Western Electric - Go ask White Alice.

Ever wonder what makes your cell phone work? Ever wonder how telephones ever worked at all, ever? Nope? Well, you're normal. If you're the curious type, observe this 1957 Western Electric ad that basically explains how telecommunications worked in the pre-satellite era.

This ad is from May, 1957. The first satellite, Sputnik, wasn't launched (by the Russians) until October of that year. Also, it would be a while after that before that new crazy sci-fi technology would be commercialzed for use by everyday numbskulls like us.

No, back in '57, there weren't satellites yet. So, if you were in Anchorage, Alaska, and you wanted to call your mom in Indiana or whatever, you would have had to take a drive to downtown Anchorage to make the call on The Telephone.

Enter, the White Alice project. It was a way to communicate over long distances by bouncing  radio signals off the troposphere. "WTF the troposphere?", you say? It's the lowest and thickest part of the atmosphere, consisting mostly of water vapor. Western Electric was commissioned by the Air Force to build huge antennas like the one in this ad. It may occur to you that it looks a little like the dish antennas on people's roofs, and that's because it's basically the same thing. See the tower in front of the dish? That's the bit that sends and receives the signal. The huge bowl thing is basically a reflector that focuses the signal into a rough beam shape as it reflects it, making it stronger and more directional.

"Why did the Air Force want these antennas so hard?" you say? Because this was 1957 and  it was the Cold War. With the feeble communications available in Alaska before White Alice, it seemed like a pretty good back door for The Russians come sneak in and invade the heck out of us, with maybe hours before anyone in Alaska could notice and warn the rest of the U.S. Long story short, you could get just about anything funded if you said "The Russians" in a spooky voice and wiggle your fingers around a little bit.

But now, we have privatized satellites making these huge antennas obsolete. The White Alice antennas began to fall out of use in the Seventies, and the last unit was decommissioned in 1985. Here's Louis C.K. explaining how spoiled and impatient we are with our ubiquitous pocket-sized satellite wondertechnology.

Here's a film from 1960 explaining what a geeky erection we had for the dawn of satellite communication. It sounded like sci-fi at the time, but now we have the nerve to be irritated when it doesn't send the minutiae of our daily lives around the globe, to no one in particular, at the exact moment we want it to. I look forward to being spoiled about 3D printing and wireless battery chargers.

As Robert, one of Evil's henchmen said in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, "I can't wait for the new techno-lo-nological dawn!"

Click for big.


Franck3D said...

"We can make beans into peas!"

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Well done, sir.


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