Embracing Commercial

Aug. 8, 2016

In just twelve seconds on the morning of December 17, 1903 commercial technology became irresistible to military procurement. The Wright brothers had, by their own innovation and commercial practices, built and flown a practical aircraft. Five years later, the US Army issued a contract to the Wrights and by 1911 aircraft were engaging in combat in the Italian-Turkish war over Libya. In another three years, World War I fighter aces were dueling in the skies and strategic bombing had begun. That was 100 years ago.

The pace of warfare in the twentieth century drove technological development as opposing forces sought to “one-up” each other for strategic advantage. More efficient and lethal arms and platforms were increasingly aided by electronics; analog gunnery controls and bombsights brought us early computers, radio and radar brought us high-frequency communications and sensing, but these things were based on fragile, crude, finicky in-feed technologies (gear-trains, vacuum tubes, huge batteries, etc). 

SWaP-C no object

Size, weight, power and cost were no object as the performance of these new devices was so compelling. In this era, technology was developed for military application and eventually, trickled-down to the commercial space. Radio, television, long-distance communications became commonplace—and profitable. Now in the commercial world, evolution was unleashed from the strict confines of that era’s military procurement paradigm.

As early as the 1930s, engineers in many commercial research labs were already investigating alternatives to the inefficient, fragile and unreliable vacuum tubes first employed only 10 years earlier. While vacuum tubes continued to be used extensively through the 1950s, for commercial applications like telecommunications, they were a major cost (money and labor) driver. In 1947, Bell Labs demonstrated the first working alternative, the transistor. (I am pleased to say that the first transistor production line was in Allentown, PA and opened four months after I was born in neighboring Bethlehem: my father worked there.) 

Commercial demand was huge by 1953; transistors were in radios and hearing aids and four years after that, in the first transistorized computers. (ENIAC, the first vacuum-tube, digital computer was completed ten years earlier—UNIVAC, at a fraction of its cost, took its job.) Curiously, the military was slow to adopt transistors for military applications; it seems that Army leadership simply could not grasp how a tiny bit of crystal and wire could amplify an electrical signal much more efficiently than a bulky vacuum tube could. 

No protest

Indeed, with the announcement of the invention to the military, Bell labs worried that the technology would become classified, so they simply didn’t ask permission to disclose it publically. Not a word in protest emerged and Bell Labs went on to widely license the technology. GE (our previous parent) sold the first military-qualified transistor (the USAF 2N43A) in 1953—the same year Philco was able to sell transistorized radios to the Army—but I recall working on avionics packages in the Air Force of the 1970s that still used vacuum tubes! The military came along slowly.

That all changed in the years surrounding the Vietnam conflict. The pace of commercial investment drove the semiconductor industry to greater reliability devices with the invention of the silicon-grown junction transistor in 1956—and with the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, the advantages were compelling. 

Competitive advantage

Leading military contractors took notice and, with the end of the war and reduction of military spending, they knew that the benefits of commercial innovation represented a distinct competitive advantage in that shrinking market. Then, there was the space business; Explorer 1, (launched 1958) the first U.S. satellite, used germanium and silicon transistors, as has every space vehicle since. 

What followed was an explosion of private investment; transistors enabled practical computers, satellite communications, and guidance and navigation systems. Consumer adoption of radios, televisions, stereos, and all the devices that have followed; cell phones, GPS, tablet computers, etc. have driven production scales of economy, increasing performance and reducing cost. Moreover, the unrelenting drive to smaller size/lower power has made these devices highly reliable and robust, easing their adoption into high stress environments.

Today, unlike 100 years ago, commercial technology adoption is measured in months, not years. At Abaco, we see the release of a new in-feed technology (say, the latest Intel processor) well ahead of its public release and by the time it is being put into commercial computers, we are doing all the things needed to package and cool and connect and secure that technology for sale to the military.  

The thirst for the newest, most capable embedded computers is never slaked; just as we release a new product we are on to the next and the one after that. It is a huge undertaking and a new set of challenges every time we do it, but we do it, every day, every quarter, every year, because our customers count on us.

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