Low End Theory: The ChipCorder vs. the Axis!



By Brendan I. Koerner

The best teacher I ever had was this crazy Jesuit with a prodigious gut, Madame Mao glasses, and ridiculously overactive sweat glands. He was a cartoonish sight, but also a fantastic entertainer—a prerequisite for getting a bunch of horny 15-year-olds interested in the Peace of Westphalia.

Part of his approach was to make these gobsmacking claims that really made you sit up and take notice. One that's always stuck in my mind is something he said during our World War II unit. He asked if we were familiar with musical greeting cards, the ones that play "Happy Birthday" when opened. When we grunted in assent, he sprung his surprise: "Well, the chip inside one of those cards is more advanced than anything from World War II. Nations would have killed to have that chip—it would have changed the war."

Really? As a budding Geekish-American at the time, this claim obviously captured my interest. But it's not until recently that I've actually paused to ask, Was he right, or was he just trying to keep us from zoning out and thinking about boobies? Here, of course, is where you come in, comrades.

I've got to say, I'm sorta stunned that it's taken me this long to tackle the musical greeting card. What could be more low-end than a $5 card that plays a 12-second audio clip? And like many of y'all, I distinctly remember getting one of these as a kiddo, and taking apart its innards in a rudimentary attempt to understand how it worked. (Unlike when I took apart my Mattel electronic baseball game, my dad didn't yell at me for this bout of curiosity.)

The staple chip in musical greeting cards is the ChipCorder. A California company called Information Storage Devices used to make 'em, but they got bought out by Taiwan's Winbond in 1998. Some of you might recall buying the old ISD1000A chips from Radio Shack back in the day; the current low-end option for quickie sound clips is the ISD1100 series.

There are, of course, plenty of unbranded options nowadays, like this chip-on-board CMOS that plays a telephone ring, for a mere 99 cents. (Anything electronic that costs less than a dollar is like crack to a cheapskate like your humble narrator.) Regardless of your source, the elementary concept is always the same—analog data is stored on ROM chip, and the tune is blared through a small pizeo speaker.

Even the cheapest chips aren't exempt from Moore's Law, of course, and today's musical greeting cards are better than the ones you and I got back in the day. The quality of the playback has improved to the point that Hallmark now sells a line of "Sound Cards" that'll rock a note-perfect rendition of the Star Wars theme for that special Wookie-lover in your life; said cards also feature a three-volt lithium-ion battery, which means (hopefully) that the card won't go dead mere hours after being opened. Even more impressive are those cards tricked out with voice-recording capabilities.

Still, we're obviously talking about the lowest of low-end tech here. If we hopped in a time machine and delivered a ChipCorder to Dwight D. Eisenhower circa 1942, would the war really have ended so quickly? I understand the immediate applications for, say, intelligence operations, but I don't understand how an ISD1000A programmed to play "Jingle Bells" would bring the Allies a swifter victory.

The trick would be getting Eisenhower to realize that the ChipCorder needed to be reverse engineered, not for the purposes of copying, but in order to understand the basic fabrication techniques for integrated circuits. If I remember anything from taking Electrical Engineering 101 in college (grade: pass/C+), it's that the IC wasn't patented until the late 1950s. No question having IC technology could swing the war.

Low End Theory: The ChipCorder vs. the Axis!

Ah, but how long would it take to reverse engineer a technology from the future? The obvious scenario that pops to mind is from Star Trek IV—yes, the awful one in which they kidnap the darn humpback whale. In exchange for a whole bunch of plexiglass, Scotty and Bones McCoy give a twentieth-century plastics engineer the formula for transparent aluminum. They don't feel bad about doing so because, as the engineer notes, "it'll take years" to reverse engineer the plans downloaded to his Mac 512k. (Hey, the movie came out in 1986—what did you expect?)

So I'm gonna call shenanigans on my teacher's contention that a ChipCorder or similar COB CMOS could have altered the course of World War II. But the fun part about alternative history is that there is no right answer—what do y'all think? Was this just another instance of the The Man feeding me a line, or could a sub-$1 piece of silicon really have brought down fascism more quickly? Responses in comments, or to me directly. As always, I'll respond to every e-mail I get, as long as you refrain from name-calling. Gizmodo writers have feelings too, y'know.

CAN'T STOP THE HORSE: One of my least favorite geek stereotypes is that we don't enjoy us some (American) football. As a rabid Indianapolis Colts fan, this is a big week for me—one more victory over our sinister nemesis and we're in the Super Bowl. I'm writing about the matchup in Slate this week; come on over and check it out if you're so inclined.

But if I'm speaking Greek to you, and you're incensed that I dared mention football in a blog reserved for banter about RAM and the iPhone, please accept my apologies.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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