How Solid-State Electronics Will Change Your Life (Sep, 1954)

This article is an exploration of the changes that will be brought on by the rise of solid-state electronics. The author does a very good job extrapolating what will be possible, with very few of the flights of fancy such as flying cars and domed cities that are common to articles of this genre. Almost every product he discusses is available now.

People do have video crib monitors, solar panels are available, but are not quite efficient enough to power a house, as he predicted. Video phones are only now really practical because of the bandwidth limitations spelled out in the article. We don’t have ultrasonic washing machines in our houses, but ultrasonics are used in a number of areas for cleaning. We do (did) rent movies for our color VCRs, and there are megahertz range computers managing very complicated factory production with very little human intervention. Not to mention touch tone phones and microwave ovens. Plus, if you showed that picture of a flat screen tv on the first page to someone without any context they’d probably guess that someone had hacked an LCD monitor to look all “retro”. By the way, if you’re interested in flat screen TVs, you should check out this one from 1958.

I’ve actually been wanting to post this article for a few years. When I was posting this piece about a pocket transistor radio, I noticed that the author used the word “stereatronics”, which I’d never heard. I googled it and found the complete text of this article, with no pictures, here. After reading it I learned that stereatronics was a word created for this article, which they hoped would catch on. It didn’t. I thought it would be perfect to post to the site, so I tracked down a copy. Then when I got it I realized that Colliers magazine was 11×14″ and I couldn’t fit it on my scanner. However, I recently bought an 11×17″ scanner for the site, and so here it is.

Stereatronics – A New Science that Will Change Your Way of Life

Tiny solids are turning the electronics industry upside down. Some vibrate, others change light to energy or energy to light, or direct current to alternating. Together, they spell revolution

A NEW science, stereatronics, has been creeping up on us in the last few years and has started to make major changes in the way we live. Few of us have noticed any difference; the changes have come so quietly that even many of the people who are closest to the new science are surprised at what it has been doing. Yet the evidences have been all about us.

—Television sets are a great deal less expensive now than they were a relatively few months ago.

—More and more tape recorders are being sold. Five years back, they were too costly for most people. Ten years ago, they weren’t to be had at any price.

—New phonographs sound better than models just a few years old. There are many reasons, but one important contribution is made by a new-style pickup.

—A recent innovation in automobiles is a headlight that dims automatically as another car approaches.

—Are you reading this magazine by fluorescent light? Its glowing tube was one of the first harbingers of the new science. The photoelectric cell that opens doors automatically was another.

The exciting fact is not only that these changes are occurring (they’re insignificant compared to what’s coming), but that they are caused by little bits and pieces of solid matter—tiny, brightly colored rings, wafers and blocks, many of them no larger than the letter “o” on this page.

Some of these devices are taking the place of complicated wire and metal electronic gadgets; others are performing jobs that are entirely new, even revolutionary.

These little objects, or stereatrons, are tipping the electronics industry upside down. New ways to use them are being discovered literally faster than they can be developed. Some of the solids give off power when light is applied. Others give off light when power is applied. Some vibrate with tremendous speed, a characteristic with great promise. Some change alternating to direct current, or amplify an electronic signal, or delay a signal for an instant—or remember it indefinitely.

In the latest television sets, certain stereatrons are replacing old-style rectifiers and transformers, at a considerable saving in cost (in addition, of course, the cost of TV sets has been cut sharply because of improved production techniques). The coating on the TV screen is composed of thousands of tiny stereatrons, and other stereatrons are beginning to take over the functions of the small tubes in all sorts of electronic equipment. The magnetic surface of the tape recorder, which “remembers” sounds fed to it, also consists of many tiny solids. Other solid devices are being used to help translate the vibrations of a phonograph needle into enjoyable sound.

Those are all present uses of the stereatron, and there are many more. The future uses—those expected in just a few years—are countless.

A dentist’s drill being developed consists principally of a piece of nickel, one of the vibrating stereatrons; by vibrating 29,000 times a second, it sets up sound waves which drill quietly and less painfully. In the next few years, another vibrating solid may be used to operate a washing machine in which it is the only important moving part; its vibrations will literally shake the dirt out of clothes. Through the use of tiny stereatrons, refrigerators and air conditioners with no moving parts whatever also may be developed. Another device under consideration is a television screen so thin that it can be hung on the wall like a picture. A new clinical thermometer being made available to doctors makes use of a stereatron that reacts to heat; powered by a tiny battery, it shows a patient’s temperature within seconds. Someday, not too many years from now, your house will light up automatically as the sun goes down—and the artificial illumination will come from the entire surface of your ceilings (or walls, or windows, if you wish), instead of from isolated bulbs.

Hundreds of other stereatronic devices are being planned which promise cheaper, more efficient, longer-lasting appliances, better communications, improved transportation, new kinds of entertainment—even a general rise in the standard of living, through stereatronically operated factories. One of the most exciting projects envisions a tiny portable radar set which may provide the blind with a “picture” of the obstacles that lie in their path.

Progress in the field has been so fast that the scientists working in stereatronics—electronics engineers, physicists, chemists, metallurgists, ceramicists and mathematicians, among others—haven’t even had time to compare notes. As a result, stereatronics hasn’t developed a language of its own, as sciences usually do. In fact, until recently the science itself didn’t have a name; physicists said they were working on “solid state physics,” chemists referred to “materials research,” and others used such names as “electronic solids,” “solid state electronics,” or simply “solid state.”

How the New Science Acquired Its Name.

While this report was being compiled, the word stereatronics (ster’e·a·tron’ics) was suggested by Collier’s to fill a need felt by all of these scientists. It was derived, after consultation with both electronics experts and etymologists, from the Greek word for solids, stereos, and the word electronics. Defined as, “the science of the controllable electronic performance of solids,” it is already in use among scientists in the field.

The lack of a name, according to some researchers, was a major handicap. It prevented co-operation among scientists working on various aspects of stereatronics, because they were unaware of the work being done by others. It added just one more complication to a science already beset by complexities.

“It takes nearly a full year of close teamwork on these solid devices,” Dr. Lloyd T. DeVore, chief of General Electric’s electronics laboratory, told me, “before our scientists and engineers can even begin to understand one another.”

Stereatronics is a difficult science largely because it deals with the electrical and mechanical properties of matter—properties which defied comprehension for years and which even now experts find astonishing. In its 40 years of existence, the electronics industry has produced a variety of complex tubes, coils, transformers and so on, which have made possible the marvel of modern radios, television sets, lighting and the like. Now scientists are finding that the stereatrons do many jobs just as well, and some a great deal better.

The ironical fact is that radio engineers stumbled on the first practical stereatron long before there was any such object as an electronic tube, but failed to realize its significance.

Do you remember the galena crystal in the “cat’s whisker” radio of the 1920s? Nobody knew why it worked, but it did unscramble radio waves as they came in on an antenna, and at the same time transmitted enough energy to vibrate the diaphragms in a pair of earphones, so the radio waves became audible sound. The galena crystal had major shortcomings as a radio receiver. It wouldn’t amplify the sound it received, and it was exasperatingly inefficient at pulling the right signal out of the ether; you might spend hours poking at it before getting the station you wanted. It ultimately was abandoned in favor of the more effective vacuum tubes.

“For all the years since,” said Dr. DeVore, “we’ve been inventing wonderful gadgets in glass, wire and metal to make all our electronic equipment work efficiently—while all the time, if we’d only known it, nature, with a little help from us, could have done the same jobs at a fraction of the power and cost.”

Today nature is getting a second chance. One of the most important results will be the miniaturization of all sorts of electronic apparatus, from bulky computers to portable radios.

Some of the computers now in use are so big they occupy whole buildings. The same machines, using stereatrons, will be packed into a space not much larger than a couple of filing cabinets. Furthermore, they’ll be more efficient, more economical and longer-lasting than any computer which can be made today.

Other examples are even more striking.

“Most modern electric-powered locomotives,” Dr. Paul Jordan of GE told me, “operate on alternating current because direct current is impractical to transmit for long distances. Alternating current is less effective than DC, though; the locomotive would be much more efficient if it could change the AC to DC before using it. But the rectifier required for the job would have to be ridiculously large—about the size of the locomotive itself. At least, it would have had to be that large once.” He reached for a box and sifted a dozen silver-colored wafers into his hand. “These will do the trick soon,” he said.

Dick Tracy’s Wrist Radio Was Prophetic.

Some years ago, cartoonist Chester Gould imaginatively presented his comic-strip character, Dick Tracy, with a portable radio which could be worn on the wrist. Today the electronics industry is catching up with Gould’s imagination; there’s scarcely a concern in the highly competitive industry that doesn’t have plans for a vest-pocket-sized radio receiver that will dispense with present-day tubes, wires, sockets, transformers and chassis.

“The innards of tomorrow’s little portable receiver,” Dr. Irving Wolff of RCA told me, “will be nothing more than a small loud-speaker and a plastic plate with some lines and bumps in it. The lines will be a printed electrical circuit—metal strips etched into the plastic—and the bumps will be the little solids that will do all the work. A tiny battery will run the whole works for a year.”

It will be some years before you can buy one of the little portables. They’re expensive—and military needs come first. Nearly every type of stereatronic device now being manufactured is going to the armed services. Solids are replacing various components in radio transmitters and receivers, radar sets, antiaircraft target calculators, weapons-control systems, submarine acoustical apparatus, aircraft computers, guided missiles and the like.

But once the requirements of the services have been filled you can expect a gradual flow of stereatronic equipment which, over the years, will touch on nearly every aspect of your life.

The greatest impact will occur in your home.

For years, there has been talk of a dream house that would be equipped with telephone-TV, ranges that cook meals in seconds, electronic temperature controls, automatic room lighting, and a long list of other highly desirable features.

“All of those advances have been technically possible for a long time,” Dr. Wolff said, “but they were impractical, physically and economically.” Hundreds of vacuum tubes, numerous metal components, miles of wire and great quantities of power would have been needed to make the equipment work—all at great cost.

Today the dream house has been made practical by stereatrons. Stereatron-studded wiring, strung inside your walls, will provide plugless and shock-less induction power; a stereatron touching the outside of the wall will pick up current without requiring an outlet. Electric power will be less expensive, too: stereatrons used by the power company will help cut the cost of producing electricity, and the stereatronic appliance in your home will need less power.

Some of the most important changes impending will be caused by the phosphor particle, a stereatron that gives off light when power is applied to it. A coating of phosphors is what makes the inside of a fluorescent light tube glow; and the same kind of coating, made bright in some places, dark in others, causes the picture to appear on your television screen.

A wall or ceiling panel coated with phosphors would become a source of light if an electric current were passed through it. Hook up a series of such panels to another of the stereatrons, one that reacts to the slightest change in outside light—and you have a setup that will turn on your house lights automatically as twilight falls, and keep increasing the intensity of the artificial light as the outside darkness increases.

Prospects for Picture-on-the-Wall TV.

A new method of carrying electronic impulses to the phosphors on your TV screen will ultimately make possible picture-on-the-wall television. Instead of the bulky picture tube which now comprises nearly half your TV set, you’ll have a flat screen that will be connected to your receiver by a few wires, and can be hung anywhere. The reason for today’s long tube is the need for a so-called electron gun at the small end; it bombards the phosphor-coated screen with impulses that cause the tiny stereatrons to glow. The new screens will have a network of hair-thin wires which intersect behind each phosphor dot; as a signal hits the point where the wires cross, the phosphor speck will light up to any degree of brightness that’s ordered. The pictures can be in full color, of course.

Stereatronic advances will bring down the cost of television sets so that it will be practical to have a number of receivers and screens in your house. They will provide not only entertainment, but closed-circuit communication within the home, when used in conjunction with small, portable TV cameras (RCA calls them TV Eyes). The new cameras, about half the size of a telephone directory and weighing only a few pounds, will let you keep an eye on Junior in the playroom at the flick of a switch, or check to see who’s calling when the front doorbell rings. The effectiveness of these midget cameras lies in a stereatronic coating on the face of a tube known as the Vidicon. This substance, a compound of antimony and sulphur, is sensitive to light. It also has certain properties which enable it to transmit as a TV signal the light variations (or pictures) it picks up—skipping a whole series of complicated amplifying operations required by large studio cameras.

The RCA Vidicon tube (other companies have cameras of their own, some employing the Vidicon) costs about $100 at present. The tube which does the same job in a studio camera is considerably more sensitive—but it’s also 15 times as expensive, partly because it’s so hard to manufacture that every second tube made has to be discarded because of imperfections. Of course, the Vidicon tube is only part of the camera; the complete Vidicon camera costs about $900, far too much for general household use. However, the addition of other stereatronic devices is expected to lower the price substantially—perhaps down to $150 or $200.

And that will be a bargain indeed—because besides watching the baby, the Vidicon camera can be adapted to take home movies on magnetic tape. No processing will be required and you won’t need a special projector. You’ll simply play the video tape back through the recording apparatus and see on your TV screen, in full color and with sound, the pictures you shot a few minutes before.

New Fields for Tape Recordings.

You’ll also be able to use your recording apparatus to tape your favorite television shows. Moreover, you’ll be able to buy video tape recordings of musical stage shows, just as you now purchase your phonograph records or 16-millimeter home movies.

Color video tape recording has already been developed experimentally, but for studio use only. The method is somewhat similar to standard sound-recording techniques on magnetic tape, but much more complicated.

The tape is covered with magnetic oxide particles. As it passes through the recorder, the tape picks up and stores away five signals, which comprise a sort of electronic shorthand. There’s one signal each for the three primary colors, another for the sound track and a fifth which synchronizes sight and sound (the tape “remembers” the five signals because the electronic impressions rearrange the form of the magnetic coating). When the video tape is played back, this compact code, like a punched music roll on an old-time player piano, reproduces all the signals simultaneously as sound-and-color TV. Right now the process requires a complicated battery of equipment which fills one whole wall, but in time, RCA Chairman David Sarnoff says, “low-cost video tape equipment of simpler and more compact design than the studio-type apparatus we now have can be made available.”

Television also will be adapted, eventually, for use in conjunction with the telephone. But that advance will take a while, perhaps 20 years or more. Sending a TV picture from one room to another is a fairly simple procedure. Sending it to the house down the block is somewhat more difficult, because no simple equipment now known will transmit a picture over any substantial distance without amplification. City-to-city transmissions require the use of coaxial cables; the latest cables are capable of carrying 3,600 voice signals (that is, 1,800 conversations) —but of the cable’s 3,600 channels, no less than 1,200 are needed to carry a television picture! To be sure, TV pictures can be transmitted through the air without the use of wires, but there simply aren’t enough frequencies in the spectrum to carry the number of pictures that would result from widespread use of TV-phones.

It’s a difficult problem, but not insoluble. As more and cheaper circuits come into existence and new transmission methods are developed, the videophone will become available. You’ll just have to wait a little longer than for some of the other stereatronic advances.

But you won’t have much of a wait for another telephonic development. By making use of the transistor (the most famous of the stereatrons, consisting of a tiny solid within a plastic or metal case), Bell Telephone engineers have already made direct long-distance dialing available in some communities, and they hope to have 20 exchanges converted to it by the end of this year.

The transistor will improve telephonic communication in other respects, too. Jack A. Morton, in charge of transistor development at Bell Laboratories, explained how.

“In a modern telephone switching office, to handle 10,000 subscribers at top speed we need 40,000 to 50,000 relays or switching units,” Morton told me. “We’d like to replace these metal units with vacuum tubes, which work 1,000 times as fast. But the average tube has a life expectancy of only a few thousand hours; with 40,000 tubes, we could expect one to fail every six minutes. And think of the heat the tubes would generate; obviously, tubes would be impractical.

“Transistors may solve the problem. They’ll do the same job as vacuum tubes, using only a fraction of the power. Unlike tubes, they need no warmup. And above all, they’re rugged: you can drop them or shoot them out of a gun—there’s nothing to break. Properly made, they should last years.”

Transistors for Smaller Hearing Aids.

Some transistors are already on the market, but they cost from $3.75 to $50. Ultimately they should be available for less than a dollar. Meanwhile, they are being built into at least one consumer product. Zenith, Sonotone and Maico have used the little solids to replace tubes in hearing aids; as a result, the appliances have been reduced to about the size of a cigarette lighter—small enough to be hidden in a woman’s hair.

Within the next few years, more and more transistors will be channeled into civilian production. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to yank the tubes out of your radio and substitute the little stereatrons. New circuits will be needed; you’ll have to buy another radio. But—eventually, at least— transistorized radios and TV sets will be cheaper than present sets, and much longer-lasting.

Industry is already gearing up for the transistor bonanza. A number of electronic manufacturers— including such major firms as Raytheon, RCA, GE, Philco, Westinghouse, Sylvania and Western Electric—are producing transistors. Others, like Zenith, Capehart, Admiral, Arvin, Emerson, Crosley, Hallicrafter and Stromberg-Carlson, have teams of researchers at work developing experimental transistorized equipment.

“It’s like an Oklahoma land rush,” said Professor Frederick Seitz of the University of Illinois, one of the pioneer solid-state physicists. “Nobody can afford to lag behind.”

Bell Laboratories, which invented the transistor, recently announced another new device that’s even more spectacular (although of limited usefulness so far): the world’s first efficient solar power system.

The sun showers the earth with more than one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) kilowatt-hours of energy daily—comparable to all the energy in the world’s reserves of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium—and almost every bit of it goes to waste. The greatest efficiency achieved up to now in converting sunlight directly into power has been about one per cent—for example, in the photoelectric cells in photographers’ light meters. Bell’s experimental solar power set (which, incidentally, is not much larger than a light meter) is six times more efficient.

The pocket-sized Bell solar energy converter is simply made. It consists of 10 razor-blade-thin wafers of specially treated silicon, each 2-1/4 inches long and half an inch wide. These sensitive strips are linked together with thin wires which run to two terminals. From the terminals the converter is connected to the power-consuming appliance.

When the sun’s rays hit the sensitive silicon, sufficient power is produced to run low-current equipment; in demonstration, the device ran a cigarette-pack-sized transistorized radio and a toy Ferris wheel. Although Bell scientists estimate that in its present experimental stage it would take about 25 square feet of silicon wafer to keep a 100-watt lamp burning, the efficiency of the device is expected to increase considerably. Even now, telephone engineers are considering using units to run low-power mobile equipment or as battery chargers for amplifiers in rural telephone systems.

To power a small home from the sun’s rays right now you’d need a silicon-surfaced roof covering a quarter acre or more—plus a battery so big it would fill two rooms, to store power for use at night. But scientists believe the solar-powered home may become practical someday, at least in parts of the world where conventional electrical power is now nonexistent or extremely expensive.

Although it’s doubtful that solar power will be cheap enough in our lifetime to power great factories, other stereatronic advances may revolutionize the operation of industry. Chief among these are the projected computers—small in size, efficient beyond anything now known, and cool in operation. Even the relatively clumsy computers of today are taking over many industrial chores, particularly in accounting, inventory-taking, and certain self-service operations. The streamlined “electronic brains” of the near future may take over the whole factory.

“Suppose,” said Dr. Samuel B. Batdorf of Westinghouse, “that a factory requires 100 machines to manufacture its product, all doing different jobs and running at differing speeds. Today, 100 operators are needed to watch the dials and regulate the speeds. In principle, one computing machine could do the job better, ‘reading’ one dial in a few millionths of a second, and instantly sending instructions to motors controlling the speeds. Then the same computer could turn its attention to the next machine, and so on. It would take about one second to control all 100 machines. One reason it hasn’t been tried so far is the limitations of the vacuum tubes. But solid devices make it possible.”

Devices That Will Benefit the Blind.

The new science of the solids seems certain to change the world in highly dramatic fashion. But what may be the most dramatic change of all will affect only a tiny minority of the world’s population: the blind.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a team of scientists under the direction of Dr. Clifford M. Witcher—himself blind—is developing an electronic-stereatronic bag of tricks which eventually may make it possible for a blind man to “see” where he’s going through a series of impulses communicated to his hand. The scientists have most of the facts they need right now, but—as MIT’s Professor J. Earl Thomas puts it—”the blind man would need a trailerful of tubes, radar equipment and other components.” Stereatrons, by sharply reducing the size of the equipment required, will go a long way toward solving that problem.

At present Dr. Witcher is working on a preliminary device which indicates to a blind person the whereabouts of stairs, curbs and similar “step-down” obstacles. The blind man holds a boxlike apparatus with a light which scans his path; when it strikes something, the reflection causes the handle of the box to vibrate. “At the moment,” said Professor J. B. Wiesner, director of MIT’s electronics research laboratories, “the device is only experimental and years of development are needed before it can be made practical . . .”

“But eventually,” Professor Thomas told me, “by using all types of stereatronic devices, we’ll be able to produce a radar-type instrument which will paint a map in Braille for a blind person. My guess is that this apparatus will be about the size of a woman’s handbag. The blind person will place one hand on the outside of the bag and feel the whereabouts of everything in front of him.”

No one is more impressed by the tremendous new avenues of progress opened up by the stereatrons than are the scientists themselves. “You might sum up the significance of the new science this way,” said Dr. Henry O’Bryan, manager of Sylvania Electric’s physics department. “First came electricity, then electronics. Now we’re beyond electronics into something just as far-reaching.”

Or, as RCA’s General Sarnoff put it: “Science and electronics are moving so fast that in ten years everything we’re now seeing will be so obsolete that we won’t recognize them . . .”

14 comments
  1. Jaber says: April 27, 200810:42 pm

    This is fairly accurate, give or take, compared to the many other articles about “Things to Come”. I sure wouldn’t mind having the Radar Mower!

  2. Casandro says: April 27, 200810:49 pm

    Well still acurate, although I cannot see why someone would want to hang a TV-screen onto a wall. This has been tried by Phillips in 1991, but failed miserably.

  3. HairyFriend says: April 28, 20083:40 am

    Is that last guy joking? It is hard to buy a TV with a stand nowadays, they are extra. LCD and Plasma TVs are expected to be hung on the walll… It was a joke right?

  4. Jim Dunn says: April 28, 20088:10 am

    Oooooh, I am so jealous of that new scanner! What kind didja get?

    I could probably get a scanner, if it weren’t for having a baby soon and all. Stupid babies and their stupid needs. Everything’s just GOT to be about them.

  5. Charlie says: April 28, 20089:27 am

    Jim Dunn: I got a Plustek Optic Pro A320. The scanner is great and monstrously huge, though the software blows chunks. It cost me about $600. I agree about the babies, I mean, they can’t do anything for themselves.

  6. jayessell says: April 28, 20083:15 pm

    That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to yank the tubes out of your radio
    and substitute the little stereatrons.

    Yes it did. For the rectifier tube anyway.
    There were ‘Solid State’ ‘plug in replacement’
    rectifiers shaped like the tube it replaced.
    Ran cooler, lasted longer… don’t think it was cheaper.

    PS: Great article!
    Lots of knobs and switches on that flatscreen TV.
    Is the lamp replacable in your scanner or is it LEDs?
    Some of the Microtec have to go to the factory!
    (Which is an outrage/deal breaker)

  7. Firebrand38 says: April 28, 20083:43 pm

    Charlie,
    Thanks for the diligence to post this article.

    You know, until you blow it up, the caricature of Liberace on the cover looks like a caricature of Jay Leno.

  8. Charlie says: April 28, 20084:14 pm

    Jay: I don’t know, I’ve never had a lamp go out on me.
    FB: I thought the same thing :)

  9. Toronto says: April 28, 20088:56 pm

    Was this article by the same guy that wrote “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far”?

  10. Charlie says: April 28, 20089:21 pm

    I think so, at least that’s what wikipedia says

  11. David says: April 29, 20085:28 am

    Ultrasonic washing machines do exist, but I think they’re only popular in Japan.

  12. Jim Dunn says: April 29, 20087:44 am

    Yow! That’s a buncha money. Maybe I need to put that on the baby’s gift registry.

    That article was hilarious, too. Thanks for the link.

  13. Terry_Jim says: July 14, 200810:13 pm

    This is the only article on google containing the word “stereatron”.
    Guess it never caught on, but it is an amazingly prescient article.

  14. marc says: February 19, 20097:18 am

    Great ideas, great future and so far very accurate. That made me think that future technology take time to go out there…

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