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

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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.

Back Grazing in Familiar Pastures; Shannon’s Milestone Book on Communication Theory

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Do you use the internet and personal communication devices such as cell phones? Since you are here, you must! Who doesn’t these days? One look at people in public places with eyes riveted on phone screens or tablets speaks to the popularity of personal communication. DSL (Direct Subscriber Line) services like AT&T’s U-Verse reliably bring broadband television and the Internet into our homes over lowly, antiquated, but ubiquitous twisted-pair phone wire connections. That miracle is only possible thanks to the power of modern digital communication theory.

The gospel of the engineering/mathematics that enable that capability is this 1949 book edition by Claude Shannon of AT&T’s famous Bell Telephone Laboratories. Its title: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. “Bell Labs” made immense contributions to our body of technical knowledge over many decades through its familiar, blue-wrappered Technical Journal. The authors of its featured papers include many of the most important scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of the past century.

Claude Shannon was one of them; the contents of his 1949 book, published by the University of Illinois Press, first appeared in the Bell System’s Journal in 1948. The paper’s unique and important approach to reliably sending electrical/optical signals from one point (the source) to another (the destination) through a “channel” was instrumental in realizing today’s communication miracles. Shannon’s methods are not limited to this or that specific channel technology; rather, his work applies to virtually all forms of communication channels – from digital audio/video disks, to AM/FM broadcasting, to the technology of the Internet, itself. The wide applicability of Shannon’s insights to communication systems as diverse as Samuel Morse’s original telegraph system and modern satellite communications is quite remarkable and underlines the importance of his findings.

Claude_Elwood_Shannon_(1916-2001)[1]Interestingly, some of the foundation for Shannon’s ideas emanated from the early design of Morse’s first telegraph system which began service in 1844 between Washington and Baltimore. The first message sent over that line was Morse’s famous utterance in Morse code to his assistant, Alfred Vail: “What hath God wrought?” While Claude Shannon is fairly identified as the “father of communication theory” thanks to his famous 1948/49 publications, there were also many grandfathers! Most of them made valuable contributions to the speed and reliability of early communication vis-à-vis the telegraph and early telephony, as pioneered by Alexander Graham Bell. One of the early, key contributors to communication technology was R.V.L. Hartley who, in the July, 1928 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, published a very original treatise titled Transmission of Information. This paper of Hartley’s and one in the 1924 Journal by Harry Nyquist were acknowledged by Shannon as prime foundational sources for his later ideas.

Hartley Bell Journal_2 1928 Journal w/ Hartley’s Paper: Transmission of Information

What Were Claude Shannon’s Contributions?

A brief but inclusive answer comes from the well-regarded book of J.R. Pierce, Symbols, Signals and Noise. I quote, here:

“The problem Shannon set for himself is somewhat different. Suppose we have a message source which produces messages of a given type, such as English text. Suppose we have a noisy communication channel of specified characteristics. How can we represent or encode messages from the message source by means of electrical signals so as to attain the fastest possible transmission over the noisy channel? Indeed, how fast can we transmit a given type of message over a given channel without error? In a rough and general way, this is the problem that Shannon set himself and solved.”

Although Shannon impressively refined our concepts regarding the statistical nature of communication, Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, had, long ago, recognized statistical ramifications, and that fact was reflected in their telegraph code. Notably, they made certain that the most commonly used letters of the alphabet had the simplest dot/dash implementations in the Morse code – to minimize the overall transmission time of messages. For example, the most commonly used letter “e” was assigned a short, single “dot” as its telegraphic representation. Reportedly, this “code optimization” task was handled by Vail who merely visited a local printing shop and examined the “type bins,” equating the frequency of use in print for a specific letter to the size of its type bin! The printing industry had a good handle on text statistics of the English language long before electrical technology arrived on the scene. The specific dot/dash coding of each letter for Morse’s code proceeded accordingly. From that practical and humble beginning, statistical communication theory reached full mathematical bloom in Shannon’s capable hands. As in Morse’s time, coding theory remains an important subset of modern digital communication theory.

Revisiting Communication Theory:
Grazing Once Again in Technical Pastures of the Past

The most satisfying portion of my engineering career came later – particularly the last ten years – when I became immersed in the fundamentals of communication theory while working in the computer disk drive industry, here in Silicon Valley. My job as electrical engineer was to reliably record and retrieve digital data using the thin, magnetic film deposited on spinning computer disks. As the data demands of personal computers rapidly increased in the decade of the 1990’s, the challenge of reliably “communicating” with the magnetic film and its increasingly dense magnetically recorded bits of data was akin to the DSL task of cramming today’s broadband data streams down the old, low-tech telephone twisted-pair wires which have been resident in phone cables for many decades. Twisted-pair wires make a very poor high speed communication cable compared to coaxial cable or the latest fiber-optic high-speed cable, but they had one huge advantage/motivation for DSL’s innovators: They already fed most every home and business in the country!

I retired from engineering in 2001 after a thirty-seven year career and now find myself wandering back to “technical pastures of the past.” During the last ten and most exciting years of my career, I came to know and work with two brilliant electrical engineering PhDs from Stanford University. They had been doctoral students there under Professor John Cioffi who is considered the “father of DSL.” The two were employed by our company to implement the latest communication technologies into disk storage by working closely with our product design teams. Accordingly, the fundamental communication theories that Shannon developed which enabled the DSL revolution were applied to our disk drive channels to increase data capacity/reliability. Under the technical leadership of the two Stanford PhDs, our design team produced the industry’s first, successful production disk drive utilizing the radically new technology. IBM had preceded our efforts somewhat with their “concept” disk drive, but it never achieved full-scale production. After the successful introduction of our product, the disk drive industry never looked back, and, soon, everyone else was on-board with the new design approach known as a “Partial Response/Maximum Likelihood” channel.

I always appreciated the strong similarities between the technology we implemented and that which made DSL possible, but I recently decided to learn more. I purchased a book, a tech-bible on DSL, co-authored in 1999 by Professor Cioffi. Thumbing through it, I recognize much of the engineering it contains. I have long felt privileged that I and our design team had the opportunity to work with the two young PhD engineers who studied with Cioffi and who knew communication theory inside-out. Along with their academic, theoretical brilliance, the two also possessed a rare, practical mindset toward hardware implementation which immensely helped us transfer theory into practice – in the form of a commercially successful, mass-produced computer product. Everyone on our company staff liked and deeply respected these two fellows.

When the junior of the two left our company as our drive design was nearing full production, he circulated a company-wide memo thanking the organization for his opportunity to work with us. He cited several of us engineers by name for special thanks, an act which really meant a lot to me…and, surely, to my colleagues – an uncommon courtesy, these days, and a class act in every sense of the word!

Even in this valley of pervasive engineering excellence, that particular experience was one of a select few during my career which allowed me a privileged glimpse into the rarified world of “top-minds” in engineering and mathematics – the best of the best. A still-higher category up the ladder of excellence and achievement is that of “monster minds” (like Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli) which the Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, so humorously wrote about in his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. A very select club!

The recent event which tuned me in, once again, to this technology and my past recollections was the subject of my May 2, 2015 blog post, Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology (click on the link). In it, I describe the incredible good fortune of stumbling upon one of the two scarce, foundational books on communication theory and computer control: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. More recently, I acquired a nice copy of Claude Shannon’s 1949 first edition, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (the other book). That one came at no give-away price like my copy of Cybernetics, but, given its importance, it still represents a bargain in my mind.

IMG_2479 PSLike many engineers who are familiar with Shannon and his influence, I had never read his book, although I had taken a course on statistical communication theory in my master’s degree program over 45 years ago. Unlike many engineers, today, whose gaze is fixed only upon the present and the future, I have a deep interest in the history of the profession and a healthy respect for its early practitioners and their foundational work. Accordingly, I have been brushing off some technical rust and am now immersed in Shannon’s book for the first time and in the subject material, once again.

Old, familiar pastures – a bit like coming home, again, to peacefully graze. While the overall “view” improves with age and experience, the “eyesight” is not so keen, anymore. But my curiosity is up, yet again, and I will soldier-on through the technical difficulties and see where that takes me, all the while relishing the journey and the landscape.

Patent Problems and Intellectual Property: “The Indigestion of Success”

Aside from love, one of the great emotions humans can experience is the thrill of discovery and achievement – being the first to reveal more of nature’s immutable laws governing the cosmos or doing something no one else has been able to do. Patent Warning_1 Some aspects of life inevitably go together – a coupling of cause-and-effect, if you will. Sometimes, we simply cannot have one thing without another. The claim that “there is a price to be paid for everything” seems a truism which ably illustrates that contention of coupled cause-and-effect. In that vein, man’s finest intellectual achievements or physical accomplishments materialize only after significant vested effort is expended. Our personal life experiences leave no doubt that hard work is a necessary, though not sufficient, prerequisite for great success…in any venue. We understand that. Not so obvious is the other price often associated with intellectual achievement and intellectual property, a price which is extracted after the fact – the tedious, ongoing, and costly effort required to establish and maintain the legal rights to the intellectual property behind any significant achievement.

I call this second price to be paid for success “the indigestion of success” which is often so severe as to result literally in ulcers if not merely pervasive, never-ending discontent.

The “indigestion of success” begins with proving one’s priority of invention while establishing patent rights, and it continues seemingly forever while vigilantly protecting those rights against usurpers. The motivation to defend one’s intellectual property is typically financial, but, understandably, the battle becomes distinctly a matter of personal principle as we will see…and the consequences can be tragic. It is difficult to overstate the high price – both financially and emotionally – of defending intellectual property and priority, yet this surcharge on success is inevitably demanded of inventors, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The list of such examples is varied and fascinating, stretching far back in recorded history. Gaileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday, three of the greatest physicists of all time were each affected by priority controversies during their careers – especially Newton, as we shall see. In the realms of engineering and business, Thomas Edison, Howard Armstrong (radio’s greatest inventor/engineer), Robert Noyce (of integrated circuit fame), and Steve Jobs of Apple Computer were all enveloped by priority controversies and patent battles. Even the Wright brothers, the well-documented founders of modern aviation paid a stiff price defending their marvelous invention, the controllable “flying machine.”

The Wright Brothers: Hard Work, Triumph, then Disillusionment

Wright Glider 1902_1 I just finished reading David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers, which relates the incredible story of the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio – bicycle mechanics/salesmen who created the first true “flying machine”…in their spare time! McCullough is a consummate teller of true stories, but the story of these two men tests the line separating fact from fiction because their stunning success seemed so improbable. The truth is, the Wright Brothers “invented” and successfully flew the first full-sized, self-powered, controllable airplane – a staggering accomplishment for two young men with no formal technical credentials. Their ultimate success was rooted in a fascination at the prospect of manned flight coupled with a single-minded, driven determination to do whatever it takes to accomplish their dream of flying. The two brothers constitute the very best examples of self-made men… engineers and flyers, in their case. Their accomplishments are so thoroughly documented as to seem unassailable and safe from thieves who would steal in the courts of patent law, yet it was not quite that simple. It never is. Author McCullough paints a clear picture on his pages of just how technically challenging their task actually was. What also emerges is the sad turn of events their triumph became once the airplane was designed, tested, documented, and patented. Wilbur Wright, the brilliant engineering mind for whom no technical challenge seemed too large, died early in 1912 at the young age of forty-five years. The official cause of death was typhoid fever, but it seems Wilbur’s spirit was dying for quite some time before his body expired. In May of 1910, the brothers, who did all their own flying from the project’s onset in 1900, went up together in their Wright Flyer for the very first time – some seven years after Orville’s first flight at Kitty Hawk. Their disciplined methodology throughout the project dictated that, should there be an accident, at least one of them should survive to carry on the work. Their flight together that day seemed their tacit acknowledgement that they had completed their life’s dream; all that remained was to form and grow a profitable company which would carry on their work and insure a comfortable livelihood for the brothers and their immediate relatives.

WilburWright7[1]By 1912, two years had passed since Wilbur Wright had last done what he truly loved to do: Piloting the Wright Flyer while perfecting its design. His weeks and months the past two years were spent on business trips to New York and Washington and in courtrooms defending the patent portfolio he and Orville had assembled as the backbone of their new Wright Company… for the manufacture of airplanes. In author McCullough’s account, Orville took note of Wilbur’s restless discontent with the tedium and exasperations of establishing their company, noting that after a day spent in offices dealing with business and patent matters, Wilbur would “come home white.”

Wilbur, himself, wrote of the patent entanglements: “When we think of what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

Within several years of Wilbur’s death, Orville Wright had sold the Wright Company to others, preferring a peaceful, retiring life to one spent constantly battling corporate demons and those who would usurp the brothers’ past and future accomplishments. His mission for the remainder of his long life: To represent his brother while defending the less materialistic aspects of the Wright brothers’ legacy. I believe I would have done precisely the same, were I in his shoes. Other notable, historical figures in similar circumstances made sadly different decisions when faced with the indigestion of success and the never-ending need to protect intellectual property. The two examples that follow vividly illustrate just how bad these matters of priority and intellectual property can become, especially for the most-principled of participants.

Edwin Howard Armstrong: Radio’s Greatest Inventor/Engineer and Tragic Victim of His Own Success and the Patent System

For radio and electrical engineers who know the history, Edwin Howard Armstrong is the tragic hero of early “wireless” and a victim of the radio empire which he helped to create. Howard Armstrong was the quintessential radio engineer’s engineer – bright, motivated, creative…and stubbornly persistent. He exuded personal integrity. The very qualities which made him the greatest inventor/engineer in the history of radio, led to his downfall and suicide in 1954. Howard Armstrong surfaced in 1912 as a senior electrical engineering major at Columbia University with an obsessive interest in the infant science of “wireless” radio. He was a fine student with a probing, independent mind that suffered no fools. In 1912, while living at home in nearby Yonkers, New York, and commuting daily to Columbia on an Indian-brand motorcycle, he invented a way to greatly increase signal amplification using a single De Forest Audion vacuum tube by feeding part of the tube’s marginally amplified output back to the input of the device where it was amplified over and over again. This technique is now known in the trade as “regeneration,” or positive feedback. Along the way, young Armstrong had made great strides in understanding the technology behind Lee De Forest’s recent invention of the Audion tube, insights far beyond those De Forest himself had offered. While tinkering with the idea of signal regeneration in his bedroom laboratory early on the morning of September 22, 1912, he achieved much greater signal amplification from the Audion than was possible without using regeneration. The entire household was abruptly awakened by young Armstrong’s unrestrained excitement over his discovery, and an important discovery it was for the infant science of “wireless radio.” Regeneration was patented by Armstrong in 1913/14 and was used, under license from him, in countless radios during the early years when radio sets with more than one tube were very expensive to produce, due to the high cost of tubes.

Armstrong Patent_2Armstrong’s 1914 patent on the regenerative receiving circuit – one of the foundations of early wireless radio and a gateway to efficient tube-based radio transmitters, as well. Armstrong_Regen_1 Armstrong’s historic, handwritten chronological account of inventing the regenerative circuit – page one of six; likely written around 1920 to serve as evidence in the litigation with De Forest over Armstrong’s regeneration patent. Note the Sept. 22, 1912 date of his triumph (near the bottom).

In 1914, Lee De Forest stepped forward to challenge Armstrong in court over Armstrong’s patent, claiming that he, De Forest, was the legitimate inventor of regeneration. The litigation in the court system over regeneration went back and forth, lasting twenty years and finally ending up in the United States Supreme Court. Shockingly, De Forest was handed the final decision by the court, but the substantial body of radio engineers across the nation in 1934, who were well aware of the “radio art” and its history, were not buying De Forest’s claim. They fully supported Armstrong as the legitimate inventor – the same view held today. The twenty-year patent litigation battle over regeneration was the longest in U.S. patent court history. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of Armstrong’s troubles with the patent courts and those who would take advantage of his work.

The Tragedy of Edwin Howard Armstrong

Howard Armstrong was one of the last, great, lone-inventor/engineers. He was long affiliated with his alma-mater, Columbia University, and had extensive business/patent dealings with giant corporations, such as RCA and Philco, which drew their life-blood from his inventions and the industry which he helped to create. By licensing his many important patents to these corporations, Armstrong became a very wealthy man. At one time, he was the largest stockholder in the giant RCA Corporation. Despite such wide-spread affiliations, he was, by temperament, an independent thinker in the lone-inventor mold. As radio entered the late nineteen thirties, men-of-action like Armstrong were becoming obsolete, increasingly overrun by corporate bureaucracies and their in-house armies of engineers. Radio was now out of the hands of the lone-inventor, becoming the exclusive domain of the moneyed corporations with influence at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in Washington. Armstrong increasingly found himself defending his legitimate patent rights against large corporations which were treading on those rights, battling their great financial resources and their legions of corporate lawyers. As he continued to lose rightful patent royalties to corporate violations of his patents, he stubbornly fought back fueled by his personal principles of fair play, all the while dissipating his once-great financial security to fund the necessary lawyer’s fees. Armstrong was a man of principled integrity; he could have capitulated, retreated, retired comfortably, and lived out his life, but he chose to fight.

Armstrong's Suicide    004Ultimately, those ceaseless legal battles wore him down, bankrupted him, and destroyed his long marriage. On May 5, 1954, he stepped from his New York apartment window to his death thirteen stories below. In an ironic sense, he fell victim to the industry and the changing times he helped to create. He also was victimized by the very qualities which made him great: Intellectual independence, principled integrity, and the stubborn will to persevere. There are many lessons to be learned from Howard Armstrong’s life-story. The lone crusader was crushed by the corporate “Goliaths” he helped create. Final postscript: After Armstrong’s death, his estranged wife, Marion, took up her husband’s ongoing patent battles with the Goliaths of the radio industry. She eventually prevailed in every single case!

Inventor of the Calculus: Isaac Newton or the German Mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz?

History’s most ardent defender of his intellectual property also happened to be the greatest scientist/mathematician of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. As vindictive as he was brilliant, Newton waged one of history’s most vicious priority battles with Gottfried Leibniz over credit for the development of the calculus, that ubiquitous, indispensable mathematical tool of the engineer and scientist. Newton formulated its fundamentals in 1665/66, the famous “miracle year” spent at his mother’s homestead in isolation from the great plague which swept through England at the time. GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689[1]Newton’s peerless scientific self-discipline tended to completely desert him when challenged by others on matters of intellectual priority which he felt belonged to him. Leibniz and Robert Hooke were two men who famously felt the full force of Newton’s rage in such matters. For Newton and his circumstances, there was no real money at stake – only prestige and ego, and Newton’s ego was well-developed… and sensitive. Today, both Newton and Leibniz are credited with independently developing the calculus – essentially true, although it appears certain that Leibniz had unauthorized access to some of Newton’s early personal papers on the subject. In that sense, Newton is regarded as the “primary” developer of calculus. Leibniz never quite recovered from the savage and telling effects of Newton’s vindictiveness which was well publicized in scientific circles and which reduced the great Newton to unprincipled deceits in his efforts to discredit his rival. In Newton’s mind, much more was at stake than mere money: For him, personal satisfaction and the ego-satisfying prospect of scientific immortality were far more important motivators. In his defense, one could argue that, for Newton, the long-term stakes riding on his efforts to receive due credit for his brilliance were much higher than most. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, Newton’s personal reputation suffered significantly even if his scientific reputation remained unsullied over the dispute with Leibniz.

What Would You Do?

Milton_Wright_1889[1]If you were ever in the position of enjoying a significant personal success that had already conferred substantial wealth upon you, yet huge wealth beckons you or whoever else takes the enterprise still further – what would you do? Like Orville did, I would have heeded Bishop Milton Wright’s early admonition to his children (paraphrased here) that greed is bad and leads to grief; be content with sufficient money to sustain a comfortable life and require nothing more beyond that than the normal pleasures of life and living. The Bishop also warned against temper and ego. The Bishop was a very wise man; the brothers received some very informed guidance.

 “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Click here to get to last week’s post, The Brothers Wright had “The Right Stuff”

The Colt “Peacemaker” : Uncontested Icon of the Old West

Not so many decades ago, the taming of America’s “Wild West” was still only grist for history books yet unwritten. In today’s civilized, organized, regulated, and legalized society, it takes some imagination to visualize what life and “law and order” must have been like, back then. For better or for worse, one of America’s most recognizable icons has emerged from the turmoil of those Wild-West days to become embedded in our national consciousness.

 Sears and Roebuck Cowboy Special_PS

The Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver is synonymous with the “Wild West” in the minds of Americans. It is virtually the only sidearm portrayed in the wildly popular, early western movies and television shows. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidiy would not be caught dead without Colt SAA revolvers in their holsters…or maybe they would! The SAA was called “The Peacemaker” and for good reason – its ubiquitous presence in the holsters of frontier sheriffs who were duty-sworn to keep law and order in the “new territories” of our expanding nation.

I sincerely hope that readers who instinctively do not like guns will not stop reading, at this juncture. My interest in the iconic Colt SAA is purely historical and reflects no inclinations on my part to argue the pros and cons of firearms in today’s society. As you will soon appreciate, the story of Samuel Colt and his firearms company is an integral part of our country’s history and industrial heritage.

Surprisingly (to me, as well), there is an aesthetic case to be made for the Colt SAA which contributes to its iconic stature; I will explain. As with the automotive industry which blossomed precisely at the heyday of the Colt’s popularity, there were also plenty of would-be competitors in the firearms business, but, like the Model T Ford, only one sidearm would emerge an icon in its field…and that certainly was the Colt SAA revolver, usually in its storied .45 caliber.

Little Cowboys_CROPMillions of us senior males recall with great fondness playing “cowboy” in our early youth. Who among us does not recall the cheap, die-cast cap guns clearly modeled after the Colt SAA …and that distinctive, sharp gunpowder smell which emanated from firing a roll of caps through the pistol – at the bad guys. The good guys always won, of course, when it came to dealing with outlaws.

Of more concern, today, was our youthful perception of “cowboys and Indians.” In retrospect, it is not always so easy to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys on the Old West stage. Most of us, today, have no illusions concerning our history of the white man’s settling of the West – at the expense of native Americans. The romantic portrayals of “good and bad” in our media and in our national conscience were often cockeyed, and the notion of wild shoot-outs and impersonal killing with a firearm for the sake of entertainment were not the stuff of which to be proud now that we reflect on it. Human nature being what it is, and the entertainment industry being what it is, virtually everything about the western frontier was unduly romanticized and sanitized.

Colt sold huge numbers of its flagship gun, the Single Action Army revolver, for good reason. Often, a man’s revolver was the only protection available against the numerous ne’er-do-wells on the far fringes of the frontier. His gun had to be quick and reliable. Firing cartridge bullets (usually the heralded Colt .45 caliber), the Colt SAA provided incredible advantages over the old percussion cap and ball, black powder revolvers which preceded it for decades. Those were clumsy to reload and shoot and not nearly as accurate as the SAA.

The old black powder handguns were still the staple of soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, less than ten years prior to the 1873 introduction of the SAA. They were not only heavy and clumsy to reload and shoot, they were also decidedly homely looking weapons. Due to its ease of use, reliability, and accuracy, the 1873 Colt Peacemaker was a revelation to its new owner, those merits reflecting the most important considerations in choosing any sidearm…aside from the initial cost.

There is one other aspect of the Colt SAA that intrigues me and sets it even further apart from its nearest competitors, and that is its “beauty” – yes, I said beauty! Admittedly, handguns are generally ugly mechanisms, both in the emotional sense (for many) and in the physical sense. For me, the Colt SAA is a glaring exception which helps to explain its iconic status; its lines are classic and functionally straight-forward – even graceful.

There is virtually no other product I can think of whose physical image and functional usefulness has withstood the test of time …over many decades. Think of the Model T Ford compared to today’s sleek Ford Fusion, for example. Think of cameras, of telephones, and of airplanes – from the biplane to today’s sleek jet fighter aircraft. More than any other product that comes to mind, the Colt SAA maintains an aesthetic and functional appeal, very little diminished since its introduction in 1873. What other manufactured product can make that claim? The gun’s elegant, graceful lines reflect the straight-forward functionality of its design.

Holding a Colt in one’s hand makes it easy to appreciate the heft and balance of its machined and polished steel assembly. As it comes off the assembly and finishing lines, a Colt SAA revolver inherently reflects the artisan’s touch of a fine machinist, where precision and fit are paramount. With the addition of a master engraver’s imaginative artistry graved into its fine steel finish, a Colt SAA becomes an artistic work of great beauty as the following pictures amply prove.

Colt SAA_1

Colt SAA_2

Colt SAA_3

Colt SAA_4

Colt Third Model Dragoon_CROPA Colt third model “Dragoon” black powder pistol – the rather clumsy forerunner of the classic Single Action Army, Colt .45 revolver.

The Colt SAA illustrated at the very beginning of this post is the famed Sears and Roebuck “Cowboy Special” Single Action Army custom engraved at the Colt factory in the early nineteen-hundreds as a special order for Sears and Roebuck. The gun was fully engraved with fine gold line inlays and offered for sale in Sears’ renowned catalogue for a number of years as a marketing ploy – an attention-getter! The price must have been stiff, presumably to evoke comment, and the gun never sold after being offered for some years. Clearly, Sears had no intention to make money off its sale and wanted to keep it around for its publicity value.

The revolver was put into a vault long ago and lay forgotten for many years – until it was rediscovered in the mid nineteen-fifties. At that point, it was offered to the famous singer and ardent Colt collector, Mel Torme, for $750. After much deliberation over the “stiff price,” Torme purchased it. Several years ago that same gun was auctioned by the auction house, James D. Julia Auctioneers of Fairfield, Maine, for $747,500! They provided the picture of it used, here, as well as a few others in this post.

You now have some idea just how collectable Colt firearms can be, especially Colt factory engraved and inlaid SAA’s. Especially coveted are those done by the handful of recognized master engravers employed by Colt back in its heyday – true artists who often spent their entire careers at Colt. Factory engraved Colts by Gustave Young, L. D. Nimschke, and Cuno Helfricht are very highly sought.

#2 Patterson Belt Pistol

The above cased presentation set containing an engraved No. 2 Colt Patterson percussion revolver and accessories was auctioned several years ago by James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine – for the princely sum of $517,500! (picture courtesy of them). The very early Colt firearms carrying the “Patterson” designation reflect the Patterson, New Jersey location of Colt’s first factory. Before long, the Colt Patent Arms Co. relocated to Hartford, Conn.

Part of the lure of Colt firearms stems from the illustrious history of its founder, Samuel Colt. He invented the revolving pistol as we now know it, and organized the Patent Arms Co. in 1836. While his ground-breaking mechanical aptitude and talents revolutionized firearms design in the early nineteenth century, he also broke new ground in corporate marketing by skillfully promoting his products.

The tradition of customized, cased, and factory engraved Colt sidearms which were presented as gifts to influential government dignitaries reflects Colt’s unerring grasp of effective marketing. Numerous examples of these presentation firearms still exist, today, and are highly sought.

Collecting firearms like these is a pastime only for wealthy folks. Fortunately, for the rest of us, seeing them in collections and books and appreciating their historical and artistic merits costs next to nothing.

Postscript:

For those curious about the meaning of the phrase “single action” reflected in the abbreviation, “SAA” of Single Action Army: On a single action revolver, pulling the trigger merely releases the manually cocked hammer, thus firing the gun. The cylinder revolves to the next bullet chamber when the hammer is manually cocked using the thumb.

On a double action revolver, pulling the trigger both revolves the cylinder and fires the gun in one continuous motion. Most revolvers, today, are of the double action variety, although single action guns are still manufactured.

Recommended:

For a fine, overall look at Samuel Colt and his famous firearms, I recommend the book: Colt: An American Legend by R.L.Wilson: Abbeville Press, 1985.

The Brothers Wright Had “The Right Stuff”

Their names are synonymous with the airplane and aviation, yet they are under-appreciated by today’s public. Wilbur and Orville were brothers from Dayton, Ohio, and they truly had “the right stuff.” Nobody knew their names in the beginning. This famous picture captures the moment that changed everything.

First_flight2[1]

 Kitty Hawk – Dec. 17, 1903 – Orville Wright at the controls!

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot who first flew through the sound barrier at Edwards Air Force Base in 1947 also personified the “right stuff”, and nobody knew his name. Also anonymous were his fellow test pilots at Edwards who risked their necks while pushing aviation’s “envelope” in the early part of the last century. But, all of it started with the Wright brothers from Dayton, Ohio.

Humans had dreamt of flying for centuries. It finally truly happened on December 17, 1903 on the barren sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The chosen site of mankind’s first self-sustained, powered flight had little to offer as amenities except sweeping expanses of soft sand and virtually constant wind – just what the brothers Wright were looking to find. Despite all the hot-air ballooning and gliding experiments that had taken place decades before that day in December, 1903, there were many so-called aviation “experts” who said man would never truly fly…right up to the time of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

Wright Bros. Stamp_1Wilbur and Orville Wright were not listening to the skeptical “experts.” They navigated their successful course relying on their own compass bearings: That was just their way of doing things – a necessary ingredient for the “right stuff” recipe. Even so, they had hoped to leverage their engineering/design efforts by using worthy findings and data compiled by their contemporaries and predecessors in “the flying machine game.” It was only common sense to use what findings were already available. But, as often as not, the brothers had to invent and chart their own course in so many ways.

Even the great German, Otto Lilienthal, whose pioneering experimentation with gliders furthered the cause of flight, had compiled data on wing curvature that was proven erroneous by the independent-minded brothers who proceeded to correct Lilienthal’s findings. Ultimately, the brothers Wright did things their own way, and, in the process, provided society not only with man’s first flying machine, but with a template for future large-scale engineering and manufacturing processes.

1909_Wright_Cycle_Shop[1]There are few stories more engaging than that of these two brothers who turned the world on its ear through their vision, ingenuity, and stark determination. Imagine: Two brothers in the business of manufacturing and selling bicycles from their tiny shop in Dayton, Ohio, taking upon themselves the immense task of building a flying machine by studying and observing birds in order to decipher their DNA encoded secrets of flight. Wilbur and Orville had no fancy college education to enable them. It was their curiosity and sense of wonder, coupled with their practical, can-do attitude, that powered them to success in the venture.

Their father, Bishop Wright, was a religious man – a traveling pastor whose personal example instilled in the brothers their common-sense approach to life and their devotion to hard work. And the task they undertook required copious quantities of both virtues.

Their first successful powered flight of 12 seconds duration over120 feet of distance occurred during the third of three extended trips to Kitty Hawk. The first two outings which began in 1900 were devoted to gliding experiments.

Among the critical findings during those first two extended stays on the site’s desolate sands were the concepts of wing-warping and proper wing curvature. Warping of the wings using controls by the prone pilot anticipated the modern aileron design present in all modern airplanes and crucial to controlled turns. It was their correct surmise that control of the machine was the ultimate problem standing in the way of successful flight, and they attacked it with a vengeance. The critical wing curvature question was tackled in the backroom of their cycle shop using one of the first wind tunnels ever constructed (by themselves, of course!).

There was one major problem remaining, and that was acquiring a very lightweight engine capable of launching their craft in the air…and keeping it there. A search for appropriate power-plants revealed none, so the brothers furnished their own! The twelve horsepower, four cylinder engine with a lightweight aluminum block was designed and built by Charlie Taylor, a mechanic with a genius bent who worked for the brothers in the backroom “machine shop” of their cycle shop. Yes, luck is always present in any successful endeavor with a long reach, but the brothers’ association with Mr. Taylor accurately illustrates the adage that talent attracts talent. It is quite incredible and so fitting that the brothers produced, as icing on the cake, their own power-plant for the world’s first true flying machine.

The brothers continued their pioneering work on flight in the years which followed Kitty Hawk, keeping much of it under wraps for fear of those who would steal from them, their patentable ideas. Indeed, in France they believed that they, the French, were leading the charge in aviation – that is, until Wilbur traveled to France in 1908 and took the wraps off the brothers’ latest refinements with a tour-de-force series of demonstration flights by Wilbur in the latest “Wright Flyer.” The French were stunned and found themselves quickly relegated to a back seat in the bus along with the rest of the “flying machine” contenders.

Wilbur died early, in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948, long enough to see their brainchild, the airplane, exceed anyone’s wildest imaginings. I recall that Orville’s death occurred just one year after Chuck Yeager shattered the sound barrier in the rocket-propelled Bell X-1 at Edwards, thus giving birth to a new age in aviation.

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The saga of the Wright brothers is the quintessential American story. Fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more engrossing. I love a true story, well-told, so I am very pleased that the author/historian best positioned to do the Wright brothers justice has chosen to do so in his just-released book, The Wright Brothers. That, of course would be David McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies, Truman, and John Adams.

Wright_Brothers_in_1910[1]Author McCullough maintains that Wilbur and Orville Wright, though well-known, are under-appreciated by today’s public; I agree. In reading McCullough’s carefully researched account, I find so much of value in their story which sticks to the reader’s ribs. The author’s demonstrated appreciation of “excellence” and “self-reliant” motivation resonates perfectly with the characters in his book. In today’s world, with its emphasis on glitz and immediate, though transient impact, the devotion-to-task and patient steadfastness of the Wright brothers may appear old-fashioned and out-of-date, but there is no denying that that they, as much as anyone in our history, characterize our celebrated “Yankee ingenuity” and inventiveness. These were serious people, doing serious engineering, and making great history. I applaud author McCullough for his thorough research which figures so prominently in highlighting the personal characteristics of these men, characteristics which enabled their great success. The world has been and continues to be changed forever by the likes of them.

Remarkably, they achieved this great success without any outside funding for their efforts – unlike some other competitors who failed, despite government funding. True to their independent nature, the brothers paid their own way – entirely. Later, the government in Washington predictably became very interested in their flying machine… for military purposes.

I found fascinating, McCullough’s vignette on Amos I. Root, an enterprising beekeeper from upstate Ohio and one of the very few people who took any notice of the Wright’s extensive test flying at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, in the spring of 1904. It was over that expansive prairie that the brothers perfected their flyer and honed their flying skills. This went on for months, to the complete oblivion of virtually everyone in the region including the local Dayton newspapers. Proud owner of a new Oldsmobile automobile, Root would motor down to Dayton to watch the brothers fly, earning their friendship and confidence, in the process. It was months before the population and the local papers finally latched on to the importance of what was visibly happening right under their distracted noses. In contrast to the public at large, Mr. Root possessed intellectual curiosity and sufficient wisdom to be able to discern history in the making.

And finally, much like the brave, intrepid test pilots like Chuck Yeager at the Edwards Air Force Base Test Center, the two brothers risked their lives every time they went up in the air – even in the early gliders. The brothers did all of their own flying. The first airplane passenger ever killed was a member of the Signal Corps who went up with Orville in 1908. Orville was seriously injured and barely survived the crash. Nothing about their remarkable, successful journey was simple or easy. I confidently hope that David McCullough’s book will help to impress that fact upon the public while generating new interest.

The quote which opens chapter one is perfectly suited to the message received from the story within the book:

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Postscript:

With all due respect to Ohio, that state may not quite be the exciting cauldron of opportunity it once was, but Wilbur’s contention that a good father and mother are  prime catalysts to the success of their offspring still holds true. I feel so strongly about that contention that my blog post last week happens to be about the most important job in the world: PARENTING. I think the brothers Wright would agree.

Click here to see last week’s post on PARENTING

 For my previous blog post on author David McCullough click here:

My post on David McCullough

Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology

IMG_2350_PSI had a very good day recently. I bought a beautiful $400 book for $20 in Ventura, California! It also happens to be a very important book – literally, a foundation work for today’s Internet and our computer-based technological age . The book is titled: Cybernetics. While traveling south three weeks ago to the annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Music Festival – an annual event for us (see last week’s post) – Linda and I stopped in downtown Ventura, California – also an annual ritual. As always, we had lunch at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and browsed for a bit at one of our favorite used bookstores in town, The Calico Cat.

Often we find a book or two in this little shop, and sometimes, we do not. After perusing various sections for close to an hour with no luck, I moved to the science/math section. As I ran my eyes along the shelves, I recognized many of the books they held. My scanning gaze froze as I came upon a pristine little book titled Cybernetics: or Control and Communication of the Animal and the Machine, written by Norbert Wiener. Wiener was a mathematics prodigy in his youth who enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor of mathematics at M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The book’s title reflects its ground-breaking categorization of the messaging and control systems inherent in the two closely-related realms of computer control and the human/animal brain/body connection. Cybernetics appeared at precisely the same time as the first, large-scale electronic computers, and this little book was instrumental in determining the future path of computing and control (robotics).

I immediately recognized the title and author as very important, but could this be the 1948 first edition – a book I knew to be of considerable value? I excitedly pulled it from the shelf and opened to the verso of the title page which stated “Second printing. November, 1948.” I was holding the second printing of the first U.S. edition printed by John Wiley and Sons, Inc. There was a companion edition of the text published in Paris by Hermann et CIE, also in 1948.

I became very excited and called Linda over to show her the book and explain, “I believe this book is worth several hundred dollars in the book trade: It is a very famous, seminal work in communication and control engineering. For a copy in the like-new condition of this one, $400 is easily a realistic value on the market. The apparent penciled price for this pristine copy with an almost perfect dust jacket: $25! The store’s owner called my attention to the fact I misread the price which was actually only $20. With no hint of hesitation, I coolly announced, “I’ll take it!” The book’s original price, still on the dust-jacket: $3! Understandably, the store owners had no clue as to the book’s engineering/mathematical significance to today’s Internet and computer technology.

For a retired electrical engineer, like myself, finding this little book in such perfect condition at such a price is akin to tripping over a diamond protruding from the footpath. My many years in Silicon Valley spent designing computer disk drives all ultimately stemmed from a very few foundational works (books and technical papers) such as this one. Summoning my engineering background, I can read and understand the material in this book –while difficult, it does not require a PhD in Mathematics. That is the beauty of a foundational technical work such as this – profound, yet accessible to most engineers and scientists – given some effort.

The “Other” Book

11120467054[1]There exists another similarly concise book whose pedigree exceeds even that of Cybernetics. That book was authored by Claude Shannon at the Bell Laboratories and titled The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Interestingly, the book was published in 1949 after being first introduced as a technical paper in the Bell Systems Journal of 1948 – the same year that Cybernetics was published.

Dare I press my luck and hope to find a similar bargain for Mr. Shannon’s book? Not likely to happen, but it would be the perfect complement to Wiener’s little volume.

Shannon’s book elegantly achieves the unenviable task of defining “information” in mathematical terms and in a manner which lends itself to quantifying the maximum flow of  information possible over a given communication channel such as the Internet or the radio/television airwaves, to cite two of many possible real-life applications. Reading and decoding the magnetically recorded binary bits of data (1’s and 0’s) stored on computer disk drives occurs in the “read channel” of the drive electronics, as we engineers in the industry referred to it. All such applications concerning “communications” succumb to the mathematics presented by Claude Shannon in this little volume containing a mere 117 pages! Shannon’s methods are equally applicable to yesterday’s analog channels (radio transmissions, for example) and today’s pervasive digital implementations (computers, the Internet, et all).

The next time we are passing through Ventura, I will keep a sharp eye out for this second book and any other bargains like Cybernetics! Good fortune usually takes luck, but when good luck comes knocking, one needs to recognize the sound!