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From World War II Radar to Microwave Popcorn, the Cavity Magnetron Was There

This compact cavity magnetron gave the Allies a way of producing high-power microwaves for radar

7 min read
Photo: Ingenium
Photo: Ingenium

By the summer of 1940, World War II had been raging in Western Europe for nearly a year. During the Battle of Britain, German aircraft bombed London and industrial centers and blockaded seaports. The United States, meanwhile, was still actively trying to stay out of the war.

Against this backdrop, the physicist Edward “Taffy" Bowen traveled with a group of other British scientists and military officers to Washington, D.C. Bowen had been entrusted with a black metal box that contained technical secrets related to England's wartime R&D. The purpose of the journey, officially called the British Technical and Scientific Mission, was to share these secrets with the United States and Canada, in the hope that they would produce workable weapons and other equipment for the war.

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Inventing the Atari 2600

The Atari Video Computer System gave game programmers room to be creative

18 min read
Brown and black gaming console with Atari logo labeled video computer system

The Atari Video Computer System (VCS), first released in 1977, was subsequently renamed the Atari 2600 and became the most popular home game machine of its era.

Evan Amos

In late 1975, sales of devices that made it possible for consumers to play Pong on home television sets were booming. At Atari Inc., which had first introduced Pong as an arcade game and had manufactured one of the most popular home versions of Pong, engineers began looking for the next arcade game to put in consumer hands, anticipating that people would grow tired of two paddles and a ball.

They saw Jet Fighter and Tank, but instead of designing a custom chip for each game, as was done for Pong, they planned a system that would play both games, four-player Pong if anyone was interested, and possibly a few other, as yet unknown games. The system was to be based on a microprocessor.

In a few months, Atari's designers in Grass Valley, Calif., had made a working prototype, and over the next year, designers from Grass Valley and from Sunnyvale, Calif., refined what was to be the Atari Video Computer System (VCS). It was released in 1977, and six years later ranks as one of the most successful microprocessor-based products ever built, with over 12 million sold at about $140 apiece.

Success did not come without problems. Production problems in the first two years caused Atari losses estimated near $25 million. But once these problems were solved and enough software was developed, the VCS took off.

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