The Conductive Paper That Sparked a Revolution

Legendary electrical engineer and linear IC trailblazer Bob Widlar was just like you. What I mean is that he would use everything available to him to mock up circuits, create prototypes, and make things work. One of the simplest and coolest tools he used was a conductive paper called Teledeltos. This wonderful stuff allowed him to define and test various configurations for the oddly-shaped ballast resistors he used in some of his high-performance circuit designs. But it wasn’t created for people like you and Bob. Teledeltos paper was created and trademarked by communications giant Western Union to drastically improve the convenience of telegrams.

Development of the electric telegraph ushered in the era of global communication. Suddenly, people could send messages to the other side of the world in a fraction of the time it took by post. The telegraph absolutely revolutionized human communication. It was the e-mail and the Twitter of its time. The telegraph’s efficiency made the Pony Express pretty much obsolete by the 1860s. And for a very long time it was much cheaper for people to send a telegram than make a long-distance phone call.

The Advantages of Facsimile

Translated from ancient Greek, ‘teledeltos’ basically means writing tablet at a distance. Western Union began developing Teledeltos paper in the 1930s for the purpose of transmitting telegrams by facsimile, a method that would greatly reduce the time it took to input messages into the system and get them out on the other side. As long as both the sender and the receiver had facsimile machines, a handwritten telegram could be transmitted without having to be typed by a clerk or translated into code. Teledeltos paper was also used in a variety of chart recorders, like seismographs and map plotters. The ability to feed a handwritten message, a photograph, or a map of enemy territory into a machine that transmitted an exact copy was a real game changer.

Because of its composition, Teledeltos paper could be easily marked without an electrolyte. It marked so well that photographs and other graphic information could be transmitted, and no processing was required on the receiving end. A dry recording paper is also much less sensitive to light and to temperature extremes. More importantly, properly stored dry paper is impervious to fungal growth. Teledeltos paper could sit around indefinitely without becoming useless. The only real disadvantage to this type of paper was the somewhat laborious process that went into achieving the desired resistance. Fax machines eventually moved on to digital transmission and thermal printing technology.

Image credit: MIT

Sparking a Revolution

Teledeltos paper has a light gray electro-sensitive coating on one side, and the other side is carbon black. When a current is applied with a stylus to the coated side of the paper, the coating is instantly burned away, revealing the carbon black. Teledeltos paper could be marked using either AC or DC. Polarity didn’t matter, either, but the boys in the lab at Western Union had better luck when they used a positive stylus with DC rather than a negative one.

Teledeltos paper was made in two types—“L” for low resistance and “H” for high. The resistivity of a roll of Teledeltos paper depended on the quality of the conductive fibers that went into it. The paper’s electrical characteristics were also influenced by the fiber beating process and the distribution of the conductive fibers by the supercalender, a system of hard rollers used in papermaking and other processes that press and smooth paper and other materials to increase the density.

Teledeltos to the Rescue

The Western Union Telecar printed telegrams on the go and delivered them to homes and businesses.
The Western Union Telecar printed telegrams on the go and delivered them to homes and businesses. Image credit: Modern Mechanix

Western Union was eager to extend its reach into private businesses and public places so that patrons who weren’t heavy telegram users didn’t have to visit a telegram office in order to share a bit of good news or to send their condolences. The company’s Telefax division came up with several types of machines to serve different business needs.

Some messages continued to be delivered by hand, but they weren’t printed at the central office. Western Union created a Telecar service to print telegrams transmitted to the car by the central office and deliver them to people’s homes. Messages were printed onto recording blanks that were cut automatically by a Telefax recorder situated in the car’s passenger area. The Telecar’s radio and amplification equipment was in the trunk.

The standard Telefax machine for office use was fairly large, like an early microwave oven. A smaller version called the DeskFax was only about the size of a breadbox, and these units occupied the desks of many businessmen and secretaries because of their convenience.

A Western Union DeskFax unit. Image from [B. Hilpert]
A Western Union DeskFax unit. Image from [B. Hilpert]
Both the Telefax and the DeskFax scanned and recorded telegrams using a rotary drum mechanism. A message could either be typed or handwritten onto a telegram blank. The sender then wrapped the telegram around a drum and set the machine to send. The machine would scan the message optically and then transmit it to the central office.

Before sending it on to the recipient, an attendant at the telegram office had to remove the incoming message and wrap it around the drum of a transmitting machine. Once connected to the receiving party’s line, the far end unit would buzz to arouse attention. The receiving patron would then load a blank on to their DeskFax’s roller and set their machine to receive.

Teledeltos for Hacking and Education

Measuring potential differences. Image from
Measuring potential differences.
Image from UCSD

Conductive paper like Teledeltos has many applications aside from fax machines and Fathometers. For starters, it’s great for making one-offs of both standard and variable resistors. Conductive paint can be used as connection points for wires. The paper is also well-suited for simulating current flow through circuits using a fraction of the current intended in production. Vacuum tube designers used Teledeltos for modeling potentials. Teledeltos can also be used to visualize electromagnetic potentials and perform field plotting.

We’re sure that at least a few of our readers out there used Teledeltos or something like it in school or on the job. Did you know you can still buy it? Teledeltos paper itself is still available from two companies in the UK, Better Equipped and Timstar. In the US, you can get it from Pasco in packs of 50 and 100 sheets, with and without a grid pattern.

[Teledeltos paper image is a product photo from Better Equipped]

Annoy Your Enemies with the Hassler Circuit

[Craig] recently built himself a version of the “hassler” circuit as a sort of homage to Bob Widlar. If you haven’t heard of Bob Widlar, he was a key person involved in making analog IC’s a reality. We’ve actually covered the topic in-depth in the past. The hassler circuit is a simple but ingenious office prank. The idea is that the circuit emits a very high frequency tone, but only when the noise level in the room reaches a certain threshold. If your coworkers become too noisy, they will suddenly notice a ringing in their ears. When they stop talking to identify the source, the noise goes away. The desired result is to get your coworkers to shut the hell up.

[Craig] couldn’t find any published schematics for the original circuit, but he managed to build his own version with discrete components and IC’s. Sound first enters the circuit via a small electret microphone. The signal is then amplified, half-wave rectified, and run through a low pass filter. The gain from the microphone is configurable via a trim pot. A capacitor converts the output into a flat DC voltage.

The signal then gets passed to a relaxation oscillator circuit. This circuit creates a signal whose output duty cycle is dependent on the input voltage. The higher the input voltage, the longer the duty cycle, and the lower the frequency. The resulting signal is sent to a small speaker for output. The speaker is also controlled by a Schmitt trigger. This prevents the speaker from being powered until the voltage reaches a certain threshold, thus saving energy. The whole circuit is soldered together dead bug style and mounted to a copper clad board.

When the room is quiet, the input voltage is low. The output frequency is high enough that it is out of the range of human hearing. As the room slowly gets louder, the voltage increases and the output frequency lowers. Eventually it reaches the outer limits of human hearing and people in the room take notice. The video below walks step by step through the circuit. Continue reading “Annoy Your Enemies with the Hassler Circuit”

Heroes of Hardware Revolution: Bob Widlar

Bob Widlar (1937-1991) is without a doubt one of the most famous hardware engineers of all time.  In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he is the person who single-handedly started the whole Analog IC Industry. Sure, it’s Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby who invented the concept of Integrated Circuits, but it’s Widlar’s genius and pragmatism that brought it to life. Though he was not first to realize the limitations of planar process and designing ICs like discrete circuits, he was the first one to provide an actual solution – µA702, the first linear IC Operational Amplifier. Combining his engineering genius, understanding of economic aspects of circuit design and awareness of medium and process limitations, he and Dave Talbert ruled the world of Analog ICs throughout the 60s and 70s. For a significant period of time, they were responsible more than 80 percent of all linear circuits made and sold in the entire world.

Bob Widlar


Continue reading “Heroes of Hardware Revolution: Bob Widlar”