4/5/10

Antal Csicsatka - All my tubes and wires! My careful notes!

At first, I picked this GE ad because the picture looked nice and science-y. A nerd with short sleeves and a tie turning knobs, holding a box with a vacuum tube sticking out of it. Then I looked up his name: Antal Csicsatka. He was super cool.

This ad is from 1961, so Csicsatka had more patents in his career after that. They all focused on stereophonic sound and radio. The first patent that put him on the map is the one that GE talks about here. He figured out a way to get a stereo (two channels) signal out of a radio with just one amplifier. This is now the standard used for radio broadcasts worldwide. If you've ever listened to the radio in your car, or recorded songs off the radio to make a terrible mix tape, you have Antal to thank.

There are a few ways to think about inventions like this. One way is that A) if Antal hadn't thought of stereo radio, someone else would have because the technology was ready. Vectors of science pointing inevitably toward an innovation to be discovered by some lucky person. The other way of thinking about it is B) that if Antal hadn't made the discovery, we simply wouldn't have it at all, and something else would have been done. Maybe every radio would just have two amplifiers? Maybe we would have moved to portable recorded music more quickly because mono radio is so lame?

There's no way to know, of course, but I'm in with group A. When the technology is ready to happen, somebody will connect the wires together and make it work. Small, low-power hard drives and MP3 compression were begging to be put together in the form of the MP3 player. If Saehan hadn't done it, somebody else would have. In fact lots of companies did. Apple got the formula right, combining simplicity, beauty, and storage capacity. But Saehan's MPMan was first. My opinion that "if he hadn't done it, someone else would have" should not diminish the cleverness of Csicsatka, of course! Not in a million years would I have thought up how to get two channels of audio from a single amp. Somebody else would have invented simple stereo radio, but Antal won the race by thinking of it first.

Check out the lab he's working in. It's hard to believe that electronics used to look like that. Giant knobs, transistors and vacuum tubes mounted in panels taller than a grown man. Sure, doing all your work in a computer is faster and more convenient, but carefully turning knobs and taking notes from a row of blinking lights would feel much more like you're getting something done. My dad's basement has drawers and drawers of this stuff: relics from a hilarious and clunky technological past that I simply can't throw away.

Antal Csicsatka's other impressive invention was the first radio on a microchip. This paved the way for the Solar FM Radio Visor, which was advertised heavily for a few years in the 1980's. You could hardly swing a dead cat on channel 32 without knocking off somebody's radio visor. These were hideous, and I don't know anyone who bought one, but everybody knew what they were and made fun of them regularly.

In 1984, when MTV was still relevant, Weird Al Yankovic did a couple of hour-long guest VJ segments. The premise was that he took over MTV's signal in a pirate radio kind of way, playing videos he wanted to watch and making up funny bits. He made a commercial satirizing the Solar FM Radio Visor, but his product was the Solar FM Radio Helmet: a giant brass diving helmet from the turn of the century. Imagine a bikini babe staggering around the beach with a 16" diameter brass sphere on her head, trying to enjoy some shitty 80's rock and roll. "And the best part of all," the voiceover assured us, "you won't look like a dork wearing one." It was a great bit, because it made fun of the fact that the radio visor looked stupid as hell.

We won't blame Antal Csicsatka for the radio visor, or any of the other retarded unusable objects with tiny radios crammed into them. We will thank him for the Hungarian Rhapsody scene in Wayne's AMC Pacer from Wayne's World. Let us now bang our heads in gratitude.

1 comments:

Rick said...

I worked with Tony Csicsatka in the early 70s on 4 channel FM research. Yes he was a cool guy.

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