Today in Tedium: Here’s something we haven’t talked about a ton. In the past five or so years, braided nylon has become a huge part of our lives, carried into tens of millions of homes along with our smartphones. Many of our cables use it—and honestly, it’s significantly better than many of the plasticky, rubbery alternatives. For one thing, it doesn’t fray quite as easily, and the texture makes it much more grippable. (Plus, it arguably looks nicer.) But its evolution into the cable variant of choice seems to have come out of nowhere. Did it? Today’s Tedium breaks down the evolution of braided nylon cables. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is a shot from a YouTube clip showing plastic cable braiding being manufactured. Warning: It starts with a loud noise.
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The year that gutta percha, a latex gum produced by a tree native to Malaysia, was first brought to the United Kingdom. The material is notable as it is the first material used for cable insulation, according to History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications, something that first happened around 1851 thanks in part to that transplanting. The material was particularly effective at insulating submarine cables, though less so at landline cables, as the insulator needed to be kept wet. Soon, gutta percha would be replaced with two other common kinds of insulators—rubber and bitumen (also known as asphalt).
Before we get to nylon braided cables, let’s explain why electrical cables look the way they do
If you’re not an engineer, you probably don’t think about cables all that much. Honestly, that’s a good thing. We need normal people like you too, as a control for ensuring that all this technology stuff makes sense to mere mortals.
But it’s still important, to some degree, to take a step back to understand just why cables are the way they are.
In many ways, modern cables often represent bundles of wires, each playing different roles in the context of a piece of electronics. This is true all the way down to traditional power cables, which in their most common configuration have a “hot,” “neutral,” and “ground” wire.
Cables designed for communications or data can get increasingly complex. A good example of these are phone lines or Ethernet cables, both of which tend to have individual cables broken out, which allows users to see how individual pieces of wire, copper, or fiber optics connect to the line. Unlike computer peripheral wires, Ethernet, coaxial, or telephone wires are often cut to length, with connectors put on the ends as needed. In the case of coax, it’s a heavily shielded single wire in most cases; in the case of Ethernet or coaxial, the cables must be broken out and connected cable b y cable.
Many computer cables are multi-layered, a mixture of sleeving, insulation, and individual wires that connect to tiny PCB boards on either end. As our cables have grown more mature, they’ve gained a lot of different use cases. Just to give you an idea, check out this video of a guy just randomly pulling apart his HDMI cable and testing to see if things still work if he disconnects some of the individual cables baked inside.
One thing you might find surprising about the clip is that one of the biggest factors leading to degradation of the video signal is not disconnecting the cables, but removing them from their electromagnetic shielding. Ultimately, it’s because each of those wires help carry data, rather than specific signals. USB, which has two data lines and two power lines, is much the same way.
There are a lot of considerations that go into cable design that can impact the final result. For example, the interior shielding, which most people will never see, can differ greatly in quality. If a cable does not have the proper level of shielding, electromagnetic interference can get in, causing issues like screen flickering, for example. As this blog post from the Multi/Cable Corporation explains, two primary types of shielding are used—standard foil shielding, which wraps around the internal cables and keeps the cable lightweight, and braided metal shielding, which is more expensive, but makes the cable stronger and more resistant. Ultimately, the best cables have both, but those cables are less flexible than those with fewer layers. This is the basic line of thought that explains why Monster Cable exists.
Wires like HDMI or USB, which exist in the billions, show the maturity of cable manufacturing. These devices generally combine a number of cables, are consistent in length, they’re relatively thin, and they’re well-shielded. The process is mostly (but not completely) automated, particularly in the case of USB-A, where connectors have a standard style and consistent manufacturing process. This video, from the YouTube channel Kit Box, shows off the fascinating process of manufacturing USB cables:
It’s a seemingly intense combination of injection molding, semi-automated soldering, and hand separation, and it looks fairly well-figured out by our manufacturers. This is not a new process; they probably make millions of these cables, if not billions, each year.
The year that the Dupont company first developed nylon, one of the most widely used forms of plastic. Nylon is often compared to silk and can be easily braided. There are actually two types of nylon that are extremely common: The original, nylon 66, contains two types of monomers (molecules that can combine into polymers) with 6 atoms of carbon each; the secondary, nylon 6, was developed in an attempt to create a version of nylon that didn’t violate Dupont’s patent. It only uses a single monomer. Nylon 66 is stronger and has a higher melting point of 509 degrees Fahrenheit.
How braided fabric became the hot new way to sleeve cables
Now, when it comes to wiring, having fabric material braided on the outside of it isn’t a new phenomenon. In many old homes, for example, it’s fairly common to find cloth wires, with rubber on the inside to manage insulation, and treated cotton on the outside.
That might sound like a fire hazard in the making, but this was actually the most common type of home wiring before about 1960, and while it’s not used anymore, it’s not so much about the cloth itself being unsafe, but because it’s a signifier that the wiring in general is out of date, according to the home repair finder website Angi. If any part of the cotton wire does break down, most likely, it will be the rubber, in fact. (One potential risk factor that might come into play, however: The cloth that the wiring uses might be asbestos, which as we’ve discussed previously, is problematic.)
In the modern day, fabric sleeving tends to be rooted in plastics, usually nylon, as it has a lot of benefits that make it very workable for cable manufacturing. It’s a thermoplastic, which means that it can be heated to high temperatures and modified, kinda like solder. Woven cable sleeving can actually be purchased separately and applied to your existing cables, if you so choose, but a more common option for regular consumers might be the cable management sleeve, which is essentially a really big version of the same concept.
Between its 1935 invention and now, nylon found a lot of uses that gave it a reputation as a strengthening element. For example, it’s often used in climbing rope, and found a prominent use in the bodies of tires.
The first example I can find of nylon being used in cable-style settings is in the form of a 1950 patent filing by Howard J. Shive of the Bentley-Harris Manufacturing Company. As the patent filing makes clear, this was not an easy thing that the company was trying to do:
The application of a continuous coating to a fabric tubing, in the manufacture of electrical insulation material, presents many problems. In the first place, the coating must be of uniform thickness throughout the length and periphery of the product. Thin areas exposing the underlying fabric tubular sleeving, as well as thick and uneven portions due to the running of the coating solution, cannot be tolerated. Moreover, it is often necessary to employ a heat stabilizing to prevent deterioration of the coating when equipment containing the insulating material becomes heated in assembly or operation. It has been found that due to the tendency of such a stabilizing agent to settle out from a vinyl resin Solution, it is a very difficult matter to incorporate the desired amount of stabilizing agent in the coating by using such a solution.
A 1954 patent filing by inventor Walter Erwin, titled “Method of Manufacturing Multi-Core Cables” combined the use of nylon with a weaving process that created “an external tubular covering formed by interbraided strands passing in opposite spirals around the conductors.” The patent filing noted that the process required thread of a certain quality:
In order to obtain a correct return of the compact wound cable, it is desirable for the braided threads to be at least partly formed by a relatively rigid and smooth yarn; yarns of this kind are for example polyamide resins or long chain synthetic polyamides (nylon), artificial silk having a thick thread and the like. This arrangement makes the assembly of the braided threads stiffer and aids the relative sliding of the adjacent turns; in addition, the presence of the stiff yarn prevents-in the case of an elastic element formed by rubber-the covering from squeezing the rubber and preventing freedom of movement.
That Erwin came up with an approach like this makes sense, as he had numerous patent filings to his name dating to 1917, many related to braiding.
So there you go, internet history books: The braided nylon cable of the kind your laptop is likely plugged into appears to have been invented in the 1950s, less than two decades after nylon was first invented.
So how did we get it in computers? As far as I can tell, braided cabling found use cases in automotive and boating settings, with companies like Techflex helping to develop the industry around braided sleeving to manage cables. But it made the leap to computing through the enthusiast space in the early 2000s, when people actually started to design their own computers with interior appearance and cable management in mind.
For example, Maximum PC, an early industry magazine that embraced this subculture of custom PC builders, used nylon sleeving to cover up the power cables, usually distributed in a “ketchup-and-mustard” variety, on its “Dream Machine 2002,” a $7,728 no-compromises custom machine.
Eventually, manufacturers started to embrace the braided nylon sleeving themselves. For example, the tech company Razer started selling its DeathAdder gaming mouse in 2009 with braided cabling, putting it years ahead of the rest of the industry.
At the time, the need for this kind of style was limited to modders and gamers. But then, the smartphone went mainstream, suddenly making cables status symbols rather than purely functional things. And you can do a lot style-wise with fabric! Fittingly, given its roots in the tech enthusiast space, you can find videos online of people putting braided sleeves on their USB cables. They sell ’em online, so why not?!?
Apple, which clearly set the trend of style in charging cables, was actually kind of late to nylon—not embracing fabric braiding in its design language until its HomePod in 2018, though it’s quickly moving in that direction with many of its product, including the latest iMacs.
But give it a few years—anything trying to be premium will be covered in fabric. Just watch.
“They would much prefer to have a nice clean transition between the cable and the plug. Aesthetically, this does look nicer, but from an engineering point of view, it’s pretty much committing reliability suicide.”
— An unnamed former Apple engineer, in a 2011 Reddit post explaining why many Apple cables don’t have strain relief, a design approach approach commonly used on most types of plugs that the company’s industrial design department really seems to dislike. This is one of two primary factors why Apple cables are likely to fray. The other involves a decision that Apple made to replace polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, from the cables, with a more environmentally friendly substance at the behest of Greenpeace. The Foundation of Economic Education, a conservative think tank that admittedly has a vested interest in making Greenpeace look stupid as it’s funded by Koch Industries, has pointed out that this ironically killed Apple’s reputation for cable manufacturing while not really doing much to stop PVC, which is a widely used component in numerous other parts of daily life, most notably plumbing.
You know, as I was writing this, something strange happened. My MacBook Air was plugged into the wall via a tiny adapter, produced by Anker that was able to charge the whole laptop while remaining the size of a small cube.
But when I turned on noise cancelling functionality on my headphones, which were plugged into the headphone through a headphone jack, it emitted a loud buzzing noise which made the headphones annoying to use.
The reason might not be obvious to you, reader, and it initially wasn’t to me, but I eventually figured it out: The AC adapter I was using did not have a ground. It was a two-pronger. In that case, it didn’t matter that the USB-C cable I was using was braided nor that the audio cable I was using was braided. The interface got in through the headphone jack, worked its way through the copper into my computer, through the MacBook’s printed circuit board, into the headphone jack, through my cable and into my ears. This was annoying, and the only way I could stop the buzz was to either unplug the laptop or turn off noise cancellation.
There are always problems at play when it comes to cables—fraying, breakage, interference, noise, what have you. Because Apple is desperately clinging to the decaying threads of its proprietary business, you also have to think about Lightning vs. USB-C. (Hope that will change soon!)
Sleeving and materials are just two elements of a surprisingly complex equation that we barely even think about. We are using dozens of these cables on a daily basis. Some of these cables we may never see. They exist in our walls, designed to never be seen unless you are technically capable of maintaining them. Some of them spout alternating current; some spout direct current.
The braiding classes up the joint a little bit. It’s nice that we have it. But that we need it really shows how something that existed for a purely functional purpose now has to serve a role that is relatively new: That of a status symbol.
We want our cables to last. Braiding them so that they last a little bit longer is just that little touch to make us feel like this is actually a tangible thing.
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