The shuttle program ends, and with it, an era of American tech excellence

Shuttle launch on TV

The last American space shuttle, STS-135, lifted off this morning, bringing to a close a remarkable era in U.S. technological dominance.

I stayed home and watched the launch on TV, just as I watched the very first shuttle launch on TV in 1981. Both events were deeply tied into the computer era.

In 1981, I watched the launch of Columbia on the only television in the house, which normally was only used as a monitor for my Apple II+. As a no-television house, I had to get special permission to use the monitor as a TV, tuning in to a grainy broadcast signal coming over the rabbit ears.

Full story: The shuttle program ends, and with it, an era of American tech excellence | VentureBeat.

The shuttle program ends, and with it, an era of American tech excellence

May 25, 1945: Sci-Fi Author Predicts Future by Inventing It

1945: Arthur C. Clarke begins privately circulating copies of a paper that proposes using space satellites for global communications.

It was a bold suggestion for 1945, as the war was just winding down and most people were undoubtedly more concerned about the necessities of life than they were with beaming radio waves down from space. But Clarke, a physicist and budding science-fiction author, had his head firmly in the future. The paper, “The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications,” suggests that space stations could be used for broadcasting television signals (.pdf).

The Space-station was originally conceived as a refueling depot for ships leaving the Earth. As such it may fill an important though transient role in the conquest of space, during the period when chemical fuels are employed…. However, there is at least one purpose for which the station is ideally suited and indeed has no practical alternative. This is the provision of world-wide ultra-high-frequency radio services, including television.

(Television itself was barely a commercial reality at this point, so that’s some forward thinking.)

Clarke followed up on this private paper with an article published in October 1945 in Wireless World titled, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” The paper discusses how rocket technology, such as that used in German V-2s during the war, could be turned to peaceful ends by launching artificial satellites into orbit. All you needed, Clarke argued, was a rocket capable of pushing a payload past an orbital-insertion velocity of 8 km/second [5 miles/second].

However, the smallest orbits — such as those that would be used by the Russian Sputnik satellites in the following decade — would circle the earth in about 90 minutes. Because of basic orbital mechanics, the farther out you could get a satellite, the slower its orbit around the Earth would be. At one point, about 42,000 km [about 26,100 miles] from the center of the Earth, the satellite’s orbit would be exactly 24 hours, the same as the Earth’s rotation. Clarke wrote, in Wireless World:

A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth’s equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set.

Clarke wasn’t the first to propose such an orbit, known as geostationary, but his essay did popularize the idea. And while it may have seemed far-fetched in 1945, it was less than 12 years before Sputnik and only 17 years before the first TV broadcast satellite, Telstar. Then, in 1965, Intelsat began launching the first satellite system based on geostationary satellites, and there are more than 300 such satellites in Clarke orbits today. The future of communications evolved much as Clarke had foreseen it.

Although Clarke eventually became more famous as a science-fiction author, penning such classics as 2001and Childhood’s End, he regarded his satellite proposal as more significant. I interviewed Clarke for a profile inMobile PC magazine’s March 2004 issue. The headline referred to him as “The Father of the Star Child.” He replied with this note, handwritten on a reprint of his original Wireless World story:

Appreciate the write-up in March … but I think being ‘father’ of the COMSAT more important than the Star Child!


Original post: May 25, 1945: Sci-Fi Author Predicts Future by Inventing It | This Day In Tech |

May 25, 1945: Sci-Fi Author Predicts Future by Inventing It

Happy 30th Birthday to the Portable PC

The portable computer was born 30 years ago this weekend, when Adam Osborne unveiled the Osborne 1 in San Francisco.

Osborne, a journalist and book author, made the transition to entrepreneur on the strength of his personality, ambition and vision. And for a short few months, his computer company was on top of the world, with one of the steepest revenue growth curves ever seen. A year and a half later, it was bankrupt, a victim of bad management and the now-notorious “Osborne effect,” referring to the sales-stifling result of announcing a next-generation product while the current generation is still on the shelves.

It’s hard to believe now, but the suitcase-sized PC shown above was state of the art for its time, with a tiny but usable CRT, disk drives and a full-sized keyboard. While its processor and operating system pale in comparison with the humblest smartphone today, it set the stage for later, more successful portables, from the Kaypro to the first Compaq laptop.

For the first time, the notion of taking a computer with you, wherever you might go, was conceivable. That was a huge leap, when less than a decade earlier computers were still the size of filing cabinets, locked away in fluorescent-lit, white-tiled computer rooms.

Harry McCracken has a fantastic, in-depth story on the history of Osborne and the early portable computing industry at Technologizer. It should be required weekend reading for anyone interested in computers.

“He was a God,” legendary technology journalist David Bunnell told McCracken, about Osborne. “I tell people that in those days there were three major people in the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Adam Osborne, and not necessarily in that order. He had a huge following.”

Osborne! (Technologizer)

This post originally published on Happy 30th Birthday to the Portable PC | Gadget Lab |

Happy 30th Birthday to the Portable PC

How a Legacy From the 1800s Is Making Tokyo Dark Today

A strange legacy of the Japanese power system’s infancy in the late 1800s is complicating efforts to keep Tokyo supplied with electricity.

The problem, as explained by IDG News Service’s Martyn Williams, is that half of the country uses power whose current alternates at 60 Hz, while the other half gets its power at 50 Hz.

The discrepancy has to do with the founding of electric power in the country. Tokyo Electric Light Co. used German generators, which operated at 50 Hz, while in the west part of Japan, Osaka Electric Lamp Co. used generators from General Electric, an American company, operating at the same 60 Hz standard that is used in the United States to this day.

Unlike the U.S. grid, the Japanese power grid was never unified on a single standard. While it’s possible to connect the two grids, the frequency-changing stations required can only handle up to 1 gigawatt.

When the quake hit, it shut down 11 reactors including three that were in operation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that is now at the center of Japan’s nuclear problems. With the 11 reactors offline, 9.7 GW was gone from eastern Japan’s electricity production capacity.

And that’s the root of Tokyo’s current electricity problems: Utility companies in west Japan are unable to make up for all of the lost power.

Residents of Japan have faced a crisis of unimaginable proportions, with earthquakes followed by a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster. The rolling blackouts in Tokyo are, in comparison, a relatively minor problem.

Still, it’s interesting to see how historical decisions from more than a century ago can have unexpected consequences today — all because of a frequency mismatch. Chalk it up to path dependency.

A legacy from the 1800s leaves Tokyo facing blackouts [IT World]


How a Legacy From the 1800s Is Making Tokyo Dark Today | Gadget Lab |

How a Legacy From the 1800s Is Making Tokyo Dark Today

Nov. 2, 1815: Boole Born, Boolean Logic Logically Follows

1815: English mathematician George Boole, who would help establish what is now known as Boolean logic, is born.

Boole’s breakthrough was the insight that logic, which had previously been considered a branch of philosophy, was actually closer to mathematics. All you needed to do was express logical problems in a symbolic format, and they could be solved in a way similar to mathematical problems.

Largely self-taught, Boole’s education began at home, where his tradesman father taught him basic mathematics. Boole began working as a schoolteacher at age 16, and spent his evenings reading such lightweight fare as Isaac Newton’s Principia.

By the time he was 24, he was already submitting mathematical papers on differential equations and linear transformations to major journals. Boole won recognition from the Royal Society in 1844 for a paper on methods for combining algebra and calculus.

Full story: Nov. 2, 1815: Boole Born, Boolean Logic Logically Follows | This Day In Tech |

Nov. 2, 1815: Boole Born, Boolean Logic Logically Follows

October 7, 1954: IBM Gets Transistorized | This Day In Tech |

1954: IBM builds the first calculating machine to use solid-state transistors instead of vacuum tubes.

IBM already had a business selling calculating machines, and it was humming along quite nicely. The IBM 604 Electronic Calculating Punch, which IBM introduced in 1948, was a desk-sized cabinet that ate and spat out punch cards in its single-minded mission of calculating math problems — 20 to 40 addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems for each card. Since it could process 100 cards per second, that was a lot of math … for the time.

via October 7, 1954: IBM Gets Transistorized | This Day In Tech |

October 7, 1954: IBM Gets Transistorized | This Day In Tech |

Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech |

1837: The U.S. Patent Office approves Thomas Davenport’s application for a patent on an “Improvement in Propelling Machinery by Magnetism and Electro-Magnetism.” We’d call it an electric motor.

Davenport was a Vermont blacksmith and an amateur tinkerer, not a trained scientist or engineer. When he heard about a machine that used an electromagnet to separate high-quality iron ore from the lower-grade stuff, he became intrigued. Unable to meet with the inventor, he sold his brother’s horse and a number of other possessions to buy an electromagnet of his own.

Like many Wired readers, Davenport then proceeded to take apart the nifty gadget he’d just bought in order to find out how it was made. Soon he was making his own batteries and electromagnets, and in half a year had come up with a motor powered by direct current from a galvanic wet cell.

Davenport’s wife, Emily, maintained notes for him and even suggested modifications and materials to be used in his experiments. She also contributed strips of silk from her wedding dress to use as insulation for the wires.

The brush-and-commutator scheme Davenport invented is still used in electric motors today. Current flows through electromagnets mounted on a wheel, causing them to move towards fixed permanent magnets, rotating the wheel through a half turn. As the wheel turns, its motion breaks the circuit powering the magnets and connects a new circuit with opposite polarity. That in turn reverses the polarity of the electromagnets, pushing each one away from the magnet it’s just passed while pulling it towards the next magnet in the circle, thus pushing the wheel through another half turn. The process repeats, and the wheel on the motor goes round and round.

Reading the patent application, you can almost see the patent examiners’ brains quietly exploding. Electricity was still a rather novel concept, despite the fact that people had been experimenting with it for nearly a century, and nobody had tried to patent an electrical device before. The three-page application is elegant, concise and to the point, but the description is a bit hard to follow at some places — and that’s with the benefit of 170 extra years of electrical knowledge behind us.

Davenport’s first patent application was rejected. After winning the endorsement of a number of distinguished men of science, building a working model, rebuilding the model after it was destroyed in a fire, and resubmitting his application, Davenport finally won the patent he’d been seeking.

It was issued U.S. Patent No. 132, because the 9,957 patents issued between July 31, 1790, and July 13, 1836, weren’t numbered.

Davenport had high hopes for his invention: He foresaw using it to power shop machinery and even locomotives. He set up a workshop near Wall Street in New York and published his own promotional newspaper, The Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer, which he printed on an electric-motor–powered printing press.

But as a business, the electric motor was a flop. The batteries of the day were too weak, too bulky and too unpredictable to provide reliable power. That didn’t keep the intrepid Vermonter from inventing an electric locomotive and even an electric piano.

It took nearly 50 years before inventors like Thomas Edison started using Davenport’s motor in reverse to generate power, something Davenport had never foreseen (but which Faraday demonstrated in 1831). Once it was possible to use water or steam to generate electricity in large quantities using these generators, electric motors became more practical and were soon employed in trains and trolleys, just as Davenport had envisioned.

Davenport reportedly died bankrupt, a few days short of his 49th birthday in 1851. His patent model for the electric motor now sits in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Source: Various

Photo: jessamyn/Flickr

Prita Ganapati also contributed to this article.

Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech |

Feb. 25, 1837: Davenport Electric Motor Gets Plugged In | This Day In Tech |