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“Stereatronics—A New Science That Will Change Your Way of Life”

Research and development scientists at Bell Laboratories introduced a device in 1947 that heralded a technological revolution with widespread consequences for consumers, industry, and the armed forces: the tiny transistor. Replacing the vacuum tube as the basic component for a host of electronic products, this semi-conductor solid-state device and such later developments in electronics as the integrated circuit, lasers, fiber optics, and digitization techniques, allowed the miniaturization of conveniences as with radios and computers, and made possible many aspects of present-day life and work—from telecommunications to automated factory operations. The following Collier’s article from 1954, by renowned World War II reporter and novelist Cornelius Ryan, dubbed the new science “Stereatronics” and predicted revolutionary changes in the offing. Though the name did not survive the times in which it was coined, the electronics industry it described would soon become the largest manufacturing industry in the United States.

"Stereatronics—A New Science That Will Change Your Way of Life"

By Cornelius Ryan

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. . . .

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. . . .

How the New Science Acquired Its Name

While this report was being compiled, the word stereatronics 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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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.” . . .

Source: Cornelius Ryan, “Stereatronics—A New Science That Will Change Your Way of Life,” Collier’s 3 September 1954, 64–71.