Books You Should Read: The Idea Factory

You’ve heard of Bell Labs, but likely you can’t go far beyond naming the most well-known of discoveries from the Lab: the invention of the transistor. It’s a remarkable accomplishment of technological research, the electronic switch on which all of our modern digital society has been built. But the Bell Labs story goes so far beyond that singular discovery. In fact, the development of the transistor is a microcosm of the Labs themselves.

The pursuit of pure science laid the foundation for great discovery. Yes, the transistor was conceived, prototyped, proven, and then reliably manufactured at the Labs. But the framework that made this possible was the material researchers and prototyping ninjas who bridged the gap between the theory and the physical. The technology was built on what is now a common material; semiconducting substances which would not have been possible without the Labs refinement of the process for developing perfectly pure substances reliably doped to produce the n-type and p-type substances that made diode and transistor possible.

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Beyond a Boot Print: The Lasting Effect of Apollo on Humanity

July 20th, 1969 was the day that people from Earth set foot on different soil for the first time. Here we are 48 years later, and the world’s space programs are — well — not very close to returning to the moon. If you aren’t old enough to remember, it was really amazing. The world was in a lot of turmoil in the 1960s (and still is, of course) but everyone stopped to look at the sky and listen to the sound of [Neil Armstrong] taking that first step. It was shocking in a good way and almost universally observed. Practically everyone in the world was focused on that one event. You can see some of that in the NASA video, below.

Space flight was an incredible accomplishment, but it paled in comparison with the push to actually landing a person on the moon and bringing them home safely. The effort is a credit to the ability of people to work together (on the order of thousands of minds) to overcome a difficult challenge. We can learn a lot from that alone, and it makes a compelling argument to continue taking on tough problems. Today, as we remember the Apollo landings, let’s take a moment to recognize what came of it beyond an iconic boot-print in the floury lunar soil.

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Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network

A bewildering amount of engineering was thrown at the various challenges presented to the United States by the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. From the Interstate Highway System to the population shift from cities to suburbs, infrastructure of all types was being constructed at a rapid pace, fueled by reasonable assessments of extant and future threats seasoned with a dash of paranoia, and funded by bulging federal coffers due to post-war prosperity and booming populations. No project seemed too big, and each pushed the bleeding edge of technology at the time.

Some of these critical infrastructure projects have gone the way of the dodo, supplanted by newer technologies that rendered them obsolete. Relics of these projects still dot the American landscape today, and are easy to find if you know where to look. One that always fascinated me was the network of microwave radio relay stations that once stitched the country together. From mountaintop to mountaintop, they stood silent and largely unattended, but they once buzzed with the business of a nation. Here’s how they came to be, and how they eventually made themselves relics.

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Retrotechtacular: DC to DC Conversion, Rotary Style

If you want to convert one voltage to another, what do you do? Well, if you are talking DC voltages today, you’ll probably use a DC to DC converter. Really, these converters generate some sort of AC waveform and then use either an inductor or a transformer to boost or buck the voltage as desired. Then they’ll convert it back to DC. If you are talking AC voltages, you could just use a transformer. But think about this: a transformer has two sides. The primary makes an alternating magnetic field. Just like rotating a shaft with magnets on it could. The secondary converts that alternating magnetic field into electricity just like a generator does. In other words, a transformer is just a generator that takes an AC input instead of a rotating mechanical input.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in the old days, a lot of mobile radios (and other devices) took this idea to its logical conclusion. A M-G (Motor Generator) set was little more than a motor connected to a generator. The motor might take, say, 12V DC and the output could be, for example 300V AC that would get rectified for the plate voltage in a tube radio.

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Something To Think About While You’re Mowing The Lawn

Well here we are, we’ve reached that time of year again at which our yearly ritual of resuscitating small internal combustion engines from their winter-induced morbidity is well under way. It’s lawn mowing season again, and a lot of us are spending our Saturday afternoons going up and down our little patches of grass courtesy of messers Briggs and Stratton. Where this is being written, the trusty Honda mower’s deck has unexpectedly failed, so an agricultural field topper is performing stand-in duty for a while, and leaving us with more of the rough shag pile of a steeplechaser’s course than the smooth velvet of a cricket ground. Tea on the lawn will be a mite springier this year.

When you think about it, there’s something ever so slightly odd about going to such effort over a patch of grass. Why do we do it? Because we like it? Because everyone else has one? Or simply because it’s less effort to fill the space with grass than it is to put something else there? It’s as if our little pockets of grassland have become one of those facets of our consumer culture that we never really think about, we just do. Continue reading “Something To Think About While You’re Mowing The Lawn”

Mechanical Image Acquisition With A Nipkow Disc

If you mis-spent your teenage years fishing broken televisions from dumpsters and either robbing them for parts or fixing them for the ability to watch The A Team upstairs rather than in the living room as I did, then it’s possible that you too will have developed a keen interest in analogue television technology. You’ll know your front porch from your blanking interval and your colour burst, you might say.

An illustration of a simple Nipkow disk. Hzeller (CC BY-SA 3.0).

There was one piece of television technology that evaded a 1980s dumpster-diver, no 625-line PAL set from the 1970s was ever going to come close to the fascination of the earliest TV sets. Because instead of a CRT and its associated electronics, they featured a spinning disk with a spiral pattern of holes. These mechanical TV systems were quickly superseded in the 1930s by all-electronic systems, so of the very few sets manufactured only a fraction have survived the intervening decades.

The spinning disk in a mechanical TV is referred to as a Nipkow disk, after its inventor, [Paul Gottlieb Nipkow]. [Nipkow] conceived and patented the idea of a spinning disk with a spiral of holes to dissect an image sequentially into a series of lines in the 1880s, but without the benefit of the electronic amplification that would come a few decades later was unable to produce a viable system to demonstrate it. It would be in the 1920s before [John Logie Baird] would develop the first working television system using [Nipkow]’s invention.

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The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

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