To explore, to create, to boldly design what no one has designed before. The spirit of creation enfuses us all, it moves the human race forward. Accelerating this fact is that hardware is quickly becoming as configurable as written language – but it wasn’t always so.
Today we experience a flat earth, a flat slab of plastic, metal and glass making up what we call a “smartphone”.
The paradigm is shifting, what we thought of only yesterday as a “phone” soon will break free, crossing the ocean of understanding, and bring us to a new world.
This new world will be filled with surprises and fearful revelations. Much of this change will surround wireless communication.
It began after the Enlightenment, in an age where magic gave root to “science”. Wizards and philosophers of the age tinkered and experimented, harnessing the power of electricity to work wonders. The magnetic spectrum was harnessed to power factories, illuminate cities and communicate by radio.
First binary communication, followed quickly by the transmission of voice and music. The first World War rapidly accelerated wireless technology.
British and German scientists experimented with detecting aircraft from afar. In a flash, World War II scoured the Earth, an earlier article explains how intelligence gathering in WWII led to the development of modern computing.
The magnetron was invented and mass produced, enabling radar and microwave communication. Scientists raced to come up with better radar, and better ways to jam it, leading to the birth of electronic warfare.
WWII CMS suitcase radio
Research into radar later enabled high speed data transmission.
It was around 1939, in this age of technological insanity in which the CMS suitcase “spy” radio was born. It is the first modular “phone”, or modular communication device that I could find. Only a handful are known to exist, and I was lucky enough to have the anonymous owner lend me this unit for review.
Because modular smartphones don’t truly exist yet, we’re going to start with an early modular communications device from 1939:
This Military AM radio is almost pocket sized, fitting snugly in a 14″x12″x4.5″ wooden case. The leather carrying handle is a much needed touch. No Sim card on this unit. One simply selects the desired Frequency in “Megacycles” from the chart, inserts the desired coil, and selects the proper band switch followed by oscillations.
The receiver and transmitter are each in their own module, with several inputs, or interfaces connecting each module. The tube and coil insertion are in their own right, early examples of standardised, modular construction.
A 2″ display shows transmission current in milliamperes, with great outdoor visibility. An incandescent lamp makes for excellent nighttime use with a wide viewing angle.
Durability is a huge factor in this radio, products are simply not made like this anymore. Back then, lives were depending on the technology. Each radio has the touch of many craftsman, from its hand wound coils, to the wiring, to the wooden case. It must have cost a fortune to build!
Today, most technology is made as cheaply as possible with complete disregard for durability and recyclability.
Here is a teardown of the receiver unit, measuring 6.45″x5.5″x2.2″:
We think of miniaturization today mostly in terms of silicon, but a similar cycle applied to the miniaturization of radios in the 20th century. Small vacuum tubes in the receiver are a great example. Vacuum tubes are interestingly enough still used today in very high frequency military applications, though details are a little blurry.
FM radio soon replaced AM for many military communications later in the war. This radio would have been outdated rather quickly.
Microwave radio could carry even more information, and this was used after the war to carry telephone and television signals long distance.
As the 20th century reached its halfway point, highly advanced wireless sets were in the hands of millions.
There’s not much to dislike about this radio. In 1939 it surely would have been cutting edge, especially considering its small size. As war waged on, smaller, specialized radios were developed for clandestine use. This radio has seen significant usage (looking at the key wires, and general scuffing), but details on where and when have been lost to history.
The UI is a bit cryptic, although understandably so as it was geared for a military user. The unit was commissioned for the US NAVY. 51H is its assumed serial number. Volume is dubbed “Regeneration”. Very little is known about the CMS radio set.
The only qualms I have are over its power supply. Though I’m sure the device still works, finding a 40v power supply has been some challenge. It is a bit embarrassing to say we have not actually gotten the device up and running. Transmitting on most frequencies would be illegal, considering I don’t have a HAM licence yet.
The radio also supports hand a crank generator!
As we follow the advancement of technology, we see communication technology rapidly miniaturize and get better.
Today, our pocket radios are technological marvels. The CMS radio above is able to communicate very long distances (The ionosphere is used to bounce AM signals thousands of miles at night). A smartphone can’t transmit as far, but can move much more data with less power, and in a smaller form factor.
As we look to 2016, we can only conclude that the trend of miniaturization will continue. One interesting application will be Project ARA. New radios will be built into ARA modules. Instead of a radio being updated each year with every new smartphone, modules can now be manufactured as radio technology progresses. The same goes for microprocessors.
The economic model will shift from following the yearly cycle of manufacturing, to a cycle where new LTE radios come out as soon as advances are made. This will be another paradigm shift in what possible with mobile, networked computing.
To truly understand the pace of technology today, we must learn about technology of the past, and compare.
To take this a step further, ARA modules are connected by a wired endoskeleton. Modules communicate through a wireless interconnect (Though the range for this is in the millimeters). My question is: What happens when an ARA module can operate as part of an endoskeleton over longer distances?
Today, ARA is using silicon based, wireless interconnects to move data between modules. What if a new wireless standard allowed modules to work over longer distances? This would allow objects around us to operate like a module, like it’s part of a smartphone.
A Google Solve for X talk in 2013 explains how cheap, silicon based “antennas” can be designed to operate in the Terahertz range. This would allow extremely high bandwidth data to be securely transmitted over several meters.
Besides operating as a gigabit data transmitter, the tiny chip can also be used to attain “X-ray” like vision. Some researchers have been using it to study DNA. Terahertz silicon chips just might enable pocket DNA sequencers, which I believe are only a few years away.
We must assume that the rate of technological change will continue onward if not accelerate. It is a widely accepted belief that reality is static, that technology does not truly advance. This is observably false and is a dangerous idea, impeding innovation and endangering the human race.
Technology is moving full steam ahead, we must be aware of it, accept it, and learn from it, because there is absolutely no stopping it.