By the onset of the 1990s one thing was clear, the future was digital. Analog format sales for music were down, CD sales were up; and it was evident, at least in the US, that people were bringing more computing devices into their homes. At the beginning of the decade, roughly 1 in 3 American households had a Nintendo Entertainment System in them, according to this Good Morning America segment.
With all those consoles out there, every shopping season became a contest of “who could wait in line the longest” to pickup the newest titles. This left last minute shoppers resorting to taking a rain check or return home empty handed. Things didn’t have to be this way. The digital world had emerged and physical media just needed to catch up. It would take an unlikely alliance of two disparate companies for others to open their minds.
We are spoiled these days because you can shop online and get all manner of inexpensive electronic goodies shipped to your door. This is due to the fantastic electronic fabrication workflow that has grown into a global powerhouse, facilitated by complex yet inexpensive integrated circuits! But it took a few intermediate steps to get here, and one of those is known as a couplate.
When I was a kid, the big deal was to find an old radio in the trash. You could spend a few hours stripping all sorts of parts from the thing and add it to your collection for a future project. Of course, old radios from the 1970s and earlier had a lot of the usual parts we use today, even though many of them were bigger — no surface mount parts yet. Since older radios were the usual find in a dumpster, tubes were common but you could find some transistor radios.
Once in a while something older. There would be a little box with some wires poking hiding in an old radio from the 1940s or 1950s (too early for ICs). In a way, though, these were predecessors to the Integrated Circuit and they went by a few names, depending on who sold them. PEC (Printed Electronic Circuit), a couplate, or a BulPlate, are all names for hardware that was a stepping stone between discrete circuitry and ICs.
Oscilloscopes are especially magical because they translate the abstract world of electronics into something you can visualize. These days, a scope is likely to use an LCD or another kind of flat electronic display, but the gold standard for many years was the ubiquitous CRT (cathode ray tube). Historically, though, CRTs were not very common in the early days of electronics and radio. What we think of as a CRT didn’t really show up until 1931, although if you could draw a high vacuum and provide 30 kV, there were tubes as early as 1919. But there was a lot of electronics work done well before that, so how did early scientists visualize electric current? You might think the answer is “they didn’t,” but that’s not true. We are spoiled today with high-resolution electronic displays, but our grandfathers were clever and used what they had to visualize electronics.
Keep in mind, you couldn’t even get an electronic amplifier until the early 1900s (something we’ve talked about before). The earliest way to get a visual idea of what was happening in a circuit was purely a manual process. You would make measurements and draw your readings on a piece of graph paper.
I recently saw Apollo 13 again — this time with the score played live by the Houston Symphony. What a crazy coincidence that thirteen has long been considered an unlucky number and that Apollo 13 would be the one we almost lost. However, Apollo 12 almost became a disaster which — after the ordeal with flight 13 — was largely forgotten.
When all was said and done, Apollo 12 would result in a second manned moon landing in November 1969, just four months after Apollo 11. Commanded by Pete Conrad, Alan Bean accompanied Conrad to the surface while Richard Gordon, Jr. kept the getaway vehicle running. But less than a minute after launch something happened that could have been a disaster. Lightning struck the vehicle.
It is fair to say that many technologies have been influenced by human vices. What you may not realize is that vending machines saw their dawn in this way, the first vending machine was created to serve booze. Specifically, it was created to serve gin, the tipple of choice of the early 18th century. it was created as a hack to get around a law that made it harder to sell alcoholic drinks. It was the first ever vending machine: the Puss and Mew.
If you are in the habit of seeking out abandoned railways, you may have stood in the shadow of more than one Victorian iron bridge. Massive in construction, these structures have proved to be extremely robust, with many of them still in excellent condition even after years of neglect.
When you examine them closely, an immediate difference emerges between them and any modern counterparts, unlike almost all similar metalwork created today they contain no welded joints. Arc welders like reliable electrical supplies were many decades away when they were constructed, so instead they are held together with hundreds of massive rivets. They would have been prefabricated in sections and transported to the site, where they would have been assembled by a riveting gang with a portable forge.
So for an audience in 2018, what is a rivet? If you’ve immediately thought of a pop rivet then it shares the function of joining two sheets of material by pulling them tightly together, but differs completely in its construction. These rivets start life as pieces of steel bar formed into pins with one end formed into a mushroom-style dome, probably in a hot drop-forging process.
A rivet is heated to red-hot, then placed through pre-aligned holes in the sheets to be joined, and its straight end is hammered to a mushroom shape to match the domed end. The rivet then cools down and contracts, putting it under tension and drawing the two sheets together very tightly. Tightly enough in fact that it can form a seal against water or high-pressure steam, as shown by iron rivets being used in the construction of ships, or high-pressure boilers. How is this possible? Let’s take a look!
Technology vanishes. It either succeeds and becomes ubiquitous or fails. For example, there was a time when networking and multimedia were computer buzzwords. Now they are just how computers work. On the other hand, when was the last time you thought about using a CueCat barcode reader to scan an advertisement? Then there are the things that have their time and vanish, like pagers. It is hard to decide which category digital cameras fall into. They are being absorbed into our phones and disappearing as a separate category for most consumers. But have you ever wondered about the first digital camera? The story isn’t what you would probably guess.
The first digital camera I ever had was a Sony that took a floppy disk. Surely that was the first, right? Turns out, no. There were some very early attempts that didn’t really have the technology to make them work. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was using analog electronic imaging as early as 1961 (they had been developing film on the moon but certainly need a better way). A TI engineer even patented the basic outline of an electronic camera in 1972, but it wasn’t strictly digital. None of these bore any practical fruit, especially relative to digital technology. It would take Eastman Kodak to create a portable digital camera, even though they were not the first to commercialize the technology.