Retrotechtacular: The Forgotten Vacuum Tube A/D Converters Of 1965

In any era, the story of electronics has very much been about figuring out how to make something happen with what’s available at the time. And as is often the case, the most interesting developments come from occasions when needs exceed what’s available. That’s when real innovation takes place, even if circumstances conspire to keep the innovation from ever taking hold in the marketplace.

This gem of a video from the Antique Wireless Association has a perfect example of this: the long-lost analog-to-digital converter vacuum tube. Like almost every mid-20th-century innovation in electronics, this one traces its roots back to the Bell Laboratories, which was keenly interested in improving bandwidth on its massive network of copper lines and microwave links. As early as 1947, one Dr. Frank Gray, a physicist at Bell Labs, had been working on a vacuum tube that could directly convert an analog signal into a digital representation. His solution was a cathode ray tube similar to the CRT in an oscilloscope. A beam of electrons would shine down the length of the tube onto a shadow mask containing holes arranged in a “reflected binary code,” which would later be known as a Gray code. The analog signal to be digitized was applied to a pair of vertical deflector plates, which moved the beam into a position along the plate corresponding to the voltage. A pair of horizontal deflector plates would then scan the beam across the shadow mask; where electrons fell on a hole, they would pass through to an output plate to be registered as a bit to be set.

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Anti-Gravity, Time Travel, And Teleportation: Dr. Hamming Gives Advice

You may not know the name [Richard Hamming], but you definitely use some of his work. While working for Bell Labs, he developed Hamming codes — the parent of a class of codes that detect, and sometimes correct, errors in everything from error-correcting memory to hard drives. He also worked on the Manhattan Project and was a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate school.

Turns out [Hamming] has an entire class from the 1990s on YouTube and if you are interested in coding theory or several other topics, you could do worse than watch some of them. However, those videos aren’t what attracted me to the lectures. As the last lecture of his course, [Hamming] used to give a talk called “You and Your Research” and you can see one of the times he delivered it in the video below. You might think that it won’t apply to you because you aren’t a professional academic or researcher, but don’t be too quick to judge.

Turns out, [Hamming’s] advice — even by his own admission — is pretty general purpose for your career or even your life. His premise: As far as we know, you have one life to live, so why shouldn’t it be a worthwhile one by your definition of worthwhile.

Along the way, he has an odd combination of personal philosophy, advice for approaching technical problems, and survival skills for working with others. If you are in the field, you’ll probably recognize at least some of the names he drops and you’ll find some of this technical advice useful. But even if you aren’t, you’ll come away with something. Some of it seems like common sense, but it is different, somehow, to hear it spoken out loud. For example:

If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.

One piece of technical advice? Don’t waste time working on problems you have no way to attack. He points out that anti-gravity, time travel, and teleportation would be very lucrative. But why work on them when there appears to be no way to even remotely accomplish them today. Well, at least when he said that. There has been a little progress on a form of teleportation, but that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway.

While not a hack in the traditional sense, examining your life, career, and technical research to improve your own effectiveness is something to take seriously. We were hoping he would throw in a joke about error-correcting your career, but unless we blinked, no such luck.

Hamming’s work on block codes was followed about ten years later by the Reed-Solomon code which is found nearly everywhere now. Hamming is also associated with the term “hamming distance,” something we talked about when discussing Gray code.

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James West Began 40 Years At Bell Labs With World-Changing Microphone Tech

I’d be surprised if you weren’t sitting within fifty feet of one of James Edward Maceo West’s most well-known inventions — the electret microphone. Although MEMS microphones have seen a dramatic rise as smartphone technology progresses, electret microphones still sit atop the throne of low-cost and high-performance when it comes to capturing audio. What’s surprising about this world-changing invention is that the collaboration with co-inventor Gerhard Sessler began while James West was still at university, with the final version of the electret springing to life at Bell Labs just four years after his graduation.

A Hacker’s Upbringing

James’ approach to learning sounds very familiar: “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger. I had this need to know what was inside.” He mentions a compulsive need to understand how things work, and an inability to move on until he has unlocked that knowledge. Born in 1931, an early brush with mains voltage started him on his journey.

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Marian Croak Is The MVP Of VoIP Adoption

If you’ve ever used FaceTime, Skype, own a Magic Jack, or have donated money after a disaster by sending a text message, then you have Marian Croak to thank. Her leadership and forward thinking changed how Ma Bell used its reach and made all of these things possible.

Marian Croak is a soft-spoken woman and a self-described non-talker, but her actions spoke loudly in support of Internet Protocol (IP) as the future of communication. Humans are always looking for the next best communication medium, the fastest path to understanding each other clearly. We are still making phone calls today, but voice has been joined by text and video as the next best thing to being there. All of it is riding on a versatile network strongly rooted in Marian’s work.

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Unix Tell All Book From Kernighan Hits The Shelves

When you think of the Unix and C revolution that grew out of Bell Labs, there are a few famous names. Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and Brian Kernighan come to mind. After all, the K in both K&R C and in AWK stand for Kernighan. While Kernighan is no stranger to book authorship — he’s written several classics including “the white book” for C and Unix — he has a new book out that is part historical record and part memoir about the birth of Unix.

Usually, when a famous person writes a retrospective like this, it is full of salacious details, but we don’t expect much of that here. The book talks about Bell Labs and Multics, of course. There’s serious coverage of the first, sixth, and seventh editions with biographies of people integral to those releases.

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The Raspberry Pi Cluster From Outer Space

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.

Its been the better part of a decade since we first brought you word that Plan 9 was available for the Raspberry Pi, and yet in all that time we’ve never really seen it put to use. Hopefully builds like this will inspire others to play around with this fascinating piece of computing history.

[Thanks to Dave for the tip.]

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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