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   OCTOBER 2012       


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Designing Museum Pieces

By Donald Christiansen

Just think of all the important artifacts that engineers have contributed to museums. Not intentionally, of course. It’s just that we keep developing new products that make the previous ones obsolete. I touched upon this in a column titled “Designing Junk” in 2003.

But of course not everything we design turns out to be unequivocally junk. I was reminded of this recently when searching for something in my poorly organized collection of mechanical/electrical/electronic artifacts. Something I did not immediately recognize surfaced. It appeared to be a portable radio (8 in. square by 6 in. deep), with a convenient leather handle on top. It had speakers in both front and back. Depressing a release button just beneath the carrying handle separated the set into two equally-sized halves, which could then be further separated by pulling out a cable from one of the halves. A glance at the controls revealed the set to be a portable AM/FM stereo receiver with an 8-track stereo tape player. I probably purchased it sometime in the 1970s—maybe even earlier. The radio may still work, I thought. I elevated the antenna and snapped on the radio. It worked fine. But what about the tape player? Lots of things could have deteriorated in forty years. A brief search yielded three 8-track stereo cartridges. I inserted one of Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra. With a bit of adjustment of the left and right volume controls, the result was impressive. I enjoyed my ancient tapes for a week or so, then brought along the player and tapes when visiting a neighbor—not an engineer, but a music enthusiast who had begun his collection of CDs within the past ten years. “I’m blown away!” he said, when he heard the realistic output of my antique player.

He then had many questions about the history of 8-track stereo that I could not answer. But after a bit of research I learned that Earl Muntz had introduced a four-track cartridge and player for autos in 1962. It was based on the Fidelipac cartridge that was invented by George Each and used by radio broadcasters for “canned” messages like commercials. Finally, in 1963 the Stereo 8 cartridge was designed by Richard Kraus at Lear Jet and licensed for use in 1966 Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and Lincolns, with cartridges produced by RCA Victor. Home and portable players were also introduced in 1966.

Competition

The popularity of the 8-track cartridge was threatened when the compact audio cassette that had been introduced by Philips in the early 1960s for use in recording personal dictation was improved so that it attracted the attention of the music recording industry. With the aid of Sony, compact cassettes had, by the late 1970s, displaced vinyl records and seriously impacted sales of 8-track cartridges. And with the advent of the CD the commercial fate of 8-tracks was sealed.

Nevertheless, a cadre of fans continued to champion 8-track. By 1983 most music stores no longer carried them, and with fewer releases they became highly sought after. Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits is thought to be the last major release (in November, 1988). Some rare 8-track tapes have sold on eBay for up to $200 each. Owners evidently did not put their 8-track players out with the trash. Today numerous players can be found on eBay, including car and home players, and “boom boxes” and other portables.

When I demonstrated my aging treasure to another neighbor he too was duly impressed and, partly in jest I think, wondered if I might eventually donate it to the Smithsonian. His comment sparked the idea for this column. I began thinking of other once-popular developments that were made obsolete by ongoing technical developments—among them the typewriter, the telegraph, the TRF receiver, early computers like ENIAC, and punched cards, all of which are now part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

Museum Pieces or Just Junk?

As I was wrapping up this essay, Bob Lucky’s column, “Disposable Electronics,” appeared in IEEE Spectrum magazine. In it Bob observed how quickly today’s consumer electronics equipment becomes obsolete and, in the eyes of the consumer, a “piece of junk.” How true, I thought, and wondered if this means that each generation of say, the iPad, is so short-lived that no respectable museum would be inspired to acquire a specimen, much less to display it. So I checked. I started with the mobile phone. The first item I found was a Nokia cellphone on display at the Smithsonian. Designed in 2000, it was 14-karat gold-plated, and set with 466 gemstones that included 39 diamonds, 215 rubies, and 212 blue sapphires. It was part of an exhibit “The Jeweled Art of Sidney Mobell.” Not exactly chosen based on its technical aspects, I suspected. Then I found that a new exhibition and research project is underway at the Smithsonian, cosponsored by George Washington University, and tentatively titled “A Natural History of the Mobile Phone.” Its thrust is to analyze the use of cellphones across ethnic groups. Whether it will include an extensive exhibit of cellphones and to what extent their technical aspects may be emphasized is not yet clear. Obviously, my research thus far is incomplete and inconclusive.

However, while checking out the Smithsonian’s archives I did find that it already has at least one 8-track stereo player. It is part of a General Electric SC7300 triple-threat stereo system that also includes a record turntable and an AM/FM stereo multiplex receiver and twin speakers, all housed in an “elegant pedestal-form unit.” Nevertheless, if I tire of my rediscovered 8-track portable I may offer it to the Smithsonian.

Resources

Note: The photograph at the top of this article is of the Weltron "space helmet" Model 2001 AM/FM 8-track stereo player. Photo source: Thinkstock.

Christiansen, D., “Designing Junk,” Today’s Engineer, December 2003.

Lucky, R., “Disposable Electronics," IEEE Spectrum, September 2012.

Everyday Fantasies: The Jeweled Art of Sidney Mobell, (http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/mobell/phone.html) — retrieved 7 September 2012.

Yelavich, S., and S. Doyle, Design for Life: Our Daily Lives, The Spaces We Shape, and the Ways We Communicate, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 1997. (General Electric SC7300 Stereo System is featured.)

Hinman, D., and J. Brabazon, “The Rise and Fall of the 8-Track,” (http://www.8trackheaven.com/archive/history/html) — retrieved 11 September 2012.

 

Comments may be emailed directly to the author at donchristiansen@ieee.org or submitted through our online form.

 

Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org.

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