Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sugar Cube Radio

Miniaturization was a long process, and as much credit as NASA deservedly gets, the military shouldn't be forgotten. For every great NASA story about Velcro, memory foam, rumble strips, Mylar, (and 6,300 other patents) there is a another story behind it of military utility. When NASA needs a hand towel compressed down to the size of a golfball they make 50 of them. When the military needs Kevlar shoelaces, they order150,000 of pairs. With quantity comes mass production, and mass production makes an invention into a product.

That photo above was taken in March of 1959 [source]. It was taken at the U.S. Army Signal Research and Development Laboratory, Fort Monmouth, N.J. and had a little something to do with RCA. Bell Labs had the patents on the early Germanium diodes and both the point-contact transistor and,the junction transistor. When they held a symposium in 1951, it was co-sponsored by the military.  In their annual research report in 1947, RCA Labs had indicated it's focus on solid state electronics. It was an understatement. 

When the justice Department broke up ma Bell in 1951, they had to make their patents available by court order. RCA bought a license on the transistor that year. Western Electric licensed them related patents a year later.  By 1952 RCA demonstrated the first prototype transistor radio. While Texas Instruments produced the first consumer model in 1954, RCA was in the basement working on military applications. More here.

Commercially available sugar cubes come in two popular sizes the 1/2" x 1/2" x 1/2" cube and the less common 1" x 5/8" x 1/2" as seen above. It's more accurately described as rectangular than square but the volume is 25% bigger.  So that image above is of a radio that's less than 1 cubic inch. The reason this came out in 1959 is that it was right after the RCA Model 501 Electronic Data Processing System (EDP), was released. It was the first commercial fully transistorized computer system. But in 1958 nobody knew what a computer was. On March 18th 1959 the U.S. Army Signal Corps and RCA announced development of "micromodules" that would allow 500k components to be packed into a cubic inch of space.  That "radio" up there is part of their computer development program. The techies of the day better understood a transistor as a tuner, than as a processor. More here.

When Billboard wrote it in in their 1959, March 23rd issue they titled the article "Music In Your Pocket" and wrote that  "The Army's comment that the new sugar cube radio "also has civilian applications," may find them far beyond anyone's wildest dreams."  They further added that they "will eventually find their way into homes, commerce, and industry." No kidding.