On Point: The Yagi Antenna

If you happened to look up during a drive down a suburban street in the US anytime during the 60s or 70s, you’ll no doubt have noticed a forest of TV antennas. When over-the-air TV was the only option, people went to great lengths to haul in signals, with antennas of sometimes massive proportions flying over rooftops.

Outdoor antennas all but disappeared over the last third of the 20th century as cable providers became dominant, cast to the curb as unsightly relics of a sad and bygone era of limited choices and poor reception. But now cheapskates cable-cutters like yours truly are starting to regrow that once-thick forest, this time lofting antennas to receive digital programming over the air. Many of the new antennas make outrageous claims about performance or tout that they’re designed specifically for HDTV. It’s all marketing nonsense, of course, because then as now, almost every TV antenna is just some form of the classic Yagi design. The physics of this antenna are fascinating, as is the story of how the antenna was invented.

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History of Git

Git is one of those tools that is so simple to use, that you often don’t learn a lot of nuance to it. You wind up cloning a repository from the Internet and that’s about it. If you make changes, maybe you track them and if you are really polite you might create a pull request to give back to the project. But there’s a lot more you can do. For example, did you know that Git can track collaborative Word documents? Or manage your startup files across multiple Linux boxes?

Git belongs to a family of software products that do revision (or version) control. The idea is that you can develop software (for example) and keep track of each revision. Good systems have provisions for allowing multiple people to work on a project at one time. There is also usually some way to split a project into different parts. For example, you might split off to develop a version of the product for a different market or to try an experimental feature without breaking the normal development. In some cases, you’ll eventually bring that split back into the main line.

Although in the next installment, I’ll give you some odd uses for Git you might find useful, this post is mostly the story of how Git came to be. Open source development is known for flame wars and there’s at least a few in this tale. And in true hacker fashion, the hero of the story decides he doesn’t like the tools he’s using so… well, what would you do?

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A Queen Mystery: The Legend of The Deacy Amp

It sounds like a scene from a movie. A dark night in London, 1972. A young man walks alone, heading home after a long night of practicing with his band. His heavy Fender bass slung over his back, he’s weary but excited about the future. As he passes a skip (dumpster for the Americans out there), a splash of color catches his attention. Wires – not building power wires, but thinner gauge electronics connection wire. A tinkerer studying for his Electrical Engineering degree, the man had to investigate. What he found would become rock and roll history, and the seed of mystery stretching over 40 years.

The man was John Deacon, and he had recently signed on as bassist for a band named Queen. Reaching into the skip, he found the wires attached to a circuit board. The circuit looked to be an amplifier. Probably from a transistor radio or a tape player. Queen hadn’t made it big yet, so all the members were struggling to get by in London.

Deacon took the board back home and examined it closer. It looked like it would make a good practice amplifier for his guitar. He fit the amp inside an old bookshelf speaker, added a ¼ “ jack for input, and closed up the case. A volume control potentiometer dangled out the back of the case. Power came from a 9-volt battery outside the amp case. No, not a tiny transistor battery; this was a rather beefy PP-9 pack, commonly used in radios back then. The amp sounded best cranked all the way up, so eventually, even the volume control was removed. John liked the knobless simplicity – just plug in the guitar and play. No controls to fiddle with.

And just like that, The Deacy amp was born.

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Maintenance, Emissions, and Privacy: The OBD Story

The 90s were a pivotal time in world history, and 1996 was no different. You might have spent the year glued to the TV playing Super Mario 64, or perhaps you were busy campaigning for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, or maybe you were so depressed that Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced that you spent the whole year locked in your room, a prisoner of your own existential nihilism. Whatever you did, though, it’s likely that one major event passed you by without a thought: The standardization of on-board vehicle diagnostics (in the US), otherwise known as OBD-II.

In the 1970s, vehicles (in some western countries, at least) were subject to ever-increasing restrictions on emissions. Most companies began switching from carburetors to efficient fuel injection systems, but even that wouldn’t be enough for the new standards. Cars began to carry rudimentary computer systems to manage and control the influx of valves, meters, and sensors that became the new norm. And, as one would guess, every car company had their own standard for managing and monitoring these computer systems. Eventually they would settle on the OBD system that we have today.

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A Quick History of the Battery

[Colin] tells us it all started with [Benjamin Franklin]’s battery of capacitors. It was a bunch of leyden jars hooked together in series and there wasn’t even chemistry involved yet, but the nomenclature stuck and it wasn’t long before it evolved into the word we use today.

For the word to change, things got chemical. [Alessandro Volta] introduces his voltaic pile. Once scientists latched onto the idea of a stable reaction giving a steady stream of magic pixies for them to play with, it wasn’t long before the great minds were turning their attention to improving this new technology.

In the classic game of one-upmanship loved by technical people all over, we quickly skip forward to the modern era. An era where no man is unburdened with the full weight of constant communication. It’s all thanks to a technology that’s theoretically unchanged from that first pile. Video after the break.

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Hacker Places To Visit: Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris

I think the restaurant is really close now...
I think the restaurant is really close now… CC: E. Broeks

The best way to pull off this deception: tell your significant other that you’d want nothing more than a romantic week in Paris. Arrive in Paris, stash your bags, and then take either the number three or eleven Metro. When you get to the station that looks like the inside of a giant steam engine, Arts et Métiers, get out. You’re now ten Euros away from one of the coolest museums a hacker could visit.

A significant portion of modern science’s beginnings is sitting in the Musée, polished and beautiful. Most of them are housed in cabinets so old they’re part of the exhibit. Now, the Henry Ford museum in Detroit Michigan is a monument to industrialization, and cool in its own right, but it leaves some questions unanswered. We’re all spoiled by desktop CNCs, precision measurement tools for pennies, and more. How did we get here? How did they measure a shaft or turn a screw before precision digital micrometers? What did early automation look like? Early construction?

Also did I mention it has Foucault’s Pendulum? You know, the one that finally convinced everyone that the Earth rotated around an axis? No big deal.

The museum has a few permanent exhibits: instruments scientifique, matériaux, construction, communication, énergie, mécanique et transports.

What kind of basic museum would have just one example of Pascal's work?
What kind of basic museum would have just one example of Pascal’s work? CC: Anton Lefterov

Instruments Scientifiques was one of my favorites. Not only did it include old scientific instruments, it had sections containing some of the original experiments in optics, computation, and more. For example you can see not just one but a few original examples of Pascal’s Pascaline, arguably the first mechanical calculators in the modern era to be used by the layman for every day calculation, signed by Pascal. It’s also worth noting just how incredible the workmanship of these tools are. They’re beautiful.

Matériaux was initially a disappointment as I entered it from the wrong end. For me it started of with a tragically boring and simplistic display on recycling materials designed primarily to torture children on field trips. Luckily it quickly ramped into a fascinating display on materials manufacturing technology. How did we go from hand looms to fully automated Jacquard looms (of which you can see some of the first examples) to our modern day robotic looms? How did ceramic evolve? What was early steelmaking like? It’s very cool and models are all in beautiful condition.

It reeked of copper, machine oil, and phenolics. They just don't make computers like they used to.
It reeked of copper, machine oil, and phenolics. They just don’t make computers like they used to.

By the time I got to Communication I was reaching the limit of my endurance and also what you can fit into a single day of the museum. It’s a large building. It was packed through many of the early examples of computing, television, and space. There was quite a display of early camera equipment. You could get close enough to some truly massive old computers to smell the still off-gassing phenolics.

Construction held my interest for a long time. It’s not my usual interest, but after living in Paris for a month or so I was absolutely burning with curiosity. How did anyone without a single powered crane or vehicle build so many buildings out of stone? It’s packed for four rooms and two stores from floor to ceiling of beautiful little wood models explaining exactly how.

Énergie was quite cool. It followed the development of steam power for the most part. It started with primitive waterwheels. Moved on to turbines. Then showed the gradual increase in complexity until the the modern day. It had some internal combustion too, but much of that was reserved for the transports section of the museum. It also had some interactive displays to entertain children and Hackaday writers. However they were in desperate need of an oiling and this is by far the most ear-piercingly squeaky exhibit in the whole building.

A lathe fit for a king!
A lathe fit for a king! CC: Rama

Mécanique is competing with instruments scientifique as my favorite exhibit. Have you ever wanted to see hundreds of examples of screw machines, old lathes, and the evolution of the milling machine? What about models of the factories that built steam engines or massive wagon wheels. They even had a lathe that belonged to a French king. Apparently he thought metalworking was the way to get in touch with the common people.

Transports was a nice exhibit, but it fell a little short for me since I’d been to the aforementioned Henry Ford museum. However, it covered the history of some of the European automobile manufacturers pretty well. Had a nice section on trains and subways. And even had some models of the ships used in the European Space Agency.

The entrance of the school. Has some original, “flying,” machines. CC: King Boshi

The last exhibit is the museum itself. It’s an historic building. It was originally built as a school for training engineers in 1794 but as the school grew out of it, it slowly transformed into the museum it is today. The architecture is beautiful. It’s adorned in stone and statue like all the French museums. It also has sections cut out in some of the higher storeys of the building so you can see how it was constructed.

Part of its beauty is also related to the school swallowing up the Priory of Saint Martin des Champs (Google translate does a great job if you don’t read French). The Priory is a beautiful old church, founded in 1079. It was home to the last trial by combat the country would see. You can piece together the story between the two pages dedicated to the combatants Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris.

The muses of agriculture and industry now look over the sanctuary.
The muses of agriculture and industry now look over the sanctuary.

The final display in the museum is in the church. It holds Foucault’s pendulum, dangling from the center of the sanctuary. If you get there early enough in the day you may get to watch it knock over a peg or two and prove the rotation for yourself.

Rather than the statues of the saints there are statues of the muses of Industrie and Agriculture. The hall is filled with more exhibits. There are cutaway original automobiles. A model of the Statue of Liberty. A catwalk lets you take a high view of the surroundings. It is also beautiful in and of itself. The church is well maintained and painted in the style original to them.

If you find yourself in Paris with a few hours (or days) to spare I highly recommend this museum. Any technical person would be hard pressed to leave uninspired and unawed by the display. It’s good to get a perspective on the past.

Featured Photo CC: Roi Boshi


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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