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Return of the Prodigal Ham
February 1955 Popular Electronics

February 1955 Popular Electronics

February 1955 Popular Electronics Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Electronics, published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

Here is another article about a "prodigal" Ham who returned to amateur radio after about a 30-something year respite, per this 1955 Popular Electronics magazine. Author Charles Meistroff's previous experience had been with surplus World War I - yes that's WWI! He must have been in Heaven to be able to now get his hands on all the new-fangled equipment now (then) available on the World War II surplus equipment market! I don't know if the military is still making surplus equipment available like they did even up through Korea and Vietnam. There must be some great stuff from the Middle East wars if it is circulating within the surplus market. Then again, other than ruggedness factors, most commercial equipment is as good or better than MIL-SPEC stuff.

An amateur who left the field some time ago tells of the early days and of his recent return to hamming.

 - RF CafeBy Charles L. Meistroff, W4TFA

Yeah, the old bug bit again, and this time it did a right good job; got me unexpectedly and really stuck. I doubt if even penicillin would have been of any use. Being away from ham radio for over twenty-six years and then coming back was really an experience. I had nothing to do that cool September afternoon except to enjoy the beginning of Indian summer and get some of that fresh ozone... to escape from the four walls of that nice hotel room.

I had just turned the corner near the hotel... the newsstand seemed to spring out of the ground and wave a profusion of multi-colored magazines at me ... what I saw gave me a jolt ... I mean a kw. jolt. "CQ," "QST," RADIO & TELEVISION NEWS, good gosh, were they still being published? Where have I been for all these past years? Then it happened as fast as lightning; I don't even remember doing it... out came some change, those radio gazettes were under my arm.

That night before turning in early, so I thought, I would give these old friends a once over. What a revelation that was! Man alive... what a new world! I thought I was reading something from Mars; ARC- 5's, RG8-U, BC-223's, GP-7, radar, pulsations, p.a. jammers; the names of some of the tubes sounded and ran like chemical formulas, some of the tubes looked like spark-plugs for a space ship. I was lost. It was like having a Model T Ford twenty-five years ago and not having a car in the mean-time, then going out to buy one of the modern-day streamliners. One would think you had to have a course in jet-training to get your driver's license. I know now how Rip van Winkle felt after that twenty-year sleep in the Catskills. And what had happened to two hundred meters? I was really con

fused. I was in a new world, old faces done over and more attractive with a new look and better working qualities. Everything seemed to be loaded with electronic vitamins. I almost expected the rosin core solder to have sulfa in it. Nothing fly-by-night, according to the ads--one had a very good choice of anything-better than the old days when you either had to make your own or else!

Gosh, I had quit dabbling in ham radio, or what might have been called that, about 1922. World War I put a temporary stop altogether to tinkering which began about 1912; much had been discovered, enlightenment followed experimentation and brought to use in the intervening years a new and shiny aspect of the old ether-wave theory, and to its primitive equipment, a brand new brilliance that was a Buck Rogers glow!

The war surplus in the aftermath of World War I was full of good bargains, if you could get your hands on them. The Western Electric VT 1 and VT 2, the J and E tubes of those early days were prized detector and amplifier or transmitter tubes. One article that I still remember was the old Crocker-Wheeler wind-driven motor generator, looking like a five-inch shell and fastened under the wings of the flying crates of those days. It was driven by an eight - or ten-inch propeller and gave three sets of voltages. I think one was 300 volts for plate, another, 6-12 for filaments, and another, 25 volts grid bias. A two-element tube acted as ballast tube or automatic rheostat, as it was called then, to keep the voltages to specifications. These were usually mounted on a 1 x 8 board and coupled with rubber hose to about a one-third or half horsepower motor and the whole usually suspended from the cellar beams. Results were excellent as long as the hose coupling lasted!

I had a flashback to the old days - rotary and stationary spark gaps, zinc electrode tips, the old saw-tooth type too, and the one with the rotating single disc, what an improvement that was! Poulsen arcs, over-size keys with dime-sized contacts that on the break would spark enough to knock the cold out of your nose and shake the nails out of your shoes. No one thought there was anything better than tuning through dead-end losses, pencil mark grid-leaks, eraser end verniers! No one bothered to figure out how capacitors measured in capacity, just so they had plates and came in varied sizes and shapes. Sometimes they used castor or mineral oil as a dielectric and were then put in a hard rubber case - remember the beauties that Murdock used to turn out? Remember the nice three-one Acme audio amplifier transformers? Those beautiful honeycomb coil mountings that de Forest gave us? The double-filament audion tubes that were mounted on the outside of the panel until Moorhead gave us the socket base? And mounting anything on a metal panel - man, you were called crazy. You grounded everything by doing that; that was nonsense. More came when Armstrong appeared on the scene with his tickler-feedback circuit. And then they started putting in more than four elements in the tubes-what next?

The receivers of those days were something to behold. That catalogue (The Electro-Importing Company) was a connoisseur's bible. Listed and shown in the collection were the masterpieces of the day. I raved and reveled in the Nauen receiver. How I wished I could afford one - all I could manage was an open primary with three sliders and small tap-off secondary pulled by hand. The usual deluxe receiver of those days was a squarish looking box with a side panel housing the so-called primary varied by means of a set of switches and taps from the coil, that ran single and multiple turns. The secondary was tube-winding with a similar single switch of multiple taps and slid on a set of rods inside the primary to provide tight or loose-couplings. When the variocouplers came out-what an improvement - no donkey en-gine was needed to couple or uncouple. The more switches and taps the better, we thought, since all tuning was done on a dead end loss anyway, and not by inductance being cut in or out. Who cared about the capacitive effects between turns? That was a negligible factor anyway and all guess-work to begin with. It was still experimental and probing into the mysteries of a.c. and its effects. Impedance, reactance, reluctance - these things were still items that had to be transposed into something - they had to be brought out into the open, pondered over, comprehended, and then transformed to what would make common sense and basic formulas. Guesswork was gradually eliminated, and a mathematical basis for the common laws and their applications was gradually evolved. The most part was hit or miss, then try again. Who ever heard of antennas cut to frequency? But it did not take long once the first obstacles were hurdled and the road opened for others to follow - success of resonant radiators were shown to be productive of results that not even the most skeptical ham or researcher could disregard. Remember that the greater part of all this was done by hams and carried on without personal compensation although a few companies were doing their own research. They departed little by little from the generally accepted idea of stringing up some wire and letting it go at that-once they overthrew that old theory, then things really began to happen. Don't think so? Look at your TV antennas today, not to mention the ten-, twenty-, and now they are coming with a forty-meter compensated beam-a new kind of a shorty, so the rumors say.

Even the old ether-wave theory had been exploded and with it all the old holdback basics were overthrown and discarded - with all ties to this cumbersome past severed and the background of old wives tales that stood for radio perceptions done away with, nothing could hold back the men who created the forward sweeping tide of advance and who could do more than just see to the limit of the horizon.

All this flashed across a newly opened mind that had been dormant to everything except the immediate daily needs and left the grand old hobby in mothballs. I grabbed at the newest surplus and started in again. The conversion was a good training sequence - it did not matter to me whether the darned thing would work or not - familiarity with old materials, tools, and handicrafts laid aside years ago had to be revived - old ham gear, secondhand commercial stuff, home-brew oddities, all helped to get back in stride again. It did not take long before the code difficulties were really manifest in a mind that had to cope with daily bread and butter, and the routine passing aggravations in living to contend with left one quite worn at the end of the day and in no condition to bang his head against the wall with code practice. The ice could not be broken that easily. WIAW, however, provided what first friendly help could not donate or make available to me. The exams were taken, but that code-the examiners were the swellest bunch, the most sympathetic fellows one could ever hope to meet and know - but passing that exam was up to me. You could feel their disappointment, as well as my own, in not passing. That 13 wpm was a personal problem and only I could get it. Then the door opened in a most unexpected manner - the Novice Class was made available and passing that and the Technician Class gave me what I had always needed, actual practice on the air in code to build up speed and get the actual feel of hamming. The most painful thing was not failing to pass the code test, but to read in the papers of little Joe Glutz Jr., seven-and-half-years-old, of Crotch Hollow, passing his General Class and then, when asked what he thought of the exam, saying with a toothless smile, "Aw, it was nuttin - it was easy."

It made me feel like a ... Finally, the constant plugging on the air got me my General Class ticket. Some men take to liquor, some to other men's wives, some to the hounds, and others to the parimutuels, but the ham - he is in a world by himself. He did not take to radio-it took him. It is not a vice in which money is thrown down a rat hole as in the old days - a money spending time-killer that took your dough on a load of junk to give you a tinkering hobby - all that has changed. I found instead that it had grown to a deadly serious business - the business of national welfare, defense, and big business.

Ham activities of today not only present a field for radio investors or a dump into which to throw and dispose of old electrical odds and ends, but provide the entire country with a tremendous reservoir of trained communication maintenance men, operators, radar technicians, and electronic seedlings that could be grown into scientific signal and intelligence fighters for the country. It takes time to train men to 15 wpm c. w., or as high-speed troubleshooters on equipment. Here was a backlog of readily-available reserves who could spring to attack or defense, either civilian or military; the same voluntary scientific leaders who in their younger days had given the world the basic principles of TV, the whip antenna, radar, v.h.f, and u.h.f. They were spread all over the country in a network that was alert to respond to any emergency; local, statewide, or national, through all efforts, combined, net or groups, and individual. The integration of ham activity in the MARS system is proof of this cooperation. CD is another bit of evidence. The voluntary experimentation for constant improvement and betterment of equipment and efficiency - the insatiable curiosity of the ham with the only compensation being personal satisfaction (in many cases the basic ideas were never patented but left to public domain), showing the self-sacrificing attitude of the ham-have not changed in these times.

Let us consider those who pioneered the trouble-shooting for TVI and the curbing of interference. That is something which cannot be forgotten and the never-ending strive for perfection is still being carried on by the ham. It is he who makes the first step in that direction - no one else.

It is the only hobby in which there is no knifing in the back of the other fellow for personal aggrandizement and gain; no exploitation or profit goals. It brings to a common stratum all walks of life, all human endeavor and the various professions and callings that earn a ham his daily bread - all are attracted by the one interest - ham radio. I am glad that I made it after such a long self-imposed exile, providing myself with a mental port in the daily storm, a retreat from the tensions of the day and above all a medium in which to meet and hold new friends in a common bond for mutual communion, not only nationally but universally. Let's hope, with God's help, to keep it that way. END



Posted November 11, 2022
(updated from original post on 8/19/2011)

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