Thursday, January 10. 2013
My latest article about wireless technology at NewsFactor Network:
The consumer electronics industry has talked about home automation since low-cost microcontrollers first appeared on the market a few decades ago. While some envision homes straight out of The Jetsons, most entrepreneurs have looked for practical ways to make today's homes more comfortable, energy-efficient, and safe. A key missing ingredient, however, has been a technology for networking large numbers of sensors and controllers freely distributed around the home.
Read the rest here.
ADDENDUM (January 11, 2013)
Cees Links, Founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, a leading maker of ZigBee chips, predicted a while back that radio-based remote controls will ultimately replace infrared-based remote controls. Cees was a pioneer of wireless LANs (read his fascinating blog entry about Steve Jobs and wireless LANs here) and is now a pioneer of home automation networks.
Wednesday, December 12. 2012
My lastest column at Sci-Tech Today:
In the past, wireless carriers built and operated their own networks. Now, vital components of those networks are being virtualized--their functions are being provided as services over the Internet. Wireless network virtualization isn't just a more cost-effective way of doing things, however. Virtualization creates exciting new business opportunities for operators, resellers, and users.
Read the rest here.
Tuesday, November 6. 2012
You've probably seen Samsung commercials promoting a new technology (called NFC) that lets smartphone users exchange data just by tapping them together. My latest column at NewsFactor explains why NFC is destined to succeed:
Proponents say that near field communications (NFC) will change the world. With a simple tap of your mobile phone you’ll be able to pay for things, download information from posters, and open doors.
Read the rest here.
Sunday, June 19. 2011
Friday, March 26. 2010
This post is the last in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008.
How to be a Technology Innovator
The wireless industry boasts over a century of experience developing successful products and services; today there are more than 4 billion mobile phone users. Are there lessons technology innovators can learn from the history of wireless?
I’m glad you asked.
Identify and exploit holes or weaknesses in prevailing solutions
As the great inventor Edwin H. Armstrong said, “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.”
In the early days of radio, engineers wondered if there was a way to reduce or even eliminate the static that invariably accompanied broadcasts. One idea that emerged was to use frequency modulation (FM). But a respected Bell Laboratories engineer, John Renshaw Carson, threw cold water on the idea, saying “static, like the poor, will always be with us.” When Carson tested FM he used a narrowband implementation to conserve bandwidth. It didn’t work. Armstrong tried using a wider channel and the results were stunning. You could hear a pin drop.
New technologies are rarely immediate hits. Most require a gestation period. Samuel Morse waited six years to build his first demonstration telegraph line. Wireless was mainly used in niche applications (in maritime communications) for the first 25 years. Television, wireless LANs, cellular radio, and Bluetooth all required significant gestation periods. Some technologies succeed in specific military or industrial applications first. Others only seem to succeed when nearly everyone has given up on them.
Accept reality: the best technology does not always win
What the market wants is the right product, with the right features and packaging, at the right cost. It’s all about value. In many cases, a technology that is just good enough wins.
The best standards build on successful proprietary solutions
Much of the industry will tell you that there has to be a common standard before customers will invest in products or services employing a new technology. This gets it exactly backwards, confusing politics with the wisdom of crowds. The best standards usually come from proprietary technologies. For every successful standard that was dreamt up by a committee, there are hundreds of committee standards that end up rotting in warehouses.
In fact, many of today’s standards aren’t even necessary. Look at your PC. It’s easier to just support a long list of formats than to hammer out one or two universal standards. Most committee standards are obsolete before the ink dries. With the “long list” approach, you can always just add another format that looks promising to the mix.
Consider the mobile phone as another example. I remember a conference at which a respected industry analyst warned that with four mobile phone standards and two frequency allocations in the U.S., anyone who traveled frequently would need to carry five or six different phones. It didn't occur to him at the time that a single phone could support multiple standards—in a small, inexpensive package.
Most successful technology standards start as proprietary or ad hoc solutions that are then transformed into formal standards. Companies innovate. Committees work out compromises.
Timing is (almost) everything
If I had to boil technology innovation down to one thing, I would say it’s recognizing opportunities and knowing when and how to act on them. I confess that sounds all-encompassing, but that’s not how I meant it. My point is this: most people miss the opportunity, are too early, or overshoot the target.
Saturday, March 13. 2010
Below is the Introduction from The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology the Masses.
Science or Magic?
How did the human race develop palm-sized devices that enable people to converse and exchange text messages worldwide, snap and upload pictures, download music and videos, and determine their precise locations?
I’ve been interested in the history of technology for a long time, having worked in the high-tech industry for 30 years; I specifically wanted to know more about the evolution of wireless, and I was surprised that I couldn’t find a comprehensive history. There are many books on key figures and time periods in the history of wireless, but none that explain how we got to where we are today. So I decided to write such a book.
The following pages trace the entire journey—from the discovery of fundamental scientific effects to the development of next-generation wireless standards.
Arthur C. Clarke said that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But most magic is just sleight of hand. Drawing back the curtain reveals the true sources of advanced wireless technology: brilliant science, ingenious products, and innovative business models.
Science rarely progresses in a straight line. Nor is there a single correct way of doing science. The history of wireless technology shows that the clash of opposing philosophies of science can be a catalyst and even a necessary ingredient for progress.
The history of wireless technology cannot be separated from the history of wireless business. Technology harnesses science to create valuable products and services. Business delivers those products and services to customers. Before a technology comes to life, someone has to determine who needs it and what they’re going to do with it. It’s also business’s job to figure out how best to package and distribute technology—how to get it in the hands of as many people as possible in a form they can use.
The story of wireless is fascinating and inspiring, and the technology should be celebrated. Great technology is every bit as creative as great art. While we can often perceive the creativity in a work of art directly, we usually need to know the story behind a technology to fully appreciate the creativity that went into its development.
No one has figured out how to bottle and sell creativity, but the history of wireless provides important clues about its sources. There are lessons about persistence; luck and preparedness; synthesizing ideas; challenging common assumptions; and more.
The first decision for anyone writing history is deciding where to begin. A history of wireless communications could begin with the first person to commercialize the technology, Guglielmo Marconi. Or it could start with Heinrich Hertz, the first scientist to create and detect radio waves. Why not go back further? After all, Hertz was only verifying James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field. The dilemma is that there would not have been a Marconi without a Hertz, nor a Hertz without a Maxwell, nor a Maxwell without a Faraday.
I chose to start with the debate between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta that led to the invention of the battery. (Galvani actually witnessed wireless communications but did not understand its significance.) Once investigators were armed with a source of continuous current, the discovery of electromagnetism became almost inevitable.
The narrative proceeds to Michael Faraday, the great experimentalist who added more to our knowledge of magnetism and electricity than anyone before or since. Faraday laid the foundation for James Clerk Maxwell, who translated Faraday’s observed facts into the symbolic language of equations and assembled them into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism—an achievement that, ironically, might have been disowned by the strict empiricist Faraday.
A note about terminology: most early scientists were known as “natural philosophers.” That term is used here, as well, because that’s what investigators such as Michael Faraday wanted to be called. Faraday detested the word “physicist.” I’ve also kept the jargon to a minimum; however, some of it is unavoidable. Most concepts are explained in place and reviewed in the Glossary.
Faraday did science in the laboratory; Maxwell did science in his head. Heinrich Hertz proved that Maxwell’s fertile imagination produced something concrete. There really are electromagnetic waves that propagate through free space.
Next the journey takes us on an important detour. Wireless communications is technology for conveying human intelligence. There would be no wireless telegraph without Samuel F.B. Morse’s wired telegraph and there would be no wireless telephone without Alexander Graham Bell’s wired telephone. The stories behind these two great inventions are essential to the history of wireless.
The idea seems obvious today but taking wireless out of the laboratory, fashioning it to serve specific applications, and offering it for sale initially faced tremendous resistance. With the telegraph going great guns, Guglielmo Marconi struggled to build the first wireless business. He built it around a technology—spark transmission—that would prove a dead end. (At least, temporarily; more than a century later a technology called ultra wideband is emerging that uses spark-like signals.)
That brings us to several lesser known names: the people who put wireless on the right technological footing. Reginald Fessenden and Edwin H. Armstrong led the way. Fessenden understood that wireless needed to be based on continuous waves rather than sparks. Armstrong took the vacuum tubes invented by John Ambrose Fleming (the valve) and Lee de Forest (the Audion) and built vastly superior transmitters and receivers. Amateur radio operators—Armstrong was one of them—contributed numerous refinements.
David Sarnoff thought about becoming an engineer, but he ended up becoming the prototype for today’s high-tech business leaders. He was a hands-on executive who understood that success requires the right technology, the right products, and the right marketing. He was also one of the first business leaders to successfully navigate the hazardous waters of intellectual property, government policy and regulation, and unscrupulous competition. During this era the word “radio” gradually replaced the word “wireless.”
Wireless underwent a dramatic transformation in the years leading up to World War II. The wireless market, once the exclusive domain of entrepreneurs and small businesses, became a playground for big corporations. New technology was developed by teams. It becomes harder to identify individual inventors, but they are still there.
The aftermath of World War II saw the commercialization of frequency modulation, mobile radio, television, and mobile telephone. Less well known, it was also the gestation period for the wideband radio technology that later (after being declassified by the U.S. government) enabled unlicensed wireless LANs, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and third generation (3G) cellular systems.
We finally arrive at the modern era of wireless. It would be difficult if not impossible to recount this part of the story without research at the frontlines of development. Fortunately, several leading actors—including Andrew Viterbi, Martin Cooper, and Donald Cox—contributed to my research.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of cellular telephone on culture and the global economy. Ironically, its development was largely hidden from view—and its commercialization was significantly delayed. Perhaps that explains why it has grown way beyond the most optimistic forecasts. [There are now over 4 billion mobile phone subscribers.]
The historic role of industry standards must also be acknowledged. A degree of conformity is required so that products from different manufacturers can talk to each other. But it would be remiss to deny the impetus of proprietary technologies and business contrarians. The evolution of wireless continues to be driven by the clash of opposing ideas.
By no means has the era of individual discoverers and inventors come to an end. The current industry is obsessed with planning, and much is already decided about the next generation of wireless technology. Or so the experts think. Even the best planning cannot prevent unexpected twists and turns in the road ahead.
The book concludes by identifying some key lessons. How did the science behind wireless technology evolve? Why did some technologies succeed and others fail? And what can scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs learn from the history of wireless about creativity? The history of wireless provides a treasure trove of lessons about how to avoid pitfalls—and how to succeed in science and business.
Sunday, October 4. 2009
This post is the thirteenth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses. Next week I’ll wrap up the series with some thoughts about human creativity.
Wireless: The Next Generation
Creators of the 1960s television series Star Trek guessed that centuries of technological development would yield clamshell devices that look much like today’s mobile phones. But don’t be fooled: Star Trek communicators use subspace (faster than light) transmission to communicate at great distances with zero latency. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, handheld communicators are replaced with badge communicators featuring a built-in, universal language translator.
However, strip away subspace transmission and the universal translator, and you are left with a phone that even today’s entry-level users in developing countries would look down on.
What, if anything, did Star Trek’s creators miss? I predict that in two or three centuries communicators will include a computer-brain interface for the ultimate in multimedia communications... with selectable background, theater, and being there modes, of course.
Getting back to Earth… Today’s mobile phones range from ultra low cost units (free to subscribers and a throwaway after two years) supporting voice and text messaging to mid-range multimedia phones with built-in digital cameras and color displays to smart phones designed to interoperate with desktop PCs and the Web. Over the next five years, expect mobile phones at all price levels to become more intelligent, more multimedia, and more interconnected with other devices, networks, and services.
Video displays for mobile phones are evolving along multiple paths. The main challenges are achieving an acceptable viewing experience while minimizing power consumption and cost. Three development paths that look promising (and that I discuss in the book) are: displays that use ambient light, projection displays, and retinal projection displays.
Another challenge for small mobile devices is ease of use. Telephone keypads are fine for entering numbers, but cumbersome for entering text. Some handsets feature voice recognition capability, though it’s most reliable for specific functions such as dialing numbers and accessing address book entries. Indexing software will help users quickly find and use handset functions. For example, when the user enters the word “camera” a menu of camera tasks appears. The key to positive user experiences is minimizing the number of key clicks required per task.
Unfortunately, battery technology is evolving more slowly than electronics. Most recent improvements in battery life have been achieved through greater semiconductor integration and better power management. Though fuel cells promise up to a 20x improvement over lithium-ion batteries, they require complex “micro-plumbing” and are years away from general use.
What about the radio technology? Wireless entrepreneurs have long dreamed of using wireless to replace wires. However, the dream has been thwarted by a persistent performance gap. When wireless LANs were introduced in the early 1990s, most could not deliver one-tenth the throughput of inexpensive Ethernet LANs running 10 megabits/s over twisted pair cables. As wireless LANs slowly climbed to 10 megabits/s, wired LANs raced ahead to even faster speeds: Fast Ethernet (100 megabits/s), Gigabit Ethernet, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Greg Raleigh realized that with the proper signal processing algorithms and multiple antennas at both ends of a wireless link, multipath propagation (normally an impairment) could be harnessed to dramatically increase the speed and range of wireless LANs. Raleigh’s MIMO (pronounced my-moh) technology is the centerpiece of the new 802.11n wireless LAN standard, supporting speeds up to 600 megabits/s, and a key component of fourth generation (4G) mobile phone standards. MIMO technology will enable home entertainment networks and make mobile multimedia more affordable.
Two new short-range wireless technologies look promising: ultra wideband (UWB) and near field communications (NFC). Ultra wideband uses narrow pulses or very wide channels (>500 MHz) to send data at high speeds without interfering with other devices and services. Speeds in the gigabit/s range are possible.
While UWB can be used for specialized applications such as radar and medical diagnostics, it offers a Bluetooth-on-steroids capability for mobile handsets. UWB is being embraced for transferring multimedia content between handsets and PCs; using handsets to drive large video displays; personal area social networking between handsets; and handset-to-kiosk communications. WiMedia is an ultra wideband-based standard that has been selected by both the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) and the USB Implementers Forum as the foundational technology for their high-speed wireless solutions.
Do handsets really need a short-range wireless link running hundreds of megabits per second or faster? It’s all about quick content transfers. For example, assume a user wants to download several albums of music from a PC to a handset or PDA before heading out the door. It will take several minutes at Bluetooth speeds, but mere seconds at UWB data rates.
NFC supports wireless communications at very short distances (up to about ten inches), primarily for secure transactions. The NFC-equipped handset is waved past or tapped against a point of sale terminal, a vending machine, or a poster equipped with a tiny NFC chip. For example, NFC can be used to pay tolls or download URLs for further information.
Wireless may reach a technology plateau at some point down the road. But for now, I see only accelerated evolution ahead.
Next time: Lessons in Creativity
Sunday, September 27. 2009
This post is the twelfth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
The World Reaches 4 Billion Mobile Phone Subscribers
The digital mobile phone is one of the greatest success stories in the history of technology. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there are now more than 4 billion mobile phone subscribers. (China recently surpassed the 600 million subscriber mark.) Digital technology has driven down the cost of feature-rich handsets and driven up the capacity of mobile phone networks. It’s generally believed that, globally, more people access the Internet from mobile phones than from PCs.
The dominant standard, GSM, was developed by committee in Europe and proved a boon to companies such as Nokia and Ericsson. It’s often said that a good standard is a prerequisite to market growth. That may be true, but there was another key factor that contributed to GSM’s success. GSM licenses were awarded to multiple operators in each country, putting the final nail in the coffin of the state-owned telephone monopoly. GSM also inaugurated continent-wide roaming, and the switch to digital enabled higher network capacity and rapid handset cost reduction.
Ironically, the U.S. was slower to develop and implement a digital standard because it had a coast-to-coast analog standard with plenty of subscribers. There was reluctance to fix something that didn’t appear broken. However, that was an illusion: back then subscribers were so desperate for mobile phone service that they put up with noise, dropped calls, and high prices.
Then a fight broke out over digital standards. The U.S. ended up with two standards. One was based on a technology (time division multiple access, or TDMA) similar to, but not compatible with, GSM. The other was an unproven technology, using spread spectrum radio, developed by San Diego-based Qualcomm. It is called code division multiple access (CDMA). Critics said CDMA wouldn’t work, and some even accused Qualcomm of fraud.
Today, there are over 500 million CDMA users worldwide. That would normally be a very impressive number, but it’s small when compared to the number of GSM users. However, even Europe chose CDMA as its next generation (third generation, or 3G) standard. So unless operators leapfrog to 4G standards, CDMA should enjoy significant growth over the next several years.
During the mid-1980s there was a big push by landline telephone companies to digitize the so-called “last mile.” Integrated services digital network (ISDN) would have enabled a host of end-to-end digital services. It never took off in the landline phone business, but it is very much in evidence in the mobile phone business. Today, many features that are extras for landline users are standard features on mobile phones, such as caller ID, three-way conferencing, and call waiting. Plus, mobile phones can do text messaging, take and upload pictures, and run applications such as games and turn-by-turn driving directions.
Digital wireless has also enabled wireless LANs, wireless personal area networks (WPANs), and the Global Positioning System (GPS). Each of these technologies had to endure a long gestation; now they are near-ubiquitous.
The Internet gave us speed-of-light markets and citizen journalists. Digital wireless is enabling us to take the Internet with us everywhere and at all times.
Next time - Wireless: the Next Generation
Sunday, September 20. 2009
This post is the eleventh in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
Bell Invented the Landline Phone, Ring Invented the Mobile Phone. No Kidding.
Cellular telephone was first described in a Bell Laboratories’ internal memorandum written by Douglas H. Ring in 1947. The memo laid out the essential elements of cellular radio: divide a city into cells, use low-power transmitters, and handoff calls from one frequency to another as mobile users travel from cell to cell. In theory, the cells can be divided over and over to achieve ever-greater capacity.
Ring, who passed away in 2000, never received the honor he deserved. Most cellular telephone histories—Bell Labs is responsible here—refer to him only as “D.H. Ring” if they mention him at all.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was for many years an obstacle to introducing the cellular telephone service. Regulation of the wireless spectrum has always been contentious, and though course corrections have been made over the years, the FCC has never been able to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies and markets. The FCC likes to pretend in hindsight that its leadership made cellular telephone successful. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The old FCC saw its main job as policing the radio spectrum. Consequently, the FCC was reluctant to introduce new services that would create more work for its staff. The FCC dragged its feet not only on cellular telephone, but services such as FM radio, television, and unlicensed radio.
The cellular telephone technical standard became a battle between AT&T and Motorola. The AT&T and Motorola cellular visions differed in several key respects. While AT&T focused exclusively on car phones, Motorola was convinced handheld subscriber devices were coming.
Motorola’s vision of handheld mobile phones, brought to life by Martin Cooper, heralded a future of personal communications. As Cooper later observed, cellular brought about a shift in which phones became associated with individuals rather than locations. Cooper placed the first official call from a portable cell phone in 1973, astonishing New Yorkers as he walked around the city talking on a phone. Today, people would be equally astonished to see someone using a mobile phone weighing almost two pounds.
The first commercial cellular telephone networks came online in Bahrain, Japan, and Mexico. But these were extremely limited systems. Then the U.S. truly fell behind. The first robust cellular telephone services were launched in Scandinavia in 1981.
What saved the U.S.’s lead in mobile telephone? The U.S.—thanks to its broad geography, extensive network of roads, and middle class prosperity—was the most mobile society on the planet. People in several professions could justify the high cost of the service just in terms of the time it saved them.
Scandinavia didn’t miss out completely, however. Nokia would go on to become the dominant supplier of mobile phones.
Nokia’s roots trace back more than a century. In 1865, mining engineer Fredrik Idestam started a paper mill based on a more cost-effective process. It was an immediate success. Idestam changed the company name to Nokia AB in 1871. “Nokia” was the local name for the marten, a northern weasel hunted for its sable-like fur. A cousin to the wolverine, it is also a carnivorous predator. Perhaps Idestam wanted people to think of Nokia as valuable to investors and customers and fearful to competitors. Or perhaps he just liked furry critters.
Nokia pioneered analog cellular phones in 1979 with Mobira Oy, a joint venture of Nokia and Finnish television manufacturer Salora. Nokia developed a digital telephone switch and the Mobira 450 Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) car phone in 1982. Two years later, it introduced the Mobira Talkman, a portable mobile phone for the NMT system. This was followed in 1987 by the 800-gram Mobira Cityman, the first handheld NMT phone.
Nokia succeeded, in part, because Finland had a more competitive telecommunications market than other European countries (where telephone service was often a government-run monopoly). The decision to aggressively pursue portable and handheld phones early—despite initial high costs and limited demand—positioned Nokia to benefit from the explosive subscriber growth ignited by digital cellular several years later.
Next time: Going Digital
Sunday, September 13. 2009
This post is the tenth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
The Mobile Radio Pioneers
Now is a good time to remember that bad economies are merely crucibles for the next crop of brilliant entrepreneurs. The development of mobile radio started before the Great Depression and received its biggest boost after World War II, but its leaders were made during times of economic hardship and transition. The stars in this industrial drama are the people who built Motorola, LM Ericsson, and the transistor.
Paul Galvin was just trying to be a successful small business owner. His first efforts ended in failure. Just as the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation began to enjoy a boom in its consumer radio business, the stock market went bust. It was 1929.
Galvin entered the car radio business in the early days of the Great Depression. At the time, car radios were aftermarket products, and Galvin recognized that he could succeed by bringing down the cost. Galvin renamed the company Motorola and developed relationships with dealers and distributors around the country. By 1936, the economy was starting to recover and Galvin was thriving. But there were more challenges ahead.
During World War II, Motorola developed the SCR-300 backpack two-way FM radio in a deal with the U.S. Army. Now the company was positioned for growth. But it was Galvin’s son Robert who turned Motorola into a radio behemoth, growing sales 30 times the level he inherited in 1958. Key to that success was the creation of internal, competing R&D teams and a commitment to ongoing innovation.
A much older telephone company, LM Ericsson of Sweden, would become Motorola’s fiercest competitor in mobile radio. Lars Magnus Ericsson started a telephone repair business in 1876. He also produced what might be considered the first mobile telephone for consumers. Except that this “mobile” telephone used wires. Ericsson’s wife Hilda liked to go for long drives in the country. Ericsson gave her a telephone with wires attached to two long poles. When his wife needed to make a phone call, she could pull over to the side of the road and use the poles to connect her phone to overhead telephone wires.
Like Motorola, Ericsson succeeded by doing what was needed to survive. The two firms would eventually become bitter rivals in both the land mobile radio (e.g., police radio) and cellular telephone businesses. The tactics employed by their land mobile radio sales teams often resulted in lawsuits.
Keep in mind that Motorola began making mobile radios in the vacuum tube era. Even the SCR-300 backpack radio used tubes. Invented in late 1947 by a team at Bell Labs, the transistor would require a full decade to perfect and commercialize. Sure enough, it was just as transistors started to gain traction that Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, working independently, developed the first integrated circuits.
To the pioneers, hardship and change are just opportunities.
Next time: Birth of the Cell Phone
Saturday, September 5. 2009
This post is the ninth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
David Sarnoff: High Tech Business Guru or SOB?
David Sarnoff’s rags to riches story reads like something straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. Starting as an impoverished immigrant from a Russian shtetl, Sarnoff grew RCA and NBC into the first high tech media empire.
Sarnoff’s family immigrated to America in 1900 when he was just nine years old. He learned English, hawked Yiddish newspapers, and completed the eighth grade. Instead of going to a college preparatory school as he aspired, he was forced to go to work to help support his family. He set out to get a job with a major newspaper, but through a series of accidents ended up working for Marconi America.
Sarnoff soon demonstrated the moxie that would take him all the way to the top. Though hired as a mere office boy, he decided to meet the great Marconi and establish a rapport with him. Hearing that Marconi was en route to one of his New York offices after hours, Sarnoff rushed to get there first, and then introduced himself as the American branch’s newest employee. After a nice chat, Sarnoff offered to help Marconi in any way he could. It just so happened that Marconi was looking for someone discreet to deliver flowers and candies to his New York lady friends.
Sarnoff has been accused of claiming more credit than he deserved. He probably exaggerated his role (as a radio operator) in the Titanic disaster. He didn’t invent broadcasting, but starting with his “Radio Music Box” memo in 1915, he certainly did transform a simple idea into a thriving industry.
In a fit of protectionism, the U.S. government forced Marconi to sell his firm to a spinoff from General Electric called Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Sarnoff had earned his place as one of the firm’s top managers. However, he was surrounded by mid-level managers from GE, many who resented a Jew and outsider rising above them in the organization. When they began harassing Sarnoff, he responded with wisdom and maturity, and it proved a turning point in his career.
The mid-level managers began dumping small projects and crackpot inventors in Sarnoff’s lap, while invitations to social events never seemed to reach him. Instead of complaining, Sarnoff made the most of each project, and then invited RCA Chairman Owen D. Young to dinner at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City (the highly recommended site of several historic business dinners). Over the course of the evening, Sarnoff told Young about his humble origin, his love for America, and the magnificent future he envisioned for RCA. Sandwiched between these inspiring topics, Sarnoff briefly mentioned the problems he was experiencing.
Young got the message and let it be known that when Sarnoff spoke, he spoke with the authority of RCA’s Chairman. Not long after, Sarnoff was promoted to General Manager.
Over the next few decades, Sarnoff proved himself a tough and savvy businessman. However, some critics feel that Sarnoff destroyed two of America’s greatest inventors, Edwin H. Armstrong and Philo T. Farnsworth. Sarnoff was determined that RCA would always be on the receiving side of patent royalties. He knew how to influence government policymakers. And he was a tough negotiator who knew how to bluff and when to just sit and wait.
Sure enough, Sarnoff used his lobbying skills to delay the successful launch of FM radio, and did everything he could to avoid paying Armstrong for the technology. And some suspect that Sarnoff took advantage of the naïve country boy, Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the “image dissector” television video camera.
Those accusations are not entirely fair. Sarnoff’s job was to promote the interests of RCA’s employees and investors. He got the better of Armstrong and Farnsworth, but not because he was trying to destroy them. The fact is that RCA made Armstrong wealthy years earlier, and eventually paid Farnsworth a small fortune.
Next time: The Mobile Radio Pioneers
Saturday, August 29. 2009
This post is the eighth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
Why I Miss Vacuum Tubes
The vacuum tube triode was one of the greatest inventions ever. It didn’t abrogate the laws of physics, but it certainly delivered more for less. It was to electronics what the lever, wheel, and screw were to mechanics. It became a ubiquitous building block, often serving multiple purposes at the same time, and it enabled a torrent of inventions.
In laymen’s terms, the vacuum tube transmitter produced beautiful continuous waves, added voice or music, and boosted the signal so it could be heard far away. The vacuum tube receiver picked up weak signals, extracted the speech or music, and made the audio loud.
When I was growing up the vacuum tube was still king. I’ll never forget earning my first ham radio license and building a crystal-controlled, 40-watt transmitter out of parts salvaged from old TVs. I started with a piece of sheet metal, drilled holes for the sockets and switches, and bent the metal into the shape of a chassis. I mounted the parts and soldered the wires. It seemed to work—at least on the workbench. Yet it was hard for me to believe this little contraption could produce CW (Morse code) signals that would be heard 1,000 miles away.
I hooked it up to my antenna and nervously began tapping out “CQ”—the Morse code abbreviation for “calling anyone.” An hour of trying yielded no responses. Was my 4-tube Hallicrafters receiver the problem? Or was my ground-mounted vertical antenna too close to the house? Then I heard someone tapping out my call sign. My first contact was a station in Maryland. (I was living in a suburb of Chicago at the time.) I was thrilled.
Transistors were already starting to replace vacuum tubes. My next “rig” was a kit consisting of both vacuum tubes and transistors. But the writing was on the wall: the vacuum tube was doomed by computers. Vacuum tubes were too big, too power hungry, and too unreliable. Heck, so were discrete transistors. It wasn’t long before they were replaced by integrated circuits.
It’s not the vacuum tubes themselves that I miss. It’s building, troubleshooting, and operating my own equipment. I somehow felt more “connected” to the technology.
The eighth chapter of my book is about Lee de Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube triode, and Edwin H. Armstrong, inventor of the regenerative receiver, the superheterodyne receiver, and frequency modulation--all using vacuum tubes. It’s an inspiring story in many ways, but it’s also a tragedy.
Armstrong learned early on that most people are their own worst enemy. Paraphrasing American humorist Josh Billings, Armstrong’s mantra became: "It ain't ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It's the things people know that ain't so." As if to illustrate the point, Armstrong invented frequency modulation (FM) after a respected Bell Labs engineer announced that it wasn’t worth doing. Everyone assumed from the start that FM had to be a narrowband technology. Armstrong discovered FM’s crystal clear audio by ignoring conventional wisdom.
Unfortunately, Armstrong got embroiled in patent disputes that he probably could have avoided. After a string of defeats in court, the man who used to get a thrill climbing antenna towers jumped out of his 13th story window to his death. Ironically, his wife (who had tried to dissuade him from continuing the patent fight) took up the cause and managed to overturn two major court decisions, vindicating her late husband.
Next time: David Sarnoff—high tech business genius or SOB?
Friday, August 21. 2009
This post is the seventh in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
The Amazing Reginald Fessenden
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden was a prolific inventor. His creations ran the gamut from microfilm to sonar to the turbo-electric drive for battleships. His wireless innovations, however, were simply visionary. In Canada, the centenary of the first audio broadcast was celebrated with a postage stamp honoring Fessenden.
Fessenden recognized that the technology used by Guglielmo Marconi, spark radio, had severe limitations. Sparks are inefficient, invite interference, and are ill-suited to carry speech. Fessenden knew exactly what the problem was, and it wasn’t long before he conceived a solution.
Fessenden envisioned a simpler and cleaner technology. He knew that if he could produce steady electromagnetic waves—the kind represented mathematically as pure sine waves—he could boost efficiency, reduce interference, and impress the signals with speech and music. Fessenden’s pristine signals became known as “continuous waves.”
Reginald Fessenden could be called the Alexander Graham Bell of wireless. He was first to demonstrate the transmission of voice and music over wireless. He also invented a variable detector (for receiving audio) and the heterodyne principle (enabling easy-to-use receivers for consumers).
Unfortunately, Fessenden was at least ten years ahead of his time. He tried to create continuous waves by building AC power generators rotating at extraordinarily high speeds. Once Edwin H. Armstrong discovered that a vacuum tube amplifier could be made to oscillate using feedback, it became possible to replace Fessenden’s giant, mechanical generators with small, inexpensive boxes that could run at even higher frequencies and required no moving parts.
Fessenden’s business accomplishments, however, never came close to matching his technical achievements. Consequently, he received neither the fame nor fortune that the quality of his work should have commanded. His mother was adamantly opposed to his becoming an inventor because her father had traveled the same road and left his family in poverty when he died. That may explain why Fessenden hesitated, wasting years looking for someone to hire him on safe terms. He wanted to pursue his own inventions, but he also wanted a steady salary. When he finally started his own business, he hedged his bets, pursuing both spark radio and continuous wave products, believing all the while that the former was racing towards obsolescence. He would have been better off pursuing the two leading continuous wave technologies simultaneously, never missing an opportunity to promote continuous waves, and doubling his chances of being in the right place at the right time.
Reginald Fessenden kept making compromises. Instead, he should have followed his passion.
Next time: Diodes and Triodes and… Patent Wars
Friday, August 14. 2009
This post is the sixth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
There are three things you should know about Guglielmo Marconi: (1) He was a business visionary more than an inventor, (2) he bet on a technology that ultimately proved a dead end, and (3) Marconi dominated the early market but was forced (by the U.S. government) to sell Marconi America before radio broadcasting took off.
Scientists could observe Hertz’s invisible electromagnetic waves for themselves; his experiments were simple and repeatable. They could also see that Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field correctly predicted the waves. But they still could not envision practical applications for Hertzian waves.
Ironically, Marconi succeeded because he could see markets that did not yet exist, but when a better technology (continuous wave radio) emerged he was slow to abandon his trusted spark radio.
Next time: How Reginald Fessenden Put Wireless on the Right Technological Footing
Saturday, August 8. 2009
This post is the fifth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008. Each week I’ll present the most interesting and surprising facts about the history and future of wireless from one of fourteen chapters.
Wireless: the “Horseless Carriage” of Telecommunications
To understand wireless, we must first understand the wired foundation that inspired it. Here we meet two of the greatest technology entrepreneurs in history: Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph, and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
Even today there are people who will tell you that Morse did not invent the telegraph; that Bell did not invent the telephone; and that Marconi did not invent wireless. They have a point: there is evidence in each case that someone else conceived the invention first. However, it’s not enough to think up an invention or even build a prototype first. You have to convince others.
Morse is the easiest to dismiss. The man was an artist. He was not an expert on electromagnetism. But he believed that people would welcome faster communications between towns once they witnessed its power and convenience. Roughly twelve years from the time Morse first began working on the telegraph, the first trial telegraph service was introduced between Washington, DC and Baltimore.
Others demonstrated working telegraphs earlier. One scheme required a separate wire for each letter in the alphabet. The British inventor Charles Wheatstone came up with a clever system that could handle the entire alphabet using just six wires. Morse understood the need for a simple, reliable, and affordable system. He invented a sort of digital code making it possible to transmit and receive the entire alphabet with just two wires. He also invented an automatic relay that enabled him to construct lines of almost any length.
Creation of the first working undersea telegraph cable by Cyrus W. Field (Morse served briefly as an advisor) led to what author Tom Standage dubbed the “Victorian Internet.”
Morse proved that it is possible to convey intelligence over wires using electricity. However, it all boiled down to turning the electric current off and on according to a set of rules (a code). No one knew if it was possible to send human voices over the wires.
Alexander Graham Bell set out to develop a way to send more than one message over a telegraph circuit at the same time—what was called the “multiple telegraph.” He was soon attracted to the idea of sending different messages at different frequencies. He gradually realized that if you can send tones of different frequencies at the same time, then you should be able to transmit human voices.
Like Morse, Bell not only developed a simple solution, he convinced others it was worth the trouble. And like Morse, he spent years fending off unscrupulous individuals who suddenly remembered that they had invented it first. I call them “retroactive inventors.”
Next time: Marconi’s Thunder
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