What we saw when we sent a cell phone through a pneumatic tube system

Pneumatic tube systems — little canisters shot through a series of tubes via the power of compressed air — have been around since the 19th century when they were briefly popular as a way to quickly deliver mail in big cities. Today, they're probably most familiar from their use in drive-through banking, but the tubes also turn up at libraries (the one at the main branch of the New York Public Library is particularly steampunky), in scientific laboratories, and in hospitals.

Last month, I spent an inordinate amount of time in one Minneapolis area hospital, waiting for an induced labor to kick in. How do you entertain yourself between the insertion of the IV line and the beginning of serious contractions? Turns out, you go on a lot of short walks, you watch some TV, and (if you're lucky) you convince the nurses to let your husband "mail" his cell phone from the labor/delivery department to the post-natal department, using the hospital's pneumatic tube system. Read the rest

Why is it so hard to make a phone call in emergency situations?

When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, my Facebook feed was immediately filled with urgent messages. I watched as my friends and family implored their friends and family in Boston to check in, and lamented the fact that nobody could seem to get a solid cell phone connection. Calls were made, but they got dropped. More often, they were never connected to begin with. There was even a rumor circulating that all cell phone service to the city had been switched off at the request of law enforcement.

That rumor turns out to not be true. But it is a fact that, whenever disaster strikes, it becomes difficult to reach the people you care about. Right at the moment when you really need to hear a familiar voice, you often can't. So what gives?

To find out why it's frequently so difficult to successfully place a call during emergencies, I spoke with Brough Turner, an entrepreneur, engineer, and writer who has been been working with phone systems (both wired and wireless) for 25 years. Turner helped me understand how the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of cell phones works, and why that infrastructure gets bogged down when lots of people are suddenly trying to make calls all at once from a single place. He says there are some things that can be done to fix this issue, but, ultimately, it's more complicated than just asking what the technology can and cannot do. In some ways, service failures like this are a price we pay for having a choice and not being subject to a total monopoly. Read the rest

RIP Stanford Ovshinsky — inventor with an eye on energy and communication

America lost a great Maker last week. Stanford R. Ovshinsky was a self-taught engineer and inventor who held more than 400 patents when he died on October 17th at the age of 90. The name may not be familiar to you, but his work is. Ovshinsky is credited with inventing key technologies behind flat-panel liquid crystal displays that we use to watch TV, work on the Internet, or play with our phones.

He was also the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery — a rechargeable battery that now powers everything from laptops to the Prius. Ovshinsky (along with his wife, Iris, who held a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was his research partner for much of his life), began working on improved versions of batteries, solar cells, and other energy technologies beginning in the early 1960s. More than a decade before climate change became a well-established fact, Ovshinsky was concerned about the pollution and political instability that went along with fossil fuels. He spent the rest of his life developing better alternatives.

For a good introduction to how truly groundbreaking Ovshinsky's ideas were, check out a 1978 article from Popular Science, all about his invention of amorphous silicon semiconductors — a technology that today forms the basis behind both thin-film solar panels and smart phone displays. At the time though, it made Ovshinky a controversial figure.

Michigan Public Radio's obituaryA good explanation of the inner workings of nickel-metal hydride batteriesPopular Science's obit (with a link to the 1978 story)

Thanks to Art Myatt for the heads up on this!

Read the rest