The Little Tin Can That Could
Vol 21 No 4
Having now achieved the "three score and ten" years that is defined as a man's lifespan in The Bible, I can look back on a great many things that were considered futuristic; the stuff of what we now call science fiction and yet has come to pass.
I recall a comic strip entitled "Things to Come" that on one occasion forecast two-way radios in every vehicle which would be used to give warning instead of the raucous klaxon commonly used on automobiles of the era. Well, the CB radio is about as close to that as one could reasonably come. We all recall Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio and later his wrist TV. Pretty close to the cell phones of today, I'd say.
Buck Rogers and his space ship would be hard put to rival the actual accomplishments of our astronauts. Not even Buck could really imagine a walk on the moon.
A tool so small that it can be inserted through a vein into the interior of the heart itself has become commonplace and microscopic techniques have reduced the trauma of surgery and made possible many procedures that were heretofore considered utterly impossible.
All of this and more is spin-off from a little fragment of space age technology, the transistor. I can recall sitting in a high school Physics class and having Mr. Whitten, our teacher, show us an actual "transistor". It was a little metal can about the size of a pencil eraser, or slightly smaller, with three wires sticking out of the bottom. We later constructed a one transistor radio with it and were amazed that we could actually hear a local station on our set. We set up this crude device about Thanksgiving, powered by a single flashlight battery, to run continuously. It was still going strong when school let out for the summer.
During my college years some whiz kids on the East Coast hitched up a photoflash gun to a ruby rod and came up with a thing called a laser. "Just another laboratory curiosity" or so we thought. Look at that idea now.
All of this "gadgetry" has made public safety in general and the fire service in particular more efficient, more versatile and above all, safer for responders and the public alike. Not too long ago the two-way radio found in a patrol car or a fire engine took up most of the trunk space and, you had better have the motor running before you keyed the mike or your battery would be dead in a flash and then you couldn't start anything. These monstrous radios required an antenna as long as a fly rod and at speed they streamed out behind a vehicle for 8 feet or more. Portable or "hand held" radios were heavy and required a sock full of batteries to provide only a short airtime. Units of this period operated on only a few frequencies typically three, four or, in some cases, six.
Then came the "chip", printed circuit boards and UHF. The average present-day patrol car radio weighs something on the order of 5 pounds, has an antenna about a foot long and draws less than 5 amperes, slightly more when transmitting. "Hand-held" units rival the larger ones in range and power and can be recharged from a vehicle electrical system; yet they can be carried in a coat pocket and remain on the air for hours. Not only that, but they can be made so cheaply that almost any department can afford one for every crew member who enters a hazardous area. The increase in the safety factor these devices afford is incalculable.
The ordinary cellular telephone can be a most useful tool during an incident response, these little wonders can connect with any other cellular phone in the country and, when nothing else is available, they enable units who cannot communicate via radio to talk to each other. A somewhat clumsy home-brewed lash-up of an answer to the problem of inter-compatibility but it works and has worked in more than one emergency situation. Remote TV cameras enable unit commanders to look into areas no human could enter, Thermal imaging devices and night vision glasses can aid in locating unconscious or injured people or even animals in smoke filled rooms. Various motion detectors, worn on the clothing of a firefighter will sound an alarm or transmit a radio signal when a wearer fails to move within an allotted time thus summoning aid for an incapacitated responder.
All this has been derived from that first little tin can with a chip of silicone in it and three wires sticking out of its bottom.
Electronics abound in the fire service. They govern the speed of our engines better than mechanical governors ever could. They control the proportioning of our foam concentrates and they sense changes in line pressure and flow volumes. They make possible the portable instruments that can analyze the atmosphere for toxic and/or flammable gasses and do it in minutes whereas a chemist in a laboratory might take hours if not days to accomplish the same task.
Electronic devices monitor the heart rates and other vital signs of responders and alert the Safety Officer in time to pull endangered personnel out of the danger zone for a period of rest and recuperation before serious, and possibly life threatening, physical problems develop. A small device reminiscent of a large paper clip attached to the finger can determine the oxygen saturation of the blood almost instantaneously and alert medical personnel to possible anoxia, hyperventilation or, in some instances to carbon monoxide or cyanide poisoning.
GPS transponders assist response crews to locate incidents in remote areas and allow additional aid to join forces with minimal searching. These units can also track the whereabouts of a lost or disoriented responder and minimize the time needed to mount a rescue effort.
Calculators and computers of myriad designs allow us to do calculations or other tasks in seconds that would take hours or days with pencil or paper, even if we could be sure we got it right.
All of these things I have seen come to pass. None of them would have seemed remotely possible to my great uncle as he drove his team of matched grays and their American La France "Metropolitan" engine down the dusty streets of Roswell New Mexico. Most of them were still on the drawing board when I joined my first rural department but they have come to pass and additional aids continue to grow from the rootstock of that first "little tin can that could".
Transistors are thought of as a "new" invention; but in reality they have their roots in the early years of radio or "wireless" as it was called then. The first practical radio receivers were called "crystal sets"; so named for the small crystal of galena that was the detector which captured the radio signals. My great uncle would have known about these receivers and very likely had one. The tiny galena crystal was usually embedded in a small lump of solder or wood's metal as a part of the receiver's circuit. It was in contact with a fine spring wire called "the cat's whisker " which was moved around over the surface of the crystal until it made contact with a sensitive spot. When this happened the signal of a broadcasting station of a wireless telegraph operator could be heard in the earphone. Tuning was accomplished by sliding a contactor across a coil of wire until the antenna resonated with the transmitted signal. Since transmitters were not much more sophisticated than the receivers tuning was very broad. Usually if you were near a station you could hear it all over the broadcast spectrum.
Crude as they were these crystal sets were the first transistors. And, to prove the point a number of years ago, a publication for amateur radio
hobbyists published directions for making a crystal set using, you guessed it, a modern commercially available transistor. These sets worked very well too.
The computer age has not only dawned, it has burst forth in the bright sunlight of high noon. Each new catalog brings news of yet another gadget that will make a computer do something else and do it faster. All of these devices rely on the transistor to operate. One cannot help but wonder what the next item off the drawing board will be but we can rest assured that whatever it is it will contain a new generation of "The Little Tin Can that Could" (and did).