December 1931 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL
for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
It is hard to imagine a time when there
wasn't a vast network of highways connecting not just the interior of the continental
U.S., but also interconnecting all of the countries in North America. Just as
pioneers in covered wagons and on horseback forged the routes that became the
Oregon Trail in the early 19th century, so did teams of explorers, cartographers
and engineers do the heavy lifting in the early 20th century in establishing
the first defined roads for expediting the transportation of goods and persons
all up and down the continent's west coast. Radio operators were among the crews
of the International Pacific Highway (IPH) project. Heavy, bulky, and fragile
tube-based radio equipment was transported in vehicles equally bereft of adequate
facilities in the form of power and shock absorbing suspensions. This story
from a 1931 edition of the ARRL's QST magazine tells of harrowing experiences
in the jungles and mountains of South America, including very aggressive natives
and even bands of roving banditos. Reading the story conjures up thoughts of
of the Sierra Madre and famous "I don't have to show you any stinking badges"
Zepp antennas were the order of the day for successful QSOs
in just about any environment.
In the Field with IPH
By Bertram Sandham, W6VO
The author (extreme left) keeping the radio car from starting
back down the mountain as a bunch of Indians turn it around.
Photo by C. W. Martin, Los Angeles Times
peas: Working a W9 with woolen gloves in extreme cold at an elevation of 10,000
Weeks were spent cutting tracks for the expedition in jungles
such as this.
What a vicious look we gave those rugged and forbidding mountains that lay
to the leeward of the French liner as its bow tossed the miles aside between
Los Angeles harbor and EI Salvador. Beautiful indeed with its cities buried
in the mists of antiquity, but what an obstacle it all offered to the progress
of our expedition I I chose to have my cabin on the weather side of the vessel.
The first expedition which set out last year to explore the tentative route
for the International Pacific Highway, which will ultimately reach from Alaska
to Buenos Aires in Argentine, had sufficient troubles making progress over the
ox-cart trails and boulder strewn terrain, but it now seems a pleasant vacation
trip when paralleled with the vicissitudes that the party encountered on the
second expedition which began its trek from Mexico City January 25th and ended
at La Libertad, EI Salvador, May 1st.
The radio layout on this second trip was a vast improvement over that of
the first - at least in the physical make-up and added convenience. As was the
case with the first expedition, little advance notice was given for preparation
for the journey. The equipment was finished and installed only a few hours before
the expedition departed, and IPH was not on the air until we were in the field.
On the extreme right in the photograph is the transmitter, a 50-watt tube in
a t.p.t.g. circuit. The power supply rests in its bin in the upper left hand
corner and is one of the new products of Ralph Heintz' genius. This engine generator
unit furnishes 52 volts at 350 cycles as well as 10 volts for the filament.
This 400 watt machine is driven by a two cycle single cylinder engine and runs
as high as 4000 r.p.m. The unit weighs but 31 pounds complete. Below the engine
compartment is the frequency meter, and to the right of this the receiver using
three N tubes. The other compartments carry coils, vibroplex and other parts.
Forty and twenty meter Zepps were carried on a reel and hung to anything that
offered a support. Sometimes a tall building in a city offered an almost vertical
antenna while at other QRA's it was impossible to suspend it higher than ten
feet above ground; but it seemed to get out just as well even so.
The infernal inquisitiveness of the natives is the biggest bugaboo for the
operator on such a trip as this. The radio car must be near a street or road
in the city and its array of instruments quickly gathers the dark-skinned lads
and men who are nearby, while the racket made by the engine thoroughly advertises
the QRA to those not nearby and they come running like magic. At Tehuantepec,
in southern Mexico, some ambitious fellow started the game of "tapping." This
consisted of tapping someone else in the crowd and quickly withdrawing the hand
while the victim looked around in amazement to learn who had struck him. The
progress of this game grew like a sunflower with everyone tapping someone else
harder as time progressed. In a few moments they were falling all over the radio
car bumping against me as I was QSO a W9. A member of the party happened by
and came to my assistance by rushing to the mayor's office and returning with
soldiers. The excitement even brought the Mexican federal inspector to the scene
who asked to see my permit for using a radio transmitter in Mexico. Following
the QSO I had to conduct him to our hotel where among a ream of permits for
motion pictures, firearms and what not, I showed him the paper permitting the
radio work. He read this and left in great disappointment thinking that he was
indeed about to make a big haul.
While camped for the night in a dense jungle we had no other choice than
to camp with a forest single fire as our next door neighbor. This burned slowly
however, consuming dried leaves and dead trees. A dead tree nearby was silently
burning inside (unknown to us) and suddenly, as I was QSO W9EUU, the tree toppled
over missing the radio car by several yards and filling the air with ashes and
smoke that made the completion of the QSO a very difficult task.
After departing from the city of Juchitan, we were proceeding slowly over
a narrow sunken ox-cart trail that was grinding the rubber off the tires like
an emery wheel. A guide whom we had employed in this city rode in the first
car with the engineer. The cars were running about 300 feet apart due to the
dense dust when suddenly the guide appeared through a dust cloud holding his
revolver in his hand and running back toward the city as fast as "his feet would
carry him. He shouted "Hold-up" in Spanish as he passed our car. I stopped instantly
and started to open a compartment for my pistol when my riding companion shouted
to leave it there as we were covered. The brush along the road was filled with
rebel bandits with rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. We were ordered to drive
up to the other cars where the leader was ordering them looted. Our interpreter
however, talked with the leader at length, and we were fortunate to lose only
a few articles which the bandits were in immediate need of. These consisted
of a case of sardines, flashlights, ammunition, cigarettes, matches, etc. I
was thankful no part of the radio equipment was taken for the reason that I
might have to remain behind to teach "his nibs" the code. Some of the members
of the expedition were hazarding the thought that the bandits might follow us
and attack again while we were in camp. I added that they surely would if they
ate any of the sardines in the meantime. These we had purchased in Tehuantepec
and they were terrible. Our camp that night was made with a minimum of equipment
and we slept with our clothes on.
IPH was not on the air daily as on the first expedition. QSO's were had from
the principal cities and camps, but more amateurs were contacted than on the
previous trip. Very favorable signal reports were usually given, IPH being rarely
less than R6, several adding that the sigs compared favorably with those of
XDA. All districts except sixth and seventh were heard each time on the air.
The hours available for radio work seemed to be those when west coast signal
were not coming through.
Operating a radio transmitter on this type of an expedition, where there
is a different QRA nearly every day, is not what it is cracked up to be. In
the jungle it is no easy task to keep the car near camp and also have the Zepp
hanging in a reasonably clear space. The best tree was usually on the other
side of the river, necessitating the use of hip boots. In the small villages
there were but one story buildings. In the deep canyons, heavy mineralized cliffs
reduced signals to a whisper. The exhaust of the engine usually prohibited copying
signals that were less than R5 although the engine was placed on the opposite
side of the car at the end of a 25 foot cable. Added to this, the operator drove
the radio car - I mean tried to drive it. Boulders half the size of the car
covered the path, while the sides of mountains had to be scaled with 40 Indians
pulling on a tow rope. Then we had to wash our own clothes, put up and dismantle
camp, work on the cars, etc. A mosquito head net was necessary while QSO on
the transmitter as well as oil being rubbed on the back of the hands and neck.
A small fire was also kept running to keep the mosquitos, gnats and a thousand
other varieties of bugs at bay.
Skip and fading were continuously bad. Daily business was left hanging on
the hook many times due to this annoyance. One member of the expedition interested
himself with this phenomena and concluded that if the flat top of the Zepp had
an acute bend in it, the signals would be sent out in such a ghastly form that
Mr. Skip would hide when he saw them coming. To keep peace in camp the Zepp
was hung the following day with an acute hump in it, and lo! sigs were R8 and
no skip. This was no break for me. I had to tell him that it was worse than
About 15 miles were driven along the railroad right of way over mahogany
ties that were anything but straight. More than a dozen railroad bridges were
utilized to cross rivers too deep for fording. The brakes on one of the cars
locked as it endeavored to climb up over the rails onto the bed with a train
due in 15 minutes. The mechanic hurriedly disconnected all of the brake rods
but not before the train came hustling down the line. It stopped within a few
feet of the car while the engineer shook his fist from the cab window.
The passage of the cars from the city of Oaxaca to Tehuantepec, a distance
of seventy miles, consumed fifty days, the party working every day including
Sunday to move the cars over the 40 percent grades in the mountains. The Tehuantepec
River was crossed 88 times in 17 miles, about every third crossing requiring
block and tackle.
Rain governs the length of time that the expedition can remain in the field.
Rains began falling when we entered the republic of El Salvador so we headed
for the nearest port (La Libertad) and the cars were lightered out to the vessel
and we headed for home. A torrential downpour caught us high in the mountains
among the coffee plantations and, even though we used chains, the day will remain
indelible in my memory. Using low gear as a brake down a steep grade the front
wheels refused to respond to the steering wheel as I came to a curve. The front
wheels went over the cliff while the right rear fender struck a coffee tree
tearing the fender away from the running board but holding the car back from
a 1500 foot dive down to the river.
The political situations in Honduras and Nicaragua will strongly govern the
plans of the expedition for the third trip, which normally would depart again
next January to pick up the thread of the trail at El Salvador and proceed to
Panama if possible. Several hundred miles of jungle in Costa Rica must be progressed
through which there is not a vestige of a trail today.
Radio conditions for short wave transmission and reception between southern
Mexico or Central America and the Sixth U. S. District during our spring months
is atrocious. It proved so on this trip. An occasional QSO of the usual variety
was sandwiched in several times, but to get several hundred words of press for
newspapers and other messages off the hook daily is out of the question. Several
operators in the sixth district have related to me since my return to civilization
that they had heard operators in the ninth district give IPH R7 and R8 copying
me single, but the sixes in question were unable to hear my signals at all,
hunt and twist the dial as they might even though they knew I was on the air
at the moment. However, there was not a single exception encountered when an
amateur was contacted that he did not stand ready to take press and other messages
and forward them. Many, no doubt, did not handle traffic as a general rule but
all were ready to help IPH. One cannot realize what this means until buried
in the jungles or high in the barren mountains in terrific heat and has the
amateurs to depend upon to move the business.
I want to offer my sincere thanks
to all of them. Here are the stations with which successful contacts were made:
W9BPL W6EW W6DK W4AEV W8BOJ W9UM W8BJX W9CES W5BOL W2AHZ W1KM W8BUM W1ZZ OA4V
W4AEM W4AJD W4LM W8DNO W7AAT W5AB W6CYR W8ANO YN2XUF W5YW W6EPH W5AGG W4AEL
W4ABS W4BC W2BO NJ2PA W4SR TI3XA W9YL W5CE W6BKL W6DZD W6AHP W5HA W5VQ CM1BY
W9ID W4AKH W8BF W3JM W5QL W8BF W5LB W2BAK W2AHZ W9ETA W9EUU W4ALD W2DB W9DFT
Posted March 15, 2021
(updated from original post on 12/18/2012)