The Good Old Days?
In the last few years, many things I have read or watched keep reminding me
of how fast time is passing and how quickly technology is advancing. One of the
most recent examples is while studying a photograph of a modern air traffic control
(ATC) radar display. The incredibly large displays (plan position indicators, or
PPIs, in ATC parlance) draw razor sharp lines and text characters and perform an
amazing repertoire of sophisticated target tagging and tracking functions. Seeing
all the many lines outlining terminal control areas, stationary obstacles, terrain
features, VOR stations and runway outlines made me think about how relatively easily
those maps are generated nowadays using packaged software and a desktop PC. Draw
a line and if it doesn't turn out quite right, simply delete it or move it or maybe
make it a little longer or shorter. No problemo.
In my days of
radar, the maps were manually
etched on a circle of glass with a black surface coating, using the equivalent of
Back in my day of working on ATC radars in the U.S. Air Force, when both the
surveillance and precision approach systems were still primarily constructed of
tube circuits, making area maps was not quite so simple. Crude by today's standards,
our analog video mapping system, the AN/GPA-131, used one of the earlier applications
of a photomultiplier tube. The air traffic controllers generated maps by etching
lines on a small round glass plate that had a thin layer of flat black paint on
it. If my memory serves me well, the mechanism they used was similar to a
a scribe on the end rather than a pencil or pen. Repairing mistakes usually meant
trashing the work in progress and starting anew. Making a backup meant going through
the painstaking ordeal of manually etching a new plate.
The way the system
worked was that a miniature CRT was located on the side of the plate opposite of
the photomultiplier tube, and a sweep was generated that was synchronized with the
actual radar PPI sweep. The photomultiplier tube recorded the position of the light
detected through the etched lines and the resulting analog signal was summed into
the raw radar video that was presented to the air traffic controllers. The only
electronic adjustments available were rotation and scaling for alignment. It really
was quite impressive in its day.
That, of course, is just one example of
things that make feel old. The older I get, the more I notice. My only regret is
not having had these new technologies available as a starting point back 25+ years
ago. BTW, I was born the same year that the Explorer 1 satellite was launched.