the surface that are transmitted to the piezo sensors. By measuring the vibration time of arrival, it should be possible to determine where the surface was touched. This kind of measurement requires a decent processor, so [Thatcher] is using the ARM Cortex-M0 in NXP’s LPC1114FN28. Initial tests were promising, but we haven’t heard much from [Thatcher] on this project. If you see him online, tell him to hurry up! We’re hoping to turn our parking lot into a giant electronic chess board!
Finally, we have [Jose Ignacio Romero] with Low Power Continuity Tester. [Jose] used a Piezo element in a slightly more mundane way – as a buzzer. Who needs a whole multimeter when you’re just trying to check continuity on a few circuits? This continuity tester uses a PIC12LF1571 processor to find open and short circuits. The 5 10 bit ADC in the PIC is plenty of resolution for this sort of tester. In fact, [Jose] even included a diode test, which emits a short beep if the leads are placed across a working diode. The PIC processor uses so little power that this tester should run for around 800 hours on a CR2032 watch battery.
If you want to see more piezo projects check out our brand new piezo projects list! If I missed your project, don’t get buzzed! Drop me a message on Hackaday.io, and I’ll add it to the list. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!
Filed under: Hackaday Columns
Since the Hackaday Store Spring sale launched, hundreds of items have been flying out the door (sadly only metaphorically, not by drone delivery), and the warehouse robot uprising has been somewhat quelled.
But, all good things must come to an end. Sunday night, the big discounts will disappear and regular prices will return. Until then you can get up to 30% off a range of electronics toys, hardware tools, DIY kits, and Sparkfun items.
Have your eye on [Technolomaniac]’s Hackaday branded Arduino-compatible Spartan-6 FPGA Development Board, [Paul Stoffregen]’s super Teensy 3.2 microcontroller, or [Travis Goodspeed]’s USB fuzz-test tool Facedancer21? Get them now at a discounted price. Shipping is free on orders over $35 to the US, $50 to Canada, and $75 to the rest of the world. There’s no excuse not to start your next Hackaday.io project now.
Need more Hackaday swag? The CRT Android and Robot Head tee are 30% off, as is our women’s fit Hackaday.io t-shirt. The Hackaday edition Trinket Pro, TV-B-Gone, and Huzzah ESP8266 dev board are all 10% off.
Stocks are getting low on some items. Bus Pirates and Bulbdial Kits have been particularly popular. We’ve only got a few XuLA2-LX9 FPGA Boards, JTAGulators, Whistled and DSOtouch left. [Adam Fabio]’s Analog Gauge Stepper, [Macetech]’s RGB Shades, and [BleepLabs]’s Nebulophone have already sold out during this sale. Check out the Spring sale today and get yourself a deal before they’re gone.
Sale ends 11:59 PM PST on Sunday, 10 April (or while supplies last). Sale items are at clearance prices and are final sale. No returns accepted. We will only allow exchanges for the same item or store credit if the item is faulty.
Filed under: Hackaday Store
Cheap character LCD displays are more versatile than we give them credit for. Most of the cheapies have a 5×8 character display, which looks blocky but legible when you have an appropriate font. Where it gets fun is that most of the LCD displays also let you upload custom characters.
Taking this to the extreme, [numeric] abused the user-defined characters to write a tiny game of Tetris that would run in the 10×16 frame that you get when you combine four characters together. It’s tiny, it’s monochrome, and doesn’t play the Troika theme (which may be a good thing), but it’s playable. Check out the video below.
[numeric] has bravely put his code for doing this online (ZIP file) as well. It’s rough, to say the least — he did this in a weekend just for fun. But before you go jumping on him for C code in header files, note that this is pretty cool for a quick hack, and also that as good as the Arduino platform is at getting beginners into coding, it doesn’t teach them how to do things right. We wish our first steps into our own coding looked this cool.
This is Hackaday, and we’ve covered a couple Tetris games before. If an LCD display is too high-tech for you, consider Tetris on a DIY LED matrix. If that’s too small, how about Tetris on a skyscraper? Even HP engineers can’t resist the allure of the tiny bricks. And of course, there’s our badge for Hackaday Belgrade. It’s a simple game, and a great test of your skills on a limited system. What’s your favorite Tetris platform?
Filed under: Arduino Hacks
Imagine if the Snap-on tool truck wasn’t filled with hand tools. Imagine if that Snap-on truck was a mobile electronics surplus shop. That’s the idea behind the Travelling Hacker Box. It’s a box, shipped from hacker to hacker, filled with weird and esoteric components, enough parts to build a 3D printer, and enough capacitors to stop an elephant’s heart.
If this is the first time you’ve heard about the Travelling Hacker Box, here’s the quick FAQ to get you up to speed. Has this been done before? Yes, yes it has. The Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronics Junk was a ‘thing’ done by Evil Mad Scientist back in the ‘aughts. Hackaday (or rather the old commander in chief Eliot) received one of these boxes, and sent it off to [Bre Pettis]. Keep in mind, this was in 2008. Is there more than one Travelling Hacker Box actively travelling? No. Because I don’t want to organize a second. Either way, the Travelling Hacker Box has two goals: distance travelled and number of people visited. With just one box, we can maximize both objectives. What are the current travel plans? That’s the next paragraph.The travels of the Travelling Hacker Box Mk. 2
As of right now, the second version of the Travelling Hacker Box – the first box was stolen by some waste of oxygen in Georgia – has travelled at least 21,838 miles around the United States, visiting 11 prolific hackaday.io contributors in Wyoming, New York, Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Florida, Wisconsin, Maine, and California. The goal for the first dozen or so trips across the United States was to put miles on the box. 25,000 miles would be equivalent to a trip around the world using only US Postal Service flat rate boxes. Thanks to [Lloyd T Cannon]’s reinforcement of a medium flat rate box with canvas, foam, Kevlar, and custard, this iteration of the Travelling Hacker Box has held up spectacularly.
The goal for the next two months is to make a trip around the United States to maximize the number of US hackers who contributed to the box. This trip will start in Pasadena, CA, go up the west coast to Seattle, loop around the Canadian border to New England, go down the Eastern seaboard, across to Texas, over the desert, and land back at Home Base in Pasadena. From there, the Travelling Hacker Box is off to England, the EU, Asia, India, maybe Africa, and Australia.
While there are already a few people scheduled for this last trip around the US, more are needed. If you’re interested, check out the project on hackaday.io, request to join the project, send a message on the team chat, and generally bug me on the hackaday.io chat. There are plenty of spaces to fill in this last trip around the US and the current inventory is quite a haul. Not bad for a project that will eventually be stolen.
Filed under: Hackaday Columns, misc hacks
The time has arrived, the greatest hardware conference on earth has landed in Belgrade, Serbia. All of the talks are live streaming now! The lineup of speakers is incredible and you can bask in every minute of it.
Don’t settle for a one-way media experience. Take part in the conversation with the live chat. Click the “request to join this project” button in the upper right of the Hackaday Belgrade Project page.
There’s always one more thing, right? Hack the badge! Try your hand at writing code for the badge using the software emulator, then submit it to the competition. We’ll be starting the Badge demo party at 23:45 (UTC+1). Want someone to try your code out on a badge ahead of time? Just jump on the chat (mentioned above) and ask!
Want to feel the pulse of the hardware community in Europe… this is it.
Filed under: cons, Featured
We have to admit, we expected to be bored through [The 8-Bit Guy]’s presentation, only to stay riveted through his comparison of early graphic card technology.
Some presentations get a bit technical, which isn’t bad, but what is so interesting about this one is the clear explanation of what the market was like, and what it was like for the user during this time. For example, one bit we found really interesting was the mention of later games not supporting some of the neat color hacks for CGA because they couldn’t emulate it fully on the VGA cards they were developing on. Likewise, It was interesting to see why a standard like RGBI even existed in the first place with his comparison of text in composite, and much clearer text in RGBI.
We learned a lot, and some mysteries about the bizarre color choices in old games make a lot more sense now. Video after the break.
Filed under: classic hacks, video hacks
With a welder and a bunch of scrap, you can build just about anything that moves. Want a dune buggy? That’s just some tube and a pipe bender. Need a water pump? You might need a grinder. A small tractor? Just find some big knobby tires in a junkyard. Of course, the one thing left out of all these builds is a small motor, preferably one that can run on everything from kerosene to used cooking oil. This is the problem [Shane] is tackling for his entry to the 2016 Hackaday Prize. It’s an Open Source Two-Stroke Diesel Engine that’s easy for anyone to build and has minimal moving parts.
[Shane]’s engine is based on the Junkers Jumo 205 motor, a highly successful aircraft engine first produced in the early 1930s and continued production through World War II. This is a weird engine, with two opposed pistons in one cylinder that come very close to slamming together. It’s a great design for aircraft engines due to it’s lightweight construction. And the simplicity of the system lends itself easily to wartime field maintenance.
The Jumo 205 was a monstrous 12-piston, 6-cylinder engine, but for [Shane]’s first attempt, he’s scaling the design down to a 50cc motor with the intent of scaling the design up to 125cc and 250cc. So far, [Shane] has about 30 hours of simple CAD work behind him and a ton of high-level FEA work ahead of him. Then [Shane] will actually need to build a prototype.
This is actually [Shane]’s second entry to the Hackaday Prize with this idea. Last year, he threw his hat into the ring with the same idea, but building a working diesel power plant is a lot of work. Too much for one man-year, certainly, so we can’t wait to see the progress [Shane] makes this year.The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:
Filed under: The Hackaday Prize
What’s more seductive than a claw machine? After all, how hard can it be to snag that $2 teddy bear that is practically poking out of the pile of merchandise? But after 20 quarters, you realize you’ve spent $5, and you still don’t have anything to show for it.
[CreativeGuy88] decided to build his own claw machine (that way, he gets to keep the quarters). This sizable build is as much woodworking project as anything. However, the motors and control joysticks require electrical wiring and [CreativeGuy88] used Lego bricks to make much of the carriage.
The only part he didn’t create from scratch was the actual claw. Instead, he bought a replacement claw for a commercial machine. It uses an electromagnet to engage the grip. You can see a video of the machine in action, below.
Filed under: misc hacks
Fictiv runs a 3D printing shop. They have a nice interface and an easy to understand pricing scheme. As community service, or just for fun, they decided to tear-down two robot vacuums and critique their construction while taking really nice pictures.
The first to go is the iRobot 650 model. For anyone who’s ever taken apart an iRobot product, you’ll be happy to know that it’s the same thousand-screws-and-bits-of-plastic ordeal that it always was. However, rather than continue their plague of the worst wire routing imaginable, they’ve switched to a hybrid of awfulness and a clever card edge system to connect the bits and pieces.
The other bot is the Neato XV-11. It has way fewer screws and plastic parts, and they even tear down the laser rangefinder module that’s captured many a hacker’s attention. The wire routing inside the Neato is very well done and nicely terminated in hard-to-confuse JST connectors. Every key failure point on the Neato, aside from the rangefinder, can be replaced without disassembling the whole robot. Interestingly, the wheels on both appear to be nearly identical.
In the end they rate the Neato a better robot, but the iRobot better engineered. Though this prize was given mostly for the cleverness of the card edge connectors.
Filed under: robots hacks
Over the last few years, news that police, military, and intelligence organizations use portable cellular phone surveillance devices – colloquially known as the ‘Stingray’ – has gotten out, despite their best efforts to keep a lid on the practice. There are legitimate privacy and legal concerns, but there’s also some fun tech in mobile cell-phone stations.
Off-the-shelf Stingray devices cost somewhere between $16,000 and $125,000, far too rich for a poor hacker’s pocketbook. Of course, what the government can do for $100,000, anyone else can do for five hundred. Here’s how you build your own Stingray using off the shelf hardware.
[Simone] has been playing around with a brand new BladeRF x40, a USB 3.0 software defined radio that operates in full duplex. It costs $420. This, combined with two rubber duck antennas, a Raspberry Pi 3, and a USB power bank is all the hardware you need. Software is a little trickier, but [Simone] has all the instructions.
Of course, if you want to look at the less legitimate applications of this hardware, [Simone]’s build is only good at receiving/tapping/intercepting unencrypted GSM signals. It’s great if you want to set up a few base stations at Burning Man and hand out SIM cards like ecstasy, but GSM has encryption. You won’t be able to decrypt every GSM signal this system can see without a little bit of work.
Luckily, GSM is horribly, horribly broken. At CCCamp in 2007, [Steve Schear] and [David Hulton] started building a rainbow table of the A5 cyphers that is used on a GSM network between the handset and tower. GSM cracking is open source, and there are flaws in GPRS, the method GSM networks use to relay data transmissions to handsets. In case you haven’t noticed, GSM is completely broken.
Thanks [Justin] for the tip.
Filed under: Cellphone Hacks, radio hacks
It’s not unusual for new technologies to preserve vestiges of those that preceded them. If an industry has an inertia of doing things in a particular way then it makes commercial sense for any upstarts to build upon those established practices rather than fail to be adopted. Thus for example some industrial PLCs with very modern internals can present interfaces that hark back to their relay-based ancestors, or deep within your mobile phone there may still be AT commands being issued that would be familiar from an early 1980s modem.
Just occasionally though an attempt to marry a new technology to an old one becomes an instant anachronism, something that probably made sense at the time but through the lens of history seems just a bit crazy. And so we come to the subject of this piece, the rein-operated agricultural tractor.An advertisement for the Detroit Tractor Company in the Automobile Trade Journal, July 1913. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
At the turn of the twentieth century as the first internal combustion engine powered tractors were being developed, farmers had been using horses for motive power for centuries. Steam power was no stranger to farming, but was not a practical proposition for everyday use. Railroads could afford the staff and infrastructure to support steam locomotives 24/7, farmers couldn’t.
It thus made sense for tractor manufacturers to try to give the farmer something he could use with his existing skills and even his existing horse-drawn implements, so several manufacturers offered machines that were controlled not by levers, pedals, or a steering wheel, but by reins. Period advertisements and photos such as this one from the Wisconsin Historical Society, or rare survivors like this two-cylinder Fowler found on Flickr show these machines being offered by a variety of brands in the first couple of decades on the last century.
Sit-on tractors with what we would now call conventional controls of course won the day, and by the 1920s they dominated in the fields. Horse-drawn implements were adapted for them, and the farming world moved on.
US Patent US2197248A, 1937. The [Bonham] brothers’ Power Horse tractor. Via Google Patents.But the story of rein-operated tractors was not over, for in the mid-1930s two Utah brothers, [Albert] and [Bond Bonham], created the Power Horse, a skid-steered 4-wheel-drive compact tractor. Though it was a capable machine and its 4-wheel-drive put it in many ways ahead of its time, those reins, its complexity, and its relatively high price meant it failed to capture a significant market.
The Power Horse is the most numerous survivor among rein-operated tractors, so as a result there are plenty of pictures and YouTube videos of them to be found. By all accounts they require some skill to drive, as while their operation resembles more recent machines such as a Bobcat skid-steer loader there is a significant possibility for error. The instinctive pull on the reins to stop a team of horses for example risks puting the Power Horse into reverse.
If there is a modern parallel to be drawn from the story of rein-operated tractors it is one of how a user interface works with an intelligent machine. Reins worked with a team of horses because a horse is not quite as dumb an animal as it might seem. A self-preservation instinct might stop the horse from doing something disastrous like reversing into a barn wall for example, while a tractor has no such scruples and demands a more hands-on interface.
So the rein-operated tractor remains only as an object of curiosity at agricultural shows like the Power Horse shown in the video below the break. Classic Retrotechtacular fodder, complex machines that made a lot more sense at the time they were invented than they do with the benefit of hindsight.
There is something very satisfying about working with large pieces of agricultural machinery, especially those that are slightly out of the ordinary. We’ve featured one or two tractors here over the years, most recently a screw-drive conversion and an autonomous grain-collecting tractor, we’ve covered the restoration of an industrial tractor, and the attempt by John Deere to use DRM to lock tractor owners into their maintenance program.
Filed under: Retrotechtacular, tool hacks