More Leisure for Man in the Automatic Age (Jun, 1931)
Windows? Bah, who needs windows when I’ve got sunlamps?
More Leisure for Man in the Automatic Age
by L. Warrington Chubb
Director of Research, Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co.
As told to J. EARLE MILLER
Mr. Chubb describes in this remarkable article a number of the amazing inventions recently developed which promise to free man from toil at machines, to better health, and to add greatly to the comforts of home life.
IN A ROOM down the hall an electric eye is busy at a task that human eyes and hands have always performed. Nearby an electric organ fills the building with the deep, soft notes of a cathedral instrument. Across the way a facsimile machine receives and dispatches exact copies of written or printed pages, a cathode tube flickers with the moving picture of electricity in transit, and a beam of polarized light passing through a piece of celluloid is telling its master that railroad rails are being made with too much steel near their base and not enough just beneath the flange on which the car wheels glide.
Those widely different activities, together with a host of others like them, are the first light beams marking the dawn of the automatic age, when electrons will be harnessed to perform many of the tiresome, laborious tasks that human brawn has been mobilized to do in the past.
The past fifty years or so have been known as the machine age, but now comes the automatic era to emancipate man from the machine. The old bugaboo, that labor will starve unless it can work at back-breaking tasks, immediately arises. But the history of machine development has shown that when science frees one man from wearisome labor it creates new fields to utilize his released talents. And without modern machinery men would still be working 12 and 14 hours a day for a mere pittance, earning scarcely enough to clothe and feed a family, and having only bare necessities of life.
The field of probabilities in the new era opened by the harnessing of the electron are as vast as electricity itself. One of the chief problems we are considering at the Westing- house research laboratories is the home of the future. It isn’t enough that the electrical industry should provide a welded steel framework and fill it with light and with labor saving appliances. The scientifically created home of the future should be heated in winter and cooled in summer by electricity; it should have washed air of the proper degree of humidity; it should be lighted with the proper mixture of health giving ultraviolet rays.
Such a home can be built to the property line, eliminating both windows and light and air shafts, and its inside rooms, lighted by artificial sun lamps, will be more healthful than the outside rooms of the present. Some day we may combine the heating plant and the refrigerator, and the operation of making ice will heat the house. Heat can be extracted from air by compressing it, and the dust removed by an electrical discharge. This discharge will also give washed air without the disadvantages of applying water, as it will be extracting the moisture to obtain the proper humidity. The heat extracted from the air can be applied to a water heating apparatus, or even stored for future use.
Our facsimile transmitter opens a new field for the home of the future, which not only can have radio entertainment and television, but also a radio newspaper. Such a receiver is quite simple, literally a development of the old-fashioned electric pencil, or stylus, writing on a sheet of paper dipped in iron oxide—a device which many young experimenters in years past have built.
In the facsimile receiver a roll of chemically prepared paper passes beneath a revolving cylinder which establishes contacts corresponding to the transmitted signals. The moving paper requires no development, and can be torn off at intervals, just as the paper is removed from the wide roll news tickers now used in handling market reports.
Another field of future research to which serious attention is being devoted is the relation of electricity to physical welfare. The same energy which lights your home, does the cooking, washing and ironing, brings messages over wires and entertainment through the air, plays an important part in your health. In fact the medical world is coming to realize that sickness is in some way involved in electrical changes in the tissues of your body, and that medication may only be a means of restoring the proper potential. When you reduce the wavelength of radio signals to extremely short waves, only a meter or two in length, which means correspondingly high frequency vibrations, they impart heat or a species of fever to those working in the same room. In these extremely short waves there is a new field of therapy which remains to be explored and understood.
The ultra-violet rays, just beyond the visual band of the spectrum, are being developed as another aid to health. The time is not far distant when the light in our homes will be properly tempered with these health giving rays to provide much better living conditions than can be had even out-of-doors in our large cities, where a great portion of the health-giving rays of the sun never penetrate the overhanging curtain of smoke and dust.
Electricity, as science is coming to realize, is very nearly everything. All the elements — ninety-two—provided for in our atomic table, can be reduced, in theory, to a single element, for they differ, seemingly, only in the number of electrons in their atom. And then, if the final atoms of the ultimate element were broken down they would resolve, not into mass or matter, but into electrons, which are simply electricity, positive and negative.
We can’t do that, and we can’t see the electron, yet we are putting him to work. And in electronics there opens a vast new field of labor-emancipating, automatic control. Take, for example, one of the simple problems our electric eye—which is essentially not much different from a television transmitter — is solving today in industry. In a yeast factory one of the most tiresome operations was the inspection of each cake as it left the wrapping and labeling machine to make sure that the maker’s label had been stuck on the foil wrapper.
We put an electric eye on the job—a photoelectric cell which can detect the difference between plain foil and foil covered with the printed label. The cakes pass under it on a moving belt, and, so long as the label is in place, nothing happens, but when one comes along without its label the electric current from the eye trips a magnetic circuit and a metal arm shoves the defective cake aside.
That’s an intelligent machine, and a small one. In point of size there is a vast gulf between it and our new giant circuit breaker for a super-power line, a machine so enormous that a dozen men can find room within its shell. Yet in its way this larger machine is just as intelligent, for it guards millions of dollars worth of electrical equipment, protecting it from dangers with which no human being could cope. Let lightning strike the transmission wires, or a short circuit occur, and the giant breaker will trip in such a minute fraction of a second that no damage can occur. And then this intelligent machine will wait a bit, then cautiously close the circuit to see if the trouble has been cleared; and if it hasn’t, it will open again— an act of real mechanical intelligence.
Such machines can be placed anywhere, for they eliminate the necessity of a human attendant to supervise them. Their development may soon place the power industry in the hands of these automatons. In recent years there has been a tendency to eliminate expensive power plant buildings and move the equipment out of doors. The natural result will be automatic watchmen built into the machinery, ready to tell the supervisor in some remote watch station how things are running.
It is our job in the research laboratory to anticipate those needs and provide means even before industry has called for them. The old fashioned engineer and factory man who thought no one could teach him anything new because only a “practical” man could solve his problems, has disappeared. In fact one of our troubles is finding time to answer the problems that production men bring to us.
We have developed a large cathode ray tube in which the bombardment of electrons on a flourescent screen gives us a visual picture of sound and electrical waves. The same tube may be used in a television receiver which will have no mechanical moving parts. Instead of a scanning disc to create the moving lines of the picture, a varying magnetic field will divert the electronic bombardment into a series of parallel paths. Instead of the twenty-four, thirty-six or forty-eight lines which most television apparatus has used to date, the cathode tube easily handles from 80 to 120 lines per picture and gives a clear image as much as nine inches across.
Another application of grid glow tubes to the problems of industry is the stroboglow, which is used to make moving objects such as motor armatures and plane propellers appear to stand still. A pair of small bulbs, not greatly different from the neon lamps used in television, are fitted in simple reflectors, and, with the necessary electrical apparatus, provide neon flashes lasting only one three-millionth of a second, and occuring at varying rates, as the operator may desire. When the number of flashes per minute coincides exactly with the speed of revolution of a moving object, the eye, seeing it only during the flashes, apparently sees it standing still. With 1,800 flashes per minute focused on the armature of a motor turning at that speed, the poles apparently stop and letters written on them are easily read, giving the engineer an opportunity to study its vibration and other faults.
Our electric organ is an interesting example of another electronic device developed in the laboratory which may eventually find a wide market. The ordinary wind organ is limited both in its upper and lower range by various mechanical and structural difficulties. With the electrical organ, which plays through loud speakers, the entire apparatus is quite compact, so there is no problem of finding space for a pipe thirty feet or more high, and the upper notes can be given exactly the same volume as the lower ones.
Essentially it is just a large radio device, to which has been added a tremolo effect obtained by using an electric motor and an eccentric to vary the distance between a pair of coils, thereby changing the inductance. The electric organ is not only more compact, and also cheaper to build, but if you want an echo organ, or a lot of echo organs, all you need is some more loud speakers placed wherever you want to echo yourself from.
One of the most interesting things being done in the laboratory is the study of the strains and stresses of metal parts of machinery by a process known as the photo-elasticity method. No one can see what strains are taking place in a piece of metal, and so the rules for design set up arbitrary factors, and then allowed a generous margin for excess— a system that was wasteful of metal and inadequate to provide proper strength.
The photo-elasticity method is based on a peculiar property of polarized light when passed through any transparent material. If the material is placed under the slightest strain the light will change through the entire spectrum, as the strain is increased, and keep on repeating as long as more stress is applied. And if the transparent material is a piece of celluloid, or similar stuff, cut to the exact size and shape of a metal machine part, the strain lines will be in the same position as the strains in the metal when submitted to a corresponding load.
Polarized light, I might explain, differs from ordinary light in that it vibrates only on one plane, and travels only in one direction. This polarized light is produced by passing it through two crystals, set at right angles to each other, so that light polarized on a vertical plane by the first cannot pass through the second, which admits only light on a horizontal plane. When the transparent celluloid model of the rail is placed between these crystals and subjected to stress, the light waves are double refracted, and two separate light beams is the result. These beams pass through the second crystal and appear on a screen as one of the colors of spectrum. As the stress on the material increases the color changes, so that engineers are enabled to determine the precise strain exerted on various parts of the material being studied by watching the colors.
With this device we have found, for example, that common involute gear teeth are so designed that at one point only a single tooth in each wheel is engaged, and therefore bears all the load. By redesigning teeth so that at least two are in contact at all times, the strain is being divided between them.
A test with a piece of celluloid cut to the cross-section of a railroad rail disclosed that the fillet under the upper part, on which the car wheel rests, is a bit weak, and that there was more steel than was needed in the lower part, just above the horizontal base. By taking some material away from the latter place and adding a portion of it at the top, the steel mills will be able to roll railroad rails with less material, and yet make them actually stronger.
To bring all these marvels to the average home we must have abundant, cheaper power. If all the waterfalls in the country were harnessed to their utmost capacity we would not have sufficient power for the coming age. Power to be made cheaper must be produced with less human aid at points where the raw materials, whether waterfalls or coal, are most abundant, and transmitted over long distances. A recent development which might be described as a tuning system, has made it possible to transmit power a thousand or fifteen hundred miles with much less loss than was involved in transmitting a hundred or two hundred miles just a few years ago. Outdoor equipment, with remote control, is eliminating the expense of great buildings, and the remote control is reducing the human element. Substations and transformer stations can be made entirely automatic and self-operating. The power from many isolated stations can be gathered together and shipped over long distances, just as a train of freight is collected from many cities and sent across the continent.