The vagaries of industrial research


Industrial research is being conducted, no doubt, to give birth to new products which will benefit mankind, although some may argue that a more likely objective is that the product, once developed, be sold for profit. cash. I want to talk about one project in particular, which is close to my heart because I worked on it for several years from the end of the 1950s. The aim was to provide more channels of communication. Back then, that meant more phone lines. It would be an understatement to say that when this project started the number of long distance telephone lines available in the UK was pitifully small.

If you wanted to speak to someone overseas, the call had to be ordered, possibly hours in advance, through an operator. Making a long distance (“trunk”) long distance call was a little easier. If you were lucky you could be connected immediately (also via an operator), although it is likely that all available lines are busy. The first transatlantic telephone cable was laid in 1956 with a capacity of 36 lines. Telephone lines between London and major British cities could be a dozen, but no more.

Around the world, the race was on to change the status quo. In the United Kingdom, the main player was STL (Standard Telecommunications Laboratories). Luckily, after arriving in England in November 1956 as a Hungarian refugee, I got a job in this laboratory. The goal was to increase the number of phone lines from a dozen to something much larger. The actual number circulated at the time was 100,000, a big jump.

Why 100,000? I asked Leonard Lewin, who was in charge of the project.

Because we think we can do it, ”replied Leonard.

We know how to do it. It may take a decade or two, but we will succeed. “

Do you think there is a need for 100,000 telephone channels? ” I continued.

“Not now. We are anticipating the time when we can transmit not only telephone conversations but data, pictures, TV channels, movies, everything. There is no limit to the amount of communications that can be made. “Mankind wants to use. We are a communicating species. The first objective of our laboratory is to lay copper pipes from London to Birmingham for the benefit of the Brummies, then to continue to Manchester to please the Mancunians. I

I’ll show you the waveguide that the whole business depends on.

I didn’t know who the Brummies or the Mancunians were, but I felt that as a newcomer I shouldn’t question everything. I went with Leonard to see the copper pipe. It was two inches in diameter: it looked quite ordinary, but apparently it had one critical property: low attenuation. Attenuation is a measure of how quickly the wave is absorbed as it travels along the guide.

What made it possible to use this technique was the progress in the generation of electromagnetic waves of increasingly higher frequencies. In 1956, it was possible to generate waves with frequencies of 80,000,000,000 oscillations (80 GHz in technical language) per second which, in principle, could have carried 20 million telephone channels. The target was only a hundred thousand, so we had a bit of headroom.

I know it’s hard to imagine how it worked, whether it was 20 million channels or barely a hundred thousand. The way to imagine it is to think of the telephone channels as being closely related to the carrier (the 80 GigaHz electromagnetic wave) and having a free turn, while the wave travels at the speed of an electromagnetic wave. As to what is happening, there

it’s a bit mysterious. The closest analogy I can think of is the number of angels sitting on the head of a pin. However, in this case, the spindle is generally considered to be fixed. So we need some additional insight to imagine the spindle moving at the same speed as the wave.

At the end of the 1960s, everything was ready, everything worked. There was a 28 mile long experimental line which fortunately carried a great many telephone channels. The next step was to lay the copper pipe between London and Birmingham. Negotiations had already started on the precise position of the line and to whom to pay the rent.

And then came a flash from the clear blue sky: don

don’t build anything! Stop! put on

don’t spend a dime more! Wait! Your copper gear is already out of date! We have an alternative solution that costs less, is cheaper to build, and can even provide a lot more channels. It is superior to yours in all respects. It is the advent of optical fibers, in glass. Compared to our 2-
inch copper pipe
, their diameter was barely visible – thinner than a human hair.

They were already known at 19e century. Their property of trapping light was independently discovered by David Colladon in Geneva and Jacques Babinet in Paris. Glass manufacturers had produced it much more recently for medical applications in endoscopes. I have never been interested in the technical aspect of production, but I cannot resist the temptation to describe a rather unconventional way of producing very fine fibers. In the early 1890s, Charles Vernon Boys, a professor at what would later become Imperial College London, stuck an arrow to one end of a glass rod, heated it until it was soft enough, then fired the arrow at a distance of 30 meters. . He was awarded with a fiber 30 m long and one thousandth of a millimeter thick.

If fibers were so well known, why was their emergence equated with a hostile thunderbolt from the sky? Because it was an unsuspected competitor. Until the 1970s, their use for communications was out of the
question. First of all
, there were no suitable light sources. Recently invented lasers were too large for mass communications and had a short lifespan. Second, the light introduced into the fiber was absorbed in a few meters, while for communications it had to provide light over a distance of several tens of kilometers at least.

It took a while to fix all the issues. By the late 1980s, fiber optic supporters were confident enough to install a fiber optic line across the Atlantic that carried a modest 40,000 telephone channels. It has operated happily for 14 years, aside from occasional malfunctions due to sharks eating on it. The following fiber line has been made shark resistant. Many more have been built since. The current tally is over 400 submarine cables with a total length of about 1 million km. They carry 99 percent of Internet traffic.

But how dangerous is industrial research? All companies, large and small, want to offer new products. Often times these products are competitive and the market later decides which one will survive. The story of copper pipe versus fiber optics is quite different. In the late 1950s, no one in the business thought copper pipe had an imaginable competitor, so it was prudent to invest a lot of money and effort. Engineers were convinced that the only way to achieve a large number of communication channels was through these very special copper waveguides. The idea of ​​lasers, a

sine qua non

for the operation of fiber optic networks, still resided in the unconscious depths of the minds of a few physicists. But, little by little, all the technical problems of fiber optic networks were solved. The death sentence for the copper pipe has been clearly pronounced.

Almost two decades of tireless research has been turned to naught. I had only spent two years on it, but I still felt it was my project. How did you feel when it all ended? I was sad, but more than that. It was as if I had owned and cherished a beautiful Chinese Ming Dynasty vase. Then came a big man with a big hammer and smashed him to pieces as I watched. I remember talking to a man about “fiber research” at a conference a few months later, who added insult to injury: “Have you ever laid your copper pipe between two cities? ” He asked.

No, I replied.

What a pity, ”he said.

We could have put our fibers in your pipe.


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