February 1955 Popular Electronics
[Table 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
Here is another article about a "prodigal" Ham who returned
to Amateur Radio after about a 30-something year respite. 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.
Return of the Prodigal Ham
By Charles L. Meistroff, W4TFA
An amateur who left the field some time ago tells
of the early days and of his recent return to hamming.
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 meantime,
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-bynight, 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
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, oversize 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 revelled 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 tubewinding
with a similar single switch of multiple taps and slid on a
set of rods inside the primary to provide tight or loosecouplings.
When the variocouplers came out-what an improvement - no donkey
engine 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 guesswork 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 rathole 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 readilyavailable
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.