Treknology Today

Friday, December 31, 2004

Communication is the Key: 1-The Original Series

When I need to get a message to one of the family or want to know where they are it drums home to me that old adage about communications being the key to success.

My son goes to school at a new High School next year where he has to travel three hours a day. Sounds pretty tough but my daughter has been doing the same thing for the past 5 years. The key has been her mobile phone. I shudder to think how nervous I would be if it weren't for it. I can find out where she is at any time, she can phone if she is running late and she has instant communication with us if anything goes wrong.

The heart of the Star Trek Communicator is the Subspace Transceiver Assembly (STA) which digitises the users' words and transmits them (after encryption) through Subspace. Without getting too technical, Subspace is a domain outside the normal three-dimensional space and not to be mistaken with another dimension. The practical usage of it is primarily for Faster Than Light (FTL) travel and interstellar communications.

Radio as we know it is part of the electromagnetic spectrum and travels at the speed of light in free space Not a good medium to use when you are thousands of lightyears from home! So how fast do Subspace transmissions go? The Ex-Astris-Scientia site puts it at Warp 9.9997, which in 24th C Warp speeds is 7,912 times the speed of light. I don't know where he gets that from but in the TNG episode 'Where No One Has Gone Before' Data tells us that a subspace transmission will take fifty-one years, ten months to return the two million, seven-hundred thousand light years back to their origin. If my rusty maths serves me correctly this means it travels at roughly 52,000 time the speed of light.!

Like the Trek Subspace Relay system, mobile phones (or cell phones as they are called in the States) only became possible when a network of relay tranmitters was laid. It took a while before mobile phones took on the look of the TOS Communicator. The reason was because, unlike the Communicator which had a perforated grill aerial, external aerials have always been of the more traditional telescopic rod types. The exception was the Motorola StarTAC which had a keypad protector that flipped up instead of the more normal down.

With the advent of large LCD screens, the "clamshell" design of the TOS Communicator has spawned many lookalikes. The Nextel i60c, for example combines cellular, two-way radio, speakerphone, paging, and internet capabilities all into one lightweight, 'clamshell' cell phone.

If we look at Communicators in a Trek chronological order then the first is the Enterprise Communicator as used in the present incarnation of the TV series [OK, Who blew the raspberry at the back of the class?!]. Many think the design too small and "plasticky" but if you judge Enterprise on its' own merit (as we should), I think it is a fine meld of modern and retro design. Cadet Ensign Christopher has the Art Asylum toy of this and to his uncritical yet discerning judgement it is a good toy and a passable replica.

The next Communicator in the trek timeline is little known. In the Pilot for Star Trek, which was made into the TOS episode "The Cage", they show a very primitive looking Communicator. It had a skeleton look to it, with a clear acrylic body and visible electronic circuitry. From a practical point of view this was probably a 'quick fix' although it proves to be a complex prop to duplicate.

Which brings us to what is generally held as that classic of design, the TOS communicator. By far the best reference on the web for these props is Richard A. Coyles' article in RACProps online magazine. One of the interesting bits of info he has about it is that...
"the working moiré [the spinning disk] was run by a stopwatch. The propmakers removed the lens and cover of a stopwatch and then mounted the bottom disk to the second hand of the stop watch, which on an old analog piece ran at ten rpm per second. When started, round and round the moiré would spin, just a touch jerkily due to the machined movement of the stopwatch as it ticked off each tenth of a second."
The TOS Communicator is a popular choice of DIY prop to make, There is even a tutorial on the web on how to make one out of wood. The majority of posts on the Communicators forum of the Dewback Wing are about the TOS Communicator.

Playmates, who produced Star Trek toys between 1992 and 1999, issued two versions of the TOS Communicator, the second records up to three seconds of voice, or Sound Effects and included working status lights and a Belt Clip. Paramount have sold the toy making licence to Art Asylum however they have released little other than an interesting two part phaser from the TOS series so far.

Replicas for sale include those done by Master Replicas, IPI (which included a voice recorder, calculator, and flashing lights) and a kit available from

Recently a Bluetooth accessory was sold on eBay for $US527.37. Bluetooth is an industry standard for connecting, amongst other things, mobile phones and mobile computers, notably PDA's via a short range radio signal. You might know it best as the that trendy mobile phone headset.

Billed as "the only working Star Trek communicator in existence ... a one of a kind prototype" the maker, Nik Roope of Pokia, has taken the case of a TOS Communicator style garage door opener (see below) and put bluetooth headset electronics inside. What this means is that you can use it to make & recieve calls with your mobile phone which you can keep out of sight in your pocket or bag. The buttons on the side make the classic communicator hailing signal and can adjust volume.

This is an extension of the whimsical design concept used at Pokia to make it possible for mobile phone users to appear to be talking into "Convoy" style CB handsets or a range of telephone handsets ranging from 50's era bakelite to gangster era brass

The "Star Trek Communicator Universal Garage door Opener" by Dakmart features Star Trek sound effects, a "Clip with automatic Star Trek Logo for convenient visor and pocket use" [?] and an extensive command library to open just about any standard type of automatic garage door - all in a replica of the Star trek original series communicator.

The accuracy of the replica used by Dakmart and Pokia is way off, but it probably has something to do with copyright/licencing considerations. There is of course no reason why someone handy with electronics could not take the hardware out of either of these and put them into, say, a Master Replicas TOS Communicator for their own use.

Not quite so handy and you already have a mobile phone? Why not confuse passers-by with the TOS Communicator ringtone? Or for a Pocket PC Phone try here.

For we 'Net Trek fans there is always the TOS Communicator WAV file that you could integrate into your computer desktop. I've never searched for or installed many Themes, but upon looking I found a wide choice of TOS themes. ThemeWorld, for example, listed over 150 desktop themes when I searched for Trek, of which many were obviously TOS themes. I downloaded one called ST_Spock which which had some ...umm, fun sounds.