Vacuum Tubes to ICs: What’s Next?

Nov. 18, 1999
I’ve read numerous articles this year that recall significant technology developments of the 1900s, obviously because we are (at least by popular reckoning) at the end of the century and sitting on the threshold of the next millennium
John R. Gyorki
Senior Editor

I’ve read numerous articles this year that recall significant technology developments of the 1900s, obviously because we are (at least by popular reckoning) at the end of the century and sitting on the threshold of the next millennium. Many of these developments I not only observed, but was able to apply in a hands-on environment, particularly in the area of electronics.

When I started my design career, we were using vacuum tubes. These were exciting times, the very beginning of the electronics age. And if you didn’t participate, I’ll tell you what you missed.

I began learning electronics as a teenager in the early 50s, first earning an amateur radio license (W8PYT) and then working after school in Harrison’s Radio and TV shop in Allen Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. From that point on, I knew I would be an electrical engineer some day so that I could design electronic products the right way. As it turned out, my experiences were far richer than I could ever have dreamed. And little did I know what the electronics industry would become.

After graduating from high school in 1956, I worked for Burroughs Corp. (now Unisys). Through the early 60s I maintained their Air Force SAGE computer as a civilian technician while earning my degree. The computers were based on vacuum tubes, and you could see each bit of memory because it was a miniature torroid coil mounted on a printed-circuit board. These systems cost a million dollars, required hundreds of kilowatts, and filled a room the size of an average house. It was coupled to a radar set that scanned the sky for Soviet aircraft, calculating range, azimuth, altitude, and possible course.

My first experience with the solid-state revolution came in 1961, when transistors picked up speed, and Burroughs began delivering solid-state versions of the SAGE computer. The new technology reduced the power requirements and size of the computer tremendously. This was clearly a breakthrough that changed the industry — almost overnight.

Because transistors were miniature and consumed minuscule power compared to tubes, some companies packaged them into small analog modules called operational amplifiers. I used Burr Brown and Philbrick op-amps as building blocks and designed some compact controllers in the 60s for General Electric’s man-made diamond process.

The next revolution came about in integrated circuits. My first-hand experience began in 1968 when I designed IC versions of gyro-stabilized control systems for the guns and turrets on U.S. Army M60 tanks. The ICs came in both digital logic and analog circuits packaged in small metal cans or dual in-line plastic. Quite a few chips were needed to build a system, but one IC-based control box replaced four transistorized control boxes inside the tank’s crowded “bustle” at the rear of the turret.

ICs paved the way for microprocessors, and in the early 70s I became involved with microprocessors when designing Bendix’ automotive electronic fuel-injection systems. Among the first microprocessors for this application were Motorola 6800 chips, hand picked to guarantee a 1-MHz clock. Much to its credit, Motorola stuck around ever since and still supplies the car companies with millions of progeny of that first micro.

Through the 80s and 90s, we have seen extraordinary refinements go into these microprocessors and the computer systems they served, making them more powerful and easier to use. The question now, of course, is what will follow integrated circuits and microprocessors? Perhaps we can glean a little insight about next generation electronics from researchers at IBM. They are working in nanotechnology, entities at the molecular and atomic levels. For example, scientists at their Zurich Research Laboratories invented a device called STM, scanning tunneling microscope, that images and moves certain kinds of atoms on conducting surfaces. For a demonstration, they built an abacus with individual molecules as beads — less than one nanometer in diameter. This technique will surely let designers build computers with solid-state geometries the size of molecules.

What will come in the future? The answer seems to be that science and technology are unbounded. Whatever we can imagine, we can invent. And it takes the genius of those in all scientific disciplines to make new discoveries and create new developments, not just in electronics, but in materials, mechanics, motion control, CAD/CAM, and fluid power.

Whether you are just getting started in your design careers or are well on the path toward your goals, each of you have an opportunity to be part of the next revolution — and certainly it will come. It’s up to you now to do one of three things: make things happen, watch things happen, or wonder what happened.

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