Sunday, May 10, 2015

Boy Genius Blocks Navy Wireless

Commander Albert C. Gleaves U.S.N. of the Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island, had a problem. The government had installed a new wireless station for ship-to-shore communication but in 1906 they were experiencing interference from a nearby amateur radio operator.
My sign was GR. "GR GR GR," they said, "if you don't stop operating that coil, you will find yourself in the jug shortly." I answered by sitting on the key. I was such a nice boy! - Lloyd Manual, Wireless Age, Dec. 1916.

The Nashville American, 22 Feb 1906
The Nashville American, Feb. 22, 1906

The Navy investigated and discovered a teenage schoolboy who had converted a hen house into a "ham shack" and equipped it with a home-made transmitter. The meagerness of the radio set startled the professional wireless operators who examined it. A report was filed with the Navy Bureau of Equipment. Some of the components used to build the set were described in The Nashville American and included:

Friday, May 1, 2015

Experimental Wireless Station 1XX

The Radio Club at Brown University dates to the end of the First World War when the United States government lifted restrictions on the private operation of wireless equipment. Student amateur radio operators formed the new club during the Fall semester in 1919.

An early transmitter used on campus was described as "a ½ KW rotary spark set and a two step amplifier" in the September 1920 QST magazine. One of the call signs used was 1LAU which was assigned to student Herbert R. Grimshaw. The emissions from the crude transmitters used by amateurs during this time caused stations in the same geographic area to interfere with each other. President of the club E. Standish Palmer proposed a system for managing the problem:
"Providence has considerable QRM [interference] to overcome and some sort of a control station is being considered. Palmer suggests different hours for the different classes of communication and a visiting committee to go to the stations of the various amateurs who overstep and tune them up. This is a good idea. Help the young fellows out in every way possible. Make them feel as though we are helping and not trying to dictate to them."
Another transmitter was a home-made set with two vacuum tubes. The alternator used to generate the alternating current is not shown in the photo below. It produces an Interrupted Continuous Wave (I.C.W.) which, like the rotary spark gap described above, was used to send Morse code. These transmitters were not capable of voice communications.

Transmitter of station 1XX
Credit: QST, April 1921.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Trilobite Detritus

The Craigleith area of Ontario is well known for its abundance of fossils. In 1992 I visited this locality on the southern shore of the Georgian Bay to search for them. There was a railway cut through the shale near Collingwood. The first slab of rock that I cracked open revealed a cluster of trilobite carapaces. They date to the late Ordovician which is about 445 million years ago.

Closeup of trilobite tail pieces.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sky Brightness 3

As we saw in part 1 and part 2 of this series the typical measurements of sky brightness in Providence are between about 4.1 - 4.3 nelm (naked eye limiting magnitude) on clear nights. Here is a graph that shows a typical hazy summer night. The readings were taken on the night of July 1st into the morning of July 2nd of 2014 and are in the range that we commonly see. The dashed horizontal line is a somewhat arbitrary divider between typical and darker nights. When the sky brightness is below about 4.3 the observing is much better.

Sky brightness on July 1-2, 2013

Looking at a graph of the sky brightness doesn't give an intuitive idea of what the sky actually looked like for observing. We can see this by looking at the wide angle views of the sky using the camera mounted on the roof. Here is a time lapse movie from the same night as the above graph.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sky Brightness 2

In my previous post I began to analyze the data from the sky brightness meter at Ladd Observatory. Now we'll take a closer look at the broader trends. Here is a scatter plot showing the data from the summer and fall of 2013. The plot is a little busy but we're really only interested in the "bottom line" where the data points are at the lowest values. All of the nights are superimposed on one another with the x axis showing hours UTC. This graph summarizes how the sky brightness changes during the course of the night. The many values between 3.7 and 4.3 are due to nights that are more or less hazy. There moisture in the atmosphere scatters light from the city back down to us and causes the overall sky to look brighter.

Sky brightness scatter plot

If we follow the lowest readings there is a definite trend where the clearest nights start off at about 4.2 at the end of twilight and slowly, steadily, decrease to about 4.45 at 4 hours UTC. There is then a small but rather sudden drop to 4.55 after which the slow decrease continues until we are at about 4.6 in the early morning. I'm not sure what is causing the drop at 4 hours but it may be due to city lights that are on a timer. The takeaway here is that the sky is slightly, but significantly, brighter in the early evening. The best time to observe is after midnight local time through the early morning.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sky Brightness

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
- Neuromancer,
William Gibson, 1984.

At the Ladd Observatory we operate a weather station and a number of other rooftop instruments to monitor the environment. One of them is a sky brightness meter. On a regular basis we use the live data to judge the quality of the sky for observing. It is also used to document long term changes such as the increase in light pollution.

Sky brightness meter and camera on the roof
Sky brightness meter
and camera on the roof.
The meter is contained in a weather proof housing next to a wide field sky camera. The camera takes a low resolution image of nearly the entire sky every 10 seconds and these images can then be compared to the brightness readings. I can then verify what the sky looked like when a measurement was taken. When the sky is very cloudy it scatters light from the city and the readings are very bright. Haze or high humidity can also cause elevated readings.

The sensor is too sensitive to take a measurement during the daytime. It starts collecting data shortly after sunset when the sky begins to darken and stops during morning twilight just before sunrise. Last summer I calibrated the meter and we've now collected 300,000 data points in about one year. I thought this would be a good time to analyze what we have so far.

Monday, August 4, 2014

As the Bubbl Bursts

The invention of magnetic bubble memory was once seen as a revolutionary computer development - the wave of the future. It is now a nearly forgotten technology.
"Many persons expect that the most dramatic changes in digital systems will result from magnetic-bubble chips that could well hold a million or more bits in the not-too-distant future. Along with charge-coupled devices, these memories show promise of replacing magnetic tape and disks for small systems." [emphasis in the original]
- Understanding Digital Electronics, Texas Instruments, 1978
One of the more unusual computer objects that I've collected over the years uses this memory. It is called the QSB-11A Bubbl-Board. I was told by the person that sold it to me that it had been used in a system at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I have no idea how it was used. Given the nuclear research conducted there I sometimes wonder if I should check to see if it is "hot."

Magnetic bubble memory module

Saturday, August 2, 2014


As a young child I can remember my late grandfather operating a ham radio station in Chicago using surplus military equipment that he obtained at the end of World War II. When I received my own amateur radio license about a year ago I began to wonder when he first became involved in the hobby. I suspected that he started before the war so I started to dig through old FCC publications which listed newly issued licenses. I couldn't find a single mention of his name or the call sign that he was assigned: W9GYR.

My first clue to narrow down the search was a website called Old QSL Cards which has a large collection of the postcards that amateur operators send each other to confirm that they had made a radio contact. QSL is early radiotelegraph shorthand for "I am acknowledging receipt" of a wireless message. They had a card from my grandfather that was dated 1939.

QSL card from my granfather from Jan. 26, 1939.
Scan courtesy of Old QSL Cards.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"The Red Skies" of 1883

"It is impossible not to conjecture a connection with the volcanic eruption in the Sunda Straits, by which, on Aug. 26, the island of Krakatoa disappeared wholly from the face of the earth."
"The terrible nature of this outburst can hardly be realized: the sky was darkened for several days, the noise was heard two thousand miles, magnetic disturbances were noted, the tidal wave was distinctly felt at San Francisco, and the atmospheric disturbance was sufficient to cause marked barometric fluctuations, which were noted by the barographs on the continent, in England and America, for several succeeding days."
- W. Upton, "The Red Skies." Science, 11 January 1884

During the fall of 1883 there was a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon which "attracted great attention not only from the general public, but from scientific men, who have endeavored to give a satisfactory explanation of it." At the time that he wrote those words Winslow Upton had just accepted the position of Professor of Astronomy at Brown University. Prior to this he had been Assistant Professor of Meteorology in the U.S. Signal Service from 1881. The phenomena that he endeavored to explain were the "recent fiery sunsets" seen throughout the world.

The Scream by Edvar Munch
The Scream (1893) by Edvar Munch
(National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
There were three different hypotheses as to the cause of the "blaze of brilliant red light" seen at sunset. One possibility was refraction through water vapor in the atmosphere. Another suggestion was that the Earth was passing through a cloud of meteoric dust. But the most likely explanation, as improbable as it sounded at the time, was that a large amount of dust from the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa had been thrown up to such a height that it slowly spread around the globe. Microscopic examinations of residue from snow in Madrid and a rain-storm in Holland seemed to confirm the volcanic hypothesis by revealing the presence of particles that were similar in composition to the ash from Indonesia.

The sight of the blood red sky seen at sunset may even have inspired the Norwegian artist Edvar Munch who "felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

Note: I originally published this on the Ladd Observatory Weather Underground blog in 2011.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Silicon to Supercomputer

The J90 logic is implemented using application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chips fabricated by IBM. There are 10 unique ASICs that are found in the processor and memory modules. A typical J90 system could contain about 230 of these CMOS chips. The photo below shows a processor module with the cover removed. Each module contains 4 scalar/vector processors. The space at the top of the board can be used for optional HIPPI interfaces or Y1 Channels to additional I/O Processors.

Cray J90 processr module
A Cray J90 quad processor module.

The ASIC chip types are:
  • MBI - DRAM memory interface
  • MAD - Memory side of memory crossbar for read data
  • MAR - Memory side of memory crossbar for write data
  • VA - CPU side of memory crossbar for write data
  • VB - CPU side of memory crossbar for read data
  • CI - Channel interface (I/O)
  • JS - Shared registers for multi-CPU applications
  • PC - Scalar processor and processor control
  • VU - Vector processor
  • MC - Maintenance and clock distribution

There is only one chip (called PC) for each scalar processor and one additional chip (called VU) for each vector processor. There are only 8 chips on each processor module for the CPUs and the rest of the 18 out of 26 chips are used for communication between processors or between the processors and the memory banks. This circuitry is the key to a "balanced" system where the memory bandwidth is great enough to sustain the rate at which the processors can operate on the data.