Retrotechtacular: Whatever Happened To The Paper Mobile Phone

It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.

The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.

The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.
The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.

The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?

With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.

Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.

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Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prospects for a future powered by nuclear energy were bright. There had been accidents at nuclear reactors, but they had not penetrated the public consciousness, or had conveniently happened far away. This was the age of “Too cheap to meter“, and The Jetsons, in which a future driven by technologies as yet undreamed of would free mankind from its problems. Names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were unheard of, and it seemed that nuclear reactors would become the miracle power source for the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The first generation of nuclear power stations were thus accompanied by extremely optimistic public relations and news coverage. At the opening of the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, UK in 1956, the [Queen] gave a speech in which she praised it as for the common good of the community, and on the other side of the Atlantic the American nuclear industry commissioned slick public relations films to promote their work. Such a film is the subject of this piece, and though unlike the British they could not muster a monarch, had they but known it at the time they did employ the services of a President.

The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant was completed in 1962 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its owners, Consumers Power Company, were proud of their new facility, and commissioned a short film about it. The reactor had been supplied by General Electric, and fronting the film was General Electric’s established spokesman and host of their General Electric Theater TV show, the Hollywood actor and future President [Ronald Reagan].

The film below the break starts by explaining nuclear power as a new heat source powering a conventional steam-driven generator, and stresses the safety aspect of reactor control rods. We are then treated to a fascinating view of the assembly of an early-1960s nuclear reactor, starting with the arrival of the pressure vessel and showing the assemblies within it that held the fuel and control rods. Fuel rods are shown at their factory in California, and being loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the continent, seemingly without the massive security that would nowadays accompany such an undertaking. The rods are loaded and the reactor is started, as [Reagan] puts it: “The atom has been put to work, on schedule”.

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Retrotechtacular: Power Driven Articulated Dummy

If any of you have ever made a piece of clothing, you’ll know some of the challenges involved. Ensuring a decent and comfortable fit for the wearer, because few real people conform exactly to commercial sizes. It’s as much a matter of style as it is of practicality, because while ill-fitting clothing might be a sartorial fail, it’s hardly serious.

When the piece of clothing is a space suit though, it is a different matter. You are not so much making a piece of clothing as a habitat, and one that will operate in an environment in which a quick change to slip into something more comfortable is not possible. If you get it wrong at best your astronaut will be uncomfortable and at worst their life could be threatened.

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Retrotechtacular: Railroads In The Jet Age

The front of the Soviet jet train on a monument in Tver, Russia. By Eskimozzz [PD], via Wikimedia Commons.
The front of the Soviet jet train on a monument in Tver, Russia. By Eskimozzz [PD], via Wikimedia Commons.
It started with one of those odd links that pop up from time to time on Hacker News: “The strange and now sadly abandoned Soviet Jet Train from the 1970s“. Pictures of a dilapidated railcar with a pair of jet engines in nacelles above its cab, forlorn in a rusty siding in the Russian winter. Reading a little further on the subject revealed a forgotten facet of the rivalry between Russians and Americans at the height of the Cold War, and became an engrossing trawl through Wikipedia entries, rail enthusiast websites, and YouTube videos.

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Retrotechtacular: Home Video Recording

The news has been full of reports that the last company manufacturing consumer VCRs will cease making them this year. I think most of us are surprised that the event is only happening now. After all, these days, video recording is likely to be on a hard drive, a USB stick, or on a server somewhere. Even recording to DVDs seems a bit quaint these days.

VCR-03Back before there were web sites, people had to get information from magazines like Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics, and a few others. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was common to see these magazines predict that this would be the year of the home video recording system. For example, in 1971, [Lou Garner] wrote: “…they [Sony] hope will put home videotape playing in the same living room as conventional high-fidelity sound systems.” You should know that the video cassette he was talking about was 8 inches wide by 5 inches deep (a big larger than a VHS tape) and contained 3/4 inch magnetic tape (VHS used 1/2 inch tape). The 32-pound player had a retail price of about $350 (about $2,000 in today’s dollars; remember gas was $0.36 a gallon and eggs were $0.53 a dozen). It would be several years before VHS and Betamax would duke it out for home supremacy.

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Retrotechtacular: Tom Carter Revolutionized your Phone

It is hard to remember, but there was a time when you couldn’t hook much to a telephone line except a telephone. Although landlines are slowly falling out of favor, you can still get corded and wireless phones, answering machines, and even dial up modems. Alarm systems sometimes connect to the phone system along with medical monitoring devices and a host of other accessories.

All of that’s possible because of a Texan named Tom Carter. Tom Carter was the David that stood up to one of the biggest Goliath’s of his day: the phone company. The phone company had a legal monopoly on providing phone service. The reasoning was that it didn’t make sense to have multiple competing companies trying to run wires to every house and business in the country. Makes sense, right?

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Retrotechtacular: Old Transistors

Regency TR-1

Transistors have come a long way. Like everything else electronic, they’ve become both better and cheaper. According to a recent IEEE article, a transistor cost about $8 in today’s money back in the 1960’s. Consider the Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio from TI and IDEA. In late 1954, the four-transistor device went on sale for $49.95. That doesn’t sound like much until you realize that in 1954, this was equivalent to about $441 (a new car cost about $1,700 and a copy of life magazine cost 20 cents). Even at that price, they sold about 150,000 radios.

Part of the reason the transistors cost so much was that production costs were high. But another reason is that yields were poor. In some cases, 4 out of 5 of the devices were not usable. The transistors were not that good even when they did work. The first transistors were germanium which has high leakage and worse thermal properties than silicon.

socketEarly transistors were subject to damage from soldering, so it was common to use an alligator clip or a specific heat sink clip to prevent heat from reaching the transistor during construction. Some gear even used sockets which also allowed the quick substitution of devices, just like the tubes they replaced.

When the economics of transistors changed, it made a lot of things practical. For example, a common piece of gear used to be a transistor tester, like the Heathkit IT-121 in the video below. If you pulled an $8 part out of a socket, you’d want to test it before you spent more money on a replacement. Of course, if you had a curve tracer, that was even better because you could measure the device parameters which were probably more subject to change than a modern device.

Of course, germanium to silicon is only one improvement made over the years. The FET is a fundamentally different kind of transistor that has many desirable properties and, of course, integrating hundreds or even thousands of transistors on one integrated circuit revolutionized electronics of all types. Transistors got better. Parameters become less variable and yields increased. Maximum frequency rises and power handling capacity increases. Devices just keep getting better. And cheaper.

A Brief History of Transistors

The path from vacuum tube to the Regency TR-1 was a twisted one. Everyone knew the disadvantages of tubes: fragile, power hungry, and physically large, although smaller and lower-power tubes would start to appear towards the end of their reign. In 1925 a Canadian physicist patented a FET but failed to publicize it. Beyond that, mass production of semiconductor material was unknown at the time. A German inventor patented a similar device in 1934 that didn’t take off, either.

Replica of the First Transistor

Bell labs researchers worked with germanium and actually understood how to make “point contact” transistors and FETs in 1947. However, Bell’s lawyers found the earlier patents and elected to pursue the conventional transistor patent that would lead to the inventors (John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley) winning the Nobel prize in 1956.

Two Germans working for a Westinghouse subsidiary in Paris independently developed a point contact transistor in 1948. It would be 1954 before silicon transistors became practical. The MOSFET didn’t appear until 1959.

Of course, even these major milestones are subject to incremental improvements. The V channel for MOSFETs, for example, opened the door for FETs to be true power devices, able to switch currents required for motors and other high current devices.

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