From Sparks to The Space Shuttle – A Brief Retrospective

With the Shuttle Era coming to and end and space flight on indefinite hold, I though it would be good to highlight some of the technological achievements that led up to it.

Wireless. AKA Radio. Nicoli Tesla’s invention initially was just large high voltage sparks keyed on and off for Morse code and received crystal detectors. The “Cat’s Whisker”

The Vacuum Tube. The DeForest Audion to be precise. Wireless or radio was invented by Nicoli Tesla but the vacuum tube really made it take off like gangbusters. By the 1930s anyone who could have a radio station, put one on the air. And there were a slew of companies making radios. Even Firestone Tires. And by the 1940s radio was nearly everywhere. From big gigantic console models to very expensive models with chrome plated parts to battery operated units for farms that still did not have electricity.

Talking Pictures. Made possible by the vacuum tube. The first systems were rather crude using a very large disk or record which was mechanically synced to the film – Warner Brothers Vitaphone. But a sound on film technique was soon developed and became the standard.

FM Radio. Unlike the AM that was use, FM offered sound that was free of static and well suited for local broadcast and point to point communications. Major Edward Armstrong’s invention would find wide use and become the mode of choice for entertainment broadcasting.

Television. Philo Farnsworth invented the first practical system to transmit and receive moving pictures. Though it would not be commercially available in mass until after WWII. It was used during the war even in the first drone aircraft.

WWII. Yes the war itself was responsible for a number of advances in technology. Most especially electronics. There was radar and computers (the British Colossus used to break the Nazi Enigma code) and Loran navigational system and major advances in vacuum tube technology and communications utilizing frequencies int the VHF and UHF bands there were not thought useful before the war.

The Transistor. The germanium point contact transistor invented by two engineers at ATT. originally licensed to Raytheon and Texas Instruments. The first transistor portable to hit the market was the Regency. Two Japanese engineers came over and toured the ATT and Texas Instruments facilities and returned and convinced their government to fund a licensing agreement with ATT to manufacture them in Japan. They formed a company called Sony and began making and selling transistor portable radios. They also came up with a way to make them in larger numbers and cheaper. Sony came out with one of the first Transistor portable TVs in 1960. The TV8. [ My grandfather had one and showed it to me]

Color Television. Everybody was working on a system. In Briton is was the Telechrom system. CBS had their line sequential system. RCA and Philco were both working on a dot sequential system. The RCA system finally won out. Partly because they had more money to invest in it. Partly because they were further along. Partly because they owned a major network (NBC). But mostly because they had political connections.

Sputnik. The Soviet Union was the first to launch a satellite into earth orbit. This was an earthquake. We are talking a major but major big deal. We in the west were caught with out pants down and a kick me sign taped to our rear ends. And anyone and everyone who had a radio that could receive its Beep Beep Beep signal on 20 MHZ was listening for it. From the big communications receivers to that old multiband radio of grandpa’s. But with the help of Dr. Werner van Braun, we managed in 1957 to launch Explorer 1. The space race was on. From the up and down flights to orbiting the planet to men on the moon to an orbital space station.

The Silicon Transistor. Shortly after the invention of the Germanium transistor another Bell System Physicist came up with a method of using silicon for transistors. By the early 1960s germanium was a thing of the past.

The Digital Computer. There were many that were made for various special uses but the first real general purpose computer was ENIAC. Made for the US Army. By the 1960s RCA, GE, Zerox, IBM, Univac, Nation Cash Register and others were making computers. By the end of the 1970s most had dropped out of the computer market leaving IBM and UNIVAC and a few others making big computers. But by the 1980s big computers would become a thing of the past as well giving way to the new microprocessor based computers.

The Integrated Circuit. The logical follow on to the transistor. Putting many, many, many transistors in on package made everything much smaller and cheaper.

The Microprocessor. An entire computer processing system on one chip. Small, faster, more efficient that the big mainframes. Making the mainframe look like dinosaurs. I would say that the microprocessor is the last real major technological leap we have made. And they are now everywhere.

I am sure I left out a number of smaller advances. In recording technology and medical technology and robotics. All necessary. Further space exploration though will require some additional tech break throughs though. In propulsion and space craft shielding and other places. All still quite far off I am afraid. But I am sure a couple of guys or gals in some lab somewhere will come up with the answer at some point.


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