Digital Communications 1830s Style

We think of digital communications as a modern invention. But the reality is that semaphores, smoke signals, and Aldis lamps are all types of digital communication. While telegraphs are not as old as smoke signals, they, too, are a digital mode. The problem with all of these is that they require the operator to learn some kind of code. People don’t like to learn code because it is difficult, and employers don’t like to pay high wages to trained operators.

In the late 1830s, a man named William Cooke proposed a complex telegraph to a railway company. The company didn’t care for it and asked for something simpler. The railway didn’t like that either, so Cooke joined up with Charles Wheatstone and patented something that was a cross between a telegraph and a Ouija board.

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Retrotechtacular: Cut All the Cables in this Speedy Teleco Switch Upgrade

In this short but intense classic of corporate cinematography, we get to watch as the Pacific Bell central office in Glendale, California is converted to electronic switching in a 47-second frenzy of cable cutting in 1984.

In the 1970s and 1980s, conversion of telephone central office (CO) switch gear from older technologies such as crossbar (XBar) switches or step-by-step (SxS) gear to electronic switching systems (ESS) was proceeding apace. Early versions of ESS were rolling out as early as the 1950s, but telcos were conservative entities that were slow to adopt change and even slower to make changes that might result in service outages. So when the time finally came for the 35,000 line Glendale CO to cutover from their aging SxS gear to ESS, Pacific Bell retained Western Electric for their “Speedy Cutover Service.”

Designed to reduce the network outage time to a minimum, cuts like these were intricately planned and rehearsed. Prep teams of technicians marked the cables to be cut and positioned them for easy access by the cutters. For this cut, scaffolding was assembled to support two tiers of cutters. It looks like the tall guys got the upper deck, and the shorter techs – with hard hats – worked under them.

At 11PM on this cut night, an emergency coordinator verified that no emergency calls were in progress, and the cut began. In an intense burst of activity, each of the 54 technicians cut about 20 cables. Smiles widened as the cut accelerated, and sparks actually flew at the 35.7 second mark. When done, each tech turned around and knelt down so the supervisors knew when everyone was done. At least one tech couldn’t help but whoop it up when the cut was done. Who could blame him? It must have been a blast.

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Russian Rocket Tech Comes In From the Cold

Decades after the end of the space race, an American rocket took off from Cape Canaveral. This was a routine launch to send a communications satellite into orbit, but the situation was an historic first. The rocket in question was driven by a powerful Russian engine unlike any ever built in the States. Although this particular engine was new, the design dated back to the space age.

By the early 1960s, the Russians were leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in terms of space exploration. They had already launched Sputnik and sent Yuri Gagarin to orbit the Earth. All in all, the Russians seemed poised to send a man to the moon. Russian technology had the Americans worried enough to spy on them with satellites, and the images that came back revealed something spectacular. Out in the Kazakh desert, the Russians were building an enormous causeway and two launch pads. As it turns out, the US had every reason to be worried.

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Retrotechtacular: The Theremin Terpsitone

Léon Theremin built his eponymous instrument in 1920 under Soviet sponsorship to study proximity sensors. He later applied the idea of generating sounds using the human body’s capacitance to other physical forms like the theremin cello and the theremin keyboard. One of these was the terpsitone, which is kind of like a full-body theremin. It was built about twelve years after the theremin and named after Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of dance and chorus from Greek mythology.

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Retrotechtacular: Electronic Publishing in the 1930s

We are living in the age of citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle. Reports about almost anything newsworthy can be had from many perspectives, both vetted and amateur. Just a few decades ago, people relied on daily newspapers, radio, and word of mouth for their news. On the brink of the television age, several radio stations in the United States participated in an experiment to broadcast news over radio waves. But this was no ordinary transmission. At the other end, a new type of receiver printed out news stories, line drawings, and pictures on a long roll of paper.

Radio facsimile newspaper technology was introduced to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair at two different booths. One belonged to an inventor named William Finch, and one to RCA. Finch had recently made a name for himself with his talking newspaper, which embedded audio into a standard newspaper in the form of wavy lines along the edges that were read by a special device.

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First Edition of German Computer Mag is a Blast from the Past

Every once in a while we get nostalgic for the old days of computing. Here, we’re getting nostalgic for a past that wasn’t even our own, but will probably bring a smile to all the German hackers out there. c’t magazine has its first issue available on their website (PDF, via FTP), and it’s worth checking out even if you can’t read a word of German.

ct-adIt’s dated November/December 1983, and you’re definitely hopping in the WABAC machine here. The cover image is a terminal computer project that you’re encouraged to build for yourself, and the magazine is filled with those characteristic early-computer-era ads, many of them for the physical keyboards that you’d need to make such a device. Later on, c’t would provide plans for a complete DIY PC with plotter, one of which we saw still running at the 2015 Berlin Vintage Computer Festival.

The issue is chock-full of code for you to type out into your own computer at home. If you didn’t have a computer, there are of course reviews of all of the popular models of the day; the TRS-80 Model 100 gets good marks. And if you need to buy a BASIC interpreter, there’s an article comparing Microsoft’s MBASIC with CBM’s CBASIC. A battle royale!

ct_mag_computer_bandOther hot topics include modifications to make your ZX81’s video output sharper, the hassle of having to insert a coded dongle into your computer to run some software (an early anti-piracy method), and even a computer-music band that had (at least) a Commodore 64 and a CBM machine in their groovy arsenal.

It’s no secret that we like old computers, and their associated magazines. Whether you prefer your PDP-11’s physical or virtual, we’ve got you covered here. And if your nostalgia leans more Anglophone, check out this Byte magazine cover re-shoot.

Retrotechtacular: A Desktop Computer from 1965

About eight years before the Xerox built the Alto at PARC and over a decade before the Apple ][ premiered, Italian business equipment manufacturer Olivetti produced a bona fide desktop personal computer. When Olivetti debuted this typewriter-sized marvel in 1965 at a business convention in New York City, people were in absolute awe that this tiny, self-contained unit could perform the same types of functions as the hulking room-sized mainframes of the time. Some were sure that it was simply a small input device for a much bigger machine hiding behind the curtain.

But the revolutionary Olivetti Programma 101 was no joke. It performed standard four-banger operations and could handle square root and absolute value calculations. The Olivetti had 16 jump instructions as well as 16 conditional jump instructions, which put it firmly in state machine territory. Programs could be printed on a roll of paper or stored long-term on long magnetic cards.

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