J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.

Is Life Becoming Too Complex? The Devil Is in the Details….! Can We Keep Up?

Details matter in this life, and they demand our attention – increasingly so. It is becoming impossible to live under illusions such as, “Details are confined mainly to the realm of specialists, like the computer programmer and the watchmaker.” The need for “attention to detail” on the part of everyman has never been greater.

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I’ve been around for a while, now – over seventy-six years. Given all those years and, with the detached attitude of an impartial observer, I have reached some general conclusions regarding technology, time, and our quality of life, today.

Conclusion #1:
The opportunity for living a comfortable, meaningful, and rewarding life has never been greater – especially in this United States of America. We have so many choices today in this society, for better or for worse.

Conclusion #2:
The veracity of conclusion #1 is due to the positive influence of science and technology on our lives. Today’s information age has delivered the world, indeed, the universe (and Amazon, too) to our desktops and living rooms.

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It is true that computers and the internet are virtually indispensable, now.  However, the tools and the technology of the scientific/information age change continually, at an ever more rapid pace. Can we humans continue to keep pace with it all without making painful choices and sacrifices in our lives? Have computer problems ever driven you nuts? Do we have too many choices and opportunities now, thanks to the internet and stores like Walmart? How often have you shopped for something specific in the supermarket or on Amazon and been bewildered by the blizzard of choices which accost you thanks to high-tech marketing? Even choosing a hair shampoo poses a challenge for today’s shopper.

Conclusion #3:
Scientific knowledge and the rapid technological progress it spawns have become, universally, a 50/50 proposition for the human race. The reality suggests that for every positive gain in our lives brought about by our growing technology base, there is, unrelentingly, a negative factor to be overcome as well – a price to be paid. There is virtually a one-to-one correspondence at play – seemingly like an unspoken law of nature which always holds sway – much like the influence of gravitational attraction! In familiar parlance, “There is no free lunch in life: Rather, a price to paid for everything!”

The best example possible of this contention? Consider Einstein’s revelation in 1905 that mass and energy are interchangeable: e=mc2. This, the most famous equation in science, opened not only new frontiers in physics, but also the possibility of tremendous industrial power – at minimal cost. On the negative side, along with nuclear power plants, we now have nuclear weapons capable, in one day, of essentially ending life on this planet – thanks to that same simple equation. As for usable, nuclear-generated power, the potential price for such energy has been dramatically demonstrated in several notable cases around the globe over recent decades.

Need another example? How about the information technology which enables those handy credit cards which make purchasing “goodies” so quick and easy? On the negative side, how about the punishing cost of credit for account balances not promptly paid? More disturbing is the fact that such technology in the hands of internet criminals makes one’s private financial information so vulnerable, today. I found out the hard way, recently, that just changing your hacked credit card for a new one does not necessarily end your problems with unauthorized charges! The price in real money paid by society for foiling technology savvy ne-er do-wells is huge, in the billions of dollars every year.

Conclusion #4
Society, today, seems to discount the wisdom inherent in the old, familiar phrase, “The devil is in the details!” We are easily enticed by the lure of “user-friendly” computers and devices, and indeed, most are generally well-designed to be just that – considering what they can do for us. But today’s scientists and engineers fully understand the profundity of that “devil is in the details” contention as they burrow deeper and deeper into nature’s secrets. The lawyer and the business man fully understand the message conveyed given the importance of carefully reading “the fine print” embedded in today’s legal documents and agreements. How many of us take (or can even afford) the time to read all the paperwork/legalese which accompanies the purchase of a new automobile or a house! Increasingly, we seem unable/unwilling to keep up with the burgeoning demands imposed by the exponential growth of detail in our lives, and that is not a healthy trend.

I am convinced and concerned that many of us are in way over our heads when it comes to dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of today’s personal computers, and these systems are becoming increasingly necessary for families and seniors merely trying to getting by in today’s internet world. Even those of us with engineering/computer backgrounds have our hands full keeping up with the latest developments and devices: I can personally attest to that! The devil IS in the details, and the details involved in computer science are growing exponentially. Despite the frequently quoted phrase “user-friendly interface,” I can assure you that the complexity lurking just below that user-friendly, top onion-skin-layer of your computer or iPhone is very vast, indeed, and that is why life gets sticky and help-entities like the Geek Squad will never lack for stymied customers.

Make no mistake: It is not merely a question of “Can we handle the specific complexities of operating/maintaining our personal computers?” Rather, the real question is, “Can we handle all the complexities/choices which the vast capabilities of the computer/internet age have spawned?”  

Remember those “user manuals?” Given the rapid technological progress of recent decades, the degree of choice/complexity growth is easily reflected by the growing size of user manuals, those how-to instructions for operating our new autos, ovens, cooktops, washing machines, and, now, phones and computers. Note: The “manuals” for phones and computers are now so complex that printed versions cannot possibly come with these products. Ironically, there are virtually no instructions “in the box.” Rather, many hundreds of data megabytes now construct dozens of computer screens which demonstrate the devices’ intricacies on-line. These software “manuals” necessarily accommodate the bulk and the constantly changing nature of the product itself. Long gone are the old “plug it in and press this button to turn it on” product advisories. More “helpful” product options result in significantly more complexity! Also gone are the “take it in for repair” days. My grandfather ran a radio repair shop in Chicago seventy years ago. Today, it is much cheaper and infinitely more feasible to replace rather than repair anything electronic.

An appropriate phrase to describe today’s burgeoning technologies is “exponential complexity.” What does that really mean and what does it tell us about our future ability to deal with the coming “advantages” of technology which will rain down upon us? I can illustrate what I mean.

Let us suppose that over my seventy-six years, the complexity of living in our society has increased by 5% per year – a modest assumption given the rapid technological gains in recent decades. Using a very simple “exponential” math calculation, at that rate, life for me today is over 40 times more complex than it was for my parents the day I was born!

To summarize: Although many of the technological gains made over recent decades were intended to open new opportunities and to make life easier for us all, they have imposed upon us a very large burden in the form of the time, intelligence, and intellectual energy required to understand the technology and to use it both efficiently and wisely. Manual labor today is much minimized; the intellectual efforts required to cope with all the newest technology is, indeed, very significant and time-consuming. There is a price to be paid…for everything.

The major question: At what point does technology cease to help us as human beings and begin to subjugate us to the tyranny of its inherent, inevitable and necessary details? The realm in which the details live is also home to the devil.

The devil tempts. The burgeoning details and minutia in today’s society act to corrode our true happiness. We should be cautious lest we go too far up the technology curve and lose sight of life’s simpler pleasures… like reading a good book in a quiet place – cell phones off and out of reach. The noise and bustle of Manhattan can appear endlessly intoxicating to the visitor, but such an environment is no long-term substitute for the natural sounds and serenity of nature at her finest. The best approach to living is probably a disciplined and wisely proportioned concoction of both worlds.

The above recipe for true happiness involves judicious choices, especially when it comes to technology and all the wonderful opportunities it offers. Good choices can make a huge difference. That is the ultimate message of this post.

As I write this, I have recently made some personal choices: I am redoubling my efforts to gain a more solid grasp of Windows 10 and OS X on my Mac. Despite the cautionary message of this post regarding technology, I see this as an increasingly necessary (and interesting) challenge in today’s world. This is a choice I have made. I have, however, put activities like FaceBook aside and have become much more choosey about time spent on the internet.

My parting comment and a sentiment which I hope my Grandkids will continue to heed: “So many good books; so little quality time!”

Sir Humphry Davy: Pioneer Chemist and His Invention of the Coal Miner’s “Safe Lamp” at London’s Royal Institution – 1815

humphry-davy-51Among the many examples to be cited of science serving the cause of humanity, one story stands out as exemplary. That narrative profiles a young, pioneering “professional” chemist and his invention which saved the lives of thousands of coal miners while enabling the industrial revolution in nineteenth-century England. The young man was Humphry Davy, who quickly rose to become the most famous chemist/scientist in all of England and Europe by the year 1813. His personal history and the effects of his invention on the growth of “professionalism” in science are a fascinating story.

The year was 1799, and a significant event had occurred. The place: London, England. The setting: The dawning of the industrial revolution, shortly to engulf England and most of Europe. The significant event of which I speak: The chartering of a new, pioneering entity located in the fashionable Mayfair district of London. In 1800, the Royal Institution of Great Britain began operation in a large building at 21 Albemarle Street. Its pioneering mission: To further the cause of scientific research/discovery, particularly as it serves commerce and humanity.

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The original staff of the Royal Institution was tiny, headed by its founder, the notable scientist and bon-vivant, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Quickly, by 1802, a few key members of the founding staff, including Rumford, were gone and the fledgling organization found itself in dis-array and close to closing its doors. Just one year earlier, in 1801, two staff additions had materialized, men who were destined to make their scientific marks in physics and chemistry while righting the floundering ship of the R.I. by virtue of their brilliance – Thomas Young and the object of this post, a young, relatively unknown, pioneering chemist from Penzance/Cornwall, Humphry Davy.

By the year 1800, the industrial revolution was gaining momentum in England and Europe. Science and commerce had already begun to harness the forces of nature required to drive industrial progress rapidly forward. James Watt had invented the steam engine whose motive horsepower was now bridled and serving the cause by the year 1800. The looming industrial electrical age was to dawn two decades later, spearheaded by Michael Faraday, the most illustrious staff member of the Royal Institution, ever, and one of the greatest physicists in the history of science.

In the most unlikely of scenarios at the Royal Institution, Humphry Davy interviewed and hired the very young Faraday as a lab assistant (essentially lab “gofer”) in 1813. By that time, Davy’s star had risen as the premier chemist in England and Europe; little did he know that the young Faraday, who had less than a grade-school education and who worked previously as a bookbinder, would, in twenty short years, ascend to the pinnacle of physics and chemistry and proceed to father the industrial electrical age. The brightness of Faraday’s scientific star soon eclipsed even that of Davy’s, his illustrious benefactor and supervisor.

For more on that story click on this link to my previous post on Michael Faraday: https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-electrical-age-born-at-this-place-and-fathered-by-this-great-man/

Wanted: Ever More Coal from England’s Mines 
at the Expense of Thousands Lost in Mine Explosions

Within two short years of obtaining his position at the Royal Institution in 1813, young Faraday found himself working with his idol/mentor Davy on an urgent research project – a chemical examination of the properties of methane gas, or “fire damp,” as it was known by the “colliers,” or coal miners.

The need for increasing amounts of coal to fuel the burgeoning boilers and machinery of the industrial revolution had forced miners deeper and deeper underground in search of rich coal veins. Along with the coal they sought far below the surface, the miners encountered larger pockets of methane gas which, when exposed to the open flame of their miner’s lamp, resulted in a growing series of larger and more deadly mine explosions. The situation escalated to a national crisis in England and resulted in numerous appeals for help from the colliers and from national figures.

By 1815, Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution had received several petitions for help, one of which came from a Reverend Dr. Gray from Sunderland, England, who served as a spokesman/activist for the colliers of that region.

Davy and the Miner’s Safe Lamp:
Science Serving the “Cause of Humanity”

Working feverishly from August and into October, 1815, Davy and Faraday produced what was to become known as the “miner’s safe lamp,” an open flame lamp designed not to explode the pockets of methane gas found deep underground. The first announcement of Davy’s progress and success in his work came in this historic letter to the Reverend Gray dated October 30, 1815.

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The announcement heralds one of the earliest, concrete examples of chemistry (and science) put to work to provide a better life for humanity.

Royal Institution
Albermarle St.
Oct 30

 My Dear Sir

                               As it was in consequence of your invitation that I endeavored to investigate the nature of the fire damp I owe to you the first notice of the progress of my experiments.

 My results have been successful far beyond my expectations. I shall inclose a little sketch of my views on the subject & I hope in a few days to be able to send a paper with the apparatus for the Committee.

 I trust the safe lamp will answer all the objects of the collier.

 I consider this at present as a private communication. I wish you to examine the lamps I had constructed before you give any account of my labours to the committee. I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it. I beg of you to present my best respects to Mrs. Gray & to remember me to your son.

 I am my dear Sir with many thanks for your hospitality & kindness when I was at Sunderland.

                                                              Your….

                                                                             H. Davy

This letter is clearly Davy’s initial announcement of a scientifically-based invention which ultimately had a pronounced real and symbolic effect on the nascent idea of “better living through chemistry” – a phrase I recall from early television ads run by a large industrial company like Dupont or Monsanto.

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In 1818, Davy published his book on the urgent, but thorough scientific researches he and Faraday conducted in 1815 on the nature of the fire damp (methane gas) and its flammability.

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Davy’s coal miner’s safety lamp was the subject of papers presented by Davy before the Royal Society of London in 1816. The Royal Society was, for centuries since its founding by King Charles II in 1662, the foremost scientific body in the world. Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific mind in history, presided as its president from 1703 until his death in 1727. The Society’s presence and considerable influence is still felt today, long afterward.

davy41Davy’s safe lamp had an immediate effect on mine explosions and miner safety, although there were problems which required refinements to the design. The first models featured a wire gauze cylinder surrounding the flame chamber which affected the temperature of the air/methane mixture in the vicinity of the flame. This approach took advantage of the flammability characteristics of methane gas which had been studied so carefully by Davy and his recently hired assistant, Michael Faraday. Ultimately, the principles of the Davy lamp were refined sufficiently to allow the deep-shaft mining of coal to continue in relative safety, literally fueling the industrial revolution.

Humphry Davy was a most unusual individual, as much poet and philosopher in addition to his considerable talents as a scientist. He was close friends with and a kindred spirit to the poets Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. He relished rhetorical flourish and exhibited a personal idealism in his earlier years, a trait on open display in the letter to the Reverend Gray, shown above, regarding his initial success with the miner’s safe lamp.

“I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it.”

As proof of the sincerity of this sentiment, Davy refused to patent his valuable contribution to the safety of thousands of coal miners!

Davy has many scientific “firsts” to his credit:

-Experimented with the physiological effects of the gas nitrous oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and first proposed it as a possible medical/dental anesthetic – which it indeed became years later, in 1829.

-Pioneered the new science of electrochemistry using the largest voltaic pile (battery) in the world, constructed for Davy in the basement of the R.I. Alessandro Volta first demonstrated the principles of the electric pile in 1800, and within two years, Davy was using his pile to perfect electrolysis techniques for separating and identifying “new” fundamental elements from common chemical compounds.

-Separated/identified the elements potassium and sodium in 1807, soon followed by others such as calcium and magnesium.

-In his famous, award-winning Bakerian Lecture of 1806, On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity, Davy shed light on the entire question concerning the constituents of matter and their chemical properties.

-Demonstrated the “first electric light” in the form of an electric arc-lamp which gave off brilliant light.

-Wrote several books including Elements of Chemical Philosophy in 1812.

In addition to his pioneering scientific work, Davy’s heritage still resonates today for other, more general reasons:

-He pioneered the notion of “professional scientist,” working, as he did, as paid staff in one of the world’s first organized/chartered bodies for the promulgation of science and technology, the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

-As previously noted, Davy is properly regarded as the savior of the Royal Institution. Without him, its doors surely would have closed after only two years. His public lectures in the Institution’s lecture theatre quickly became THE rage of established society in and around London. Davy’s charismatic and informative presentations brought the excitement of the “new sciences” like chemistry and electricity front and center to both ladies and gentlemen. Ladies were notably and fashionably present at his lectures, swept up by Davy’s personal charisma and seduced by the thrill of their newly acquired knowledge… and enlightenment!

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The famous 1802 engraving/cartoon by satirist/cartoonist James Gillray
Scientific Researches!….New Discoveries on Pneumaticks!…or…An
Experimental Lecture on the Power of Air!

This very famous hand-colored engraving from 1802 satirically portrays an early public demonstration in the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of the powers of the gas, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Humphry Davy is shown manning the gas-filled bellows! Note the well-heeled gentry in the audience including many ladies of London. Davy’s scientific reputation led to his eventual English title of Baronet and the honor of Knighthood, thus making him Sir Humphry Davy.

The lecture tradition at the R.I. was begun by Davy in 1801 and continued on for many years thereafter by the young, uneducated man hired by Davy himself in 1813 as lab assistant. Michael Faraday was to become, in only eight short years, the long-tenured shining star of the Royal Institution and a physicist whose contributions to science surpassed those of Davy and were but one rank below the legacies of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell. Faraday’s lectures at the R.I. were brilliantly conceived and presented – a must for young scientific minds, both professional and public – and the Royal Institution in London remained a focal point of science for more than three decades under Faraday’s reign, there.

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The charter and by-laws of the R.I. published in 1800 and an admission ticket to Michael Faraday’s R.I. lecture on electricity written and signed by him: “Miss Miles or a friend / May 1833”

Although once again facing economic hard times, the Royal Institution exists today – in the same original quarters at 21 Albemarle Street. Its fabulous legacy of promulgating science for over 217 years would not exist were it not for Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. It was Davy himself who ultimately offered that the greatest of all his discoveries was …Michael Faraday.

Marking the Passage of Time: The Elusive Nature of the Concept

Nature presents us with few mysteries more tantalizing than the concept of “time.” Youngsters, today, might not think the subject worthy of much rumination: After all, one’s personal iPhone can conveniently provide the exact time at any location on our planet.

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Human beings have long struggled with two fundamental questions regarding time:

  1. What are the fundamental units in nature used to express time? More simply, what constitutes one second of time? How is one second determined?
  2. How can we “accurately” measure time using the units chosen to express it?

The simple answers for those so inclined might be: We measure time in units of seconds, minutes, hours, and days, etc., and we have designed carefully constructed and calibrated clocks to measure time! That was easy, wasn’t it?

The bad news: Dealing with the concept of time is not quite that simple.
The good news: The fascinating surprises and insights gained from taking a closer, yet still cursory, look at “time” are well worth the effort to do so. To do the subject justice requires far more than a simple blog post – scholarly books, in fact – but my intent, here, is to illustrate how fascinating the concept of time truly is.

Webster’s dictionary defines time as “a period or interval…the period between two events or during which ‘something’ exists, happens, or acts.”

For us humans the rising and setting of the sun – the cycle of day and night is a “something” that happens, repeats itself, and profoundly effects our existence. It is that very cycle which formed our first concept of time. The time required for the earth to make one full revolution on its axis is but one of many repeating natural phenomena, and it was, from the beginning of man’s existence, uniquely qualified to serve as the arbitrary definition of time measurement. Other repeatable natural phenomena could have anchored our definition of time: For instance, the almost constant period of the earth’s rotation around the sun (our year) or certain electron- jump vibrations at the atomic level could have been chosen except that such technology was unknown and unthinkable to ancient man. In fact, today’s universally accepted time standard utilizes a second defined by the extraordinarily stable and repeatable electron jumps within Cesium 133 atoms – the so-called atomic clock which has replaced the daily rotation of the earth as the prime determinant of the second.

Why use atomic clocks instead of the earth’s rotation period to define the second? Because the earth’s rotational period varies from month to month due to the shape of our planet’s orbit around the sun. Its period also changes over many centuries as the earth’s axis “precesses” (a slowly rotating change of direction) relative to the starry firmament, all around. By contrast, atomic clocks are extremely regular in their behavior.

Timekeepers on My Desk: From Drizzling Sand to Atomic Clocks!

I have on my desk two time-keepers which illustrate the startling improvement in time-keeping over the centuries. One is the venerable hour-glass: Tip it over and the sand takes roughly thirty minutes (in mine) to drizzle from top chamber to bottom. The other timekeeper is one of the first radio-controlled clocks readily available – the German-built Junghans Mega which I purchased in 1999. It features an analog display (clock-hands, not digital display) based on a very accurate internal quartz electronic heartbeat: The oscillations of its tiny quartz-crystal resonator. Even the quartz oscillator may stray from absolute accuracy by as much as 0.3 seconds per day in contrast to the incredible regularity of the cesium atomic clocks which now define the international second as 9,192,631,770 atomic “vibrations” of cesium 133 atoms – an incredibly stable natural phenomena. The Junghans Mega uses its internal radio capability to automatically tune in every evening at 11 pm to the atomic clocks operating in Fort Collins, Colorado. Precise time-sync signals broadcast from there are utilized to “reset” the Mega to the precise time each evening at eleven.

I love this beautifully rendered German clock which operates all year on one tiny AA battery and requires almost nothing from the operator in return for continuously accurate time and date information. Change the battery once each year and its hands will spin to 12:00 and sit there until the next radio query to Colorado. At that point, the hands will spin to the exact second of time for your world time zone, and off it goes….so beautiful!

Is Having Accurate Time So Important?
You Bet Your Life…and Many Did!

Yes, keeping accurate time is far more important than not arriving late for your doctor’s appointment! The fleets of navies and the world of seagoing commerce require accurate time…on so many different levels. In 1714, the British Admiralty offered the then-huge sum of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could concoct a practical way to measure longitude at sea. That so-called Longitude Act was inspired by a great national tragedy involving the Royal Navy. On October 22, 1707, a fleet of ships was returning home after a sojourn at sea. Despite intense fog, the flagship’s navigators assured Admiral Sir Cloudisley Shovell that the fleet was well clear of the treacherous Scilly Islands, some twenty miles off the southwest coast of England. Such was not the case, however, and the admiral’s flagship, Association, struck the shoals first, quickly sinking followed by three other vessels. Two thousand lives were lost in the churning waters that day. Of those who went down, only two managed to wash ashore alive. One was Sir Cloudesley Shovell. As an interesting aside, the story has it that a woman combing the beach happened across the barely alive admiral, noticed the huge emerald ring on his finger, and promptly lifted it, finishing him off in the process. She confessed the deed some thirty years later, offering the ring as proof.

The inability of seafarers to navigate safely by determining their exact location at sea was of great concern to sea powers like England who had a great investment in both their fleet of fighting ships and their commerce shipping. A ship’s latitude could be quite accurately determined on clear days by “shooting” the height of the sun above the horizon using a sextant, but its longitude position was only an educated guess. The solution to the problem of determining longitude-at-sea materialized in the form of an extremely accurate timepiece carried aboard ship and commonly known ever since as a “chronometer.” Using such a steady, accurate time-keeper, longitude could be calculated.

For the details, I recommend Dava Sobel’s book titled “Longitude.” The later, well-illustrated version is the one to read. In her book, the author relates the wonderfully improbable story of an English country carpenter who parlayed his initial efforts building large wooden clocks into developing the world’s first chronometer timepiece accurate enough to solve the “longitude problem.” After frustrating decades of dedicated effort pursuing both the technical challenge and the still-to-be-claimed prize money, John Harrison was finally able to collect the 20,000 pound admiralty award.

Why Mention Cuckoo Clocks? Enter Galileo and Huygens

Although the traditional cuckoo clock from the Black Forest of Germany does not quite qualify as a maritime chronometer, its pendulum principle plays an historical role in the overall story of time and time-keeping. With a cuckoo clock or any pendulum clock, the ticking rate is dependent only on the effective length of the pendulum, and not its weight or construction. If a cuckoo clock runs too fast, one must lower the typical wood-carved leaf cluster on the pendulum shaft to increase the pendulum period and slow the clock-rate.

No less illustrious a name than Galileo Galilei was the first to propose the possibilities of the pendulum clock in the early 1600’s. Indeed, Galileo was the first to understand pendulum motion and, with an assistant late in life, produced a sketch of a possible pendulum clock. A few decades later, in 1658, the great French scientist, Christian Huygens, wrote his milestone book of science and mathematics, Horologium Oscillatorium, in which he presented a detailed mathematical treatment of pendulum motion-physics. By 1673, Huygens had constructed the first pendulum clock following the principles set forth in his book.

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In 1669, a very notable scientific paper appeared in the seminal English journal of science, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. That paper was the first English translation of a treatise originally published by Christian Huygens in 1665. In his paper, Huygens presents “Instructions concerning the use of pendulum-watches for finding the longitude at sea, together with a journal of a method for such watches.” The paper outlines a timekeeping method using the “equation of time” (which quantifies the monthly variations of the earth’s rotational period) and capitalizes on the potential accuracy of his proposed pendulum timekeeper. The year 1669 in which Huygens’ paper on finding the longitude-at-sea appeared in The Philosophical Transactions preceded by thirty-eight years the disastrous navigational tragedy of the British fleet and Sir Cloudesley Shovell in 1707.

As mentioned earlier, John Harrison was the first to design and construct marine chronometers having the accuracy necessary to determine the longitude-at-sea. After many years of utilizing large balanced pendulums in his bulky designs, Harrison’s ultimate success came decades later in the form of a large “watch” design which utilized the oscillating balance-wheel mechanism, so familiar today, rather than the pendulum principle. Harrison’s chronometer taxed his considerable ingenuity and perseverance to the max. The device had to keep accurate time at sea – under the worst conditions imaginable ranging from temperature and humidity extremes to the rolling/heaving motion of a ship at sea

The Longitude Act of 1714 specified that less than two minutes of deviation from true time is required over a six-week sea voyage to permit a longitude determination to within one-half degree of true longitude (35 miles at the equator). Lost time, revenue, and human lives were the price to be paid for excessive timekeeper inaccuracies.

Einstein and Special Relativity: Speeding Clocks that Run Slow

Albert Einstein revolutionized physics in 1905 with his special theory of relativity. Contrary to the assumptions of Isaac Newton, relativity dictates that there is no absolute flow of time in the universe – no master clock, as it were. An experiment will demonstrate what this implies: Two identical cesium 133 atomic clocks (the time-standard which defines the “second”) will run in virtual synchronization when sitting side by side in a lab. We would expect that to be true. If we take one of the two and launch it in an orbital space vehicle which then circles the earth at 18,000 miles per hour, from our vantage point on earth, we would observe that the orbiting clock now runs slightly slower than its identical twin still residing in our lab, here on earth. Indeed, upon returning to earth and the lab after some period of time spent in orbit, the elapsed time registered by the returning clock will be less than that of its twin which stayed put on earth even though its run-rate again matches its stationary twin! In case you are wondering, this experiment has indeed been tried many times. Unerringly, the results of such tests support Einstein’s contention that clocks moving with respect to an observer “at rest” will always run slower (as recorded by the observer) than they would were they not moving relative to the observer. Since the constant speed of light is 186,000 miles per second based on the dictates of relativity, the tiny time dilation which an orbital speed of 18,000 miles per hour would produce could only be observed using such an incredibly stable, high resolution time-source as an atomic clock. If two identical clocks passed each other traveling at one-third the speed of light, the “other” clock would seem to have slowed by 4.6%. At one-tenth the speed of light, the “other” clock slows by only 0.5%. This phenomena of slowing clocks applies to any timekeeper – from atomic clocks to hourglasses. Accordingly, the effect is not related to any construction aspects of timekeepers, only to our limitation “to observe” imposed by the non-infinite, constant speed of light dictated by relativity.

For most practical systems that we deal with, here on earth, relative velocities between systems are peanuts compared to the speed of light and the relativistic effects, although always present, are so small as to be insignificant, usually undetectable. There are important exceptions, however, and one of the most important involves the GPS (Global Positioning System). Another exception involves particle accelerators used by physicists. The GPS system uses earth-orbiting satellites traveling at a tiny fraction of the speed of light relative to the earth’s surface. In a curious demonstration of mathematical déjà vu when recalling the problem of finding the longitude-at-sea, even tiny variations in the timing signals sent between the satellites and earth can cause our position information here on earth to off by many miles. With such precise GPS timing requirements, the relativistic effect of time dilation on orbiting clocks – we are talking tiny fractions of a second! – would be enough to cause position location errors of many miles! For this reason, relativity IS and must be taken into account in order for the GPS system to be of any practical use whatsoever!

Is it not ironic that, as in the longitude-at-sea problem three centuries ago, accurate time plays such a crucial role in today’s satellite-based GPS location systems?

I hope this post has succeeded in my attempt to convey to you, the reader, the wonderful mysteries and importance of that elusive notion that we call time.

Finally, as we have all experienced throughout our lives, time is short and….

TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN

 

Vintage Radio & TV: Repairing and Building Things…Yourself!

Telefixit_ARummaging through some old files from my father, I came across this gem from 1953 and immediately recognized a great blog-post opportunity! Yes, there once was a time when any sufficiently motivated (and clever/handy) individual could actually troubleshoot things like radios and televisions. Those WERE the days – a time when life was simpler and technology was not totally beyond the grasp of 99 per-cent of the general population.

Today, auto repair is the identical twin to radio/TV repair – well beyond our reach, and residing only in the realm of trained, technical specialists. There is one glaring difference between the two twins, however: Can you guess what that is? The time/money aspect of specialized, technical know-how today renders electronic repair largely pointless. In today’s world, replacing electronic “somethings” is almost always cheaper (and more convenient) than repairing them. The same cannot be said of the automobile – for sure.

The universal image of a greasy pair of overalls protruding from the underbelly of a vintage car being repaired on one’s driveway is long-gone from the auto scene, along with the image of smiling, uniformed Texaco service station attendants swooping in to offer full service on your car as you pull-in for a fill-up.

Repairing Your TV Set Could Kill You!

Really? Even if you first unplug the set before working on it? Yes, especially back then when TV screens were of the high voltage, cathode-ray tube variety. In those days, large electronic capacitors were used to store electrical energy for powering these picture tubes. They could retain thousands of volts of electric charge even though the set was turned off or unplugged. Do-it-yourself manuals took great pains to point out the dangers and to explain how these devices could be safely discharged before working on the set!

Radio – TV Repair Shops: Extinct Dinosaurs;
Today’s Throw-away Society

Radio & TV Repair ShopThese shops, with their signs out front, were once ubiquitous. Today, they are gone because repairing any but the more valuable vintage electronics is largely a fool’s errand today – it just does not make economic sense. The reality is that today’s consumer electronics is a huge factor in our “throw-away” society. Not only is repair not economically feasible, the aggressive “newer/better” syndrome which characterizes today’s electronic devices (especially phones and computers) obsoletes most devices long before they ever need repair!

A Related Point: Why Jobs are Lost
 and the Labor Force Transformed

Although my post has a sentimental ring to it, it serves to showcase a serious aspect of societal change – specifically, the shift from manual labor in manufacturing to high-tech know-how. Here is how the chassis-guts of a television set looked some sixty years ago:

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This tangle of electronic components – primarily vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, and inductors – was hand-soldered together on an assembly line comprised of a small army (mainly women) who sequentially added each piece until the whole assembly was complete. This approach was both time consuming and very labor-intensive (semi-skilled labor). Today, that long assembly line is completely replaced by robotic assemblers which pick, place, and solder components to a so-called “surface-mount” printed circuit board with designated pad positions for every part connection to the board. All wire connections between parts are replaced by thin metallic traces on the board which connect the components. Fabrication/assembly costs are much less than the old hand-wired approach while quality/reliability is exponentially better with the new technology. Individual components known as “integrated circuits” are highly dense groupings of microscopic components (multiple thousands of transistors, resistors, and capacitors) all on one single semiconductor “chip.” These circuits are identifiable by the multiple “leads” on the package. No wonder the radio – TV repairman could not keep up with the burgeoning technology!

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The money formerly paid to those armies of semi-skilled assemblers is now funneled to the relatively few highly educated, skilled and gifted engineers who designed the process and its robotic equipment. This money/job transfer away from lots of manual (often union) labor is inevitable in manufacturing facilities – a key reason for the unemployment and the sinking fortunes of the semi-skilled middle class, today.

The Heathkit Era: Build Your
Own Electronic Equipment

Heathkit VTVM_CROPI still have two pieces of electronic equipment that I built myself from the Heath Company’s famous electronic kits. All parts and detailed, step-by-step assembly instructions were provided. “Heathkits” were lab-quality and were very popular from the nineteen-fifties through the eighties. When I was working on my Masters Degree in electrical engineering in the late sixties, I built one of their biggest kits – a full-blown, vacuum tube, lab-quality oscilloscope. I sold that long ago, but I still have the vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) and the small solid-state (transistorized) power supply that I built long ago.

When you built a Heathkit and could read an electrical schematic, you pretty-well understood the guts of your equipment and how it worked. Not so much in today’s world, however, thanks to the miracle of integrated circuits, etc. It was a wonderful time, in a way, because it was a simpler time – a time when technology was still within the reach of a determined grasp. Whenever we visit our good friends, Dave and Patti, down in Santa Barbara, Dave inevitably offers me my coffee in his well-used mug with the simple brown “Heathkit” lettering. He, too, recalls those old days, and we reminisce a bit.

Heathkit VTVM Manual  Heathkit VTVM Instr

Radio and Radio Repair – A Family Heritage

My father and his family had an early relationship with radio. My grandfather, Elmer, operated a small radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago in the nineteen forties and the early fifties.

Elmer & Martha Kubitz, 1947 _A

Elmer’s wife, Martha, had a small toy and candy store in the adjacent, connected space to the repair shop. The picture is a rare family photo (circa 1948 – the year my dad was transferred to California) of the two of them at Elmer’s front counter. In the background is a small selection of boxed vacuum tubes. A large shop would have had a much bigger stock/selection. Their joint radio/candy enterprise barely paid the bills for them, and I recall that they lived in rather dark surroundings behind the curtains visible in Elmer’s storefront, here. Theirs was a “mom and pop” business venture if ever there was one! I am very sad that we have so few pictures of my grandparents.

My father got his feet wet in radio as a young man by dropping by to help his dad in the shop on occasion. My dad was particularly good at restringing troublesome “dial cords” which connected the radio’s guts with the station tuning dial. In 1942, Dad left Schwinn bicycles and went to work in the Radio Lab at United Air Lines. A heart murmur kept him out of wartime service, but he completed an extensive radio course at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1944.

Dad's IIT Radio Diploma

I still have several of his early radio textbooks – one with a gift inscription from his young wife, my mother:

“To the finest husband in the world, and may he reach every goal he strives for.”

                         “Alice”

The Changing Face and Voice of Music: After 52 Years, Saying Goodbye to My McIntosh FM Tuner

The time has perhaps come to make a significant change in my life. This week, I put my beloved McIntosh MR-67 FM stereophonic tuner up for sale on E-bay.

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As with my vintage Apple II computer which I sold on E-Bay two months ago, parting with this piece of personal history will be difficult, but necessary at this stage of our lives as my wife and I attempt to simplify our existence…and create space in which to operate. I purchased my McIntosh tuner on December 17, 1963 almost exactly one year after completing my degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University and landing my first engineering position here, in Silicon Valley. I had moved back in with my parents in nearby San Mateo, California, while paying off student loans – which were modest compared to those of today.

In 1963, there was a tidal wave of general excitement over the technological improvements being made to audio equipment – all of which contributed immensely to the pleasure of listening to music. Premium FM stations were springing-up across the nation featuring popular music of the day with a fidelity which seduced the public. In 1963, the latest, greatest thing happening was the technology which brought stereophonic sound to these stations. That Hi-Fi audio excitement and the stereo trend led me to purchase my McIntosh FM stereo tuner.

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Iconic audio companies with names like Fisher, Harman Kardon, H.H. Scott, and Marantz moved to the fore-front of the public’s attention – much like the example of Apple, today. Most of these companies had their heyday for a number of years and eventually lost public visibility once the Hi-Fi / Stereo wave of public enthusiasm dissipated and computers became the next, great thing.

One audio company is a notably unique exception to this history. That company is McIntosh Laboratory, founded by Frank McIntosh in 1949 to design and sell quality audio gear.

Today, “Mac” equipment is still at the fore-front of the audio world and represents the extreme “high-end” of the genre. The 30 watt, monophonic power amplifier pictured in this early McIntosh ad sold for $143.50 – a lot in those days! It featured vacuum tube technology (no power transistors back in the fifties) and a McIntosh design innovation for the audio output transformers which drive the loudspeaker – an innovation which greatly improved the state-of-the-art.

McIntosh recently offered a gold-plated 50th anniversary version of their bread-and-butter, two-channel, vacuum tube stereo amplifier, the venerable MC 275 (twin 75 watt channels). The price tag: a whopping $6,500!

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Clearly, McIntosh is not your usual company in any sense of the term. The name has long enjoyed iconic status, not merely for its eye-catching products, but for its dedication to well-engineered, quality audio equipment. It was that successful blend of attributes that attracted young fellows like me to the brand in the early nineteen-sixties.

MR-67 WarrantyMcIntosh was the ONLY audio company that published – in technical detail, on their individual marketing flyers – industry-leading performance specifications for each piece of equipment along with the guarantee that the purchaser would receive a full cash refund should the equipment fail to meet those specs. Pictured, here, is the 3 year McIntosh “warranty” for my MR-67 FM tuner. In 52 years of ownership and at least 35 years of total use, one light bulb needed replacing, and one “weak” tube also needed replacing (in 1987). Yes, I am a first-hand believer in Mac quality and reliability. My MR-67 tuner still works great!

What about the situation, today? McIntosh represents the Rolls-Royce of audio equipment and is the granddaddy of the industry – one of the few survivors of that intoxicating period of Hi-Fi, vinyl LPs, turntables, amplifiers, tuners, FM stereo “multiplexing,” and so-on. McIntosh and other more affordable audio companies continue to cater to those for whom listening to music over IPod earbuds just doesn’t cut it.

My Latest Adventure in Listening: The iPhone / “UE Boom”

photoTechnology continues its relentless march, and, now, I frequently enjoy casual listening to my Amazon Prime playlists via laptop or iPhone through the compact Bluetooth wireless speaker called the “UE Boom.” My brother-in-law, Ken, brought his “Boom” to a recent family event, and that was my introduction to a new listening experience. During the outdoor festivities, I kept wondering where the enjoyable music was coming from – I saw no speakers anywhere. I finally asked Ken, “Where is that great sound coming from, out here, in the backyard?” He then showed me the small, wireless, cylinder that is the “Boom” sitting unobtrusively in the middle of the patio table. That was good enough for me: I promptly bought one.

The beauty of the scheme is that you have complete flexibility composing multiple playlists of favorite songs from various CD or streamed library files. With no single performer/group restrictions as imposed by a given CD album, the listening experience is truly a pleasure. More and more of my casual listening will be done this way; I may even check into an iPod, after all this time. Two “Boom” speakers are easily paired to provide full stereo playback via Bluetooth.

Back to the World of McIntosh, Once Again

There is no getting around the fact that serious music demands serious listening time and good equipment. On those occasions, I retreat to my “modern” McIntosh system with its superb B&W pair of speakers. I have two CDs whose recorded music far surpasses any others I own. The first is a Philips recording of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as performed by the Kirov Orchestra – absolutely magnificent. The booming crescendo in the Pas-de-Deux can only be appreciated on a good sound system with fine bass capability. The other recording, a Telarc recording of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” also deserves the best possible audio system – a truly amazing, ethereal CD, although perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

Nutcracker & Firebird

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These discs deserve dedicated listening time in front of a fine audio system. I like to hear them from a 200 watts-per-channel McIntosh MC 202 amplifier feeding my B&W Nautilus speaker pair: Pure joy!

In popular music, audio technology, and listening modes, most everything has changed, but a few things have not. The McIntosh mystique in audio remains as strong as it ever was, although the affordability of its gear is now beyond most of us. The iconic, illuminated green/teal “McIntosh” logo behind the ubiquitous, proprietary black glass panel is alive and well. I am thankful that I bought my Mac system components before retirement – when I could (at least) barely afford them. There was one exception to that last statement, and that involves my first McIntosh purchase of $299 – the MR-67 FM tuner. When I brought it home to my parent’s house that December of 1963, I owned virtually nothing else – not even an audio amplifier with which to play the tuner! I recall my parents just standing there, shaking their heads, as the crazy son excitedly unboxed his beautiful Mac tuner that first evening: Much water has passed under the bridge since that time, and I hope I have been able to convey, in this post, the nature and excitement of those earlier, gentler times, and why saying goodbye to this particular possession will be difficult. Maybe nobody will match the auction’s starting bid, and it will not sell, after all!

Note: As always, I have no special connection with or financial interest in any product or company featured or “endorsed” in my blog posts!

A Greater Light for Mariners! Fresnel and His Life-Saving Lighthouse Lens

A recent drive north of San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore with its famous Point Reyes lighthouse was enough to stir many emotions. California’s rocky and picturesque northern coastline is reason enough to make the trip, but the lure of its famous lighthouse proves irresistible.

Lighthouse[1]Point Reyes Lighthouse

The Point Reyes lighthouse is perched on a high, notoriously treacherous point of land that extends well into the Pacific Ocean from the main coastline. Many a ship found its final resting place on these rocky shores, going back to the time when sailing vessels and their intrepid sailors first plied the waters, here. The first on the scene was likely Sir Francis Drake who is believed to have safely landed immediately south of here in 1579 at what today is known as “Drake’s Bay.”

The Point Reyes lighthouse first lit its first-order Fresnel (pronounced fray-nel) light source on December 1, 1870. The oil-lamp used was nestled at the focal point of the 6,000 pound rotating Fresnel lens assembly, and its focused light could be seen all the way to the horizon on clear nights – roughly twenty-four miles out in the ocean. The weight-driven, precision clockwork mechanism which rotates the huge lens assembly once every two minutes sweeps a beam of light past a given point every five seconds, a beam that can be seen three or four times farther out to sea than previous lights – thanks to the revolutionary lens design of the French engineer/scientist Augustin-Jean Fresnel. Prior to Fresnel’s published treatise on light diffraction in 1818 and the subsequent appearance of his revolutionary lens design in 1823, lighthouses relied on conventional, inefficient and heavy glass lenses and mirrors to focus light. Fresnel lenses were soon universally adopted for lighthouses based their superior performance. The 6,000 pound first-order Fresnel lens assembly and clockwork drive installed at Point Reyes in 1870 was purchased by the U.S. Government at the great Paris Exposition in 1867.

IMG_5053Looking up into the Fresnel lens assembly and pedestal

Fresnel lenses are ranked in order of their size (focal distance from internal light source to lens), and range from first-order at approximately 36 inches to just under 6 inches for a sixth-order lens. Point Reyes is renowned as the windiest location on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest in all of North America. Given those credentials and the treacherous rocky point on which it sits, the Point Reyes lighthouse certainly merited the biggest Fresnel lens obtainable!

Fresnel Engraving_BW_8X10_2Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Point_Reyes_Lighthouse_1871[1]

Edweard Muybridge photo – 1888
The domed Fresnel lens is clearly visible inside.

Linda and I were at Point Reyes celebrating our 49th wedding anniversary. Upon arriving at the lighthouse after 22 miles of driving from “town,” we were greeted with the warning that the path down to the lighthouse is comprised of 308 steps – (equivalent to a 13 story building) and that the “faint-of-heart” should not attempt the trip. We looked at each other, smiled, shrugged, and off we went. Though narrow, the cement steps are solid and shallow, so the trip back up was not bad!

Folks with fear-of-heights issues are NOT going to enjoy the stairs, however, as the light itself is perched high above the ocean on a treacherous ridge. In the old days, before there were stairs, the light-keeper occasionally had to get down on hands and knees on the rocky trail to complete the trip in howling winds and dense fog. Winds have been clocked higher than 130 mph at Point Reyes! After seeing the site, first-hand, it is easy to imagine just how difficult the light-keeper’s job was in the old days – keeping the light lit and the weight-driven clockwork running 24/7. The gravity-powered mechanism required “rewinding” every 2 ½ hours!

IMG_5069On the way back up!

Heading for the ShoalsHeading for the Shoals!

The terror of being “off course” in wild seas along a rugged coastline must have been overwhelming to seafarers. Lighthouses played a significant role in reducing the incidence of shipwreck for more than a century, but today’s GPS satellite navigational aids have all but rendered them superfluous. Among lighthouses that continue to operate today, the light source is a high-tech electric bulb within the lens, not an oil lamp. Many of yesterday’s Fresnel lens assemblies are relegated to static displays in a museum building adjoining the lighthouse in which they served. Point Reyes’ light remains in operating condition, still in its original position. The last of its resident “keepers” left Point Reyes in 1985. The lighthouse is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

As for Augustin-Jean Fresnel, the French hero of this scientific/seafaring drama: He died young in 1827 at age 39. Although honored in his day with membership in the prestigious Royal (scientific) Society of London and by its award of the prestigious Rumford Medal in 1824, his name is little known, today, outside of science. Anyone who visits lighthouses is bound to learn of him and his famous lenses, however, and of the importance of his work to both scientific-optics and seafaring. His name is engraved on the Eiffel Tower in Paris together with a long-list of other illustrious Frenchmen.

Two Fine Resources:

Short Bright Flash

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I recommend the recently published book by Theresa Levitt on the history of the modern lighthouse and Augustin-Jean Fresnel whose pioneering work on scientific optics and subsequent lens design influenced both science and seafaring.

The other book specifically on the Point Reyes Lighthouse is a beautifully rendered historical and photographic treatment of the subject by Richard Blair and Kathleen Goodwin. I was delighted to find this fine book when we were in the town bookstore. I purchased two copies at a very reasonable price!

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An example of the beautiful photography in my copy of The Point Reyes Lighthouse by Richard Blair and Kathleen Goodwin: The photo shows the interior of the Point Reyes first-order Fresnel lens with the modern electric light source(s) clearly visible. This book is published by Color & Light Editions which specializes in Point Reyes literature and art.