Acoustic Mirrors: How to Find Planes without RADAR

A lot of science museums and parks feature something called an acoustic mirror. The one at Houston’s Discovery Green park is called the listening vessels. [Doug Hollis] created two acoustic mirrors 70 feet apart, pointing at each other. If you stand or sit near one of the vessels, you can hear a whisper from someone near the other vessel. The limestone installations (see right) are concave and focus sound like a parabolic mirror will focus light.

mirrorJust a science curiosity, right? Maybe today, but not always. The story of these devices runs through World War II and is an object lesson in how new technology requires new ways of thinking about things.

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Santos Dumont and the Origins of Aviation

The history of aviation is a fascinating one, spanning more than two thousand years starting from kites and tower jumping. Many hackers are also aviation fans, and the name of Alberto Santos Dumont may be familiar, but if not, here we talk about his role and accomplishments in the field. Santos Dumont is one of the few aviation pioneers that made contributions in both balloons, airships and heavier-than-air aircraft.

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More Power: Powel Crosley and the Cincinnati Flamethrower

We tend to think that there was a time in America when invention was a solo game. The picture of the lone entrepreneur struggling against the odds to invent the next big thing is an enduring theme, if a bit inaccurate and romanticized. Certainly many great inventions came from independent inventors, but the truth is that corporate R&D has been responsible for most of the innovations from the late nineteenth century onward. But sometimes these outfits are not soulless corporate giants. Some are founded by one inventive soul who drives the business to greatness by the power of imagination and marketing. Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park “Invention Factory” comes to mind as an example, but there was another prolific inventor and relentless promoter who contributed vastly to the early consumer electronics industry in the USA: Powel Crosley, Jr.

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Early Electromechanical Circuits

In the days before semiconductor diodes, transistors, or even vacuum tubes, mechanical means were used for doing many of the same things. But there’s still plenty of fun to be had in using those mechanical means today, as [Manuel] did recently with his relay computer. This post is a walk through some circuits that used those mechanical solutions before the invention of the more electronic and less mechanical means came along.

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Everyone Should Build At Least One Regenerative Radio Receiver

When we build an electronic project in 2016, the chances are that the active components will be integrated circuits containing an extremely large amount of functionality in a small space. Where once we might have used an op-amp or two, a 555 timer, or a logic gate, it’s ever more common to use a microcontroller or even an IC that though it presents an analog face to the world does all its internal work in the digital domain.

Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.
Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.

There was a time when active components such as tubes or transistors were likely to be significantly expensive, and integrated circuits, if they even existed, were out of the reach of most constructors. In those days people still used electronics to do a lot of the same jobs we do today, but they relied on extremely clever circuitry rather than the brute force of a do-anything super-component. It was not uncommon to see circuits with only a few transistors or tubes that exploited all the capabilities of the devices to deliver something well beyond that which you might expect.

One of the first electronic projects I worked on was just such a circuit. It came courtesy of a children’s book, one of the Ladybird series that will be familiar to British people of a Certain Age: [George Dobbs, G3RJV]’s Making A Transistor Radio. This book built the reader up through a series of steps to a fully-functional 3-transistor Medium Wave (AM) radio with a small loudspeaker.

Two of the transistors formed the project’s audio amplifier, leaving the radio part to just one device. How on earth could a single transistor form the heart of a radio receiver with enough sensitivity and selectivity to be useful, you ask? The answer lies in an extremely clever circuit: the regenerative detector. A small amount of positive feedback is applied to an amplifier that has a tuned circuit in its path, and the effect is to both increase its gain and narrow its bandwidth. It’s still not the highest performance receiver in the world, but it’s astoundingly simple and in the early years of the 20th century it offered a huge improvement over the much simpler tuned radio frequency (TRF) receivers that were the order of the day.

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ENIAC: The Way We Were

When I first got interested in computers, it was all but impossible for an individual to own a computer outright. Even a “small” machine cost a fortune not to mention requiring specialized power, cooling, and maintenance. Then there started to be some rumblings of home computers (like the Mark 8 we recently saw a replica of) and the Altair 8800 burst on the scene. By today’s standards, these are hardly computers. Even an 8-bit Arduino can outperform these old machines.

As much disparity as there is between an Altair 8800 and a modern personal computer, looking even further back is fascinating. The differences between the original computers from the 1940s and anything even remotely “modern” like an Altair or a PC are astounding. If you are interested in that kind of history, you should read a paper entitled “Electronic Computing Circuits of the ENIAC” by [Arthur W. Burks].

These mid-century designers used tubes and were blazing new ground. Part of what makes the ENIAC so different is that it had a different design principle than a modern computer. It was less a general purpose stored-program computer and more of a collection of logic circuits that could be configured to solve problems — sort of a giant vacuum tube FPGA, if you will. It used some internal representations that proved to be suboptimal which also makes it seem strange. The EDSAC — a later device — was closer to what we think of as a computer. Yet the ENIAC was a major step in the direction of a practical digital computer.

Cost and Size

eniac
Programming the ENIAC in 1951 (±4 years)
[Image Source: Public Domain]
The size of ENIAC is hard to imagine. The device had about 18,000 tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. There were 5 million hand-soldered joints! ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while this is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.) Physically, it stood 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 100 feet long. The tube filaments alone required 80 kW of power. Even the cooling system consumed 20 kW. In total, it took 150 kW to run the beast.

The cost of the machine was about $487,000. Almost a half-million dollars in 1946 is plenty. But that’s nearly seven million dollars in today’s money. What was worth that kind of expenditure? The military built firing tables for shell trajectories. From the [Burks] paper:

“A skilled computer with a desk machine can compute a 60-second trajectory in about twenty hours…”

Keep in mind that in 1946, a computer was a person. [Burks] goes on to say that a differential analyzer can do the same job in 15 minutes. ENIAC, on the other hand, could do it in 30 seconds and with a greater precision than the differential analyzer.

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The Zimmermann Telegram

World War I began in 1914 as a fight among several European nations, while the United States pursued a policy of non-intervention. In fact, Woodrow Wilson was reelected President largely because “He kept us out of war”. But as the war unfolded in Europe, an intercepted telegram sent by the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the Mexican government inflamed the U.S. public opinion and was one of the main reasons for the entry of the U.S. into WWI. This is the story of the encrypted telegram that changed the last century.

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