Wednesday, October 26, 2016
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The Year that Was
Walter Salm, Editor
In some ways, I think I would like to forget about 2011. It was a difficult year at best, during which time your editor gave up his coast-to-coast roaming by RV and settled down in Northern California. Last January, U.S. Tech almost missed its print deadline because I tripped over an invisible concrete parking lot divider in a dark parking lot and broke my right kneecap in two places. It's hard to work on the computer when you have to use an overhead chain and handhold just to sit up in bed, and you're all doped up with morphine. Not long after, my wife and associate editor had cataract surgery, and now claims to have better vision than anytime that she can remember. The knee has healed nicely, thank you, but I still carry a cane to prevent another disaster.

It was also a year of great sorrow. We lost our middle daughter (in Chico, Calif., where we are now) to the same rare genetic cancer that had claimed our oldest daughter's life in 2007. Our daughter had been a hospice nurse, a career that she especially loved. Her training and experience meant that she knew exactly what was going on during her 5-year battle against a very nasty, aggressive cancer. Many of her hospice colleagues helped care for her during her final days. And to make matters even worse, we lost a very dear and close friend (in south Florida) to pancreatic cancer just before Christmas.

Another Christmastime death jumped out at me: Norman Krim, but he was 98. I certainly did not know the man personally, but would like to have. His work with early transistors has affected most of us. In the early 1950s, he ran with the newly created transistor (invented in 1947 by three Bell Labs scientists), promoting its use by Raytheon, his employer. Recognizing the semiconductor's enormous potential, he pushed Raytheon into making transistors and then hearing aids that used his designs.

There was a fascinating fallout; many of the new transistors did not meet the stringent specifications required for hearing aids and the company was going to junk thousands of these rejects. Krim stopped them; he had a better idea. He was able to salvage these out-of-spec transistors by giving them a new set of specs and christening them the CK-722, a wonderful, very inexpensive, general-purpose transistor suddenly available to hobbyists and technicians at a new kind of store called Radio Shack. The CK-722 became the electronic hobbyist's dream, because it could do so many different things, and Radio Shack became a household name. If you didn't happen to live near a Radio Shack, you could mail-order the transistors from catalog houses Allied Radio, Lafayette Radio or Newark Electronics. Because of Krim's marketing savvy, many thousands of experimenters working in garages and basements, turned out marvelous new devices: transistor radios, code oscillators, guitar amplifiers, and even Geiger counters.

I personally was involved with the publication of several books that told hobbyists and technicians how to use these remarkable (and cheap) semiconductors. This happened while I was in my on-the-job training at Gernsback Publishing in New York City. In those days, CK-722 was king, and I remember fondly walking the sidewalks of New York's "Radio Row" where dozens of dingy-looking stores near the financial district were bursting at the seams with electronics hardware of all kinds. The sidewalk displays of merchandise in brown cardboard cartons just invited prospecting and impulse purchases. Something this good couldn't last; the stores were torn down, a big hole was dug in the ground, and up went the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Some of the stores migrated to Midtown Manhattan, and are still in business, but no longer clumped together. Instead they are spread out in and around the diamond and jewelry district, just south of Rockefeller Center.

Is the age of the garage workshop entrepreneur lost and gone today? Hardly. Apple's Steve Jobs was a shining example of home workshop inventiveness. He died last year, too, of that awful pancreatic cancer. Remarkably, he kept selling his vision right up until the end. And what a vision it was! R.I.P. Toma Cauffield (my daughter), Dave McGarvie (my friend) and visionaries Norman Krim and Steve Jobs. You will all be missed.  

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