We see a lot of weird and esoteric stuff here at Hackaday, but even by our standards, Bell Lab’s Plan 9 operating system is an oddball. Named after the science fiction film Plan 9 from Outer Space, it was designed to extend the UNIX “everything is a file” mentality to the network. It envisioned a future where utilizing the resources of another computer would be as easy as copying a file. But as desktop computers got more powerful the idea seemed less appealing, and ultimately traditional operating systems won out. Of course, that doesn’t mean you still can’t play around with it.
Logically to make use of a distributed operating system you really need something to distribute it on, but as [Andrew Back] shows, today that’s not nearly the challenge it would have been back then. Using the Raspberry Pi, he builds a four-node Plan 9 cluster that’s not only an excellent way to explore this experimental operating system, but looks cool sitting on your desk. Even if you’re not interested in drinking the Bell Lab’s Kool-Aid circa 1992, his slick desktop cluster design would work just as well for getting your feet wet with modern-day distributed software stacks.
The enclosure for the cluster is built from laser cut acrylic panels which are then folded into shape with a hot wire bending machine. That might seem like a tall order for the home hacker, but we’ve covered DIY acrylic benders in the past, and the process is surprisingly simple. Granted you’ll still need to get access to a beefy laser cutter, but that’s not too hard anymore if you’ve got a hackerspace nearby.
[Andrew] uses short extension cables and female panel mount connectors to keep everything tidy, and with the addition of some internal LED lighting the final product really does look like a desktop computer from a far more fashionable future. Combined with the minimalist keyboard, the whole setup wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a science fiction movie. Perhaps that’s fitting, giving Bell Lab’s futuristic goals for Plan 9.
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.
Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.
But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.
Just about everywhere you go, there’s a reed switch nearby that’s quietly going about its work. Reed switches are so ubiquitous that you’re probably never more than a few feet away from one at any given time, especially at home or in the car. You might have them on your doors and windows as part of a burglar alarm system. They keep your washing machine from running when the lid is open, and they put your laptop to sleep when you close the lid. They know if the car has enough brake fluid and whether or not your seat belt is fastened.
Reed switches are interesting devices with a ton of domestic and industrial applications. We call them switches, but they’re also sensors. In fact, they only do the work of a switch while they can sense a magnetic field. They are capable of switching AC or DC at low and high voltages, but they don’t need electricity to work. Since they’re sealed in glass, they are impervious to dirt, dust, corrosion, temperature swings, and explosive environments. They’re cheap, they’re durable, and in low-current applications they can last for about a billion actuations.
For those of a certain vintage, no better day at school could be had than the days when the teacher decided to take it easy and put on a film. The familiar green-blue Bell+Howell 16mm projector in the center of the classroom, the dimmed lights, the chance to spend an hour doing something other than the normal drudgery — it all contributed to a palpable excitement, no matter what the content on that reel of film.
But the best days of all (at least for me) were when one of the Bell Laboratory Science Series films was queued up. The films may look a bit schlocky to the 21st-century eye, but they were groundbreaking at the time. Produced as TV specials to be aired during the “family hour,” each film is a combination of live-action for the grown-ups and animation for the kiddies that covers a specific scientific topic ranging from solar physics with the series premiere Our Mr. Sun to human psychology in Gateways to the Mind. The series even took a stab at explaining genetics with Thread of Life in 1960, an ambitious effort given that Watson and Crick had only published their model of DNA in 1953 and were still two years shy of their Nobel Prize.
Produced between 1956 and 1964, the series enlisted some really big Hollywood names. Frank Capra, director of Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life, helmed the first four films. The series featured exposition by “Dr. Research,” played by Dr. Frank Baxter, an English professor. His sidekick was usually referred to as “Mr. Fiction Writer” and first played by Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame. A list of voice actors and animators for the series reads like a who’s who of the golden age of animation: Daws Butler, Hans Conried, Sterling Halloway, Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, and queen and king themselves, June Foray and Mel Blanc. Later films were produced by Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Studios, with Disney starring in the final film. The combined star power really helped propel the films and help Bell Labs deliver their message.
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.
If we cast our minds back to the early years of the transistor, the year that is always quoted is 1947, during which a Bell Labs team developed the first practical germanium point-contact transistor. They would go on to be granted the Nobel Prize for their work in 1956, but the universal adoption of their invention was not an instantaneous process. Instead there would be a gradual change from vacuum to solid state that would span the 1950s and the 1960s, and even in the 1970s you might still have found mainstream devices on sale containing vacuum tubes.
To speed up this process, Bell Labs made every effort to publicize their invention. Thus we come to our subject today, their 1953 publicity film The Transistor, in which the electronics industry of the era is described and how each part of it might revolutionize by the transistor is laid out.
We start with a look at a selection of electronic components, among which are a few transistors. The point contact device is already described as superceded by the junction transistor, but as well as those two we are shown a phototransistor and a junction tetrode, a now-obsolete design that had two base connections.
Unexpectedly we don’t dive straight into the world of transistors, but take a look back at the earlier years of the century to the development of vacuum electronics. We’re taken through the early development and operation of vacuum tubes, then their use in long-distance radio communications, through the advent of electronics in mass entertainment, and finally into the world of radar and microwave links. Only then do we return to the transistor, with a posed shot of [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] hard at work in a lab. The merits of the transistor as opposed to the tube are then set out, though we can’t help wondering whether they have confused a milliwatt and a microwatt when they describe the transistor as requiring only a millionth of a watt to operate.