the clapper / Joseph Enterprises

The Gadget We Miss: The Clapper

Clap On! Clap Off! At least, that was the theory of this gadget.

The writer Ambrose Bierce described an inventor as “a person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization”. Perhaps the best example of the truth of this is the Clapper. Sorry, let me rephrase that: The Clapper®, a registered trademark (or application pending) worldwide. A quality Joseph Enterprises® product.

Clap On! Clap Off! / Walmart

The Clapper was launched in 1986 and quickly became a fixture of advertising breaks in late-night and cable TV. The advert touted the convenience of being able to turn things on and off remotely with a couple of claps of the hand. As the catchy slogan said, “Clap on! Clap off!”. It could control two devices that plugged into sockets on the bottom of the device, turning them on or off with a couple of claps, or turning them on if it detected a noise in a special “away” mode.

It is perhaps not surprising that the device is manufactured and sold by Joseph Enterprises, who also make and sell Chia Pets, the Creosote Sweeping Log (CSL) and the Ove Glove.

The Clapper TV Ad. Clap, Clap.

After being relentlessly promoted, the device was a huge hit, selling hundreds of thousands of units over the next few years. But what most users did not realize was that they were bringing a computer into their homes. The Clapper used a microcontroller (or MCU, Microcontoller Unit), foreshadowing the more recent trend of computerizing appliances by several years.

A Clapper installed and ready for use. The two sockets on the bottom are for the controlled devices, and the three lights help the user judge the speed of claps / Wikimedia

The technology behind The Clapper is detailed in Patent #5493618, which describes it thus:

“Method and apparatus for activating switches in response to different acoustic signals”.

In other words: a sound-activated switch. The abstract of the patent then goes on to clarify that it is a bit more complicated than that. In the abstract of the patent, it is described as…

An acoustic switch device that independently operates two or more electrical appliances. The acoustic switch operates a first electrical appliance upon receipt of a first series of acoustic signals and operates a second electrical appliance upon receipt of a second series of acoustic signals that is different from the first series of acoustic signals.
The flowchart for the operation of The Clapper/ US Patent 5493618

So it is more than a simple sound-activated switch: those have been around for much longer than The Clapper. What makes it different is that it responds to a specific pattern of sounds, and can differentiate between background sounds and a specific pattern of sounds, such as repeated handclaps.

How it does this is interesting. The sound is picked up by a microphone under a grille on the front of the body of the device, and the resulting signal is then run through three filters that form a narrow pass filter, effectively removing all but sound at a frequency of around 2500Hz. This is used as the basis for the trigger, with this sound being analyzed by the microcontroller that runs the device (an SGS Thompson Model ST 6210). This controller looks at the audio signal over time to determine if it was a clap or not. It detects the clap by looking for the sharp, short characteristics of a clap: a sharp, sudden noise that doesn’t persist. So, when the controller is triggered by a noise, it measures the sound for 200 milliseconds (0.2 seconds). If the noise is heard again in that time, it is not a clap. But if it detects the sudden noise and nothing else, it’s a clap.

Of course, there can be other noises that might sound like a clap, like you dropping something. To make sure that it was deliberate, the controller then waits to detect more claps. If it hears them, it has been called into action and it turns the light on or off, depending on the state of the light.The process can also be used to detect three or four claps, and to perform another action when detected (see the flow chart above).

The process is a fascinating insight into how simple circuits like this work, and their is a lot of detail in the patent (including the source code of the microcontroller). You can also build your own clap-clap switch from this instructable guide.

The source code of the programming for the microcontroller built into The Clapper / US Patent 5493618

This all sounded great in the commercials, but the reality proved to be less reliable. People found that The Clapper could be triggered by things other than claps: dog barks in particular sound similar to the device (they share similar frequencies and timing), so it wasn’t unusual to find your electronics turned on if your hound was in a vocal mood. The device was also very sensitive to the timing of the claps: too quickly or too slowly and the claps were not detected.

It also generated lawsuits. An 80-year old user called Edna Hubbs tried to sue the company after she injured her hands trying to get a Clapper to respond, but the case was dismissed when it was discovered that she had not used the sensitivity control on the device, a verdict upheld on appeal.

A Happy Clapper / Flickr User RiverRatt3

So The Clapper is a Gadget We Miss. In these days of smart homes , internet-connected washing machines and web-enabled wall sockets, it seems incredibly quaint to control things with a clap: that’s what smart phones are for. But what most people didn’t realize was that by using a clapper (sorry, The Clapper®), they were bringing a computer into their homes and giving control of their lights and other devices over to it. This was setting the scene for the home of the future that is now, finally, beginning to become a reality.

Do you remember The Clapper®? You can post your memories of this or other gadgets you miss to this article as notes, or sign up to Medium to post your own gadget memories.

Next Story — The Gadget We Miss: The Video Toaster
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The Gadget We Miss: The Video Toaster

The gadget that revolutionized TV in the 1990s.

Television is a complicated, expensive business. Or at least it used to be : in the 1980s, it cost a small fortune to get the equipment to shoot and broadcast your own TV show that looked as good as the big networks. However, one gadget changed all that, making it possible to produce good-looking TV shows with multiple cameras, titles and special effects without a big network budget. By doing this, our gadget set the stage for the cable TV and Internet broadcasting revolution: the Video Toaster.

Launched in 1990, the Toaster was the brainchild of three people: Tim Jenison, Paul Montgomery and Brad Carvey. Jenison had produced the first video capture device for the Amiga computer, called DigiView, and an accompanying paint program called DigiPaint. Paul Montgomery was a California entrepreneur who was impressed by the Amiga, and who knew an electronic engineer called Brad Carvey (brother of the comedian Dana Carvey, who claimed that his brother Brad was the inspiration for the Garth character from Wayne’s World). Jenison founded NewTek, and Montogomery came onboard as a Vice President to produce the Toaster. A good early history of NewTek was produced by Wired Magazine.

The origional Video Toaster and software installation disks / Amiga

One of the things that made the Toaster possible was the Amiga computer. NewTek understood the potential of this home computer: when combined with some custom circuits, it could become a live video switcher, allowing the user to switch between several different cameras and overlay graphics on top of the live video. It could also tweak the video, adding color effects or zoom transitions that were beloved of 1980's news broadcasts. It could play back video files, so you could mix live video with pre-recorded video, all smoothly outputted to a video signal that could be fed straight into most TV stations. This was due to a unique aspect of the Amiga computer: it ran at a frequency compatible with the US NTSC TV signal, which meant it could work with these signals easier than other computers. When you tie this in with some custom circuits, you get a device that can produce a standard NTSC TV signal, ready for broadcast.

That might sound simple to a modern computer user, but at the time it was revolutionary. It replaced many thousands of dollars of equipment: Newtek claimed at the time that the Toaster and Amiga combination (which cost about $4000) could replace hundreds of thousands of dollars of professional video equipment.

The Revolution Video that Newtek used to promote the Video Toaster, completely created on the Video Toaster.

Not surprisingly, the Video Toaster proved to be a huge hit. Its combination of low price and powerful features created new opportunities for people who had previously had no access to video tools like this, and it quickly became a popular device to use, both on the fringes of the TV industry and in the mainstream. In particular, the growing number of cable TV networks loved it: although it lacked some of the polish of the professional tools that the networks used, it was cheap and could be operated by one person, keeping the staff costs down. Big networks liked the speed as well: NBC used it to produce promos for their 1991 season.

The Toaster continued to be a popular product through the 1990s, and an updated version released in 1994 added more features, using the dedicated video slot of the recently released Amiga 4000 computer. This version received enthusiastic endorsements from users like Penn Jilette and Tony Hawke, not because they were paid to endorse it, but because they were Toaster users themselves. Actor Wil Wheaton (then just off Star Trek: The Next Generation, but before his current geek god incarnation) ended up working for the company in Topeka, Kansas, working as a quality tester and product evangelist for a time, before he decided to return to acting.

Video Toaster Promotion video from 1994, featuring a young looking Wil Wheaton, Pen Jilette and Tony Hawk

One feature of the Video Toaster proved to be popular on its own. Included with the software was a package called LightWave 3D, which could create animated, realistic looking 3D graphics. This package proved to be a hit with professional users, and was used to create graphics for sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 and SeaQuest DSV. It lowered the cost of rendering the 3D spaceship battles and underwater scenes that they relied on, and the different approach of the program to 3D modelling made it quicker and cheaper to render the finished graphics.

A compilation of Babylon 5 graphics, created in Lihgtwave

In fact, many people bought a Video Toaster purely so they could use LightWave 3D, which wasn’t available as a separate product. So, for some, this sophisticated video hardware became an expensive copy-protection dongle for the software that was the real draw. In 1994, the company gave in and sold LightWave 3D as a separate product to 3D animators who didn’t need the video capabilities of the Toaster.

Musician Todd Rungren produced this music video himself using LightWave 3 and a Video Toaster, using 10 Amiga computers to render all of the 3D scenes and video in his studio

And this brings my own (small) part in this story. In the early 1990s, I was working for Amiga Format magazine in the UK as technical editor. The Video Toaster was a US-only gadget then, because it could only work with the NTSC video signal used in the US, not the PAL one used in the UK and Europe. But that didn’t stop us: with a couple of video converters, we were able to review this incredible gadget and put it on the cover of the magazine for issue 52 (nov 1993), with the breathless headline “It’s Here! At last! The greatest Amiga peripheral ever created comes to the UK!”. Inside, we dedicated 10 pages of the magazine to breathlessly introducing the features of this device to the readers.

The cover of Amiga format issue 52 / Amiga Magazine Rack

A couple of years later, I had moved on to being the Editor of Amiga Shopper, another UK magazine that was about the technical aspects of using the Amiga computer. The Toaster still featured prominently here, and in issue 45 (Jan 1995), we were able to persuade one of the 3D artists from Foundation Imaging (who produced the graphics for the first 4 seasons of Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager and others) to show us the secrets of 3D modeling in LightWave, which had recently become available as a standalone program. Adam “Mojo” Leibowitz, the author of these articles, has since gone on to work on movies such as Men in Black 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful.

The Toaster had had an achilles heel, though. Despite being one of the main reasons that people bought Amiga computers, NewTek had a difficult relationship with Commodore, the company that produced the Amiga. As Commodore floundered in the late 1990s, NewTek struggled as well, with conflicts between the two leaders Tim Jenison and Paul Montgomery stalling the growth of the company. Jenison favored slow growth and sticking with the Amiga, while Montgomery wanted to branch out and make it available on other platforms. In 1994, Montgomery left NewTek and founded his own company, called Play, inc, taking a large chunk of the engineering and marketing staff of NewTek with him. This company produced several products including the Snappy video digitizer and the Trinity video editing system, but struggled to match the success of NewTek. After Montgomery died in 1999, Play, Inc folded and many of those who had left returned to NewTek.

The Last Toaster

The last device to bear the name Video Toaster was released by NewTek in 2009. But the Toaster hasn’t really gone away. Newtek now produces a product based on the Toaster called the Tricaster, which can do things that the Toaster could never dream of, and which is used in many small TV stations and Internet broadcasting networks. Leo Laporte, for instance, has been vocal about his love for the Tricaster system used to for his TWiT audio and video shows. Laporte also interviewed Jenison in 2013, talking about the history of the Toaster and NewTek.

Twit Video Technician Chad shows a guest around their complex video system, built on a NewTek Tricaster switcher.

The LightWave 3D software that many people bought the Toaster for is still going strong: version 11.6 was released in 2013, and is being used on many Hollywood features and TV shows. NewTek claims that LightWave has been the weapon of choice for more Emmy-winning 3D artists than any other program.

So, for being one of the main tools than enabled the TV revolution of the 1990s, and for setting the stage for the Internet broadcasting revolution that followed, the Video Toaster is a Gadget We Miss.

Do you remember the Video Toaster? Post your memories to this page, or you can join Medium and add your own memories of Gadgets We Miss.

Next Story — The Gadget We Miss: The Nikon Coolpix 950 Digital Camera
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The Gadget We Miss: The Nikon Coolpix 950 Digital Camera

The first digital camera used professionally by photographer Kyle Cassidy

In a special guest post, noted photographer Kyle Cassidy discusses the first digital camera he used in the studio, the Nikon Coolpix 950, which was released in 1999.

The Nikon Cololpix 950 had an innovative split body, with rotating screen / Flickr user Jeff Nelson

I miss the 1999 Nikon Coolpix 950 camera; not so much for what it is, but for what it was — transformative. There is probably no other camera that influenced my work as much.

Self Portrait with Nikon Coolpix 950 / Kyle Cassidy

In the final years of the 20th century The Future was hurtling towards us at a prodigious rate and I found myself with one foot on each shore awaiting the collision. I was, myself, evolving, from a writer to a storyteller and I was looking for ways to capture the world visually as well as with words. At that point I’d had a number of gallery shows but I realized that the future was going to be different. I was posting images to my Photo-A-Week blog that were being seen by upwards of 20,000 people while I was pretty certain that no more than 400 people had ever seen any print of mine hanging in an art gallery.

At that time I’d begun to document subcultures and experiment with context, photographing people in and out of their personal spaces and studio photography appealed to me because it was easy to isolate people from their surroundings, but studio lighting was a challenge and without a Polaroid, a lot of it was (for me anyway, without a formal studio photography background), a guessing game.

Digital photography was not new at that time, but the concept of professional digital photography was. Nikon had just released the 2.7 megapixel D1 the year before which was marketed to pros and cost $5,000. I’d had a consumer Olympus digital camera and was fascinated with it. The camera’s maximum resolution was 640 x 480 but I saw the writing on the walls.

The 1.9 megapixel Coolpix 950 had a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 and, most importantly, it had a flash sync terminal — this meant that it could be connected, albeit by a strange proprietary cord, to a studio flash. This was all the motivation I needed. 1600 x 1200 was large enough to print a 4x6 at 300 dpi. Practical, effective, useful, digital photography had arrived at a reasonable price (about $1,000).

Darenzia / Kyle Cassidy

Apart from shooting my own studio projects I took the Coolpix along on assignment mostly because why not? Very quickly afterward I realized that I was often getting home from an event and starting to spool film into developing reels only to discover that someone else had already gotten a photo of the event on the paper’s website. We were still working in terms of hours, but the number of hours you had from leaving wherever to publication was a lot shorter than it had been. After a few months of using it I posted an essay on my blog, to much hooting and derision, saying that film was effectively dead and giving it five years to bleed out.

President Clinton / Kyle Cassidy

There were a number of liberating things about the CoolPix 950 — firstly that flash sync terminal which made, for all intents and purposes, experimenting free and instantaneous. Lights could be placed at will, photos taken, examined, lights moved, etc. Secondly, it had a very credible built in macro lens which allowed me to make friends very easily with archaeologists. I was photographing in Egypt when I offered to photograph all the pot shards they’d excavated for their catalog. Thirdly, the camera had a clever twisty back which was much like an optional waist-level-finder but even more useful. You could hold the camera up over your head and see where it was pointed, you could put it low to the ground and twist the screen to easily see what the camera saw.

It also had a number of down-sides, the biggest of which was it’s predatory relationship with batteries — they didn’t last long. The image quality wasn’t exceptional: there was a lot of fringing and distortion, it was extraordinarily slow to focus and somehow in the time that I owned it I never realized that it had multiple jpeg compression settings and it stayed on the default “normal” rather than “fine” resolution. This meant that I got 16 images to an 8 megabyte card.

Ron Nirenberg / Kyle Cassidy

Two years later Nikon came out with the prosumer D100 DSLR which had a hot-shoe connection by way of which one could attach studio lights (but again with an odd assortment of proprietary devices) I took that on the road and did a wildly successful photography book using what I’d learned from a great deal of experimenting with the CoolPix 950. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a return on investment that equalled those two years.

Coral / Kyle Cassidy

Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist and writer living in Philadelphia. His most recent book is War Paint: Tattoo Culture and the Armed Forces from Schiffer Books. All photos Copyright Kyle Cassidy unless otherwise noted.

Next Story — Which Gadgets from 2013 Will We Miss?
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Which Gadgets from 2013 Will We Miss?

 We pick the gadgets launched in 2013 that may become classics in years to come

Most gadgets are like summer mayflies: they shine brightly, but vanish quickly. Only a select few earn the right to be called Gadgets We Miss, so we thought it would be interesting to consider which of the gadgets launched this year we might be writing about in 10 or 20-years time. So, what are the gadgets of 2013 that may be Gadgets We Miss in 10 or 20 years time? Here are our 5 picks for Gadgets We (Might) Miss From 2013.

1 — iPad Mini With Retina

Memorable gadgets are sometimes about hitting that sweet spot of price, performance, design and usability. The iPad Mini with Retina seems have hit that target with William Tell-like accuracy, providing a great balance of all four important factors. It’s well priced, has plenty of performance for gaming and photo editing, is small, light and stylish and is very easy to use. The Retina screen is the cherry on the cake that makes it a classic; adding the extra resolution to the small screen without bulking up the device (it weighs less than a pound and is under 0.3 inches thick). That gives it all the qualifications for being a best-of-class gadget that people love and will use for years to come.

The iPad Mini with Retina screen / Apple

2 — HTC One

People sneeringly dismissed the “phablet” as a worst-of-both-worlds compromise when it first came out, but this cellphone/tablet hybrid form factor has stuck around, and has perhaps been perfected with the HTC One. It has a big, bright screen that works well for watching movies on a plane flight, but is still small enough to carry around all day. And the improvements to Android in recent versions have kept the pressure on Apple, adding features that will make this phone a classic. Sure, there will be bigger, better and nicer Android phones, but the HTC One is one of the first that really works as a complete package.

The HTC One / HTC

3 — Oculus Rift

Real innovations in gaming are few and far between, but the Oculus Rift is definitely something new. This virtual reality headset has been gaining some serious support in 2013, including hiring John Carmack (the co-founder of iD software, creators of Doom and Quake) as their technology head. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this device is what is not there, though; proprietary software. The company behind the device OculusVR has been working closely with game developers to add support to their games, but without forcing them to buy expensive developers kits or pushing them into secret SDKs, only available to the select (and wealthy) few. All you need to develop a game that supports the headset is one of the headsets itself, which costs just $300, and the drivers that come with it. That’s much cheaper than devices like the Playstation 4.

The Oculus Rift VR headset / OculusVR

Of course, the history of gaming is littered with things that were neat ideas, but which never caught on, especially in the tricky world of VR (hello, virtual boy). But OculusVR seems to be doing everything right so far: taking it slowly, building support and following the lead of the top games companies. And that makes me think that we will be covering this gadget as the first success of its type in a few years.

4- Google Glass

I, Glasshole? Rober Scoble

Is Google Glass the beginning of a revolution in computers that you wear rather than carry? That remains to be seen, but Google Glass will no doubt be remembered as the first major device of its type. Although it wasn’t launched in 2013 (Google announced it in 2012), this was the year that it became a real device that you could buy. Those who have used the device have given mixed reports, especially in how people react to it when they see it. “Glass is socially awkward” noted Wired writer Matt Honan, who recorded his impressions of using one of the first versions of the device through 2013, titled I, Glasshole. “Again and again, I made people very uncomfortable. That made me very uncomfortable…People get angry at Glass. They get angry at you for wearing Glass. They talk about you openly. It inspires the most aggressive of passive aggression.” Will Glass users remain social phariahs? That remains to be seen, but either way, Google Glass will be a landmark device that people remember.

What are the gadgets that you think will be remembered from 2013? If this piece has wetted your appetite for some gadget nostalgia, below are links to some of our other articles from 2013.

Next Story — The Gadget We Miss: The Vacuum Tube
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The Gadget We Miss: The Vacuum Tube

The Vacuum Tube (or Valve) was the grandfather of the Silicon Chip

Modern electronics turn on as soon as you hit the power button. A true peice of vintage electronics, however, will take a few seconds to warm up because it uses a predecessor to the integrated circuit: the Vacuum tube, also known as the Valve, or Thermionic Valve. Now only found in high-end amplifiers and the occasional lab, these devices were the basis of most complex electronic devices in the days before transistors.

The mechanism of the vacuum tube is simple. There is a vacuum inside the tube, and a heated element similar to a lightbulb (called the filament, or the anode). Electrons fly through the vacuum to another electrode, called the plate (or, in electrical terms, the cathode) so the device conducts a current. This current only flows in one direction, so this forms what electricians call a Diode, one of the basic elements of an electrical circuit. This behavior means that an arrangement of vacuum tubes can be used to convert alternating current into direct current, which was their first use. But if you put a grid between the filament and the plate, the amount of current that the tube conducts depends on the voltage that is applied to this grid. In this form (called a triode), a vacuum tube acts as an amplifier, converting a small voltage into a larger one.

Diagram of a Triode / Wikimedia Commons

The vacuum tube was first developed in the 19th century by several inventors, including Geissler and Crookes, who invented the first Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), later used in televisions. The basic idea was further developed by many more inventors, including Edison (who patented the basic effect that makes them work, but failed to understand the process behind it), Tesla and many others. However, most of them failed to see any practical application for the technology, and it remained a lab curiosity until 1905, when John Ambrose Fleming developed and patented the rectifying diode, which rectified (or converted) high frequency radio signals, making wireless radio transmission and reception both possible and practical. If you are looking for the point in time when Steampunk turned into Cyberpunk, this is it.

The original prototypes for the Fleming Valve, the first rectifying diode / Wikipedia

Over the next few years, many more types of vacuum tubes were developed, creating more and more complicated functions in a single tube and created better and more accurate amplification. These included Pentodes, which added two more grids that created a more accurate amplifier response, and other more complex devices.

Eventually, vacuum tubes formed the core of the first computers, built around analog circuits and later, logic gates built from these glowing tubes. The first computer was Colossus, built by the British Bletchley Park codebreaking unit to help crack German and Japanese codes. The most complex version of this device used over 2400 vacuum tubes of various types, which had to be regularly replaced. After the war, the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer ) was the first true digital computer that ran a stored program, built by Bell Labs for the US Army with over 6000 vacuum tubes and 12,000 diodes in .

The control panel of the BRLESC computer produced by the US Army Ballistics Lab / East Tennessee State University

Vacuum tubes continued to be used by computers through the 1950s, with the last major model being the BRLESC (Ballistic Research Laboratories Electronic Scientific Computer), which was built by the US Army in 1960. Although it was much more sophisticated than the EDVAC, it used fewer tubes, because the tube makers had figured out how to combine multiple features into each tube. BRLESC used 1727 vacuum tubes and 853 transistors, which had just become commercially available.

Tubular Cameras

Another type of valve was the photomultiplier, which amplify light. These devices use high voltage and a cascading set of electrical plates (called dynodes) to multiply small numbers of photons into a significant electrical signal that could be captured and recorded. As the technology improved, they could be used to capture video in very low light. These formed the basis of all video cameras until the popularization of the CCD in the 1970s, but photomultiplier tubes are still used by scientists who want to detect single photos created by experiments, such as in particle colliders and chemical reactions.

A sscientist from the Jefferson Lab explains how they use photomultiplier tubes / Youtube

My personal favorite was the magic eye, which was used on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I was given as a child. This primitive version of the VU meter used a glowing green bar to indicate the recording level, which was created by electrons striking the anode. The degree of illumination is controlled by another voltage source, usually tied to a signal meter or other measuring device. Although the tape recorder itself was, I think, a transistorized model, I remember being fascinated by this otherworldy green light that danced as I recorded the sound of me babbling into it. It had a sci-fi appeal that no standard VU meter or digital indicator could match. Although the technology was primitive, even by the standards of the mid-1970s when I used it, it looked futuristic and strange. And it still does.

The Magic Eye of a portable tape recorder similar to the one I used in action / Youtube

This particular type of valve is still in use, although the devices that drive it have changed somewhat over the years. Many other people value the strange, alluring light that it produces, so these tubes still show up in high-end hi-fi and other devices, driven by digital controllers. However, these tubes should be approached with caution, as they are driven by high voltages that could kill. So while they are great to look at, don’t stick a screwdriver in there to see how they work.

A modern Magic Eye tube, driven by an integrated circuit device /

This vacuum tube is one of the few survivors of a revolution in electronics that started in the late 1950s. The transistor was invented in 1905, but wasn’t practical to manufacture at the time. By the late 1950s the technology had developed to make them quickly and cheaply, and electronics manufacturers were quick to realize that a small,transistor could easily replace a bulky, power hungry valve. The smaller size and lower power requirements of the transistor meant that devices could be more easily driven by batteries, such as the portable radios of the 1950s and 1960s. The first of these was the Regency 1, a portable radio released in 1954 at a cost of $49.95. The company behind this was driven out of business by a wave of cheap Japanese exports in the 1960s, (including those from a small Japanese company called Tsushin Kyogo, later renamed to the more pronounceable Sony). The revolution had begun, and manufacturers never looked back, with valves becoming little more than novelties within a few years, only found on old devices that were being phased out. The vacuum tube was dead, and the transistor was king.

Well, almost. As I noted above, scientists still use vacuum tubes as instruments, and they are also prized by hi-fi enthusiasts, who prefer the warm, analog sound produced by these analog devices over their digital replacements. High-end amplifiers from manufacturers like Mcintosh labs use valves that were first designed in 1956, and retailers like Tube Depot offer kits for those who want to build their own amplifiers. Even large manufacturers like Samsung have a valve model in their lineups for hard-to-please (and wealthy) audiophiles.

A selection of vacuum tubes / Wikipedia

High-end guitar amplifiers also still use tubes, because musicians also favor the analog sound that they bring to their work. Marshall amplifiers in particular are beloved of rock guitarists, and the company still makes valve amps, like the 2012 DSL series. However, even this bastion of analog technology is feeling the lure of digital: the company offers a line of amplifiers called the ValveState II, which the company claims will “give you a close emulation of the superb response and unique tonal feel of a valve amplifier, without using power valves.” Purists might baulk at this sort of claim, but using transistors is cheaper: you can pick up a 15-watt Marshall amp for less than $100, but a similar valve model will cost you just under $600.

So the vacuum tube is a gadget we miss because it paved the way for the transistor, the integrated circuit and the electronics that we take for granted.

It is fitting, perhaps, that vacuum tubes may be making a small comeback: in 2012, a team of NASA scientists at the Ames research lab announced they had made nano vacuum tubes. These nano tubes use the same principles as their larger ancestors, but on a minute scale, with a gap of just 150 nanometers (or about 0.00000056 inches) between the two main parts. In the paper that describes the technique, the writers estimate that they could bring this down to an incredible 10 nanometers with improved manufacturing techniques.

A Nano vacuum tube, from “Vacuum nanoelectronics: Back to the future?—Gate insulated nanoscale vacuum channel transistor”, by Jin-Woo Han, Jae Sub Oh and M. Meyyappan

These nano tubes use very little power, and can run incredibly fast: up to 0.46 Terahertz at the moment, but the writers estimate that the will be able to get “well into the THz regime” with time.

So, in a few years, you might once again be able to buy a computer that runs on vacuum tubes, just ones that are a little smaller than the ones that your grandparents used.

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