The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.
Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?
Television has been around for a long time, but what we point to and call a TV these days is a completely different object from what consumers first fell in love with. This video of RCA factory tours from the 1950s drives home how foreign the old designs are to modern eyes.
Right from the start the apparent chaos of the circuitry is mindboggling, with some components on circuit boards but many being wired point-to-point. The narrator even makes comments on the “new technique for making electrical connections” that uses a wire wrapping gun. The claim is that this is cleaner, faster, and neater than soldering. ([Bil Herd] might agree.) Not all of the methods are lost in today’s manufacturing though. The hand-stuffing and wave soldering of PCBs is still used on lower-cost goods, and frequently with power supplies (at least the ones where space isn’t at a premium).
It’s no surprise when talking about 60+ year-old-designs that these were tube televisions. But this goes beyond the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) that generates the picture. They are using vacuum tubes, and a good portion of the video delves into the manufacture and testing of them. You’ll get a glimpse of this at 3:20, but what you really want to see is the automated testing machine at 4:30. Each tube travels along a specialized conveyor where the testing goes so far as to give a few automated whacks from corks on the ends of actuators. As the tube gauntlet progresses, we see the “aging” process (around 6:00) when each tube is run at 3-4 times the rated filament voltages. Wild!
There’s a segment detailing the manufacture of the CRT tubes as well, although these color tubes don’t seem to be for the model of TV being followed during the rest of the films. At about 7:07 they call them “Color Kinescopes”, an early name for RCA’s CRT technology.
During the factory tours we get the overwhelming feeling that this manufacturing is more related to automotive than modern electronic. These were the days when televisions (and radios) were more like pieces of furniture, and seeing the hulking chassis transported by hanging conveyors is just one part of it. The enclosure plant is churning out legions of identical wooden consoles. This begins at 11:55 and the automation shown is very similar to what we’d expect to see today. It seems woodworking efficiency was already a solved problem in the ’50s.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: 1950s Televisions Were Beasts”
Everyone remembers their first. Their first CPU, that is. For many of us, it was the RCA 1802 thanks to the COSMAC Elf articles that ran in Popular Electronics. The later versions of the chip family were much better but were never as popular, but the 1805 did find its way into a printing calculator for dimensions from a company named Boyd. Some of these recently showed up on the surplus market and–of course–were subsequently hacked.
[Bill Rowe] is active in the groups that still work with the 1802. Because of some specialized uses you can still get the chips readily, some four decades after they were new. Other computers at the time were difficult to build and relatively expensive, while for $100 almost anyone could wire wrap a simple 1802-based computer together in a weekend or less.
Continue reading “COSMAC Elf Calculator Gets New Firmware”
The 20th century saw some amazing technological developments. We went from airplanes to the moon. We went from slide rules to digital computers. Crank telephones to cell phones. But two of the most amazing feats of that era were ones that non-technical people probably hardly think about. The transformation of radio and TV from mono and black and white, to stereo and color. What was interesting about both of these is that engineers managed to find a way to push the new better result into the same form as the old version and — this is the amazing part — do it in such a way that the old technology still worked. Maybe it is the rate that new technology moves today, but we aren’t doing that today. Digital TV required all-new everything: transmitters, receivers, frequencies, and recording gear. Good luck trying to play the latest video game on your 25-year-old PC.
It is hard to remember when stores were full of all sorts of audio and video media. We’ve noticed that all forms of media are starting to vanish. Everything audio and video are all streamed or downloaded these days. Records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and even CDs and DVDs are vanishing. However, vinyl records have made a come back in the last few years for their novelty or nostalgic value.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Stereo Records”
We are living in the age of citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle. Reports about almost anything newsworthy can be had from many perspectives, both vetted and amateur. Just a few decades ago, people relied on daily newspapers, radio, and word of mouth for their news. On the brink of the television age, several radio stations in the United States participated in an experiment to broadcast news over radio waves. But this was no ordinary transmission. At the other end, a new type of receiver printed out news stories, line drawings, and pictures on a long roll of paper.
Radio facsimile newspaper technology was introduced to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair at two different booths. One belonged to an inventor named William Finch, and one to RCA. Finch had recently made a name for himself with his talking newspaper, which embedded audio into a standard newspaper in the form of wavy lines along the edges that were read by a special device.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Electronic Publishing in the 1930s”
Vintage microprocessors usually do something, be it just sitting in an idle loop, calculating something, or simply looking cool in a collector’s cabinet. [Lee] has come up with a vastly cooler use for an old microprocessor: he’s anthropomorphized it by wiring LEDs up to the address lines and arranged those LEDs into a face. After wiring up the right circuit, the face of LEDs slowly changes expressions, making this tiny little board react to random electronic fluctuations.
The CPU used for this project is the RCA 1802, best known for being the smarts in the COSMAC Elf, a very early microprocessor training computer, but still capable of teaching the basics of computing today, albeit on a processor that isn’t made any more with an instruction set that is barely supported by anything modern.
[Lee] apparently has a lot of these 1802s, and to show off how simple a microcomputer can get, he created the strangest use for a CPU we’ve ever seen. You can’t program this face of LEDs; the data bus is left floating so random values are ‘displayed’ on the face. Only one of the data lines is pulled high. This prevents the data bus from ever being 0x00, the HALT instruction.
If you’re looking for something a little more useful to do with an RCA 1802 MPU, [Lee] also has a COSMAC Elf membership card. It’s a reproduction of the famous COSMAC Elf, repackaged into a board the size of an Altoid tin. It has the 1802 onboard, a few switches and blinkenlights, and a parallel port for interacting with peripherals.
While it’s almost cliché to say they don’t make things like they used to, this week’s Retrotechtacular offers fairly conclusive proof that, at the very least, they used to put more time and effort into manufacturing consumer electronics. Gather your homemade wisecrackin’ robots and settle in front of this 1959 film entitled “The Reasons Why”, a rah-rah film created for new employees of the RCA Victor television division.
It may open with a jingle, but things quickly turn serious. Quality is no laughing matter for the men and women devoted to bringing you the best television set for your money. This type of unmatched excellence begins with tireless R&D into improving sound and picture quality. Every transformer is tested at five times the rated voltage, and every capacitor at two times the rating. Every switch undergoes a series of mechanical tests, including a pressured steam bath to ensure they will hold up even if you drag your set out to the porch some unbearably hot deep South August night.
Cabinet design is just as important—what’s the use in housing a chassis and kinescope that’ll last for 60 years in some cheap box? Woods from all over the world are carefully considered for their beauty and durability. A television set is, after all, the centerpiece of the American family room furniture group. These carefully selected woods are baked in a series of ovens to prove they’ll stand up to hours of continuous use.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Designing and Building RCA Televisions”