How electronic engineers helped create rock and roll

The problem was easy to state, but damnably difficult to solve: how to make guitars louder?

It was the 1930s, and musicians struggled to be heard when playing onstage with louder instrumentalists like drummers and horn players. The very shape of the acoustic guitar, including its soundboard and hollow body, had evolved over time to provide natural amplification to the notes struck by the player. But new forms of popular music in the 1930s—particularly big band and swing—thrilled audiences by featuring powerful brass sections. Guitarists struggled to be heard when playing onstage with brass players.


This guy had it rough

Playing in front of a microphone presented its own challenges, because it often gave rise to painful feedback loops. Starting in the late 1920s, manufacturers like the Stromberg-Voisinet company began to produce amplifiers for electrified string instruments. Magnetic coils placed beneath the strings captured their pitch when struck, converted it into an electronic signal, and conveyed it to an external amp to increase the volume of their instrument. These early amps used electrolytic capacitors and glass rectifier tubes, and solved the volume issue for many musicians.


Vintage Vega amplifier, circa 1930


But wait, I hear you protest. Isn’t this supposed to be about music effects pedals? Why are we talking about amps?

To understand the evolution of pedals, it helps to begin with amps, because when musicians discovered the accidental qualities amplification imparted to their sound, they began to seek these effects as an end in itself. Initially, guitarists were told to match the signal of their instruments with that of their amps to provide a clean increase of volume without adding much coloration or distortion to the instrument’s sound. But by the 1940s guitarists were beginning to experiment with the magnetic coils (or “pickups”) on their instruments to alter the sound being sent from their instruments. Buddy Guy and Elmore James were among those who sought to match the rawness of blues singers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters by modifying the pickups on their instruments.


Elmore James soundhole pickup

By the 1950s, a new wave of experimentation had began. Guitarists were deliberately overdriving their amps to produce new kinds of tones—tones impossible to produce in a non-electrified setting. Willie Johnson, Joe Hill Louis, and Chuck Berry all recorded songs using overdriven, distorted sounds. Describing the origins of his 1950s guitar sound, Pat Hare explained that he turned the volume knob on his amp “all the way to the right until the speaker was screaming.”


Guitar pioneer Pat Hare

This was not what these devices had been built for. From the moment new technologies were introduced to help guitarists, they began hacking them to produce strange new sounds to take their playing to unimaginable places.

A defining moment arrived in the 1960s when Dave Davies, guitarist for The Kinks, produced a new type of distortion by hooking the already-distorted output of one amp into the input of another amp. This daisy-chaining produced a hitherto-unknown level of distortion which heralded the birth of hard rock in the 1960s.


Contemporary daisy-chaining. The instrument is directly connected to the Fender amp on the left, and this amp feeds directly into the Gibson amp on the right.

Then, in 1966, a frustrated guitarist left New York for London. His scant belongings testified to just how hard his life had been in America: a small bag of clothes, plastic hair curlers, acne medicine, and $40 were all he had to his name.

That, and his prized Fender Stratocaster electric guitar.

His name was James Marshall Hendrix, and within a few months he would change the face of music forever.


Jimi Hendrix’s passport photo, 1966

What’s stopping wearable tech?


The future of wearable technology is characterized by expectations of widespread adoption and uninterrupted growth. In fact, by some estimates the wearable device market in the U.S. alone will be valued at $12.6 billion by 2018. The start of a new year brought about a renewed sense of optimism, with advancements in fitness trackers and smart clothing and the launch of the Apple Watch prompting some to declare 2015 as the year of wearable technology.

Those bold predictions, however, have failed reach their full potential. Google’s early foray into wearables floundered, leading to the closing of Google Glass Basecamp stores worldwide in addition to the abrupt end of the Glass Explorer program. Even the Apple Watch, which many expected would finally spur the growth of the wearable tech market, has experienced slow sales following the April launch, and CEO Tim Cook remained tight-lipped about specific numbers in their newest earnings report.

Despite these setbacks, confidence in the eventual success of wearable tech has not wavered. Analysts are instead shifting their timelines to allow wearable devices to work through its pain points and really break into the mainstream. Still, wearable devices have on more than one occasion fallen short of industry projections, begging the question, “What is standing in the way of wearable tech?”

At element14, we think we’ve identified the four biggest roadblocks standing in the way of widespread wearables.

Dependence on smartphones

Most major wearable devices have failed to truly free us from our smartphones. Unlike laptops, which have gone on to replace desktop computers, most wearable devices are strictly complimentary to smartphones. Just take a look at the Apple Watch. In order to accomplish many of the same tasks as a regular smartphone, such as making a call or sending messages, the Apple Watch must always be paired with an iPhone 5 or later through Bluetooth or a Wi-Fi network.

Even the value of many popular fitness trackers has been called into question after a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that free smartphone apps are capable of counting the number of steps a person takes each day nearly as accurately as the Jawbone UP24 and Fitbit Flex. And many of those devices still require access to a smartphone to analyze and display the data being collected.

As devices requiring a smartphone, tablet or related app connection continue to flood the wearables market, consumers must ask themselves whether the benefits introduced by such accessories are enough to warrant a purchase.

Privacy considerations

While the reliance on smartphones has left some consumers wondering what value wearable devices add to their daily lives, privacy concerns have also played a role in slowing the rate of adoption. Most notably, Google Glass had many legislators concerned such technology would enable users to easily and discreetly record others in public settings without their consent.

As Internet-connected sensors drive the design and development of wearable technology, the importance of securing sensitive user information continues to grow. For example, health-monitoring devices that track details regarding sleeping habits, physical activity and even blood glucose levels are not explicitly covered by HIPAA regulations, increasing the risk that such personal information might be obtained by third parties. Before more consumers can place their trust in wearable technology, privacy issues across all applications need to be addressed.

Low battery life

High performance demands from consumers have made the task of engineering wearable devices more difficult than ever before. Although smartphones have been plagued by limited battery life in the past, wearable tech presents a different type of problem. Consumers not only want extended battery life, but also a device that is both light and aesthetically appealing. Such a combination has rendered most traditional battery solutions impractical. Further complicating the problem is display. Consumers want high-resolution devices that can retain much of the same functionality as smartphones, including the ability to run multiple applications at once.

Despite the wide range of power issues with wearable tech, engineers have recently developed an energy saving system that could spell the end of depleted devices. Microsoft’s WearDrive project, for example, increases the battery life of wearable technology up to 3.69 times, in addition to improving performance by nearly nine times. By diverting energy-intensive tasks to a smartphone using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, WearDrive is able to prolong the battery life of wearable tech. Even the element14 Community has challenged its members on multiple occasions to devise new power management solutions, such as energy harvesting, for electronic devices. Further testing and optimization, however, are required before these solutions can be implemented in wearable devices on a larger scale.

Combining fashion with function

Aside from comfort, design and fashion have proven to play an integral part in a person’s decision to buy a wearable device. Shortly after its launch, the appearance of Google Glass was heavily criticized by designers and consumers alike for its obtrusive design, highlighting the importance of blending style with substance.

Many wearable companies such as Netatmo’s, which makes the June, are calling in jewelry and fashion designers to address this problem head on and strike the right balance of form and function. Conversely, clothing and jewelry designers like Swarovski see an opportunity to address a unique problem in the wearables industry by getting in the game and design their own branded devices.

The challenges outlined above have stalled the widespread adoption of wearable technology for far too long. With help from engineers, security specialists and even fashion designers, these barriers will fall. The real question, however, is whether or not resistance from consumers –  not tech giants – to the growth of wearable technology will impact its place in society. Until then, when the year of wearable tech will finally arrive remains a mystery.

Originally published on

PizzaPi: A smart pizza box that tells you where it is

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In the Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, CosaNostra Pizza uses advanced automation to help its drivers deliver their pizzas on time. Tiny microprocessors embedded onto the pizza boxes tell the robotic “Deliverators” the optimal travel route, while LED readouts displayed on the side of each pizza box display how many minutes have passed since the order was first placed.



In what may be one of the best uses for advanced technology ever, element14 member Margot Paez is taking the “Pi” in Raspberry Pi literally with her own PizzaPi. It’s an Internet-connected pizza box that tracks changes in heat and shape that occur when a pizza is en route to its destination.



Margot has high hopes for Pizza Pi. The device will not only measure internal temperature and know exactly when a pizza is no longer upright in the box, but will also send that information to the driver’s smartphone and customer’s computer for real-time delivery updates.

Learn more about the PizzaPi, and how makers are bringing other amazing artifacts from the realm of science fiction to life.