Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, January 1949, II: Long Playing

Edit: While I've left an incorrect title stand for a week without the sky falling, correcting it will be helpful to me.


We've been treated to three technology stories worth following up on this last week. The first, which should be the most pressing, is the loss of the third Avro Tudor airliner, which, incredibly, is not the end of the Tudor's time on the cross, with the Llandow disaster still to come. Second, Farnsworth Television has just been caught in a little fib. Somehow, the Fort Wayne, Indiana company has managed to lose money making televisions, and the NYSE takes a dim view of companies that issue stock to cover losses without mentioning the losses in the prospectus.  ITT will buy out Farnsworth in 1951, but, as near as I can tell, the takeover will be put in motion a bit sooner than that. Third, in contrast to the sordid tales of two unrelated business failures, Columbia has just introduced its new 33rpm long-playing vinyl record format, which will soon come to dominate the industry. I wouldn't say that these are related stories, but they do belong in some kind of compare-and-contrast discussion. 

The development story of the Avro Tudor begins thirteen years prior to January of 1949, in 1936, when the Air Staff asked for a large bomber with extremely exacting aeronautical requirements. It was to dive bomb, torpedo bomb, take off with catapult assist and cruise at 275mph. It could be as heavy as the Stirling, but needed to be twin-engined to meet the aerodynamic requirements, implying the use of one of the enormous engines then under development. The result was the Avro Manchester, which was a bit of a pig. 

See? Low wing. Also, single fin.
Engine and weight would dominate the subsequent history of the design. To deal with both, Avro centred their design on a massive joint of extruded wing spars and longerons in a mid-wing design. Although the Manchester, like the Lancaster after it and previous generations of RAF heavy bombers before it, had a specified minimum passenger load, so that it could fly out to satellite air stations with ground crew on board, the massive sill through the centre of the plane was a challenge for everyone moving up and down the hull, and obviously a bit of problem to be engineered out of any passenger plane development.

The other issue here is the twin rudders, gone from the Tudor, although in vogue only a few years before.
116ft long versus 80' for the Tudor. The Hermes was 96. 

 Both of the Tudor accidents with witnesses involved failures to control the aircraft at low speeds and high instability, the same factors that BOAC singled out in rejecting the Tudor in the first place. British Overseas Airways Corporation management comes out of this looking surprisingly good, I have to say. As much as they get criticised for their change orders during the Tudor design phase, they're not the ones crashing aircraft left, right and centre. Per Wikipedia's exhaustive list, BOAC had 5 accidents in the 1946--50 period, KLM, 7 and Pan Am, ten. Constellations feature prominently in this list. British South American Airways' 6 over the same time frame is very, very impressive. In a bad way. As I said last week, I'm just disappointed that they don't get more credit for the "Bermuda Triangle" of popular culture fame.
Good for lifting 10 ton bombs. Hard to get the drinks cart over.

As for the aircraft, as opposed to the corporate culture, I've seen an argument for Star Ariel's loss being due to entering a spin on exiting a course-adjusting manoeuvre on autopilot, something that apparently can happen. That would brings the issue back to the elevators, rudder, and instability issues in general. If we had any actual evidence, that is. All I can say is that, as a reader, I've found Flight's cheerleading for BSAA's ongoing defence of the type a little irresponsible in retrospect, and a great deal of the blame ends up on the head of the editor. The cold rage with which it reports Don Bennett's criminal negligence, laid bare by the accident investigation, hardly needs to be accompanied by self-reflection, because newspaper pundits don't have to do that sort of thing. 

From Phil's. 
Like Geoffrey Smith, and more importantly, Don Bennett, Philo Farnsworth comes across as a bit irresponsible, although there seems to have been a fair bit of that going around in mid-century Fort Wayne. It's not clear that he had anything to do with the prospectus peccadillo, but his lab at Farnsworth Television does not exactly seem to have pulled its weight. Wikipedia's long list of Farnsworth "inventions" of the era have precious little to do with the only products that the antiquarian web digs up, a modest list of radios and record players continuing the Capehart catalogue, and the unprepossessing 661 television. As Phil's Old Radio says, Capehart had a well-established reputation for high-end audio before its business model was ruined by a legendarily unreliable automatic record changer (see below!). Sound was presumably a selling point of the 661, but no Capehart engineering seems to have gone into the 661, which seems more obviously an assembly of war-surplus military radio parts kicking around the factory. None of that would have mattered to the buyer in the showroom, who was more likely underwhelmed by a cabinet tv in a 10" screen. Presumably this has something to do with disappointing sales, and that is behind the attempted end-run around NYSE rules. 

As for "the fourteen-year-old who invented television," what perhaps matters more than anything is the huge payoff from RCA that was the final reward for a long and bruising patent battle. Whatever we make of Farnsworth, he was in a strong position vis-a-vis that dominant player in the television industry. It is perhaps no wonder that ITT took advantage of Farnsworth's financial straits to buy the company out. I notice that the enthusiast's sites are very unclear on when this happened, perhaps because the whole thing is so embarrassing. It remains that ITT was now well-positioned to challenge RCA in this whole field of technology and stuff.

Fortunately, it gets worse! It should also go without saying, although perhaps it doesn't, that Homer Capehart was elected to the Senate in 1944. Unfortunately, Capehart the politician and Capehart the entrepeneur tend to be treated as separate people, which is perhaps why I am the first person to point out that Capehart was defeated by Birch Bayh in 1962. A real cynic would suggest that January, 1963 might  mark a sea change in the relationship of any large corporate owner with a company in which the soon-to-be-former Senator Caperhart was involved.  sunset. Coincidentally, ITT's board decided to shut down its Farnsworth subsidiary in December of 1965, over the protests of Chairman Harold Geneen, who never saw a subsidiary he didn't like. With a track record of putting money into everything from the Sheraton hotels to the Chilean conservative opposition, and a pulp mill in Port Alice along the way, it is perhaps no wonder that he was enamored of Farnsworth fusor, a purported garden-shed fusion reactor. (The surviving rumps of the company make weapon-y things for DoD and water treatment technology in two separate firms.)

I won't even try to sort the fusor thing out. As near as I can tell, the fusor was the only thing that Farnsworth did between 1951 and 1965, and it seems to have involved (sigh) someone else's patents. Also, and this is probably important, it didn't work, although it sure is pretty. Well, it fuses atoms, briefly; but, then, so does muon-catalysed fusion, and that's a natural process. On the other hand, he managed to have a good life goofing off, albeit in Fort Wayne, and is still famous. Now that's a long play!

So. . . about the LP:
Eighteen weeks on the hit parade from August of 1946, and the first time you're hearing about it around here is that I'm not a music guy, and the papers I follow don't have a lot of time for "race records." Because I'm not a music guy, this isn't exactly a deep dive. Wikipedia says that the the LP is a "vinyl record format characterized by a speed of ​33 1⁄3 rpm, a 12- or 10-inch (30- or 25-cm) diameter, and use of the "microgroove" groove specification. Introduced by Columbia in 1948." We're hearing about it in a January Time, buried in a "What's New" column  deep in the Business  (actually, Business and Finance, but this way I save some typing), because Time just doesn't think that it's a big deal: Another new format to compete with the 78 along with RCA Victor's 45. Ho hum. 

Actually, considering how revolutionary the LP turned out to be, there's a lot of ho-humming around it. I eventually tracked down the inventor of record, who turns out to be Peter Goldmark, the chief engineer at Columbia (CBS), but even his Wikipedia article is more interested in his "colour wheel" colour tv technology that we've followed through the initial stages of its crash and burn. (It seems that the actual team leaders were the incredibly boring William S. Bachman and the only slightly-less boring Howard H. Scott.) 
(Unerringly focussing on important things, his Wikipedia biography notes that Scott won a Classical producing Grammy for a version of Ive's Symphony No. 1.)

TV is exciting. TV is where it's at! The corporate history (yes, Wikipedia, again) jumps from CBS' 1948 talent raids directly to Goldmark's colour tv, which, with all due respect to the advantages of Goldmark's system, ought to be the opening scene in a corporate tragedy. The thing is, the story manages to entirely miss the recruiting of Bing Crosby along with his  Minute Maid and Chesterfield shows, the former of which featured Bing as DJ, as well as back-up commercial announcer, valiantly plugging frozen concentrate orange juice

Returning to the story of the 33 LP, and its victory in the format war, what do we find? That the decision was made not by home consumers, but by the radio industry, which came to favour the 33 because they played 23 minutes a side, meaning that a single side would play through a full half-hour broadcasting slot, commercials included. Mechanically, that's either  less labour, or less breakage when your (perhaps Capehart) album flipper went all Robot Uprising on you. Which I imagine was a real pain in the ass when dealing with syndicated shows distributed by master record. 

What's more, once you have started down the road to cramming more content onto an LP, you can start playing electronic tricks. Not trusting myself to do anything more than to report the Wikipedia content, I cut-and-paste:
[T]he record manufacturers had also realised that by reducing the amplitude of the lower frequencies recorded in the groove, it was possible to decrease the spacing between the grooves and further increase the playing time. These low frequencies were then restored to their original level on playback. Further, if the amplitude of the high frequencies was artificially boosted on recording the disc and then subsequently reduced to their original level on playback, the noise introduced by the disc would be reduced by a similar amount. This gave rise to an equalisation frequency response applied during record coupled with an inverse of the response applied on playback. Each disc manufacturer applied their own version of an equalisation curve (mostly because each manufacturer's equalisation curve was protected by interlocking patents). Low-end reproduction equipment applied a compromise playback equalisation that reproduced most discs reasonably well. However, amplifiers for audiophile equipment were equipped with an equalisation selector with a position for most, if not all, disc manufacturers. The net effect of equalization is to allow longer playing time and lower background noise while maintaining full fidelity of music or other content.In 1954, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced a standard equalisation curve to be used by all record manufacturers. Consequently, both low-quality and audiophile reproducers alike could replay any recording with the correct equalisation. There are two versions of the reproduction RIAA equalisation curve. The first, is simply the inverse of the recording curve designed for cheaper equipment using crystal or ceramic reproduction cartridges. The second curve is intended for equipment fitted with magnetic reproduction cartridges where the output voltage is dependent on the frequency of the recorded signal (the voltage output is directly proportional to the frequency of the recorded signal; that is: the voltage doubles as the recorded frequency doubles).

If that wasn't enough fun with electronics for you, here's the Wikipedia article on the RIAA pre-equalisation curve.  No wonder the vacuum tubes in audiophile stereo equipment was so fancy! You have to wonder if all of this, to coin a phrase, "information processing" circuitry could have some other applications, especially if were coupled with Mr. Crosby's current obsession, magnetically-recorded sound, which can, after all, be "read" electronically.

 John Boy!

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