I had come on a most unusual quest. One that was both nearby and far away and happened to link my work to threads that led back six decades.
Sheldon, the high priest, was used to the unusual and led led the way through the maze of crates filled with movie projectors from the 20s, washing machines and vacuum cleaners from the teens, any number of telephone prototypes, a rack from an ESS4 digital switch, the prototype for the traveling wave tube to be used in the Telstar satellite, the first videophone from the late 1920s... all tempting objects worthy of study. We weaved through the stacks of lab books - a written testament to the process that was Bell Laboratories - or perhaps I should say the Bell Telephone Laboratories. I was reminded of the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Arc every time I was in the temple.
We were in a large otherwise unremarkable steel frame building in Warren, New Jersey. AT&T's storage facility - where the artifacts of Bell Labs were stored. Sheldon knew it like the back of his hand. Much of the history was there - except for the crown jewels. The core patents and notebooks for the fundamental inventions - telephone and transistor for example - were stored in safes we were told.
I was after a disk from Harvey Fletcher's early recordings. We were putting together a demo for a very important potential customer and it seemed reasonable to impress him with a bit of our tradition. Fletcher was a physicist who had did pioneering work in high quality recording, multichannel recording and even psychoacoustics. In the early 30s he arranged to record the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting. The technology was home brew and the recordings were remarkable for the day - two and more channels at up to 15kHz.
There they were - the master disks - about one hundred of them. They were far too important for me to borrow one, but I was compelled to look at many of them and the lab books describing the sessions. I was able to borrow a test disk of less historical importance. These were large stereo platters recorded and played with two arms - the concept of a stereo grove came a few months afterwards. I also was able to find submasters of the important recordings that were made in the 1950s and borrowed one.
Harvey would have been proud. We were showing off a a way to compress music by simply throwing out what the mind ignores as it creates music. It was uncleverly called Advanced Audio Coding. I set the compression software at a 11:1 ratio discarding 10 parts of the signal for every 11 it encountered.1 The trick, of course, is to pick the right parts to save. A call to his executive secretary revealed our potential customer liked the Beetles and Bob Dylan so tracks were compressed from our personal CDs.
When he listened to our player this, recorded on April 29, 1932, is what greeted him.
Download Wagner - Die Walküre - Ride of the Valkyries (aac file .. most players will handle it)2
Amazing fidelity for its day, the kit was too impractical for widespread use.
I'm often stuck by how early developments take place in many technologies and how many paths are tried.
The late 20s and early 30s were an interesting time if you were interesting in video and audio. In the period of about two years several television systems were developed including color television and a videophone. There were a few dozen television schemes by the late 20s. Hobbyists in the US were buying kits and watching FCC sanctioned transmissions from about 30 stations scattered around the country. It seemed like a natural extension of the telephone and had been predicted forty years before - people saw the telegraph, telephone and Edison's moving pictures and assumed a technical mashup was possible.
A sketch of a possible future technology can be fairly clear. Less apparent is how we get there and completely unknown are the societal implications.
Using smartphones as an example Horace Dediu has a piece on the diffusion of a technology great Asymco blog. Such discussions are important in the understanding technologies and markets, but they ignore a very complex set of pathways on the left side of the curve - before the technologies became marketable. The point where, at any given time, it looks like several candidates might emerge and it is possible none of them will survive in their then current form. Many of us knew in the 90s we'd be carrying small computers with some sort of radio and possibly a digital camera. Some of us would include a GPS in the device. None of us had any clear ideas of a final winning form or who would do it or what the societal impact would be. There were guesses, but betting on them at that stage is dangerous.
Our society needs a set of pioneers working at the leading edge. Most of the paths won't go anywhere, but they can influence others and have remarkably important impacts. Digital photography came out of an afternoon's realization of some of the implications of a certain type of semiconductor memory - at a time when the type of memory that would take hold in computers was still up in the air. Unfortunately the lead times for these early forms of applied research are so long that few companies can invest in them - companies today are rewarded for having very lean R&D budgets and by really focusing on very near term - usually under five years - development. AT&T and IBM did when they were monopolies and others were allowed to do so with rich contracts from the government as part of the Cold War. Now Universities carry much of the load - they are important, but not sufficient.
Tales of the tails -- fantastic areas when anything seems simultaneously possible and impractical.
There are too many ways to go and I'm about out of time. It would be fun to write about television, computer memory, cars, heavens - so much... So clear in retrospect, so difficult in the period.
1 This is a common compression ratio that fools most people - 128 kilobits per second - down from the 1411 kbps of a compact disc. The AAC codec is used for iTunes. Tests have shown even excellent ears have problems statistically distinguishing CD from compressed AAC at 160 kbps. Apple uses 256 kbps. Of course you can get into the imperfect sound on a compact disc, but a significant learning I've had over the years is that, for most people, it doesn't matter.
2 I assume no responsibility for triggering Mel Blanc, Arthur Bryan and Chuck Jones flashbacks.
This one was very good - it has a nice buttery mouthfeel from the avocado and should be very healthy. I don't know where it came from - it was in my notes for a long time and I modified it.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Avocado
° 1 large sweet potato
° 2 heads of garlic (less if you like - I used two medium sized heads)
° 1 tsp olive oil
° 1 medium avocado
° 1/3 cup slice yellow onion
° juice from 1/2 lemon
° sea salt and freshly ground pepper (to taste)
° an herb like parsley to garnish
° oven to 400°F
° clean and dry the sweet potato poke holes in it and nuke in your microwave for about 3 to 4 minutes (depending on how strong your microwave is)
° lop off the top half inch or so off a head of garlic so the individual cloves are exposed
° put the topless garlic head on foil and drizzle with olive oil. Seal the foil
° put the sweet potato and foiled garlic on a pan and roast for 20 minutes until cooked - leave the garlic in
° after 30 minutes total cooking time take the garlic out. It should be soft and wonderful smelling. Let it cool and squeeze out the cloves
° mash the garlic and sweet potatoes and season with salt and pepper
° peel the avocado and mash with lemon juice. Combine with the mashed sweet potato/garlic mix and serve topped with onions and the herb.