Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tinkering on the Cutting Edge

The wealthy upper classes of 18th century Britain and their patronage of science has been well documented. Indeed, for some enthusiasts, actual scientific research was the hobby. The connection between developing new technologies and their support and development by enthusiastic hobbyists, is perhaps less well known.

In recent times we have seen the introduction of new technologies such as the mobile phone. Technologies that spring, almost complete and perfect, onto the market and rapidly become essentials, world wide. This has not always been the case and a number of now perfected technologies that we also consider to be vital were once subject to protracted development essential in the hands of amateur enthusiasts. While I do not claim that amateurs invented much actual technology it was often down to amateur users, the beta testers for photography, radio and theme computer to create a market and find ways to use the various technologies that might otherwise have been short lived fads.

The first photographs date back to 1826 and the pioneers discovered various photo sensitive chemicals and developed the processes. When it first emerged photography was seen as  a combination of art and technology, and the enthusiasts were the well to do middle classes with some hand skills and the scientific background  to understand the technical considerations. It's hard now to imagine the thrill it must have been to create the very first photographic images. Image creation had been the preserve of skilled artists who, building on centuries of technique and painstaking craftsmanship,  drew or painted. That image creation should now be possible, not just for artists, but for technical types must have been thrilling.

Eastman Kodak had a commercial system in place by 1870, where enthusiasts could send a wooden camera containing a reel of exposed film for development and printing. Nevertheless, for a long time, real mastery of photography required home laboratories - darkrooms. A photographer was someone who took the picture and developed and fixed the prints. There was, perhaps, another reason that some of the early enthusiasts liked to be in charge of developing their own pictures, and this was for the  creation of the first nude studies. It seems that even from the earliest days of imagery that, that very male pre-occupation, the nude female form, has featured. This preoccupation would drive first still photography, the Polaroid camera, some of the earliest motion pictures and eventually home video.

Theodore Miller, for example, had a huge interest in photography and made many nude studies of  his daughter Lee. He experimented with stereo photographs and passed his talent and interest onto Lee. By the 1930s, photograph had pushed the traditional artist away from the school of realism into surrealism. A few years later, working in the photographic darkroom, the experimental artist and photographer Man Ray, assisted  by Lee Miller, devised darkroom techniques which allowed photography too, to explore surrealism.

Radio came in to being at the start of the 20th century. The thermionic valve, the first truly effective means of creating high frequency amplification and oscillation, (the two vital building blocks of radio) now became possible. The valve, or tube to Americans, is a precursor to the transistor which is now completely ubiquitous. Valves were much larger, much less reliable and given to varying in performance over their rather short lifetime.  Much early electronc equipment tended to behave in a undeterministic fashion. While broadcast reception was possible with factory made receivers it was the enthusiastic amateurs building large aerials and coaxing the best out of their, often homemade receivers, who reigned supreme. Early radio  was troublesome and quirky but the opportunity it gave, to tune in to London or the other big cities in Europe made it worth the effort.

By the mid 1930s the first attempts at television broadcasting were made. Just in time, as it happened, to give the new electronics industry experience in building powerful transmitters and to seed the cathode ray tube industry.  Radar, which came in just before the war, benefited from both these technologies. If good radio reception had been a challenge television required extreme ingenuity on the part of camera and receiver designers. Eventually cohorts of locally based technicians accumulated tow run little radio and television specialist workshops, countrywide.

Britain, it seems, was particularly well blessed with radio enthusiasts and when the Second World War started these men were in great demand as the services recruited, first radio technicians, and then as new equipments were rushed into service, radar technicians. The skills these men had learned, prewar, tinkering with radios, paid off in wartime as good, practical knowledge.

The way different, similar technologies feed and serve each other is never more aptly illustrated than with the symbiosis of radio, television, and radar. After the war this continued and radar providing components, techniques, and skilled technicians  to facilitate building and operation of the early electronic computers.

There have been occasions when  it has been necessary to consult the amateurs because, really, no one else has a clue.  In order to circumvent the restrictions of the First World War peace settlement (which limited the size of the conventional artillery that it could have) the German Army turned to the field of rocketry. Werner Von Braun, a talented young student with an interest in rocketry, was a member of the Spaceflight Society of the Technical University of Berlin. He was given an army grant to peruse his studies. His thesis, Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket (dated April 16, 1934) remained classified until 1960. Von Braun's V2s begat the Soviet ICBMs and the ensuing technology race eventually begat Project Apollo, and the moon landings. For all Von Braun's Nazi connections his original goal had been, as he told Piccard in 1930, to reach the moon. 

After the Second World War came the start of computer development, and this has been well documented elsewhere. Development was in the hands of the professionals although certainly the first machines had many memory techniques, delay lines and CRT storage systems, borrowed from wartime radar. The first machines were extremely temperamental, this being the early days of discrete semiconductors, and it seems most likely many of the technicians in those early days had followed the radio amateur route and were capable of keeping these temperamental machines going.

There was a great interest in electronics in the 1960s, it was the new technology, and the amateur enthusiast could persue his interest through a variety of popular monthly magazines. 

In the USA the journal Radio-Electronics carried some of the first home computer projects. Radio-Electronics had been founded in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback, the same man who gives his name to the most prestigious of the science fiction awards. Gernsback founded the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926,  and with his brother Sidney started the radio station WRNY in 1925. Gernsback is said to have coined the name Television in 1909 and WRNY was the first radio station to broadcast experimental television in 1928.

Britain too had a wealth of magazines devoted to radio, television and electronics. Amongst these were the Practical series, published by Frank Camm, brother of the aircraft designer Sydney Camm. The 1960s were, for the amateur, dominated by analogue electronics and numerous do it yourself projects were published that the enthusiast could build or at least study. I can recall one which was a copy of Gray Walters Turtle, an autonomous electronic device that was supposed to emulate animal behaviour by following light. Also notable was the monthly Wireless World. This journal carried numerous construction projects and notably carried, in 1945, Arthur Clarke's famous article where he described for the Communications Satellite. 

By 1970 the home computer was on its way and Radio-Electronics featured Don Lancasters TV Typewriter in 1973. (Not a computer but a how-brew video terminal which could display 16 lines of 32 character text on a standard TV.) The following year Radio-Electronics published a design for an 8 bit computer which the home enthusiast could build. But it was another USA magazine, Popular Electronics, just one year later, with its Altair 8800 really made an impact. The Altair was designed by a couple of enthusiast who had a small company making instrumentation kits for model rockets. MITS.

The Altair was based on an Intel 8080 microprocessor and as published could do very little. The computer I/O was a front panel with switches and lights. It was necessary to enter all programs, in binary, using the switches on the front panel. However, it was only a few months later when Microsoft's first product appeared,(written by Bill Gates and Paul Allen) a Basic interpreter for the Altair. With the Basic programming language the machine changed from being an engineering novelty to something that you could actually do something with. The homecomputer had arrived.

The popularity of the Altair pointed the way ahead. It did not take long for the homecomputer to lose its front panel and more neatly packaged machines such as the Apple and the Commodore Pet arrived. The core technology was the microprocessor, which in quantity was pretty cheap, but display systems and keyboards were expensive. The manufacturers went back to the hobbyist idea of using the TV as a  display and  borrowed from the hobbyists the cassette tape recorder  as bulk storage for programs.

Throughout the 1980s sales volumes increased and prices fell. The home computer market steadily grew. Computer games, word processing and eventually the first dialup bulletin boards appeared. The bulletin boards were precursors to the Internet. All of these developments started in the hands of the hobbyist. 

Having said all this, and watched as a few enthusiasts made big money out of riding the home computer wave, just what cutting edge technologies might todays hobbyists be working on? What will be the next big one? My money is on 3D printing. Today it's at just about the Altair 8800 stage of development. Kits are available and a core of enthusiasts world wide are learning how to use the technology. In common with all emerging technologies it borrows from connected, allied technologies such as the Internet, and 3D cad design. Most significantly much of the work is open source, being done altruistically by enthusiasts who are more keen on helping each other than trying to make money out of it. There are other emerging technologies, many of them, but this looks like the one that won't be dependent right from the start on big industry and big money. As such it may go places that no corporate executive could ever imagine. And that can only be a good thing.


  1. For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a recent biography that is available on Amazon.

    I found this document when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

    Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.
    Also at

    Hope you find it interesting.

    The book is also available as an E-book for the Kindle or your PC or Mac at Amazon. Here is the link:

    Other Hugo Gernsback Titles available at Amazon as e-books for Kindle or your PC:

    100 Radio Hookups E-book

    The Collected Works of Mohammed Ullyses Fips
    A collection of April Fools Articles by Hugo Gernsback

    1933 Official Auto Radio Service Manual

    Radio Service Man’s Handybook

    Radio-Cracy & Mini Radio Craft

    For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at

  2. Thanks Larry. I delete SPAM comments but these links are interesting and pertinent