Love Songs To The Microphone

A biographer of Frank Sinatra once commented that for singers like Sinatra, their instrument is the microphone. We tend to think of microphones as ideal transducers, picking up sound faithfully. But like most electronic components, microphones are imperfect. They have a varying frequency response. They pick up popping noises when we say words like “popcorn” that are normally lost to someone listening live.

[Cheddar] has an interesting video (see below) that covers how performers like Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Billie Holiday learned to use the microphone to their advantage. They suggest that the microphone changed the way humans sing, and they are right.

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EF50: the Tube that Changed Everything

From today’s perspective, vacuum tubes are pretty low tech. But for a while they were the pinnacle of high tech, and heavy research followed the promise shown by early vacuum tubes in transmission and computing. Indeed, as time progressed, tubes became very sophisticated and difficult to manufacture. After all, they were as ubiquitous as ICs are today, so it is hardly surprising that they got a lot of R&D.

Prior to 1938, for example, tubes were built as if they were light bulbs. As the demands on them grew more sophisticated, the traditional light bulb design wasn’t sufficient. For one, the wire leads’ parasitic inductance and capacitance would limit the use of the tube in high-frequency applications. Even the time it took electrons to get from one part of the tube to another was a bottleneck.

There were several attempts to speed tubes up, including RCA’s acorn tubes, lighthouse tubes, and Telefunken’s Stahlröhre designs. These generally tried to keep leads short and tubes small. The Philips company started attacking the problem in 1934 because they were anticipating demand for television receivers that would operate at higher frequencies.

Dr. Hans Jonker was the primary developer of the proposed solution and published his design in an internal technical note describing an all-glass tube that was easier to manufacture than other solutions. Now all they needed was an actual application. While they initially thought the killer app would be television, the E50 would end up helping the Allies win the war.

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Oops… Britain Launched A Satellite, But Who Remembers It?

Did you know Britain launched its first satellite after the program had already been given the axe? Me neither, until some stories of my dad’s involvement in aerospace efforts came out and I dug a little deeper into the story.

I grew up on a small farm with a workshop next to the house, that housed my dad’s blacksmith business. In front of the workshop was a yard with a greenhouse beyond it, along one edge of which there lay a long gas cylinder about a foot (300mm) in diameter. To us kids it looked like a torpedo, and I remember my dad describing the scene when a similar cylinder fell off the side of a truck and fractured its valve, setting off at speed under the force of ejected liquid across a former WW2 airfield as its pressurised contents escaped.

Everybody’s parents have a past from before their children arrived, and after leaving the RAF my dad had spent a considerable part of the 1950s as a technician, a very small cog in the huge state-financed machine working on the UK’s rocket programme for nuclear and space launches. There were other tales, of long overnight drives to the test range in the north of England, and of narrowly averted industrial accidents that seem horrific from our health-and-safety obsessed viewpoint. Sometimes they came out of the blue, such as the one about a lake of  highly dangerous liquid oxidiser-fuel mix ejected from an engine that failed to ignite and which was quietly left to evaporate, which he told me about after dealing with a cylinder spewing liquid propane when somebody reversed a tractor into a grain dryer.

Bringing Home A Piece Of History

The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.
The remains of the Black Arrow first and second stages, taken from the Skyrora promotional video.

My dad’s tales from his youth came to mind recently with the news that a privately-owned Scottish space launch company is bringing back to the UK the remains of the rocket that made the first British satellite launch from where they had lain in Australia since crashing to earth in 1971. What makes this news special is that not only was it the first successful such launch, it was also the only one. Because here in good old Blighty we hold the dubious honour of being the only country in the world to have developed a space launch capability of our own before promptly abandoning it. Behind that launch lies a fascinating succession of forgotten projects that deserve a run-through of their own, they provide a window into both the technological and geopolitical history of that period of the Cold War.

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Operation Backfire: Witness to the Rocket Age

As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.

V-2 launch during Operation Backfire

One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.

With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.

In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.

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Now That’s What I Call Crypto: 10 Years of The Best of Bitcoin

On January 3rd, 2009, the Genesis Block was created. This was the first entry on the Bitcoin blockchain. Because of the nature of Bitcoin, all transactions lead back to this block. This is where Bitcoin began, almost exactly ten years ago.

The Genesis Block was created by Satoshi, a person or persons we know nothing about. In the decade since, we’ve seen the astonishing rise and meteoric descent of Bitcoin, and then it happened again after the bubble was re-inflated.

Due to the nature of Bitcoins, blockchains, and ledgers, the entire history of Bitcoin has been recorded. Every coin spent and every satoshi scrupled has been recorded for all to see. It’s time for a retrospective, and not just because I wanted to see some art based on the covers of Now That’s What I Call Music albums. No, ten years is a lot of stories to tell.

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Seymour Cray, Father of the Supercomputer

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory there lives a small photograph, from one of the many magazines that fed my young interests in science and electronics – it was probably Popular Science. In my mind I see a man standing before a large machine. The man looks awkward; he clearly didn’t want to pose for the magazine photographer. The machine behind him was an amazing computer, its insides a riot of wires all of the same color; the accompanying text told me each piece was cut to a precise length so that signals could be synchronized to arrive at their destinations at exactly the right time.

My young mind was agog that a machine could be so precisely timed that a few centimeters could make a difference to a signal propagating at the speed of light. As a result, I never forgot the name of the man in the photo – Seymour Cray, the creator of the supercomputer. The machine was his iconic Cray-1, the fastest scientific computer in the world for years, which would go on to design nuclear weapons, model crashes to make cars safer, and help predict the weather.

Very few people get to have their name attached so firmly to a product, let alone have it become a registered trademark. The name Cray became synonymous with performance computing, but Seymour Cray contributed so much more to the computing industry than just the company that bears his name that it’s worth taking a look at his life, and how his machines created the future.

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The 7400 Quad 2-Input NAND Gate, A Neglected Survivor From A Pre-Microprocessor World

There are a range of integrated circuits that most of us would regard as definitive examples of their type, devices which became the go-to for a particular function and which have entered our collective consciousness as electronics enthusiasts. They have been in production since the early days of consumer integrated circuits, remaining in use because of a comprehensive understanding of their characteristics among engineers, and the job they do well.

You can probably name the ones I’m going to rattle off here, the µA741 op-amp designed by David Fullagar for Fairchild in 1968, the NE555 timer from Hans Camenzind for Signetics in 1971, and a personal favourite, Bob Widlar’s µA723 linear regulator for Fairchild in 1967. There may be a few others that readers will name in the comments, but there’s one that until today it’s likely that few of you would have considered. Texas Instruments’ 5400 and 7400 TTL quad 2-input NAND gate has been in continuous production since 1964 and is the progenitor of what is probably the most numerous breed of integrated circuits, yet it doesn’t trip off the tongue when listing famous chips, and none of us can name its designer. So today we’re turning the spotlight on this neglected piece of silicon, and trying to bring it the adulation it deserves. Continue reading “The 7400 Quad 2-Input NAND Gate, A Neglected Survivor From A Pre-Microprocessor World”