Televox: The Past’s Robot of the Future

When I read old books, I like to look for predictions of the future. Since we are living in that future, it is fun to see how they did. Case in point: I have a copy of “The New Wonder Book of Knowledge”, an anthology from 1941. This was the kind of book you wanted before there was a Wikipedia to read in your spare time. There are articles about how coal is mined, how phonographs work, and the inner workings of a beehive. Not the kind of book you’d grab to look up something specific, but a great book to read if you just want to learn something interesting. In it there are a few articles about technology that seemed ready to take us to the future. One of those is the Televox — a robot from Westinghouse poised to usher in an age of home and industrial mechanical servants. Robots in 1941? Actually, Televox came into being in 1927.

If you were writing about the future in 2001, you might have pictured city sidewalks congested with commuters riding Segways. After all, in 2001, we were told that something was about to hit the market that would “change everything.” It had a known inventor, Dean Kamen, and a significant venture capitalist behind it. While it has found a few niche markets, it isn’t the billion dollar personal transportation juggernaut that was predicted.

But technology is like that. Sometimes things seem poised for greatness and disappear — bubble memory comes to mind. Sometimes things have a few years of success and get replaced by something better. Fax machines or floppy drives, for example. The Televox was a glimpse of what was to come, but not in any way that people imagined in 1941. Continue reading “Televox: The Past’s Robot of the Future”

Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.

The Livermore Data Systems Modem, where I found it. It cost me $20

The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.

90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)

The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.

This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.

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The CD Is 40, The CD Is Dead

The Compact Disc is 40 years old, and for those of us who remember its introduction it still has that sparkle of a high-tech item even as it slides into oblivion at the hands of streaming music services.

There was a time when a rainbow motif was extremely futuristic. Bill Bertram (CC BY-SA 2.5)
There was a time when a rainbow motif was extremely futuristic. Bill Bertram (CC BY-SA 2.5)

If we could define a moment at which consumers moved from analogue technologies to digital ones, the announcement of the CD would be a good place to start. The public’s coolest tech to own in the 1970s was probably an analogue VCR or a CB radio, yet almost overnight they switched at the start of the ’80s to a CD player and a home computer. The CD player was the first place most consumers encountered a laser of their own, which gave it an impossibly futuristic slant, and the rainbow effect of the pits on a CD became a motif that wove its way into the design language of the era. Very few new technologies since have generated this level of excitement at their mere sight, instead today’s consumers accept new developments as merely incremental to the tech they already own while simultaneously not expecting them to have longevity.
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Bell Labs, Skunk Works, and the Crowd Sourcing of Innovation

I’ve noticed that we hear a lot less from corporate research labs than we used to. They still exist, though. Sure, Bell Labs is owned by Nokia and there is still some hot research at IBM even though they quit publication of the fabled IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin in 1998. But today innovation is more likely to come from a small company attracting venture capital than from an established company investing in research. Why is that? And should it be that way?

The Way We Were

There was a time when every big company had a significant research and development arm. Perhaps the most famous of these was Bell Labs. Although some inventions are inevitably disputed, Bell Labs can claim radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, Unix, C, and C++ among other innovations. They also scored a total of nine Nobel prizes.

Bell Labs had one big advantage: for many years it was part of a highly profitable monopoly, so perhaps the drive to make money right away was less than at other labs. Also, I think, times were different and businesses often had the ability to look past the next quarter.

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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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