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Dick Tracy's dreams

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Dick Tracy's dreams

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

I grew up on Dick Tracy's dreams. I knew they would come true. The other kids played stickball in the sand pit after school. But I had worlds to build.

Each day I pulled the afternoon paper off the porch and opened it to the comics page, and there next to Beetle Bailey, the man with the crew cut and chiseled face carried me away. We went to the future almost every day.

They were journeys that detoured left and right. They took me to Allied Radio catalogs and Ratheon parts lists and hearing-aid stores. I was making myself a Dick Tracy walkie-talkie, the kind that strapped on your wrist like a watch.

I got halfway to my goal. When I was 11 or 12, I put together a transmitter small enough to hide in a box of kitchen matches. It used a tiny vacuum tube and a high-voltage battery to keep the little coils in the tube glowing. It was a marvel of the 1950s.

But it wasn't a two-way radio. It only sent in one direction. And I couldn't wear it on my wrist.

The dream never died, but it had lain forgotten in the crush of decades until recently. By chance, I got a phone call from a friend who works as an engineer for an electronics company. He was talking about cellular phones and the radio signals they use.

Radio signals?

Something in my mind turned a page. I could see Dick Tracy talking on his wrist radio. But it was-it had to be-a phone! Our further conversation showed how close you and I are to a telephone just like that-one that we can wear on our wrists or pin on our clothes like jewelry.

It will surely happen in this decade, I told the engineer.

You're much too cautious, he said. It's bound to happen in a year or two at most.

The reason? As cellular telephone technology advances, electronics experts are taking advantage of two important developments.

The first is the industry-wide miniaturization of all the electronic parts of a cellular phone. This is done through VLSI chips-very-large-scale integrated circuits that contain millions of transistors and other parts on a single chip. Such VLSIs are expensive to design but relatively cheap to make.

The second is the use of a different broadcasting technique. The method being used now gives relatively long range between the phone and the transmitter-receivers spotted around the area, but it requires each cellular phone to send out a strong signal.

The alternate method uses lower power, with closer spacing among the transmitter-receivers. This is perfect for populated areas, and it's ideal for trimming the size and weight of the phones. A cellular phone that does not need to transmit a powerful signal can get by with lighter circuit elements and smaller batteries.

The engineer cautioned me not to expect such miniature cellular phones to show up at the stores soon. The technology is almost ready, he said, but the government has not yet given its approval. But once that happens, the new systems could be installed in major urban areas within a relatively short time.

Because they are radios, cellular phones need antennas, and there is no known way to make antennas smaller than a certain size in relation to the wavelength of the signal. But a telephone watch-one that combines a watch, calculator and phone-could possibly use the watchband for an antenna, and a telephone locket could use the necklace for the same purpose.

Ultimately, of course, cellular phones could become so tiny that they could be placed in eyeglass frames or even worn inside the ear. The microphones could pick up your voice by bone conduction.

Stepping beyond Dick Tracy, we can expect tiny, single-chip cellular phones to become standard parts of laptop computers. They probably would have modems built into the chip, giving these future laptops the ability to communicate with other computers without any sort of hookup wires.

But that's another subject, and I've got to get back to my engineer friend. I can hear my watch ringing already.

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