The Ubiquitous Printed Circuit Board

Many credit Paul Eisler with creating the first circuit board in 1936, but in reality, the concept predates that by more than 30 years. As early in the 20th century as 1903, the precursors of the modern printed circuit board were patented.

You may well ask why, in 1903, was there even a need for printed circuit boards? The telephone of course! Most of us don’t recognize the fact that the invention of the telephone was the beginning of the information age, so highly touted in our time. Telephones required and incredible amount of wiring to connect with thousands upon thousands of subscribers. Electrical connections in the millions had to be made! Early work on printed circuit boards was geared to resolve those connectivity problems.

Today, information technology remains a principal driving force behind the innovations being made in printed circuit boards. Printed circuit boards are found in everything from radios, to automobiles, to laptops, to satellite, to missiles, and to automatic washing machines. Chances are high that if it plugs in or requires batteries, it has a printed circuit board.

When I was a child in the late fifties, no,1950’s, I had a portable Zenith short wave radio. I lived in the mid-west and enjoyed listening to WBZ in Boston at night. At that time, they were a rock music station and played all the hits of the day. This “portable” radio was about 20 to 25 pounds of wires, tubes and transformers. I guess what made it portable was the black leather handle affixed to the top of the case. I think the radio was manufactured in the 30’s. I can’t even recall how I came to own it. My friends had truly portable transistor radios, some only just slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. Inside these miraculous gadgets were tiny transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes perched on a green board with a maze of copper roads connecting the components, a printed circuit board! Primitive by today’s standards but a miracle of technology when I was young!

It is amazing how far we’ve come! Now, the cell phone is not only a wireless phone, it is a camera, a recorder, an AM-FM radio, an address book, a phone book, a music player, a flashlight and a photo album. What have I left out? No matter, the point is the printed circuit board’s continual refinement has made all this technology possible and at a fraction of the price we paid for the old Zenith short wave, in constant dollars.

Printed circuit boards can be mass-produced in an automated process. Because of automated mass production, these high-tech products are possible at prices that are affordable.

From its humble beginnings, early in the twentieth century, as crude flat strips of metal glued to paper and immersed in paraffin, to the glass substrates with thin ribbons of copper selectively deposited on its surface by electrolysis, to the CAD software that allows computer design prior to manufacture, the PCB has reached a level of sophistication unimagined a mere 50 years ago.

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