Dawn of the First Digital Camera

Technology vanishes. It either succeeds and becomes ubiquitous or fails. For example, there was a time when networking and multimedia were computer buzzwords. Now they are just how computers work. On the other hand, when was the last time you thought about using a CueCat barcode reader to scan an advertisement? Then there are the things that have their time and vanish, like pagers. It is hard to decide which category digital cameras fall into. They are being absorbed into our phones and disappearing as a separate category for most consumers. But have you ever wondered about the first digital camera? The story isn’t what you would probably guess.

The first digital camera I ever had was a Sony that took a floppy disk. Surely that was the first, right? Turns out, no. There were some very early attempts that didn’t really have the technology to make them work. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was using analog electronic imaging as early as 1961 (they had been developing film on the moon but certainly need a better way). A TI engineer even patented the basic outline of an electronic camera in 1972, but it wasn’t strictly digital. None of these bore any practical fruit, especially relative to digital technology. It would take Eastman Kodak to create a portable digital camera, even though they were not the first to commercialize the technology.

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Recorded Programming — Thanks to Bing Crosby

If you look up Bing Crosby in Wikipedia, the first thing you’ll notice is his real name was Harry. The second thing you’ll read, though, is that he is considered the first “multimedia star.” In 1948, half of the recorded music played on the air was by Bing Crosby. He also was a major motion picture star and a top-selling recording artist. However, while you might remember Bing for his songs like White Christmas, or for his orange juice commercials, or for accusations of poor treatment from his children, you probably don’t associate him with the use of magnetic tape.

In a way, Bing might have been akin to the Steve Jobs of the day. He didn’t power the technology for tape recording. But he did see the value of it, invested in it, and brought it to the market. Turns out Bing was quite the businessman. Want to know why he did all those Minute Maid commercials? He was a large shareholder in the company and was the west coast distributor for their products. He also owned part of the Pittsburgh Pirate baseball team and other businesses.

So how did Bing become instrumental in introducing magnetic tape recording? Because he was tired of doing live shows. You see, in 1936, Crosby became the host of a radio variety show, The Kraft Music Hall. This very popular program was live. That means you have to show up on time. If you go off on a tangent, you’ll run out of time. And if you make a mistake, there is no editing. Oh and one other thing. You have to do a nationwide live show twice: once for the east coast and another for the west. This was cutting into Bing’s “family time” which, as far as we can ascertain was a code phrase for golf.

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Was the Self Driving Car Invented in the 1980s?

The news is full of self-driving cars and while there is some bad news, most of it is pretty positive. It seems a foregone conclusion that it is just a matter of time before calling for an Uber doesn’t involve another person. But according to a recent article, [Ernst Dickmanns] — a German aerospace engineer —  built three autonomous vehicles starting in 1986 and culminating with on-the-road demonstrations in 1994 for Daimler.

It is hard to imagine what had to take place to get a self-driving car in 1986. The article asserts that you need computer analysis of video at 10 frames a second minimum. In the 1980s doing a single frame in 10 minutes was considered an accomplishment. [Dickmanns’] vehicles borrowed tricks from how humans drive. They focused on a small area at any one moment and tried to ignore things that were not relevant.

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HOPE XII: Time Travel with Software Defined Radio

It’s easy to dismiss radio as little more than background noise while we drive.  At worst you might even think it’s just another method for advertisers to peddle their wares. But in reality it’s a snapshot of the culture of a particular time and place; a record of what was in the news, what music was popular, what the weather was like, basically what life was like. If it was important enough to be worth the expense and complexity of broadcasting it on the radio, it’s probably worth keeping for future reference.

But radio is fleeting, a 24/7 stream of content that’s never exactly the same twice. Yet while we obsessively document music and video, nobody’s bothering to record radio. You can easily hop online and watch a TV show that originally aired 50 years ago, but good luck finding a recording of what your local radio station was broadcasting last week. All that information, that rich tapestry of life, is gone and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or can we? At HOPE XII, Thomas Witherspoon gave a talk called “Creating a Radio Time Machine: Software-Defined Radios and Time-Shifted Recordings”, an overview of the work he’s been doing recording and cataloging the broadcast radio spectrum. He demonstrated how anyone can use low cost SDR hardware to record, and later play back, whole chunks of the AM and shortwave bands. Rather than an audio file containing a single radio station, the method he describes allows you to interactively tune in to different stations and explore the airwaves as if it were live.

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Learn to Count in Seximal, a Position Above the Rest

Believe it or not, counting is not special. Quite a few animals have figured it out over the years. Tiny honeybees compare what is less and what is more, and their brains are smaller than a pinky nail. They even understand the concept of zero, which — as anyone who has had to teach a toddler knows — is rather difficult to grasp. No, counting is not special, but how we count is.

I don’t mean to toot our own horn, but humans are remarkable for having created numerous numeral systems, each specialized in their own ways. Ask almost anyone and they will at least have heard of binary. Hackaday readers are deeper into counting systems and most of us have used binary, octal, and hexadecimal, often in conjunction, but those are just the perfectly standard positional systems.

If you want to start getting weird, there’s balanced ternary and negabinary, and we still haven’t even left the positional systems. There’s a whole host of systems out there, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I happen to think seximal is the best. To see why, we have to explore the different creations that arose throughout the ages. As long as we’ve had sheep, humans have been trying to count them, and the systems that resulted have been quite creative, if inefficient.

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The History and Physics of Triode Vacuum Tubes

The triode vacuum tube might be nearly obsolete today, but it was a technology critical to making radio practical over 100 years ago. [Kathy] has put together a video that tells the story and explains the physics of the device.

The first radio receivers used a device called a Coherer as a detector, relying on two tiny filaments that would stick together when RF was applied, allowing current to pass through. It was a device that worked, but not reliably. It was in 1906 that Lee De Forest came up with a detector device for radios using a vacuum tube containing a plate and a heated filament. This device so strongly resembled the Fleming Valve which John Fleming had patented a year before, that Fleming sued De Forest for patent infringement.

After a bunch of attempts to get around the patent, De Forest decided to add a third element to the tube: the grid. The grid is a piece of metal that sits between the filament and the plate. A signal applied to the grid will control the flow of electrons, allowing this device to operate as an amplifier. The modification created the triode, and got around Fleming’s patent.

[Kathy]’s video does a great job of taking you through the creation of the device, which you can watch after the break. She also has a whole series on the history of electricity, including a video on the Arc Transmitter which we featured previously.

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Who Made the First Human Audio Recordings? Edison? Not so Fast!

You probably learned in school that Thomas Edison was the first human voice recorded, reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb. As it turns out though, that’s not strictly true. Edison might have been the first person to play his voice back, but he wasn’t the first to deliberately record. That honor goes to a French inventor named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. He wanted to study sound and created the phonautograph — a device which visualized sound on soot-covered paper. They were not made to be played back, but the information is there. These recordings were made around 1860. There’s a 9-part video series about how the recordings were made — and more interestingly — how they were played back using modern technology. Part 1 appears below.

We say around 1860 because there were some early recordings starting around 1857 that haven’t been recovered. Eventually, the recordings would have a tuning fork sound which allows modern playback since the known signal can estimate the speed of the hand-cranked cylinder. The date of the first recovered recording was today, April 9th, 158 years ago.

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