The Computers Of Voyager

After more than four decades in space and having traveled a combined 44 billion kilometers, it’s no secret that the Voyager spacecraft are closing in on the end of their extended interstellar mission. Battered and worn, the twin spacecraft are speeding along through the void, far outside the Sun’s influence now, their radioactive fuel decaying, their signals becoming ever fainter as the time needed to cross the chasm of space gets longer by the day.

But still, they soldier on, humanity’s furthest-flung outposts and testaments to the power of good engineering. And no small measure of good luck, too, given the number of nearly mission-ending events which have accumulated in almost half a century of travel. The number of “glitches” and “anomalies” suffered by both Voyagers seems to be on the uptick, too, contributing to the sense that someday, soon perhaps, we’ll hear no more from them.

That day has thankfully not come yet, in no small part due to the computers that the Voyager spacecraft were, in a way, designed around. Voyager was to be a mission unlike any ever undertaken, a Grand Tour of the outer planets that offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to push science far out into the solar system. Getting the computers right was absolutely essential to delivering on that promise, a task made all the more challenging by the conditions under which they’d be required to operate, the complexity of the spacecraft they’d be running, and the torrent of data streaming through them. Forty-six years later, it’s safe to say that the designers nailed it, and it’s worth taking a look at how they pulled it off.

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A render of a BiC Cristal ballpoint pen showing the innards.

This Is How A Pen Changed The World

Look around you. Chances are, there’s a BiC Cristal ballpoint pen among your odds and ends. Since 1950, it has far outsold the Rubik’s Cube and even the iPhone, and yet, it’s one of the most unsung and overlooked pieces of technology ever invented. And weirdly, it hasn’t had the honor of trademark erosion like Xerox or Kleenex. When you ‘flick a Bic’, you’re using a lighter.

It’s probably hard to imagine writing with a feather and a bottle of ink, but that’s what writing was limited to for hundreds of years. When fountain pens first came along, they were revolutionary, albeit expensive and leaky. In 1900, the world literacy rate stood around 20%, and exorbitantly-priced, unreliable utensils weren’t helping.

Close-up, cutaway render of a leaking ballpoint pen. In 1888, American inventor John Loud created the first ballpoint pen. It worked well on leather and wood and the like, but absolutely shredded paper, making it almost useless.

One problem was that while the ball worked better than a nib, it had to be an absolutely perfect fit, or ink would either get stuck or leak out everywhere. Then along came László Bíró, who turned instead to the ink to solve the problems of the ballpoint.

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Going Canadian: The Rise And Fall Of Novell

During the 1980s and 1990s Novell was one of those names that you could not avoid if you came even somewhat close to computers. Starting with selling computers and printers, they’d switch to producing networking hardware like the famous NE2000 and the inevitability that was Novell Netware software, which would cement its fortunes. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Novell began to face headwinds from a new giant: Microsoft, which along with the rest of the history of Novell is the topic of a recent article by [Bradford Morgan White], covering this rise, the competition from Microsoft’s Windows NT and its ultimate demise as it found itself unable to compete in the rapidly changing market around 2000, despite flirting with Linux.

Novell was founded by two experienced executives in 1980, with the name being reportedly the misspelled French word for ‘new’ (nouveau or nouvelle). With NetWare having cornered the networking market, there was still a dearth of networking equipment like Ethernet expansion cards. This led Novell to introduce the 8-bit ISA card NE1000 in 1987, later followed by the 16-bit NE2000. Lower priced than competing products, they became a market favorite. Then Windows NT rolled in during the 1990s and began to destroy NetWare’s marketshare, leaving Novell to flounder until it was snapped up by Attachmate in 2011, which was snapped up by Micro Focus International 2014, which got gobbled up by Canada-based OpenText in 2023. Here Novell’s technologies got distributed across its divisions, finally ending Novell’s story.

How DEC’s LANBridge 100 Gave Ethernet A Fighting Chance

Alan Kirby (left) and Mark Kempf with the LANBridge 100, serial number 0001. (Credit: Alan Kirby)
Alan Kirby (left) and Mark Kempf with the LANBridge 100, serial number 0001. (Credit: Alan Kirby)

When Ethernet was originally envisioned, it would use a common, shared medium (the ‘Ether’ part), with transmitting and collision resolution handled by the carrier sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) method. While effective and cheap, this limited Ethernet to a 1.5 km cable run and 10 Mb/s transfer rate. As [Alan Kirby] worked at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in the 1980s and 1990s, he saw how competing network technologies including Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI) – that DEC also worked on – threatened to extinguish Ethernet despite these alternatives being more expensive. The solution here would be store-and-forward switching, [Alan] figured.

After teaming up with Mark Kempf, both engineers managed to convince DEC management to give them a chance to develop such a switch for Ethernet, which turned into the LANBridge 100. As a so-called ‘learning bridge’, it operated on Layer 2 of the network stack, learning the MAC addresses of the connected systems and forwarding only those packets that were relevant for the other network. This instantly prevented collisions between thus connected networks, allowed for long (fiber) runs between bridges and would be the beginning of the transformation of Ethernet as a shared medium (like WiFi today) into a star topology network, with each connected system getting its very own Ethernet cable to a dedicated switch port.

The Rise And Fall Of Silicon Graphics

Maybe best known as the company which brought a splash of color to corporate and scientific computing with its Indigo range of computer systems, Silicon Graphics Inc. (later SGI) burst onto the market in 1981 with what was effectively one of the first commercial graphics operations accelerator with the Geometry Engine. SGI’s founder – James Henry Clark was quite possibly as colorful a character as the company’s products, with [Bradford Morgan White] covering the years leading up to SGI’s founding, its highlights and its eventual demise in 2009.

The story of SGI is typical of a start-up that sees itself become the market leader for years, even as this market gradually changes. For SGI it was the surge in commodity 3D graphics cards in the 1990s alongside affordable (and cluster-capable; insert Beowulf cluster jokes here) server hardware that posed a major problem. Eventually it’d start offering Windows NT workstations, drop its MIPS-based systems in a shift to Intel’s disastrous Itanium range of CPUs and fall to the last-ditch effort of any struggling company: a logo change.

None of this was effective, naturally, and ultimately SGI would file (again) for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, with Rackable Systems snapping up its assets and renaming itself to SGI, before getting bought out by HPE and sunsetting SGI as a brand name.

How To Properly Patch Your Iowa-Class Battleship

There’s a saying among recreational mariners that the word “boat” is actually an acronym for “bring out another thousand”, as it seems you can’t operate one for long without committing to expensive maintenance and repairs. But this axiom isn’t limited to just civilian pleasure craft, it also holds true for large and complex vessels — although the bill generally has a few more zeros at the end.

Consider the USS New Jersey (BB-62), an Iowa-class battleship that first served in the Second World War and is now operated as a museum ship. Its recent dry docking for routine repair work has been extensively documented on YouTube by curator [Ryan Szimanski], and in the latest video, he covers one of the most important tasks crews have to attend to while the ship is out of the water: inspecting and repairing the hundreds of patches that line the hull.

These patches aren’t to repair damage, but instead cover up the various water inlets and outlets required by onboard systems. When New Jersey was finally decommissioned in 1991, it was hauled out of the water and plates were welded over all of these access points to prevent any potential leaks. But as the Navy wanted to preserve the ship so it could potentially be reactivated if necessary, care was taken to make the process reversible.

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Reduction of a physical map to a graph.

Where Graph Theory Meets The Road: The Algorithms Behind Route Planning

Back in the hazy olden days of the pre-2000s, navigating between two locations generally required someone to whip out a paper map and painstakingly figure out the most optimal route between those depending on the chosen methods of transport. For today’s generations no such contrivances are required, with technology having obliterated even the a need to splurge good money on a GPS navigation device and annual map updates.

These days, you get out a computing device, open Google Maps or equivalent, ask it how you should travel somewhere, and most of the time the provided route will be the correct one, including the fine details such as train platform and departure times. Yet how does all of this seemingly magical route planning technology work? It’s often assumed that Dijkstra’s algorithm, or the A* graph traversal algorithm is used, but the reality is that although these pure graph theory algorithms are decidedly influential, they cannot be applied verbatim to the reality of graph traversal between destinations in the physical world.

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