lunes, 27 de septiembre de 2010
Original Models: A Look at Iconic Tech Prototypes
If necessity is the mother of invention, trial and error is the father. In these prototypes of now-iconic products, you can still glimpse the sweat and ingenuity it took to bring them to life.
Lonnie Johnson was trying to build a better refrigerator, based on a low-cost heat pump that circulated water instead of Freon. But when one of his custom-machined brass nozzles blasted a stream of water across his bathroom, Johnson—by day an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—realized he had the makings of something way more fun. A shotgun-style air pump and a series of check valves allowed for sniperlike range and accuracy with little exertion. Selling the idea to toy companies, though, was more of an effort. After seven years of frustration, Johnson scrapped his difficult-to-manufacture Plexiglas “pressure containment vessel” for an empty 2-liter soda bottle. It wasn’t slick, but it was easy to make. In 1990, the toy maker Larami brought the Power Drencher to store shelves; it sold roughly 2 million of them in the first year alone. Rebranded as the Super Soaker, the line has raked in sales of more than $200 million to date.
Dialing an old rotary phone was a laborious, time-intensive task: Your house could burn down before you finished cranking out the number for the fire department. In the late 1940s, switchboard operators already had a more efficient push-button setup that used tones instead of electrical pulses to signal each digit. So Bell Labs engineers set out to adapt that system for customers. Gutting a Western Electric 302 tabletop rotary, they installed a set of ten 3-inch metal reeds. Pressing a button plucked a specific reed, producing a unique sound. Thirty-five test units were deployed to phone company employees’ homes in Media, Pennsylvania, but the yearlong trial was a bust. Moving or bumping the phone warped the reeds, and any static on the line—or even talking—while dialing caused interference. Push-button phones didn’t become consumer-ready until 1963, when solid-state electronics replaced the reeds, generating foolproof digital tones.
A 25-year-old engineer at Hewlett-Packard, Steve Wozniak was using his spare time to design a language interpreter for a new 8-bit microprocessor called the MOS 6502. But even though the motherboard he created was smaller and less complex than other kits on the market, and even though Wozniak gave away the schematics for free, hobbyists still found the board difficult to build. So Woz and his high school pal Steve Jobs, who was working at Atari, decided to sell preassembled boards—which they dubbed the Apple I. They built them at night in Jobs’ parents’ garage, paying Jobs’ sister $1 a board to insert chips. In 1976, they produced 200 units and sold 150 of them for $500 apiece, a tidy 100 percent markup over cost. The only drawback to the Apple I: It offered dynamic RAM but no permanent storage, so you had to plug in your own cassette drive to save anything.
Martin Cooper built the world’s first cell phone in just 90 days. “All of the necessary technology existed in one place or another in our research labs,” says Cooper, a VP who oversaw development of Motorola’s Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage handset. “But when you see the stuff we jammed into this unit, you marvel that they ever made it work.” Without large-scale integrated circuits, engineers had to stuff thousands of resistors, capacitors, inductors, and ceramic filters into a 4.4-pound package. The biggest challenge was a device Motorola researchers had invented called a triselector, which enabled simultaneous talking and listening. All mobile devices until then were press-to-talk walkies. Unfortunately, the triselector was as big as a double cheeseburger; Cooper and his team managed to scale it down to a 10th of that size. After erecting a 900-MHz base station in Manhattan, Cooper stood on Sixth Avenue and successfully called—where else?—Bell Labs.