January 1956 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
I and others joke frequently about the promise of flying cars,
automated homes, and miracle pills to cure any ill that were
predicted to be commonly available by the end of the 20th century.
Science and Mechanics, et al, regularly printed stories
about these and a host of other inventions that were just around
the corner. Most have never been realized, but we're appreciative
of the dreamers and those people who dedicated their lives -
often to the point of financial and/or physical ruin - while
trying to succeed. Taking a different approach, Edwin Lawrence,
in this 1956 article in Popular Electronics, solicits
readers to consider inventing a few 'needed inventions' that
he throws out. Among them death ray that will incapacitate or
kill at great distances, a speech-into-writing translator, a
buried explosive detector, a 3-dimensional visual display, a
device for recording television programs, and a handful of other
ideas. Interested parties are bade to contact the National Inventor's
Council, which was actually a department of the CIA
(who knew PE was a puppet of a spy organization?).
If you look through the article, particularly the aforementioned
items listed, you will realize that most (if not all) are actually
available today in some form!
Needed: Electronic Inventions
By Edwin Lawrence
If you have a practical solution to any of
the problems presented here, contact the National Inventor's
A death ray that will kill at 500 yards! An electronic typewriter
which converts speech directly into typed reports! Are these
devices from the 25th century or machines from a flying saucer?
No. They are only two of the instruments considered worthy of
serious work by independent American inventors.
In recent years there has been a tendency for many to think
that only large corporations and giant research laboratories
could make material contributions to technical development.
This is not and has never been true. The American people represent
a vast reservoir of inventive talent, creative ability, and
technical skill. Individuals, working in basement laboratories
and small shops, can still and will continue to make major contributions
to science, engineering, and industry. This is as true in the
field of electronics as it is in any field, whether engineering,
medicine, physics, or chemistry.
In 1940 formal recognition of the part that America's individual
inventors and scientists could play in national defense was
given when the Secretary of Commerce, with the approval of the
President, created the National Inventor's Council. One of the
Council's primary functions is to consider suggestions and inventions
offered by individuals. It is staffed by a number of eminent
engineers, scientists, industrialists, and military men, all
of whom lend their specialized services without compensation.
The National Inventor's Council serves in an advisory capacity
to the Armed Services and to other government agencies. It acts
to consolidate and to make known some of the problems encountered
by the military services. In this way the inventive genius of
the public will be directed along lines which will result in
needed inventions or in the solution of pressing technical problems.
During the years since its organization, the Council has considered
literally hundreds of thousands of proposals. A number of these
have been acceptable and have resulted in incalculable savings
in lives, material, time, and money.
In order to aid in its work, the Council has issued periodically
lists of "needed inventions" or "technical problems" to inventors,
scientists, engineers, and technicians throughout the nation.
These lists have covered practically every field, including
medicine, food processing, construction techniques, communications,
electronics and transportation.
A number of the more interesting "electronic" problems from
recent lists are stated below with additional comments and,
in some cases, possible solutions. Read the list carefully.
As a Popular Electronics reader, you are one of a great group
of Americans who are interested in science and progress. You
undoubtedly have many original ideas. Perhaps you can suggest
practical solutions to some of these problems and, by doing
so, help both yourself and your nation. If you have practical
suggestions, or if you would like a complete list of problems,
write to The National Inventors Council, Department of Commerce,
Washington 25, D. C.
Buried Explosive Detector
A number of mine detectors have been developed and used in
the past. Although many of these have performed satisfactorily
under ideal conditions, others have failed to operate under
specialized circumstances. When a mine detector fails to locate
even one buried explosive in a field, that one error may result
in the loss of several lives or in the destruction of a valuable
piece of equipment. In the past, a number of techniques have
been used, including both high- and low-frequency radio waves.
It may be that an entirely new approach is needed, possibly
one using ultrasonic vibrations. Regardless of the technique
used, it should be one which will set off the explosive only
at a safe distance from the operator.
Radio-Proof Electric Blasting Cap
Electric blasting caps must be used under some conditions.
Unfortunately, many of the present-day blasting caps may be
accidentally set off by high-energy radio signals. An inexpensive
and efficient electric blasting cap which will not be set off
by powerful radio or radar signals is needed.
If you're a ham operator, here's a good problem. There is
a need for a microwave oscillator, suitable for both continuous-wave
and pulsed operation, with an output of 1 kw. or more. A useful
oscillator would be one that will deliver high power signals
at 1000 mc. and higher frequencies. One that could deliver high
power at 3000 mc. and over would be especially valuable. Most
present-day oscillators are incapable of delivering extremely
high powers at microwave frequencies for any period of time.
However, technical advances are continually being made in this
field. Therefore, if you have a potential solution, be sure
to check technical literature for the status of other developments
in order to avoid any duplication.
Recorder for High-Frequency Range
Some type of recorder is needed for recording signals beyond
the range of from 5 to 1000 mc. per second, with either immediate
playback or long-time storage before playback. Wire recorders
have not yet been developed with this wide-frequency range.
Tape recorders have been developed with frequency ranges adequate
for television work, but even these do not encompass the range
from 5 to 1000 mc. Perhaps some type of "dielectric" recorder
will do the job.
The recording of television programs on wire
or on tape is a most promising development.
Portable Power Source
There is a continuing need for an efficient, compact electric
power source for both field and portable (mobile) work. At the
present time, storage and "throw-away" dry batteries are used
extensively; but both of these have disadvantages. Storage batteries
require frequent recharging and throw-away batteries require
frequent replacement. This constitutes a serious problem in
front line locations. In addition, where a moderate to large
amount of power is required, the weight of a battery power source
becomes excessive. Gasoline-driven generators are too noisy
for many applications. The recently announced solar and atomic
batteries are still in the experimental stage and are far from
being suited to field applications at this time.
They are also fairly expensive and will probably continue
to be so for some time in the future.
One possible solution might be a small sealed gas turbine
with an efficient muffler and driving a small generator. Still
other solutions might be found in heat- or light-powered electrical
The problems of converting light and heat energy into electrical
energy have been of long standing. Many experiments have been
conducted with self-generating photocells, solar batteries,
and similar devices. However, most of the experimental units
for converting light into electrical energy have been expensive
and have been incapable of delivering really large amounts of
power. Thermocouples and pressure-type gas burners have been
tried as possible solutions for converting heat into electrical
energy but, again, a completely satisfactory solution has not
Regardless of the method used; essential requirements are
that the device be reasonably efficient, foolproof, fairly light
in weight, of reasonably small size, and extremely sturdy in
order to withstand the rigors of field use under combat conditions.
A device which generates electrical energy from heat should
be capable of using several types of fuel, such as gasoline,
diesel oil, kerosene, and alcohol. Any device suggested should
operate efficiently under varying atmospheric and humidity conditions
and over the temperature range from -65° to +165° F.
Three-Dimensional Information Display
There is a need in the radar display field for a means of
presenting three-dimensional information. Radar display units
are used to provide a "shadow map" of the covered area, but
these are flat and give only two-dimensional information. A
"stereo" system in which two cathode-ray tubes are employed
is not adequate because it does not permit any degree of accuracy
in determining measurements in the three dimensions. A truly
three-dimensional display would not only have wide application
in military work, but might have wide commercial application
in the development of a three-dimensional television system
for home use.
Three-dimensional radar displays would expedite
handling of aircraft near airports as well as improve coastal
defenses. Possibly miniature aircraft could be individually
activated in a "tank" duplicating area under surveillance.
One badly needed device is an indicator to show accurately
the path of a missile with respect to target aircraft. Several
means may be used for indicating a trajectory ... photographic,
radio, television, radar, or acoustic. However, for military
use the system employed should be accurate, fairly easy to use,
and capable of indicating the closest approach of the missile
to the aircraft, as well as the trajectory. An indicator is
needed so that the paths of missiles can be closely checked
and improvements can be made in guided missile design to insure
greater accuracy. In many cases, it is difficult to tell exactly
how close an approach has been made to a target aircraft unless
a direct hit is made which destroys both the experimental missile
and the expensive target aircraft.
Underwater Target Detection
Some means, other than sonic, is needed for determining the
direction and range of an underwater target, such as a submarine.
Most of the systems used today depend on the transmission of
sound vibrations through the water for their operation. Attempts
have been made to use radio and radar-like devices under water
but, in general, these have not been too successful. Even though
present sonic systems are satisfactory for many applications,
they do have some limitations. A supplemental system is also
desirable for checking purposes:
A revolutionary new method of transmitting intelligence and
information is needed to supplement and to replace conventional
systems. Present systems, in general, depend on electrical impulses
or signals sent over wires (telephone and telegraph), radiated
waves (radio and television) and sound waves, or light waves
(blinker). The Armed Forces would like a system utilizing completely
new concepts. To develop such a system, it will probably be
necessary for the inventor to work out a completely new approach
utilizing new principles. It may be that a system utilizing
an ultrasonic "carrier" wave will offer some possibilities.
A completely new form of communication is
needed by the military. It could be an ultra-sonic "carrier"
wave. In this drawing, the soldier is using a combination "microphone/earphone"
that is plugged into his ear.
The Armed Forces have been looking for a destructive ray
for some time. Although "disintegration rays" and "death rays"
have been described frequently in science-fiction, an entirely
satisfactory method of producing such rays has not yet been
developed. Death rays would be of considerable value in augmenting
present weapons, such as mortars, guns, rockets, and flame throwers.
However, to be completely useful, the ray should be capable
of inflicting damage equal to or in excess of that produced
by conventional weapons of similar size and range. It should
be portable for field use, usable at distances of at least 500
yards, not require excessive power, and, of course, it should
be practical. For example, there would be little point in using
a death ray which required careful aiming in order to kill an
enemy soldier in the open at 500 yards. A rifle bullet would
do the same job and would be a lot cheaper. Several types of
"death rays" have been developed, but experiments thus far indicate
that the equipment would be bulky, difficult to control, of
a limited range, and would require fantastic amounts of electrical
Not only the military, but industry and business as well,
could use a lightweight unit capable of translating ordinary
speech into the written word. It would be valuable for speeding
up communications and for intercepting radio and wire transmissions.
All the approaches tried thus far have indicated that the apparatus
required would be complicated, bulky, and expensive, and would
do a far from satisfactory job. An "ideal" unit should not be
appreciably larger than a present-day tape recorder. A person
could speak into a microphone and the speech would be translated
into a written or typed message, either on a flat sheet, or
on a continuous strip of tape. It may be that a new approach
utilizing transistorized, subminiature circuitry will result
in a satisfactory solution. However, because of the differences
in voices, the various accents people use, and the differences
in the spelling and meaning of words that are pronounced similarly,
the problems of developing such a device are many.
A typewriter that evaluates the spoken word
and processes speech to printed mailer would be welcomed. This
"invention" may require a new approach before it can be evolved.
Most of the "needed inventions" described above have been
either new systems or relatively complex pieces of equipment.
But the lists issued by the National Inventor's Council also
contain a number of relatively simple components and new chemicals
Posted October 22, 2014