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This may be a vague question, please let me know if more info is needed.

As we know, NASA put a man on the moon using technologies that we no longer use, like slide rules and entire teams of people performing very specific computations. What are some other obsolete technologies like that that these space agencies used during the 1950s to 1960s? I'd like to know as many as possible for a short story I have set in a spacecraft in the 1960s.

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    $\begingroup$ Nipkow Disk for mechanical television. Still a lot of vacuum tubes, not very good solar cells. Vanguard went up in 1958 was the first solar powered satellite. Radio frequencies typically lower, and analog instead of digital. Fewer types of plastics and materials. Etc. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Apr 20 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ Core memory instead of memory chips & magnetic tape recorders as longer term memory devices. Also, Nixie tubes for numerical displays & vacuum tubes instead of solid state electronics. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Apr 20 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ Obsolete now or obsolete at that time? $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe best to ask the other way around? Is there any technology that is still practiced in the same way today? $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JonCuster -- I bought my first calculator in 1971 or 1972. Four functions, one memory. My summer earnings, gone. It was expensive as all get out to a 16 to 17 year old kid. My father said I should spend the extra ten bucks for the two year warranty, and I did. It utterly failed at 14 months. They pretended to lose it when I brought it in for repairs. After months of complaining, the company decided to replace it with a new $100+ calculator. This one could actually do math. As I wrote in my answer, everything has changed since the 1960s. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 20:18

6 Answers 6

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Everything has changed in the last 50+ years.

Every group working on space exploration had secretaries, lots and lots of secretaries, about one for every four to ten technical employees, plus many drafting assistants, and many computers. Here's a picture of 1950s era computers:

The image shows a room full of human computers, mostly female.

"Computer" used to be a human job title. The above image shows a room full of computers, mostly female. (Employers found that females were willing to work for less pay than were males.)

The first commercial calculators that could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and store a single number came out in the early 1970s. Before then, intermediate results had to be recorded by pen (or pencil) and paper.

The C programming language was created in 1972. Before then, computers were programmed in assembly (shudder), FORTRAN (shudder), or Cobol (cringe). Waterfall management (shudder, again) was created in 1970. Agile programming was created in 2000. $\TeX$ was created in 1978, $\LaTeX$ in 1984. While Vannevar Bush foresaw the internet in 1945, the internet would not become a reality until the late 1960s (and we didn't have browsers until 1989 or so). How we write, create, collaborate, and communicate has changed many times over since the 1950s.

Rocket engines were hand-made in the 1950s. Many companies are now using 3D printing.

Everything has changed in the last 50+ years.

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    $\begingroup$ I am now recalling awful memories of the first technical papers I worked on. It involved a lot of cutting and pasting. Literally. We had to print the text in a large font. We then cut (with scissors) chunks of the printed page and pasted them (with paste) to the sheets we would send in. If you've ever wondered why old technical papers have text that doesn't quite line up, now you know why that is the case. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I remember, pre-PC-on-the-desk, turning in handwritten design documentation to the group secretary for them to type up. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Don't forget the hand-drawn diagrams sent to the drafting team for them to turn into professional-level diagrams. We were explicitly told to keep the number figures down to a bare minimum because those professional-level diagrams were extremely expensive. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ The first electronic calculators for individuals were about 1970, but businesses and government agencies like NASA had electronic computers since 1960, and there were mechanical (either manual or electric-powered) 4-function calculators at least a decade earlier. And C was (and still is) decidedly NOT better for application programming than FORTRAN and COBOL -- or even the implementable variants of algol like JOVIAL. (It was good for its design purpose of implementing Unix.) $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ FORTRAN should not be shuddered at. It is still used as being the most numerically efficient in many heavyweight numerical applications. Many modern apps include FORTRAN elements. $\endgroup$
    – tckosvic
    Apr 21 at 14:25
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I would say Core Rope Memory

The Apollo Guidance Computer was one of the first computers to made use of integrated circuits. It was light and small enough (roughly 70 pounds) to fit in the CM. One of its unique features was that it made use of core rope memory. With this technique the software was physically weaved into the storage of the computer.

Software woven into wire

If you want to know more about how core rope works I would suggest looking here.

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Sending interdepartmental messages by pneumatic tube.

enter image description here Image Credit - NASA

More info here.

If an individual flight controller wanted a paper printout of one of his console displays, like a SMEK-produced set of columns, he could depress the "Hard Copy Request" key on his control panel to signal the television subsystem's video recording equipment to tune itself to his display's current channel. The channel's signal was then routed through a hardcopy recording device, which produced a copy of the video signal's current image on thermal paper. The thermal printout was automatically stuffed into a carrier cylinder and shot through a pneumatic tube—much like the kind you'd find at a bank's drive-through teller window—and delivered to the controller's console.

The p-tubes weren't just for summoning hard copies. The system was a complex series of tubes connected by a sophisticated central switching station and could be used to ferry papers and other lightweight objects between console stations or to other points within the Mission Operations Wing.

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    $\begingroup$ A complex series of tubes, you say? Quick, somebody call Ted Stevens! $\endgroup$
    – JakeRobb
    Apr 22 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ @JakeRobb I've been waiting over 24h for that comment to pop up, lol. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Apr 22 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ Pneumatic tubes are not obsolete at all. Larger hospitals use them a lot (at least here in Germany). There are many things that fit into those cylinders and cannot well be transferred electronically. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Apr 23 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan Yes, but they are obsolete as a medium for sending messages. For example, in Gene Kranz's book he talks about long nights where the engineers would be working on problems all day and, by the time everyone went home, the entire lab would be littered in cannisters from all of the messages that would be sent back and forth between the teams. They'd get cleaned up overnight and it would happen again the next day - they were effectively being used like an instant messenger app, or like email. For those applications p-tubes have been entirely superseded. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Apr 23 at 11:06
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Here's a few.

  • Mechanical calculators for better precision than a slide rule.
  • Planimeter for determining moments of inertia. Used this at solid rocket manufacturer on military missile designs.
  • Pen Ink x-y Plotter. At Goldstone tracking station, I saw a giant (maybe 12' long) pen-ink x-y plotter table being used on data received from Ranger moon probes
  • Key punch cards by the box full
  • Key punch machine
  • Key card sorting machine
  • A large air conditioned room full of computer (IBM or Control Data). Come back tomorrow to get your results. Can run same problem in 1 sec on my current PC.
  • English units. Apollo was built using inch, feet, miles.

Here's a few more:

  • handplotting of graphs on paper
  • line printers
  • ibm typewriters with insert sticks with equation sysmbols before "ball"
  • carbon paper for immediate copies
  • blue prints, up to very large size
  • primitive copy machines; go to copy department; not desktop

Of course I meant american/english units in abovepost not imperial units. Don't remember seeing any NASA docs in metric units. Shook hands with van Braun at a Huntsville meeting. He never said he despised american/english units. No one would lose a probe then by getting miles and kilometers mixed up.

Added one more big one:

  • Drawing boards, t-squares, triangles, compasses, etc. No cad, of course

tom kosvic

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    $\begingroup$ Apollo was made using US customary units, but it was designed using Metric units. Braun & his former German colleagues used metric exclusively. Their designs were converted to US customary units by others. Braun loathed non Metric units. Some Nasa technical documents of the era used US customary units & others used Metric. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Apr 21 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred is there some place I can read more about this "Braun & his former German colleagues used metric exclusively. " $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ A lot of US-based space exploration companies still use US customary units, at least for structural components. It's a tough nut to crack (pun intended). US aerospace-quality fasteners (e.g. nuts & bolts) are mostly in US customary units. Flight planning is almost exclusively metric. Guidance, navigation & control software is often in metric. So it's a mix. $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ Imperial units please... We don't use them in England anymore and haven't for a long time $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Persistence The US does not use imperial units. It uses US customary units, which are slightly different. Your pint (you still sell beer by the pint) is larger than our pint, by about 20%. Since Brexit, your appears to be reverting to imperial units in some areas. Your PM even pledged to usher in an era of "tolerance towards traditional measurements." $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 13:15
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CRT screens.

enter image description here

They have all been replaced with LCD displays now.

The large wall mounted displays are projected from behind. Today they are projected from the front and the computer running them is about 1/100th the size it used to be, but the basic technology is the same.

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    $\begingroup$ The 1960s era wall mounted displays were an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Smoke -- The incredibly bright bulbs used to illuminate those displays from behind sometimes exploded. All it took was an oily fingerprint on the bulb and when powered on, kaboom. Mirrors -- They used lots of mirrors. Lots and lots of mirrors. The light path was incredible. $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ And, in the late 70s (perhaps earlier, but I only go back so far), there was debate over whether traditional Raster CRTs were as good as Vector CRTs. Raster CRTs projected an electron beam over the entire screen each refresh period (much like pre-LCD TVs). Vector displays moved the beam around just enough to display a vector image on the display: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tektronix_4010#Principles_of_operation. It required much less memory (and memory cost a fortune in those days) $\endgroup$
    – Flydog57
    Apr 22 at 22:49
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Here are a couple of dead technologies that were front and center during that era.

There was no computer aided design.

Both mechanical design/drafting and electrical design/tapeup was all done manually on large (and sometimes HUGE) drawing tables using paper, velum and clear plastic sheets. Erasers were electrically powered! If you wanted a copy of something you made blueprint copy by running the original drawing thru a big machine that used an ammonia process and UV light. Copies were made one at a time.

To get a multi-layer circuit board the PC designer would use several sheets of clear plastic laid over a grid pattern and place scaled/shaped tape cutouts as needed to get pads. Tape of various precision widths and colors would be used to connect the circuits. Typically all black on one layer, red on another, then blue, etc. Since the plastic sheets would expand and contract with humidity and temperature it was very important to make sure the various sheets/layers maintained good enough registration.

Mechanical drafting was as much an art as a technical skill. There were armies of draftsmen in huge halls. It was not unusual for a single engineer to have 5 or 10 designers under him. (Yes... HIM.) Since there was no MCAD multi-part solid modeling all part fits and clearances had to be worked out by the engineers. Lots of leeway and slop was designed in wherever possible.

Also... finite element analysis was not yet in widespread use and so most calculations for strength, durability, fatigue had very generous factor of safety built in, resulting in parts being significantly overdesigned.

If a problem needed to be solved a group of people would grab rolls and rolls of blueprints, spread them out and begin furiously flipping from sheet to sheet to find where area they needed to be looking at.

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