Here is a
back-to-the-basics treatise on AC and DC, plus an introduction to radio frequencies. The author, Herb. S. Brier,
is a licensed Ham who presents a very high level treatment of the topics for rank beginners. Remember that Popular
Electronics was a magazine designed to appeal to hobbyists with backgrounds in electricity and electronics ranging
from knowing how to insert batteries into a flashlight in the proper direction (most of the time) to engineers and
college professors. Part of the publisher's mission was to introduce as many aspects as possible in order to
capture the interest of as many people as possible. They we pretty successful, based on how long the magazine ran
December 1957 Popular Electronics
of Contents] People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about
and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular Electronics
was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights are hereby
acknowledged. See all articles from
See all articles from
Among the Novice Hams
By HERB S. BRIER, W9EGQ
In discussing the theory behind questions appearing in the FCC amateur license examinations (October and
November issues), so far we have made no distinction between direct current (d.c.) and alternating current (a.c.).
This is because everything that we have learned up to now is equally true for either type of current.
Nevertheless, there are many important differences between the two which must be understood before you can learn
much about radio. Anyone who learned how to do long division in school has enough on the ball to master sufficient
a.c. and d.c. theory to qualify for an amateur license. So let's get started.
The Two Currents. Direct current, as its name implies, always flows in the same direction-from
the negative terminal of the power source to its positive terminal. To most of us, flashlight batteries, portable
radio batteries, and storage batteries. are the most familiar sources of direct current.
Peak Value: 1.41 x Effective Value
Effective Value = 0.71 x Peak Value
Fig. 1. The difference
between the effective and peak values of an alternating current.
A direct current has the same effective and
current, however, starts at zero, builds up to a maximum value in one direction, decreases to zero again, builds
up to a maximum value in the opposite direction, and again drops to zero. The whole cycle repeats itself over and
over many times per second as the terminals of the a.c. generator become alternately positive and negative. The
electric power delivered to our homes by the power company is 60-cps alternating current.
Figure 1 shows
how a.c. peak and effective voltages differ. The part of the sine curve above the base line indicates that the
voltage and the current are building up in one direction (positive), and the part below the base line indicates
that they are building up in the opposite (negative) direction. The arrow pointing to the right represents the
passage of time.
Obviously, if an a.c. generator is connected across a load, such as a light bulb, the
current flowing through the load will increase and decrease in step with the voltage. Consequently, maximum power
can flow into the load during only a small portion of each cycle. With d.c., however, full power is delivered to
the load constantly.
Thus, a direct current of a given voltage will do more work per unit of time than an
alternating current of the same peak voltage - exactly 1.41 times as much. But don't jump to the conclusion that
the power company is making a 30% profit by selling a.c. instead of d.c.
Alternating current is rated in terms of its effective value* - the amount of work it will do in comparison to a
unit of direct current. Therefore, one volt (effective value) of sinusoidal alternating current actually has a
peak value of 1.41 volts. The effective value and the peak value of d.c. are always equal.
KN9IDZ, finishes an operating session, he folds up the desk leaf and closes the door of his built-in wall
cabinet, concealing his equipment.
meters are calibrated to measure the effective values of alternating currents and voltages, rather than their peak
values. Cathode-ray oscilloscopes show the peak values as well as the actual shape of the a.c. wave. Peak-reading
vacuum-tube voltmeters also indicate the peak values.
Advantages of Each. The big
advantage of alternating current over direct current for utility power is the ease with which it can be sent long
distances from the generating plant to the consumer. It can be generated and distributed to strategically located
substations at very high voltages - approaching a million volts in some installations. This means that every
ampere of current represents thousands of kilowatts of power. As it is the amount of current to be carried that
determines the size of wire that must be used in a transmission line, this high-voltage distribution permits
carrying a maximum amount of power on a given size of conductor.
* Also called the root-mean-square
(r.m.s.) value after the mathematical method of computing the effective value.
At substations, the extremely high voltages are stepped down in huge transformers to a few thousand volts
and transmitted to neighborhood "pole" transformers, where they are reduced to a safer 117 or 235 volts before the
power is delivered to the individual customers. Such voltage division is possible because passing a.c. through a
heavy-duty type transformer very slightly affects the amount of power available. It simply changes the ratio
between the current and the voltage. Thus, when the voltage is stepped down, the current available is increased,
and vice versa.
In contrast to a.c., once d.c. is generated at a given voltage, it is impossible to change
that voltage with something as simple as a transformer. You can reduce both d.c. and a.c. by passing the current
through a resistance, but this just wastes the unused power. To raise or lower d.c., you can use the current to
drive another motor-generator (or dynamotor) to generate the desired new voltage. You can also convert it to
a.c.-step it up or down to the desired value-and then convert it back to d.c.
Both systems are used to
power mobile radio equipment from an automobile storage battery. In vibrator-type power supplies, for example, the
vibrator, which is actually a vibrating switch, reverses the connections between the battery and the primary
winding of the power transformer 100 to 200 times a second, thereby converting the d.c. from the battery to a.c.
in the transformer, although not the sine wave a.c. shown in Fig. 1. This a.c. is then stepped up to the desired
voltage in the transformer and reconverted to d.c. to power the radio.
The higher power requirements of
mobile transmitters are often taken care of by dynamotors driven by the battery and delivering 400 to 1000 volts,
All radio signals are alternating currents which differ from 60-cycle power in frequency and in the fact that they
are generated electronically in vacuum-tube oscillators, built up by r.f. power amplifiers, and maybe modulated.
Amateur transmitters emit signals of frequencies between 1,800,000 cps and 148,000,000 cps and higher. It is the
rapidity with which they oscillate back and forth that makes them capable of being radiated into space from an
antenna and of traveling great distances before being intercepted by a remote receiving antenna. (Just for the
record, signals with frequencies as low as 10,000 cycles can be radiated, but it takes antennas several miles long
to do the job.) Also, tremendous amounts of power are required to span even moderate distances at such low
frequencies, while low-power high-frequency transmitters are capable of sending a signal around the world under
KN1DCK, Fort Devens, Mass., with his Hallicrafters S85 receiver and Heath DX-35 transmitter.
Frequency and Wavelength. Electrical waves travel through space with the speed of light-186,000
miles or 300,000,000 meters per second. Consequently, the distance that a radio wave will travel in the time it
takes for it to go through a complete cycle is equal to the distance traveled divided by the number of cycles, or:
wavelength in meters = 300,000,000/frequency in cycles. As radio frequencies are usually given in kilocycles
(thousands of cycles) or megacycles (millions of cycles), the formula is often written: wavelengthmeters
= 300,000/ freq.kc.; or wavelengthmeters = 300/freq.mc. Conversely, freq.cycles
Substituting a few figures in the formulas reveals that a 3750-kc. signal has a wavelength of 80 meters, a
7000-kc. signal have a wavelength of 42.86 meters, and a 15-meter wave has a frequency of 20,000 kc.
relationship between the frequency and the wavelength of a radio signal is of great practical importance in
designing transmitting antennas, which must be of a certain length* for best results for a given frequency. Also,
it is important that anyone planning to take an amateur examination be able to determine frequency when
wavelength is given, and vice versa, because all classes of amateur examinations contain questions requiring
knowledge of this kind.
* Usually an integral multiple of an electrical half-wavelength.