A Vintage Phone In 2020

When we make a telephone call in 2020 it is most likely to be made using a smartphone over a cellular or IP-based connection rather than a traditional instrument on a pair of copper wires to an exchange. As we move inexorably towards a wireless world in which the telephone line serves only as a vehicle for broadband Internet, it’s easy to forget the last hundred years or more of telephone technology that led up to the present.

The iconic British telephone of the 1960s and 1970s, the GPO model 746. Mine is from 1971.
The iconic British telephone of the 1960s and 1970s, the GPO model 746. Mine is from 1971. (That isn’t my phone number)

In a manner of speaking though, your telephone wall socket hasn’t forgotten. If you like old phones, you can still have one, and picture yourself in a 1950s movie as you twirl the handset cord round your finger while you speak. Continue reading “A Vintage Phone In 2020”

Why Do Resistors Have A Color Code?

One of the first things you learn in electronics is how to identify a resistor’s value. Through-hole resistors have color codes, and that’s generally where beginners begin. But why are they marked like this? Like red stop signs and yellow lines down the middle of the road, it just seems like it has always been that way when, in fact, it hasn’t.

Before the 1920s, components were marked any old way the manufacturer felt like marking them. Then in 1924, 50 radio manufacturers in Chicago formed a trade group. The idea was to share patents among the members. Almost immediately the name changed from “Associated Radio Manufacturers” to the “Radio Manufacturer’s Association” or RMA.  There would be several more name changes over the years until finally, it became the EIA or the Electronic Industries Alliance. The EIA doesn’t actually exist anymore. It exploded into several specific divisions, but that’s another story.

This is the tale of how color bands made their way onto every through-hole resistor from every manufacturer in the world.

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Hide Silent, Hide Deep: Submarine Tracking Technologies Of The Cold War

All through the cold war, there was a high-stakes game of cat and mouse in play. Nuclear powers like the United States and the Soviet Union would hide submarines armed with nuclear missiles underwater. The other side would try to know where they were so they could be targeted in the event of war. The common wisdom was that the United States had many high tech gadgets to help track enemy submarines, but that the Soviet Union was way behind in this area. This was proven false when a Soviet Victor-class boat followed a US missile submarine for six days. Now, a recently declassified CIA report shows how the Soviets didn’t use sonar at all but developed their own technology.

There is something fascinating about submarines. Like an old sailing ship, submarines are often out of touch with their command bases and the captain is the final authority. Like a space ship, the submarine has to survive in an inimical environment. I guess in all three cases, the crew doesn’t just use technology, they depend on it.

Although the submarine has some non-military uses, there are probably more military subs than any other type. After all, a sub is as close to a cloaking device as any real-life military vehicle has ever had. Before modern technology offered ways to find submarines using sonar or magnetic anomalies, a completely submerged submarine was effectively invisible.

There was a lot of speculation that the Soviet Union lacked sufficient technology to use sonar  the way the US did. However, in some cases, they had simply developed different types of detection — many of which the West had discarded as impractical.

Continue reading “Hide Silent, Hide Deep: Submarine Tracking Technologies Of The Cold War”

BeOS: The Alternate Universe’s Mac OS X

You’re likely familiar with the old tale about how Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple and started his own company, NeXT. Apple then bought NeXT and their technologies and brought Jobs back as CEO once again. However, Jobs’ path wasn’t unique, and the history of computing since then could’ve gone a whole lot different.

In 1990, Jean-Louis Gassée, who replaced Jobs in Apple as the head of Macintosh development, was also fired from the company. He then also formed his own computer company with the help of another ex-Apple employee, Steve Sakoman. They called it Be Inc, and their goal was to create a more modern operating system from scratch based on the object-oriented design of C++, using proprietary hardware that could allow for greater media capabilities unseen in personal computers at the time.

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The Barcode Revolution: Welcome To Our Automated World

Featured in many sci-fi stories as a quicker, more efficient way to record and transfer information, barcodes are both extremely commonplace today, and still amazingly poorly understood by many. Originally designed as a way to allow for increased automation by allowing computer systems to scan a code with information about the item it labels, its potential as an information carrier is becoming ever more popular.

Without the tagging ability of barcodes (and their close cousin: RFID tags), much of today’s modern world would grind to a halt. The automated sorting and delivery systems for mail and parcels, entire inventory management systems, the tracing of critical avionics and rocketry components around the globe, as well as seemingly mundane but widely utilized rapid checkout at the supermarket, all depends on some variety of barcodes.

Join me on a trip through the past, present and future of the humble barcode.

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Continuous Integration: What It Is And Why You Need It

If you write software, chances are you’ve come across Continuous Integration, or CI. You might never have heard of it – but you wonder what all the ticks, badges and mysterious status icons are on open-source repositories you find online. You might hear friends waxing lyrical about the merits of CI, or grumbling about how their pipeline has broken again.

Want to know what all the fuss is about? This article will explain the basic concepts of CI, but will focus on an example, since that’s the best way to understand it. Let’s dive in. Continue reading “Continuous Integration: What It Is And Why You Need It”

Tony Brooker And Autocode – The First High-level Language

The field of computer science has undeniably changed the world for virtually every single person by now. Certainly for you as Hackaday reader, but also for everyone around you, whether they’re working in the field themselves, or are simply enjoying the fruits of convenience it bears. What was once a highly specialized niche field for a few chosen people has since grown into a discipline that not only created one of the biggest industry in modern times, but also revolutionized every other industry, some a few times over.

The fascinating part about all this is the relatively short time span it took to get here, and with that the privilege to live in an era where some of the pioneers and innovators, the proverbial giants whose shoulders every one of us is standing on, are still among us. Sadly, one of them, [Tony Brooker], a pioneer of the early programming language concept known as Autocode, passed away in November. Reaching the remarkable age of 94, the truly sad part however is that this might be the first time you hear his name, and there’s a fair chance you never heard of Autocode either.

But Autocode was probably the first high-level computer language, and as such played a fundamental role in the development of whatever you’re coding in today. So to honor the memory of [Tony Brooker], let’s remember the work he did with Autocode, and the leap in computer science history that it represented.

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