Tech Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History …

For a Few Bits More

On June 8th, 1978, a technological milestone was born, significantly shaping the future of computing because this was the day that marked the introduction of the Intel 8086, Intel’s inaugural 16-bit microprocessor.

In the world of computing and microprocessors, the term “bit” signifies the basic units of data a processor can process simultaneously. Transitioning from 8-bit to 16-bit didn’t just signify a capacity increase; it represented an astronomical leap in intricacy and performance. This increase in bit-capacity enabled the processor to manage larger numbers, increased memory, and execute faster computations. 8 Bit processors were dominant for around a decade in the 70’s. By comparison, modern computers are typically running 32 or 64 bit processors. Incredibly, a 16 bit processor was first introduced by MIT as early as 1951 however this used vacuum tubes!

Intel, the mastermind behind this ground-breaking technology, wasn’t alone in the competition. It faced significant challenges from emerging tech-titans, like Texas Instruments, Motorola and Zilog. Texas Instruments launched their 26 bit version 2 years earlier.

Intriguingly, it was software, rather than hardware, that provided Intel with a competitive edge. Morse and his team engineered the 8086 with backward compatibility, implying it could operate software developed for the preceding 8-bit processors. This ingenious strategy not only conserved developers’ precious time but also opened a galaxy of opportunities.

Initially, the commercial world overlooked the monumental significance of this invention. However, the processor soon silenced its doubters. The 8086 laid the foundations for the x86 architecture, which continues to be the backbone of a multitude of today’s computers, from the unpretentious personal computer to powerful servers powering the internet, the legacy of the 8086 is ever-present.

In the rapidly progressing tech ecosystem, chances for development and innovation frequently stem from collaboration and strategic alliances. To reiterate, a key step in Morse’s breakthrough was built upon the understanding of existing 8-bit software so that the 16-bit processor could be backwardly compatible. In light of this, an you think of how you can make your products/services more compatible with other providers’ offerings?

Tech-Trivia : Did You Know? Next Week in History …

02 June 1966 : Getting Off The Ground Isn’t Always Easy!

Chuck Yeager (famous for being the first to break the sound barrier) mentioned in his excellent autobiography that whilst he was training Neil Amstrong in high-altitude flying, he found him a little a bit cocky. In fairness, Neil did have a training crash at one point and was lucky to survive – these were very risky episodes indeed for these exceptional pilots and Chuck later acknowledged that Neil had one of the best engineering minds around, which was high praise indeed from him.

So how could NASA know this brave young man wouldn’t simply ‘drown in dust’ when landing on the moon and not be able to get back up?

57 years ago next week on June 2nd, 1966, the Surveyor I successfully landed on the moon’s surface. This soft-landing was a crucial step in preparation for the ambitious Apollo Program, whereby the Surveyor I spacecraft achieved what no other vehicle had accomplished before: a precise and successful landing on the moon on its first attempt. Its goal was to gather essential information about the moon’s surface, including its composition, texture and its load-bearing capacity – critical information for the Apollo missions.

The Surveyor Program comprised a series of missions designed to explore the moon. In total, NASA launched seven Surveyor spacecraft, each contributing vital information about the lunar surface. One of the key pieces of information was the depth of the dust on the moon’s surface, which indicated that an astronaut could in fact land on the moon safely.

NASA contracted the renowned Hughes Aircraft Company for the design and construction of the spacecraft. Hughes Aircraft Company, famous for its contributions during World War II in developing prototype aircraft, were instrumental in the successful design and execution of Surveyor I. As an aside, Theodore Maiman was an employee of Hughes Aircraft Company when he designed and fired the first ever laser (on May 16th 1960) and his technology subsequently helped measure the distance from earth to the moon with much more accuracy.

This story of Surveyor I – 57 years ago this week is a great example of how combining the expertise of two different organisations, NASA was able to achieve something that no one had ever done before.

Tech-Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History

Let There Be Light

On May 16th, 1960, a new kind of light existed that nobody had ever seen before. This kind of light has unique properties and doesn’t exist in nature and as far as we know, it had never existed anywhere in the universe since it began, 13.8 billion years ago.

Theodore Maiman had successfully fired the first-ever laser at the Hughes Research Laboratory, having beaten off competition from many other research teams including Bell Labs, IBM, MIT, and Columbia University.

In a way, Albert Einstein deserves some of the credit for the development too, as he laid some of the seminal theoretical foundations way back in 1917. However, in even in 1960, producing a functioning laser was deemed too far-fetched by many of Theodore’s peers and he himself was on the brink of giving up until one day a salesman from General Electric showed him some xenon flashtubes. With the largest ones being strong enough to ignite steel wool when pressed against the tube, it was exactly what Maiman needed to make his design work.

Using a synthetic pink ruby crystal grown by the Line Division at Union Carbide as an active laser medium he built the first functional laser.

Initially, the many people didn’t really understand the technology and struggled to find practical uses, having been labelled “a solution looking for a problem”.

General ignorance about the technology wasn’t helped by initial newspaper’s publishing hysterical headlines about the invention of “Death-Rays” although, perhaps ironically, one of the first uses of the ruby laser was for range-finding by the military.

Inexorably, more and more applications have been found and developed until now, whereby modern electronics would be unthinkable without lasers, where so many advances in applications across all spheres from communications to medicine simply couldn’t have happened without Maiman’s perseverance.

His confidence in his area of expertise allowed him to work through moments of doubt and bring his idea to fruition. If there’s one thing to take away from this story, it’s that we shouldn’t be too quick to abandon our ideas or strategies prematurely. Sometimes, you just need to encounter your own ‘salesman’ to shed light on what you’ve been missing, for things to click into place

Tech-Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History

1954 : Silicon Makes A Splash

On 10th May 1954, Gordon Kidd Teal created a sensation at an Institute of Radio Engineers conference when he presented silicon transistors for the first time by announcing they were ready for production and available for sale.

Why The Big Deal?

Originally, germanium was mainly used to develop transistors. It was easier to work with but had some major limitations, one of those being their operational temperature ranging from 0°C to 70°C. Silicon transistors allowed higher operational temperatures of -55°C to 125°C, meaning they could be relied upon in many more environments and applications. Not only that but silicon has better stability and is much more abundant (and cheaper).

This was made possible due to a high-purity semiconductor silicon supplied by DuPont, a company that developed ‘Teflon’ among other things having first grown huge by being a major gunpowder and explosives supplier for the US Military.

Bell Labs

The first silicon transistor was developed at Bell Labs (the organisation directly created by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone). However, they failed to identify and exploit this opportunity, and did not attempt to produce it commercially. This cost them dearly, as today, Texas Instruments (TI) are credited with the production of the first commercial silicon transistor.

The first commercial silicon transistor was developed by Teal, who (having left Bell Labs) was hired to lead a research lab for TI. Teal hired a team of scientists and engineers overseen by Will Adcock, a chemist, tasked to work on silicon transistors. Their efforts led to a breakthrough, adding to TI’s long list of notable inventions. One of those being Jack Kilby’s (another TI employee) Integrated Circuit in 1958 which unfortunately was forsaken in favour of Noyce’s more mass production friendly version.

Teal continued working for TI until his retirement, only taking a short leave of absence for 2 years to become the first Director of the National Bureau of Standards Institute for Materials Research in Washington D.C. He died in 2003 with an estimated net worth of $1 – $8 million.

Texas Instruments continued to flourish outcompeting other companies in the semiconductor space and acquiring many of their competitors along the way. One of their recent acquisitions being that of National Semiconductor in 2011 for $6.5 billion. As of writing this, the company is valued at around $147 billion.

TI’s success can be attributed, among other things, to their keen eye for talent. Hiring experts like Gordon Kidd Teal (who were on the cusp of major breakthroughs) has helped the company capitalise on opportunities that other companies have failed to identify.

All this goes to show that a company’s innovation is unlimited because it can be developed internally by training or sourced by hiring key personnel or by corporate acquisition.