Tag Archive for 'History'

Independence Day pins: a case study in deteriorating design

Unlike the US, Israel doesn’t celebrate its Independence Day by sending its president to fight invading aliens in huge spaceships (our presidents are too advanced in years for that). We do, however, have other traditions, and one of the earliest of these has been for the Jewish National Fund to issue each year a small lapel pin celebrating the young state’s birthday. Since my childhood these would be sold for a small donation to the JNF’s activity, and I’ve kept some of them and bought some others later, making a nice little collection.

Here they are. Each row stands for one decade; the oldest pin I have, with the stylized number eight, is from 1956; the newest, #40, is from 1988.

Israeli independence day lapel pins                                        Click photo to enlarge

And as I look at the series, I’m amazed to see that while the state of Israel has progressed from humble and austere beginnings to become today’s vibrant “start-up nation”, these pins have moved in the opposite direction: their design and quality of manufacture have degenerated considerably with the advancing years!

Like this:

Israeli independence day lapel pins

This photo shows the pins from years 20, 25 and 38. See what I mean? The leftmost pin is cast in a solid bronze alloy; all the years before it use embossed metal too. But year 25 uses a flat metal disk with a paper sticker, as do subsequent years (and years 31 and 37 shamelessly recycle the same design on the paper!); then, in year 38, we see a move to the el-cheapo buttons used for political rallies and countless other mundane uses.

And it gets worse. Year 39 had three versions: the cheap button, a flimsy plastic “paperclip”, and a disposable paper sticker!

Israeli independence day lapel pins

Incidentally, year 10 also had a choice; but not between flimsy and disposable. In that year there were two respectable, embossed metal pins – one in tinplate and one in bronze.

Israeli independence day lapel pins

Consider the change in raw materials in this sequence:

Israeli independence day lapel pins

Bronze in year 10 (this was the only material in use in the first decade), tinplate in year 16, and the yucky plastic in year 39.

Lastly, consider the complexity of structure in the year 14 pin from 1962 (the wooden backplane was meant to celebrate the JNF’s highly successful reforestation efforts), in contrast to the trivial technique in the paper sticker from 1987.

Israeli independence day lapel pins

Of course, we see this decline of craftsmanship in many manufactured goods in our modern world – and here it is captured nicely in a microcosm of ID lapel pins!

Cherubs and Technology

I wrote recently about the batch of WW1 postcards left by my great-uncle Ettore… and while the cards described in that article focus on hate propaganda, there was also one postcard  that is quite endearing, and here it is:

A WW1 postcard of the Italian Signal Corps

This postcard was issued 100 years ago by the Third Regiment of Telegraph Operators – basically, a unit of the Signal Corps of the Royal Italian Army. Click it to get a closer look!

The endearing scene shows some classic Italian city (looks like Florence), a bunch of cute cherubs using a very early telephone, a war goddess (?),  and various electrical gear – antennas, telegraph lines, and unidentified apparatus that no doubt would be familiar to Guglielmo Marconi.

Those ancient telegraphers were really proud of their trade; they could see how wonderful, how outright angelic, the ability to talk at a distance was. Today we have instant connectivity, anytime, anywhere… but that early innocent sense of wonder is gone, and I can’t think of one internet provider that uses angels in their advertising.

Those were the days…

WW1 Propaganda: a sinister form of art

WW1 Italian military propaganda postcardNew on my Possibly Interesting site: Heroes and Barbarians, Propaganda postcards from the Great War.

Showcasing a collection of postcards issued to Italian soldiers in the first world war, in order to urge them to fight in that tragically senseless conflict.

An illuminating, if disturbing, lesson in how to craft hate propaganda.



Two primordial hunters

Nimrod, by Itzhak DanzigerOne of the most famous sculptures made in Israel is “Nimrod”, created in 1939 by Itzhak Danziger.

A powerful figure in red sandstone, it depicts a naked young man with a falcon on his shoulder and a sword held behind his back, looking intensely ahead.

This is Nimrod, the biblical great-grandson of Noah, king of a number of  cities in Mesopotamia, and traditionally considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel. He is also cited as a mighty hunter, the original prototypical hunter of animals.

So what?

So, in October 1988 the National Geographic Magazine published on its cover a photo of a small carving, in mammoth ivory, of a male human head. This was found in Dolní Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, a rich archaeological site that had yielded a number of sculptures, including one of those obese “Venus” figurines. The carving is dated to some 26,000 years ago or earlier, and is the earliest representation of a specific person that has come to us from our ancestors.

And it instantly evoked in me the face of Danziger’s Nimrod, as you can see in the photos below:

Danziger's Nimrod and the ivory head from Dolni Vestonice

Both figures represent hunters (well, we can’t know for sure what the caveman on the left did, but I doubt he was into computer programming). Both hunters come from the dawn of human history. And both have the same indescribable expression on their face.

What a cool coincidence!


Timeless Dice


Some designs never change…

Consider this one:

Play Dice

Two instances of the same product exactly – but separated in time by two millennia. The die on the left is one of a collection of bone dice I saw in the archeological museum of Pompeii. The design worked then, and it works now. Nothing to improve…

Here is the lot of them (pardon the poor camera on my then cellphone):

Dice from Pompeii

[Photo credit for the modern die: Double Six Dice by Joy Shrader ]

Excellent human engineering in the Small Calculator

A century ago Gilbert Small, of Waltham, Massachusetts, invented a compact pocket calculator that is small, effective, and designed with special attention to usability.

Read the new article on my History of Computing site to see what he’d crafted!

The Small calculator

A lovely 18th c. gauging slide rule

The art of Gauging and Ullaging,  i.e. assessing the quantity of  liquor, beer or malt in a barrel in order to tax it properly, used to be an important application of mathematics, and resulted in the development of some intricate computing devices over the last few centuries.

E. Roberts Everard-style Gauging SlideruleCheck the new article on my History of Computing site to see a lovely Everard-style gauging slide rule dating back to the 18th century, and learn how to apply it in case you ever need to ullage a cask of ale!

Elisha Kally’s wondrous calculator

New article on my History of Computing site: Elisha Kally’s water flow calculator, a sophisticated network calculator based on the Hazen-Williams formula.

Elisha Kally's Hazen-Williams calculator

This ingenious slide rule can calculate flows and hydraulic head losses in complicated networks comprising up to six different pipes,  all at once.

Check it out!

The HP150 Touch Screen: a cautionary tale

Not all cool ideas are actually good.

Back in 1983, around the time the IBM PC made its debut, my boss at Intel had acquired a very innovative personal computer: the Hewlett Packard 150.

I remember it well; it was a really cool machine – at least in the context of its day: it had an 8MHz (yes, 0.008 GHz) CPU and 256KB (0.000256 GB) memory, as well as two floppy disks of 270KB each. It also had that solid look and feel that the better companies gave their machines when they could charge thousands of dollars for them. But what made it super cool was the screen, and the ad here shows you how proud HP was of developing it:

HP 150 poster

Photo source: Vintage Computing and Gaming.

The HP 150 had the first Touch Screen I’ve ever seen on a commercial computer. It was actually a regular nine inch green CRT, with a bezel that had holes all around it with IR emitters and detectors in them; sticking a finger at the screen would block some IR rays and tell the computer where you were pointing. And this is where the designers had failed: they forgot that the human arm is not designed to be held in the air, poking at a surface in front of one’s face. The resultant muscle fatigue was known as Gorilla Arm…

That alone was enough to relegate this screen to the junk heap of failed ideas, and touch screens would have to wait for tablets and devices that can lie flat on a tabletop or be held in one’s hand.

Still, you have to admit it was a good looking machine!

HP 150 computer
Photo source: Computer museum, Stuttgart University.


How the Slide Rule got its Cursor

A new article on my History of Computing site traces the evolution of the straight slide rule over its 3 centuries of service.

Duplex cursor, end of 19th centuryFrom a design perspective this progress is an interesting one to follow because the same basic principle evolves through a sequence of progressively more effective designs, culminating in the familiar form that had helped put a man on the moon in the sixties.

Check it out here!