Jeri Ellesworth explores Ferrite, it was at the heart of thinking machines.

To muse, to study the past.. Jeri Muses, and her muses cause mine, why not visit a Muse-um?

Yes, you know my style, there’s time to share the story, but not to do the other 90%, to proof it well, and to put it all in order.. Has man EVER seen such a change? Read on.. I want your answer.. some of the first large ess machines were in operation in the Bell System in the 1960s, but there are some references going back to the late 1940s, maybe little more than lab experiments?    

No doubt, you’ll enjoy Jeri’s overview, and how cool this stuff was and how it was put to use.  Western Electric and Bell Labs explored the properties of ferrite, and used a lot of it in some of their thinking machines. and even those buildings full of relay logic blur the line of what ‘thinking is’. Those who study thinking machines of the past will make note of the Telecommunications ‘Switches’.  Some are confused by the term Electronic Switch, and perhaps if you attempt to study them, it’s helpful to know that the first step was to take the existing fabric of a switch (mechanical relays) and run it all with a stored program. Some reference this as an Electronic Stored Program Switch, or an Analog ESS switch.  

As the cost of solid state devices plunged, Equipment Manufacturers developed the DIGITAL switch where the fabric (switching matrix) was TDM (Time Division Multiplexed).   

If you’re ever in Seattle, there’s a great place to drop in and see the ultimate pin ball machines man has ever created, and more. It might not be a surprise that many who worked Telecommunications were also Hams, and some had FCC licenses in order to maintain Radio equipment that was part of the local telephone network. So here on display one finds radio equipment too!   

Telco Museum 


By day I worked in this old and antiquated equipment as a job, and at night I studied Micro Computers as a hobby in the beginning of a world-changing event, and still most men have no clue how big the change is, or whether it’s good or bad, or how close to the middle of it we are!

Check out that Aluminum memory card used in the early ESS machines, scroll down   

It was a very interesting time to be alive when integrated circuits came pouring out the doors of companies, and catalogs,,, some as thick as the phone book, and they were free, and full detailed information about these chips and the excellent application notes included. A complete tutorial!  

Cross Bar switchers used a ton  or more of latching reed relays to make up a memory store. Numbers were stored in a two out of five format, (0,1,2,4,7) and stored in those reed packs called a register. Expensive and bulky.   

For me things started looking quite insane, and it happened so quickly. What looked like insanity all around could fill pages in an attempt to capture a small part of what I thought I saw.. ..  but I’ll give a few examples. There was a hard drive designed for 1AESS that was somewhat of a logistics nightmare to replace, It was about the size of an old steel office desk, but not so deep and far heavier, the disk, the size of a pizza? Fixed heads, and only 102,000 words of storage on each side of the platter, and one side was mirror image of the other but at 180 degrees, so the machine didn’t have to wait as long to start reading if it needed to.

This machine even had its own air compressor. And the control section needed to ‘fly’ the heads once the machine was alive and other things inside were measured and reported hopefully as ‘all seems well’.

At this time, the normal way to replace this piece of equipment was to replace it with a rebuilt and tested unit at a cost of $6000 plus labor and more to remove and replace it.. stuff that had to be done off hours to reduce impact of a work error, and the failure of the online unit. But these units were expensive to ship as they could only experience so many Gs, and there were G indicators on the outside of the crate! If they were tripped, you didn’t accept the disk replacement.

As I watched one of these machines being pulled, and the techs struggling to man handle it down a stairway, I reached into my pocket to fetch the latest dynamic memory chip, 2102s were common when I first built a memory board, but was that four or five chips outdated already?  the 4116. It wasn’t that long ago when engineers were arguing that dynamic memory was not the right stuff for important jobs, and now, I see this memory at the heart of other thinking machines doing most critical work. Just a small hand full of these chips does all that large disk does, and many times faster!

This piece of equipment tested the rules. I will long remember a female tech who made known “that she was hired for her brain, not her brawn.” And she would have no part of moving that old thing, or even heavy boxes for that matter. And of course, these were all CWA techs, and woman took the jobs knowing the work and the tasks as they were defined. But this old piece, far heavier than 40 pounds. Of course, for the moment, I reflect on Jeri, I can only imagine how she would have done it well single handed… some way she would have done it.. levitation? maybe 🙂  

My whole day time world was so obsolete by every measure!  And yes, you know what I was thinking, why wasn’t it me that took those chips and made a replacement for that pile of antiquated junk Burroughs made so long ago? And why wasn’t it Western Electric who made the simple replacement?  I thought of it, but RED Tape was part of it, and so much more.

There was that day when I read about the little tiny box that emulated that old disk.. The cost was exactly the price of repairing a disk, and they all headed to the scrap pile on the first sign of a fault. The replacements never failed.. ever. But it’s possible the company that waded through all the red tape to provide these emulators may not have made a dime, as the community that owned these machines was quite small, and all that red tape costs money to plow through. It’s not as if they were making hula hoops.  

No matter how desperately Telco wanted it, there were teams of lawyers who parsed the law as to how it would be made and who would make it.

There was also an early day when I was loading what we called camera hoods.  Inside each hood, a well made 35MM camera with controls back to a master timer. The hood fit over a group of registers that measured events in the switching office. In those days, we would receive a package in the mail, a routine with rolls of film, and we’d change out the film in the cameras and send them of too be processed, then our people could take the register data and enter it into manual spread sheets, and provide the reports to the Rate Comission.

Of course.. you thought of it! And there it was, a nifty little computer that took all that data and recorded it to memory! Poof! All that work changing that film gone overnight! A 300 baud modem reported all the data. But what about all the people reading the data, and doing the computations on paper? Gone too.

But that was just the beginning of the insanity as I saw it. The whole network was built on madness according to this slice of time I was trapped in..  and what would happen tomorrow?   These reports were used to justify how many circuits we had between central offices, and a Tech’s life was filled helping to meet the demands of the local Rate Comission.

The circuits between central offices called trunks, and this data groomed up from mechanical registers, into reports,  they in turn generated orders called Trunk Facility Orders. And in the Mail we received these orders to disconnect trunks as well as to add them. As you can imagine, call volumes between communities are not constants, so in our work, we might find orders to add two, followed by remove three, followed by add three, followed by remove two circuits. This was the analog world, full of make busy work?

But the madness was systemic! Those packs you removed? Where were they to be stored? In the circuit pack pool of course! But the State of Washington has an inventory tax, and if you had the packs in a office bay, you got paid for them being there, if they were in the circuit pack pool, you needed to count them, and turn over to the State a significant amount of money based on the value of the circuit pack. In this new world, there were single circuit packs that cost upwards of $30.000.00. That figure is old money, not the inflated crap you have in your bank account now. The importance of where that pack was became a big issue, and it even impacted how many might be on hand to repair and maintain equipment.   

What to do? Well of course, you put your circuit pack in a state that doesn’t have an inventory tax, and you ship and receive out of there.. And prior to the end of the year, you load what you can on a truck, and park it across the state line IF your company serves more than one state. Is this what we did? No no.. It’s only my musings but it could have all been going on while most were minding base ball stats, and looking for a a $3 cup of coffee.  

And soon, that glass fiber and  virtual circuits would force the whole communications system to turn upside down!  similar to a piece of ferrite driven to change it’s state?

In the old world, just what part of the workforce was it that counted the beans? And what part of the day was spent doing necessary things?  And who would be needed when a large building was condensed to the size of a guard house?     

We had performance reports to manually compute each month, and we accomplished this work by taking data off mechanical registers that recorded call volumes and types of failures, we had a bogie to make, and it was all figured on paper. When pocket calculators came out, I remember just how much faster it was to complete these reports. But yes, I had an early basic interpreter running at home, and I did make a spread sheet for the #5XBAR office monthly index, I did it because it was a fun way to learn.  

And that day.. as we Techs sat in a break room and talked about the future.. The day when the only telco employee would be a watch dog that kept people from going into the building and blocking the dancing light beams. 

Watching an industry move from buying equipment that was bolted to the floor and expected to be there for 30 years, to buying stuff that I personally saw pulled and tossed out the door in 18 months!

Telco workers of the past KNEW when new equipment went in, a guy could work till his retirement on that same equipment. How it all changed. Yes, had you turned this world upside down, it wouldn’t have generated any more chaos. What to do,and how to do it? And the MFJ. beware, if that free call to time of day still worked, the FEDs could have your head. There was a long list of things not to do.

Among the most insane times were companies attempting to reorganize in a way that made the most sense, but the ground underneath out feet had not stopped moving, what was made today was obsolete when it was shipped.

Managers given impossible jobs to organize people to take care of customer’s needs, and their needs changed by the hour 🙂 Some of us discuss the plans that seemed so logical to a few, … plans developed by the best and brightest minds.

A team of customer reps, centralized in a center in the midwest. It seemed like a good idea for the moment, but customers screamed. We spend a lot of money with you, and we expect to see our representative face to face. How’d they get it so wrong the customer asked?

The old old way was to have every detail worked out for a piece of equipment or process, there was the money and time to do it. But how does one do that for equipment that you change out more often that the flourescent lighting overhead?

As I rewind it all and attempt to replay it, our leaders knew how it would all play out.. they called it the ‘gathering storm’.

The Telecom storm was the leading edge, the canary in the room?

Today we see a similar things going on in other sectors.  People animated, their arms waving, their lips flapping, and some of them actually think they can stop the ground from moving beneath their feet.

As I look back on the Telecommunications revolution, I note we are still in the middle of it! But it causes me to know that we are in the middle of another revolution as well..  and I note that those who attempt to lead us care most about keeping their jobs.. or perhaps, the change is so big it’s all they can focus on? I think of my own Senator Murray. elected by those who seek the easy road, those who care most about a secure future, and where do you think she will lead us?

So we might ask.. what will I do with my day? What is the purpose of your life? The phone company of the past was full of efficiency and logic compared to the GREEN world of today.. and you can bet your last dollar, that those who make the rules today have no idea how much of the public treasury they squander!  There’s one fact you need know.. YOU have a far better picture of what goes on than our leaders, as they only turn to voters to know where they set the course for all mankind 🙂

You know best, not because you are a God, but because you know that they aren’t!

A closing example? that person who reports to the Governor, the one who collects that inventory tax, can you not imagine how they should be able to close their eyes, and see a fleet of planes , trucks, vans, taxis, and even motorcycle express delivery all employed in the name of avoiding Inventory tax? And right down the hall, another person doing the ‘chicken little’, “we need quit burning all these hydrocarbons, and we need an army to police the change!”

I say hanging might be too good for them, but fat Lisa… she gets fatter every day.



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2 Responses to Jeri Ellesworth explores Ferrite, it was at the heart of thinking machines.

  1. Harold says:

    Good Post George! It pulled some stuff out of my upstairs back room that I had forgotten was even there. I especially enjoyed Jeri’s video. I understood more of that than the Arduino and Android technology you write about lately.

    Her visual aids were right out of the schematic of a motor-generator I maintained in the early 60’s. Its job was to take 440V, 60 cycle (we called it then) commercial power and change it to 117V 400 cycle AC suitable for fighter jet radar.

    We called that round core a magnetic amplifier. One winding was a DC coil whose flux was varied proportional to rectified alternator output. The more flux on this coil, the more resistance to half wave input through another coil which went on to be utilized as rotating field current—voila!—you have an AC voltage regulator. This machine also used a bank of reed relays in one can, each connected in parallel through its own resistor in a function called a “dither coil.” Theory goes, “If you keep these little guys trembling they’ll be more sensitive to median voltage changes.” Oh for a couple of high current PNP transistors. And don’t forget those great-smelling selenium rectifiers. If you ever smoked one of those, everybody knew it!

    I never thought of it as “ferrite logic” which seems appropriate for Jeri’s discussion (and/or/nand/etc). In analog flight simulators we did encounter some magnetized relay cores that became locking relays when energized and were unlocked by applying reverse polarity switching input. This is still pretty common I guess. That was the world of electro-mechanical servos driving wire wound pots; summing amps, velocity amps and such that were powered with thousands of vacuum tubes and housed in 26 wall locker sized computer cabinets. There was no such thing as memory; when the power failed you lost whatever you had. This setup likely had far less computing power than a single Iphone.

    Across the road from these dinosaurs my wife punched cards with an IBM29. Technicians changed the report printed by stacks of these cards when they were run through the card reader by stripping off hook-up wire and re-wiring one side of a very large circuit board, of sorts.

    By the time I got assigned to digital equipment I was hopelessly lost to IC’s and such. No worries—the young guys pushed the soldering irons and I pushed the pencils. My first Flight Simulator hard drive lived in a steel box the size of a three-drawer file cabinet, had 5 sixteen inch platters and held a whole 30 MB (Yes, Mega Bytes) of data. I have no background to comprehend the tiny chips people shove into cell phones and tablets these days.

    • George B. says:

      Harold, great post! It’s very difficult to find guys who were into the Analog world who learned to like zeros and ones 🙂 You can see Jeri moves easily from zeros and ones to analog, and a free lance 🙂 She hasn’t had here sqaure corners rounded off andwering to others and chasing after sticks. The ardiuno is so simple compared to our old worlds. One bit of old world logic I worked on even had a solder pot! If the heat had been put too it long enough, the plunger was allowed to move IF an AND function happened.. two coils working together 🙂 There were lots of Polar relays performing logic functons, no ferrite required 🙂

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