E. Thomas Chesworth
When the oldest of us were in swaddling clothes, the only moving pictures were at the Bijou. If you wanted to listen to home entertainment, you cuddled up to a warm, five tube, superheterodyne radio receiver. Any gas crises had to do with U boats sinking oil tankers off the New Jersey coast. Our toys were Sandy Andys and Bill Dings.
What a wild ride it has been. Among other things, World War II gave us penicillin, RADAR and the atomic bomb. By the way, the first smashing of atoms in large numbers was a nuclear reactor not a bomb. It was operated under the stands in the football stadium at the University of Chicago. It was very close to a bomb and we nearly lost Chicago.
After the war we were using up all the war surplus in Korea. The Air Force decided they needed to clean up the buzzing and noise on the telephone communication cables between the tail gunner and the command pilot in the B29. RFI specifications were born. Most people didn’t notice or care very much. Let’s face it -- they still decide what color paint is needed on the robot arc welder during the design. But wait till it’s delivered to the customer before some poor technician has to figure out why the welder goes berserk and welds the robot arm to the nearest I beam when the local talk radio guru sneezes.
During the Cold War two Bell Telephone dudes, Bardeen and Brattin, put a cat’s whisker into a chunk of germanium. So much for vacant state radio receivers. Transistors and ESD problems were born.
By itself the transistor is cute but not really very important unless you’re in the tungsten mining business. But transistors are small and take little or no power so you can make a whole clump of them in a ball the size of a pea. With all those little switches they made one hell of a switching matrix, which was something like synapses in the brain. The computer was born -- it was wonderful because it could ignore sex and baseball scores. This allowed it to keep its mind on the problem it was assigned to solve.
We now had a force multiplier -- like the lever with which a man can lift a fair-sized truck -- but this is a force multiplier for the brain. With it we could do amazing things like play Pong, Pack Man and Nintendo.
In the meantime the armies of the world wanted an artillery piece that could fire a shell from Thule to the Ross Ice Shelf. The result was Von Braun’s ICBM and Khrushchev’s Sputnik. Then someone figured out that you could combine Sputnik with the computer and RADAR and have a set of satellites that you knew exactly where they were most of the time. The ranging and direction-finding ability of the radar let you know where you were with respect to the satellites. A few calculations and a digital map in memory and you have a GPS. You can no longer get lost on your way to grandma’s house if, when you make a mistake, you can "Return to the designated route." If I knew where that was, I wouldn’t need a GPS.
The toys are really marvelous. For the cost of only 50 beers you can buy a Mindflex. It uses a small computer, an electric fan and an encephalogram, a mind reading machine used by physicians to make annotations in their little black books about who’s available. The idea is to put a sensor on your head (it’s like a head phone connected to a little basketball court), then using your alpha rhythm (brain waves) turn the fan on and off at the right time with the right air pressure. If you do it all right, a ping pong ball will pop up from a cup in the court and go through a little hoop. That’s all it can do. The big deal is you just operated a real machine in the real world by only thinking about it.
Hertz made a spark gap with an antenna made of two pie plates and a separate loop of stiff wire with a spark gap too. If you touched a charged rod to a pie plate a spark would jump in both gaps. That’s all it could do. The big deal is the circuits were not connected.
What next? Telekinesis? Telepathy? Avocado fritters?