What's All This Retrospective Stuff, Anyhow?

Jan. 10, 2000
January (the month named after Janus, the door-keeper) is the traditional time for looking forward—and backward. The end of a century is a good time for looking back. I'll let all of the other pundits guess what they expect to happen for as...

January (the month named after Janus, the door-keeper) is the traditional time for looking forward—and backward. The end of a century is a good time for looking back. I'll let all of the other pundits guess what they expect to happen for as much as 100 or 1000 years into the future. (Remember the words of wisdom from Yogi Berra: "Predicting is very hard. Especially about the future." No, NOT Yogi Berra. It was Niels Bohr, who borrowed it from the Danish philosopher Robert Storm Peterson.) Anyhow, looking back can sometimes help you plan for the future, as if you're rowing a rowboat. I'm just going to look back.

I had a pretty good year last year. I went off to lecture in 15 countries, 10 states, and 60 cities. I even got to climb Mt. Fuji in Japan. I met a lot of nice people. I had a pretty good 60 years in the last century. I've still got good health, and I can still see where I am going. No big car crashes.

The electronics business had a pretty good year and a pretty good century. We got radios and TV, we got radar, and we got computers. And most of this was at very cost-effective prices. (Electric cars are pretty good, too. The motors and electronics work FINE. It's just the batteries that aren't so hot!)

Let's take a look back at the last 100 years. Even if the vacuum tube, transistor, and IC hadn't been invented, the 20th century was going to be a big century for electricity. Electric cars were competing quite healthily against the internal combustion engines and steam-powered cars. Electric trains and trolleys were improving the transportation scene without polluting the streets with manure or smog. And ac and dc motors were coming into factories and homes.

In fact, high-power radio transmitters were running without any help from tubes. The microphones did tend to overheat, though, if overdriven too much. The carbon microphone was used to modulate the field of the radio-frequency motor generator. Look, Ma—no tubes!

Thomas A. Edison was one of the greatest engineers of all time. We think of him primarily as an inventor in the 19th century, with 766 patents. Yet he also had over 320 patents in the 20th century. "Incandescing bulbs," motors, voltaic batteries—he was no slouch! A web site lists his many patents: http://edison.rutgers.edu.

"Incandescing bulbs" grew into vacuum tubes. You had diodes, triodes, tetrodes, and pentodes all based on a patent by Lee de Forest, even though he did misunderstand what he'd invented....

The tubes led to radios that were better and better, cheaper and cheaper. They weren't just the hobbyists' expensive battery-powered radios of the 1920s, but ac-line-powered radios that became popular in the 1930s. They were radios with convenient superheterodyne circuits—not just tuned RF or super-regenerative receivers with three or four big globes and a LOT of adjustments! And there were FM receivers (invented by Edwin Arm-strong). Let's not forget that the IEEE was made from a merger of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) back in the 1960s. Television, while invented in the 1930s, became affordable and popular in the 1950s.

What if the British hadn't figured out how to scramble their Spitfires when the Luftwaffe bombers were still out of sight over the horizon? The English-speaking world would've had a lot of trouble! The invention of radar also made a big difference. I've been reading a couple excellent new books on radar. The Most Secret War by R. V. Jones is the most recent. Radar was a VITAL invention developed greatly during the 1940s.

My favorite story about radar goes back to August of 1940 (just a week before I was born). The Luftwaffe put in a concerted effort to knock out the RAF "chain home" radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. They bombed the antenna and the transmitter shacks, damaging them pretty badly. They lost several planes in the effort. But the next day, when they flew over, their crude detectors showed that Ventnor was back on the air. Air Admiral Goering decided that if it was that hard to knock out a radar site, it wasn't worth it. So they stopped trying.

Actually, the radar wasn't really working. But the British technicians refused to admit that it had been knocked out. So they put some radar-frequency noise and oscillations into a crude amplifier, and pretended that it was a radar transmitter. Their bluff worked. The Germans went off to bomb different kinds of targets, and the radar sites were spared. Pretty good bluff! That may have been the turning point in the war. Having better equipment is not the same as knowing how to use it.

Even if the transistor hadn't entered commercial use in the 1950s, electronics was going to be a big business with small circuits. Modular, integrated circuits were pioneered in that decade. An example is Project Tinkertoy, which had thick-film resistors and capacitors on ceramic substrates to be connected up INSIDE a glass bottle with several triodes. Could we have integrated radios or phones running on just a couple of watts, as small as any 1995 cellular phone or walkie-talkie? Yeah, probably. But I'm sure glad the planar transistor came along.

Robert Noyce's planar transistors and ICs drove reliability and performance up, and costs down! Moore's Law was one of the amazing phenomena of the last 50 years. Remember when one transistor cost $8? Now you can buy 250 million transistors in a RAM for that price. Still, there are those of us who observe that one good op amp is worth more than 1000 microprocessors....

What if a lunar lander had gotten to the moon, but the electronics failed and they couldn't take off? That would not have been a good year for a lot of people. I suspect that people's confidence in electronics would not have recovered from THAT for a long while. I met astronaut Buzz Aldrin recently, and he agreed that it would've been a real challenge to try to get that vehicle off the moon with just a slide rule. He was very pleased when the whole system (all built by the lowest bidder) really worked.

As volumes grew and prices dropped, the temptation to manufacture electronic equipment—TVs and radios and transistors—overseas grew just too hard to resist. Prices dropped further. But U.S. manufacturing and engineering jobs have been declining for a long time. Sigh.

So now we've got all these inexpensive, reliable, planar transistors and ICs. What did they lead to? Cheaper (digital) computers, smaller computers, personal computers, laptop computers, programmable calculators, and even information appliances—all of which have more computing power than the first (ENIAC) digital computers. I don't like computers for many uses, but they sure are handy for word processing. I certainly don't want to fool around with vacuum-tube portable radios, calculators, or computers. No analog word processors or hand-set type in printing presses for me, either.

"Hey, Pease, don't you think the Internet is a great invention?" Well, you don't want to hear my REAL comments on that. I'll just tell you a relevant quote from a wise man: "Many people think that information is knowledge. It isn't." I rest my case.

Does the view of the past tell us a lot about the future? What is at our back as we continue to row our rowboat?

Where is electronics going next? Will Moore's Law continue to extrapolate the shrinking transistors and costs into the indefinite future? Maybe not. But engineers will keep competing to invent new circuits and systems, just not at exactly the same logarithmic expansion rate!

Will digital radios be better than old radios? We shall see. Personally, I have never heard any claims for digital radio that I was impressed with, not to mention digital TV.

What the heck is an "information appliance?" My bosses think a lot of people will want those. I think it's a "seamless" integration of web, e-mail, electronic toilets, and automated refrigerators that tell us when our milk is going out of date. Or, maybe it predicts when the head-gasket on my car will blow out. I'll wait and see. I don't HAVE any head-gaskets on my VWs!

All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
[email protected]—or:

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

P.S. Comprehensive information on the WOM, one of the greatest inventions of the century, is accessible at: http://ganssle.com/misc/wom.html and www.ariplex.com/tina/tsignet1.htm.

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