Step 1: Why Use Counting ICs?
My work in the atom optics lab at my university has taken me through some real twists and turns. I've learned more in my two years as an intern there than I have in most of college, and it's way more rewarding than turning in homework. If you ever have the chance to work in a university laboratory, take it, no matter what. You'll never regret it. One of the things I've had to learn pretty thoroughly is electronics, since one of my duties is troubleshooting electronics and occasionally building additions and hacks to them. My most recent project brought me face to face with digital counting ICs.
The project involved using a Michelson Interferometer to compare the relative wavelengths of two lasers by counting the number of fringes of each beam when a retro-reflector cart was translated across the beam paths, thus changing the path lengths of both beams by identical amounts. Light has such a short wavelength that moving the cart even as slowly as a few centimeters per second produces fringe patterns at around 150kHz. The interferometer operation simplifies down to the relation:
where λ is the wavelength of a laser, and N is the number of fringes produced by translating the cart a certain distance. So if we know one laser pretty well, we can find the wavelength of the second laser by counting their fringes. For light being measured by translating the cart over 1 meter, N is going to be around 40 million. Try counting that by hand. No, we need high speed event counting methods.
Another use would be in something like a Geiger counter. If you need to know how much radiation you've been exposed to, you can hook up a traditional Geiger counter to a counter IC and count the number of radiation events, then use the appropriate math to convert the radiation count to rads.