Archive Gallery: Decades of Finding Out How Things Work

The origins of wind power, Roomba's great grandfather and the magical workings of the automatic shower faucet

Our annual How it Works issue is now available, wherein we strip 13 amazing machines of their skins to marvel at what lies beneath. For anyone interested in science and technology, it’s a natural tendency, almost a reflex: let’s open this thing up and see what makes it tick. Maybe we can put it back together, and then again maybe not.

Of course, we’ve been doing this here at PopSci for over a century. Here we’ve combed the archives for some of our favorite “How It Works” articles over the years. And there are some gems.

Click the thumbnails to launch the gallery

It pleases me to no end to see, amongst the rocket cars and interstellar colonies of fantasy, the instances where PopSci of old totally nails the future. In November 1972, when we looked inside one of the first viable large-scale wind turbines, the idea of harnessing the wind not just to power small home generators, but to provide a significant source of electricity for an entire region, was pretty far-flung. Now, 38 years later and in the midst of a climate crisis, we’re featuring on our cover one of the world’s most advanced wind turbines that many hope will take significant pressure off the conventional power grid by harnessing strong offshore winds.

The rest of this year’s How It Works subjects are decidedly high tech–a robotic lunar lander, a drill to the center of the earth, among others–but one thing we noticed when peeling through the archives is our tendency to also look inside the seemingly mundane everyday machines, which can at times be just as fascinating.

These more practical applications of the all-seeing How It Works eye remind us of what we now take for granted: A speedometer was by no means a new thing in 1953, but it had become standard equipment in new cars only a few decades prior, meaning its mysterious inner workings were surely still on motorists’ minds.

Check out some of our favorites by launching the gallery here.

And please, do join us in the hunt–if you find any excellent How It Works subjects in your own archive trawling, please let us know in the comments! (You can get direct links to pages by copying what’s in your browser’s URL bar after clicking on a search result).