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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

Being the occasionally interesting ramblings of a major-league technophile.


      We're all familiar with the road not taken. However, what about the road taken but then abandoned? There are many examples in the history of technology where what appears to be a good choice turns out to be less good than an alternate which takes off unexpectedly. Of course, there are also examples of people knowing very well that what they're using now works better than the available alternate choices, but that it has severe limitations which will result in it being eventually abandoned. There are even examples of of people thinking they're participating in this second option but the expected alternates simply didn't prove out and they were stuck with going back to the original, functional but limited choice!

      Then, of course, there are the human factors. Taste, politics and individual whims all influence what becomes the standard. In the US electric trolleys were mostly destroyed by busses - a largely political decision - but today light rail is making a comeback in some places. (Due in part to improved automation capacity for safely controlling transportation devices without crew aboard. Which owes a lot to Walt Disney.) By the way, defenders of busses claim that they are inherently superior to trolleys on rails due to being much more flexible. True, but to stay on schedule non-charter busses usually stick to a predetermined route and the assigned stops along it. The potential flexibility is not an advantage if it isn't used, and most commercial bus companies make little use of it.

      In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries many cities had subterranean methods for official mail to be delivered. That is almost completely gone today. Pneumatic mail and parcel delivery through dedicated tube networks under large cities was taken over by trucks. Why? Largely due to lobbying by trucking interests, much the same as with trolleys. London, England had an elaborate underground rail system for mail, but that is almost entirely abandoned these days. Which means delays as mail trucks get stuck in traffic.

      Thomas Edison faced many obstacles in marketing the incandescent light bulb. One of those was the fact that gas lighting was at that time a mature technology, and with the addition of the thorium dioxide and cerium dioxide impregnated mantle gas gave a bright, white light with little odor or smoke. However, people who understood both methods of artificial lighting knew that there were inherent limitations to gas lighting which did not affect the electric bulb. The main one being that you could turn on an incandescent bulb over there with a simple flick of a switch over here, while a gas lamp required the application of a source of ignition at the actual burner. Who knows; if someone had figured out a practical way to supply a spark remotely - as you can with many current water heaters, using a piezoelectric device - the gas lamp might still be in widespread use.

      Decades later Henry Ford and other early automobile manufacturers faced competition from both electric and steam automobiles. Gasoline eventually won out over electricity because a tank of gasoline is a very lightweight and compact source of energy which is quick and easy to replenish. It won out over steam largely because even very sophisticated boilers require at least several seconds to build up enough pressure to get the vehicle moving. Meanwhile, electric cars could take off even more quickly than those with gasoline engines, but energy storage density was poor.

      Today electric cars are seeing a resurgence. They're still well behind internal combustion engines - whether gasoline or diesel - in both range and number of sales, but both continue to improve. Advances in technology have greatly increased both the energy storage density of batteries and how quickly they recharge, as well as the efficiencies of vehicles in general. Meanwhile, steam traction engines are popular for demonstrations at tractor pulls – especially when certified for operation at full pressure – because they travel about as fast with the sled as without. However, they would be too slow and expensive for commercial farming use.

      Speaking of artificial light, when compact fluorescent bulbs came on the market in the Eighties they were seen as the light source of the future. Well, they were, for a short term of future. Now they're fading into the past, as light-emitting diode lamps become cheaper. LEDs use less energy, generate less heat (though there is still some waste heat) last longer and present less of a disposal hazard than CFL bulbs. They also come on more quickly when cold, such as outdoors in the Winter. This was not foreseen early on, because light-emitting diodes produce light in a narrow frequency range. That is, pretty much a single color. Which might be fine for emergency flashlights but you wouldn't want to eat by such light. The secret was to borrow a trick from their rival. Fluorescent bulbs produce ultraviolet light. Which you also wouldn't want to have supper by. However, the insides of the tubes are coated with a phosphor which turns the UV into a tailored mix of visible light. All you have to do to make a white light LED it have the actual diode emit UV, and line the inside of the bulb with a phosphor mix.

      For a long time after cell phones became popular landlines were still what you wanted in a power outage. For many decades traditional telephone systems maintained massive battery banks and emergency generators to keep the phone lines active. However, regulations and technology have changed. These days, most cell towers have at least a few hours of battery backup installed, while landline phone companies are removing their high-maintenance old lead acid batteries and generators.

      In the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries black powder weapons were strongly challenged by air rifles. On their famous expedition Louis and Clark carried Girardoni air rifles; a military model actually used as an issue arm by Austria from 1780 to 1815. Though muzzle velocity was lower and the weapons more fragile than equivalent black powder rifles they were lighter, could fire twenty or more times in quick succession and needed less cleaning. They were also much quieter and didn't producing huge clouds of white smoke. Omitting black powder weapons meant the party didn't need to stock black powder and flints; just bullets, air pumps and reservoirs and maintenance/repair kits. (Note that most early air rifles had a "firing" mechanism which externally resembled a flint lock. Just for the sake of familiarity.)

      One reason air rifles fell out of favor as serious military and hunting weapons was the development of percussion caps. Not only did this make single-shot black powder firearms more reliable, it also allowed practical repeating firearms. The development of cartridges further reduced any advantage for air guns. Smokeless powder pretty much sealed the deal.

      Today, however, air guns are making huge comebacks. Modern materials and designs make air rifles quite effective on small and even medium game, and for target shooting in places where the loud bang of conventional firearms is considered inappropriate. Some of the technological developments driving this are due to paintball games. (Interestingly, paintball guns were originally invented for marking livestock.) The materials for pressure tanks, rapid-action valves and so forth for paintballs can be applied to air rifles, though the latter generally have higher operating pressures.

      For a couple of decades during a part of the Twentieth Century flywheels floating on magnetic bearings in vacuums were considered the high density electricity storage devices of the future! They could be charged and discharged far faster than even the majority of modern chemical batteries and had higher storage densities than those or the even faster capacitors. These flywheels weren't made of solid chunks of metal but strands of wire of some other high-density, high tensile strength material with the collective form of a disc, which could spin freely in the vacuum. In the event of a catastrophic failure these strands simply could not pierce the safety covering around the flywheel.

      However, having a powerful gyroscope aboard a moving vehicle produced some - let's say - interesting handling qualities. As well, chemical batteries greatly improved – and continue to improve - over the next few decades while flywheels were pretty much at their peak early on.

      Speaking of gyroscopic effects, the Fastrand I memory storage unit (used with the UNIVAC 1108 computer, to provide the first permanent file storage capability in the UNIVAC 1100 series family) had to be fastened securely to a sturdy floor or it would hold still as the Earth rotated under it. This in spite of the fact that it weighed over two tonnes! No surprise, really, since it was basically a hunk of iron sewer pipe spinning at a high rate around its long axis! The pipe was balanced and smoothed to allow read-write heads to scan back and forth along the length of the iron as it spun. One of these memory storage units was installed in a US Navy ship, and reportedly greatly reduced the maneuverability of the vessel in turns. The problem was solved by making the Fastrand II a double unit, with one pipe positioned above the other, spinning in the opposite direction. Even that, of course, couldn't prevent what would happen if one of those pieces of digital ironmongery came off its supports and crashed out of the machine. Folks were very glad when magnetic tape drives came along...

      Coming forward in time a bit, in the early Eighties the Next Big Thing in computer data storage was bubble memory. However, it stopped being competitive with the storage density of FETs on silicon around '84 or '85. That technology simply had too much stretch for bubble memory to match.

      In the late Nineteenth Century X-rays were all the rage. Between legitimate medical use and a faddish desire to see one's own bones many people were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. These days, in terms of total number of images CT and MRI outnumber simple projection X-Ray images by about one hundred to one. While traditional, single-exposure X-rays are still used, instead of film a digital sensor pad is the detection medium. Though these are vastly more sensitive than film so that X-ray doses are much smaller per image, the increased number of images means overall exposure is going up again.

      CDs replaced vinyl records... only not entirely, and in recent years vinyl is making a comeback. In double-blind tests using high-quality audio equipment, some people can tell the difference, and almost uniformly prefer the vinyl sound. This is largely due to audio clipping being used on CDs to reduce the amount of data stored. Some higher quality CDs are now using less clipping or abandoning it altogether, but vinyl is still growing.

      Airships were already in decline when the Hindenburg burned. However, the extent of that disaster would have been much less if it had been filled with helium, which it was originally designed for. (The US was and is the main source of commercial helium and had embargoed its export to Nazi Germany.) There have been several attempts in recent years to build commercial airships (above and beyond Goodyear). Even the old Zeppelin company has gotten back into the business, with a few blimps of several sizes. These are mostly intended for the tourist industry, where there is definite financial potential. An airship can fly high enough to give a good view of a city or natural wonder while going much more slowly than even a propeller airplane, offering a good look.

      Most commercial nuclear reactors have been expanded versions of reactors developed for submarines. There are problems with this, since those are much smaller than what is needed for public power plants and scaling them up introduced problems. Several alternative designs for nuclear reactors would have been better for civilian use than the BWR (boiling water reactor) and PWR (pressurized water reactor) designs we ended up with; that choice was driven mainly by the selection of those small, military designs. Safer, cheaper reactors which make better use of their fuel and produce less waste might have led to a mostly-nuclear electric grid by now, while increasing safety and reducing costs.

      Thorium has repeatedly been recommended as nuclear fuel, including by Robert Heinlein. Almost no reactors have been built to use it. Thorium is harder to use for a bomb than uranium or plutonium and its decay products are much less problematic. Thorium is also relatively plentiful in the Earth's crust (there's about four times as much as there is uranium) and not difficult to extract. The fact that it has been used in gas mantle light sources for well over a century (thorium when heated glows a brilliant white) is testimony to that.

      Thorium is about half the density of uranium or plutonium. It is a soft, ductile metal in the pure form, and that and some alloys can be processed in much the same way as mild steel. It also has a high melting point. All of these are characteristics which make it more suitable for use as nuclear fuel than the other choices.

      Another interesting "road taken and abandoned" variant is the road taken, abandoned, retaken, abandoned again and retaken again. What's interesting is that you see this very often in military hardware.

      In the late Nineteenth Century the US Army decided to replace the M1873 Colt Single Action Army in .45 Colt (originally a black powder cartridge) with a modern double-action revolver chambering a modern, smokeless powder cartridge. No-one argued against the effectiveness of the .45 Colt (indeed, one reason for replacing it was that the powerful recoil made it difficult for some to handle) but the cartridge was unnecessarily large and the weapons which used it old-fashioned and clunky. The new revolver was marvelous; reliable, easy to maintain and use and accurate. Unfortunately, the .38 Long Colt cartridge chosen for it proved to be underpowered. During the Spanish American war, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Mexican Revolution performance of that cartridge was so disappointing the US Army reissued the old single-action .45. No-one was surprised when their next handgun was an autopistol chambered in .45 Auto, a smokeless powder round which had ballistics very close to those of the old .45 Colt.

      Moving back a bit, Abraham Lincoln overrode his own Secretary of War and the Army's Ordnance Chief to buy 10,000 Spencer repeating lever-action rifles. This was a year and a half after both Lincoln and an evaluation board recommended this purchase, but the Army delayed. This "Damned Yankee Rifle You Load on Sunday and Shoot All Week" (as the Rebs sometimes called it) was the first practical repeating long firearm adopted for military application. It was a lightweight, handy rifle shooting an intermediate power cartridge and giving a high rate of fire and could have shortened the War if acquired when Lincoln first gave the order to do so. It provided an enormous increase in both firepower and rate of fire over the muzzleloaders in common use at the time, though at a significant sacrifice in range and effectiveness. It was later supplemented by the similar Henry repeater.

      About a century later, the M-16 was adopted by the US Armed Forces. It was a lightweight, handy rifle shooting an intermediate power cartridge and providing a high rate of fire due to its lower recoil. The 5.56 cartridge was smaller than the then-standard 7.62 US military cartridge and thus allowed more ammunition to be carried, greatly increasing firepower. It even met with one of the same bizarre objections from high military brass: That it would encourage soldiers to waste ammunition. While on the surface all this echoes the situation with the Spencer the execution was very different. The M-16 as originally developed (as the AR-15) was intended as a military aircrew survival firearm. It attracted the attention of people - many of them not familiar with firearms or military needs - who thought the economies of the system (smaller, cheaper cartridges in a smaller, cheaper rifle, allowing soldiers to carry more ammunition for the same weight and cost) and handiness of the rifle would be useful in the close-quarters fighting in Vietnam. In this they were actually right; the M-14 with its greater size and weight and larger, more powerful cartridge was built for combat at long ranges, much like the previous M-1 Garand. Both of those full-power battle rifles were known to be awkwardly long for close-quarters fighting.

      However, the M-16 as first issued was very different from the system as tested. To save money the barrels were not chrome lined, leading to excessive wear. The cartridges used a different powder, greatly increasing fouling and the resulting malfunctions. Due to a misunderstanding, the rifles were issued without cleaning equipment, because of a myth that they did not need to be cleaned!

      Today the M-16 and its descendants are long-proven standards, but in the early days of their use in combat they cost many lives on the side of those using them.

      Recently, however, experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and other situations where combat can take place at long ranges in open country have resulted both in the M-14 being put back into service and other firearms with greater range than the M-16 being issued. The old, tried and proven concept of the squad sharpshooter has also been revived. That is, the best shot is given a specialty weapon with greater range capability and accuracy.

      The German ME-262 Swallow was the original lightweight jet fighter. Though it had some problems - mainly caused by its primitive engines - it proved the concept. During the Fifties the US and many others built jet "fighters" of rapidly increasing weight and complexity... Until Lockheed bucked the trend and built the F-104, which reaffirmed the concept of the lightweight fighter. After adopting this and a few similar highly effective aircraft, the various air forces went back to increasingly complicated, increasingly heavy "fighters" which were increasingly sluggish and unmaneuverable. Until the F-16 reaffirmed the lightweight concept. After adopting that and a few similar planes they went back to (rinse and repeat).

      People who ignore Santayana are doomed to have him quoted to them. It seems the lesson here is that the people who buy equipment for their military services don't understand that often one size does not fit all.

          This document is Copyright 2016 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to repost it must have permission from the author, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net