digital computers are fast, but analog computers can be just as powerful. This mind boggling contraption is a computer based on communicating water tubes, capable of solving partial differential equations. The most astonishing fact about is that it was built in 1936!
Vladimir Lukyanov's marvelous water computer.Built in 1936, this machine was "the world's first computer for solving [partial] differential equations," which "for half a century has been the only means of calculations of a wide range of problems in mathematical physics." Absolutely its most amazing aspect is that solving such complex equations meant playing around with a series of interconnected, water-filled glass tubes. You "calculated" with plumbing.
One reason that historic mechanical computing devices are moving back into the spotlight is the advent of micro mechanical systems (MEMS). By recreating something like an abacus on nanometer scales, powerful automation can be achieved outside the realm of digital (binary) logic.
the Space Shuttle was an enormous technological achievement, and an epic failure of sustainable space development; and while the high cost of its operation is often cited as a reason for its ultimate demise, what’s less known is the cost paid in terms of other programs sacrificed to fund the Shuttle’s development.
As the Apollo program wound down in the late 60?s, NASA began to think about how it could reuse some of the technology and systems that had been developed for Apollo. This recycling effort was called the Apollo Applications Program. Apollo Applications led to Skylab, America's first space station, but it was intended for the program to be more than just a one-shot. Skylab was to be followed by Skylab II , which would be more reusable and incorporate the first use of artificial gravity. NASA hoped the Skylabs would lead to a 12-man space station and then a 50-man space base. There were also concepts for a lunar Skylab in polar orbit about the Moon. One by one, all of these concepts were dropped as NASA was forced to divert funding to its priority program - the development of the Space Shuttle.
Citizens in Space has great article on programs being planned by NASA following the Apollo era, which never saw realization because of the Shuttle programs insatiable resource drain. Of cour ...
Slate has an intriguing article on why the space business is still stuck on rocketry as the only means of getting around. The claim is we have essentially optimized ourselves into a corner, remaining stuck in a local peak and unwilling/unable to cross through the valley into much more promising territory. We got to this spot due to an original set of motivations not at all related to space travel:
[…] the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:
World’s most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman
Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time
A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator
Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system
Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability
Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline
an interesting video about both historic and recent efforts to accelerate payloads into space using very large guns, rail launchers, etc. The concept has been around for a while (much longer than real space travel), and over time there have been a number of large projects to make it real.
The net has been abuzz with the demise of hostess twinkies lately, but what few people remember is that at one point twinkies were considered the food of the future. Together with scifi visions of people eating just a couple of pills (or soylent green), twinkies were cast as representing the goodness of fully automated (robotic = futuristic) food production.
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time in American history when artificial foods and mechanically produced meals seemed like the height of a healthy civilization. Those were the days when TV dinners were awesome rather than sad. […] Back in the 1940s and 50s, few people would have protested at the idea of eating genetically modified bananas and tomatoes. Hell, soon we would be eating food pills and extracting tomatoes from the air using our replicators!
Now twinkies are seen more often as a symbol of the misguided nutritional choices that brought us the US obesity epidemic. It makes one wonder, what other visions of the future we hold now as positive might be similarly misguided?