At least 222 typefaces are named after places in the U.S. — and there's still room for more.
- Here's one pandemic project we approve of: a map of the United Fonts of America.
- The question was simple: How many fonts are named after places in the U.S.?
- Finding them became an obsession for Andy Murdock. At 222, he stopped looking.
Who isn't fond of fonts? Even if we don't know their names, we associate specific letter types with certain brands, feelings, and levels of trust.
Typography equals psychology. For example, you don't want to get a message from your doctor, or anybody else in authority, that's set in comic sans — basically, the typeface that wears clown makeup.
A new serif in town
If you want to convey reliability, tradition, and formality, you should go for a serif, a font with decorative bits stuck to its extremities. Well-known examples include Garamond, Baskerville, and Times New Roman. Remove the decoration, and you've got a clean look that communicates clarity, modernity, and innovation. Arial and Helvetica are some of the most popular sans serif fonts.
There's a lot more to font psychology, but let's veer toward another, less explored Venn diagram instead: the overlap between typography and geography. That's where Andy Murdock spent much of his pandemic.
Mr. Murdock is the co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter about (among other things) travel and landscape in the United States. He remembers his first encounter with a home computer back in 1984 and learning from that Macintosh both the word "font" and the name for the one it used: Chicago.
A map of the United Fonts of America — well, 222 of them.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
You can see where this is going. Mr Murdock retained a healthy interest in fonts named after places. Over the years, he noted Monaco, London, San Francisco, and Cairo, among many others. "And then, the question of how many fonts are named for U.S. places came up in an editorial meeting at The Statesider," Mr Murdock says.
It's the sort of topic that in other times might never have gone anywhere, but this was the start of the pandemic. "I was stuck for days on end, so I actually started looking into it. At some point, I realized that I could probably find at least one per state." Cue the idea for a map of the "United Fonts of America."
Challenge turns into obsession
But that was easier said than done. Finding location-based fonts turned out to be rather time-consuming. "I definitely didn't realize what I was getting myself into," Mr Murdock recalls. "I could quickly name a few — New York, Georgia, Chicago — but I had no idea that I'd be able to find so many."
What started as a quirky challenge turned into an obsession and a compulsion that would have the accidental font-mapper wake up in the middle of the night and think: Did I check to see if there's a Boise font? (He did; there isn't.)
"The hardest part was knowing when to stop," said Mr Murdock. "Believe me, I know I missed some." In all, he found 222 fonts referencing places in the United States and its territories.
For the most part, these fonts are distributed as the population is: heavy on the coasts and near the Great Lakes, but thin in most parts in between. California (23 fonts) takes the cake, followed by Texas (15), and New York (9).
Some of the fonts have interesting back stories, and in his article for "The Statesider", Mr Murdock provides a few:
- Georgia was named after a newspaper headline reading "Alien Heads Found in Georgia."
- Fayette is based on the handwriting of the record-keeper of a place called Fayette, now a ghost town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
- Tahoma and Tacoma are both pre-European names for Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Mostly, the fonts repeat the names of states and cities, but some offer something more interesting, such as the alliterating Cascadia Code or the lyrical Tallahassee Chassis. Other less than ordinary names include Kentuckyfried and Wyoming Spaghetti.
Capturing the spirit of a place
As an unexpected expert in the geographic distribution of location-based fonts, can Mr. Murdock offer any opinion on the qualitative relation between place and typeface?
"Good design of any sort can capture the spirit of a place, or at least one perspective on a place," he says, "but frankly, that only occasionally seems to have been the goal when it comes to typefaces."
In his opinion, the worst fonts reflect a stereotype about a place, rather than the place itself: "Saipan and Hanalei are both made to look like crude bamboo. Those are particularly awful. Pecos feels like it belongs on a bad Tex-Mex restaurant's menu."
California (lower left) is a rich source of location-based typefaces.Credit: The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission.
"Santa Barbara Streets, on the other hand, is quite nice because it captures the font that's actually used on street signs in Santa Barbara. I prefer the typefaces that have a story and a connection to a place, but it's a fine line between being artfully historic and being cartoonishly retro."
Let's finish off Route 66
Glancing over the map, some regions seem more prone to "stereotypefacing" than others: "Tucson, Tombstone, El Paso — you know you're in the Southwest. Art Deco fonts are mostly in the east or around the Great Lakes. In general, you find more sans serif fonts in the western U.S., and more serif fonts in the east, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule."
Noticing a few blank spots on the map, Mr. Murdock helpfully suggests some areas that could do with a few more fonts, including the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Oh, and Route 66. Nearly all of the cities mentioned in the eponymous song have a typeface named after them. "We need Gallup and Barstow to complete the set."
And finally, America's oft-overlooked overseas territories could be a rich seam for type developers: "Some of these names are perfect for a great typeface — Viejo San Juan, St. Croix, Pago Pago, Ypao Beach, Tinian."
To name but a few. Typeface designers, sharpen your pencils!
Map found here at The Statesider, reproduced with kind permission. For more dispatches from the weird interzone between geography and typography, check out Strange Maps #318: The semicolonial state of San Serriffe.
Strange Maps #1090
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."
Researchers were even able store and read a 767-kilobit full-color short movie file in the fabric.
MIT researchers have created the first fiber with digital capabilities, able to sense, store, analyze, and infer activity after being sewn into a shirt.
Yoel Fink, who is a professor in the departments of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering and computer science, a Research Laboratory of Electronics principal investigator, and the senior author on the study, says digital fibers expand the possibilities for fabrics to uncover the context of hidden patterns in the human body that could be used for physical performance monitoring, medical inference, and early disease detection.
Or, you might someday store your wedding music in the gown you wore on the big day — more on that later.
Fink and his colleagues describe the features of the digital fiber today in Nature Communications. Until now, electronic fibers have been analog — carrying a continuous electrical signal — rather than digital, where discrete bits of information can be encoded and processed in 0s and 1s.
"This work presents the first realization of a fabric with the ability to store and process data digitally, adding a new information content dimension to textiles and allowing fabrics to be programmed literally," Fink says.
MIT PhD student Gabriel Loke and MIT postdoc Tural Khudiyev are the lead authors on the paper. Other co-authors MIT postdoc Wei Yan; MIT undergraduates Brian Wang, Stephanie Fu, Ioannis Chatziveroglou, Syamantak Payra, Yorai Shaoul, Johnny Fung, and Itamar Chinn; John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Chair Professor of Physics and director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT; Harrisburg University of Science and Technology master's student Pin-Wen Chou; and Rhode Island School of Design Associate Professor Anna Gitelson-Kahn. The fabric work was facilitated by Professor Anais Missakian, who holds the Pevaroff-Cohn Family Endowed Chair in Textiles at RISD.
Memory and more
The new fiber was created by placing hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform that was then used to create a polymer fiber. By precisely controlling the polymer flow, the researchers were able to create a fiber with continuous electrical connection between the chips over a length of tens of meters.
The fiber itself is thin and flexible and can be passed through a needle, sewn into fabrics, and washed at least 10 times without breaking down. According to Loke, "When you put it into a shirt, you can't feel it at all. You wouldn't know it was there."
Making a digital fiber "opens up different areas of opportunities and actually solves some of the problems of functional fibers," he says.
For instance, it offers a way to control individual elements within a fiber, from one point at the fiber's end. "You can think of our fiber as a corridor, and the elements are like rooms, and they each have their own unique digital room numbers," Loke explains. The research team devised a digital addressing method that allows them to "switch on" the functionality of one element without turning on all the elements.
A digital fiber can also store a lot of information in memory. The researchers were able to write, store, and read information on the fiber, including a 767-kilobit full-color short movie file and a 0.48 megabyte music file. The files can be stored for two months without power.
When they were dreaming up "crazy ideas" for the fiber, Loke says, they thought about applications like a wedding gown that would store digital wedding music within the weave of its fabric, or even writing the story of the fiber's creation into its components.
Fink notes that the research at MIT was in close collaboration with the textile department at RISD led by Missakian. Gitelson-Kahn incorporated the digital fibers into a knitted garment sleeve, thus paving the way to creating the first digital garment.
Image: Anna Gitelson-Kahn. Photo by Roni Cnaani.
On-body artificial intelligence
The fiber also takes a few steps forward into artificial intelligence by including, within the fiber memory, a neural network of 1,650 connections. After sewing it around the armpit of a shirt, the researchers used the fiber to collect 270 minutes of surface body temperature data from a person wearing the shirt, and analyze how these data corresponded to different physical activities. Trained on these data, the fiber was able to determine with 96 percent accuracy what activity the person wearing it was engaged in.
Adding an AI component to the fiber further increases its possibilities, the researchers say. Fabrics with digital components can collect a lot of information across the body over time, and these "lush data" are perfect for machine learning algorithms, Loke says.
"This type of fabric could give quantity and quality open-source data for extracting out new body patterns that we did not know about before," he says.
With this analytic power, the fibers someday could sense and alert people in real-time to health changes like a respiratory decline or an irregular heartbeat, or deliver muscle activation or heart rate data to athletes during training.
The fiber is controlled by a small external device, so the next step will be to design a new chip as a microcontroller that can be connected within the fiber itself.
"When we can do that, we can call it a fiber computer," Loke says.
This research was supported by the U.S. Army Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies, National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Research Office, the MIT Sea Grant, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Cartography is serious business in Switzerland — but once in a while, the occasional map gag slips through.
- The Swiss are not known for their sense of humor, but perhaps we've not been looking hard enough.
- Over the decades, Swiss cartographers have sprinkled plenty of "Easter eggs" across otherwise serious maps.
- The oldest one, a naked lady, has been removed — but the marmot, the haunted monk, and others are still there.
Swiss humor. Now there's two words you don't often see together. In fact, Google Trends lists zero occurrences of the phrase between 2004 and now. Even "German humor" produces a graph (albeit a rather flat one). But not only is there some evidence that Swiss comedy does exist, it might just be that being well-hidden is kind of its thing. Find it and laugh. Or don't, and the joke's on you!
That evidence, as it turns out, is cartographic. The Swiss Federal Office of National Topography, Swisstopo for short, is a decidedly serious institution. Many serious things — time and money, for starters — depend on the accuracy of its maps. In the case of its mountain maps, actual lives hang in the balance. Yet in decades past, the austere institute's maps have served as the canvas for a series of in-jokes among its more fun-loving cartographers.
These mapmakers played a game of wits against their superiors, the ones whose duties included checking the maps before publication. Over the years, the cartographers managed to slip in — on maps that were supposed to contain only dry topographic facts — drawings of an airplane, a fish, a marmot, a mountaineer, a face, a spider, even of a naked lady. Once discovered, these humorous additions were removed without pardon. At least, that's how it used to be.
Either way, it doesn't matter. Swisstopo is defeated by its own thoroughness. Its map page allows you not just to zoom in and out of the most recent maps but also to browse historical maps and thus revisit these "Easter eggs" that prove, however obliquely, the existence of a sense of humor among the mountains of Switzerland.
The plane that disappeared — twice
The craft's first appearance on the 1994 map (circled, left), and its absence on the most recent map (2018).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1994, an anonymous cartographer at Swisstopo included an airplane in this map of Kloten, the international airport of Zürich. While it may seem only natural for airplanes to show up at airports, that is normally not the case on topographic maps.
The error remained undetected until a revision of the map in 2000, when the offending craft was erased. However, the plane reappeared on the 2007 map at exactly the same spot – the tarmac before Gate A – only to vanish again in 2013.
The Naked Lady of Künten
The abstract figure appeared in 1954 (circled, left), but she was clearly inspired by the area's actual topography (2018, right).Credit: Swisstopo
Possibly the oldest topographical Easter egg, and the current record holder for the longest-lasting one, is the Naked Lady of Künten. First appearing on the topographical map of 1954, the reclining figure wasn't discovered until 2012. Admittedly, without head, arms and feet, she is hard to spot. Her odalisque-like forms are suggested by the curvature of a stream and an elongated green patch indicating vegetation.
The world — or at least that bit between Eggenrain and Sunnenberg — was put to right again in the 2013 edition of the local map. But it's still easy to see how that particular distribution of topographic features could have inspired a lonely 1950s cartographer to pencil in something that wasn't there.
A Swiss fish in a French lake
In 1980, a giant fish appeared at the southern end of a French lake (left). By 1986, it had been caught (right, the 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
It was never discovered who reshaped the aforementioned landscape feature into a female form. But the younger generation of Easter-eggers is known by name.
In 1980, Werner Leuenberger even went international. He drew a fish at the southern end of the Lac de Remoray, a small lake just across the Franco-Swiss border. The fish felt right at home among the lines marking out the area as swampy. However, it was caught five years later, and has been left off the map since 1986.
Attack of the giant Eiger spider
This giant spider (left, 1981 map) survived for half a dozen years near the top of the Eiger (spider-free, 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1981, Othmar Wyss inserted a spider near the top of the Eiger, one of Switzerland's most iconic Alpine summits, at a location actually known by mountaineers as quite dangerous.
The giant spider survived for six years in the freezing cold. The snowfield that made up the spider's body — and made the northern approach of the Eiger so hard — has apparently also disappeared in the intervening years.
Haunted monk trapped in a map
The 1979 map (left), a year before the addition of the eerie face (right).Credit: Swisstopo
A rock formation on a slope of the Harder Kulm, a mountain near Interlaken, looks like a face. This is the Hardermandli, or "little Harder man." Legend has it that he was a lecherous monk, condemned to look down on the place where he chased a girl to her death.
Cartographer Friedrich Siegfried extended the curse to cartography, for since 1980 and until this day, the Hardermandli also lives on the map.
Beats waiting for the Italians
Another case of a map gag surviving to this day. Left, the unadorned mountain flank on a 1996 map; right, the mountaineer as he can be seen climbing toward Switzerland now. Credit: Swisstopo
For the 1997 map update, Mr. Siegfried etched the likeness of a mountaineer on the Italian side of a mountain slope near Val Müstair. Reportedly, he got tired of waiting on the data for the area, which his Italian counterparts were slow to provide, so he found a creative way to plug the gap. Topography, like nature, also abhors a vacuum, apparently.
Swisstopo seems to have taken to heart the cartographer's slight against his Italian colleagues, because the mountaineer still appears on the contemporary map, in 1:100,000 scale at least.
The marmot of the Aletsch glacier
What the area of the Aletsch glacier looked like until 2010 (left), and how it's changed since (right, 2018 map). Both maps 1:25,000.Credit: Swisstopo
Swisstopo's most famous map gag — or at least the most recent one to be revealed, in 2014 — is the marmot, which has been hiding in a rock near the Aletsch glacier since it was put there by cartographer Paul Ehrlich in 2011, shortly before his retirement. The marmot is still there, and perhaps it and its fellow map oddities may be allowed to survive.
On its website, Swisstopo says that "these hidden drawings do not affect the accuracy and level of detail of our maps, nor on the safety and security of their users. They merely add a note of mystery to our nation's maps."
Are there any other gags hidden in the official maps of Switzerland? Swisstopo itself claims it has no knowledge of any other cartographic oddities. But knowing and not telling, that's exactly the kind of thing they would find funny, isn't it?
Strange Maps #1085
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It may be old tech, but it's super-reliable.
It's probably a good idea to stop and take a moment every now and then to marvel at the incredible amount of computing power in your pocket. Today's phones have processors that make the computers of the internet-boom era seem like little more than garage-door openers. Forget about the massive room-sized early computers that couldn't run a game of Pong, much less Panda Pop. Nope, your pocket is packed with power.
It may surprise you then to learn that a processor that was released by IBM and Motorola back in 1997 is the chip that serves as the brain of NASA's cutting-edge Perseverance Mars rover. The craft's developers were more interested in reliability than sheer power, and their solution was a G3 processor, or CPU, used in Apple's Power G3 Macintosh starting in 1998.
The G3 compared to today’s chips
Apple veterans remember the G3 fondly. It was a futuristic, tower-style computer of translucent white and blue. Its side conveniently flipped open to facilitate expansion. It smoked older Macs with a processor operating speed that topped out at a screaming 266 megahertz (MHz).
Not only that, but today's processors are multicore chips, meaning that they're like multiple processors running side by side within the chip. So, see ya later G3, as far as consumer use goes.
Still, the G3 was very reliable, and it was the first of a breed of chips to perform "dynamic branch prediction," an architecture still used today. It involves the CPU predicting upcoming tasks so as to line up its processing resources as efficiently as possible.
Old G3 (left), and the new G3 for Perseverance (right)
Credit: /Henriok/Wikimedia Commons
The chip in Perseverance, the PowerPC 750, isn't even the fastest G3 chip — the single-core chip runs at 200 MHz, which is still 10 times the speed of the chips powering the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, according to NASA.
Perseverance's chip is also not an off-the-shelf PowerPC 750. It's a purpose-built, radiation-hardened version of the chip called the RAD750. Fabricated by BAE Systems, the processor can operate in temperatures between -55 and 125° Celsius (-67 to 257 degrees Fahrenheit), perfect for Mars' frigid atmosphere. Also, because that atmosphere is so thin that its surface is continually bombarded with radiation, the RAD750 can withstand 200,000 to 1,000,000 Rads of radiation.
It's also not the RAD750's first trip to Mars: There was one onboard the Insight craft that landed there in November 2018.
NASA's upcoming Orion craft will also use the RAD750. In 2014, when Orion was announced, NASA's Matt Lemke explained to The Space Review that "it's not about the speed as much as the ruggedness and the reliability. I need to make sure it will always work." Especially attractive was the RAD750's tolerance of radiation: "The one thing we really like about this computer is that it doesn't get destroyed by radiation. It can be upset, but it won't fail. We've done a lot of testing on the different parts in the computer. When it sees radiation, it might have to reset but it will come back up and work again."
The designers of Perseverance were also somewhat parsimonious with onboard memory — every millimeter/gram is precious on a spacecraft. Though storage isn't bad, at 2 GB of Flash memory, there's just 256 megabytes of working RAM and 256 kilobytes of EEPROM (electrically-erasable programmable read-only memory).
Back here on Earth, we're surrounded by RAD750 devices whizzing overhead in about 100 satellites. So far, not one of them has failed. No wonder the chip's been sent on such a critical mission the Red Planet.