Over the years, a lot of techniques have become more complex and have reached more and more limits when it comes to producing electronic products in consumer electronics and in telecom. We have seen tremendous developments in less than three decades. We have reached physical limits several times, and yet we manage to stretch them further and further to the point where everything is unattainable.
The first computers worked with punch cards. Cardboard cards that contained information through tiny punch holes representing information. Each punch card had a storage capacity of 80 bytes, or: 80 characters.
In 1943, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly promised to improve on the speed limitations of these electromechanical computers by building a vacuum tube computer. With those vacuum tubes, it was possible to do computing more than a thousand times faster than electromechanical ones.
The ENIAC; Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, needed 22 vacuum tubes to electronically represent one digit of a 10-digit number. That became more: 220 vacuum tubes for a 10-digit number, 8800 for 20 accumulators and more than 9,000 for multiplication, division, input and output units. A total of 18,000 vacuum tubes were active during a computational task.
Each tube required an annealing voltage to trigger the electronic process inside the tube. Anyone who still has an old radio in the house will be able to experience what that means. When you turn it on, it takes at least a minute for the radio to start working. It often starts with a humming sound from the speaker, which slowly changes to speech or music. This is unthinkable with today’s state of technology.
I was lucky enough to live through the days of tubes in radios and televisions. In Jaap’s study, above the warehouse of our store, there was a huge cabinet with lots of different tubes. Jaap was our repair specialist for all broken televisions. It was his quiet domain where he could work in peace. He also knew everything about that technology. I often stood there silently watching, but I realized very quickly that those techniques would very quickly be overtaken by new developments.
Tubes were rapidly being overtaken by the transistor. Transistors were packed much smaller and could do the same thing as their predecessors with smaller powers. That meant smaller devices, smaller batteries and accumulators. The first truly portable devices hit the market.
In the early 1980s, integrated circuits; ICs were common good. An IC contained multiple electronic components, mostly transistors, resistors and capacitors. The first ICs were in a small metal case with a series of connections on the bottom. The first pin was always marked so you could connect everything correctly. Many ICs were further developed and delivered in a DIP housing. A rectangular black block with a row of contacts on both sides.
This was the era of developments where Jaap began to lose his grip on technology and I was able to take over in part. Everything was getting smaller and required a sharp eye and smaller and smaller tools to deal with these electronic components.
Jaap regularly came down with a PCB to ask me if I could be his eyes. Many of these PCBs had one or more components unsoldered due to heat development. Then I grabbed my small soldering iron and started checking everything. Add a minimal amount of tin and the problem was often solved. These were often the circuits that provided the teletext in a television.
The same changes also took place in computer technology. The first computers had PCBs full of chips in DIP housing. Large square and rectangular slices with connection pins on two sides. That soon changed when LSI and VLSI chips were developed. Very Large Scale Integrated Circuits. Suddenly one could build millions or even billions of transistors on a chip. With those chips, we reached the limit of being able to fix anything.
To replace these chips, you need specialized equipment. The soldering iron then gives way to a device that blows hot air onto the chip. The chip is subjected to high temperatures where the contacts around or even under the chip come off. The chip is then removed from the PCB with tweezers or a small vacuum tube.
This was the era when we had to rely on the specialists for certain repairs. The companies that had everything in place to repair these techniques. Our limits had been reached. We could still fix problems of a lot of older devices just fine, but with the growth of the market, that share became smaller and smaller.
With the advent of modular computer techniques, miniaturization continued at a rapid pace. Desktop computers became modular. As a base a motherboard containing the microprocessor and memory surrounded by controller chips. The remaining components were expanded with cards that were connected with plug-in slots. Card broken? Get a new card, replace the old one and send the defective card to the importer. A replacement market was born. The same thing happened with compact radios and televisions. Repair was often made impossible. “Just buy a new one.
In today’s telecom market it is not much different. There, too, developments have been rapid since the dawn of the Internet, but everything remains modular to this day. Regardless of the capacity and size of the equipment.
See for yourself what has changed. The first modems we worked with had a speed of 1200 bits per second, or 150 Bytes per second. With the advent of Internet via DSL and Cable, that quickly went toward 10 Megabits per second; 1.25 Million bytes per second. The nodes in the neighborhoods got those amounts of data delivered via 155 Mbit lines via SDH or ATM techniques. And building several more of those lines expanded that capacity.
But those techniques didn’t stand still either. Chips again became faster, smaller and could process more; 622 Mbit, 2.4 Gigabit, 10 Gigabit and 40 Gigabit. The Internet continues to get faster by the day. We have an almost insatiable demand for more. We know no limitation in speed over 20 years later. Even when I look at the electronics in our homes.
We have also started doing more and more wirelessly. Our now mobile devices; laptops and cell phones and iPads feature chips with sometimes as many as 20 Billion transistors. Twenty billion! Compare that again to punch cards and the first computer with 18000 tubes. In 80 years we have experienced unprecedented growth.
Repairing broken cards or electronics is now really for specialized companies. There is almost no soldering iron involved anymore. Electrical is also increasingly giving way to optical techniques. This is something that for many companies is far beyond their knowledge and ability.
To cite another great example about speeds: the USB port on your computer. Once started with 11 Megabit, this has now evolved to USB3.2 with speeds up to 40 Gigabit/sec. We just got it. MacBook Pro connected by cable to an external hard drive to store photos and videos. And the next generation is already ready: 80 and 120 Gigabit. And of course the chips have to grow with those speeds, or rather shrink. The next generation is 3 nanometers, or: 0.000 000 003 meters.
Where this stops? No idea. Production processes are reaching limits we didn’t think possible until recently. Until recently is maybe just a year ago. Until someone comes up with an idea to go even further.
I think we have reached the end of the electronic age. We are now moving to optical in steps. We need quantum computers and AI to develop those next steps. Technology is growing faster than we can comprehend, conceive and build ourselves. Just like Jaap did back then with the advent of ICs. Our limits have now been reached. Electronics are being replaced by optical circuits.
Computer (Internet) networks are experiencing immense growth, at least doubling every year. By using photons and optical circuits more and more, we can develop the next generations. We need to reinvent and build all kinds of things. New chips will become even faster and have more capacity. For computers, we are going to switch from electric to optical more and more quickly.
I am now approaching the age of Jaap. With the advent of optical circuits, the ability to fix that minuscule hardware ends for me. The soldering iron is still beside me on the cabinet. The Weller is meant for the electronics hobby. Everything current technology is microscopic and can only be replaced when defective. Consider: 20 billion parts on a chip is what we are working with now, anno 2023. It’s all locked up in a permanently sealed housing. One failure and you have to replace an entire unit.
For our team at my job it is a very important task to install that sensitive equipment in the right way, check everything properly and, above all, maintain it. Because the demand for more capacity just continues. We can use the current generations of computers and software (AI) for the next steps of reduction and thus grow again. Where will it ever end? Some reports are very disturbing.