National Geographic : 1954 Jul
New Miracles of the Telephone Age Communications Have Just Taken One Forward Step by Adding Sight to Sound. Now the Future Promises Even More Startling Changes BY ROBERT LESLIE CONLY National Geographic Magazine Staff T HE physicist tossed a shiny object smaller than a pea onto the desk in front of me. "There it is," he said. "There's your mir acle. Doesn't look like much, does it?" I picked it up in my fingers. It was a tiny speck of silvery-gray metal, coated in plastic. Three wires thin as cat whiskers led out of it. That was all (page 89). This was the transistor, invented by sci entists in the building where I was sitting, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, at Murray Hill, New Jersey. It is the "electronic midget" that makes cautious physicists and sober busi nessmen talk like science fiction writers. Basically, it is a device for controlling the movement of electrons, tiny negatively charged particles of electricity. It can do the job up to a million times more efficiently than its predecessor, the vacuum tube. Someday, radio engineers prophesy, houses will be transistorized. Mothers will watch their children playing in the yard, their babies sleeping in the nursery, their cakes baking in the oven, just by flipping a switch. A television screen on the kitchen wall or in the living room will pick up any part of the house through miniature, inexpensive tran sistor cameras. Transistor "Brain" May Steer Your Car Automobiles, too, will be controlled by tran sistors. When the family takes a trip, it will climb into the car, set the controls, and relax while a transistor brain under the hood takes over the driving, guided by radio waves from transistor circuits under the highways. Dr. Harold S. Osborne, who retired not long ago as chief engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, makes an even more startling prediction: "Let us say that in the ultimate, whenever a baby is born anywhere in the world, he is given at birth a number which will be his telephone number for life. As soon as he can talk, he is given a watchlike device with 10 little buttons on one side and a screen on the other. "Thus equipped, at any time when he wishes to talk with anyone in the world, he will pull out the device and punch on the keys the number of his friend. Then, turning the de vice over, he will hear the voice of his friend and see his face on the screen, in color and in three dimensions. If he does not see him and hear him, he will know that the friend is dead." How far away is this transistorized tomor row? Perhaps not so far as you think. Mass production of transistors is just beginning in 1954. "Closed circuit" television systems like the one the housewife may use to watch her children are operating today in industry, with cameras overseeing production lines and even peering into blast furnaces. Miniature elec tronically controlled automobiles have been built and operated. Telephone Changed Civilization Fantastic as it is, the promise of the tran sistor is only part of a bigger change in our civilization that started in 1876, when Alex ander Graham Bell invented the telephone. From the telephone laboratories that grew out of Bell's workshop, scientists have contin ued to pour out an astounding array of inven tions, ideas, and machines. All have been de signed for the same purpose: to make it easier for people to communicate over distances.* Today there are 51,000,000 telephones in the United States, roughly one for every three people. This is 57 percent of all the tele phones in the world. Americans use them 188,000,000 times a day, 365 days a year. But the change did not stop there. After World War II, television burst on the United States like an explosion. In 1946, practically speaking, there wasn't any. By 1954, eight years later, more than 60 percent of all *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Miracle Men of the Telephone," March, 1947, "The Miracle of Talking by Telephone," October, 1937, both by F. Barrows Colton; and "Prehistoric Tele phone Days," by Alexander Graham Bell, March, 1922, the only biographical article ever written by Dr. Bell.