A precursor of the mobile phone ?

train phone pic 001Today, thanks to mobile phone technology, we can easily hold a conversation on a train with someone hundreds of miles away. Back in 1930, many decades before the mobile was developed, experts at Canadian National Telegraphs were bringing this convenience to rail travellers.

According to a short piece in the issue of Armchair Science for July 1930, a passenger on the ‘ International Limited ‘ service of Canadian National Railways was now able to ‘ complete a call from the moving train to his residence or place of business ‘. In addition, it was now possible for someone ‘ in Montreal, Toronto, or elsewhere to establish communication with a friend on the train, whether in motion or standing ‘. It was not explicitly stated what the maximum range in miles might be for these calls. What is certain though, is that for possibly the first time the phrase ‘I’m on the train ‘ was heard by fellow passengers who frankly couldn’t have cared less.

This radical development in telecommunications was made possible, it seems, by ‘the setting up of a series of “channels” on one wire circuit ‘ by means of which ‘ a number of messages can be sent in each direction at the same time.’ This was, according to the article, a form of ‘broadcasting ‘, using wires and was known amongst telegraphists as “wired wireless”. [R.M.Healey]

Twelve Miles from a Lemon

img_1366-624x380Found in a bound volume of The Idler Magazine (Chatto & Windus, 1892. Volume 1, February to July. pp 231 – 232) this piece by regular contributor Robert Barr. The Idler was edited by Barr with  Jerome K Jerome. It ran from 1892-1911. This piece was found in the always interesting section ‘The Idler’s Club’, fairly heavy on the whimsy but never unamusing– see an earlier jot  where, among other things, Barry Pain proposed that ‘..amateur dramatics would be much improved if performed in total darkness and thus they would also be able to avoid paying a licence fee…’ This piece by Robert Barr has a curiously modern feel about it (if you substitute the internet for the telegram) and the idea of being 12 miles from a lemon echoes the current city dweller’s fear of being more than ‘four miles from a latte..’

Some years ago, somebody* wrote a book entitled ‘Twelve Miles from a Lemon’. I never read the the volume, and so do not know whether the writer had to tramp  twelve miles to get the seductive lemon toddy, which cheers and afterwards inebriates, or the harmless lemon squash, which neither cheers nor inebriates. I think there are times when most people would like to get twelve miles away from everything – including themselves. I tried to put a number of miles between me and a telegraph instrument, and flattered myself for a time that I had succeeded. I dived into the depths of the New Forest. The New Forest is popular in summer, deserted in winter, and beautiful at any season. I found a secluded spot in the woods, and thought I was out of reach of a telegram. I wish now I had not got so far away from the instrument. The boy came on horseback with the message. It was brief, coming well within the sixpenny range, and it stated tersely that the printer was waiting for these paragraphs. The boy said calmly that there would be fifteen shillings and sixpence to pay for the delivery of that yellow slip of paper. Continue reading

Mullard sees into the Future

Lilliput looks into future pic 001Discovered in an April 1946 copy of Lilliput magazine is this full page advert for Mullard, the big name in ‘Radio Valves and other Electron Tubes’. In a peep into its future Mullard envisages a time when Mr Futura and his son Johnny will be able to see the news via an  ELECTRONIC TELEPRINTER NEWS RECEIVER attached like a watch to Mr Futura’s wrist.

This is a prescient advert. Six months after the end of WW2 Mullard, as Britain’s chief manufacturer of electronic valves, was doubtless looking forward to cashing in on the forthcoming restoration of TV broadcasting following a hiatus of over 7 years. By suggesting that such a ‘far-fetched’ idea as a watch-sized teleprinter might be feasible in the future Mullard put itself forward as the electronics company most likely to develop high quality valves for TV receivers when the broadcasting service was resumed.

The truth is, of course, that the only possible way in which Johnny Futura and his Dad might receive news through a watch-sized device would be if the unwieldy Mullard valves were replaced by transistors and some sort of miniature ariel was incorporated into the device. However, until Dr William Shockley and two colleagues at Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947, and then went on to perfect it for general use, there was no chance of this happening for a decade or so.

However, the advert is equally interesting inasmuch as it anticipates the IT technology that produced the smart phone and the Apple Smart Watch. Is it possible that as early as 1946 the boffins at Mullard were somehow aware of what Dr Turing and other pioneers of IT were helping to develop and that a future dominated by miniaturised computers might not be too ‘far fetched ‘ ? [R.M.Healey]



Color TV in 1953 !!

Found in the fascinating El Mundo photo archive is this shot of a ‘pretty girl tuning in a colorcast on a color video receiver ‘before the assembled American press on 17th December   1953. This was a prototype; commercial broadcasting in color began the following year. I don’t know when TV reached Argentina, let along colour TV, but British viewers were only offered colour in 1967, nearly 14 years after it had been unveiled in the States. Apparently, colour had been in development across the Atlantic from the earliest days of TV but due to technical and other problems, the service was delayed for many years.

My own family were initiated into the TV age in 1951—before the Coronation—when my mother was given a leaving present of a new sixty guinea Bush receiver by a grateful employer. But if someone had told us in 1954 that in America families were gathering around what appears to be a 16” screen (ours was a tiny 10 inch one) to watch programmes in colour, we would have thought it incredible.

Of course, the very earliest TV screens in the UK were even smaller—I mean the ones receiving programmes from c 1934 – 1939. I was obliged to do research on early broadcasts while working on a book about Geoffrey Grigson a few years ago. He, John Piper and John Betjeman were popular TV broadcasters (mainly on art) in the late thirties.

Incidentally, why has no-one published a social history of this early TV era in Britain ? It would be fascinating.


The Laying of the Atlantic Cable (1866) in verse

This scrap of doggerel, found among a collection of holograph letters, has no name attached. It is bad enough to be by William McGonagall, the second worst poet who ever lived (the first being Amanda Ros), but is dated at around 1866, which must surely be too early for him.

Hark ? that noise, what meaning that Gun
The Great Eastern has arrived, the Goal is won
All the world must now precedence yield
To the Proprietors Glass, Canning and Field
For the (longest) Rope is made & successfully ran
That ever was made by the Hands of Man
To Capt. Anderson & all his officers too
For their strict perseverance all Credit is due
Likewise, all on board did as far as they were able
Every assistance render to lay our Glorious Atlantic Cable.

The first transatlantic telegraph cable manufactured by Glass and associates was laid in 1858 from Western Ireland to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, with Cyrus Field as entrepreneur.  Unfortunately, the poor quality of the cable meant that it functioned well for only a few weeks and was irretrievably damaged in September of the same year when too much current was passed through it. Undaunted, Field and associates raised more money and in 1865 Brunel’s huge ‘Great Eastern’ steamship, was commissioned to lay a new improved cable along the same route. Under Captain James Anderson and with Canning as chief engineer, the ship sailed westwards from Ireland, but after 1,062 miles the end of the cable was accidentally dropped into the sea, where it sank to the depth of over two miles. The mission was abandoned and the Great Eastern sailed back to obtain a new cable. This was duly laid in July 1866, to universal acclamation .The poem seems to celebrate this astonishing feat of seamanship and engineering, but it may have been composed a few months after this initial success, when thanks to the 'strict perseverance' of Anderson and his officers the lost first cable was somehow retrieved from the depths of the Atlantic, spliced to a new cable, and the whole laid along the same route to Newfoundland. Thus, by September 1866 two working transatlantic cables were in operation.

The new communications link to America was an astounding boon to commerce, diplomacy and the military—reducing the time taken to send and receive messages from ten days to a few minutes.  [R R]


Early Books on Television: 1926 – 1939

British techies will boast that the origins of television can be traced to a room above a shop in Hastings ( blue plaque ) where John Logie Baird constructed the first TV receiver—generating moving images on a mechanical principle. Americans, however, will argue that their man, a certain C. Francis Jenkins, who was also involved in cinema technology, was doing almost the same thing six months earlier in 1923. Unfortunately, neither of these pioneers can be said to have invented the television that we tune into today. Most of the credit for that probably belongs to Philo Farnsworth, the farmer’s son from Utah who in 1927, aged 21, produced the first electronic image. So, whatever way you look at it, the Americans invented television, just as they invented rock music.

Most of the collected works on early TV appeared before 1930. The first book on TV alone was Alfred Dinsdale’s well-known Television, or Seeing by Wireless (1926). A book that although not uncommon is sometimes seen at prices into 5 figures. The second significant work, which appeared a year later is Television for the Home by Ronald Tiltman, whose frontispiece show the author being televised by John Logie Baird himself. If you hanker for a Dinsdale and can’t afford his Seeing by Wireless you could target a copy or a run ( if you can find one ) of his genuinely rare Television Journal (6d a month), whose July 1929 cover rather hopefully looks ahead to a time when the family might gather around the box of light on a winter evening--an extraordinary image for 1929, when radio was still in its infancy and TV broadcasting was several years away.

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Charles Pearson & James Watt association

Discovered in 1998 on a market stall off Brick Lane is this copy of the exceedingly rare Substance of a Address by Charles Pearson at a Public Meeting (1844). The book is scarce enough (none on Abebooks, nor likely to be in the near future), but my copy also bears an inscription from the author to James Watt, son of the famous Scottish engineer.

Watt (1769 – 1848) who, like his father, was an engineer, but was also a radical political activist in the turbulent 1790s, has his own Wikipedia entry, but there is no mention in it of Pearson. Nevertheless, the two men had much in common. While in France Watt’s support for the French revolutionaries and his friendship with Joseph Priestley, got him condemned in the British Parliament and he remained in self-imposed exile until he felt it was safe to return home. A generation younger, Pearson, as the radical Solicitor for the City of London, was the champion of parliamentary reform who defended radicals in court. He also was in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England, opposed the system of packed juries and fought commercial monopolies in London. A year after his Substance on an Address appeared, he published a pamphlet which called for an atmospheric railway that would follow the ancient Fleet ditch to Farringdon. This was rejected and I seem to remember that Punch had great fun with the idea. Other railway schemes supported by Pearson were also rejected, but at last in 1854 the Royal Commission accepted a proposal to build an underground railway, using the ‘cut and cover ‘method, from Praed Street to Farringdon. Work began in 1860 and within three years the new line was completed. The world now had its first underground railway. Unfortunately, Pearson had died while the work was still in progress and he never got to ride on the first train.

It would be nice to think that Watt, the consultant engineer behind the building of Fulton’s North River Steamboat of 1807, and the marine engineer who in 1817 was responsible for the first steamship to leave an English port, had something to do with Pearson’s atmospheric railway of 1845. It seems very possible, especially as Watt’s expertise was in steam power and pneumatics. In addition, Pearson’s address of 1844 tackles many of the issues that would have been close to Watt’s radical heart and the younger man would have taken great pleasure in presenting a copy of his book to the septuagenarian former firebrand.

One question remains. Watt died at his home, Aston Hall, near Birmingham, in 1848. So how did his book end up on an East End junk stall in 1998 ?


Colossus – the first true electronic computer

Found - in a paperback novel from the 1980s this press cutting. It is from a glossy magazine (possibly Electronics World) and is a letter from one G.O. Hayward. This is the war hero Gil Hayward who had worked at Bletchley Park and was given a medal by the Prime Minister in 2010 and died a year later aged 93. He had worked on the "Tunny" decryption machines at  at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, North London, and later at Bletchley Park. These were used to break the code of even higher grade secret messages than the Enigma machine. Towards the end of the war, up to 15 of the Tunny machines were in use at Bletchley Park, providing Allied leaders with around 300 messages from the German High Command a week. Among other things, Tunny provided key intelligence for D-Day. The Colossus computer was developed from it...

His Telegraph obituary notes that he was interested in electronics from an early age - "On his own motorcycle.. he built an indicator which integrated a clock with his speedometer and indicated his average speed.

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Forget Marconi – here’s Tesla

Found - this astonishing and admiring piece about Tesla from The Courier-Journal coming out of Louisville, Kentucky (Sunday, August 22, 1897)- although this was probably a syndicated article. It has some very good descriptions of the appearance and lifestyle of Tesla (His eyes are blue,deeply set, and they burn like balls of fire, those weird flashes of light he makes with his instrument seem also to shoot from them...) and manages to make light of Marconi's recent achievements as rather minor compared to Tesla (in May 1897, the 22 year old Marconi had sent the world's first ever wireless communication over open sea.)

....almost coincident with the announcement that (Tesla) has solved the great problem upon which he has been at work for nearly seven years comes the news that an Italian youth, Guglielmo Marconi has discovered a means of telegraphing without wires. The scientific world acknowledges the value of Marconi's invention. It admits its practical use. The same men who honor Marconi worship Tesla. Marconi has explained, and his methods are easily grasped. Tesla has simply said that he has accomplished his great work, and they believe. Years ago those recognised as masters admitted that Tesla had no peer in abstract electrical research. To-day the most scientific, the farthest advanced, look upon him with rapt admiring eyes. That which he says he has accomplished seems like the dream of an intoxicated god.

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