Locklin on science

How to be a technology charlatan

Posted in nanotech, Progress by Scott Locklin on March 23, 2023

I’ve mentioned many times that I do not think technology is advancing in a serious way. By “a serious way” I mean something like what happened between 1820 and 1970. That kind of progress is apparently over. What we have now in the way of technology is 1970s DARPA funded technology made available to the masses and leavened with javascript. Also atrocities like electric cars, and frippery like my car using radar to make up for having shitty visibility. Against all evidence, all historical perspective: we still have people trying to sell us the idea that… right around the corner … is some kind of miraculous new thing which will increase human power over nature and fuel the next burst in economic productivity. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was supposed to be nanotech. Nanotech has finally been laughed out of existence among serious people as an actual technology; even its inventor seems to have abandoned it. Allegedly serious people in the mid-late 2010s thought “AI” was just around the corner. After all, deep neural nets were able to identify human-cropped German traffic signs slightly better than K-nearest neighbors, and slightly better than (apparently astigmatic) humans. As a result of this and some improvements in GPS, my car is now able to tell me, with perhaps 90% accuracy, what the traffic signs I can see with my own eyeballs say.

We’re again going through such a mass hysteria, with featherheads thinking LLMs are sentient because they’re more interesting to talk to than their redditor friends. The contemporary LLMs being a sort of language model of the ultimate redditor. People think this despite the fact that since the 2010-2015 AI flip out which everyone has already forgotten about, there hasn’t been a single new profitable company whose business depends on “AI.” It’s been over 10 years now: if “AI” were so all fired useful, there would be more examples of it being used profitably. So far, the profits all go to data centers, NVIDIA, and nerds who know how to use PyTorch. A decade after they invented the airplane there was an entire industry of aircraft manufacturers, and they were being used productively in all kinds of places. You’d figure if “AI” were important, it would be used profitably by a single solitary AI oriented firm somewhere. As far as I can tell, it’s only used to goof off at work.

A hero for our time

There is a certain kind of charlatan out there who deals in science fiction horse shit like LARPing that LLM is actual AI. Science fiction ideas make people feel important. They think we are moving ourselves into the future as we still did in the last century when we did stuff like invent airplanes and refrigerators. The idea is their gaseous codswallop is somehow going to help society sort out all the problems associated with these new technologies. Just like those important blathering contributions for sorting out the side effects of inventing airplanes and refrigerators.

Of course, other than some advances in applied mathematics, we do not presently move ourselves into the future in any useful sense: mostly things just get older and more difficult. For example,  the US, a country allegedly much more wealthy than in 1969, has a hard time sending human beings into low earth orbit, and is so far a mere 10-20 years behind schedule in sending up another mission to the moon. We also have a harder time keeping the lights on than in the past; this despite the bet that electric cars will be the new mass transport technology. Yet, money is made on online ad platforms, so we have nincompoops who think they know something about “technology” because they won a VC lottery ticket on selling a shabbier, more intrusive version of the yellow pages.

There used to be something called the center for responsible nanotechnology. At this point their website is lol, as it is predicting nanotech right around the corner in 2015 or so. But at one time, it was an actively maintained website with some kind of organization behind it. There were rich ninnies who were worried about the science fiction fairy tales of us being turned into grey goo by nanotechnology, and I assume they and various WEF lizard types funded this ridiculous thing. Bill Joy, the no-goodnik who blessed humanity with the Java ecosystem was worried that nanotech would destroy us all for example.  I have always thought of this as some kind of exotic projection for inflicting a lousy programming language on the human race: java is its own sort of “grey goo.”  I’m not a psychologist, and I could be wrong. It is now 2023, and I believe this towering grey goo fear has dissipated to the point where nobody gives a damn about “responsible nanotechnology.” This is too bad; some chemicals are unhealthy. If we had serious people worried about irresponsible actually existing nanotechnology, perhaps they’d save us from nasty agricultural and environmental chemicals. Glyphosates, BPA, PFAS, and rubbish like atrazine are awful. Nobody wants those things in their bloodstream, they do no good for humanity and they should be banned. Just looking at the fluoride stare of the latest generation ought to be enough evidence for this sort of nanotech irresponsibility.

a hero for our time

Now that the “bring ourselves into the future” meme has switched from nanotech to AI to quantum computards back to “AI,” we have various centers for “responsible AI” and “open AI.” There are “singularity institutes,” “future of humanity institutes,” “Machine Intelligence Research Institutes” and “singularity universities” which postulate some kind of “AI” is going to get so damn smart, it will program itself to be even smarter in a sort of intellectual perpetual motion machine.

Just as with large scale quantum entangled forms of matter, nobody has the slightest idea how to do this. Consider the fact that the “autonomous vehicles” meme is finally dying a deserved death. We’re probably not much closer to truly autonomous vehicles than when Ernst Dickmanns invented the field back in the 1980s. Some things are much easier now than back then (machine vision, LIDAR), but the fundamental problem remains. Yet, despite the preposterous failure of autonomous vehicles; reddit man informs me that “AI” is right around the corner because muh chatGPT. If it is, I’d like to see chatGPT park their car for them.

The trajectory of actual machine learning “AI” technology is pretty straightforward and not very interesting or science-fictioney. The actual future societal implications of machine learning seems to be a government-corporate surveillance dystopia, with public-private witch hunt partnerships for political control. Jobs and manufacturing will continue to be outsourced from the West (the main “AI” which are taking jobs: Aliens and Immigrants) to increase the power of the oligarchs. It’s been the obvious trajectory for decades now, and shows no signs of abating. Hell if I were paranoid, I’d assume the spooks invented dystopian crap like Facebook in anticipation of the civil unrest resulting from deindustrialization.

A hero for our time

The key to the technology charlatan’s career is the intersection of marketing, reddit nerds and fear. Marketing, aka virtually 100% of the “news” you consume, drives the hype. Put out a glorified autocomplete trained on redditors and reddit man will see a kindred spirit. He’ll assume he can be replaced by this contrivance because he can’t tell the difference: reddit man has never displayed much capacity for independent thought. He considers himself clever; after all, he is filling up Reddit with text in an attempt to …. well, who knows why Reddit man does what he does. Reddit man drives the hysteria because muh progress and muh technology. Finally, you get the Harry Potter fanfic author opinionating and telling one of the guys who invented Deep Learning that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

I’m all for educated amateurs making contributions to science and technology -as long as they are actual contributions. Wasting the time of one of the few great inventors of our time with word salad is not an actual contribution. I’m pretty sure you could replace the contributions of people like Eliezer Yudkowsky with ChatGPT2. Robin Hanson, with an unsuccessful 1950s era science fiction short-story writer who has a day job in a record shop. Nick Bostrom, probably a secretly racist lutefisk merchant with high Reddit karma who takes LSD and goes to discotheques. Yudkowsky is already obsolete, so his terror is perhaps justified. Hanson, any day now might be replaced by a LLM. There are so many people like Bostrom it’s not worth the electricity to replace him. But by and large the idea that clowns like this are taken seriously makes me wish the Rooskies would nuke us: an actual existential threat driven entirely by stupidity. We in baizuo-land live in a profoundly stupid culture, so our only chance of ridding ourselves of these morons is by calling them racist or rapey or rapey racist pedophiles. Since that doesn’t seem to be working, how about we simply notice that these are simply extremely online dimwits who understand little and consistently say stupid things?

It is funny to watch Western Civilization writhe as its false god of progress fails. The West has had an ideology of historical progress since Christianity took over the Roman Empire. The original idea was that the Savior would return soon, bringing an end to the existing order in favor of some paradisical and just future. Eventually this historical progress concept mutated into ideas of scientific and technological progress: our present Faustian civilization in the West. Since actual progress in technology broke down some time in the 1970s, we have a lot of post-Christians who think, as a matter of faith, that Faustian tier improvements are still happening. They point to their nerd-dildos as evidence of progress, rather than evidence that they’ve been psyoped into carrying around a sulfurous machine which is essentially the slave-shackle of the emerging dystopia. Periodic hysterias over amusing toys like chatGPT or imaginary nonsense like nanotech or quantum computing are basically a sort of millenerian cult. So are all the social crazes like transgender toddlers, equalism and gay everything. If we can’t have new technological transformations creating real technological and societal change, we must make “social progress.”  This is the sort of social progress which leads straight to the abbatoir.  Millenarian cult leaders should at all times and in all places be ignored. These aren’t people warning of real dangers: they’re clowns who have a bad model of reality. They’re certainly not making anything better with their deluded speculations. Taking them seriously is like taking representatives of  Aum Shinrikyo seriously.

Technological and Scientific blind spots

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on February 13, 2023

It was said of Henri Poincare that he was a “conqueror, not a colonist.” He was the type to make new contributions in disparate areas rather than laboring along in some well established area for his whole life. Poincare made contributions in fluid mechanics, number theory, group theory, E&M, differential equations, quantum mechanics, celestial mechanics and without exaggeration he invented special relativity, most of topology and chaos theory, all the while working for the French bureau of standards and mining -and he died at 58. While one can’t realistically aspire to the greatness of Poincare, one can aspire to be a conqueror as Poincare was in a small way. Poincare manfully walked into the darkness. Because he was a genius he could consistently pull gold out of the muck and confusion. He actually wrote about how he did it; lessons almost completely forgotten today, written with a mental clarity and elegance of phrase -also forgotten.

People read science and technology papers for different reasons. Redditor and other bugmen read papers to win arguments on the internet, as if “peer review” were some kind of magical phlogiston which confers truthity. I don’t read science papers like I’m reading something by an “authority.” I assume the authors of most papers know something I don’t, otherwise I wouldn’t read them, but that doesn’t mean I think they know what they’re talking about or have any particular accuracy in describing reality. Unless you’re dealing with something very specific like what the infrared spectrum of Neon is, you’re looking for ideas which might approximate reality rather than the thing itself.

Consider the way brains work. I have no idea how they work. Nobody else does either. Obviously the literature contains lots of interesting details which are at least partially true, and observations which I wouldn’t know anything about unless I read them from an expert. But “the experts” are far from authoritative. An idea like messenger RNA brains could very well be true; there are a number of indications that it might be. These indications have been around for longer than I have been around, so the present Hebbian model of how your noodle works is effectively just fashion. At some point people may figure it out, but for now, taking anything an “expert” says about how your noggin works in toto is about as likely to be right as taking the word of a medieval philosopher.  If I were a researcher interested in figuring things out, would I go dig in the Hebbian view like everyone else, or would I fool around with something wacky like messenger RNA? You ain’t gonna find gold where others ain’t finding it, and I’m a gambler. It seems to me that pursuing crazy ideas, even if you don’t actually believe them, is more useful than hewing the familiar line.

I look for weird stuff; science is often weird. A fun one that has been making the rounds of meme-land is Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease” by Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan. Basically a long rationalization for gluten intolerance, it speculates that a lot of insanity is caused by grain consumption, with some actual evidence. I have no idea who the authors are, but they seem to regularly have interesting ideas like this. Example subjects include, sexual imprinting on eye color, the biology of home-wreckers, the idea that mammals are giant super-organisms rather than individual organisms, the internal clock guided by Mitochondrial metabolism (and why monks live so long), how the Ebbinghaus illusion is perceived by sperdos and what it means, how infection threat relates to various kinds of sociability, why mental illness is gendered and how it relates to mitochondria: these are a just couple of weird papers by this pair of researchers. You can tell some of it is thoughtful and oriented towards normal life. These sorts of ideas are fascinating to me. It isn’t fair to call most of them “science” I would say; many of them are sort of idea generators which could lead to new science. Once you have a bunch of interesting hypotheses like these, you can design experiments to rule out falsely correlated observations. I find all of these ideas by the two authors above to be vastly more interesting and potentially productive than the hokey just-so stories of “sociobiology” and its offshoots such as “evolutionary psychology.”  I don’t know what to call what they’re doing, but I like it.

There are good reasons to not adopt this sort of conqueror/colonist thing for technological approaches to solving problems. Engineers wanting to use the latest woo or reinvent the wheel is another sort of curse of our time. Unless you’re trying to do something entirely new that nobody has succeeded at yet. “AI” for example: everyone seems convinced for no good reason, that neural approaches are going to immanentize the eschaton. They even think, also for no good reason, that these approaches are going to defeat google, an idea which is as laughably insane as Tensorflow driving a car. If you’re interested in making technological progress in “AI” -it seems chasing after bullshit that everyone else is doing is a fool’s mission. Works fine for grifters though.

There are all manner of relatively unexplored ideas out there that could push the needle on “AI” or at least machine learning. The basket of tricks associated with topological data analysis looks promising for signal processing and data science: I got a few useful tricks from my experience at Ayasdi, and there are likely many more waiting out there. I’ve also always said if you ported graphical model primitives a la Daphne Koller and her marvelous book to GPUs (which they are eminently well suited for) and threw 10,000 grad students over a decade at the subject, you’d leapfrog whatever the latest neural atrocity is. This already sort of happened in that neural approaches were considered ridiculous in the 90s and early 00s for the same reasons they’re still ridiculous today: nobody knows what’s going on inside them, and they require too much compute for what they accomplish compared to other approaches. The only company that actually profits from neural approaches to “AI,” as far as I can tell is NVIDIA.

Similarly something like tokamaks or laser inertial confinement have been around for half  a century now without ever producing what they claim, which is fusion power above break-even -to where you could think about building a power plant. I don’t know why one would go into these fields now, other than to get a  sciencey-looking bureaucratic job. I think on the timeline of a human lifetime they’re almost certainly not going to pay off: you have about as much chance of success going into alchemy. There are weird old ideas that occasionally get revived, but nobody has dumped tiny fractions of the resources dumped into tokamaks, laser intertial confinement, or even the old Stellarator approach. Maybe there is a good reason for this, I’m not a plasma physics guy after all, but I bet it’s just people herding, cattle-like into the safest, most popular directions. Directions which have been a failure for 50 years. I was excited for a while about Tri-Alpha: any serious effort needs to be aneutronic and it seemed like a substantively different approach. It would be amazing if they succeeded, and it is less bugman than working on a tokamak in current year, but they have been at it for an awfully long time. There aren’t any historical precedents for success on a timeline that long. There must be other approaches; certainly cold fusion weirdos seem more productive than more fiddling around with giant lasers (not that giant lasers aren’t really cool).

I am going to remind everyone (again) that there is no good reason to assume that nuclear fusion can be harnessed and controlled at scales convenient to human beings. The existence of suns is not a good reason, as the energy released by the sun is approximately the density of the energy released by a dung-hill; the only reason this form of fusion energy is useful to us is the Sun is so damn big. The existence of hydrogen bombs are also not a good reason to assume this for reasons that should be obvious (non obviously: most of the energy released from an H-bomb is from neutron enhanced fission). Let me remind you that “controlled nuclear fusion” assumes multiple things at once: 1) that you can do above break even nuclear fusion in a controlled way and 2) that this can happen at energy densities which are not too high as to be potentially uncontrollable or dangerous, and not too low as to be practically without value. I call this the “Goldilocks theory of controlled nuclear fusion.” There is no reason to believe that it is true or that the universe will cooperate with us in making this possible. It’s a sort of anthropomorphic idea to think that the kinds of energy densities we’re interested in will be both self-sustaining and well behaved.

I figure if you want to be a colonist or a bureaucrat, that’s fine and such people are still needed. But you only have one life to live, and there are plenty of colonist bureaucrats. Technology and the sciences needs tinkerers and conquerors. You don’t get big payoffs hewing to the road others are on. Everyone else is looking for the keys under the street lamp; you need to look elsewhere.

He that can live alone resembles the brute beast in nothing, the sage in much, and God in everything. -Baltasar Gracian

Ruling engines and lapping the ultimate screw

Posted in Design, metalshop, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 16, 2022

The story of the ruling engine is one of those bizarro incredibly important things that has slipped into obscurity, only really known by people still directly involved in this sort of thing. I was briefly involved in this area working at LBNL’s Advanced Light Source, measuring diffraction gratings, their efficiencies, and attempting to estimate how well they’d work in presence of error. I promptly forgot almost all of it in favor of learning how to pants goth girls or whatever I repurposed that set of brain cells for, but it’s still in there rattling around somewhere.

Diffraction gratings are those little rainbow thingees on your credit card. Or if you’re old, you remember the rainbow patterns on CDs, those were sort of ad-hoc diffraction gratings. Ultimately it is a set of very precise lines across a mirror substrate. There are all kinds of profiles and shapes of diffraction gratings for different purposes, but they all work roughly the same way. Different wavelengths of light are reflected into different angles via constructive interference. The simple grating equation is \sin(\theta_m)=\sin(\theta) + m \frac{\lambda}{\Lambda} where m is the diffracted order, \theta_m is the angle of the diffracted order, \Lambda is the periodicity of the grating, and \lambda is the wavelength of the light diffracted.


This is a long winded way of saying if you reflect light on a grating, it will make a nice rainbow pattern. If you make a slit out of razorblades (this is basically what people use) perpendicular to the first order diffraction angle, you get a monochromator or spectrograph, depending on how you use it. This means you can resolve narrow lines in the spectra of whatever it is you’re looking at. Of course, nothing is perfect, least of all diffraction gratings. There’s a figure of merit in spectroscopy called resolving power; R = \frac{\lambda}{\Delta \lambda} where \lambda is the approximate wavelength of interest and \Delta \lambda is the narrowness of line you want to resolve. It’s easy to show that R is proportional to the number of coherently illuminated perfect grating lines, and that any error in grating line shape or tracking will cause R to be smaller. So  if you want to discover quantum mechanics, you need to make some nice lines otherwise you’re wasting your time. Oh yeah, and obviously if you want to resolve smaller wavelengths of light, say, in the UV, you need to rule your gratings with smaller lines.

Over complex representation of a monochromator or spectrograph

Now a days we have a number of ways of making gratings, but the first way (still important and used) is using a ruling engine, which is a very fine machine tool which mechanically draws lines on a substrate using a diamond anvil. The first important such tool was Rowland’s mentioned several times now; literally the machine that launched American physics and made quantum mechanics possible. There were gratings made before, but Rowland’s was the first to make useful gratings repeatedly. For decades it was the only one capable of making decent gratings; like a machine made by super intelligent alien beings that nobody else can figure out. For decades after this, all the subsequent ruling engines that worked were Rowland designs. The first successful ruling engine which wasn’t a Rowland design is the topic of the rest of this blog; that invented by the underappreciated experimental physicist John Donovan Strong (I’ve definitely been in the same room as him early in my career, but I can’t say I remember anything about him –his book is amazing BTW). This is the type of ruling engine still used today, more or less, with some additional complications of using feedback mechanisms made possible by electronics over the years. I’m following Strong’s article from 1951 as well as a couple of  Scientific American articles.

The original Rowland machine was a sort of overgrown and ultra precise metal shaper (or for a more familiar example; a grocery store meat slicer). Strong took his design cues from the much more uncommon metal planer. The difference, Rowland’s machine advanced the relatively heavy grating blank using the precision screw, making the screw subject to mechanical deformation and stick slip, while moving the diamond using ways that could wear out.  Remember, this thing is making long, straight lines, very precisely on the order of 1000/2000 lines per millimeter; a perfect line every 500-1000 nanometers. Real nanotechnology; not the imaginary kind done with Schroedinger’s equation and pixie dust. For contrast, an atom is around a tenth of a nanometer. While they call the latest semiconductor technology 14nm, it’s really more like 100nm, and diffraction gratings built with screws were doing that, over much larger areas than a defect free wafer more than 140 years ago using doodads such as these very precise screws. There were seven major sources of error with this design in absence of mechanical or manufacturing defects, to give an idea of the type of thing involved here; they were referred to as the “seven demons.”

  1. Stick slip/lubrication forces of the various moving parts caused large irregularities.
  2. Wear in the various parts of the engine were also hugely important; the carriage might travel miles in ruling a grating and the Rowland carriage was a big beefy object.
  3. The metal parts also contain locked-up stresses from creation from raw ore to machining; as the machine ages, the stresses relieve and the perfect surfaces deform.
  4. Creep also takes place from external forces; sag, motion, weight support.
  5. Any vibration may cause bad gratings to be made; one worker correlated his grating defects to the swaying of trees outside the building (this is huge with optics in general, especially in current year with all kinds of machinery around and driving by).
  6. Dust of course is a big problem; get dust under the diamond cutter or in the screw/nut interface and you’re, well, screwed.
  7. Finally, the heat radiated by a human body can cause sufficient creep in the engine to ruin a grating.

Strong’s gizmo obviated the stick slip problem by moving the diamond rather than the grating blank, removing the ways for moving the diamond, and improving both the lubrication of the screwing mechanisms, and the alignment techniques.  His thing used two precision screws to advance the diamond, and as they’re pointing in opposite directions, they can cancel out pressure and sag errors as well as angular “fanning” errors in the grating ruling (Rowland’s machine had microradian misalignments that borked the resolving power via this fanning effect; a microradian across a few inches is easily a wavelength of green light). Downside; you need two nice screws instead of just one.

Strong’s exposition was fascinating. He points out that precision in his day was entirely “primitive methods.” Aka geometry, averaging and lapping compounds. The dividing heads on the screws for making microscopic motions were self lapped in place on an oil bath. Instead of a kinematic mounting system for moving the grating, he overconstrained it with multiple ways which averaged out to a nice straight line.

Strong was a great scientist who understood machinery and tooling in great detail. He also had a couple of helpers he credited with his success. One of them was Wilbur Perry, an engineer trained at WPI. Before he went to school he made a bunch of telescopes, and was a proud member of the Springfield Vermont telescope makers society, which still maintains a clubhouse. Let me emphasize the implications of this: a tiny town of a few thousand people had a telescope makers society at the turn of the century, when telescopes were still high technology, and they endowed it well enough it is still physically there. That’s sort of like a small town of a few thousand people having its own privately owned MEMS fab in the 1990s when this became a more common technology. Social capital is highly underappreciated and they had lots of it in those days. Strong himself got many of his ideas for the ruling engine from hanging out in a club he founded with John Anderson (the previous John Hopkins Rowland engine driver); the “100-to-1 shot club.” Some nice oral history before it fades away: an interview with Henry Victor Neher:

NEHER: This was a small group that was formed at Caltech in about 1934 or ’35. The
way it originated was this. John Anderson, who was at the Mount Wilson Observatory, had an office at Caltech when he was working on the 200-inch telescope, back in the thirties. One of the members of the staff was a young fellow by the name of John Strong [professor of physics and astrophysics, 1937-1942], who had his experimental equipment in the same room in Bridge as I did. John Strong was over talking to John Anderson one day. John Strong was always interested in ideas of one sort or another. He was an inventor if there ever was one. John thought that there ought to be a group that considered far-out ideas of one sort or another.

INTERVIEWER: For example.

NEHER: Primarily ideas connected with something scientific or mechanical, or something of that sort. And John Anderson said, “Well, what you are suggesting is to discuss things that have one chance in a hundred of working.” And so, this is the way the 100-to-1 Shot Club was formed. They got a group together which consisted of John Strong, John Anderson, Russell Porter, Roger Hayward—who did that picture up there above the fireplace—and then some others not connected with the Institute, like Byron Graves. And there were a couple of patent attorneys in the group.
Well, I didn’t get into it right away. I guess it was about 1936 or ’37 before I became associated with it. We met once a month at various members’ homes. It was mostly discussions of ideas in connection with astronomy or with physics. There may have been some mechanical things. One of the members was George Mitchell, who designed and made the Mitchell camera that was used in Hollywood for years. Another was George Beadle [professor of biology 1946-1961], who joined after World War II.

INTERVIEWER: Did anything ever come out of it?

NEHER: No. It wasn’t meant to be that. It was just a place where you could just discuss anything you wanted.


Or as Strong himself put it:


We called it the “100 to 1 Shot Club.” We met at various member’s houses at Palomar; in the Mohave Desert; etc. — about 6 or 7 times a year. It was called by the name mentioned to indicate that our considerations (like: Does the water spin in a contrary way in the Southern hemisphere when it runs out of the bath tub? — etc.) were restricted to topics that were fantastic by a factor of 100:1 over scientific. The dozen members included: Trim Barkelov — patent council for Paramount Pictures Roger Hayward — artist and architect Victor Neher laboratory roommate George Mitchell — millionaire manufacturer of the Mitchell camera; a former Hollywood camera man Byron Graves — an amateur astronomer and retired executive from Ford Co. in Detroit John Anderson — my boss Jack McMorris — a chemist (and disappointed concert pianist) George Worrell — successor to Mitchell at the Camera plant Milton Humason — astronomer I mention this because it was a group worthy to go down in history.


The importance of such clubs can’t be overestimated. They’re everywhere in the annals of technological history; from Wernher von Braun and company’s rocket club, to the famous Lunar society, to the X club even the Bohemian Club was responsible for the US nuclear weapons program. Most great human ventures have started in some sort of men’s club. And yes, they were/are men’s clubs, u mad? As my pal BAP put it, only the most depraved ancient Greek tyrants would ban men’s associations:

A brotherhood of men in this form is the foundation of all higher life in general: there is a certain madness, an enthusiasm that exists also in a community of true scientists or artists…. it is totally forbidden in our time…. the dedication, severity, focus and enthusiasm necessary to sustain true scientific enterprise are forbidden because they make women and weaklings uncomfortable.

Back to badass screws, Wilbur Perry of the Springfield Telescope Club eventually got a job running the Rowland engines at John Hopkins and was widely recognized as a genius and meticulous engineer with perfect hands. Strong hired him for this expertise. His fellow technical  coworker was Dave Broadhead, another optics hacker who made complicated telescopes in his spare time, and at one point made a living crafting roof prisms for the war effort, something he picked up in his spare time from reading magazines. He literally made them in his basement. His education, as far as I am able to determine, was reading popular science and popular mechanics magazines, going to the library and fiddling with things. Broadhead is the kind of guy I keep harping about; the careful working class machinist craftsman who basically no longer exists in American society. . Strong at one point asked him for a pair of 36″ parabolic mirrors, which he literally made in his basement 30 days ahead of a 90 day schedule. So, for the ruling engine project, he was a shoe in. He was working class to the bone; treating his employers to venison dinners from deer he shot himself when they’d come visit his basement workshop in upstate New York. I have to wonder what his descendants are up to these days. Hopefully not shooting heroin which seems to be the primary avocation in that part of the world.

Broadhead was a wonder, like many of this class of instrument builder machinist. More importantly though, we have a fairly good first hand view into how he did it; all the steps. Nobody really documented how Rowland and his guys built his doodads. He wrote some post-facto notes down, but nothing in detail. Broadhead’s adventures in fine screw craftsmanship was much better documented. Broadhead’s first step in building the thing was rebuilding his basement South Bend lathe. Scraping the ways and refitting all the parts until it could hold a 1 micron cut. That’s 1/1000 of a mm. As Broadhead put it. “It’s an old lathe, but instrument makers use such lathes for centuries, just scraping ’em over -which they’d have to do even with new ones, for this work.” Scraping of course was the manual technique used to make a flat surface back in 1800 when Maudslay invented the screw cutting lathe. Mind you a South Bend lathe is not considered a toolroom lathe; it was mostly used for light work and was popular with hobbyists for its relatively low cost. According to one account “I journeyed to Wellsville and found Broadhead peering downward through a 50-power toolmaker’s microscope attached to the lathe. The tool was smoothly peeling off a shaving only one micron thick. Without the microscope it seemed to be cutting nothing”


To remove stress in the screw blanks, he had two garbage cans with inner cells, one for heat the other for dry ice,  so he could stress relieve the screws before the finish cuts. He dipped them in what he called “tincture of skunk cabbage” (overheated Mazola corn oil at 400F, 100F) and “hobo cocktails” (dry ice and alcohol at 10, -60 and -100F). He did this stress relief cycle 50 times per screw.

When he moved on to lapping, he rigged up a tape recorder which kept a record of the torque  of the screw being lapped in its giant split nut. This way he could keep track of progress on the lapping process and the recorder would tell him when there was a burr or requirement for more lapping compound. Mind you this is a 1940s era tape recorder, so in addition to being a great machinist, he must have known a thing or two about electronics back in the vacuum tube era. He also rigged up a motor mechanism and ran the thing on his wall in his basement.

Apparently the whole new ruling engine worked the first time, which is a minor miracle. A hugely successful scientific breakthrough done with a sort of miniature Klein type-1 organization. More of a Klein type-1 A-team;  a common type of group for successful experimental physics ventures. The origins in a couple of men’s clubs and a couple of obscure working class geniuses makes it all the more sweet.

It’s also an object lesson in why current year can’t have nice things. No men’s clubs thanks to various vile and pathetic tyrannies. No working class craftsmen making things in matter. No physicists who understand how a fucking screw works (who worked on the Kansas wheat harvests).  And tens of thousands of nincompoops fiddling around on a computer instead of learning how matter works with the eyes and fingers. The very idea of using such mechanical creativity by talking to other artificers and hammer and tongs precision work is anathema to current year bugmen. I’m pretty sure they’d find a way to call the whole project sexist and racist because they don’t understand how a fucking screw lap works either.

That is the biggest advance in the grating art that I am responsible for. I also made an advance in the lapping of lead screws that is recognized in industry. I developed several techniques which are useful in precision machine tool practice. And that was a consequence of the work on ruling engines. But my work on ruling engines, in a sense, was supernumerary, because now the control of the relative position of the ruling engines components is accomplished by interferometry. Here Harrison was the pioneer.

From ancient Gears and Screws to Quantum Mechanics

Posted in Design, metalshop, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 10, 2022

The geared mechanical clock, like the pipe organ and the Gothic cathedral is a defining symbol of Western Civilization. Division of the day into mechanically measured hours  unrelated to the movements of the sun is a mechanical symbol of the defeat of the tyranny of nature by human ingenuity and machine culture. The hours of the day used to be something measured locally by the position of the sun. The liturgy of the hours of the Catholic Church caused north-western Europeans to go all spergy and design intricate machines to tell the monks when to say their prayers, rather than using arbitrary times. After all in the sperdo north, it’s often cloudy or dark very early or barely at all: you need something better than the sun to tell the time.

There’s an oldest surviving clock; that of the Salisbury Cathedral (allegedly 1386). It’s an interesting enough looking mechanism, foliot and verge escapement (the first known mechanical escapement for counting the seconds); you can see it running here. These early clocks had the advantage over water clocks in that you didn’t need to haul water up the tower, and they didn’t freeze in the cold northern winter.

One of the interesting mysteries of technological history; nobody knows where gears came from. A gear is sort of like a wheel, or a pulley system, both of which existed long before the gear. There are claims that the Chinese had them before anyone else; the south-facing wagon is a postulated example, though the first document of it was by Yen-Su in the 11th century, long after such mechanisms were in common use in the West.  As with most of early Chinese history, this isn’t well documented and it may have been nonsense. Unless they influenced the Greeks directly, which doesn’t seem to have ever happened otherwise, the Chinese developments weren’t important in a world historical context.

As with most things, the first documented gears are Greek. Aristotle wrote about them in his physics book around 340BC -around the time of Alexander the Great. Ctesibius was first we know of to write about the things (~250BC) being used in interesting ways; his stuff all lost, but written about by later thinkers; he also invented the pipe organ. It has been suggested that water wheels using lantern pinions were the first gears: we learn of them via Vitruvius (probably originally Ctesibius). We know that Heron of Alexandra had well developed gear trains; he described some effectively like the backgears in a lathe. Archimedes invented the worm gear and pinion used in modern clockworks; possibly also the spiral bevel gears used in differentials.

The most shockingly advanced early geared mechanism is the Antikytheria mechanism. It’s one of those things people didn’t for some reason expect, but if you read old astronomy books, I’m virtually certain such mechanisms are much older. The epicyclic theories of Eudoxus (375BC) and Callippus (330 BC) were pretty explicitly gearworks; later expanded by Hipparchus and Claudius Ptolemy, who was contemporary with the Antikytheria mechanism. It’s entirely possible there were no gearworks before Posidonius (maybe) brought us the Antikytheria mechanism. I suppose it’s possible there were no gearworks after. But it seems vastly more likely we didn’t just randomly pick up a unique space alien technology toy off the sea bed, and there are probably more such treasures still buried in other places, perhaps even sitting somewhere in a Museum storage closet.

My pet theory, for which there is exactly zero evidence, is that gears were very ancient and lost with the late Bronze age collapse. Certainly they had brasses and small drills and the ability to fabricate elaborate objects out of much harder materials. Since the Greeks didn’t mention where they got the basic gear idea, I’m assuming it existed before they started making more clever versions of it. I suppose such things could have existed in some other culture (Sumerian, Egyptian, whatever), but it’s my pet theory; feel free to come up with your own.

The Screw might have been an invention of Archimedes as well, though some historians attribute it to a more forgotten artificer called Archytas (my pal Eudoxus‘ teacher from the time of Plato). Screws were used in the Mediterranean region for olive and grape presses. There is a widespread misapprehension that the science of the ancient Greeks was some kind of theoretical construct: not so. The mechanical and scientific ideas of the great ancient philosophers and the Alexandrian Museum were used by ordinary people on a daily basis. From screw presses to waterwheel contraptions, the Hellenistic and Roman world benefited from the applications of Greek thought.

Gears allow one to change the plane of rotary motion, or the angular velocity of the rotary motion. Screws turn rotary motion into linear motion, generally considerably stepped down in velocity. You need both to make something like a modern clock or a mechanical lathe. Screws are commonplace now and used everywhere, but they really are a wonder. An inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Early screws were made with tools like hammer and chisel, with taps and dies made in the same way, various kinds of ingenious mechanisms to assist the process.

Making the first set of standardized and precise screws took until around 1800, culminating in Henry Maudslay‘s screw cutting lathe which was one of the most important inventions in human history. The screw cutting lathe required a screw and gears, combined together on a rigid lathe bed. The lathe bed is effectively a plane, allowing for precise motion. You can make these with a chisel and scraper/file out of arbitrary chunks of steel or cast iron; hobbyists still carve and scrape their own lathe beds. The leadscrew allowed the cutter to automatically move along a piece of rotating stock to cut another thread in a piece of rotating stock. Changegears allowed one to cut arbitrary threads from stock, by altering the ratio of screw linear motion to workstock rotation. With all these ingredients you can move a cutter along a piece of rotating screw blank an arbitrary amount, making arbitrary pitch screws. What’s more, you can amplify the accuracy of your leadscrew to a certain extent. There are heroic tales of Maudslay creating his master leadscrew that are in their own way as glorious and Promethean as Benvenuto Cellini casting his Perseus statue.

Maudslay is one of those guys who created a whole center of excellence around himself; he was a blacksmith/locksmith who built a classic Klein type-1 organization. He invented all manner of clever devices we now take for granted, from micrometers to various kinds of steam engine and telescope; he was even involved with the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel building machines for his various ventures. Maudsley’s students (it wasn’t a school, it was a high technology business) went on to make numerous further innovations and form their own high technology companies. Joseph Whitworth invented all kinds of machine screw standards (BSW still in use today) machine tools and measuring devices, guns and so on and became enormously wealthy. Joseph Clement built the first version of the difference engine.  William Muir manufactured machine tools, Richard Roberts made locomotives and  power looms, and James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer and shaping machine.There aren’t any substantive books written about this amazing group of men, and the one I know about is expensive and out of print, but if done properly it would make an excellent case study of a Klein type-1 organization. All of these guys were giants of invention and industry and they all got stinking rich inventing new technologies and increasing man’s power over nature. There’s a sort of pamphlet about Maudsley available on archive, which is slightly better than nothing.  I assume there were contemporaries who wrote about them, but they’re mostly forgotten today.

Back to screws; using a screw, you can precisely position things on a nanoscale. I’ve done it, using these little buggers called picomotors. You can buy big giant screws made in temperature controlled oil baths which are capable of similar tricks while retaining their accuracy as well. It boggled my mind when I first read about how this is accomplished; basically the same way most mechanical accuracy is achieved; by lapping with abrasives. You can read all about it in the old Wayne Moore book “Foundations of Mechanical Accuracy.”

Which brings me back to Henry Rowland, father of American physics. It was Rowland who invented the techniques for creating the ultra precise nanoscale screw by manually lapping the screw in a giant split nut. He did this to create diffraction gratings using a “ruling engline.” Diffraction gratings are responsible for the origin of modern physics, as scientists needed them to resolve atomic spectra. And of course as I said in the previous blog, Rowland was by his own self largely responsible for American physics activities in general.

The story of the ultra-precise screw and ruling engine is so insanely awesome I’ll dedicate a later blerg or two to the topic.