What am I comparing with?

Lately I’ve been fussing about low quality and low quantity of online stuff. Substack is low quality and low quantity. Straight Arrow News is good quality but low quantity.

What’s the baseline? What am I comparing them with? I’ve said that old newspapers and broadcasts had a much better mix of topics, a “substantial and well-seasoned stew.”

But those old products are not available at all. The examples I’m using as baseline are rare, and may be the cream of the crop.

After some pondering, the baseline is active vs passive. I have more fun writing than reading. I have more fun making graphics than viewing graphics. The most fun of all is putting together a tech history piece like this or this or this.

Those pieces give me a chance to look up original patents and discussions in various languages, get to know the inventors and their culture, “build” and animate the device, and vicariously live in the situation.

Universal Carborundum

A new upload at American Radio Library opens up a fascinating Road Almost Taken.

Carborundum is synonymous with abrasives. The brand is still active, still making a variety of papers and grinding wheels. Needless to say, their original factory in Niagara Falls was closed by EPA, like all factories outside of China. The brand is currently owned by Saint-Gobain, an EXTREMELY WOKE company ferociously compliant with all ESG buzzwords. I can’t tell if they have any real factories outside of China. One former Carborundum factory in America seems to be running under a different company.

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Long before anyone imagined the nightmares of EPA and ESG, Carborundum tried to become the universal radio material, with some remarkably clever technology. In the depression they retreated to their main skill, which is always the smartest move for a company; but the smart move lost an interesting opportunity.

The alternate road started in 1906 with research at DeForest, which was also developing the vacuum tube. Dunwoody, formerly of Signal Corps, was trying various crystalline materials to find the best detectors. Carborundum is silicon carbide, one atom of silicon and one atom of carbon, and it showed a mixture of the characteristics of both elements. Carbon for resistance and silicon for semiconductance. Dunwoody found that a single Carborundum crystal, not the familiar mass of compacted crystals, worked as a detector.

Carborundum wasn’t the most sensitive material, but it had an interesting conductance curve.

Tanh. Exp at start, then saturation. Familiar semiconductor diodes generally have an exp curve. This tanh curve is an ideal response for an audio limiter or compressor. It’s also Nature’s favorite curve, the response pattern of neurons. Carborundum-based decision modules could have formed a more natural computer, and of course they would be SMALL.

The detector was sold as a module, with the biasing battery and the variable resistor and a bypass capacitor all in one unit. The knob was meant to be a front-panel control along with tuning and volume and bandswitch. Adjusting the bias effectively pulled the start of the curve down toward zero, for increased sensitivity. Adjusting could also move the nonlinearity up or down for different response characteristics.

Here’s the circuit of the detector module.

The whole module would be placed in a receiver in the same place where a conventional diode would normally stand, typically in series between the RF tuner and the audio amp stage.

The module appeared as unidirectional, with an effective cathode and anode, because of the bias. Internally, the crystal itself was bidirectional.

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Carborundum also made resistors as tubes of varying thickness, using the carbon side of the material’s personality. These had a clever solder-or-screw connector, making a solderless receiver possible. Hypothesis: These might have failed because carborundum has a negative temperature coefficient. Heat makes resistance decrease, causing more conduction. Most materials have a positive coefficient, so they tend to self-regulate. When increased current warms up the material, resistance rises, counteracting the increased current.

The British branch of Carborundum carried the radio ball longer and farther than the US branch. Several articles in Wireless World were discussing and recommending the detector in the late ’20s, and the British branch made some modules that didn’t appear in the US brochure.

This module included all the resistors and capacitors needed for coupling between tube stages. Note the Big Chief medallion proudly declaring an American invention! Radio parts were openly visible in the pre-streamlining era, so it paid to advertise.

Illustrated two ways

Today is Morse Code Day!

I don’t need to add any new animations, since Polistra has been tirelessly sending the same prayer on several different keys in two different languages.

The HappyDays365 webpage has a pretty good writeup on Morse himself and the code in general, giving proper credit to the MANY inventors who came before Morse, and emphasizing the modern uses for the code.

And the page accidentally illustrates WHY it’s crucially important to have a code contained in individual human minds and hands and senses.

Presumably IMA SDK is one of those ‘open sources’ for some obscure Javascript function that the programmer outsourced instead of writing his own function using his own skill.

Every time you offshore or outsource part of your skill, you risk losing the function through outages or blockades or shipping problems or copyright changes or version changes. You certainly lose part of your own talent and soul.

NOTHING.NEW under the sun

Still thinking about trite non-info vs new info…

American Radio Library has added a section for the Western Union tech journal.

Trite: I’ve said this a hundred times. The HTML web is just the latest and NOT the greatest incarnation of data webs. Formalized data webs started with Chappe’s mechanical semaphores, then the electrical telegraph gradually evolved. Transferring pictures and 3d patterns was possible in 1848.

By the 1930s Western Union was routinely carrying pictures and data and voice, multiplexed on the same wires and the same radio channels. WU was using microwaves in 1950. The only real difference between 1950 WU and the modern setup is that WU didn’t offer retail services; it was expensive and mainly business-to-business. A few rich people had their own WU installations.

No retail? What about telegrams? By the 1950s telegrams were a sideline, really a gimmick. The day job of EVERY data web, from Chappe to WU to Compuserve to AWS, is stock transactions and government commands.

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New: Here’s a non-newness I hadn’t seen before. One article in the WU tech journal shows the format of each message on the 1950 microwave setup:

Header, body, tail, just like modern packets. Note especially the location identifier SY.GHA in the example, which meant the SYracuse GreyHound station, section A. Berners-Lee didn’t invent anything.

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Later: This WU journal is a treasure trove of well-written solid info. I’m learning new things about all sorts of topics, from assembly lines to termites.