Saturday, February 24, 2018

CERN's iPod-like control devices, from 1973

A recent dig through some old papers uncovered this CERN memo from 1973 describing controls for the Proton Synchrotron being built at the time. I visited the control room some years later and saw the controls in action, installed on a room-hugging curved console reminiscent of a NASA mission control room. I was so impressed by the devices I asked for a copy of the documentation, written by (one assumes) their designers, F. Beck and B. Stumpe.

These are like the ur-controls for the iPod and (later) iPhone, but anticipate the music player by almost three decades. In fact, the CERN knob is better than the click wheel: It is programmable to be smooth, indexed, or with variable turning resistance and spring return. It was inspirational to feel how it responded when turned in the various modes.

Apple is very good at commercializing ideas, but big research institutions such as CERN, erstwhile Xerox PARC and Bell Labs excel at creating the ideas themselves.

This memo was from a different time, in more ways than one.

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