Virtual museum for communications engineering displays innovative and aesthetically pleasing technology
Technological advances are revolutionising science and data processing. We met up with Bernd Johann, founder of the Museum NT (virtual museum for communications engineering) and an enthusiastic collector, and spoke to him about the invention of transistors and the importance to science of modern data processing methods.
A simple click of the mouse takes us to the online museum’s first exhibit, TELEFUNKEN’s M6800 computer system. We learn that the system was based on the MC6800CL processor, an 8-bit CPU with a ceramic housing that was launched on the market in 1974. Even for those with little or no technical knowledge, the printed circuit boards and switches shown are absolutely fascinating and make you curious to explore the museum’s other attractions.
Mr Johann, which item of technology do you think has revolutionised science more than any other? And why?
In more recent times, I’d say it was the transistor. Transistors have proven highly versatile and have been adapted as guidance and control units in both analogue and digital electronics. To give you some examples, they can be used to control industrial manufacturing processes or, as we all know, in the amplifiers that form part of music systems.
What exactly is a transistor and what does it do?
A transistor is an electronic component, an active component made of semi-conductors – germanium in the past, but nowadays usually silicon. Transistors almost completely replaced electron tubes. Today’s microprocessors are made up of several millions of these transistors. It’s these transistors, with their on or off status, that create the binary zeros and ones that we are all familiar with.
What long-term impact have transistors had on science, in particular with regard to data processing?
Transistors formed the basis of what used to be called electronic data processing, which has now been transformed into networks that span the entire globe. As in the past, these are predominantly used to handle data and process communications. They allow scientists in whatever faculty or subject to design ever more complex models. That gives us tremendous scope to produce new connections. At the same time, it seems to me that many people are simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume even just of digital data that they are bombarded with every day. That can make it impossible to sift out what really matters.
What do you see as the problem?
It seems that some people find it increasingly difficult to evaluate the quality of results because of the pressure that technological options create. It’s a phenomenon that affects every area of society, including science. Take digital image processing, for example. I just find all those options too daunting. Faced with so many options, we can no longer pick out what we need, what can be identified as the key value.
That sounds rather pessimistic...
Do you think so? I think it provides an incentive for us to create beacons that can guide us through an apparently random mass of data and to play a part in shaping and asserting values.
Could you give us an example of what you mean? Perhaps an innovative university IT project?
I remember that even ten years ago at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), you could download all the lecture material online. Here in Germany, too, I know that TU Darmstadt has been very innovative, and there have been partnerships with companies and a project with the broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk called ‘Der Preis des Kostenlosen’ (‘The Price of What Is Free’). Considerable effort has been invested at EU and UN level as well, with a particular focus on disseminating education and knowledge – through open educational resources, for example. Faced with the widespread commercialisation of science and education, I think we need to view the work involved in making knowledge available to others as volunteer work.
Is that something you want to contribute to through your virtual museum for communications engineering?
Yes, you could put it that way. My aim in putting together this collection of communications devices dating back over several decades is to document the enormous power of our engineers to innovate. Ultimately, I believe these machines form a valuable part of our culture and help us trace the evolution from communications systems based on tube technology right up to modern workstations for the internet age.
If we take the area of IT or medicine, it’s clear that automation is becoming ever more widespread, faster and increasingly global. What impact does that have on people in the world of academia?
Even in the world of academia, most of the work involves sitting in front of a monitor. In my experience, there has been a huge increase in the administrative load on each and every member of staff measured against that person’s core duties. There is a huge workload involved simply in managing all the knowledge that has been acquired.
What about links between different disciplines? How can innovation in the area of information technology or engineering be used in other scientific fields? What is your view of the future over the next fifty years or so?
I think we will see a more consistent use of computers in teaching. Teachers are expected to be familiar with all sorts of media these days. I still see a lot of uncertainty and a lack of engagement in that area. There is one thing I am sure about – the information age with all its electronic gadgetry is not the final innovation. I expect we will find a lot of new momentum coming from the world of biology to enrich our digital world.
Activities in the Community
Developments such as the trend towards ever greater automation are not new. Technological progress has had a huge influence on science, research and teaching for many years – since well before the punch card.