Standards Soap Operas

The wonderful thing about standards
is that there are so many to choose from.

The story of 33-1/3 and 45 rpm records
The saga of Color Television
The drama of The Compact Cassette
The odyssey of AM Stereo
The tragedy of Gas Leaks and Galvanized vs Cast Iron Pipe
A microhistory of Murphy's Law

Whipple's Law: Any system with popular appeal, powerful backing, and a sufficient head, start will win out over a fundamentally better system.
Disclaimer: Consider this an opinion piece. These are my perceptions and not to be taken as gospel. See also Standard Disclaimer


The 33-1/3 and 45 rpm records

Note: I am NOT an authority; this is my take on history. I may be all wet.

Long ago, when the 33-1/3 rpm "long-playing" record came out, replacing the "78"*, RCA brought out the 45 rpm record. It was not really a competitor for the 33, but more like a direct replacement for the 78, so both of the new formats flourished.

*Trivia question: 78 rpm is not the exact speed. What is? (I suppose the prize for a correct answer to this ought to be a tortilla.) If you want more trivia, click here.


Color Television

Back when color television was in its experimental stages, CBS Labs came up with a pretty good system, while RCA developed their own, now known as the "NTSC" system. That either stands for National Television Standards Committee or Never Twice Same Color. The latter is a reference to a particular weakness of the system, one that the PAL (Phase Alternating Line) system does not have. PAL basically is the one developed by CBS, and it is the standard used in Germany and a number of other countries. (There is a third system, called SECAM, used in France. Zey do it zeir own way, non?) None of the three systems are compatible with each other, but they are all compatible with monochrome (black & white).

The following is my perception of history; I wasn't there. While CBS put on an regular demonstration of their pretty good system, RCA put on a very tightly controlled demo of stable scenes like a bowl of fruit* (and meanwhile applied whatever political pressure was needed) and thus steamrolled their way into being the standard-bearer -- and the legacy for us was that, for a few decades, when you had a West-Coast-produced program or commercial adjacent to one from the East Coast, you got jarring color shifts. Things are improved nowadays, but it took a long time.
 *There was a "moment of some complexity"** one day when somebody painted all the fruit the wrong colors,
 **a line from Kenneth Patchen, totally*** out of context.
 ***well, maybe not totally, since we're dealing with perception, as he was.


The Compact Cassette

In the sixties the race was on to develop an easy-to-handle tape format, and RCA was in the running as usual. They got beat out handily by Philips with their Compact Cassette, and there's a lesson in this: Philips came up with a package that was, like RCA's, easy to use, easy to make (and those were after all the design objectives) but it was also easy to license -- in other words, they licensed it cheap. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and they left RCA in the dust. And made plenty on volume.


AM Stereo

Here we have Motorola trying to "pull an RCA", while Leonard Kahn, who probably saw himself as the Lone Stranger, had the system that, to me, made sense technically. In fact, it predates FM stereo, and is a fairly obvious way to do it -- and it was covered by a patent from waaay back; I guess he bought the patent or something.

An AM radio signal consists of the "carrier" and two sidebands. The upper sideband is an exact copy of the audio, but shifted in frequency ("zero" becomes the carrier frequency). The lower sideband is a mirror image, on the other side of the carrier frequency. The Kahn/Hazeltine system basically just puts left-channel audio into one sideband, and right-channel into the other. It's simple and it works.

The American Way being what it is, even if the solution is obvious, we have to open the field for other possibilities. This is basically OK, really, and sometimes gets us better standards. The down side is that a bunch of people dream up harebrained schemes and waste everybody's time hoping they will be chosen as the new Miss Stereo Universe or something like that. This attitude I display here might give you a clue as to my opinion of systems that several outfits came up with, which were eventually rolled into the Motorola system. Hey, it works in the lab, and even on strong local signals! -- but in real world listening, especially with distant nighttime signals, it's strange, and I've heard it can make you a little seasick. And usually the way they build the receivers you can't turn off stereo and just do mono.

Until this thing came along, it was never OK to have any detectable phase modulation on the carrier; it was supposed to be rock-solid in frequency. Suddenly this grand scheme has some of the stereo information phase-modulated onto the carrier, and then normal AM modulation done on top of that. This produces a pretty complex waveform, and when you have complex propagation circumstances (as in the real world), it's kind of a mess.

So -- Motorola pushed on, RCA-style, and the FCC bought it. They authorized the Motorola system as the standard -- and immediately took a surprising amount of flak, apparently because a lot of people in the broadcast industry thought the system sucked. Then the FCC made a rather unusual move -- they drew back and announced that due to the lack of concensus, they would just let the marketplace sort it out. The Kahn/Hazeltine system was on equal legal footing. Then it was just a matter of time and confusion. Note, however, that Motorola makes chips, tons of them every day, including chips that can decode their AM stereo signal, and Kahn is not a chipmaker at all.

Converting a radio station to stereo, either kind, is a pretty expensive project. If it were not for that, I think a lot of stations would have gone with the Kahn/Hazeltine system, including for sure one I was involved with at the time, because, you know what? Not only does it work well (better, I think), but also you can take two ordinary radios and tune one off to each side, and you have stereo. You can take two old pickup trucks out in the desert and have stereo. You can't do that with the Motorola system.

Oh well. It looks like AM stereo is dead.


Gas Leaks and Galvanized vs Cast Iron Pipe

Ever wonder why you used to be able to detect a gas leak instantly, and can't any more? "City gas" or "natural Gas" (methane - ethane mixture) used to have an "odorant" additive, in very tiny proportion, called Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS). It is incredibly effective; one part per gazillion is noticeable. The only problem is that it reacts with galvanized pipe. For many decades gas lines were done with cast iron (black) pipe, and water lines with galvanized pipe, and that was that. One of the ways it stayed thus was that black pipe was supplied in 21-foot sticks, and galvanized in 20-foot sticks. That's just how it was, and building inspectors had a good way to tell if a contractor was trying to cut a corner by painting galvanized pipe black. The system worked fine, and didn't even need teeth except at the local level.

Then pipe started coming in from the far east; I think it was mainly from Korea. They were shipping all the pipe in 21-foot lengths, including at first some galvanized pipe painted black. The whole system went to hell in a handbasket; suddenly there was galvanized pipe installed in gas lines all over the country, and the gas suppliers had to stop using DMS. Now the odorant now used in natural gas is hardly worth the bother. It doesn't even stink!


Mr. Murphy

The foregoing story does not have anything to do with Whipple's Law; more like Murphy's -- as in Edwin Murphy, an aircraft engineer. He noted that if an aircraft part could be installed improperly, it would be. This astute observation was presumably intended to encourage designing parts so that they could only be installed the right way, though much has been made of it otherwise.

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