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.
It is said that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” Given the world-changing success of radio in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s no wonder that so many scientists, physicists, and engineers have been credited with its invention. The fact that electromagnetic radiation is a natural phenomenon that no one can reasonably claim to have invented sometimes seems lost in the shuffle to claim the prize.
But it was exactly through the study of natural phenomena that one of the earliest pioneers in radio research came to have a reasonable claim to at least be the inventor of the radio receiver, well before anyone had learned how to reliably produce electromagnetic waves. This is the story of how a Russian physicist harnessed the power of lightning and became one of the many fathers of radio.
Getting back to basics is a great way to teach yourself about a technology. We see it all the time with computers built from NAND gates or even discrete transistors. It’s the same for radio – stripping it back to the 19th century can really let you own the technology. But if an old-school wireless setup still needs a 21st-century twist to light your fire, try this spark gap transmitter and coherer receiver with a Beagle Bone Morse decoder.
At its heart, a spark gap transmitter is just a broadband RF noise generator, and as such is pretty illegal to operate these days. [Ashish Derhgawen]’s version, which lacks an LC tuning circuit, would be especially obnoxious if it had an antenna. But even without one, the 100% electromechanical transmitter is good for a couple of feet – more than enough for experimentation without incurring the wrath of local hams.
The receiver is based on a coherer, a device that conducts electricity only when a passing radio wave disturbs it. [Ashish]’s coherer is a slug of iron filings between two bolts in a plastic tube. To reset the coherer, [Ashish] added a decoherer built from an electromagnetic doorbell ringer to tap the tube and jostle the filings back into the nonconductive state. He also added an optoisolator to condition the receiver’s output for an IO pin on the Beagle, and a Python script to decode the incoming Morse. You can see it in action in the video below.
If this build looks familiar, it’s because we’ve covered [Ashish]’s efforts before. But this project keeps evolving, and it’s nice to see where he’s taken it and what he’s learned – like that MOSFETs don’t like inductive kickback much.
The early days of electricity appear to have been a cutthroat time. While academics were busy uncovering the mysteries of electromagnetism, bands of entrepreneurs were waiting to pounce on the pure science and engineer solutions to problems that didn’t even exist yet, but could no doubt turn into profitable ventures. We’ve all heard of the epic battles between Edison and Tesla and Westinghouse, and even with the benefit of more than a century of hindsight it’s hard to tell who did what to whom. But another conflict was brewing at the turn of 19th century, this time between an Indian polymath and an Italian nobleman, and it would determine who got credit for laying the foundations for the key technology of the 20th century – radio.
[Ashish] let us know about his experiments in recreating the earliest type of radio set: a spark-gap transmitter and iron-filings coherer. He goes through the historical development of the kit in great detail, so we’re just going to skip that part. Go read it yourself!
Instead, we’re going to tease you with the coolest part of the rig: the coherer. In [Ashish]’s build, it’s a piece of tubing with some iron filings between two bolts. When a sufficiently strong EM wave hits the filings, they stick together and bridge the gap between the bolts, allowing electricity to flow and light up an LED, for instance. You can see this in [Ashish]’s video below the break, along with kmore discussion of that coherer.