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This article from Scientific American describes one of the world’s very first numerically-controlled machine tools, a 3-axis Cincinnati Milling Machine Company “Hydro-Tel” painstakingly adapted for programmable electronic control two years before the first commercial silicon transistors:

THE M.I.T. system combines digital and analogue processes under feedback control to govern a milling machine whose cutting tool moves in three planes relative to the work piece. In this case the “model” of the object to be fabricated is supplied to the machine in the form of a perforated paper tape similar to that used in teletype systems. For a typical operation, 10 feet of tape will keep the machine busy for an hour.

The components of the M.I.T. system are grouped into two major assemblies. The first of these, called the “machine,” comprises the milling machine itself, the three servo-mechanisms employed to operate its moving parts, and the instruments required to measure the relative positions of these parts. The second assembly, called the “director,” contains all the data-handling equipment needed to interpret the information on the tape and to pass it on as operating commands to the machine. The director contains three major elements: a data-input system, a data-interpreting system and a set of three decoding servo-mechanisms.

Just another juicy bite of early Atomic Age history from our pals at Modern Mechanix. [Thanks, Lee!]

An Automatic Machine Tool

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.


7 Responses to Punch Tape Programmable Metal Mill from 1952

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  1. rocketguy1701 on said:

    Awesome post. Makes G-Code look like the starship enterprise, no easy feat…

  2. balloondoggle on said:

    Sadly, Cincinnati Milacron is a mere shadow of itself these days.

  3. jammitweapon on said:

    Some of these paper tape mills are still working. There’s a company that sells a serial to punch tape reader adapter. You can read paper tape into your computer over serial, or you can send commands from a computer over serial and then into the paper tape reader.

  4. Only a few years ago I worked in a large government machine shop that still used tapes for some older machines. The old guys there liked them because they aren’t ruined by oil and metal shavings like floppy disks would be.

  5. Pingback: gross contraptions « that’s gross

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