Torpedo Data Computer

tdcThe evolution of modern torpedoes goes back to just before the Civil War, when they could only maintain a straight course and preset depth. By the time World War I rolled around, navies around the world had developed a complicated manual procedure using slide rules. During World War II, almost all of the countries involved simultaneously developed analog guidance systems for their torpedoes.

The Torpedo Data Computer was developed by the U.S. Navy, which was way ahead of other guidance systems at the time due to it’s ability to automatically track a target. This distinct advantage not only helped American subs attack more accurately, it also became the standard for torpedo fire control. Dials and switches were used to perform trigonometric calculations for the torpedo to intercept it’s target. Although it was a large addition to a sub, it’s target tracking functions allowed crews to update the direction and other data as the ship was moving.

The original Mark I was completed in 1938, but was too complicated. Despite this, it was fitted to many of the existing submarines in service. In 1940, the first sub designed to use the TDC launched with the Mark III version on board. It was this version that became what is considered the best torpedo control system of the war.

Radio Shack

RadioShack_Logo_2013Radio Shack was founded in Boston by brothers Theodore and Milton Deutschmann in 1921. Aimed at the growing field of amateur/ham radio, they opened a storefront and mail order business and named it after the common nickname for the location of a ship’s radio equipment. The first catalog was published in 1939, and by the 1950s the company was selling it’s own branded products.

It grew and expanded stores until the 60s when it went nearly bankrupt. It was bought for a mere $300,000 by the CEO of Tandy Corporation in 1962. Tandy continued to own and operate the Radio Shack stores until it’s spectacular spiral into bankruptcy in 2015, filing for Chapter 11 in February.  Along the way, the firm was responsible for some of the most influential tech of the 70s and 80s, including the TRS-80 computer and countless parts, wire, radio gear, and more sold over the years to hobbyists.


programming2Electrophotography, or xerography, was Invented by Chester Carlson in 1938 using an originally cumbersome dry photocopying process. Awarded a patent in 1942, it was later renamed to xerography by the Haloid Photographic Company (later Xerox Corporation) who had agreed to jointly develop a commercial product with Carlson. The new name was meant to differentiate Xerox’s products with competitors and to emphasize it didn’t use any liquid chemicals.

Carlson’s method combined electrostatic printing with photography but it was tedious in that it used flat plates and was mostly a manual process. It would take another 18 years for a fully automated process to be developed with the breakthrough of using a cylindrical drum instead of plates. This would lead to the first commercial copier, the Xerox 914.

Photocopying and the xerography process launched a million scanners, printers, and copiers decades later into the present day and is still in use in most major photocopiers as well as laser and LED printers.


War of the Worlds

In 1938 Orson Wells’ infamous “War of the Worlds” was heard on the radio. Scripted as a series of short news briefs describing an alien invasion, it caused massive panic and revealed the power of mass media. Despite four announcements that it was fictional, thousands of calls flooded police departments and even more were treated for shock and hysteria. This was largely due to the realistic nature of the broadcast, which had reporters interrupting music to give updates on a Martian attack against a New Jersey town.

Wells was reportedly stunned by the events, and said perhaps he misunderstood the nature of the medium, in that it was usually listened to in fragments. This draws large parallels to other types of media, including the world wide web, giving this piece of fiction a profound place in computing history. Nearly a decade later in 1949 the broadcast caused a similar panic in Quito, Ecuador. The radio station was burned to the ground by an angry mob.

The Z1 and Z2

z1-4 Considered the first electromechanical computers, they were created by Konrad Zuse in 1938. He began construction of the Z1 in 1936, setting out to make a computing machine with faster, more extensive calculating power than the existing desk calculators. Deciding on a binary system for greater calculating speed, he set the standard for it’s use in computing. The Z1 expressed the numbers using mechanical gates opened and closed by sliding plates. It was powered by electricity, and he intended to replace the gears and axles of desk calculators.

The Z1 read instructions from strips of film punched with binary, and functioned moderately but had trouble routing electrical signals from one location to another within itself. It’s significance was that it was the first freely programmable, binary based machine in the world. Zuse solved this problem in the Z2 by using an electromagnetic system that replaced the mechanical plates. He discovers this method is an excellent way to express binary numbers. Still not an impressive machine, it has potential and convinces the German Experimental Dynamics Institute to further fund Zuse’s projects. Later Zuse fled Germany with his machines, and the Z4 was born. It is the first working freely programmable, fully automatic machine. It was built with relays, and had a clock frequency of 5.33 Hz. The Harvard Mark I was considered the first until the discovery of the Z4 after the war.

In the last days of WWII the Z4 was transported under adventurous circumstances via truck and horse-drawn cart from Berlin to the Allgäu. Hidden in a stable, it remained undiscovered until 1949.

Konrad Zuse

zuse2Born June 22, 1910, Berlin-Wilmersdorf, German scientist Konrad Zuse built the first of two electromechanical computers, the Z1 and Z2. A civil engineering student in 1934, he quickly saw the potential value of a machine that solved tedious algebra in minutes. He built them using binary, setting the use of the Base 2 numbering system for computing in stone. The German Experimental Aerodynamics Institute funded his subsequent work, but the original Z1 was destroyed in an Allied attack. Unfortunately, due to isolation caused by the war, his designs did not influence American and English computer development, where electronics was paving the way for real computing.

Eventually he fled with the Z3 to Zurich when he was unable to convince the Nazi party to continue financing his work, where he later developed the Z4. He formed a company of his own after the war, constructing and selling his designs. In addition to his computers he also invented a programming language called Plankalk.