An Old Spark Soliloquizes
1931 QST Article
it has been a while since you read a story with terms and phrases like
"splinters of galena," "the day of the tuning coil that stretched from
the front bedroom to the back library; or from the attic to the cellar,"
and "Ether God," then this article from the December 1931 edition of
QST is for you. Galena, by the way, is a semiconductor with a bandgap
of about 0.4 eV that was used as the crystal in crystal radio sets.
It was used as a point-contact diode along with a safety pin or similar
sharp wire, commonly known as a "cat's whisker".
December 1931 QST
These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the
ARRL's QST magazine. Here is a list of the
QST articles I have already posted. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged.
See all available
vintage QST articles.
An Old Spark Soliloquizes
By Earnest Sinclair Hook, W3IY
Last night I was urged
to visit a friend's house in in the city. I say "urged" because I was
sad and alone. My thoughts had scampered back into the happy years that
have gone forever. And there I met a strange man, a man of queer mien,
a man of mystery - and sorrow: a pioneer ham.
I hope that
it will prove interesting, even if not instructive, to those who only
lately have been bitten by the Radio Bug, to hear about some of the
terrible difficulties that beset the path of the beginner in those good
old days (now with "Yesterday's Seven Thousand Years") when wireless
first "took to wing" and traveled to - ah! Where?
too, 'twill be of some solace to those neglected wives of today to hear
of those old hams who left their better halves to pine away alone and
then took to brooding and stewing among the coiled wires and tested
crystals of the isolated wireless room.
As I remember
it (although I must confess that the events are but hazy spots on a
dim and fading horizon) the very first step of the Fiend was to get
an antenna erected, by fair means or foul.
the overcoming of many problems and great obstacles. There was one little
fellow whose most disconcerting set-back was his father's refusal to
allow his "insane" son to put nail holes in the family roof.
A problem of this nature was the real test of the "fan." This was the
time for earnest argument and sincere coercion - if the rank of ether
pounder was to be achieved. But it soon made itself manifest, in this
mentioned case, that the only alternative would be to use rubber nails;
or else, erect the aerial in the regular way, while father was at work,
and have it greet the astounded paternal gaze when, too late, he returned
home. I suppose that it is quite unnecessary for me to say that the
antenna was put up and was proudly floating in the breeze, on the highest
pinnacle of the domicile, when Pop came home for supper. It happened,
once in a great while, that some lucky fellow would have the good fortune
to have his father's permission to "go ahead" with the work of destruction.
If so, the lad was lauded and praised - and "great would be the distance
If the wash boiler escaped the hawk-like eye of the
outfit builder who was looking around the place for something to bury
for a good ground connection, you may be sure that an equally good substitute
already had been found and quickly buried.
Then came those
long, tireless trips among the second-hand and junk dealers in the town.
Great, massive, discarded switches of long ago were dug from beneath
the rubbish of ages and converted into lightning change-overs that could
be screwed beneath the newly-painted window sill - as a further means
of changing father's idea of what the house should look like to the
the antenna and ground had been accomplished - with many holes in the
roof, risk of life and limb and the moving of mother's flower bed to
accommodate the tank or "what have you" there was the set to build.
This was purely a matter of experiment, practice, an eye
for adaptability and gall - for even the salt boxes and bird seed containers
were unsafe around the Fiend.
Alas! This was the
day of the tuning coil that stretched from the front bedroom to the
back library; or from the attic to the cellar, depending only on the
experimenter's idea of efficiency, and disregarding entirely household
arrangement and bodily hazard. It was necessary, oh Ether God, if Nauen
was to be heard on the long wave.
The detector was a piece to
be pondered over. Acid spilled on the new rug was only an incident;
splinters of galena and silicon in Pop's feet an accident; the disappearance
of Ma's platinum pin (from her breast pin) a mystery. Of course there
was the piece of pet galena (Arlington tested) worth its weight in gold
and prized more highly than the precious yellow metal; and there was
the carefully filed brass contact - delicately laid away.
condensers were attempted - but few indeed were the fortunate fellows
who could make one. Those who could do so were of the First Order and
their praises were sung far and near.
The intricacies of the
manufacture of the condenser made it necessary to save pennies; and
it always proved to be a red-letter day when enough had accumulated
in the little tin box to send off to the Whosit company of Wheresit,
makers of "high-grade wireless specialties," for one of their guaranteed
Fixed condensers were a "pipe" and
consisted of almost any old thing around the shack that was not tacked
down. There were all sorts of shapes, sizes and degrees brought about
by the using of tobacco foil and various other odds and ends.
borrowed or stolen, were the headphones, always; often, conveniently
"lost." Per-force, in the beginning, the telephone companies suffered
the losses, for the Fiend was desperate where constructive skill was
insufficient to fill his needs.
I almost forgot to mention the
aerial lead-in bushing! The memory is a dark spot on the vista of the
past. An accidental push on the window pane or a quick drill through
the newly-papered wall of the room always brought its reward.
Overlooking the neglected wives, these were the days of distracted
mothers and furious fathers. But it is rather hard to forget those martyred
women of the stirring pioneer days of the ether. How pathetic was the
case of Mrs. X whose husband, an old fellow who had been married so
long that he was beginning to like it, left her to knit alone while
he (after being gored by the wireless bull) lost all interest in matrimony
and began to wind tuning coils and cover her fruit jars to use them
for transmitting condensers.
The transmitter! The beginning
was always attempted with a Ford Coil. These little ether microbes caused
more naval wireless operators and government inspectors to take to drink
than any other known reason.
From these squeak boxes the next
step was a transformer, home-made or otherwise, of great size - the
bigger the better; for show and efficiency was close kin.
those transformers! When the key was depressed, there was a mighty roar
that shook the house; and a blue, flaming spark that shot raspingly
between the electrodes and sent its pale light over the drawn features
of the Fiend at the throttle. Neighbors ran frantically to father, complaining
that their lights were dimming to darkness, and the telephone and power
companies sent crews of men rushing to the scene of the crime.
Such great strains punctured the adolescent condenser; which meant
that more jars must he "procured" from the pantry and hastily covered
to replace the cracked ones.
followed burnt-out meters, kick-backs and ruined house wiring; but the
"work" went on, and on, and on - into the dawn. There were hollowed
eyes, pale cheeks and thinly covered, meatless frames, and endless energy
expended; and Static and Regulations and Radio Clubs to be reckoned
with. But perseverance, eventually, brought forth success; and one night
the time signals from NAA could be heard, and on another evening the
fruit jar condensers would hold together long enough to blast forth
a mighty "QST" (meaning, "If anyone hears this, for Pete's sake let
me know") on only Allah knew just what wavelength!
So you wives
of today, whose husbands have been sacrificed before the God of the
Ether, and those of you who are just entering the Mystic Spell, take
heed. Should there be a stranger in your midst some evening, who is
a bit bored when you snap on the gold-plated switch of your highly polished
living room radio set, and who acts queerly when some honey-voiced announcer
purrs forth his silly twattle, pay him homage and deep respect - and
turn-off the "music box."...
For he is
One of the Ether
An old-time pioneer;
He came with the first,
And, oh, how he cursed
And it's still here.