They adorn the ends of Cat5 network patch cables and the flat satin cables that come with all-in-one printers that we generally either toss in the scrap bin or throw away altogether. The blocky rectangular plugs, molded of clear plastic and holding gold-plated contacts, are known broadly as modular connectors. They and their socket counterparts have become ubiquitous components of the connected world over the last half-century or so, and unsurprisingly they had their start where so many other innovations began: from the need to manage the growth of the telephone network and reduce costs. Here’s how the modular connector got that way.
For sturdy utilitarianism, there were few designs better than the Western Electric Model 500 desk phone. The 500 did one thing and did it well, and remained essentially unchanged from the mid-1940s until Touch Tone phones started appearing in the early 70s. That doesn’t mean it can’t have a place in the modern phone system, though, as long as you’re willing to convert it into a cellphone.
Luckily for [bicapitate], the Model 500 has plenty of room inside the case once the network interface is removed, because the new electronics take up a fair bit of space. There’s no build log per se, but the photo album makes it clear what’s going on. An Arduino reads the hook switch and dial pulses, while a Fona GSM module takes care of the cellular side of things. It looks like a small electret mic and a speaker replace the original transmitter and receiver. As a nice touch, the original ringer is used, but instead of trying to drive it electrically, [bicapitate] came up with a simple cam mechanism on a small motor. Driven at the right speed, the cam hooks the clapper arm, rings one bell, then releases it to let the clapper spring back to hit the other bell. Everything is powered by a LiPo, so it could be taken to the local coffee shop for some hipster hijinks.
The birth of the supersonic jet made the United States’ airstrike defenses look antiquated. And so, during the Cold War, the government contracted a number of institutions and vendors to create and maintain the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) aircraft detection system with Western Electric as project manager.
SAGE was developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory on computers built by IBM. It used the AN/FSQ-7 in fact, which was The Largest Computer Ever Built. SAGE operated as a network of defense sectors that divided the continental U.S. and Canada. Each of these sectors contained a directional center, which was a four-story concrete blockhouse that protected and operated a ‘Q7 through its own dedicated power station. The SAGE computers employed hot standby processors for maximum uptime and would fail over to nearby direction centers when necessary.
Information is fed into each directional center from many radar sources on land, in the air, and at sea. The findings are evaluated on scopes in dimly-lit rooms on the front end and stored on magnetic cores on the back end. Unidentifiable aircraft traces processed in the air surveillance room of the directional center are sent to the ID room where they are judged for friendliness. If found unfriendly, they are sent to the weapons direction room for possible consequences.
How many Ma Bell employees does it take to build an ESS mainframe? This week, Retrotechtacular takes you into the more poetic recesses of the AT&T Archive to answer that very question. This wordless 1974 gem is an 11-minute exploration of the construction and testing of a Western Electric 1ESS. It begins with circuit board population and ends with lots of testing.
The film is really quite groovy, especially the extreme closeups of wire wrapping and relay construction. The soundtrack is a string-heavy suite that moves you through the phases of bringing up the 1ESS while drawing parallels to the wires of communication. You may lose count of the punch down blocks and miles of cables, but there are surprisingly few mustaches.