Take one of these pills and your innards will call me in the morning: The digestive saga of… the radio pill

A close-up view of a radio pill a few moments before the first volunteer patient swallowed it. Anon., “Science – Radio Made to Swallow.” Life, 29 April 1957, 74.

Ave amice, scribiti te salutant. Knowing how much you like science, technology, innovation, piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, yours truly would like to bring a pill to your attention. Not just any pill, mind you. Nay. A high tech pill. A radio pill. Oooooh. Shiny. Until it came out, that is. Sorry, sorry.

One could argue that our story began with American humorist / columnist / actor Robert Charles Benchley. The earliest mention yours truly could find for Benchley’s With gun and Camera Through the Alimentary Canal appeared in September 1924. This being said (typed?), that hilarious presentation / conference may well have been older that that. And yes, Benchley was / is indeed the grandfather of Peter Bradford Benchley, the author of the 1974 best selling and nightmare inducing novel Jaws.

American architect / author / journalist / parodist George Shepard Chappell borrowed Benchley’s swashbuckling words for the title of a book published in 1930, Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a Fascinating Trip to the Interior. Benchley wrote the introduction of the book, by the way.

Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a Fascinating Trip to the Interior was / is a superb example of a type of literature all but extinct these days, the non-factual article, which once was one of the mainstays of American science fiction magazines. What was / is a non-factual article, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Well, it was / is a scientific tall tale, told with a face as straight as the backbone of a Starfleet officer, and, hopefully, chock full of sly and deadpan humour.

A classic example of a science fiction non factual article would be “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline,” a turgid text replete with charts, citations, graphs and tables by budding Russian American science fiction writer and chemist Isaac Asimov, born Isaak Yudovich Azimov, published in the March 1948 issue of the famous American monthly Astounding Science Fiction.

Thiotimoline, as you undoubtedly know, my scientifically savvy reading friend, was / is a water-soluble organic molecule which dissolves in water up to 1.12 seconds before it actually makes contact with that fluid. Pretty cool, eh?

Asimov was quite concerned when he realised that his non factual article was published under his name rather than the pseudonym he had requested. You see, he was afraid that the people who were examining the chemistry doctoral dissertation he was about to defend would not be amused by his literary activities. As it turned out, the examination proceeded as Asimov had hoped it would, until their last question, which was about… thiotimoline. In shock, Asimov burst out laughing, as did everyone else in the room, but back to Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a Fascinating Trip to the Interior.

As you may have guessed by now, I hope, what we are dealing with here is a travel account, a safari of sort, an older cousin of Fantastic Voyage so to speak. You will of course remember that this 1966 American science fiction adventure film described how a small research submarine and a quintet of Americans were shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the circulatory system of an injured scientist to eliminate a brain clot which threatened to end his life. I kid you not. I saw the movie a long looong time ago and the scenes I recall tend to involve an American actor / actress, Jo Raquel Tejada, better known as Raquel Welch, but I digress.

Similarly, Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a Fascinating Trip to the Interior described the journey of teeny tiny humans inside a human body. That time around, however, the American quartet were explorers bent on, err, exploring the inner reaches of body of a (German?) male Homo sapiens. How said explorers got inside that male human, with a portable boat mind you, was not explained. This being said (typed?), those intrepid travellers were seemingly not the first to visit the inner reaches of a human body. Nay. “What we call ‘the creeps’ running up and down our spines is caused by active climbers of the interior shinnying up and down our skeletal ridgepole.” Who knew?

While the chapter titles are kind of cute (“I Tackle the Aorta” and “The Sources of the Bile,” not the Nile, the Bile, for example), the captions of the illustrations created by well-known American cartoonist Otto Soglow were rather more interesting. A few examples should suffice:

“I Land My First Phagocyte”

“Gold Digging in the Molar Mountains”

“Stalking the Heeby-Geeby in the Forests of the Lumbar Region.”

How our intrepid travellers planned to leave their host was / is unclear, at least to me. Some sources mention a… toe, a route which may have been chosen by Chappell, or imposed by his publisher, in order the bypass the, err, usual exit route of solid human waste material, Colon-sur-Mer. I kid you not. In any event, our heroes seemingly came out the way they had ventured in, via the Oral Cavern. Something about a political uprising in Gastritis, caused by, who else, dastardly communists, but I digress.

Err, where were we? Oh yes, the radio pill, or endosonde / endoradiosonde – a more technical term.

In April 1957, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research announced the development of the you know what. As can be ascertained from the photograph at the beginning of this article, that swallowable piece of medical hardware was not exactly tiny:

diameter: 10 or so millimetres (0.4 inch)

length: almost 30 millimetres (almost 1.2 inch).

The radio pill was almost as large as your pinky.

Said pill contained an FM radio transmitter, which was pretty impressive given the technology of the time. The teeny tiny battery of the pill could keep it chirping for 15 or so hours, which was a tad shitty, sorry, sorry, given that the pill might take a couple of days to pass through a patient’s body.

Would you believe that the battery in question had been developed during the Second World War to power the tiny proximity fuzes which automatically detonated artillery shells when the distance to their target became smaller than a pre-set value? Mass produced in the United States, proximity fuzes proved especially effective, and deadly, when fitted to anti-aircraft shells.

The basic idea of the radio pill seemingly emerged, no pun intended, from the mind of an American gastroenterologist who happened to be chief of the gastroenterology section of a Veterans Health Administration hospital and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Cornell University Medical College.

John Thruston Farrar wanted to record changes in activity in the human digestive tract which, as you undoubtedly know, is 4.5 to 6 metres (15 to 20 feet) long. He took his idea to a Russian-American engineer, inventor and television pioneer who happened to be the honorary vice president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Vladimir Kosmich Zworykin was intrigued. He designed what became the radio pill before turning the project to a team of RCA engineers who actually built the thing.

Zworykin was seemingly involved with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research at the time, as an affiliate in biophysics, but yours truly cannot say if that involvement led to or resulted from work on the radio pill. Somehow, door no. 2 seems the likelier option.

Yours truly will not bore you with the technical details of how the radio pill worked, but… You actually wish to know how the thing worked? Err, all right. Please keep in mins that I am not an engineer. Anyway, here goes.

As was said (typed?) above, the pill-shaped radio pill contained an FM radio transmitter. One end of that small and stomach acid proof plastic container was covered with a thin rubber membrane which… And yes, the membrane was also acid proof. Err, where was I? Oh yes. The thin rubber membrane vibrated to the beat of the gaseous pressure waves exerted by the fluctuations of the digestive tract. The number of beats was low when the radio pill reached the stomach, for example, and higher when it entered the small intestine.

Said vibrations made their way to a tiny diaphragm, then to an equally tiny electric coil, then a still equally tiny oscillator. Said oscillator, finally, broadcasted a continuous if very weak radio signal which could be picked up by an antenna located within a metre or two (a few feet) from the patient. The signal was then displayed on the screen of an oscilloscope where the physician could ponder on the mysteries of the human organism. Printing on paper was also seemingly possible.

Said physician could keep track of the radio pill’s position in the patient by way of a fluoroscope, in other words a device through which that physician could see the slowly moving pill in real time thanks to the X-rays gently bombarding the abdomen of the patient.

Farrar hoped that the radio pill would replace the cringe inducing tubes, or endoscopes, used at the time to supplement the X-ray examinations of patients. In turn, the RCA engineers hoped that a modified and smaller radio pill could be used by physicians to gather various types of information.

While the prototype of the radio pill was worth around $ 15 000, RCA engineers hoped that the mass-produced version would cost no more than $ 100 – more than $ 1 350 in 2022 Canadian currency. By comparison, the prototype was worth a whopping $ 20 400 or so in 2022 Canadian currency.

As was / is and, presumably, will be the case in many such experiments, the physician who originated the idea chose to act as a human guinea pig. Farrar bravely swallowed the pill, presumably with some water, as Zworykin and RCA engineers watched. Mind you, Farrar and company took the precaution of tying, solidly tying actually, a (waxed?) string around the radio pill if an emergency extraction proved necessary.

In later trials, it looked as if magnets were applied to the skin of the human guinea pig to steer the radio pill toward Colon-sur-Mer if a look through a fluoroscope showed that it got stalled, lost or highjacked along the way – problems probably caused by, who else, dastardly communists.

You may be interested, or not, to learn that the radio pill contained a resonant cavity structure which amplified sound. That structure was similar to that of the Thing – no, not the one from another world. The thing you are thinking about, my cinephile reading friend, was one of the main protagonists of an American classic of cinematographic science fiction, The Thing From Another World of 1951. This being said (typed?), one could argue that the Thing we are about to meet did come from another world, the Second World, that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellites, the world of the dastardly communists and their countless victims.

Indeed, the Thing was a pretty dastardly thing. Let me explain.

In early August 1945, a month or so before the end of the Second World War, a delegation from the Vsesoyúznaya Pionérskaya Organizátsiya Ímeni V. I. Lénina, in other words the V.I. Lenin all-union pioneer organisation, presented a carved wooden reproduction of the Great Seal of the United States to the ambassador of the United States to the USSR, William Averell Harriman. Said plaque was presented as a gesture of friendship to an ally in the fight against National Socialist Germany.

If you must know, the Vsesoyúznaya pionérskaya organizátsiya ímeni V. I. Lénina was a Communist mass organisation for children, tweens and teens aged 9 to 15 similar to the boy and girl scout organisations of the Western countries

What Harriman and the staff of the American embassy did not know was that the dreaded Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti SSSR, in other words the ministry of state security of the USSR, had concealed inside the wooden sculpture one of the first covert listening devices / bugs to use passive techniques to transmit an audio signal, in this case the very words they spoke within the residential office of the ambassador, in Spaso House, in Moscow, where the plaque was mounted.

Lacking a power supply or active electronic components of its own, a passive listening device transmits a signal only when an outside operator beamed a radio signal upon it. That very passivity makes such a device very difficult to detect by the people under surveillance. The very simplicity of the device also makes it very reliable. That very simplicity gives it a potentially unlimited operational life. A passive listening device is a very sophisticated device indeed.

Indeed, one could argue that the Thing was / is a predecessor / ancestor of the radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology used to automatically identify and track tags attached to an unimaginable variety of objects, from a pair of socks in a store to an automobile under construction – as well as people.

The Soviet passive listening device remained undetected until early 1951. Its existence was revealed accidentally, when a radio operator at the embassy of the United Kingdom to the USSR overheard conversations in English on an open Soviet radio channel. Utterly shocked by the provenance of the conversations in question, the British authorities immediately and very discretely contacted the American authorities. Alarmingly, a thorough sweep of the residential office of the American ambassador, Alan Goodrich Kirk at the time, failed to locate the Soviet device. From then on, special precautions were taken to prevent the leakage of sensitive information. The Soviet listening device was found only in 1952 soon after the arrival in Moscow of a new ambassador, George Frost Kennan.

It looked as if thorough sweeps were made in 1951 and / or 1952 in buildings used by the embassy of the United Kingdom to the USSR, as well by as the embassy of Canada to the USSR.

The Soviet listening device was christened the Thing by an otherwise unknown American person. That fantastically advanced device greatly impressed the American and British technical experts who examined its inner workings. It impressed them to such an extent that the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, MI5, funded the development of a passive listening device of its own. Known as the Satyr, that device was used during the 1950s and 1960s.

Around 1957-58, the Special Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police allegedly collaborated with MI5 to install a Satyr passive listening device within a wall of the embassy of Poland to Canada in Ottawa, Ontario – or was it a consulate in Montréal, Québec? The wall was soon torn down and replaced, however. A Soviet mole within the British or Canadian intelligence communities had seemingly tipped his handler. Dastardly communists…

And what was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) doing at the time, you may ask? Well, if you must know, it launched a research program at the Nederlands Radar Proefstation (NRP), in the Netherlands, in 1954. Several versions of a passive listening device known as the Easy Chair were developed but reliability remained an issue. By the time the NRP got it right, around 1965, the CIA’s muckymucks were no longer interested in passive listening devices. This being said (typed?), the NRP eventually developed an (active?) listening device for the CIA. Deliveries of the SRT-107 seemingly began around 1973, but back to the Thing.

The general public had no idea that a thing like the Thing existed until May 1960. You see, a few days before, that very month, a Lockheed U-2 spyplane of the CIA flying happily between Pakistan and Norway was shot down over the USSR, by a missile. The Soviet government denounced in the strongest terms possible that unconscionable act of espionage. A deeply embarrassed American government tried to lie its way out of that mess by using, among other things, the Thing.

And so it was that the United States ambassador to the United Nations Organization (UN), Henry Cabot Lodge, Junior, trotted out the fifteen-year-old listening device for a show and tell presentation to the members of the Security Council of the UN, as an example of dastardly Soviet espionage.

A few days later, the Soviet government gleefully informed the world that the U-2’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was in its custody. The embarrassment of the American government went up one notch – or three, but back to the Thing.

The individual behind that magnificent device, apparently known under the name Zlatoust, was Lev Sergeyevich Termen, a brilliant Soviet engineer, inventor and musician better known as Leon Theremin. Yes, that Theremin, the inventor of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first one to be mass-produced.

At the time, Termen was one of the many imprisoned engineers and technicians which made up the staff of TskB-29, a secret aeronautical experimental design bureau run by the dreaded people’s commissariat of internal affairs, or Naródnyy Komissariát Vnútrennikh Del.

While imprisoned, a pretty comfortable imprisonment mind you when compared to the horrific conditions within typical Soviet forced labour camps, Termen may, I repeat may, have worked at one point with a brilliant aeronautical engineer and rocket enthusiast mentioned many times in our stupendous blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev – the father of the Soviet space program, but I digress. Oh boy, did I digress. Sorry. Back to the pill.

Would you believe that a theremin can be heard more than once in the aforementioned movie The Thing From Another World?

Would you also believe that the radio pill developed in the United States had a Swedish counterpart, developed almost simultaneously but independently, in 1957? The head of the Swedish team was Dr Bertil Jacobson, an associate professor at a well-known research-led medical university, the Karolinska Institutet. A team in East Germany was sufficiently intrigued by the basic concept to initiate development of a pill not too long after. That team was followed by a West German bent on the same goal. How did the song from the 1950 musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun go again? Ah yes. Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you. And work on a British radio pill began in 1959.

Would you believe that a West German radio pill, if not the West German radio pill, may, I repeat may, have been developed as a tool of the spy trade, used to remain on the tail of an individual from a distance of up to 100 metres (330 feet)? It was even suggested by some that radio pills could be used to pinpoint the location of a child / tween / teenager who preferred the company of his or her friends to that of family members.

And yes, I too wonder how someone could ingest something the size of a 1950s radio pill and not notice it. The child / tween / teenager could be forced to do so under threat of being grounded forever and a day, but what about the aforementioned individual under surveillance?

Incidentally, a pair of French physicians, Maurice and Marie-Thérèse Marchal, patented a circular radio pill in early 1956. In 1958, the dynamic duo allegedly claimed it had developed (and tested??) a prototype in 1955.

By late 1964, an American biophysicist who had worked with Jacobson back in 1957, Ralph Stuart MacKay, was using 5 centimetre long (2 inches) radio pills to successfully study the physiology of captive dolphins. Radio pills the size of a vitamin tablet, or gutnicks, were developed for human use no later than 1966. By then, MacKay was involved with the American space program. He may well have been involved in the development of one or more radio pills by, or for, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – a world famous administration mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018. From the looks of it, said pills were not used by astronauts during missions.

By the way, around 1966, the beloved German British scientist, bioengineer and television presenter Heinz Siegfried Wolff demonstrated a radio pill on television, during an episode of Panorama. The pill swallower was Frederick Richard Dimbleby. Wolff gently poked the very popular host of the very popular current affairs program in the abdomen, a change in pressure which changed the pitch of the signal emitted by the radio pill. British television viewers were delighted. This was Wolff’s first television appearance. It would not be his last.

Despite the several efforts and all the hoopla, the radio pill did not really catch on in the world of medicine. Indeed, that area of research quickly receded from view, into the digestive tract of science, as the 1960s wore on. Research began anew only in the 1990s, as new micro electronics became more prevalent. A case in point would be the camera-equipped (!) digital pill / smart pill / ingestible sensor presented at a conference in 2000.

I wonder if that thing had wipers. Sorry. Sorry.

According to many, the digital pill is fast emerging, no pun intended, as a critical technology, with multiple applications. According to some of these many, however, the United States Food and Drugs Administration has not been as cooperative as it could have been. Indeed, that world famous administration approved its first digital pill only in November 2017.

If yours truly may be permitted to paraphrase a fictional theoretical physicist who shall remain nameless, I have to say (type?) I thought the toilet humour would get less funny with repetition. Apparently, there is no law of diminishing comedic returns with radio pills – or space poop / shooting poop. (Hello, EP!)

And yes, said physicist played the theremin in a January 2011 episode of The Big Bang Theory. Ours is indeed a small world.

The moral of this story is that one should always think thrice before opening one’s oral cavern. You never know who might be listening…

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Rénald Fortier