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An Old Spark Soliloquizes
December 1931 QST

December 1931 QST

December 1931 QST  Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

If 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." In fact, the very first transistor developed by Drs. Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain used two cat's whisker type contacts on their crystals of germanium.

An Old Spark Soliloquizes

The Ham's antenna was put up in the "regular" way - RF CafeBy 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?

Perhaps, 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.

This incurred 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 thereof."

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 neighbors.

Amtaeur radio guy using electromagnet to retrieve object from sink drain - RF CafeAfter 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.

Variable 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 "non-rubbing" variables.

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.

Ham headphones begged, borrowed, or stolen - RF CafeBegged, 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.

Oh, 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.

Ham knocks out power in the neighborhood - RF CafeThen 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 Brotherhood,

An old-time pioneer;

He came with the first,

And, oh, how he cursed

The Static-

And it's still here.

(Without apologies)



Posted July 23, 2019
(updated from original post on 10/18/2012)

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RF Cafe began life in 1996 as "RF Tools" in an AOL screen name web space totaling 2 MB. Its primary purpose was to provide me with ready access to commonly needed formulas and reference material while performing my work as an RF system and circuit design engineer. The World Wide Web (Internet) was largely an unknown entity at the time and bandwidth was a scarce commodity. Dial-up modems blazed along at 14.4 kbps while tying up your telephone line, and a nice lady's voice announced "You've Got Mail" when a new message arrived...

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