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A game of chance? Hardly.

AS PCD&M columnist Peter Bigelow points out this month, you never know when you might learn something. Some of history's greatest discoveries and inventions came about purely by chance.

Physicists are currently celebrating--if physicists actually celebrate--the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis, or miracle year, in which he wrote three of his earliest and most important works.

After graduating from Swiss Federal Polytechnic with decent, not great, grades, Einstein was unable to wangle his way into a job teaching physics. He just didn't have the right temperament, according to the professors. Some said he was too confrontational. But he was determined.

So he took a job at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Einstein referred to the patent examiner position as just a "cobbler's job," but it put him in daily contact with inventors and inventions.

Einstein's paper on the theory of special relativity was the result of his daily commute. One day while riding the streetcar home, Einstein looked at the tower clock in the center of town and wondered what would happen if the streetcar traveled away from the clock at the speed of light. The hands on the clock would appear to stop, he theorized, because light couldn't catch up with the streetcar. But his own watch would continue to operate normally. Einstein's theory of special relativity stressed that relativity theory applied to electricity and magnetism, not just moving objects.

Many discoveries and inventions of the last century were created by chance. In 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett was working with gases related to Freon refrigerants at a DuPont research laboratory in New Jersey. He and his associates found that a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluoroethylene had polymerized into a solid and formed polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or Teflon. Penicillin, x-rays, nylon and Velcro were all discovered or created accidentally.

And as Tom Stearns explains in his book "Flexible Printed Circuitry," the invention of flexible circuits was the result of Sanders Associates' investigation into why PCBs cracked when they were dipped in solder. In the 1950s, component engineer Victor Dahlgren bonded copper foil directly onto butyral-phenolic film, made etched circuits from the laminate and voila! Flex was born. (There are stories about other companies that may have created earlier flexible circuits, but Sanders seems to have been first to put flex into commercial use.)

Lately, there haven't been many overnight advances in the PCB industry. In fact, most developments in processes and tools have been ploddingly incremental. For PCB designers in the 1980s, the move from hand-taping board layouts to EDA tools represented a sea change in the design process. But the switch to EDA tools took place over several years. At the time, there were even holdouts who predicted that these newfangled design tools would never replace the Bishop tape and Exacto knives.

In 2005, the PCB industry has several potential "killer apps" in its midst. There are new lab processes such as imprint patterning, which imprints the image of a "tool foil" directly onto a substrate to create traces and padless vias. And there are EDA tools such as DesignAdvance's autoplacement tool CircuitSpace, which will be officially launched at PCB Design Conference West in March. But autoplacement tools never work, you say? We'll see.

A hundred years after Einstein's annus mirabilis, you can bet that plenty of talented people are working on the next big advances in PCB design and fabrication. And that's no accident.
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Title Annotation:Our Line
Author:Shaughnessy, Andy
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Manufacture
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:569
Previous Article:Quieting down a noisy problem: the ability to predict near- and far-end crosstalk per a given line spacing can make your design a success.
Next Article:Trends in the U.S. electronics equipment market (shipments only).


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