The World of Tomorrow
Homes without furnaces, phones that answer themselves, electric eyes that see danger . . . These are wonders promised by electronics for the future
WHEN science learned how to make electrons jump through hoops, over fences, and between obstacles, we acquired a new science—electronics. At the same time we acquired a host of fantastic new tools and devices, which are changing the very world in which we live.
Yesterday, so to speak, we had radio, talking movies, Radar and 100 other applications. In the measurable future we will have television, electronic heating in our homes partially replacing furnaces and radiators; all but automatic factories; and an almost unlimited number of appliances which will guard our health, make land, sea and air travel entirely safe, and vastly increase our leisure. As for the more distant future—-we can only guess what miracles the performing electrons will accomplish for us.
Nobody has ever seen an electron, which is a particle of negative electricity almost incredibly small. Six million trillion electrons flow through the filament of a 100-watt lamp to keep it burning one second. Scientists believe that every atom is surrounded by a number of electrons, which revolve about it as planets move about the sun. Their number varies. An atom of hydrogen has but one satellite electron. Uranium, heaviest of the elements, has 92 electrons.
The arenas in which we make the electrons perform are tubes. Already there are some 750 types of electronic tubes, each with its particular function. Your radio, for example, may have six or eight different kinds. Most are less than a foot high and made with glass. Others are sizeable steel tanks. Many are high-vacuum tubes; others are filled with gas. Some are as small as a walnut; others as tall as a man.
Essentially an electronic tube is a valve or switch placed in an electric circuit. There are six general types:
1. Those which convert alternating into direct current more cheaply and more easily than by older methods. Since the production of aluminum for aircraft requires vast quantities of direct current, tubes of this type have been of tremendous importance to the war effort. There were neither the materials nor the time to build the old type of converters.
2. Tubes which amplify an electric current; for example, those that take a faint radio signal from the other side of the world and make it strong enough to be heard.
3. Tubes which control the current passing through them. Such tubes are used to control motor speeds automatically and also in resistance welding, a process which has speeded aircraft construction enormously, replacing, in many instances, tedious riveting.
4. Tubes which generate alternating current with extremely high frequencies. These are essential in radio transmission and are now being used for electronic heating. For example, the plywood sections of PT boats being shaped in presses are now dried in a few minutes by electronic heat created inside the object. Previously it had taken the glue in the inner layers of plywood several days to dry.
5. Tubes which transform light into electric current. By scanning the sound track of a talking film, such tubes translate minute differences in light and dark into an electric current which we hear as words and music. In television they change the image seen by the camera into a series of electric impulses. In factories simpler versions of this phototube, or electric eye, do a thousand routine chores.
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6. Tubes which transform current into light. In the neck of the bulky television cathode-ray tube is a tiny electron gun. Sweeping back and forth I with incredible speed over a sensitive television screen on the big flat end of the tube, this gun sprays the sensitive surface with a stream of electrons. In this way it “paints” a television picture. The present “screen” has 525 lines but after the war, when experimentation resumes, this may be increased to 1,000 lines. The electron gun “paints” 30 complete images every second. The motion picture presents but 24 frames, or pictures, a second, so when other technical difficulties are overcome the television picture should be steadier than the film picture.
Development Is Speeded
OBVIOUSLY it would be incorrect to think of the revolution being accomplished by electronics as something which will descend upon us suddenly like a clap of thunder and change us all into men from Mars.
Electronics has been on the way a long while now, although we have only recently begun to glimpse its full possibilities. Edison built a simple version of an electronic tube in 1883 but never developed it. In 1906 Lee de Forest made changes in the tubes which really gave electronics its start— and not many years later brought radio. In recent years the large laboratories of many well-known electrical companies have provided the money, equipment and research staffs, never available in the early days, to develop this new science. And, still more recently, the war has intensified even this high-pressure research to such a degree that when peace comes many devices and processes the average citizen has known only as rumors may be old and tried.
Today, when the winning of the war is our primary concern, on the high seas and in the air our armies and navies have Radar and a vast battery of communication devices —■ many adaptations of commercial apparatus. All are more or less electronic in operation. Next to Radar, the most miraculous electronic application announced to the public is the automatic pilot for bombers which keeps them on an unwavering “platform” while making their runs over the target. No details of the operation of this device are permitted, but it is known that not long ago a B-24 Liberator flew 2,000 miles without its crew, which had bailed out, stopping only when it crashed into a mountainside in Mexico.
As for the growth of electronic applications in industry, now almost entirely devoted to war production, it is estimated that in the year 1943, 10% of all electrical energy generated in the U. S. will pass through electronic devices.
Dramatic as are the applications produced by the war, the changes which these insignificant-looking tubes are making in industry constitute a more fundamental and permanent revolution. There is hardly a process, from the making of the tubes themselves to the printing of a magazine, which has not already or will not shortly employ a number of electronic devices.
Most versatile, and probably in the long run one of the most useful gadgets in the electronic kit, is the phototube,
or electric eye. In scores of industries it counts, sorts, inspects, and packs millions of articles.
Hooked up to an X-ray it was recently set to watching for defective hand-grenade fuses. When charged with an insufficient amount of powder, such fuses would, of course, explode prematurely with a good chance of killing Allied soldiers. These fuses are small containers about the size of a pencil stub. Lined up on a moving belt they pass before a 100,000-volt X-ray machine which casts a glow on a fluorescent screen upon which an electric eye is focused. So long as the glow remains constant nothing happens and the fuses pass through. However, when one containing a short powder charge passes in front of the X-ray beam the electric eye notes the change in the glow on the screen, rings a bell, flashes a red light, and slaps a dab of red paint on top of the fuse in question.
Another device, the spectrophotometer, utilizing a photoelectric cell, can differentiate between 2,000,000 different colors and shades. The best the human eye has ever been able to detect were a mere 10,000 shades, more or less. Obviously such a machine, whose judgment never varies because of fatigue, is invaluable in the paint, paper, textile and all other industries where colors must be matched and batches of dye mixed with unerring exactness.
Resistance welding which, in effect, “sews” aluminum and other metals together, and is now extensively used in the making of warplanes, is another electronic process. Resistance welding is accomplished without bending, warping or damaging the materials. It can be used to fasten metal parts in the manufacture of almost anything. The weld is instantaneous and permanent.
Two types of electronic heating have come to be of tremendous importance in recent years. In the first, dielectric heating, a charge is passed between two plates. When materials which are relatively poor conductors are placed between these plates heat is generated in them. Such heating is now being used to dry large plywood constructions quickly and may someday be used to heat our homes from appliances hidden in the walls, eliminating radiators, steam and pipes. It can also be used to cook food from the inside out, although all such applications are far too costly at present. They are possibilities for the future.
The second type of electronic heating —induction heating—is used to harden the surface of small steel parts In many instances it is desirable to harden only the surface of a gear, axle, or other part not the interior, as the hardening makes for brittleness. Such objects are now placed inside high frequency inductance coils. When the current is turned on they become white hot in three or four seconds—so rapidly that the heat does not penetrate to the core of the object. A water spray, surrounding the coil, is turned on automatically after the prescribed number of seconds of heat, instantly quenching the metal and producing results never before so easily and uniformly achieved. A technical but also tremendously important detail is that this rapid heating does not make the metal flake or chip, like, for instance, the horseshoe the village blacksmith forges upon his anvil. This means that the iron can be finished—accurately
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machined to its exact dimensions while it is still soft and easily worked—and then hardened. Thus there is an enormous saving in labor and costly machine tools.
In many fields of science, particularly medicine and chemistry, the electron microscope is unquestionably electronics’ most important contribution. This apparatus, which is 50 times as powerful as the finest optical instrument, is capable of producing enlargements up to 100,000 diameters. Now, in 1943, comparatively few such electron microscopes have been built, but already they are taking men of science on one of the greatest sight-seeing expeditions in history. Bacteria whose existence has heretofore only been suspected may soon be identified and studied. Chemists, physicists, metallurgists and all others concerned with the ultimate struclure of matter have in the electron microscope a formidable tool.
Wonders of 1955
What are some of the changes the further development and application of electronic devices will bring in our daily lives? Many will be simply refinements of devices we already know; others, so far as the average person is concerned, will be brand-new.
Let us suppose, for example, that we look in on an executive who is having an important conference some afternoon in the year 1955. His secretary has just buzzed him to say that his wife is on the televisor phone.
Mr. Executive of 1955 will very likely flip a switch and say, “Yes, dear, what is it?” to the small but highly animated figure which has just materialized on the screen of his desk televisor.
“Well,” the lady will probably say, “of course you’re busy but you know how badly I need a new hat, so which of these do you like best? This red one, the one with the fruit or this one with the nest and the little birds?”
Not all telephones will have television service, which will cost more than the regular kind and require a more elaborate installation. By 1955 special booths may be located in stores, big offices, hotels, railway stations, etc. Since those conversing will have to be very clearly illuminated these booths will have strong lights which are turned up when the connection is made. The speaker will face the lens of the television camera and see the person with whom he is talking on a small screen—probably not more than five by seven inches in size—which will be shaded from the bright lights by a hooded box. Architects and engineers will make allowances for these larger and more elaborate televisor-phone booths when planning any public building. Occasionally they will be installed in private homes.
One of the greatest conveniences likely to be developed by 1955, however, is a self-answering phone with a recording device to receive messages when no one is at home. From the outside this will appear only as a small cabinet fastened to the wall. When the family leaves the house this device will be switched on. Should phone calls come in, this device, automatically, will record any messages the callers may leave. Recording will be done magnetically on a thin, hairlike steel wire, wound from one spool to another (each about the size of a doughnut) by a small electric motor. The wire will hold about 10 minutes of talk.
On returning home the family will be
able to switch on the device and hear played back to them, via a small loudspeaker, all messages left while they were out. Later this steel wire can be “wiped” clean of its messages by an electrical device, and used again and again.
In suburban areas, on farms and in open country, by 1955 we find a good many portable radiophone sets, with a range of four or five miles, in use. Such phones are also used by tractor crews— who may be out of sight of each other— on big farms. For awhile these 1955 radiophones were tried in cities, but soon every available wave length was jammed and the confusion was appalling. Now only police, fire, hospital and public service vehicles are allowed to have radiophone apparatus. All physicians can, of course, be reached by this method.
And still admiring the wonders of 1955, we find the greatest improvement in international telephone service came after transoceanic cables were laid so that service between America, Europe and Asia no longer had to rely on the vagaries of short-wave radio links for the long water jumps. These had always been affected, back in 1943, by sunspots and electrical phenomena. It was some years after World War II before the first transatlantic telephone cable was laid. For many years such a cable had been thought impractical, because a telephone line needs a “repeater” station every few miles. On land these stations are located in the towns through which a line passes. There was no equipment which could be dropped to the floor of the Atlantic.
But several years ago laboratories devised a rugged “repeater station.” Built to operate without attention for 20 years, while sunk deep in ocean mud, these repeaters contained tiny electronic tubes somewhat similar to those in your radio set, but not much bigger than your thumb.
Such a cable would have been of tremendous importance during World War II as the short-wave radio circuits which connected Europe (and South America and Africa, etc.) were useless for military or diplomatic business. Only the telegraph ensured some degree of privacy. The electrical “scrambling,” which broke conversations down into a meaningless jumble of sounds while they were passing through the air, provided privacy in peacetimes—but during wartime enemy monitoring stations were also equipped with “unscrambling” devices so that they, too, could listen to everything on the air.
While efficient and comparatively cheap telephone services by 1955 connect almost all points on the globe, telegraphy has also expanded enormously, thanks to the increased use of facsimile transmission. At several places in suburban towns and in scores of places in every city are small, automatic telegram sending machines. Back in 1943 they would have sent a letter air mail. Now, in 1955, if it is not too long, but urgent, people write or type such a message on a telegraph blank and drop it into a slot in the nearest sending machine, at the same time dropping the correct number of coins into another slot. As soon as it falls into the facsimile telegraph transmitting machine, a message is wrapped around a cylinder and “scanned” by an electric eye. In a minute or so the message, held on the
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whirling cylinder, has been transmitted to the nearest central telegraph exchange, much as photographs have, for years, been sent by wire, or radio. This facsimile transmission, by 1955, has virtually replaced all dot and dash telegraph communication.
It is simple and automatic. When a message arrives in a central office a clerk, who needs only to read the address, simply picks it up and drops it into another machine which automatically retransmits it hundreds or even thousands of miles to the central station nearest the point at which it is to be delivered. Except in the case of newspaper offices and business firms which, by 1955, have both sending and receiving machines in their offices, all such telegraph messages are delivered by the local postman on his next delivery. But even so most messages are delivered from six to 10 hours after they are dropped into the sending machines. Air mail which, by 1955, costs about half as much as the automatically transmitted telegram has fallen off considerably during the past few years. Facsimile transmission is much faster than teletype, makes no noise and requires no retyping of material. Furthermore it can transmit plans, drawings, diagrams, mathematical formulae, financial tables and other semigraphic material with equal ease and speed. Important for purpose of identification, of course, are signatures which appear exactly as written. The
machine reproduces exactly what its electronic eye sees.
Travel Hazards Eliminated
Radar, once used chiefly to direct guns against enemy shipping and aircraft, has, by 1955, been modified into a standard peacetime safety device, making nearly every form of transportation, whether it be by land, sea or air, as safe as if you were sitting in your living room. Private aircraft use these detectors to locate unseen objects when flying at night or in a fog. By this time it is also standard equipment for all shipping and many railroads. Motorists use it to some extent, but they also rely on the red and green stop and go signals which appear automatically on the dashboards of their cars when they near an intersection. These signals are broadcast by wires strung on poles near the road and can be picked up only in the immediate vicinity.
There are also special road traffic radio broadcasts from wires near roads. These warn of dangerous curves, detours and washouts. Some towns, by 1955, employ such roadside broadcasts to inform tourists, “You are now approaching the beautiful town of Centreville, home of . . . ”
Some of these gadgets of 1955 may appear fantastic to us now in 1943 but all of them are forecast by electronic developments which have already taken place.