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Farewell my beloved x1 x10 Scope Probe

In its infinite wisdom, the Test and Measurement Alliance (TMA) has announced that there’s been an “industry-wide decision to retire x1/x10 switchable oscilloscope probes.” What, you’ve never heard of the TMA? Me neither. However, according to the TMA’s Web site, it’s been around since 2016.

The press release that announced this discontinuation said:

“The TMA, an international alliance of Test and Measurement companies, today announces a significant industry-wide decision to retire x1/x10 switchable oscilloscope probes in all new Alliance Member oscilloscope products, effective from the start of Q3 2023.

“This decision is backed by industry-leading oscilloscope companies as part of the Test & Measurement Alliance, they include Keysight, Tektronix, Rohde & Schwarz, Lecroy, GW Instek, Siglent, Rigol, National Instruments, Hantek, Owon, and Micsig.

“This proactive measure comes as a response to growing concerns about the limitations and potential risks associated with switchable probes. The TMA has identified several key reasons for the discontinuation of these probes:

“Lack of Auto Detection: Switchable probes cannot be auto-detected by the oscilloscope, which can lead to incorrect readings. These inaccuracies can cause costly mistakes and affect overall product quality.

“Increased Complexity: The switchable design adds unnecessary complexity to the oscilloscope setup, increasing the likelihood of user error and time-consuming troubleshooting.

“Reduced Reliability: The x1/x10 switch has been found to be a common point of failure in oscilloscope probes, causing frustrating equipment downtime and additional maintenance costs.

“Manufacturing BOM Cost Minimization: By eliminating the need for switchable probes, manufacturers can reduce the number of components in their bill of materials (BOM), thereby lowering production costs and ultimately providing more cost-effective solutions to customers.

“Enhanced Durability: Fixed x1 and x10 probes are less prone to wear and tear due to the absence of a switch mechanism, resulting in a longer lifespan and reduced need for replacements.

“Improved Signal Integrity: The fixed nature of x1 and x10 probes can lead to better signal integrity and more accurate measurements by minimizing the risk of attenuation or distortion caused by poor switch contact or impedance mismatches.

“Streamlined Product Offerings: By focusing on fixed x1 and x10 probes, manufacturers can concentrate their resources on improving these core products, resulting in higher quality and more specialized offerings.

“Simplified User Training: The use of fixed x1 and x10 probes can make it easier for technicians and engineers to learn and master the proper use of oscilloscopes, reducing the need for extensive training and minimizing the potential for errors.

“Enhanced Compatibility: Standardizing on fixed x1 and x10 probes can help to ensure greater compatibility across different oscilloscope models and brands, making it easier for users to interchange probes and equipment as needed.

“Environmental Impact Reduction: By eliminating the need for additional switch components, the production of fixed x1 and x10 probes can contribute to a reduction in electronic waste, aligning with global sustainability goals and promoting responsible manufacturing practices.

“As a result of these concerns, all TMA partners and their subsidiaries will only supply fixed x1 and x10 probes with future oscilloscopes from Q3 2023 going forward. By streamlining the oscilloscope setup and eliminating potential sources of error, this change aims to improve measurement accuracy and enhance user experience.

“The TMA remains committed to providing the highest standards of quality and performance in oscilloscope probe technology. By working closely with industry-leading manufacturers, the TMA continues to drive innovation and set new benchmarks for accuracy, reliability, and user satisfaction.”

So, who or what is the TMA and why are they mucking around with our scope probes? Here, the plot thickens. The TMA Web site lists the TMA’s address as 1640 Riverside Drive, Hill Valley, California. If you are a trivia fan and expert on California towns, you know that Hill Valley is a fictional town created solely for the purpose of acting as the backdrop location for the “Back to the Future” movies. Yes, that’s the home of Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and Biff Tanner. If you were able to find this address, you might have seen a stainless-steel DeLorean outfitted with a Mr. Fusion and a flux capacitor out front.

If you scroll to the bottom of the “About Us” page, you will see three people listed:

  • Dexter Reed, Chief Engineer
  • Bob Finger, Chief People Officer
  • Woz Wizard, Chief Prankster

Only one of the three people listed is real, but the accompanying photos are of real people. The photo for Dexter Reed is actually Bob Pease, who was National Semiconductor’s go-to person for linear IC applications for several decades. Bob Finger, who is giving a one-finger salute in his photo, is the infamous linear IC wizard, Bob Widlar, who famously gave people that salute all the time. And the Wizard of Woz’s photo is, of course, Steve Wozniak. Widlar originally worked for Fairchild Semiconductor and then moved to National Semiconductor. Texas Instruments now owns that heritage. It bought National Semiconductor in 2011.

So yes, it’s all a giant prank, underscored by the release date of the notice: March 31, 2023 – the day before April Fool’s Day.

The electronics industry has a long history of prank April Fool’s press releases. The earliest such release I can remember was for the Signetics 25120, a “Fully Encoded, 9046 x N, Random Access Write-Only-Memory.” The data sheet for the Signetics 25120 WOM carries a copyright date of 1972, which is when I remember seeing it. The full description of the Write-Only Memory (WOM) was:

“The Signetics 25000 Series 9C46XN Random Access Write-Only-Memory employs both enhancement and depletion mode P-Channel, N-Channel and Neu (1) channel MOS devices. Although a static device, a single TTL level clock phase is required to drive the on-board multi-port clock generator. Data refresh is accomplished during CB and LH periods (11). Quadri-state outputs (when applicable) allow expansion in many directions, depending on organization.

“The static memory cells are operated dynamically to yield extremely low power dissipation. All inputs and outputs are directly TL compatible when proper interfacing circuitry is employed.

“Device construction is more or less S.O.S. (2)”

“Referenced footnotes on the data sheet included:

“1. Neu channel 16V CMOS enhances or depletes regardless of gate polarity, either simultaneously or randomly. Sometimes not at all.

“2.       S.O.S copyrighted U.S. Army Commissary, 1940”

The Signetics WOM took on a life far beyond that original data sheet from the 1970s and now has its own Wikipedia page. Notably, Apple included two references to the Signetics 25120 WOM in its Apple IIe Reference Manual. Signetics was a very influential IC vendor that spun out of Fairchild Semiconductor and was eventually absorbed by Philips Electronics, which is now NXP.

Other famous prank electronic devices inspired by the WOM included the DED (Darkness Emitting Diode), the WAS gate, and the Inoperational Amplifier. Now, don’t get the idea that the electronics industry invented these April Fool’s technology innovations. Search YouTube for “turboencabulator” and you will find several videos of spoof mechanical and electromechanical technologies that span several decades. It’s a time-honored tradition. Long may it continue.

Thanks Woz. Ya got me.

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