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How Did Factories Get Power to Their Machines Before Electricity?

The Industrial Revolution and the world's first factories antedated electricity. How is it possible that a machine shop could run, in an age when you couldn't just plug a machine into a socket?

The answer is, miles of leather (or cotton) belts. Factories had their power source, whether it was a steam engine or a waterwheel, rigged up to drive huge rotating shafts called line shafts. These were suspended overhead and festooned with pulleys. Belts ran from these pulleys down to the factories' machines (or to intermediary pulleys driving another belt), where they drove each machine through another pulley. The line shaft was the powerstrip of the day.

Machines could be turned "off" by sliding the belt from a fixed pulley onto a loose pulley next to it. By cutting power to the machine, you could then switch the belt onto pulleys of different diameters on the machine, which changed the machine's speed of rotation. In the lower right of both photos below, you can see machines that have pulleys of multiple diameters stacked up against each other.

Sometimes you had machines that needed to rotate in the opposite direction of the line shaft. There was a simple trick to this: You simply twisted the belt a half turn, making it into a figure eight. You can see one such twisted belt on the right side of the photo below.

Wondering what it all sounded like? Here's footage of a line-shaft-driven machine shop in Elnora, Indiana:

Fun to watch, but probably not so fun to work within. According to Louis C. Hunter and Lynwood Bryant's "A History of Industrial Power in the U.S., 1780-1930: Vol 3: The Transmission of Power," the line shaft system had plenty of downsides: The layout of machines was dependent on the location of the line shaft rather than efficiency; the systems were noisy, dangerous and dirty; they required frequent lubrication, meaning oil was constantly dripping onto everything.

Then there was the air quality, with the belts constantly shedding and circulating dust—right next to the worker using the machine. When factories finally switched over to electric in the 20th Century, manufacturers not only saw a productivity boost—they also noted "significantly less employee sick time."

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Speculative Futures at PRIMER 18

If you happened to miss last year's inaugural PRIMER17 conference, well, you have another crack at rubbing shoulders and exchanging best practices with others devoted to speculative design, strategic foresight, design futures, and discursive design in general. PRIMER18  will be taking place this May 3–5 at several sites in the SF Bay Area. (Discounts! Core77 readers can take advantage of a 25% discount with web registration code CORE77P18; Educators and non-profits 50% off with EduDiscount50off; and Student tickets are $95 with a valid student ID–contact theprimerconference@gmail.com.)

Speakers include Nick Foster, Head of Design, Google X, and Julian Bleeker, Co-founder and CTO of Omata. Both also co-founders of the Near Future Laboratory.

This year's keynote speakers are futurist and Carnegie Mellon professor, Stuart Candy, and multi-platform designer, Ani Liu fresh from the MIT Media Lab. Others such as Nick Foster, Head of Design at Google X along with his Near Futures Laboratory partner Julian Bleecker will also be sharing the stage. Twenty speakers from industry, academia, and independent practice will speak and run workshops involving present-day project opportunities and challenges, practical and critical frameworks, the sociopolitical implications of design, and no less than the future of humanity itself (which includes speculative practice).

We had the pleasure of attending last year and met the brainchild behind PRIMER and the increasingly international Speculative Futures meetup group, Phil Balagtas. We caught up with him again in the run-up to this year's conference.

Phil Balagtas, Experience Design Director at McKinsey & Company

Where did the PRIMER conference come from?
PRIMER culminated out of the interest of the speculative design community we were building in San Francisco. We started our first meetup in April 2015 as an experiment to see if there were others in the Bay Area that were interested in Speculative & Critical Design (SCD). Interest grew quickly and we were thrilled by the feedback and reaction of people in the design community—many people had never heard of speculative design and wanted to know more. So we decided to organize a "glorified meetup" in Feb 2017. It was only meant to be a one day event where we would fly in some of our favorite designers. But the more we worked on it, the more it turned into a full-fledged conference.

What is your background and relation to speculative design / design futures?
I discovered SCD when I was at the California College of the Arts pursuing my masters in 2009. I was desperately seeking a topic area for my thesis and saw Dunne & Raby in the documentary, Objectified. I was fascinated at how they looked at design and what the future meant for designers and interaction design. I quickly started researching everything that was coming out of the RCA and found more and more examples of critical design. It would eventually shape my thesis that year.  After school, I was a bit discouraged w/ my work so I got a job in software in Silicon Valley, all the while poking at SCD and smuggling it into design thinking sessions with our clients hoping it would instill some urgency about the impact they were having on society with their products. But we always found challenges and had to scale back the "speculation" to meet business needs. Years later, I saw a project by the agency, Method, called Method Money (see video below) win an interaction design award. While, not entirely a critical design piece, it gave me hope that there were still others out there practicing speculative design and that it was not just relegated to art schools or museums. That's when I decided to start the Speculative Futures Meetup. So for the past 3 years, we've hosted speakers and I've curated workshops to help our community learn how to think about the future through speculative design. I also speak and teach workshops around the world on the topic. I'll be at InteractOhio from April 25–26 speaking to a digital marketing crowd.

Method Money

Why call it "Primer"?
We weren't sure what to call this "glorified meetup" at first. I knew I wanted it to have its own unique name. At my day job (at the time I was a designer at General Electric) we always talked about "priming" our customers for design thinking. And always creating a "primer" deck to help introduce people to new ideas. I thought it was perfect for the conference. We believe it means that the things we speculate about, the cultural, economic, political, environmental implications are "priming" our audience and society for possible futures. And we've created this platform not just to share work but to really ignite a concern about how things could be, and how we can avert the dangers and fortify opportunities for designing a better tomorrow.

What has been most surprising for you?
The most surprising thing has really been the growth of our Speculative Futures meetup community. We never intended it to grow beyond San Francisco, but the more I spoke in other cities, the more people wanted to help and grow their own local communities. We're now in 6 cities worldwide: San Francisco, Austin, Indiana, New York, London, Berlin, and soon Australia.

A day of workshops: Actionable Futures Toolkit (Sami Niemelä; Transgenerational Futures (Alana Aquilino); Foresight and Innovation approaches (Frank Spencer); and the Speculative City (Matt Wizinsky).

What's been a great outcome of the conference?
I still recall something someone said at PRIMER 17–"It's nice to know that I'm not alone." I think the most rewarding thing about the conference is seeing people who've come from all over and meet each other and feel thrilled to know there are others out there practicing this work and sharing the same ideas and methodologies. We just want to connect the world, really. We strongly believe in the mission of using speculative design to deliver new agendas at a global scale. So the more people that meet and are inspired and can go back to their home and keep the fire burning and spread the methodologies and ideas, the more grateful we are.

What do you see in PRIMER's future?
We have some exciting announcements we're going to make at PRIMER 18 and all I can say is "growth". The meet ups are already growing and working at a grassroots level. But we're looking forward to how PRIMER can connect even more communities outside of design globally. At PRIMER 18 we've decided to extend our invitation to Futurists, Strategic Foresight practitioners, and even Sci-fi authors. We believe we are all in the same family and can help each other imagine, grow and execute real-world strategies. So you're going to hear from a lot of different people at PRIMER 18, not just Speculative Designers.





PRIMER is a project of the Design Futures Initiative, a 501c3 volunteer-driven nonprofit that organizes the Speculative Futures meetups.

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Trump Logo Kerfuffle Reveals Even Graphic Design is Fair Game for U.S. Divisiveness

American divisiveness has reached an all-time high. There is much our bifurcated nation cannot agree upon, and here is further proof that we will, like bar brawlers scrabbling for napkin-holders to use as bludgeons, seize upon anything we can use to attack the other "side."

On Friday Donald Trump's presidential campaign sent out an e-mail announcing his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. The e-mail was accompanied with the duo's new logo, in startlingly low resolution:

While not a terrific piece of graphic design, absent any politics it's serviceable enough. The "T" and "P" are interlocked, recalling a collegiate logo. The red stripes and negative white space serve to fill out an iconized version of the American flag. But criticism of a puerile, sexually suggestive (and unfair, we believe, see below) nature begin almost immediately.

This swiftly evolved into a meme (including a crass animated GIF revealing that yes, America is still titillated by sex. "Look, the T is fucking the P!" Giggles and high-fives all around). Media outlets opposed to Trump's campaign immediately ran with the story, and web denizens—perhaps seeking to distract themselves from a litany of horrifically violent recent news events—eagerly piled on. Such a furor, or perceived furor, was created on social and news media that the Trump campaign swiftly pulled the logo.

The reason we say the criticism was unfair is because even if you don't like a person, we find it absurd to insist that you then don't like that person's car, necktie or trappings, as if their persona—however odious you may find it—ought be projected onto their aesthetic choices. Interlocking letters are not uncommon in logo work…

…and to use words to twist them into something to create offense, with gleeful pseudo-Freudian insights, is both childish and churlish.

Legitimate tools of political protest are manifold. Technology has given all of us more power to broadcast our voices than ever. But rather than use that power to engage in substantive discussions, or even a literal dialogue—which would involve two sides actually listening to one another—we talk past each other, belittle the other side and attack a logo.

The reason why is obvious. You reach for the napkin holder to bash across your opponent's face because negotiations have failed and now you're both up out of your seats. I guess if you miss your shot or his skull turns out to be thicker than you'd thought, you'd better hope you can grab the barstool next.

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