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Mac's Service Shop: Electronics and the Energy Crisis
April 1974 Popular Electronics

April 1974 Popular Electronics

April 1974 Popular Electronics Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Electronics, published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

I'm old enough to remember the 1973 Oil Crisis era (the subject of Mac McGregor's and Barney's discussion) that resulted from an oil embargo instituted by Arab oil producing nations during the Yom Kippur War where Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel (kinda like Hamas in October 2023, only w/o Uzi-wielding troops in paragliders). I didn't get my driver's license until Fall of 1974 (turned 16 on August 18th), so the worst of it was pretty much over by then. However, I clearly remember sitting in long lines at the gas station with my father, and then being limited in the amount that could be purchased (i.e., no fill-ups). Gas prices jumped from a national average of 38.5¢/gallon in May 1973 to 55.1¢/gallon in June 1974 (43% increase in a year). According to the BLS' Inflation Calculator, that is the equivalent of about $3.59/gallon in 2024 money. That's about what gas is costing right now, so today we're paying oil embargo era rates (thank you Brandon). Another short-lived gas shortage occurred in 1979, resulting in the national maximum speed limit of 55 mph (revoked finally in 1995), and the U.S. extended Daylight Savings Time in order to (ostensibly) save fuel. If you were fortunate enough to own a boat during those times (my family certainly wasn't), you could fill up at a dock with no restrictions and then go home and pump it from the boat to your car. I knew a guy whose father had a huge cabin cruiser at his beach home who never spent a minute sitting in gas lines. No, he never offered to sell me any of his gas.

Mac's Service Shop: Electronics and the Energy Crisis

Mac's Service Shop: Electronics and the Energy Crisis, April 1974 Popular Electronics - RF CafeBy John T. Frye, W9EGV, KHD4167

When Barney entered the service department, blinking from the bright April sunshine, he found Mac frowning in concentration and scribbling on a note pad.

"Writing a spring poem, Boss?" the youth asked flippantly.

"Hardly," Mac replied. "I'm preparing a brief on the electronics industry's place in the sun during the long-haul energy crisis. As things have been going, I'm afraid the loudly squeaking wheels - truckers, commercial aviation, farmers, owners of private planes, teachers, boat owners, etc. - are going to get most of the grease, or oil, and leave little for the rest of us who do not have a government department, a strong union, or a powerful Washington lobby to open the spigot for us.

"Electronics is so all-pervasive in our society, it plays such a quiet but essential part in our lives; that it's easy to take its services for granted and forget that it, too, must have its fair share of energy to continue and expand those services. Unlike most other industries, electronics returns many-fold every calorie it consumes! It has played and will continue to play a major role on three fronts in the energy crisis: (1) the locating of new sources of present forms of energy, (2) the conservation of all forms of energy, and (3) the development and control of new kinds of energy."

Locating New Energy Sources. "I guess electronics helps locate new oil and gas fields, huh?"

"You guess right. If all the oil wells discovered through the use of electronics were suddenly taken out of production and we had left only those wells brought in guessing or using a divining rod, we would have only a small fraction of the 17 million barrels of oil we consume daily in this country. While electronics plays an essential part in most forms of modern geophysical prospecting, it is the heart of the seismic type on which the oil industry spends many millions of dollars each year in field work and laboratory research.

"You know how this works: explosive charges are detonated in shot holes drilled in the earth, and the refracted or reflected shock waves are picked up by special chart-drawing receivers in the vicinity. The accurate measuring of the times that elapse between the detonation and the reception of the ground-travelling waves at several receiver points indicates the presence of anticlines, salt domes, and faults beneath the surface, formations expected to be oil-bearing. In underwater prospecting from a surface vessel, detonating charges are often replaced by bursts of compressed air. When new oil fields are discovered, you can bet that electronics will have pointed the finger."

Conservation of Energy. "How docs electronics conserve energy?"

"Dozens of ways. First, let's talk about what electronics has already done to save electrical energy in the home, office, and industry. Replacement of tube-type radios, TV receivers, and hi-fi sets with semiconductor equipment has saved up to 80% of the energy consumed by these entertainment devices. The same goes for computers and calculators. And don't forget the saving in the huge air-conditioning energy requirements for keeping those early tube-type computers cool. The replacement of older energy-consuming relays with newly developed semiconductor products is just getting off the ground in the telephone industry, and in the future this will represent a very substantial saving in energy. Humidity sensors that automatically shut off clothes dryers when the clothes are dry, rather than at the end of an arbitrary, energy-wasting time interval, are already saving both gas and electricity.

"But more is on the way. IC microprocessors will be used to monitor and program heating, lighting, and air-conditioning in office buildings and factories of the future. By tailoring these quantities precisely to actual needs - for example, lighting only areas actually occupied by people and maintaining a uniform temperature during all seasons - it is estimated a 30% saving in energy can be achieved. Back in the home, electronic equipment will calculate the total heat produced by an oven from turn-on and eliminate the need for wasteful preheating. You'll be glad to know the electronics industry is constantly scrutinizing its own uses of energy and trying to make savings. Core memories in computers will be replaced with semiconductor circuits; CMOS logic circuits will be substituted for TTL."

"How about transportation? Don't tell me electronics can't help save some energy there. "

"It most assuredly can, and this is very important because transportation consumes 24.8% of all the energy we use, making its consumption second only to that of industry, which takes 37.3%. Actually, electronics is already doing a good job of conserving fuel used in cars. A good electronic ignition system can add up to 2 miles per gallon over a period of time by eliminating misfires and providing stable ignition timing that does not change because of wear. Automatic speed control devices can increase mileage 20% on highway travel. It's claimed that the substitution of electronic fuel injection for carburetion can, on average, increase mileage in stop-start driving from 4 to 16 miles per gallon. All in all, Floyd Kvamme of National Semiconductor says that electronics can provide up to 40% savings in automobile fuel.

"Don't forget that the car of the future is going to come equipped with an on-board computer to provide separate digital readouts for the speedometer, gas gauge, electric clock, tachometer, etc. At the same time, as we have discussed before, this computer will provide, by means of pulse modulation, exactly the amount of power - no more and no less - needed for braking, steering, window control, windshield wiping, and other mechanical jobs. It will do this over the single-cable wiring system that will replace the rat's nest of wiring found in today's cars. The saving in dc power from the battery, of course, means a saving in fuel required to recharge that battery. But that brings me to my 'invention' that I was working on when you came in."

"What invention?" Barney asked.

"A really accurate miles-per-gallon digital readout meter controlled by the on-board computer. All we need to do is provide that computer with two inputs from digital sensors, one of which will indicate distance travelled per unit of time and another which will indicate gasoline consumed per identical unit of time. The computer will sample inputs from both the flowmeter installed in the gas line and the speedometer at very short time intervals, compare them, and provide a constantly updated digital readout in miles per gallon."

"Hey, I like that!" Barney exclaimed. "It certainly would be a vast improvement over those so-called mileage meters that are nothing more than intake manifold pressure indicators. That thing would really give religion to some of our lead-footed brethren, especially if you modified the readout to indicate cost-per-mile for the high-priced fuel we're going to be using."

Mac grinned as he nodded agreement. "All of us would be better drivers if we were made instantly and irrefutably aware of the effect of our driving performance on fuel consumption - and our pocketbooks. The installation of such meters on all cars would probably do more to save gasoline than would all the dire predictions and exhortations coming out of Washington. And there would be other advantages. You'd not need to take the salesman's word about the gas mileage you could expect from the car he was trying to sell you. It would be right there on the dash in little glowing numbers at any speed you chose to drive; furthermore, after you got a tune-up, if you couldn't see an immediate improvement in gas mileage, you could ask some very pointed questions of the mechanic."

New Forms of Energy. "You said something about how electronics would help with the development and control of new forms of energy," Barney pointed out.

"That's right. Electronics really shines in the areas of precise measurement, tireless monitoring, remote control, almost instantaneous communication, adjusting output to demand, and elephant-like memory. No matter what kind of energy source we use in the future - whether it is solar energy from sun farms in the Southwest or from circling satellites, breeder reactors, 'laser energy' resulting from continuous controlled nuclear fusion triggered by a laser beam, shale oil extraction, the gasification of coal, or some as yet undreamed of source - all of these functions of electronics will be sorely needed to design the hardware for the new energy source, to harness and control its output, and to make sure that it does no harm to man or his ecological environment."

"Well," Barney observed, "you've done a pretty good job of convincing me that electronics is the key to man's survival during the approaching period of exhaustion of the earth's supply of fossil energy. It helps him locate and extract fossil energy deposits still left, it's absolutely essential to stretching those supplies as far as they will go, and it's the best hope of discovering and using new sources of energy. Depriving the electronics industry of the energy it needs to do the work it is already doing and to expand its potential would be suicidally short-sighted. How could energy-allotting bureaucrats fail to understand that?"

"Never underestimate the ability of a bureaucrat or a politician to overlook something until it is forcefully pointed out to him by a powerful lobby or voting block," Mac warned. "Electronics has no voice of its own because it speaks through the languages of medicine, science, industry, entertainment, research, computation, and communication. There are some who will not appreciate the contribution of electronics to our way of living until pacemaker-stimulated hearts quit beating, space vehicles never leave the launching pad, or TV and radio sets go dead."

"You don't really expect that to happen, do you?"

"Not unless we continue the policy of greasing only the wheels that squeak the loudest. In our highly organized, specialized, and interdependent society, it's difficult to judge the essentiality of any segment. Certainly, you can't base that judgment on which group bellows the loudest when it is asked to conserve energy. Some of the gears in our society are large and some are small, but remove anyone gear and the whole clock stops. This is no time for anyone group to claim it should not be asked to join in energy conservation on the grounds that its work is absolutely essential to the welfare of the whole nation.



Posted May 17, 2024
(updated from original post on 5/16/2017)

Mac's Radio Service Shop Episodes on RF Cafe

This series of instructive technodrama™ stories was the brainchild of none other than John T. Frye, creator of the Carl and Jerry series that ran in Popular Electronics for many years. "Mac's Radio Service Shop" began life in April 1948 in Radio News magazine (which later became Radio & Television News, then Electronics World), and changed its name to simply "Mac's Service Shop" until the final episode was published in a 1977 Popular Electronics magazine. "Mac" is electronics repair shop owner Mac McGregor, and Barney Jameson his his eager, if not somewhat naive, technician assistant. "Lessons" are taught in story format with dialogs between Mac and Barney.

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