Wednesday

May 7, 2014

The Figure on the Hill

by Jeffrey Harrison

When I saw the figure on the crown of the hill,
high above the city, standing perfectly still

against a sky so saturated with the late-
afternoon, late-summer Pacific light

that granules of it seemed to have come out
of solution, like a fine precipitate

of crystals hanging in the brightened air,
I thought whoever it was standing up there

must be experiencing some heightened state
of being, or thinking—or its opposite,

thoughtlessly enraptured by the view.
Or maybe, looking again, it was a statue

of Jesus or a saint, placed there to bestow
a ceaseless blessing on the city below.

Only after a good five minutes did I see
that the figure was actually a tree—

some kind of cypress, probably, or cedar.
I was both amused and let down by my error.

Not only had I made the tree a person,
but I'd also given it a vision,

which seemed to linger in the light-charged air
around the tree's green flame, then disappear.

"The Figure on the Hill" by Jeffrey Harrison from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1952, Geoffrey W.A. Dummer first presented the concept of the integrated circuit, also known as the microchip, which is the basis for all modern electronic equipment.

Geoffrey Dummer was born in Yorkshire in 1909 and studied electrical engineering at Regent Polytechnic in London. He held a series of jobs in the 1930s, including a post with the Ministry of Defence; his group was responsible for the first radar screen ever built. During World War II, he trained American and Canadian forces in ground-based aircraft detection training. Throughout his career, he was always looking for a way to make electronic components more reliable.

The integrated circuit is an advanced form of the electrical circuit, which is made up of a set of components — a transistor, a resistor, a capacitor, and a diode — linked together in a variety of ways. The transistor, which controls the electrical power — turning it on and off — was a big advance over the vacuum tubes used in the first computers. Vacuum tubes are like light bulbs: they generate a lot of heat, and they eventually burn out. They're also much bigger than their successors, the transistors. Early computers powered by hundreds of vacuum tubes were unreliable and required a lot of room, and the invention of the transistor in 1947 solved those problems. The transistor had a few problems of its own, though, since each connection in the circuit had to be intact for it to work, and soldering all the circuits required to power a huge supercomputer was a very big job indeed. It also took time for the signal to travel through all the wires connecting the various components.

Dummer came up with the idea of making the various parts out of a single piece of silicon, which would eliminate the distance between components, speed up the signal, and do away with the need for precise soldering. It would also be smaller, enabling it to be fit into much smaller devices. He presented his paper at the U.S. Electronic Components Symposium in Washington, D.C. He told his audience, "It now seems possible to envisage electronic equipment in a solid block with no connecting wires." Dummer's talk is considered the first public description of an integrated circuit. Five years later, Dummer presented a prototype of his idea, and tried to get the British government to invest in the integrated circuit, but to no avail. He later said: "The plain fact is that nobody would take the risk. The Ministry wouldn't place a contract because they hadn't an application. The applications people wouldn't say we want it, because they had no experience with it. It was a chicken-and-egg situation. The Americans took financial gambles, whereas this was very slow in this country." Meanwhile, American scientists beat Dummer to the punch, patenting their own circuit in 1958, and it would be years before the United Kingdom had a semiconductor industry. While Dummer didn't get a patent for his concept, he did earn the title "The Prophet of the Integrated Circuit."

Today, we rely on integrated circuits to run our computers, our phones, our watches, and our calculators. They're also used in microwaves, TVs, stereos, cars, refrigerators, kids' toys, and musical greeting cards. Pretty much anything you plug in is going to have at least one microchip in it.

It's is the birthday of playwright and activist Olympe de Gouges (books by this author), born in Montauban, France (1748), who said that if "woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum." In the 1770s, de Gouges moved to Paris and became interested in politics. She wrote several pamphlets supporting the French Revolution, although she soon became disillusioned when the plights of women were ignored.

In 1791, in response to the new French constitution, she wrote Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which made the argument that the sexes were equal in nature, deserved equal sharing of property, and if both genders were treated as such, French society would be more stable.

Two years after its publication, de Gouges was arrested for sedition and sent to the guillotine.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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