On January 29, 1967, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite conducted a TV interview with John Pierce, the executive director of communications sciences at Bell Labs. The topic was research. Pierce said, “The wires that will carry telephony will also carry teletypewriter, and a circuit that’s capable of handling television will handle high speed data and many other things as well…once you have the transmission facilities available they can be used for everything interchangeably.” Back then, phone lines only carried two-way telephone calls, you talked and listened. No pictures of your sister’s cat to look at while you talked to your mother. No text messages, and no GPS. Mr. Cronkite predicted, letters, calls, data and even television were likely to merge and someday go through almost a single switchboard or circuit.
How did we get from the basic black AT&T phone to the smart phone? Research on electromagnetism, which is one of the 4 physical forces governing the universe. Here’s a good explanation of the 4 forces: http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/cosmology/forces.html. Gravity and its absence, may soon be used for consumer enjoyment, just like we use electromagnetism to watch NFL football, or the Master’s on satellite TV.
Pierce’s research was based on the problem of reproducing conversation. He saw it as a large system delivery problem, because he worked for the phone company. Bell Laboratories was a operated by AT&T, a government regulated monopoly. AT&T was the largest machine on earth. Cronkite was helping Americans understand how the advancement of electronic transmissions would change their lives. Electricity is difficult to understand because we only see its results, like lights. Back then, it was not possible for the average person to visualize they could have TV signals from satellites delivered to their homes, or Skype delivered through their home computer. AT &T patented the Picture Phones and demonstrated it at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In the late 1960’s, Cronkite and Pierce were talking about the consumer electronics we use today. Research on wireless phone transmission through cellular networks worked in the early 1950’s, and solar cells did too. They were all solutions looking for a problem.
The understanding of electromagnetism and solid state physics, led to the manufacturing of the applications and technologies like the computer. Electrons, like gravity, are part of the fabric of life. The electromagnetic spectrum is a way to visibly look at energy in our environment. Here is a great website http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l2/emspectrum.html put together by NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Here’s a question, how did the understanding of electromagnetism lead to Netflix in your home?
Claude Shannon, a colleague of Pierces’ wrote the “Mathematical Theory of Communications” in 1948. It was in this paper, written right after the war, that Shannon explained the problems of breaking down a conversation that occurred at one point and then reproducing at another point.
Pierce had to make sure millions of conversations could be handled by the phone system, 24/7/365. Simply stated, in order to move millions of conversations all over the world, in seconds, Mr. Pierce had to think differently. Perhaps, he was the Steve Jobs’ of the telecommunications industry: Mr. THINK DIFFERENT. Claude Shannon and his colleagues eventually figured out how to break down a conversation into pulses, convert those pulses to digital signals, send those signals over an open line, and then put the signals back together at the end of the line into a conversation that closely resembled the original conversation.
As we look at consumer demand and it driving impact on our economy, keep in mind consumer demand created the phone system which had to respond to ever increasing consumer demand. Electronics and digital communications led to the computer, internet, and satellite communications. These technologies we created because we had, in part, deep understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum.
NASA played an important role early on in the development of the communications industry because it launched Telstar, the first active satellite, on a Delta rocket. Telstar proved we could send electronic signals transmitted from earth to space and transmit them back to earth again. In 2005, Congress designated the US portion of the International Space Station (ISS) as a National Research Laboratory, and established the Center for Aerospace Research in Space to run it. CASIS is positioned to use the non-NASA portion of ISS for commercial researchers. This time we are studying gravity and its absence. We are at the beginning of another era in commercial or industrial research. Past is prologue. The best is yet to come.