Radio, Gadgets and Electronics — 100 Years Of History

Gadgets and wireless technologies are now used everywhere. But it is even more interesting to see how it all began, what technologies have changed our life. Having found an online archive of old magazines, I decided to trace what was the cutting-edge of technological progress for our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers.

Television News, 1931

Before we begin, a small addition. Firstly, I am an engineer and not a historian — perhaps not all dates in the text are 100% correct. Secondly, I probably missed something, the volume of this article is not enough to cover everything that was created within a last century. But I tried to highlight those technologies that most influenced our life and made it the way it is known today.

Let’s get started.

1920s—Vacuum Tube Radio

I will not consider the history of Hertz and Marconi, everyone knows this, and it appeared earlier than the interval considered in the article. 100 years ago, vacuum tubes were already used for radio reception.

The radio receiver schematic was pretty straightforwand that time (1920):

It is interesting to note the switch for receiving “spark signals” — in the first transmitters the LC-oscillation cirquit was powered by a spark gap. It is difficult to imagine the quality of such a signal today, but the issue of electromagnetic interference was probably not so important, and spectrum analysers were not invented yet anyway.

In the mid 20s, a home radio receiver looked something like this:

According to the ads, all this was intended for wealthy people:

By the way, the first radio stations had a mechanical modulator. The Swedish station SAQ Grimeton had an operating frequency of 17.2 KHz, which was set by a special generator. It is interesting that the station is still in working order, and 1–2 times per year they make memorial transmissions that everybody can receive.

Pictures from a live stream of such event:

Here is the generator itself. In the background we can see tools for fine-tuning the signal parameters ;)

From the building, the signal is going through the air feeder to the antenna, the transmitter power is about 100–200 kW:

The following antenna array is used for transmission:

All this has been preserved and is in still working c, and even the land has not been sold for modern development… Those who wish can watch the entire video, it’s quite interesting.

1930s — Beginnig of TV Era

In these years, vacuum tube receivers and transmitters were no longer surprising, the cutting edge of the technology is … television. The “Television and Short Wave-World” magazine page from 1930:

It may seem strange to people, whose grandfathers were saving money for the first TV set, but the first television appeared much earlier. No one dreamed of any AMOLED that times, inside the TV was a neon lamp.

And I am not kidding:

More specifically, the first television receivers were mechanical. An amplitude-modulated signal was transmitted on short waves, actually, the neon lamp was connected to the output of the radio receiver. Synchronization of the video frames was carried out using a rotating disk (a so-called “Nipkow Disk”). It is not visible on the picture, but there are holes on the disk, the lamp was placed in the box on top, and the light is going through the holes of the rotating disk.

The resulting image had a resolution of about 60 lines, the image quality was obviously not perfect (screenshot from a video):

However, a little later, the first TVs with cathode-ray tubes began to appear. A photo from 1932 shows a TV demonstration to passengers on an airplane:

Already in 1939, it was possible to buy a TV with a 12 inch screen, that could also work as a radio receiver:

1940s—WW2

The WW2 period was an obvious time of the fast growth in electronics and radio. For example, already in 1943 a radar based on a 10 GHz magnetron was developed. But for obvious reasons, all this information was classified and kept in the military closed laboratories, nothing was published in the open press.

What may be interesting for us — the first FM broadcasting experiments were described:

It is interesting to note that the equipment of that time already made it possible to see the signal spectrum on a sort of “panoramic monitor” (even now, not every radio amateur has a spectrum analyzer).

1950s — First Computers, Transistors

There is probably no need to tell about the history of computers here. But it is interesting to mention the first projects of using “Automatic Computing Engines”.

As we can see from the description, the computer was installed in the national physics laboratory, contained about 800 vacuum times, and had a memory on mercury delay lines with a volume of 8000 bits. Of course, no one was even thinking about home computers that time.

The next technology, that was going to change the world, but in those years, probably very few people understood this — transistor. It became available for the public use, some articles began to explain for readers, how it works:

Vacuum tubes were bulky, fragile and had limited lifespan, the creation of a transistor made it possible to make all electronic devices much smaller and more reliable.

1960s — Tape Recorders, Portable Radios, Printed Boards

At the beginning, a picture that seemed interesting to me. Nowadays no one can be surprised with a digital multimeter, but it began like this:

There are already NiCd batteries on sale, the voltage of the round cell is quite standard even for today — 1.25V:

And finally, in 1960s ads we can see many things that are quite familiar to us today: a portable “transistor radio” receiver (contains seven transistors), the FM tuner and a car radio receiver containing both transistors and special 12-volt low-voltage tubes:

We can pay attention to the words “printed circuit car radio” — the technology of “printed circuit boards” was pretty new for that time, usually vacuum tube receivers were made by the method of placing all the elements in the receiver chassis (an example can be viewed here).

The following technology looks quite interesting— a prototype of the compact cassette, but much bigger:

However, whether it was put into production, I do not know, I have never seen anything like it.

Another curious note is the digital thermometer. Now it is in use everywhere, that time only the first experiments were carried out:

And the last thing for this period of time — perhaps it can be considered as the first vacancy of a system administrator, I saw: an engineer or a physicist (there was no special profession called “system administrator” yet) for a company in London is required to “install and support digital computers”.

Experience with “digital computers”, as we can see, is not required, although can be an advantage. Those wishing to work in London, can try to send CV to this address ;)

1970s—Polaroid Cameras, First Personal Computers, Compact Cassettes

For a long time, photography was a bit like magic. Development of film, chemical reagents, or the need to send a film to a printing service. “Polaroid” is a start for a new era or instant photography. Now the photo can be obtained immediately (ok, almost immediately). However, the disadvantages were a small picture size and not the best image quality.

The next became a prototype of the technology that will change our world. For a long time, computers could only be used by engineers and scientists. Finally, progress in components miniaturization has reached the point where anyone can have a computing device at home.

Now, to perform calculations, you just need to press a few buttons:

This may not seem so impressive in the 21st century, but we should not forget that before the calculations were often done using a device like this:

Source: https://youtu.be/aDN4s8ElxqE

But civilization has changed thanks to another device — the personal computer. The ability to use a computer power finally became available for everyone.

The first ALTAIR computer was very simple, and not everyone would probably be able to program it today. The first versions had neither a screen nor a keyboard — just a set of switches that could be used to read and write bits into memory and run the program. But was just a beginning.

Another technology that has become popular, is sound and video cassettes recording. Now there is no need for have large reels of tape, and anyone can have it’s own music archive. Also interesting is the appearance of the first videotapes, a technology that greatly influenced the film industry later.

And the last in this period — the grow of the color TV popularity. The standards themselves appeared earlier, but the color broadcasting was becoming more widespread, and descriptions of schematics, CRT models, etc. appear in magazines.

1980s—Portable Computers, Apple, ZX Spectrum, Wrist Watches

It’s hard to imagine that just 10 years ago the computer didn’t even have a screen, but only after 10 years it’s a full-fledged office device:

Byte Magazine page

It is interesting to note the amount of RAM, which was only 384 KB.

We also see the first Apple ad. Today, comparing Apple to apples is an old joke, but in those years it was a fresh one:

The next two devices represent another landmark in technology — the first portable computers appeared. Probably, the first one is not really “portable”, but the second in size is practically the prototype of modern laptops.

This computer has not only a flat LCD screen (the best technology of that time), but also battery power and even a built-in modem with a 300 bits per second speed. Today it is difficult to imagine what can be transferred at 300 bps— even transferring of this picture with such a speed will take several minutes. But even this was a breakthrough compared to the time it would take to personally come to another part of the city instead of sending a file via the phone line.

Another device, which, by the way, was my first computer in a childhood— the ZX Spectrum. Its compact design and low price have made it popular for a long time. Instead of a monitor, a home TV was used, and programs could be loaded and saved using a tape recorder (it took several minutes to load a game).

The next novelty that has become popular for many years is an electronic wrist watch. Today we see a “second wave” of the the smartwatches market, but in 80s for the first time the electronic movement replaced the mechanical one. In addition to better accuracy, electronic watches had much more features— an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator, etc.

The next technology probably appeared almost unnoticed, but later changed many areas— the first chips for digital photography appeared. Nobody used this term that time, but the ability to get an instant image in the electronic form, albeit 64x64, was the first step. As we can see, the word “pixel” appears for the first time in the text:

1990s—Portable Cassette Players, LCD monitors, Internet

Cassette players became one of the iconic symbols of their time, probably every teenager or student had such a device. Now everyone could listen to their favorite music anywhere, anytime, in a device that can be just put in a pocket.

It was still a long way from the mass use of LCD monitors, but descriptions of high-resolution screens have already appeared in the announcements:

But the next device, a portable TV, remained rare and did not get real popularity:

It has already become clear that standard television formats like 720x576 resolution PAL, are outdated. The articles started writing about “high definition television” and the 16:9 aspect ratio appeared.

Modern smartphones can make even 8K video, so the process of going to the “high definition” has not finished yet. But 16:9 screens are still in use today.

And finally, perhaps the most significant event that eventually changed our entire world — the Internet:

Now everything can be done on the Internet — we can order pizza, find a new job, relocate to another country, find a life partner, and so on. But in the beginning, journalists had to explain to readers what e-mail is and what it is for:

Article published in 1995

US Robotics modems were the best at the time. At 14400 bps speed, it would take about two minutes to transfer this image, and this entire article would take about half an hour to load.

2000s — Tablets, Digital Cameras, Rewritable CDs

There were still 10 years before the first iPad was created, and tablets had not yet supplanted the PC desktop market. Nevertheless, such devices have already begun to appear on the market:

I must say that the first Windows versions were completely unsuitable for pen input — almost all UIs controls are mouse-oriented, and are hard to use with a pen. The problem, by the way, still exists nowadays— not every Windows application works well with a touch screen.

The next interesting technology — rewritable discs. The ability to quickly and easily save a copy of a film or software has dramatically changed both the entertainment and copyrights industry.

Digital photo and video cameras finally have become a part of everyday life. Now this is no longer a laboratory equipment, but a completely affordable device. Alas, along with the expansion of the number of cameras, the number of standards has also expanded. One of these was Sony Memory Stick cards — they were quite expensive and were practically not used anywhere other than in Sony devices.

Another technology that is forgotten nowadays — cameras that can write directly to discs. One of the attempts was to create a camera capable of writing images to both standard floppy and special so-called SuperDisk drives:

Hardly anyone can now remember what a SuperDisk is, so the attempt was unsuccessful — data storage cards finally were much better. Well, now hard drives are going away in history too, being replacing by SSDs.

Conclusion

Over the past 100 years, many technologies and devices have been created that have changed our civilization. Radio, telephone, TV, Internet … Of course, at the time of its appearance, nobody knew that this or that thing would become a breakthrough in next 10, 20 or 50 years. Viewing such articles now is an interesting opportunity to compare our modern view with the view of people from the past.

Of course, I cannot review everything in one article. There is probably a lot of interesting stuff, I missed, if readers will be interested, I will prepare a next part.

All images used in the article, were taken from worldradiohistory.com.

Python and IoT Developer, science and ham radio enthusiast

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