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13 September 2006

el mercado de baterías extintas en Habana / Little Bobby's Geiger Counter

is still in primo condition. It was stored carefully for several decades without batteries (by my mother, after I went off to college), so there's no horrible acid goo rot corrosion. The adorable itty-bitty vacuum tubes/valves should still light up like a Christmas tree, just like the ones that do the thinking on my Heathkit Analog Computer. This is probably the tiniest tubes/valves ever got just before transistors replaced them.

Also vanished from the landscape are the ubiquitous big-ass Vacuum Tube Tester Machines which were in every hardware and drug store. If your tubes were dead, you opened the cabinet at your knees and found and bought a brand new GE 4N2210.

The problem momentarily keeping me from measuring certain types (alpha and beta rays, you need some other kind of doohickey for gamma and X-rays) of ionizing radiation in my environment is not the physics, not the electronics. It's the Sizes and Shapes and Voltages of the ancient batteries.

The metal wire sealed in a glass vacuum tube inside a rugged steel Geiger-M
üller probe must be fed a pretty high voltage, and compared to transistors and chips, the vacuum tubes need high voltages to heat metallic elements (like in toasters) to liberate and expel electrons. For equipment of this vintage (circa 1955) the battery industry sold appropriate batteries. But then transistors came in, with their much smaller voltage and power demands, and the whole battery catalog changed within a few years, extincting the batteries my Geiger Counter needs. Lower voltages and amperages also mean the batteries shrank in physical size and dimensions.

I have been advised that the place to go to get a nice fresh set of circa-1955 batteries is CUBA, where them what's got portable radios what still work, their radios are like grampa's vacuum-tube portable radio that he listened to the 1959 World Series on. So the demand for extinct batteries is there, so somebody makes and sells 'em there.

Cuba is also the world's capital of 8-cylinder 1950s big-ass tailfin Detroit cars like Plymouths and DeSotos and Packards and Chevies and Fords and Buicks and Mercuries and Pontiacs, and they all still drive around Habana; the Cubans keep them alive as a necessity and now, as a Labor of Love, como un Trabajo de Amor.

They have to maintain their ancient tube equipment and DeSotos because of the US economic embargo which has been in effect since Castro started giving the USA the finger around 1959. The USA also prohibits Americans from buying Cuban cigars, but Canada has full relations with Cuba and its cigars. Canadian travel agencies look exactly like American travel agencies, except they all have huge posters advertising holidays in Cuba, and the beaches and downtown Havana look very dreamy.

But there is fairly Minor Surgery which I can perform with a soldering iron on this pre-Solid-State electronic dinosaur so that a proper complement of common modern patriotic American batteries will power this sucker up and we can rock and roll. Watch This Space.

Them two metallic breasts above the flashing light (it flashes happily yellow whenever a quantum of invisible ionizing radiation flies through the Geiger-Muller Tube) are big-ass steel caps to keep the desert dust out of two sockets, one for the Bakelite earphone, I forget what plugs into the other hole. But many's the time, while prospecting for Uranium in Rock Creek Park, that sucker was just going clickety-clickety-clickey gangbusters. (Yes, there's Uranium in Rock Creek Park. Just not much, and the ore's too low-grade to make a profit strip-mining it.)

And if the meter wasn't swinging dramatically enough to the right, you could always put the Radium Calibration Chip up next to the Tube, and then all hell would break lose. Or your Radium Dial wristwatch, Grampa gave me one of those when I went away to camp, and I would spend nights under the blanket with the Radium Dial up to my eyeball to watch its hands and numbers glow green. It also made the Geiger Counter go jiggy.

In high school one of my classmates built something which he said was an Ion Gun, it was a thin metal tube about 5 feet long, with all these electric wires wrapped around the outside, and he said it launched Ions anywhere he pointed it, I guess pretty darn near the Speed Of Light. I mean, you make a Science Fair Project which does Invisible Stuff -- how the fuck do I know if it worked or not? He could have been totally bullshitting me and all the judges at the Science Fair, there was no way any of the judges could tell; I certainly couldn't tell. But he won a Blue Ribbon anyway.

(My Neurological Flatworm Experiment took a 3rd, which was Very Generous considering those were earthworms in the tank; the Flatworms [Planaria dugesia tigrina, I think] from the Bio Science Supply company didn't come in the mail on time, and I couldn't catch flatworms with the piece of raw liver on a string in the scum pond, like the Boy Scout Manual said I could. But maybe you can.)

He showed his homemade Ion Gun to me one afternoon while he was launching Ions all over the neighborhood, through house walls (he said), into trees, into the sky -- he said there was no theoretical reason why they wouldn't keep flying out into space forever. We weren't close, I don't know what happened to him after high school, I don't know what he's doing now. Or where he's doing it.


Jim Olson said...

Ooh! I love old gadgets. Has a leather case and everything. When you get the batteries, does it make that wonderful 'geiger counter' sound? Sort of a metallic, but somehow radioish sounding click?

Bob Merkin said...

Oh yes. Everything you ever dreamed of in a Geiger Counter click click clickety-click noise from a science fiction movie from 1957, this has.

In fact these were so cheap -- weird little boys could afford them after the uranium boom collapsed -- and those movies had such low budgets, that the PRI 710C was probably the GC you see in "Aliens vs. Earth" starring Mike O'Dell and Donna Peavey.

Bob Merkin said...

Ahem. Which is not to suggest my Geiger Counter is in any way deficient or insufficient. If you're an Alpha Particle or a Beta Particle, my Geiger Counter will detect you. You cannot hide from my Geiger Counter. And the more of you there are, the faster my Geiger Counter goes clickety-click, and the more dramatically to the right swings the meter needle.

It just -- as you can see -- doesn't have a lot of fancy bells and whistles. This is your basic Meat And Potatoes Portable Desert Prospector's Geiger Counter. Just the location of the Uranium ore, sir, at a price the gentleman can afford.

Bob Merkin said...

Besides Uranium ore prospecting (radium's already in the pitchblende in tiny quantities, you don't go prospecting for radium), Bob and his Geiger Counter are also just the team you need for wondering how warm things are outside Chernobyl or 3-Mile Island or Windscale or any of the world's big Cold War nuclear waste dumps.

Or what's in your tobacco before you even light it.

About ten years ago, US Customs waved over a truck coming in from Mexico hauling steel intended for building construction. A truckload of perfectly excellent steel. They waved it over because the US Customs Geiger Counter was going clickety-clickety-clickety click. The Mexicans had taken radioactive irradiated steel from a disassembled nuclear plant and were re-selling it as construction steel to the Gringos.

The hot steel that gets through (not every border crossing has GCs, or sometimes they're turned off or to the wrong settings) becomes the new East Elm Grove Elementary School. Call Bob and ask him to bring over his nifty keano GC.

Vintage Computer Manuals said...

Interestingly enough for the Cuban truck parts they scavange old Russian trucks.
Exact knock offs of the American model trucks.
Shows you where we have come to.
Guess now the Russians would copy Asian / Japanese vehicles.

Bob Merkin said...

Yo Vintage,

You got the documentation for the IMSAI 8080 ? I built one (I called it the $3000 Alarm Clock, 'cause that's the smartest thing I could program it to do in Machine Language), and it's still down in the basement.

Halfway between No-Tek and Hi-Tek is Lo-Tek. In World War II, the Germans had Super Ultra Hi-Tek tanks and planes, and the Russians had incredibly Lo-Tek tanks and planes.

Lo-Tek tanks and Lo-Tek planes are cheap, and quick off the assembly line. For the cost of one Panzer, the Russians could roll out 3 or 4 of their ugly cheap tanks.

I forget who won.

Anyway, all technology inevitably soon reaches a Cannabalism & Cheap Knock-Off Phase. You don't have to be rich and powerful to want something nifty that the rich and powerful people invented.

The Chudnovsky Brothers wanted to set the world's record for computing the decimal digits of the expansion of pi. They lived in a slum apartment in Spanish Harlem and were more or less unemployed. Anyway they built their own homebrew supercomputer from mail-order central processor chips and mail-order computer hardware, and cooled it with hardware store fans (which they bought in the winter, when they're cheapest). They broke the pi expansion record three times, I think; the competition was usually Hitachi's state-of-the-art industrial supercomputer in Japan. They used a variant of Ramanujan's pi-computing formula (circa 1914).

The first team to achieve a breakthrough in computerizing the written Chinese ideograph system, their spokesman told the press: "We could not have done this if we had money." Lacking any funding, they had to rely on brains instead.

Thanks for leaving a comment! How'd you find Vleeptron? Have you been to Cuba?

pat the turtle said...

I just saw this little film again and the image of your Geiger Counter popped up in my head and I could not resist to post the link. Bert rules. Be aware. Look up to the skies. Believe everything you see on TV