Intl. Notebook Jan 24 2013
AUTOMATIC LIGHT
Let me fire that up that for you. Come here often? Can I buy you a lubrica— I mean, can I buy you a drink?


Above is a fun photo of General Electric’s Mechanical Hands, which were on display at the 1948 Golden Jubilee Exposition at Grand Central Palace in New York City. A press release describes how a technician used the hands to successfully light a model’s cigarette. To make the hands appear to be completely automated, the techie was sitting behind a wall watching what he was doing in a mirror. The mirror wasn’t visible to onlookers, so the spectacle must have drawn quite a few oohs and aahs. Nothing in the press release about how many earlier models were fishhooked before the techie got his shit together.

GE’s hands were actually designed to help scientists handle radioactive materials, not impress random observers, but the Golden Jubilee Exposition was all about showing off the wonders of modernization. For example an AAP news item claims that, to welcome the first night's visitors, the doors to Grand Central Palace were opened by an “atomic ray.” Another item describes the same moment, telling readers a miniature “atomic pile” was set off using the light of the star Alioth. The details:

The light was picked up simultaneously by telescopes on top of the Empire State Building and in a plane flying at 20,000 feet 180 miles east of New York. In turn, the light energy was transmitted by radio and telegraph to the atomic pile. The energy from the resulting chain reaction in the pile was sent to a piece of magnesium on a ribbon in front of the doors of the exhibition. The ribbon split as the magnesium ignited and the Jubilee was opened.

Do we believe this is what actually happened? After all, the mechanical hands were operated by a hidden technician, so why not have the atomic pile secretly lit by a janitor with a Zippo? For that matter why not have the GE techie do it? After all the models he scarred he was probably eager to prove himself. But we weren’t there, so we’ll give Jubilee organizers the benefit of the doubt. Whatever their methods, it sounds like it was a damn good show. If anyone wants to weigh in on the actual science of this focused starlight thing feel free. You know how to reach us.
 

 
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