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Over Easy: The technology two step

Popular Science – flickr creative commons

You take one step forward and two steps back. Or so it seemed. Having been around some 65 years and more than a bit of a geek, I have seen a lot of New And Improved, come and go. Broken promises of things to come, as it were.  Here is a brief list.

Automobile automatic transmissions. Supposed to be a big improvement over the old 3 speed on a column manual. But if you tried to accelerate to fast on the early ones, you were shaken, not stirred. We didn’t call them jaromatic for nothing.

Power brakes in automobiles. Hit them too hard and you were launched right through the windshield.  Could explain the fins.

Transistors. Originally made from germanium.   Neat and small and low current device. Sony made their name by making small portable radios using them. But not very tolerant of heat and voltage extremes. Set them in the sun too long and phhitt. Repaired a lot of them in my day. Fisher radio tried to beat the other stereo companies to the punch using germanium power transistors. To make a long story short, the out put stage would self destruct for no good reason. Taking your equally expensive speakers along for the ride.

Silicon transistors. More forgiving of thermal variations and voltage variation. But made rather mediocre to poor amplifiers.  Made great switches though, which lead to fast computers and small computers. Lead to the integrated circuit and everything else that followed.   But they were lot more noisy that vacuum tubes in similar applications and saturated far easier, hence they were good switches.  This did not keep engineers and companies from getting on the “solid state bandwagon” and putting solid state everything. The performance of most were considerable less than the vacuum tube counterparts.  McIntosh Laboratories solved the dilemma of vacuum tube vs solid state by designing their amplifiers to use what they called  their output autoformer.  An unnecessary component that kept their vacuum tube customer base happy campers by making their transistor amplifiers sound pretty much like their vacuum tube amplifiers. More of a marketing coup than engineering one.

Phase Locked Loops. Sounds very impressive and sold a lot of radios and ham equipment and except for a few very specific applications pretty much disappeared. You can’t even buy the parts used to build them now. Even on ebay. The concept is easy enough.  Take a quartz crystal oscillator frequency standard and compare it to a free running oscillator and generate a control voltage to put and keep the free running oscillator  on a specific frequency by digitally dividing the frequency down.  But it took too long to do the division and update needed to keep the oscillator on frequency, so it drifted and what you got was a very unstable signal that was very noisy.  And the solid state devices used were very noisy as well. So what you wound up with was a horrible piece of equipment. Only two manufactures of radio equipment ever got it right.  Collins Radio and R.L.Drake. and they were very expensive. Collins used the same digital ICs that IBM Mainframes used to accomplish it.

CDs or compact disks. Their biggest draw back was that they had no draw backs. Seriously.  Vinyl by it’s very nature of being a mechanical method of recording sound is noisy and prone to high distortion.  This noise and distortion hides a multitude of sins. Recording errors and mistakes and what not by the recording engineers.  Along with the equalization used to compensated for the lathe and pressings of the record. Digital adds none of that and nothing of it’s own, so all the crapola comes through loud and clear.  Early CD releases of previously released vinyl records were nearly unlistenable. Case in point the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was horrible.  It wasn’t until these albums were remastered in digital form and re-released and complete digital recording from start to finish that CDs became viable.

Digital Photography. When it first became available as so called professional digital cameras  by Nikon and Canon, you could make gallery sized prints of high quality from KODACHROME 64 transparency film even from a 35mm slide.  It was that good. If you tried that from the first digital images what you got was a pix-elated mess. They were that bad.  And if shot any higher that 100 iso sensitivity they were very noisy. But people wanted the convenience. Not having to spend hours/days in a dark room or pay a professions lab to. The software available was crude and on all but the fastest most high end, maxed out PC..SLOW. Back to spending hours/days. Only a few years ago we reached parity with KODACHROME on medium format cameras and the software now is pretty damn good.

I could list other areas where this kind of thing took and is taking place. Where people have jumped on a band wagon before the wheels were attached firmly or at all.  There is a difference between taking a risk and being a greedy idiot.

Our quest for the technological Holy Grail has always seemed more like Monty Python than Indiana Jones.


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