Here in the year 2021, an extended, concerted effort across multiple levels of
the government and the telecommunications industry has made it possible for the
government to send short text messages to cell phones. Most of the time, it
even works. This sophisticated, expensive capability is widely used to send out
mistyped descriptions of vehicles potentially containing abducted children, and
nearly nothing else.
Before we lived in the modern era of complicated technology that barely works,
though, the Civil Defense administration developed an emergency notification
solution that was simple and barely worked: CONELRAD. CONELRAD is, of course,
short for Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, which in a way is what all
radio transmitters do. In the case of CONELRAD, though, the control aspect has
CONELRAD, introduced in the early stages of the cold war in the '50s, was
intended to provide timely information to the public about an incoming Soviet
bombing mission. Because bombers, presumably delivering nuclear weapons, were
relatively slow and could be detected relatively quickly, early public warning
of attack could save many lives. This was especially true due to the generally
lower-yield nuclear weapons in consideration at the time. The problem, though,
was finding a way to get warning and instructions out in a matter of minutes.
This is actually a bit of a misrepresentation of the history of CONELRAD, but
it's a very common one since the emergency alerting feature of CONELRAD was the
most widely advertised and the most successfully implemented. In actuality,
though, CONELRAD was designed as an active defense system in addition to an
emergency alerting system. This part of CONELRAD is not so well known.
Understanding this requires a trip back to World War II, and specifically the
air campaigns occurring over Britain (by the Germans) and Germany (by the
Allies). During WWII, air navigation was in its infancy. Navigation for
fast-evolving situations like bombing runs was based on sighting landmarks and
dead reckoning ("pilotage"), which is already difficult at night and especially
difficult when the targets are using active denial techniques (blackouts) to
make landmarks difficult to see. Bombing runs, though, were far more effective
at night when air defense personnel suffered the same challenges---of it being
difficult to see things when it's dark.
The result was a huge drive for radio-navigation technology, which would work
just as well at night as during the day. Although radio-navigation would later
involve all kinds of interesting encoding techniques , the simplest and
earliest radio technology for air navigation was a simple directional receiver.
A small loop antenna outside the fuselage could be rotated around to identify
the angle at which a signal is nulled, giving the direction to the signal. This
allowed airplanes to fly towards radio transmitters whether or not they could
see anything, which as you can imagine was tremendously useful to bombers.
The commercial radio stations in major cities quickly went from a valuable
communication asset during a blackout to an unintended navigation aid for
the enemy. In Britain and Germany, where this technique was seeing active
use in targeting cities, countermeasures had to be developed.
One option is obvious: when incoming bombers are detected, just shut off radio
stations. This deprives the bombers of guidance but also deprives the community
of information, which would be especially critical following a nuclear attack.
CONELRAD offered a smarter solution: keep (some) radio stations on the air to
deliver information, but have them operate in such a way that they would be
confusing and useless to aircraft.
The history of air defense in the US is a somewhat strange one in large part
because the US has never actually had a need for them. That is, there has never
been a significant bombing campaign on the mainland US. As a result, much of the
US air defense infrastructure has always been hypothetical in many ways. The
CONELRAD proposal fell into a perfect time window when a Soviet nuclear attack
had become a public concern but was still expected to be delivered by aircraft.
Air defense, briefly, was a focus of the Cold War.
So, form this perspective of CONELRAD functioning primarily as an active denial
system for air defense, let's take a look at how it worked.
When an Air Defense Control Center (ADCC) detected an incoming bombing mission,
a set of leased telephone lines between the ADCC and major radio stations would
be used to activate CONELRAD. The activated radio stations would first
alternate their transmitters off and on, five seconds each, twice. Then, a 1kHz
tone would be transmitted for 15 seconds.
AM radio stations designed as emergency stations would then switch their
transmitters (or more likely switch to an appropriately configured standby
transmitter) to either 640 or 1240 kHz. These radio stations would then
broadcast emergency information, but with a twist: following a pre-arranged
schedule, the stations on 640 and 1240 would alternately shut down and start up
their transmitters, every few minutes, on a cycle of several stations This
would frustrate any aircraft trying to navigate by these stations as their
"target" would keep changing positions.
In the mean time, all other radio stations would simply shut down, making the
cycling AM stations the only option.
There are a few things to unpack about this. First, the five-second off/on
cycling of activated radio stations and 1kHz tone are both measures to allow
automated receivers to take action when an alert is issued. This feature of
emergency radio broadcasts persists today in the form of a dual-frequency
attention tone and SAME preamble repeated thrice. Various automated receivers
were offered for CONELRAD and some radio broadcasters used automatic receivers
that disabled their transmitter in response to either the monitored station's
carrier dropping or the 1kHz tone.
Second, some radio stations would be expected to change their transmit
frequency and power. It is not clear that there was a specific need for
CONELRAD transmitting stations to reduce power, I suspect it may be an artifact
of the frequency change process. Some stations might achieve the frequency
change by switching to an already-prepared standby transmitter, which was often
of lower power due to infrequent use, and other stations actually changed the
carrier frequency of their primary transmitter... but did not have time to
adjust the other stages of the transmitter (and antenna), resulting in poor
tuning and low efficiency.
As a result, following the CONELRAD activation sequence there would often be a
long and uncomfortable silence as CONELRAD transmitting stations reconfigured.
In practice, they didn't always come back at all, because the frequency
change-out process was complex and presented a substantial risk of things going
wrong. Just the five-second off-on cycle came with great risk; large
transmitters used large tubes that operated at high temperature and often did
not respond well to rapid changes in power.
As a result, CONELRAD implementation was costly and complex for participating
radio stations. This introduced a lot of friction to CONELRAD adoption, and
while it's extremely difficult to find detailed information, it seems that
CONELRAD's deployment was always severely limited. I have read before that
very, very few CONELRAD transmitting stations every fully implemented the
ability to cycle their transmitters on and off in an ongoing cycle, it was
viewed as too difficult and risky. There were relatively few tests of full
CONELRAD capabilities, which left a lot of questions around the actual
performance of the system.
Perhaps because of the technical complexity of the active denial component,
later public discussion of CONELRAD generally identifies it only as an
emergency communications system. The air defense mission was largely forgotten.
CONELRAD faced challenges beyond its own complexity. The development of ICBMs
made the air defense component obsolete, as ICBMs used inertial (dead-reckoning)
navigation that could not be confused by radio station trickery. In 1963,
CONELRAD was replaced by the Emergency Broadcasting System. The EBS entirely
eliminated the air defense component, allowing stations to continue to operate
on their normal frequencies for the purpose of delivering messages.
EBS would shortly after be replaced by the Emergency Alert System, EAS, which
for the most part is still what we use today---but it has been augmented by a
baffling number of accessory systems which handle various types of alerts over
various media. This includes Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), the system which
has a modest success rate in delivering text to smartphones.
Despite CONELRAD's relatively short lifespan and limited success, its design
was highly influential on emergency alerting systems since. The basic pattern
of a set of key radio stations broadcasting an attention sequence which causes
other radio stations to switch to an emergency mode remains in used today.
Modern radio stations use a device called an ENDEC which, depending on the
radio station, typically monitors some other radio station further up the tree
for the transmission of an attention sequence. In this way emergency alerts
propagate downwards from key (entry point) radio stations to all other radio
The modern structure of EAS is just so much more complicated than you would
ever reasonably expect, which means it's my kind of thing. Maybe I'll write
about it some time.
 In fact, some more advanced radio-navigation technologies were in use prior
to 1950 including for WWII bombing operations. This is an interesting topic
that I hope to write about in the future.
I have always been fascinated by UFOs. I don't mean to give the impression that
I think that there is some extensive government cover-up of the fact that aliens
are visiting Earth on a regular basis and that, in fact, the government has
been collaborating with the larger alien program of hybridizing themselves with
humans, because that is 1) extremely improbable for a variety of reasons, and
2) the plot of The X-Files.
Rather, I mean that whether or not UFOs are a real thing in a physical sense,
they sure are interesting. I am an adherent to what people in the UFO community
call the "psycho-social theory," which contends that UFOs (as the term is
generally understood by the public) are an artifact of culture and psychology,
rather than physical visitations by extraterrestrials, but are nonetheless an
interesting topic. Put simply, UFOs are mostly misidentified aircraft and
planets, but the shaky videos are still fun to look at.
Some UFOs must clearly be actual flying objects, and while they are mostly
uninteresting (aircraft, especially uncommon ones), occasionally someone must
actually see something rather peculiar overhead such as a test of a as-yet
undisclosed military technology. Presumably such incidents are exceptionally
rare, but might explain some of the most peculiar observations. While I am far
from convinced, fellow Burqueño Tom Mahood's theory that floating, hazy,
erratically moving lights often seen about over Area 51 a few decades back were
tests of an ultimately unsuccessful directed proton beam weapon is certainly
This is all a preface to say that I swear I'm not crazy, I just felt like
writing about a recent incident that seems quite interesting and, if its
similarity to some other incidents is not coincidental (a distinct
possibility), could point towards a larger phenomena.
The Drive's Tyler Rogoway, which has made himself a bit of a center of UFO
reporting lately, has run a
on an incident in which American Airlines 2292 seems to have inquired with
Albuquerque center about the nature of a cylindrical white object which passed
There are several things which are, well, complicated about this story. The
whole thing originated with Steve Douglass, author of UFO blog Deep Blue
Horizon and scanner enthusiast.
Douglass apparently ran a scanner set to scan a variety of Albuquerque Center
frequencies and had a recorder attached. If you are not familiar, Albuquerque
Center, or ZAB, refers to the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center or
ARTCC. ARTCCs serve as air traffic control to aircraft which are in transit
between airports either under instrument flight plans, over 18,000 feet, or
just asking to be monitored by ATC for safety and convenience ("Basic Radar
Service" or more commonly "Flight Following"). Albuquerque Center covers a
large area spanning the state of New Mexico and portions of most neighboring
states, including West Texas.
Albuquerque Center organizes itself based on sectors. The sectors are not
especially clearly well documented because operating practice around sectors is
adjusted based on conditions and traffic volume. In general, pilots don't
contact a sector by consulting their chart. Instead, they contact a sector only
when they are directly told to (and given the frequency) by another controller.
This is just to say that there aren't a lot of super convenient maps of the
sectors although IFR charts do show them. They're subject to change.
Steve Douglass believes that the scanner recorded a very interesting audio clip
on either 127.850 or 134.750 MHz. He seems to be guessing these frequencies
based on how the scanner was set up and possibly also the position of the
aircraft. These two frequencies correspond to sectors called Amarillo High or
Borger Low. The flight in question filed FL360 and in any case they weren't
likely to be below 23,000 feet, so we can more or less assume that the
conversation recorded was with ZAB Amarillo High sector.
Okay, I have accidentally buried the lede too much. What exactly is the
recording? A pilot is heard saying the following:
...have any targets up here? We just had something go right over the top of
us - I hate to say this but it looked like a long cylindrical object that
almost looked like a cruise missile type of thing - moving really fast right
over the top of us.
The beginning of the transmission, presumably including the identification of
the aircraft, is cut off. The scanner must have tuned to this frequency
mid-sentence. I am not clear on how Douglass identified the aircraft involved,
listening through his original recording I do not hear other traffic from the
same pilot (who has a somewhat distinct Texas accent) in which he identifies.
It does seem like we get a clip of the same pilot, a bit later on, saying
"...sounds crazy." But the scanner often tunes in mid-sentence and moves on
whenever the carrier drops, so we have no context and we do not hear the
response to the pilot's question.
At the time of this transmission, the aircraft was located in northeastern
New Mexico near Capulin, some distance east of Raton. In general, a very
sparsely populated part of the state.
Although there was some confusion early on, American Airlines confirmed the
legitimacy of the recording and recommended that Further inquiries be directed
to the FBI. Much has been made of the comment about the FBI but I suspect that
it's useless to read too much into it. A lot of people and organizations would
refer any suspicious event to the FBI. Later, the FAA issued a statement on the
matter, but there was very little substance to the statement. They simply said
that ATC radar did not show any object.
Understanding this well requires some discussion of the primary radar system in
use by ATC. It is a common assumption that ATC has complete radar coverage of
the entire United States, but this is untrue. Radar coverage is often poor in
more remote areas and closer to the ground, even for secondary radar
(transponders), but especially for primary radar ("radar" as you think of it,
based on reflected radio signals). On the other hand, ATC radar scopes can be
adjusted to various display thresholds in order to reduce clutter, and there
have been incidents in the past in which objects of interest (e.g. flocks of
birds) were detected by primary radar but not displayed to the controller due
to display configuration.
That's a long-winded way to say that the FAA has presumably checked the original
radar recordings and did not find any target, which makes it less likely that
there was any real object, regardless of what the controller said at the time.
It would be very unusual for primary radar to not pick up a large object at
such high altitude. This all would have occurred within range of the Mesa Rica
Common Air Route Surveillance Radar (CARSR) site and coverage is generally
excellent at high altitude.
Curiously, the FAA has still not released their recording of the radio traffic.
Unfortunately, ATCLive's hobbyist-driven recording network does not cover the
sectors possibly involved.
Many have suggested that the FAA's delay in releasing their ATC recordings
(they usually do so fairly quickly) are indicative that there is an ongoing
internal investigation. I think that's a distinct possibility, but on the other
hand, the northern California/southern Oregon incident that I will discuss
shortly seems like a clearer event of military concern but the FAA was still
more responsive to the media. All in all, I'm not sure what to make of the slow
response from FAA, but we can't discount the possibility that it's some potent
combination of COVID-related short-staffing  and bureaucratic paralysis.
And that's about all we know. A pilot seems to have seen something, there was
apparently nothing on radar, and that may very well be the end of this story if
subsequent investigation doesn't make some remarkable find. It's very possible
that the pilot was mistaken, having fallen to some optical illusion or brief
Nonetheless, there is some interesting similarity to other incidents. An
Alitalia flight near London Heathrow in 1991 reported a very similar close
encounter with a white cylindrical object and scattered reporting suggests the
object may have even appeared on radar, although British authorities apparently
investigated and concluded that there was nothing worth discussing.
This incident is also reminiscent of one in October 2017 in which not one but
several pilots reported visual contact with an object that looked and acted
like a large aircraft ... a rather uninteresting event except that said
aircraft was unidentified by ATC and did not make contact with ATC at any
point. The mysterious object appeared on primary radar but did not provide a
secondary (transponder) reply. The mystery aircraft was taken rather seriously
by the FAA and F-15s were scrambled to investigate, but the fighter response
was fairly late for various reasons and they were not able to locate the
There have been a few more similar but less well documented incidents in the
last half dozen years. None have received much of an explanation.
Does all of this add up to something? It's possible that it doesn't and this
is just a series of unrelated oddities. There's not really any theory I am
aware of that seems more likely than multiple pilots having been mistaken, even
as unlikely as that seems. Many popular theories have serious defects:
The idea that the military is testing some classified aircraft in open airspace
and near civilian aircraft is hard to believe. There is little precedent for
such an operation and many reasons, practical and legal, that the military
would be unlikely to do so. All press is bad press when it comes to secret new
aircraft, especially when it's the kind of press that leads to investigations.
A missile related to test range operations, even errantly directed, is
similarly hard to believe. While there is significant missile test activity in
New Mexico it is a long ways from this event, at White Sands and Fort Bliss.
These tests are very carefully tracked and a missile errantly straying so far
from the range, and so close to an aircraft, would be a very serious incident
likely to end up in a congressional investigation.
Intrusion into US airspace by a foreign government is hard to believe so far
inland - perhaps in the Northern California incident it's a bit more within
reason, but even if you wave your hands and invoke the name of hypersonic glide
vehicles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles it is hard to see how one would
have made it well into US airspace without attracting attention at any earlier
point. Maybe the government would suppress news of such an event but that would
be exceptionally difficult in this day and age and it's not clear what
advantage there would be to doing so. With modern instrumentation, this would
not be a situation like the Japanese bomb-laden balloons in which it was hoped
suppressing news of their arrival would cause the senders to give up. Anyone
who operated such an aircraft into foreign territory would almost certainly
know exactly how the trip went. Politically, there isn't much to be gained by
suppressing news of what is practically an act of war. All in all, a cover-up
just doesn't make much sense.
So, most likely, it's nothing. An interesting nothing, though, eh?
 My skepticism comes from the simple difficulty of keeping a secret. The US
military has invested in the development of directed energy weapons for some
time, and although most efforts have been optical, directed energy weapon
research is generally well documented. A lot of it happens here in Albuquerque,
in fact, at the former Phillips Laboratory, now AFRL Directed Energy
Directorate. I find it hard to believe that there was a testing program of a
proton beam weapon in the '80s-'90s that has never reached public awareness,
whether successful or (more likely) not. This is especially so considering that
I believe the design of the accelerator would have had to be fairly novel at
the time and would have taken a very large effort with quite a few people who
are unlikely to remain mum in 2021.
 COVID has severely affected COVID responsiveness from some federal
agencies. Nearly a year ago I personally received a letter from the FAA's
contractor handling FOIA requests stating that they felt COVID was reason to
waive FOIA response timeline requirements. Similarly DIA has been mum for a
good six months on an open FOIA request, which they attributed to COVID in an
initial acknowledgment letter.
 A number of websites talk about it being "very fast," but they seem to be
overstating the speed or repeating information I can't find a source for.
Commercial airline pilots who saw the object seemed to consistently think it
was moving around the same speed or a little faster than they were. I suppose
400-500 kts is indeed "very fast," but it's not at all unusual for a large
I have previously mentioned that, to my knowledge, perhaps the earliest widely
used urban-scale digital telecommunications system was the fire telegraph. I'd
like to expand a bit on the fire telegraph specifically and urban telegraph
networks in general.
Electrical telegraphy as a communication technology was largely developed in the
early 19th century and by the late 19th century reached a state that would be
fairly familiar to us today---morse code sent over long-distance lines to pass
messages between cities. Most people think only of this case (e.g. the service
offered by Western Union) when considering telegraphy, but other more
specialized systems were in widespread (in fact over the earlier time period
much more common) use than the Morse system.
Railroads were early adopters of Morse telegraphy, but largely adopted it as an
enhancement to an already widespread system in which a signalman could press a
switch which caused a bell to ring in another signal tower elsewhere on the
line. Different cadences of bell ringing were used to express different
messages, and like Morse the system was surprisingly expressive. I believe this
system still sees limited use in certain places in the UK.
All of this preface is to say that "telegraphy" refers to a wide array of
different technologies that share little in common besides the use of
electricity over wires to convey a message. Moreover, while we usually
associated telegraphy with manual operation (e.g. an experienced operator on
each end of the line) , various early semi-automated systems did exist,
often based on pulse-coding---essentially similar to the railroad's bell
The fire telegraph falls into this latter, more exotic category: a
semi-automated telegraph system using pulse-coded numeric signaling.
The fire telegraph emerged in the mid-19th century as an extension of existing
telegraph developments, and although he was not the original inventor, the
concept is inextricably tied to John Gamewell and the Gamewell Company. The
technology was slow to take off, but by the turn of the 20th century Gamewell
fire telegraph systems had become common in urban areas across the US, and
on a more limited basis overseas.
Imagine that you are in the position of a fire chef in an urban area at the
turn of the 20th century. Fires in urban areas can develop and spread quickly,
making early detection critical to limiting damage. But, there is nothing
resembling modern telecommunications, even on a smaller urban scale. There are
a variety of schemes that can be (and were) used to detect fires quickly,
ranging from fire wardens stationed at street corners to run notes to the fire
station to, whimsically, an urban fire tower (often just the top floor of a
tall building) from which fire spotters watch for smoke. I once read a
newspaper clipping about such a facility in Boston where one of the observers
quipped about keeping a timetable of factory hours so that they could judge if
a new plume of smoke was just a stationary engine being started for the
Obviously these schemes were generally some combination of labor-intensive and
slow. The Gamewell Company offered a compelling alternative.
A small box referred to as a "fire call box," and delightfully made of cast
iron styled with a building-esque peaked roof, would be installed throughout an
urban area, typically at a street corner every two or three blocks. Inside of
the box would be a metal lever called the "hook." When a passersby or building
occupant discovers a fire, they simply run to the nearest call box and pull the
hook. Practically instantly, a steampunk-esque glass-cased device in the
nearest fire station would ring a bell and tap out a pattern of dots on a strip
of paper, which the experienced fire fighter can immediately interpret as an
identification code for the box from which a fire has just been
reported---usually checked against a large map posted on the wall for this
The technical design of the Gamewell system is fairly simple. Much like a
rotary telephone, the "hook" releases spring when pulled which retracts at a
governed speed. As it retracts it spins a rotor, which holds a set of pins.
Each pin runs by a switch, which momentarily breaks the continuous circuit
connecting a neighborhood worth of fire call boxes. Each break in the circuit
causes a connected telegraph to mark a dot on a piece of paper (by punch or
spark). The spacing of the pins forms a simple code: fire box 1 2 3 would have
one pin, a gap, two pins, a gap, and three pins. Someone reading the tape just
adds up the groups of dots to determine the box number.
In fact, what I described is a rather simple setup. Various large-city
departments set up much more complex systems in which a given box would signal
not only the local station but also a central dispatch station, which had the
ability to forward the call to other stations as well. Various coding schemes
could be used by dispatch in addition to the boxes, allowing dispatch to, for
example, indicate the type of severity of the call to a station. This leads to
the term "four alarm fire," being, traditionally, a fire signaled by dispatch
using four pulses or rings---indicating a particularly severe situation.
As you can imagine, these fire boxes were vulnerable to false alarms. Various
methods have been used to address this issue, most commonly just trying to fine
anyone who falsely activates a fire call box, but some systems used fire call
boxes which required a simple key to activate. The keys were usually
distributed to trustworthy persons throughout the area, not just firefighters
and police officers but also traffic wardens, business clerks, street cleaners,
and in general anyone who hung around the protected area and was deemed
unlikely to cause nuisance alarms.
Gamewell systems were "municipal-scale" in that they spanned a city or downtown
section of one, using dedicated wiring running along utility poles. Such
specialized urban infrastructure was not particularly unusual in the early 20th
century. The Gamewell concept was extended (by the Gamewell company itself
among others) to burglar alarms as well, and the first remotely monitored
burglar alarms used a very similar pulse-coded scheme to report via dedicated
wires to a central alarm station.
This came logically from the central reporting of fire alarms, which was also
implemented in Gamewell systems as building fire alarm systems became more
common. In this case, there was essentially just a fire call box mounted in or
on a building that was equipped with a solenoid instead of a hook. When the
building fire alarm sounded, the solenoid would release the spring to report
the fire to the fire department. This system was in use even in areas with no
conventional fire call box system (e.g. street corner boxes).
Locally, Albuquerque had such a system, although I do not believe it ever
included streetside call boxes. Various buildings downtown have traditional
Gamewell cast-iron fire call boxes mounted next to the fire alarm annunciator,
apparently to relay fire alarms to the fire department. Interestingly, one of
these buildings is Main Library, which opened in 1975, meaning that the downtown
Gamewell relay system must have been in operation fairly late. In fact,
newspaper references suggest that the system was being installed or expanded in
If you would like to check my work, Main Library is a great example as, for
whatever reason, the legacy fire alarm annunciator and Gamewell box are located
outdoors at the rear entrance.
Another urban-scale system similar in nature to Gamewell telegraphs is the
police call system. Police call systems were introduced in some cities to allow
police officers easy communications with the station before two-way radios
became practical. Somewhat well-known due to "Doctor Who," these were basically
streetside telephones that were locked with a key carried by police officers.
Some, but not all, systems featured a light (typically blue) attached to the
phone which substituted for a ringer. In theory, the station could call a
police phone near an officer on the beat and they would notice the flashing
blue light and walk over to pick up the phone. Similar systems were (and likely
still are in places) used by railroads to reach wayside crews by calling a
flashing-light-equipped phone in a nearby relay hut (these often had air horns
that they sounded as well) .
Although Doctor Who's unconventional spaceship took the form of a phone booth,
most police telephones in the US were manufactured by Gamewell and used small
cast-iron boxes nearly identical to fire call boxes, except painted blue and
fitted with a swinging front door that revealed a phone handset. Because the
two systems were so similar it is not unusual to see "conjoined" Gamewell
boxes that are red on one side and blue on the other, containing both a fire
call box and a police phone.
These Gamewell systems have an important legacy today. First, a small number of
cities, San Francisco and Boston that I know of, still have maintained fire
telegraph systems. The San Francisco system is regarded as still at least
somewhat useful as it is occasionally used to report emergencies during
disasters which made the telephone system unreliable (famously during the Loma
Prieta earthquake when a number of fires were reported via a system that still
improbably worked in most areas). Nonetheless, it will presumably become more
and more difficult to justify the cost of maintaining these legacy systems over
On a larger scale, the legacy of Gamewell fire boxes has had a significant
lasting impact on the organization of fire departments. In the era of fire call
boxes, fire stations would often have a set of pre-prepared response plans
filed by the numbers of call boxes. So, when a call came in from a given fire
box, the station would immediately know which resources they out to send
(depending on, for example, the types of buildings near the call box). This
"box" system is still in use today by many departments as a shorthand for fire
dispatch. A dispatcher will simply radio "box alarm 1234," and various fire
units will know by reference to a chart whether or not that box number requires
them, and if so, where they should go.
I would love to provide a list of other municipal telegraph operations but I am
not aware of many outside of fire dispatch and burglar alarms, although I'm
sure they must have existed in certain cases. Earlier coordinated streetlight
systems sometimes made use of a pulse-coded scheme similar in nature to these
telegraphs but without humans at either end, based on the principal of a
notched wheel in one traffic light control box advancing a notched wheel (or
camshaft) in another. In fact, for much of its late life Gamewell was a
subsidiary of Bliss Manufacturing, parent company also of Eagle Signal, an
important manufacturer of traffic signals in the mid-century.
Today, the functionality of reporting fire alarms to a central monitoring
station has mostly moved over to telephone or IP. While the protocols used are
somewhat proprietary, they generally need to meet requirements established by
UL or FM, which must in turn meet standards established by NFPA. The simplest
systems consist of an outbound telephone call to a monitoring center which,
when answered, sends DTMF digits giving ID numbers for the alarm, zone, and
event. More recent systems typically send the same information over TCP, and
are more flexible in terms of failover and detailed event reporting. Less
commonly, but especially on university and corporate campuses, dedicated or
semi-dedicated fiber optics may be used to interlink fire alarms. UL and FM
standards for these systems can be remarkably specific and eccentric, something
I plan to write about in the future (along with the general world of
in-building burglar and fire alarm systems, which have a long history full of
There is no real modern equivalent of streetside fire call boxes, which have
been largely obsoleted by cellular phones. University and corporate campuses do
often install emergency phone systems which serve a somewhat similar purpose
but are more oriented towards deterrence of violent crime than prompt detection
of fires. Colloquially known as "blue light phones" (which is to some extent a
genericized trademark but also plainly descriptive), these range from
conventional analog telephones configured in "hotline" mode (e.g. to
automatically dial when removed from hook) to purpose-built call boxes with a
large red button and an analog, digital, or VoIP phone implementation. Some of
these systems are very sophisticated but most, unfortunately, are not.
 There can be a somewhat blurry line here between telegraphy and the
teletype, as teletype is a natural evolution on telegraphy which then naturally
lead to automated message processing (e.g. AUTODIN). It's not always clear what
is a "teletype" vs what is a "telegraph," although anything employing bitwise
digital signaling is more likely to be considered a teletype.
 In a marginally related anecdote, I had occasion to spend some time at a
bomb range that, due to mountainous terrain, found their two-way radios
unreliable. The solution: a great number of strategically placed telephones in
weatherproof enclosures, sometimes just on a post on the side of a dusty gravel
road. These are doubly advantageous as explosion-tight phones can be obtained
for installation in facilities like chemical plants where two-way radios would
not be allowed. If I had my way, we would all just have phones everywhere.
First, a technical note: I had noticed in my web server logs a few times that I
receive a weird number of requests for individual posts that are malformed with
regards to the spaces. Either the spaces are stripped or, more commonly, are
"double escaped" with the %20 escape transformed into %2520. I meant to dig
into this but quite frankly forgot, until reader Rick emailed me that Twitter
seems to do this when you copy and paste a URL. So I made a change today so
that the "permalink" file names now have hyphens instead of spaces.
By no effort of my own, but rather because my Enterprise Content Mismanagement
System just dumps files and forgets about them, the old links will continue to
work as well. Tweet away, if that's a thing you do. For extra fun, try to find
the posts where I put "2020" instead of "2021" in the title, and then noticed
when I generated the website, and then fixed it, but the old file is still
there. I call them mystery posts. They're just like the normal ones but with
somehow even more mistakes.
To the point: I have posted another video over on YouTube. It's the first part
of a two-part series where I talk about the history of Manzano Base and then
review some environmental contamination and remediation sites within it. For
flavor, Manzano Base is one of the first two National Stockpile Sites for
storage and maintenance of nuclear weapons and is one of the few times that
rumours of a secret government base dug into a mountain turned out to be
I also improved my microphone situation and it clips far less often. Now I
just need to cover my walls in foam. Over the tin foil, of course.
It's important to take a break every once in a while, so let's distract
ourselves from telephony for a bit and talk about another old favorite of mine,
point of sale. The needs of the point of sale have produced a number of
interesting computer systems, but restaurants have a particular set of
constraints and requirements that have produced a universe of computer
solutions dedicated to restaurants.
Unlike retail point of sale, which does seem to have a small corps of amateur
historians, it's relatively difficult to find information on the history of
restaurant systems. As a result, some of what I say here will be a bit
speculative, based on assumptions made from things that I do know. But to
start, what differentiates restaurant POS from other POS applications?
We previously discussed how POS equipment has evolved over years from
mechanical cash registers that were limited to totaling purchase amounts to
enterprise computer systems that automate back-office functions like inventory
management and reporting. Similarly, restaurant POS systems have expanded over
time to cover automation needs specifically to restaurants. A full-featured
restaurant POS is expected to coordinate the kitchen with the front of house
(FOH) while also automating the more bureaucratic parts of the FOH like
assigning parties to tables, reserving tables, tip accounting, etc.
Restaurants vary widely in how much they lean on automation for these
functions. Generally, larger and more "corporate" restaurants (e.g. chains),
and especially quick-service and fast-food restaurants, are likely to lean more
heavily on automation than more local, boutique operations. As you might
imagine from that generalization, McDonalds is more or less the peak of
conventional restaurant technology; given the history of that chain it might
not be surprising that it was also an important innovator in the field.
It is widely reported that the first restaurant POS system was created in 1974
by Brobeck and Associates and was used by McDonalds. This is, of course, wrong.
Not completely wrong, but wrong in a way that makes research rather frustrating.
William Brobeck was a nuclear physicist by training, and through his companies
Brobeck and Associates and Cyclotron Corp is best known for his work designing
cyclotrons for various applications. He was also, I have found, a consummate
tinkerer, and published designs and filed patents for various robotic devices.
As best I can tell, Brobeck and Associates never had anything to do with any
POS systems, but Brobeck also founded a company called Transactron to do
In fact, once you know what to search for, you'll find that the Computer
History Museum has a Transactron McDonalds POS
device in their
collection. I have found photos of the same device branded Transactron, and CHM
lists it as manufactured by Transactron, but theirs actually bears the logo of
"Courier Terminal Systems." There is very little information out there about
Courier. The patent covering the device is in the name of Transactron, but I
speculate that at least early on Transactron may have partnered with Courier to
actually manufacture the unit. Oddly, the Computer History Museum also lists
their example as "circa 1972," which seems unlikely considering that the patent
was filed 1974 and most other sources say that McDonalds began use of the
system that year. But, well, they said "circa" after all.
The Transactron system is well described by the
patent, and is surprisingly
feature-rich for the time. Based around an Intel 8008, it consists of multiple
terminals with a grid of buttons, most of which are labeled with menu items
but some of which contain numeric keys or function keys (such as total). Orders
can be edited as they are entered and can be stored for recall, both of which
were features that surprised me for such an early example.
The terminals seem to have been "dumb" devices and the microcomputer logic was
housed in a central location and connected to a printer. Each order entered at
a terminal would be printed.
One thing I am very curious about is the extent of the relationship between
Transactron and McDonalds. Was the system originally designed as a partnership,
or did McDonalds purchase it more or less off the shelf? If it was originally
designed as a partnership or on commission, that might explain why it is widely
said that Brobeck and Associates designed the device while the patent is under
the name of Transactron---perhaps they formed Transactron as a company to
market the device, after Brobeck and Associates designed it. Oddly, online
biographies of Brobeck tend to completely omit his involvement in something as
impressive as the first automation of McDonalds, apparently obscure compared to
his work on cyclotrons. It seems to be, overall, rather forgotten.
This basic design of a restaurant POS has proven quite durable and is still in
use today in many smaller or less automated restaurants. Orders are entered
front of house and, once committed, are printed in the form of a "kitchen
ticket" by a printer in the kitchen. This is essentially just a light
automation of the older practice of waiters hand-writing orders on a paper
ticket which they deliver to the kitchen, which is once again still in use
at many restaurants today.
The kitchen printer is a somewhat specialized animal. The direct thermal paper
typically used for POS applications (e.g. for receipts) does not hold up well
to exposure to grease and heat, both of which are present in abundance in the
kitchen. For that reason, kitchen printers are typically actually impact
printers on plain paper, and the most popular model from Epson makes use of a
two-part tape that allows for printing in black or red---a relatively
inexpensive enhancement for impact printers that can't be done with direct
thermal printers. This leads to a sort of irony that kitchen tickets are often
printed in two colors (e.g. red for substitutions), which is a bit fancier than
the consumer-facing receipts. On the other hand, most major restaurants seem to
be using a twenty-year-old printer with a dry tape and in poor adjustment that
produces extremely light output. Printers always have their problems .
You can likely see an obvious enhancement to this concept of the FOH POS
automatically 'sending' the ticket to the kitchen via a kitchen printer. What
if, instead of a printed slip of paper, the kitchen made use of computers to
view and manage orders as well? This is clearly an interesting idea, but the
practical constraints of operating computers in the harsh kitchen environment
made it impractical for many years.
As best I can tell, the first such system was patented in 1981. The term was
not yet in use, but by the end of the '90s such a system would be called a
"Kitchen Display System" or KDS (less frequently Kitchen Video System or KVS).
This early patent described a system where a series of letters were displayed
on a CRT corresponding to different items which had been ordered. It is clearly
very primitive, but was presumably heavily limited by the microcomputer
technology of the time.
This patent was originally assigned to OCR Marketing Associates, which I can
find no information about. However, in 1988 it was assigned to the Stanley
Hayman company, and one of the inventors, Richard Hayman, is listed on later
Hayman company patents and just by the name may have been related to the
founder . As a result, I suspect OCR Marketing Associates may have been a
subsidiary or was otherwise related to the Hayman company from the beginning.
In any case, much like Brobeck's 1974 work, Hayman et al's 1981 patent lays
out the groundwork for the kitchen display systems that are still in use today.
Busy restaurant kitchens often consist of multiple people at various stations
which specialize in specific items or methods of preparation. As a result, a
single order is often cooked by multiple people, and finally an individual
called an expediter will collect the items to consolidate them into one dish.
This basic process can be seen very clearly at most fast food restaurants,
where line cooks arranged in an assembly-line fashion will slide sandwiches
down a counter while a fry cook collects fried items and puts them on a tray;
the expediter gathers both and bags them to finish a typical burger-and-fries
This process can clearly be frustrated by the need to pass a paper ticket
around, but multiple paper tickets create their own problems as it becomes
difficult for the expediter to be sure what goes together. Instead, the Hayman
patent describes a system in which each workstation has a computer display
which shows only the items to be done at that station. The expediter's display
does not show an order at all until the cooks have indicated that they
completed the preparation of the items in the order, so they should be ready
for the expediter to collect.
Actually the Hayman system is not quite that sophisticated, it simplifies the
electronics by having many of the displays be exact mirrors with symbols
indicating which station should pay attention to which items. The expediter,
though, is provided with an individually controlled display so that they are
not distracted or confused by the items not yet ready for them.
In the Hayman patent, a standard keyboard is apparently used for data entry
in the kitchen. In the kitchen environment this must have been a rather
high-maintenance piece of hardware. In part due to the greasy environment in a
kitchen and in part because of the relatively higher complexity of connecting
multiple keyboards to a single computer, the keyboard would be replaced in KDS
applications by a "bump bar."
A bump bar is an input device, usually using membrane keys for ease of
cleaning, that usually consists of a row of numbers corresponding to positions
on the display where order tickets are shown, and several action buttons, the
most important of which is "bump." Selecting a ticket and pressing "bump"
indicates that the ticket is complete at that station. Typically, once all
stations preparing components of an order bump the ticket, the ticket will
appear at the expediting station.
An important parallel innovation in point of sale was the increasing popularity
of the microcomputer. Most point of sale systems into the '90s were based on a
mainframe architecture in which individual devices (cash registers, kitchen
display stations, etc) acted as terminals to a midcomputer or minicomputer.
By the '80s, though, it became possible (albeit complex) to use a system of
networked microcomputers to build a similar system.
The relation of the microcomputer to to restaurant POS is rather interesting
due to an interesting central character, Gene Mosher. Mosher operated delis in
New York City and was apparently also a bit of a dweeb. He reports that, in
1978, he started writing software for his early-production Apple II to manage
POS at his delis. In 1986, he upgraded to an Atari ST with a touchscreen. He
marketed his touchscreen restaurant POS system (believed to be the first) under
the name ViewTouch, and delightfully, a descendant of ViewTouch is open-source
today, still maintained by Mosher and now
targeting devices like tablets and the Raspberry Pi.
In fact, the development of practical touchscreens was nearly as significant
to POS technology as networked microcomputers. Virtually all restaurant POS
today is touchscreen at the FOH, and increasingly many retail systems are
as well. Mosher's influence on touchscreen POS is clear. The faux marble GIF
background is decidedly dated, but otherwise ViewTouch looks nearly identical
to most touchscreen restaurant POS products today. Mosher seems justifiably
a bit peeved at the extent to which major players like NCR seem to have
copied his work.
That brings us more or less to the modern day of traditional, enterprise
restaurant POS solutions. For large companies, there are two dominant players:
Oracle Micros, and NCR Aloha. Micros, today part of Larry Ellison's wrathful
empire, actually acquired the previously mentioned Hayman company in 1999 but
seems to have licensed patents from them even earlier, as Micros was an early
player in the KDS market with a terminal-and-minicomputer solution. By the time
of the acquisition, Hayman was actually described primarily as a value-added
reseller (VAR) of Micros, suggesting that they had lost their technology edge.
The acquisition of Hayman was part of a larger trend (still going on today) of
legacy technology vendors shifting towards direct-to-consumer sales by
acquiring their former distributors and VARs.
Aloha was established to market the (believed) first Windows-based restaurant
POS system in 1992, and so is firmly rooted in networked microcomputer
solutions. They were later acquired by Radiant Systems, and you will
occasionally still see Aloha systems showing the Radiant logo. More recently,
though, Radiant was acquired by POS giant NCR, leaving the current branding.
Despite the separate histories of Micros and Aloha, both are, today,
microcomputer-based. Aloha remains Windows hosted, while Micros is available
for both Windows and Oracle Linux (it was presumably UNIX based for a time).
Micros is often (but not necessarily) run directly on Oracle-manufactured
hardware, but Aloha is most commonly seen on purpose-built restaurant POS
devices from Elo Touchsystems. The two are physically fairly similar, and if
you will picture with me, in your mind's eye, the device that a waiter taps on,
you are seeing either a Micros Workstation or an Elo Touchsystems product.
Because of the difficult kitchen environment, touchscreens are not common for
KDS. Most modern KDS still use a physical bump bar, which are available from
some vendors with lightning connectors, because everything has to be these
In the modern world most of these established restaurant solutions are starting
to look pretty legacy, due to competition from several dozen upstarts with a
basic knowledge of PHP and a love of iPads. A quick google for "restaurant pos"
will find you a dozen iOS-based, cloud-backed restaurant POS solutions with
varying degrees of feature-completeness compared to legacy solutions.
Because of the relatively high cost of kitchen-quality hardware, and hardware
in general , it's common for these solutions to still use a traditional
kitchen printer or lack kitchen integration at all. Similarly, the credit card
situation might be fiddly and dependent on Bluetooth and battery charging, and
all of the other limitations I have previously discussed as coming from the
increasing commodification of computing.
Or, for new readers, I will attempt to quickly summarize this theory of mine in
the context of what we have just discussed: The restaurant POS solutions of the
'80s, '90s, and even '00s were designed nearly full-stack by dedicated
engineers for a specific purpose. As a result, they are very well suited for
that purpose, but they are also expensive and often only available though
irritating sets of VARs and service contracts due to the long shadow of IBM's
strategy of computers as leased rather than owned. "Modern" restaurant POS
solutions are rapidly designed on top of consumer hardware and consumer
operating systems, which makes them less expensive and (at least perceptually)
more friendly, but at the same time, tends to make them less suited for
In this way, the evolution of computing as a universal commodity has made
computer systems more widely available but also subtly and pervasively worse.
Consider an example: touchscreens are specifically uncommon in the kitchen for
legacy systems because kitchen staff often have dirty hands and/or are wearing
gloves. These problems can be ameliorated by either using a physical bump bar
(most common due to low cost, ease of cleaning, etc), or by the use of
resistive or acoustic touchscreens. For similar reasons, dedicated touchscreen
POS devices typically use resistive or acoustic touchscreens because FOH staff
as well sometimes wear gloves, and are also fond of doing things like using the
edge of a credit card to tap buttons.
iPads, though, are the development platform of today, and are not available
with bump bars or non-capacitive touchscreens. Although in some cases
specialized hardware features are available as accessories, the majority of
users of such "off-the-shelf" hardware systems are attracted to them as
low-cost, all-in-one solutions, and so instead of purchasing specialized
accessories they just settle for the limitations presented by a consumer tablet
in a special-purpose commercial application. Consider, for example, how rare it
is for Square-based stores to be able to produce a printed receipt, something
that was long considered an absolutely core feature of a POS device.
For relatively high-cost specialized systems, integration is usually viewed as
a core part of the offering. For this reason, POS solutions, KDS, hospitality
systems, etc produced by different major vendors can typically be integrated
with each other. Producers of modern off-the-shelf systems tend to view
integration as an unnecessary expense, though, which leads to the comical
situation of restaurants with four or more iPads (someone who had heard this
rant from me once sent me a photo of a restaurant with six), each of which runs
one app, several usually being for different delivery services. Someone at the
front desk has to copy incoming delivery orders from one iPad to another, the
paragon of computing efficiency.
None of these problems are necessary an intrinsic limitation of the modern tech
industry but they do seem to be, to at least some large degree, an intrinsic
result of the values and motivations of tech entrepreneurs and investors, which
usually value time-to-market over fitness-for-purpose.
You see, the development of the modern restaurant POS has taken the better part
of fifty years. A minimum viable version of a restaurant POS can be produced in
a week, and someone will probably give you $25mm to sell it to small
restaurants at a cost too low to refuse. iPad not included.
I have left out several parts of this theory such as the powerful component of
consumer-as-employee expectations, and left out the entire part of this story
which is Oracle repeatedly and aggressively scaring off customers, but I've
already put a lot of words here. Continuing this line of inquiry, though, in
the future I will be talking about hospitality management systems: POS for
 The CHM also has an old Courier brochure listing a Phoenix address and
advertising a terminal they apparently manufactured, so they seem to have been
a small company with an in-house manufacturing capability.
 That's not entirely true, the Epson TM series direct thermal printers are
flawless and I love them, which is why I keep buying used ones and finding
stupid uses for them around my house. I think I've mentioned this before but,
like, it's basically my main hobby.
 I found an obituary that would seem to confirm that Richard Hayman was
Stanley Hayman's son, but I'm not entirely sure it's the right Haymans.
 Yes, "they can't afford hardware" is a weird thing to say about businesses
that view the iPad as an embedded platform, but somehow it seems like in the
mind of many small businesses the Apple store hits the wallet a lot softer than
the same bill from a POS vendor.