Some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

The origin of Blue Origin sounds fascinating:

Jeff Bezos remembers being 5 years old and watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white television. The event triggered a lifelong obsession. He spent his boyhood in Houston and moved to Florida by high school, but he passed his summers on his grandparents’ farm in rural Cotulla, Texas. There, his grandfather — a former top Defense Department official — introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.

When he was a junior at Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School, his physics teacher, Deana Ruel, tasked the students with designing a piece of playground equipment. Bezos’ idea was to build one in low gravity. “One day I’m going to be the first one to have an amusement park on the moon,” he told Ruel. He promised her a ticket. For a newspaper profile, Bezos spouted O’Neillian talking points to a local reporter curious about his space obsession: “The Earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.”

Bezos went to Princeton, where he attended seminars led by O’Neill and became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. At one meeting, Bezos was regaling attendees with visions of hollowing out asteroids and transforming them into space arks when a woman leapt to her feet. “How dare you rape the universe!” she said, and stormed out. “There was a pause, and Jeff didn’t make a public comment,” says Kevin Polk, another member of the club. “But after things broke up, Jeff said, ‘Did she really defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?’”

After Princeton, Bezos put his energies toward finance, working at a hedge fund. He left it to move to Seattle and start Amazon. Not long after, he was seated at a dinner party with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Their conversation quickly left the bounds of Earth. “There’s sort of a matching game that goes on where you climb a ladder, figuring out the level of someone’s fanaticism about space by how many details they know,” Stephenson says. “He was incredibly high on that ladder.” The two began spending weekend afternoons shooting off model rockets.

In 1999, Stephenson and Bezos went to see the movie October Sky, about a boy obsessed with rocketry, and stopped for coffee afterward. Bezos said he’d been thinking for a long time about starting a space company. “Why not start it today?” Stephenson asked. The next year, Bezos incorporated a company called Blue Operations LLC. Stephenson secured space in a former envelope factory in a funky industrial area in south Seattle. Other early members of the team included Pablos Holman, a self-described computer hacker, and serial inventor Danny Hillis, who had crafted a proposal to build a giant mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years. Bezos also recruited Amazon’s general counsel, Alan Caplan, a fellow space nerd. (“We both agreed we’d like to retire on Mars,” Caplan says.) These people were more thinkers than rocketeers, but at Blue Origin’s start the point was to brainstorm: Had any ideas been overlooked that could shake up space travel the way the internet had upended terrestrial commerce?

Another early participant was George Dyson, a science historian and son of physicist Freeman Dyson. At the 1999 PC Forum, an elite tech event run by Dyson’s sister, Esther, Bezos made a beeline for George, who had been writing about a little-known 1950s venture called Project Orion. Project Orion sought to propel space vehicles with atomic bomb explosions, and Bezos wanted to know all about it. As Dyson recalls, Bezos saw Orion as “his model for a small group of crazy people deciding to go into space without the restrictions of being an official government project.” (Bezos later reviewed Dyson’s book on Amazon—something he’s done only three times in the company’s history.) Some months later, Stephenson asked Dyson if he would consult for the company. Then he asked him to join Blue.

When Dyson signed on, he says, Blue Origin felt like Wernher von Braun’s Society for Space Travel. Like that amateur group of dazzling scientists, Blue resembled a club more than a company. Its members were obsessed with finding an alternative to chemical combustion, which is a woefully inefficient way to propel rockets on interplanetary journeys. “We went through a long list of not-quite-crazy but way-out-there projects at the beginning,” Dyson says.

Those were hashed out at Blue Origin’s monthly Saturday all-hands meetings. The sessions began at 9 and lasted all day. Bezos rarely missed one. “It was almost incomprehensible how technically engaged Jeff was in every part of the discussion,” Dyson says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ll leave the hydrogen-flow control valve question to the hydrogen-flow control valve people.’ Whatever the question was, Jeff would have technical knowledge and be involved.”

But as the Blue Origin team experimented with eccentric ways to heave things upward, they began to realize there was a reason big tubes full of chemical fuel had persisted. Every new tack proved infeasible, because of cost, risk, or technical complexity. “You can work really hard and come up with what you think is a super original idea, and you always find out that some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago,” Stephenson says.

Did China use a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies?

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Bloomberg claims that China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies:

A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.

The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.

The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.

The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.

When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

The claims are… incredible:

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

The inventor who plans to build a city under the sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

Phil Nuytten has built submarines and diving suits, but now he’s planning to build a city under the sea:

An underwater city is cool, but I’m not sure how much sense it makes. He does mention siting it on a thermal vent though, for “free” energy via a Stirling engine.

How fighting wildfires works

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

In case you were wondering how fighting wildfires works, this video explains the process:

Not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018

Jeff Foust of The Space Review reviews The High Frontier: An Easier Way:

In space, as in other fields, ideas come and go, returning after past failures in the hopes that changes in technology, policy, or economics will allow people to accept a concept they previously rejected. That appears to be the case with space settlements. In the 1970s, “space colonies” were all the rage among space enthusiasts, attracted by the idea proposed by Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill that giant habitats, many kilometers in size, would be the best place for humanity to live in space. There were NASA-sponsored studies of space colonies with lavish illustrations of the concepts, and ideas to use such facilities to enable space-based solar power (another idea that comes and goes) and other space industries. But, within a few years the concept faded away, with NASA ending its support and predictions that the Space Shuttle would enable frequent low-cost access to space failing to come true.

In the last few years, though, there’s been a push to bring back the idea, now often called “free space settlements” (avoiding the negative perception many have of “colonies.”) A new book by two space settlement advocates, Tom Marotta and Al Globus, offers an update of sorts of the original space colony concept O’Neill offered decades ago in his book The High Frontier, arguing that such settlements need not be as large and as expensive as O’Neill once thought.

As its subtitle suggests, the authors of The High Frontier: An Easier Way make the case that several changes in the original assumptions that drove the 1970s-era space colony concepts make such settlements more feasible today. One eschews the plan to place settlements at the Earth-Moon L-5 Lagrange point in favor of an equatorial low Earth orbit (ELEO) over the Equator at an altitude of 500 to 600 kilometers. That orbit gives such a facility radiation protection from the Earth’s magnetic field while also avoiding the South Atlantic Anomaly, a major source of charged particles. Doing so, they conclude, drastically reduces the mass needed for radiation protection: from five to ten tons per square meter of the facility’s surface to as little as 10 kilograms.

A second design change is to speed up the rotation rate of the facility needed to produce Earth-equivalent gravity. Previous studies assumed humans could tolerate rotation rates of no more than 1–2 revolutions per minute (RPM), but research suggests people can tolerate speeds of 4 RPM without any long-term consequences. That reduces the diameter of the facility, and hence its mass and cost.

Those changes, coupled with work to reduce launch costs, makes a settlement more feasible — or, at least, less infeasible. An initial concept mentioned in the book, called Kalpana, would be 112 meters in diameter and 112 meters long, weighing about 16,800 metric tons: enough to be carried by a little more than 100 flights of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) vehicle, at least according to designs the company disclosed last year. It’s still an expensive proposition, but one not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s.

Flown for recreational purposes over water and uncongested areas

Friday, September 14th, 2018

The Kitty Hawk Flyer does look like fun:

Flyer is Kitty Hawk’s first personal flying vehicle and the first step to make flying part of everyday life.

Flyer is designed to be easy to fly and flown for recreational purposes over water and uncongested areas. In just a couple of hours, you will experience the freedom and exhilaration of flight.

Flyer maintains an altitude of 3 meters/10 feet for our first riders’ flights.

We have adjusted the flight control system to limit the speed to 20 mph for our first riders’ flights.

Flyer creates thrust through all-electric motors that are significantly quieter than any fossil fuel based equivalent. When Flyer is in the air, depending on your distance, it will sound like a lawnmower (50ft) or a loud conversation (250ft).

In the US, Flyer operates under FAA CFR Part 103 – Ultralight. FAA does not require aircraft registration or pilot certification though flight training is highly encouraged. Ultralights may only be flown over uncongested areas.

More false positives among the hypochondriac set

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

The new ECG Apple Watch could do more harm than good:

“Do you wind up catching a few undiagnosed cases? Sure. But for the vast majority of people it will have either no impact or possibly a negative impact by causing anxiety or unnecessary treatment,” says cardiologist Theodore Abraham, director of the UCSF Echocardiography Laboratory. The more democratized you make something like ECG, he says, the more you increase the rate of false positives — especially among the hypochondriac set. “In the case of people who are very type-A, obsessed with their health, and fitness compulsive, you could see a lot of them overusing Apple’s tech to self-diagnose and have themselves checked out unnecessarily.”

The cases in which Apple’s new watch could be most helpful are obvious: People with atrial fibrillation, family histories of heart disease, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and so on. Sometimes, Abraham says, patients come in with vague cardiovascular symptoms that they can’t reproduce during their visit. Folks like that, he says, often require more expensive, prescription-based monitoring systems. If a doctor could ask that kind of patient to record their symptoms on a gadget they already own, that could be a win for the healthcare provider and the patient.

As for everyone else, it’s hard to say what benefit Apple Watch’s on-demand ECG could have, and existing evidence suggests it might actually do more harm than good.

There is, however, the matter of life-saving potential to consider, which AHA president Ivor Benjamin mentioned not once but twice in his presentation at yesterday’s Apple Event. If there’s a silver lining to putting electrocardiograms on every Apple Watch wearer’s wrist, it’s that their data (if they choose to share it — Apple emphasized at the event that your data is yours to do with as you please) could help researchers resolve the uncertainty surrounding ECG screening in seemingly healthy people. Apple’s new wearable might not be the handy heart-health tool it’s advertised as, but it could, with your permission, make you a research subject.

The ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

Megan McArdle writes to a refrigerator dying young:

It turns out that refrigerators like the My First Fridge — the kind that quietly chug along decade after decade while needing only minor repairs — really are a thing of the past. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average life span of a refrigerator is now just 13 years. And the German environmental agency found that between 2004 and 2013, the proportion of major appliances that had to be replaced in less than five years due to a defect rose from 3.5 percent to 8.3 percent. These days, we do not so much own our appliances as rent them from fate.

How did we become renters in our own homes? Peruse the Web, and you’ll discover a variety of explanations: outsourcing to suppliers who opt for cheapness rather than longevity; fancy computer-controlled features that add fancy problems; faster innovation cycles that leave inadequate time for testing; and government-imposed energy-efficiency standards that require a lot of fiddly engineering to comply with. But essentially, all of them boil down to one word: complexity. The more complicated something is, the more ways it can break.

When you are standing over the corpse of an appliance that died too young, it’s tempting to long for simpler days. But then, simpler isn’t the same as better. Replacement cycles may have shortened, but we can afford to replace our appliances sooner, because prices have fallen so dramatically. In 1979, a basic 17-cubic-foot Kenmore refrigerator cost $469 — or in today’s dollars, $1,735, which would have taken an average worker about 76 hours of labor to earn. It came with an ice maker, automatic defrost and some shelves. The nearest equivalent today has an extra cubic foot of storage, offers humidity-controlled crisper drawers and costs about a third as much to run. At $529, it represents under 20 hours of work at the average wage.

[...]

That’s the irony of modern life in so many ways, multiplying all our choices while taking away the most fundamental one: the ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure.

Bulk metallic glasses can be readily extruded and 3D-printed

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

The 3-D printing of thermoplastics is highly advanced, but the 3-D printing of metals is still challenging and limited:

The reason being that metals generally don’t exist in a state that they can be readily extruded.

“We have shown theoretically in this work that we can use a range of other bulk metallic glasses and are working on making the process more practical and commercially-usable to make 3-D printing of metals as easy and practical as the 3-D printing of thermoplastics,” said Prof. Schroers.

Unlike conventional metals, bulk metallic glasses (BMGs) have a super-cooled liquid region in their thermodynamic profile and are able to undergo continuous softening upon heating — a phenomenon that is present in thermoplastics, but not conventional metals. Prof. Schroers and colleagues have thus shown that BMGs can be used in 3-D printing to generate solid, high-strength metal components under ambient conditions of the kind used in thermoplastic 3-D printing.

The new work could side-step the obvious compromises in choosing thermoplastic components over metal components, or vice-versa, for a range of materials and engineering applications. Additive manufacturing of metal components has been developed previously, where a powder bed fusion process is used, however this exploits a highly-localized heating source, and then solidification of a powdered metal shaped into the desired structure. This approach is costly and complicated and requires unwieldy support structures that are not distorted by the high temperatures of the fabrication process.

The approach taken by Prof. Schroers and colleagues simplifies additive manufacturing of metallic components by exploiting the unique-amongst-metals softening behavior of BMGs. Paired with this plastic like characteristics are high strength and elastic limits, high fracture toughness, and high corrosion resistance. The team has focused on a BMG made from zirconium, titanium, copper, nickel and beryllium, with alloy formula: Zr44Ti11Cu10Ni10Be25. This is a well-characterized and readily available BMG material.

The team used amorphous rods of 1 millimeter (mm) diameter and of 700mm length. An extrusion temperate of 460 degrees Celsius is used and an extrusion force of 10 to 1,000 Newtons to force the softened fibers through a 0.5mm diameter nozzle. The fibers are then extruded into a 400°C stainless steel mesh wherein crystallization does not occur until at least a day has passed, before a robotically controlled extrusion can be carried out to create the desired object.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

Fitbit heart data reveals its secrets

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Fitbit has now logged 150 billion hours’ worth of heart-rate data from tens of millions of people, all over the world:

Fitbit Heart Data 1 Resting Heart Rate by Age

Fitbit Heart Data 2 BMI vs. HR by Gender

Fitbit Heart Data 3 Resting Heart Rate with Exercise

Fitbit Heart Data 4 Activity Effect on Resting Heart Rate by Age

Fitbit Heart Data 5 Resting Heart Rate with Sleep

Fitbit Heart Data 6 Activity vs. Heart Rate by Country

Missile lock-on!

Friday, August 31st, 2018

I was listening to the audio version of David Suarez’s techno-thriller Kill Decision, when the pilot of the good guys’ C-130 announced “missile lock-on!” How exactly does missile lock-on work, and how does the target know it’s locked on?

Aircraft radars typically have two modes: search and track. In search mode, the radar sweeps a radio beam across the sky in a zig-zag pattern. When the radio beam is reflected by a target aircraft, an indication is shown on the radar display. In search mode, no single aircraft is being tracked, but the pilot can usually tell generally what a particular radar return is doing because with each successive sweep, the radar return moves slightly.

[...]

In track mode, the radar focuses its energy on a particular target. Because the radar is actually tracking a target, and not just displaying bricks when it gets a reflection back, it can tell the pilot a lot more about the target.

[...]

An important thing to note is that a radar lock is not always required to launch weapons at a target. For guns kills, if the aircraft has a radar lock on a target, it can accurately gauge range to the target, and provide the pilot with the appropriate corrections for lead and gravity drop, to get an accurate guns kill. Without the radar, the pilot simply has to rely on his or her own judgement.

[...]

And what about missiles? Again, a radar lock is not required. For heat-seeking missiles, a radar lock is only used to train the seeker head onto the target. Without a radar lock, the seeker head scans the sky looking for “bright” (hot) objects, and when it finds one, it plays a distinctive whining tone to the pilot. The pilot does not need radar in this case, he just needs to maneuver his aircraft until he has “good tone,” and then fire the missile. The radar only makes this process faster.

Now, radar-guided missiles come in two varieties: passive and active. Passive radar missiles do require a radar lock, because these missiles use the aircraft’s reflected radar energy to track the target.

Active radar missiles however have their own onboard radar, which locks and tracks a target. But this radar is on a one-way trip, so it’s considerably less expensive (and less powerful) than the aircraft’s radar. So, these missiles normally get some guidance help from the launching aircraft until they fly close enough to the target where they can turn on their own radar and “go active.” (This allows the launching aircraft to turn away and defend itself.) It is possible to fire an active radar missile with no radar lock (so-called “maddog”); in this case, the missile will fly until it’s nearly out of fuel, and then it will turn on its radar and pursue the first target it sees. This is not a recommended strategy if there are friendly aircraft in close proximity to the enemy.

[...]

Radar is just radio waves, and just as your FM radio converts radio waves into sound, so can an aircraft analyze incoming radio signals to figure out who’s doing what. This is called an RWR, or radar warning receiver, and has both a video and audio component.

[...]

Each time a new radar signal is detected, it is converted into an audio wave and played for the pilot. Because different radars “sound” different, pilots learn to recognize different airborne or surface threats by their distinctive tones. The sound is also an important cue to tell the pilot what the radar is doing: If the sound plays once, or intermittently, it means the radar is only painting our aircraft (in search mode). If a sound plays continuously, the radar has locked onto our aircraft and is in track mode, and thus the pilot’s immediate attention is demanded. In some cases, the RWR can tell if the radar is in launch mode (sending radar data to a passive radar-guided missile), or if the radar is that of an active radar-guided missile. In either of these cases, a distinctive missile launch tone is played and the pilot is advised to immediately act to counter the threat. Note that the RWR has no way of knowing if a heat-seeking missile is on its way to our aircraft.

Everything about Stratolaunch is supersized

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

Everything about Stratolaunch is supersized:

It has six screaming Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines, salvaged from three 747s. Its maximum takeoff weight is 1.3 million pounds. It’s got more than 80 miles of wiring. Most astounding is its 385-foot wingspan, the spec that puts Stratolaunch in the history books.

Stratolaunch

One problem with ground-based rockets is that they can take off from only a small number of facilities, like the Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Air Force Base, where competition for launch time creates long delays. A plane-based launch would create new possibilities.

But a plane that big had other challenges. Rutan’s analysis concluded that to deliver the weight of the rocket Elias was talking about—up to 640,000 pounds—you’d need a wingspan of almost 400 feet. That wing had to be strong too. In addition to two fuselages and tons of fuel, it would be carrying a set of jet engines and that massive vehicle. Rutan planned to build the plane from nonmetal composites, rather than aluminum, to keep the weight down, but making the composite strong enough presented another problem. Rutan solved this dilemma in part with a process called pultrusion, in which a machine pulls a material at a constant rate and then bakes it until it hardens, a way to mold huge segments of the plane with a consistent strength. This technique let the engineers manufacture the very long spars that fortify the giant wing.

Rutan began working on a design, even as he realized that the odds were against it ever being built. Using traditional construction methods and materials, the price tag might stretch past a billion, perhaps even reaching the cost of a nuclear aircraft carrier. He figured he could build it more cheaply, especially if he took his scavenger mentality to the limit. “I reasoned that if I could lift out engines, pylons, landing gear, actuators, electricals, and cockpit stuff from 747s, it was doable for us,” he says.

[...]

The team worked to speed up construction by using off-the-shelf parts whenever possible, the most conspicuous example being the repurposing of three 747s. But the surface of the plane had to be created from scratch. “This vehicle has some of the largest composite components ever built in the world, made by hand by fabricators, all made by our guys,” says Jacob Leichtweisz­-Fortier, who works on the plane. The most massive pieces were 285-foot spars that give the wing its resiliency, each one weighing 18,000 pounds. The team first constructed the wing out of the gargantuan spars and built the rest of the plane around it.

The plane’s extreme size led to some unexpected complications: The scaffolding needed to assemble the wing had to be about 40 feet high. “It starts to look like a building,” Stinemetze says. “In fact, the way California treats it, it is a building. It has to meet codes for sprinklers and electrical power.” When the plane was ready to emerge from its scaffolding and get towed out of the hangar, just lowering it 2 feet to the ground took eight hours, Floyd says.

[...]

Sharing their road map publicly for the first time, Thornburg and Floyd laid out their plans for Stratolaunch: Its first custom rocket ship will be considerably bigger than the Pegasus, able to transport multiple satellites or other payloads. This medium-size rocket is nicknamed Kraken, after the legendary Icelandic sea monster. Floyd says customers will be able to use it to get satellites into low Earth orbit for less than $30 million, a competitive price and about half of what SpaceX charges for a launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Floyd estimates that Kraken will be operational in 2022.

Release the Kraken!

Quickly breach without heat or sparks

Monday, August 20th, 2018

I feel like I need a PyroLance now:

Why does tech have so many political problems?

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Why does tech have so many political problems? Tyler Cowen suggests some reasons:

  • Most tech leaders aren’t especially personable. Instead, they’re quirky introverts. Or worse.
  • Most tech leaders don’t care much about the usual policy issues. They care about AI, self-driving cars, and space travel, none of which translate into positive political influence.
  • Tech leaders are idealistic and don’t intuitively understand the grubby workings of WDC.
  • People who could be “managers” in tech policy areas (for instance, they understand tech, are good at coalition building, etc.) will probably be pulled into a more lucrative area of tech. Therefore there is an acute talent shortage in tech policy areas.
  • The Robespierrean social justice terror blowing through Silicon Valley occupies most of tech leaders’ “political” mental energy. It is hard to find time to focus on more concrete policy issues.
  • By nature, tech leaders are disagreeable iconoclasts (with individualistic and believe it or not sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies). That makes them bad at uniting as a coalition.
  • The industry is so successful that it’s not very popular among the rest of U.S. companies and it lacks allies. (90%+ of S&P 500 market cap appreciation this year has been driven by tech.) Many other parts of corporate America see tech as a major threat.

Microfilm has a future?

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Microfilm is profoundly unfashionable in our modern information age, but it has quite a history — and may still have a future:

The first micrographic experiments, in 1839, reduced a daguerreotype image down by a factor of 160. By 1853, the format was already being assessed for newspaper archives. The processes continued to be refined during the 19th century. Even so, microfilm was still considered a novelty when it was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia of 1876.

The contemporary microfilm reader has multiple origins. Bradley A. Fiske filed a patent for a “reading machine” on March 28, 1922, a pocket-sized handheld device that could be held up to one eye to magnify columns of tiny print on a spooling paper tape. But the apparatus that gained traction was G. L. McCarthy’s 35mm scanning camera, which Eastman Kodak introduced as the Rekordak in 1935, specifically to preserve newspapers. By 1938, universities began using it to microfilm dissertations and other research papers. During World War II, microphotography became a tool for espionage, and for carrying military mail, and soon there was a recognition that massive archives of information and cross-referencing gave agencies an advantage. Libraries adopted microfilm by 1940, after realizing that they could not physically house an increasing volume of publications, including newspapers, periodicals, and government documents. As the war concluded in Europe, a coordinated effort by the U.S. Library of Congress and the U.S. State Department also put many international newspapers on microfilm as a way to better understand quickly changing geopolitical situations. Collecting and cataloging massive amounts of information, in microscopic form, from all over the world in one centralized location led to the idea of a centralized intelligence agency in 1947.

It wasn’t just spooks and archivists, either. Excited by the changing future of reading, in 1931, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, F. W. Marinetti, and 40 other avant-garde writers ran an experiment for Bob Brown’s microfilm-like reading machine. The specially processed texts, called “readies,” produced something between an art stunt and a pragmatic solution to libraries needing more shelf space and better delivery systems. Over the past decade, I have redesigned the readies for 21st-century reading devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers.

By 1943, 400,000 pages had been transferred to microfilm by the U.S. National Archives alone, and the originals were destroyed. Millions more were reproduced and destroyed worldwide in an effort to protect the content from the ravages of war. In the 1960s, the U.S. government offered microfilm documents, especially newspapers and periodicals, for sale to libraries and researchers; by the end of the decade, copies of nearly 100,000 rolls (with about 700 pages on each roll) were available.

Their longevity was another matter. As early as May 17, 1964, as reported in The New York Times, microfilm appeared to degrade, with “microfilm rashes” consisting of “small spots tinged with red, orange or yellow” appearing on the surface. An anonymous executive in the microfilm market was quoted as saying they had “found no trace of measles in our film but saw it in the film of others and they reported the same thing about us.” The acetate in the film stock was decaying after decades of use and improper storage, and the decay also created a vinegar smell—librarians and researchers sometimes joked about salad being made in the periodical rooms. The problem was solved by the early 1990s, when Kodak introduced polyester-based microfilm, which promised to resist decay for at least 500 years.

Microfilm got a competitor when National Cash Register (NCR), a company now known for introducing magnetic-strip and electronic data-storage devices in the late 1950s and early ’60s, marketed Carl O. Carlson’s microfiche reader in 1961. This storage system placed more than 100 pages on one four-by-six-inch sheet of film in a grid pattern. Because microfiche was introduced much later than microfilm, it played a reduced role in newspaper preservation and government archives; it was more widely used in emerging computer data-storage systems. Eventually, electronic archives replaced microfiche almost entirely, while its cousin microfilm remained separate.

Microfilm’s decline intensified with the development of optical-character-recognition (OCR) technology. Initially used to search microfilm in the 1930s, Emanuel Goldberg designed a system that could read characters on film and translate them into telegraph code. At MIT, a team led by Vannevar Bush designed a microfilm rapid selector capable of finding information rapidly on microfilm. Ray Kurzweil further improved OCR, and by the end of the 1970s, he had created a computer program, later bought by Xerox, that was adopted by LexisNexis, which sells software for electronically storing and searching legal documents.

[...]

Today’s digital searches allow a reader to jump directly to a desired page and story, eliminating one downside of microfilm. But there’s a trade-off: Digital documents usually omit the context. The surrounding pages in the morning paper or the rest of the issue of a magazine or journal vanish when a single, specific article can be retrieved directly. That context includes more than a happenstance encounter with an abutting news story. It also includes advertisements, the position and size of one story in relation to others, and even the overall design of the page at the time of its publication. A digital search might retrieve what you are looking for (it also might not!), but it can obscure the historical context of that material.

xkcd Digital Resource Lifespan

The devices are still in widespread use, and their mechanical simplicity could help them last longer than any of the current electronic technologies. As the web comic xkcd once observed, microfilm has better lasting power than websites, which often vanish, or CD-roms, for which most computers don’t have readers anymore.

The xkcd comic gets a laugh because it seems absurd to suggest microfilm as the most reliable way to store archives, even though it will remain reliable for 500 years. Its lasting power keeps it a mainstay in research libraries and archives. But as recent cutting-edge technologies approach ever more rapid obsolescence, past (and passed-over) technologies such as the microfilm machine won’t go away. They’ll remain, steadily doing the same work they have done for the past century for another five more at least — provided the libraries they are stored in stay open, and the humans that would read and interpret their contents survive.