Communication Technology

Technology continues to develop from the needs of society, and evolves into a form so as to influence society in ways never planned nor imagined.

The roots of communication technology are based on the work of a three men, a Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell, who demonstrated that light was an electromagnetic wave and predicted on theoretical grounds that similar waves of different frequencies (either higher or lower than light) could be generated by electric discharges (sparks); a German physicist, Heinrich Hertz, who created an apparatus to generate and measure both high frequency (a few centimeters between each wave crest) and low frequency waves (a few meters in size) from a device called a spark gap transmitter; and an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, who while studying electricity read a description of Hertz’s apparatus and noticed a feature of the apparatus that had apparently escaped Hertz’s attention.

Marconi succeeded in sending signals in Morse code as far as two miles. He also developed a simple antenna apparatus that would receive wave signals and convert them into direct current so that they could be heard by someone listening to the pattern of current through earphones (like telegraph signals). Marconi was not the only person experimenting with “wireless telegraphy” at the time, but he was the person who figured out a way to make money with it. He identified ship – to – ship and ship – to – shore communications as likely markets for his invention, reasoning that these markets that could not be possibly be served by the existing telegraph and telephone systems that depended on wires.

In 1901, Lee DeForest made a patent application for a detecting device he called a responder; then he invented and patented a triode, which he termed the audion. The audion was a modification of the diode, a device invented by John Ambrose Fleming. DeForest’s business and personal affairs were in a perilous state for several years and commanded most of his attention. In 1912, at the height of his financial problems, he sold the patent rights for the audion to AT&T.

Reginald Fessenden invented devices in 1901 and 1902. In 1901, he designed a new kind of receiver, the heterodyne receiver, which could convert high frequency waves produced by spark –gap transmitters into low frequency waves such as the kind that make diaphragms resonate in telephones. Fessenden took out a patent and went into to business for himself (and several investors) as the National Electric Company. By 1902, he had designed a high speed spark transmitter, called an alternator, which would produce sparks so fast that the waves it created were almost continuous. (Voice transmission requires continuous waves; Morse code transmission involves intermittent waves) He contracted with the General Electric Company to build it. Using equipment that would otherwise be sending Morse code, Fessenden had succeeded in sending the first “radio” messages.

Edwin H. Armstrong made two substantial discoveries. He discovered that the audion (vacuum tube) could amplify sounds if the current coming off of the plate was fed back into the grid of the tube; and that under the right circumstances the same “regenerative circuit” could transform a tube into a transmitter. He ended up selling his rights to regenerative circuits to the Telefunken Company of Germany right as WWI was starting because neither AT&T nor Marconi were interested. Imagine the political implication of this sale. The British were already nervous about the Kaiser’s investments and interest in electronics, so for an American to sort of break ranks and do as he pleased in a free market economy must have been a bit of a political zinger. This action by Armstrong appears to be a brutal representation of capitalism trumping anything in its path, and I suspect the sale appeared to England to be a slight of U.S. neutrality, not just an ill-mannered move by a socially clueless, solitary American. Great Britain had been the premier monopolist of the nineteenth century and the West’s international banker, yet having a complimentary relationship with the U.S. did not (could not) protect England from the activity of individual citizens regardless of whether that activity would be damaging to a friendly country. Surely the English were not prepared for what happened, and a little miffed about international relations impropriety. This kind of cross-pollination of business with Germany, including later with the Third Reich, was not restricted to Armstrong or Telefunken however, it happened a number of times. As Jefferson said over 100 years earlier, merchants have no country.

It is difficult to measure to what extent the various parties were impacted by Armstrong’s sale. U.S. National Security Agency surveillance dates back to Signal Corp intercept tactics of 1914. As the war went on, Telefunken passed significant wartime traffic, and wireless technology played a central role in military communications. American espionage located Telefunken engineers by triangulation in Mexico City in 1917, operating against the U.S. The same year, under the Alien Property Custodian provisions, Telefunken’s American patent portfolio was seized and sold to GE for $1,500. Meanwhile Armstrong kept his foot on the gas, by the end of the war he built an entire radio (the superhetrodyne) within a single box, what an audiophile today would call a receiver, which could tune in a signal and amplify the sound. This he promptly sold to Westinghouse. Westinghouse later joined the RCA consortium that included GE and AT&T.

No one has succeeded for very long controlling the American market for electronic devices, electronic components or even the content of what is communicated by these devices. The pace of electronic change is very rapid. Partly because of the nature of electronics technology itself, and partly because of the nature of capitalism, no aspect of electronic communications has been monopolized. Roughly speaking, there are three reasons:

a)      Governmental regulations. Anti-trust, FCC…

b)      Newer inventions or individual patents that supersede existing technology, coming from many devoted electronics amateurs as well as experts, make for a high volume of innovations.

c)      The competitive possibilities that emerge from a free market economy, such as newer ideas for competition or market share. When new industrial and technical frontiers are opened, older companies suddenly discover that they cannot control areas that they once had expected to dominate.

For example, when post-war American producers were focusing on high profit military markets, several Japanese manufacturers were able to capture the higher volume consumer markets. By the 1980’s, American firms had ceased to be in control of the market for electronic components, the very market they had originally created. In the case of video tape, U.S. companies tended to concentrate on quick profits, not on long term outlook, and they abandoned work on VHS. Japanese companies including Toshiba spent the R&D money and ended up capturing the lucrative market for video recording.


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One Response to “Communication Technology”

  1. Craig Says:

    DeForest appears to have been less adept at identifying markets. He is quoted as saying in 1926 “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”


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