Tag Archive for 'ingenuity'

Meet a Mathematical Inventor!

This is Jaen-Antoine Lafay’s Hélice a Calcul, a rather unusual logarithmic slide rule. But Lafay himself, its inventor, was just as unusual, not to say quirky… a fascinating lone innovator waging war on an indifferent world.

Lafay's Hélice a Calcul

To illustrate, here is a section from Lafay’s marketing brochure:

Oh, routine! What wrong do you not do, firstly to your devotees who, to avoid a little effort of adapting to innovative tools and processes, which would render them remarkable service, are unwilling to budge from their old deplorable habits,… and then to these poor Don Quixotes who, in believing they might overcome them, only bruise themselves against your incredible force of inertia? And yet, poor fool that I am, with the present brochure I resume a battle that I should have abandoned, moved again by the illusion that I may end up victorious.

See what I mean? And yet, he was an innovative entrepreneur, and you may enjoy the new article I devote to him on my History of Computing exhibition.



Lieutenant Brenske’s Marsch-Zirkel

In the days before GPS, Google Maps and Waze, people used maps; and to figure how long it would take to get from A to B on a map, you could make excellent use of a Marsch-Zirkel, or march compasses… like the lovely device described in this new article on my History of Computing exhibition.

Lieutenant Brenske's Marsch-Zirkel

Dating back to the late 19th century, this ingenious little tool helps you figure the distance and the time to cover it – with infantry or cavalry.

Take a look!

Another triumph of improvisation!

New on my Possibly Interesting web site: Cloning a Vibroplex bug, where I describe the venerable Vibroplex semi-automatic telegraph key – and the improvised clone I made as a young radio amateur.

Vibroplex "bug" semi-automatic telegraph key and its homemade clone


Ingenious design sighting at Heathrow

Here is a bit of outstandingly smart design I saw in Terminal Five at London Heathrow airport.

Heathrow Terminal 5 signTo fully appreciate the ingenuity, you should know that there are two security inspection areas (you know, where they check your shoes and X-Ray your hand luggage): Security North and Security South. Both serve the same function, and they’re located a minute’s walk apart in this huge hall.

What this real-time information sign (and the similar one at the South area) does, is tell you that right now, you’ll be much better off to make that one minute trek, because the other area has a much shorter line.



My Dad’s tin suitcase

My father, God rest his soul, was a young physics student when Israel’s war of independence broke out, and he was among the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the quarter fell to the superior forces of the Jordanian Legion, he was taken prisoner and spent 9 months in a POW camp near Mafraq in Transjordan.

When he came back he brought with him a humble but interesting artifact: a small suitcase, about the size of a modern carry-on, made entirely of tinplate. This survived to this day, and has an interesting story to tell.

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

My father, it turns out, had ample time on his hands in that camp, and he devoted it to studying Physics (he was to become a Physics professor for the rest of his life) and to teaching it to any of the other prisoners who found it preferable to doing nothing. In return, one unnamed prisoner used his skill as a tinsmith to produce this suitcase for my Dad.

The source of the material is obvious if you turn the thing over:

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

This was a standard tin of biscuits, provided to the camp’s residents either by the Jordanians or by some welfare organization. They must’ve been rather stale, as they date to 1945, but in war you aren’t choosy; meanwhile the empty tin was recycled into this suitcase.

The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this item is wonderful indeed, considering the difficult conditions of its manufacture. The potentially sharp edges are all doubled up for safety and convenience. There is a folding handle, hinges, even a hasp – and everything is made from tinplate and steel wire. Here are some photos of the details:

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

Good job, unknown tinker!


An amazingly ingenious retro kitchen item

Here is an item I saw on the wonderful Nostalgia Online site. They have a large collection of vintage kitchen utensils, most of which I do recall from my childhood, and many of which I run into as I rummage in flea markets in search of computing history items. However, this one I’ve never seen before, and the ingenious way it solves a real problem simply blew my mind.

Milk heaterThis, folks, is a milk heater. The problem it solves is that whereas a watched pot doesn’t boil, the moment you turn your back on it it’s liable to boil over, which in the case of milk makes a real mess.

The solution is this: you put the milk in the outer pan, and a little water in the central cylinder. Since the water will boil a little before the milk (remember your chemistry!), it will activate the steam whistle at the top and alert you that the milk will boil in a moment.

I remember when raising a baby I also wanted to solve the boiling problem for baby formula, but as an electro-optics student my thoughts were along lines of detecting the steam above the liquid by its optical absorption (I never realized that over-complicated scheme). But the whistling pot seen here is way better, I think – and it did get used, evidently!

You can see this, and lots more retro items, here. If you can read Hebrew you can even read all about them! 🙂

Creative eco-design at Kibbutz Neot Semadar

I spent a weekend with family in Neot Semadar (Shizafon), a Kibbutz in the Negev desert in the south of Israel. And I mean desert: he place is searing hot in the day, cold at night, and all around is sand, rock and the majestic desolation typical of deserts anywhere.

In Israel we’re used to transforming the desert, using irrigation to grow crops; but Neot Semadar went one step further. They built the Kibbutz pretty much with their own hands and to their own designs, and they applied an eco-friendly philosophy throughout. At the same time they gave free rein to imaginative artistic expression, with amazing results.

Most impressive is the arts and crafts center, lovingly constructed over more than a decade. Housing multiple art workshops, it combines an exuberant style reminiscent of Gaudi’s Barcelona works with a passive cooling system in the central tower (now nearing completion). Water will be sprayed at the top of this huge hollow chimney, and its evaporation will cool the air; the cold air sinks rapidly, and is spread throughout the building through underground conduits.

The arts and crafts center at Kibbutz Neot Semadar

The arts and crafts center is finished with loving detail; everything is decorated with animal and abstract shapes, like here:

The arts and crafts center at Kibbutz Neot Semadar - details

The same passive cooling concept is used throughout the Kibbutz; here is a typical family home, built of thick adobe (mud) bricks that keep the inside cool in the day and warm at night. The small tower above feeds the desert cooler system. This works quite well, I can attest.  The entire place is cooled with similar systems; not an energy-guzzling air conditioner is to be seen.

House in Kibbutz Neot Semadar

The Kibbutzniks here have managed to make the desert yield organic crops that let them produce and sell excellent dates and other fruits, as well as wine, cheese, and olive oil. Of course they use irrigation, and the main water reservoir for this is an artificial lake, complete with fish and lush green vegetation. The lake is fed with residual water from a nearby desalination plant, thereby recycling otherwise useless water to grow salinity-tolerant crops.

Artificial lake at Kibbutz Neot Semadar

With so much sunshine, it was inevitable that solar energy be used – here is a tractor shed with photovoltaic cells covering its roof.


Lastly, a general view of the center of Neot Semadar. You see the arts and crafts center and a few of the residential homes, all with their funny cooling towers; and you see how improbably green it all is, against the background of the barren desert mountains.

General view - Kibbutz Neot Semadar

For more and larger images, see my flickr photo set.

Information about Neot Semadar is on the Kibbutz’s web site.

The moat in Ben Gurion airport

There is no place quite like Israel, and this is reflected in many design decisions made in this country. For instance, consider the Arrivals Hall at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, which is designed around our family-centric cultural attitude.

While in many airports arriving passengers just go out into the street to pick a taxi, in Israel they go out into a huge arrivals hall. You see, it isn’t exactly about arrivals… it’s about reunion. Its Hebrew name translates as “Welcomers hall”, which reflects the fact that Israelis just love to welcome their friends and relatives when they come from overseas. Entire families show up to pick up their returning kin, and they can’t wait to hug and kiss them! Hence the huge waiting hall. This setup poses a unique design problem: how to allow the arriving passengers, as they file out of the door from Customs with their luggage carts, to come into the hall without this door being jammed with hugging, kissing family groups?

In the beginning, in the old Terminal 1, the police kept the crowd away with a plain crowd control fence; which of course only made my countrymen laugh. Would they let a flimsy fence keep them from embracing auntie a few seconds earlier? The younger kids would simply squeeze through or jump over the barrier. So when they built a proper arrivals hall they replaced the fence with a real moat, a long pool with water fountains in the middle. Moats have effectively kept attackers at bay here since the days of the crusaders, so this actually worked. And when they built the new Terminal 3, they kept the idea, now as a triangular glass fence with water flowing down its edges (a good idea, since kids can’t fall into the moat in this arrangement). You can see one of many sections of this barrier in the photo.

The water barrier at the Ben Gurion International Airport arrivals hall

So now the families wait behind the water, and strain their eyes to see who will be first to spot auntie as she comes out that door at the far end of the enclosed area… and to help them in this, the airport has placed a large screen above the door that shows live video of the people approaching the door on its other, hidden side.

What a family-friendly airport! 🙂

Headup wordpress plugin – add semantic browsing to your blog!

I’ve mentioned the headup publisher widget before. This nifty add-in identifies entities (places, people, companies, books, etc) mentioned in a site it’s installed on, marks them up with a dotted underline, and when you mouse over them a small pop-up comes up with information, news, photos and videos about that place/person/whatever.

That was then. Now Semantinet, the start-up in Herzliya where I work one day each week, has packaged the capability as a WordPress plugin, which means that a blogger can add the capability to any WordPress blog in a mere minute or two. If you have a WordPress blog, you can download the plugin here.

What’s more, the product had evolved, and it now includes a tab called “friends” in addition to the ones for photos, videos, and the rest. This tab – once you connect it to your Facebook account – shows you how the entity being viewed is connected to the people you know, like which of your friends live in the place or work at the company.

Pretty powerful capability – and easier than ever to include. Which is what I just did – mouse over the marked up words anywhere on this blog and see it in action!

Japan 2: Optimized asymmetric staircases

More from Amir’s visit to Japan:

This staircase gives access to the trains at a Tokyo underground station. Given rush hour crowd density, its designers did well to split it in two, to separate the up and down streams of commuters.

Asymmetric Staircase at Ginza underground station, Tokyo

But note how the two sides are of different width. Someone characterized the traffic and found that at peak times more people will be going up than down. Other staircases might have the reverse arrangement, each optimized to its location and usage. These designers took a scarce resource, in this case stairwell width, and allocated it in a totally optimized manner; a very Japanese (and very intelligent) design approach.