Ancient History Of The Phone Jack

While watching a video about old radios from the 1920s, a phone jack popped up. The host mentioned that phone jacks are super old and he wondered what was their origin. I always assumed they had something to do with the telephone system, and that’s right, but I had no idea how old they really are and how they’ve evolved. Turns out the venerable plug goes back to at least 1878.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about the good old fashioned 1/4″ phone jack with two wires. Over time, the jack and plug have spawned different versions with more wires and — particularly — smaller dimensions. The headphone jack that many smartphone makers are dropping is a direct descendant of that old phone jack. But a mono cable like you would see connecting an electric guitar or another mono source would be right at home connected to a 1900s switchboard. Let’s take a look at the origins of a design that’s almost 150 years old and still in use.

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Netbooks: The Form Factor Time Forgot

Long ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous and children in restaurants were quieted with awful games on iPads, there was a beautiful moment. A moment in which the end user could purchase, at a bargain price, an x86 computer in a compact, portable shell. In 2007, the netbook was born, and took the world by storm – only to suddenly vanish a few years later. What exactly was it that made netbooks so great, and where did they go?

A Beautiful Combination

An Asus EEE PC shown here running Linux. You could run anything on them! Because they were real, full-fat computers. No locked down chipsets or BIOS. Just good, clean, x86 fun.

The first machine to kick off the craze was the Asus EEE PC 701, inspired by the One Laptop Per Child project. Packing a 700Mhz Celeron processor, a small 7″ LCD screen, and a 4 GB SSD, it was available with Linux or Windows XP installed from the factory. With this model, Asus seemed to find a market that Toshiba never quite hit with their Libretto machines a decade earlier. The advent of the wireless network and an ever-more exciting Internet suddenly made a tiny, toteable laptop attractive, whereas previously it would have just been a painful machine to do work on. The name “netbook” was no accident, highlighting the popular use case — a lightweight, portable machine that’s perfect for web browsing and casual tasks.

But the netbook was more than the sum of its parts. Battery life was in excess of 3 hours, and the CPU was a full-fat x86 processor. This wasn’t a machine that required users to run special cut-down software or compromise on usage. Anything you could run on an average, low-spec PC, you could run on this, too. USB and VGA out were available, along with WiFi, so presentations were easy and getting files on and off was a cinch. It bears remembering, too, that back in the Windows XP days, it was easy to share files across a network without clicking through 7 different permissions tabs and typing in your password 19 times.

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Ford’s Powershift Debacle

In the automotive world, change is a constant, and if you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind. New technologies and methodologies are key to gaining an edge in the market, and companies invest billions each year trying to find the next big thing, or even the next minor incremental improvement.

In just such a quest, Ford Motor Company decided to explore an alternative to the traditional automatic gearbox, aiming for greater fuel efficiency in their small cars. On paper, there were gains to be had. Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan. Continue reading “Ford’s Powershift Debacle”

How Science Adapted To The Aftermath Of Cold War Nuke Tests

Current global events have demonstrated that we do not live in the most stable of times. Still, most of us 90’s kids are probably glad that we did not have to endure the political shakiness of the Cold War era when people were living in constant fear of nuclear Armageddon. Nuclear weapons tests were common during this period as the United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily to increase the quality and quantity of their warheads in the race for nuclear supremacy.

Even though the political situation stabilized after the fall of the Soviet Union, the consequences of the vast amount of nuclear tests conducted back then are still noticeable today. Besides the devastating effects on human health and the environment, this period also leaves some implications for science which are not always negative.

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NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

With the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, the United States has achieved something it hasn’t done in nearly a decade: put a human into low Earth orbit with a domestic booster and vehicle. It was a lapse in capability that stretched on far longer than anyone inside or outside of NASA could have imagined. Through a series of delays and program cancellations, the same agency that put boot prints on the Moon and built the iconic Space Shuttle had been forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into space since 2011.

NASA would still be waiting to launch its own astronauts had they relied on America’s traditional aerospace giants to get the job done. The inaugural flight of the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” to the International Space Station in December was an embarrassing failure that came perilously close to losing the unmanned capsule. A later investigation found that sloppy software development and inconsistent testing had caused at least two major failures during the mission, which ultimately had to be cut short as the vehicle couldn’t even reach the altitude of the ISS, to say nothing of making a docking attempt. NASA and Boeing have since agreed to attempt another test of the CST-100 sometime before the end of the year, though a delay into 2021 seems almost inevitable due to the global pandemic.

But America’s slow return to human spaceflight can’t be blamed on the CST-100, or even Boeing, for that matter. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been hindered by politics and indecisiveness. With a constantly evolving mandate from the White House, the agency’s human spaceflight program has struggled to make significant progress towards any one goal.

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X-37B Spaceplane To Test Power Beaming Technology

Since 2010, the United States military has been operating a pair of small reusable spaceplanes that conduct secretive long-duration flights in low Earth orbit. Now officially operating under the auspices of the newly formed Space Force, the X-37Bs allow the military to conduct in-house research on new hardware and technology with limited involvement from outside agencies. The spaceplane still needs to hitch a ride to space on a commercial rocket like the Atlas V or the Falcon 9, but once it’s separated from the booster, the remainder of the X-37B’s mission is a military affair.

An X-37B being prepared for launch.

So naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know about the USSF-7 mission that launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 17th. The duration of the mission and a complete manifest of the experiments aboard are classified, so nobody outside the Department of Defense truly knows what the robotic spacecraft is up to. But from previous missions we know the craft will likely remain in orbit for a minimum of two years, and there’s enough public information to piece together at least some of the investigations it will be conducting.

Certainly one the most interesting among them is an experiment from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that will study converting solar power into a narrow microwave beam; a concept that has long been considered the key to unlocking the nearly unlimited energy potential offered by an orbital solar array. Even on a smaller scale, a safe and reliable way to transmit power over the air would have many possible applications. For example it could be used to keep unmanned aerial vehicles airborne indefinitely, or provide additional power for electric aircraft as they take-off.

Performing an orbital test of this technology is a serious commitment, and shows that all involved parties must have a fairly high confidence level in the hardware. Unfortunately, there isn’t much public information available about the power beaming experiment currently aboard the X-37B. There’s not even an indication of when it will be performed, much less when we should expect to see any kind of report on how it went. But we can make some educated guesses based on the work that the Naval Research Laboratory has already done in this field.

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Losing A Wheel On Your Commute; 3-Wheelers Vie For The Open Road

We live at an interesting point in time for the technologically minded motor vehicle enthusiast, and we stand on the brink of a major directional shift in  how we imagine a car. Within ten years it’s likely that the electric motor will have moved from an extravagance or a fringe choice to a mainstream one, and a piston engine will be the preserve of an ever smaller niche market.

The Electrameccanica Solo three-wheeler car.
The Electrameccanica Solo three-wheeler car.

Along the way is it possible that the very form factor of an automobile will change, or will cars in decades hence have the same basic shape as those we’re used to? The Canadian company Electrameccanica certainly think so, because they’ve launched a refreshingly different take on commuter transport for one. Their Solo is a three-wheeler car, with two wheels at the front and one trailing wheel at the back configuration. It’s a bold design, but if it’s such an obvious one then why don’t we drive three-wheelers already?

It’s time to examine a few of the properties of a three-wheeler, and along the way visit some of the past attempts at this configuration.

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