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writing for godot

US, the book to make the country for US, chapter 2

Written by Tom Cantlon   
Friday, 05 February 2021 05:17

This is the 2nd chapter in the book:


Everything is Done By US

We Can Make it For US

by Tom Cantlon


The list of links to chapters can be found at:

From Our Hands


After World War II people had a sense that it was US, the people, who were building a great nation, who had saved the world, and who were making these wonderful products. The sense that it was some of US, the engineers among US, who were making these great innovations. It was about US, and we were proud. Now people have more of a sense of it's all about the powerful interests, the big companies, the products that seem magical, and we are just crumbs on the table, lucky to be there. We have lost the sense of the pride we owe to ourselves for having made the amazing, rich, powerful country and economy that we have made for ourselves.


Magical Products

Part of what has caused US to lose track of our importance, in everything that is made and done, is the types of products we use these days. When a typical manufacturing job involved bolting a fender onto a car on an assembly line, we had some sense of our role in that product. These were products on a human scale. You could imagine how human hands had been involved in assembling it. You had some sense that it was people who built that. Now with products like smartphones, with circuits so tiny you need a microscope to see them, it's hard to imagine how humans had any part in creating that, other than maybe to place the circuit board in the case and close it up.

But every item that is too small to be made by hand had to first start by some person making something by hand, which was then cleverly used to scale down, smaller in each successive generation of equipment, until we had machines that could make tiny parts. But it had to start from US. Whether it's computer chips or rockets carrying astronauts -- astronauts who are also part of US -- we had to be involved.

It applies to the giant companies too, many of which started as tiny businesses created by someone from among US who decided to launch out into their own work.

Following are a few stories of how products built by hand led to the amazing products of today and how some of those businesses that now seem almost magical started in someone's basement. This is not meant to be a complete history or give all the details. Rather it is just to prompt our minds to remember how, in one way or another, it all has to come from our hands.


Steam and the early carving of metal

A good book on the whole topic of how rough, manually made, early technology was refined to the current amazing state is Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists, How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. Several of the examples here he covers in great detail.

One example has to do with steam engines. Steam was vitally important in moving from handmade products to machine-made products, those that would be too hard to make by hand. Take early car engines that had to have large parts carved out of metal, something that's hard to do in any number by hand. Steam power drove the machinery in shops that could do such work. But how did the steam engines get built? They couldn't be made very well until a fellow created a way to bore out accurate cylinders, which are the heart of steam engines, in metal. And how were those cylinders carved? Using the power of water wheels. Typically, these were in a barn-sized building next to a river with a large bucket-wheel or paddle-wheel being driven by the passing river. And how were those water-wheels made? You might guess it: by hand, out of wood.


Precise measurements

The engineers in those early days of machining figured out ways to use rather crude equipment to make slightly finer equipment, which could then make yet finer equipment, so that over time they were able to make smaller and smaller parts with greater and greater accuracy. But making precise equipment requires precise measurement tools. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. You need accurate tools to make accurate machines, but you need accurate machines in order to make accurate tools.

How to get started? One of the key steps was a measuring tool, a micrometer, that was amazingly accurate for its time, created in 1805. It could measure accurately and consistently down to a ten thousandth of an inch. That's roughly thirty times thinner than a human hair. The micrometer works off a long screw with very fine threads, in this case 50 threads to the inch. That's extremely fine. And this one was five feet long. How was that made? Engineer Henry Maudslay carved it out on a lathe but with only manual control, nothing to keep it precise, because there was nothing then that could create a screw so precise. As Winchester describes in his book, Maudlay tried at least forty times, each time finding the results a little off, maybe 49 threads here, 51 threads there, until finally he made one that was right along its whole length. That, in turn, allowed engineers to work much more precisely from then on. But it had to start with Maudlay and his persistent and amazing skill at manual lathe work.


Handy work in space

Let's jump forward to higher tech examples. Sometimes the tech just isn't as high as you might think. In the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, is the capsule that John Glenn was in when he was the first human to circle the Earth. You can look into it and see the control panel. If you look carefully you'll notice it's handmade. It's just thin sheets of aluminum that someone in a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) machine shop cut to size, drilled holes into, and attached with fat screws, probably screwed into place by hand. You might find nicer looking work in the custom dash panels of some cars that hobbyists make, but then they weren't going for looks, just for functionality. You can see pictures at the links to the Air and Space Museum. We got into space not by magic tech, but by the careful hands-on work of many of US.


The finest craft on your arm

Back to Mr. Winchester’s book, he also covers how some of the most expensive watches in the world are still made by hand. The Seiko company knows how to make watches of all types and sizes, cranking them out of their factories fast and inexpensively. But their very best watches involve such fine parts and such careful assembly that they can't replicate them with machines. They still have a crew of highly skilled workers dedicated to hand assembling their best products, because it's the only way they can get it done to the level of quality they want.


Computer chips by hand

Silicon computer chips are created by placing a design of the desired circuit onto silicon and then following a process to grow that into the basic silicon that is used in the chips. But how does that design get put there in the first place? These days there are many steps done by computers, but to make the first silicon chips there were no computers to do that, certainly not ones up to doing the kind of graphic circuit design done now. It involved two steps, and they started by hand.

The way silicon chips are designed is just an extension of the way circuit boards are designed. Again, now it's done by computer, but the earliest ones were done by laying out the circuit lines with tape, as will be described. Home hobbyists can still make their own boards this way.

Black tape is laid down on clear plastic. This marks where the copper lines on the circuit board should go, connecting one component to another. This is done at a scale several times larger than what the circuit board will be. Plastic boards, which will become the circuit boards, have a solid layer of copper on top of them. There's a special light-sensitive coating over the copper. Light is shown through the clear plastic and reduced in size through lenses to project onto the circuit board. Then acid is used to eat away the copper except in the places where the wires should be, the places that didn't get exposed to light because the black tape marked these lines. The special light-sensitive coating works that way.

That's the way early electronics boards were made, especially prototypes and one-of-a-kind boards. Even later, production boards were nearly as handmade. Drafters at drafting tables would draw much neater and more precise designs which would later be projected in the same way, but the creation of the design was still a matter of hand drawing of lines where the circuits should go. Some good pictures of both the tape method and the drafting method are with the notes at the end of this book.

A little later, in 1958, when the first silicon wafers were being created, that is, whole circuits on silicon, what would be called "solid state", they used the same method. They drew out the design they wanted and then projected it by the same photographic techniques onto the silicon. Gordon Moore, the pioneer of the field, later noted that the same photo-projection technique they had used to make early circuit boards, they decided to use for making early silicon wafers. So, circuits laid out by hand. That was the start of the computer revolution.


Forging a huge metal ring

If you simply want to see an impressive example of hands creating something that seems beyond what could be handmade, there is a video link, on YouTube of course, of some men in China turning a large block of steel into a ring. It's not clear if they're making something like a train wheel, or maybe a mating ring for some huge industrial pipe fitting, but they're forming this huge, heavy ring by hand. They start with a white-hot block of steel, several feet per side. It's not entirely by hand; they do have a giant, heavy forge hammer that repeatedly drops on it to do the hammering, but it's just a dumb, straight-down drop each time. All of the shaping of it, from block to circle, to just the right thickness, to hammering the hole and cone shape required, is all guided by men using long tong tools to rapidly spin it, flip it, and manipulate it between hammer drops. It's just an impressive example of something you wouldn't have imagined could be made by hand, but they do.




The next installment concludes the From Our Hands portion, with a review of how some of the biggest and highest tech companies started as garage operations, how some of the most impressive tech inventions were created not by tech companies but by clever individual engineers within those companies, and how the Macintosh and the iPhone weren't created by Apple, but by a long series of engineers creating innovations before Apple, and then continued by individual engineers within Apple. Apple may be the name on the front, but every step was carried out for these various companies by some of US. your social media marketing partner
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