February 1943 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.
If you're a newcomer to the game, it may
seem that radio theory already has enough mystery without adding more. True, the
technical journals - even QST, sometimes - do make it a mysterious subject with
their textbook language and complex notations.
Radio isn't really any more mysterious or complex than many a detective story
- at least not after you've read the last page and know "who-dunit." The difference
lies in the method of presentation. There may be some utility, then, in the idea
of presenting radio fundamentals in the manner of detective fiction.
That's what this is - a series of radio lessons in the guise of a detective-mystery
yarn. Instead of human characters we'll use another kind - but we'll try to make
the characterizations true and the background and incident realistic. Our purpose
is to divert and entertain you, and perhaps amuse you a little. And if, by accident,
you happen to learn something from this series - if it helps to clarify your understanding
of basic radio theory - well, that's all right, too.
Enjoy this amazing electronics allegory was written by then-QST-editor
Clinton B. De Soto! You might also like another allegory which appeared in a 1965
issue of Popular Electronics titled, "She Wore a Red Germanium."
Who Killed the Signal?
A Radio Mystery Serial
By Clinton B. De Soto,* W1CBD
Chapter 1 - "The Thin Man"
The radio receiver stood silent and dark in
the dimly-lighted corner. In other days it had been a thing of vibrant life, its
ornate window brilliantly illuminated with a rich, golden glow. From its recesses
spoke miscellaneous voices - crisp, mellow, inveigling, brusque, authoritative,
shy. Sometimes the flute-like notes of code skittered brightly from its tightly-curtained
front, and now and then sparkling music poured forth melodiously.
But that was before. Now the receiver stood in forlorn neglect. Dust gathered
on its metal cover, and a spider spun suspension cables for his web between its
louvers and the wall. The receiver did not much care; indeed, it had no way of knowing.
For the heart had gone out of it. The Signal was dead.
That was the mystery the Great Sleuth faced when he was called in on the case
- who killed the Signal?
Even from the start it was apparent that this was one of the toughest cases of
his career. The Great Sleuth was an amateur, but that implied no reflection on his
ability. Any loyal detective-story reader knows that the amateur sleuths -from Sherlock
Holmes down to Nick Charles -are better than the professionals (and if, like Nick,
they are professionals turned amateur or vice versa, that only makes them better
Like any good detective, the first thing the Sleuth did was survey the scene
of the crime. Blowing the dust off the receiver's metal cover, he lifted the lid
and peered inside. It was of two-story construction. Upstairs, on top of the metal
floor called the chassis, lived the larger occupants - an odd assortment of characters
with equally odd names. These characters belonged neither to the animal nor vegetable
kingdoms, but to a special classification of fauna called "parts."
Most of these parts seemed to be members either of the Condenser or Transformer
families. There was Tuning Gang - he was the head of the Condenser family, of course
- and an up-right cousin called Filter. Then there were Power, Intermediate Frequency
(invariably called LF. by his buddies in the shop), and Audio Output - all Transformers.
Tuning Gang had a business associate named Tuning Dial who lived there with him.
Output Transformer lived in another small house nearby with his inseparable pal
A strange thing about the chassis set-up was that most of its occupants had very
little to do with each other directly. Instead, they had a flock of servants called
Tubes who carried things back and forth between them. These Tubes seemed to be everywhere
- half a dozen or more of them. Mostly they were dressed in neat black outfits,
but a couple of the biggest - Power Tube and Rectifier Tube - wore gleaming glass
Downstairs there was a motley collection of smaller characters. These the Sleuth
was at first inclined to dismiss, but he reflected that it is usually the most unsuspicious
character in a mystery story who turns out to be the guilty party, and so he looked
them over, too.
There were too many of these little fellows for
the Sleuth to remember all their names, but he noted that quite a few were lesser
members of the Condenser family - R.F. By-Pass, Mixer Coupling, Oscillator Trimmer
and so on. Most numerous of all were the Resistor family; there were dozens of these
tough little fellows. Over near the back there was a mysterious, solitary character
called Filter Choke. Finally there were a number of minor parts - Sockets, Switches,
Terminals, and in a corner a lean, Gary-Cooperish fellow called Power Cord and his
assistant, Power Plug.
One thing the Sleuth noticed was that a certain social order seemed to exist
among these parts. Most members of both the Resistor and Condenser families used
the title "Fixed" before their names, for example. The most distinguished, however,
were called" Variable" - approximately equivalent to "Honorable" as opposed to plain"
Mister," he supposed.
The Sleuth looked each part over carefully, but he saw none that seemed an obvious
suspect. Finally he called together his trusted assistants - Ohm Meter, Volt Meter,
and their attractive sister Milly AmMeter - and took them over into the corner.
There they held a conference in whispered tones.
It's one of those blanked color-coded Resistors, I'll bet," Ohm Meter muttered
before anyone else could speak. Sleuth listened tolerantly. Ohm was a mighty valuable
man, but quick to jump to conclusions. It was a toss-up as to whether he or Volt
Meter was the most valuable; but Sleuth knew he could count on either when he needed
to verify a connection. Milly was the one who gave him the most concern - she was
a sensitive creature, but she had little resistance and Sleuth was always afraid
that she would get mixed up with a load beyond her range and burn out.
"Now let's go at this thing in a logical way," Sleuth restrained them. Milly
was already beginning to tremble. "There are a lot of suspects here, and the only
way we can track down the guilty one is to investigate them one by one.
"First of all, though, we've got to decide if this really was murder. Could it
have been an accident - something like a loose connection, you know?"
"Well, there's the wiring -" Ohm said doubtfully. "But I'm a pretty good judge
of continuity and if there was anything wrong I'd know it. I can spot a bad joint
before I ever open the door!"
The Sleuth was pensive. "You're usually right,
at that," he said. "OK - for the present, at least. Now for the next point - how
do we know that it was an inside job? Could an out-sider have had anything to do
There was a moment's silence, and then all three started talking at once. The
Sleuth held up his hand. "All right - all right! I'll say it for you. There are
three entrances to the chassis, which means three places where an outsider might
have got to the Signal."
He counted on his fingers. "One, there's the outlet Power Cord uses to take in
the family power supply. Two, there's the cable path between the chassis and the
housing where Output Transformer and Loud Speaker live. Three, there's the little
service terminal where Antenna makes its deliveries."
"Which do we tackle first, boss?" Volt Meter asked alertly, his pointer quivering
"Might as well take them in order," Sleuth replied. "Let's have a talk with Power
Leaving the rest of the parts to wonder what was happening, they went over to
the rear of the chassis.
Power Cord was a thin, elongated character with a chocolate-brown complexion.
He was more than willing to talk.
"Sure, I knew the Signal was dead," he told them eagerly. "I knew it the minute
every-thing went quiet and all the noise stopped." He lowered his voice. "It all
sounds like noise to me," he added confidentially.
"Can you tell us anything more?" Sleuth asked.
"Well, I remember that about that same time the current stopped coming the way
it always did. I don't know for sure whether it was just then or a little later,
but it was about the same time."
"How did you know?"
"Why, I have to carry the current to the set," Power Cord answered in some surprise.
"Naturally I'd know when I didn't get any."
"That's your job, is it?" Sleuth asked. "To deliver current to the rest of the
"That's right. And it's an important job, too.
Why, they have to have that current in just the right cycles and everything.
If they don't get it - well" His voice dropped to a whisper. "Do you know what I
think? I think the Signal died from electron starvation, just because there wasn't
Sleuth looked at him carefully. "Maybe you'd better explain all about your job
here and the current and so on."
"Well," Power Cord began, "it's all very simple. This whole set here needs current
- no current, no play. Current is our food. It's all filled with little electrons
- vitamins, maybe you'd call 'em. You want me to tell about the electrons, too?"
The Sleuth nodded. Power Cord sighed, and said, "I guess I'll have to start from
the beginning then.
"Even if you don't know about electrons, you must have heard of molecules. They're
the the smallest units to which anything - wood, metal, water - can be broken down.
Everything is made up of molecules - I am, and you are, too. These molecules are
made up of various combinations of atoms, which are the basic chemical elements.
Every substance known is made up of various combinations of these atoms. There are
more than 90 varieties of them.
"That part's simple enough, but here's where
it gets tougher. When you try to go inside the atom in order to learn what it is
made of, you leave the field of solid physical matter and must think in terms of
force. For atoms are made up of electrons, and electrons, as you might guess from
their name, are nothing more or less than electrical charges -little bits or particles
of energy or force. Each atom contains a number of these electrons, together with
a nucleus; the electrons are believed to rotate about the nucleus much like the
planets about the sun.
"The nucleus, in turn, is made up largely of protons and neutrons. The protons
are the op-posite of electrons; they have a positive charge, while the electrons
have a negative charge. There is also a large difference in the mass of the two
- the proton being about 1860 times heavier than the electron. The neutron has the
same mass as the proton but has no charge."
"That's all well enough, but what has it to do with who killed the Signal?" Ohm
Meter interrupted impatiently.
"Plenty - wait and see," Power Cord re-plied. The Signal was no different from
the rest of us - it was made up of electrons, too. And it needed more electrons
all the time to live. You see, the Signal was an electric current."
"All right then? You've been talking about it enough."
"I'll explain it this way. You might know that when two permanent magnets are
placed together with the north and south poles facing they exert a mutual attraction.
In the same way, a positively-charged nucleus attracts negatively-charged electrons.
In many substances the attraction is so great that the electrons are rigidly held
and can be knocked off only with great difficulty. In other substances, however,
the electrons are not so strongly attracted, and it is fairly easy to knock them
off. If an electron is dislodged from an atom in one of these sub-stances, this
atom in turn attracts a new electron from a neighbor, and the neighbor from its
neighbor down the line, and so a regular chain of motion is set up. This motion
of the . electrons is called electric current."
"Hmmph." Volt Meter seemed out of his element, but Milly's response could be
read on her face.
"Now," Power Cord continued, ','you'll have noticed that only in some substances
did I say that this movement of electrons occurred with relatively little resistance.
Such substances are known as conductors, because they find it easy to conduct electric
current. These materials include most of the metals, especially silver, copper,
aluminum and steel. I'm made of copper inside and I'm a conductor," he asserted
"In other substances the electrons are so firmly fixed in their atoms that they
can be moved only with great difficulty, and little or no electric current can flow.
Such materials are known as dielectrics or insulators. They are useful, too, because
they can be used to insulate electric currents by being placed between the conductors
of those currents. Bakelite, ceramics, wood, rubber, air - these are good insulators.
My skin is rubber, you see, and these other parts around here wear some of the other
insulators such as Bakelite and ceramics."
The Sleuth's face was impassive. "That's all very interesting, but I don't see
that it gets us anywhere," he replied. But Milly begged, "Tell us more about the
"Oh, yes. Well, as I was saying, there are two
kinds of current. There's direct current, or d.c., which means that the electrons
move steadily in one direction. Not in a constant stream, you understand, but jumping
from one atom to the next and knocking other electrons loose when they land.
"D.c. is useful enough in its way. Lots of parts can't live without it. But it's
not II:s readily available as a.c. - you have to get it from things like batteries
and generators, you know - and so the kind of power we get to start with is a.c.
For those that need it we make d.c. from the a.c."
" Tell us about a.c.," Sleuth commanded.
"A.c. is alternating current. That's the kind I carried. In it electrons change
direction all the time, at regular intervals. At one instant the current flows in
one direction and at another instant in the opposite direction. Of course, when
the current changes direction the polarity reverses from positive to negative or
vice versa. Each complete change of direction - from plus to minus, say, and back
again - is called a cycle. The rate at which it changes is known as the frequency
of the current. The polarity of the house-lighting current they get from me re-verses
120. times each second; that makes its frequency 60. cycles per second."
"And the Signal has to have this kind of current to live?" the Sleuth asked.
"Well, not exactly," Power Cord hedged. "But the set has to be supplied with
it to keep the Signal alive."
"However, you claim it was because the current was no longer available that the
Signal died," Sleuth persisted.
"I do," Power Cord answered firmly.
The Sleuth pounced. " Well, then, since it was your job to deliver this current
and you didn't do it, you're responsible for the Signal's death!" he charged.
Power Cord writhed in denial. "Oh, but you don't understand," he wailed. "It
wasn't my fault that I couldn't deliver the current. I just couldn't get any. There
wasn't any coming from the wall outlet!"
"How do you explain that?" Sleuth probed. "I can't," Power Cord answered in a
defeated tone. "It always was there, as much as was needed. Before this I was always
charged up full, ready to conduct whenever A.C. Switch up there closed the circuit."
There was silence for a moment. Then a speculative look came over Volt Meter's
face. Suddenly he jumped up.
"I think I've got it," he announced. "If Power Cord isn't lying, there's only
one reason why he hasn't been getting enough electrons to feed the set. That's because
a certain part hasn't been doing his job!"
A few seconds later he returned, dragging a prisoner behind him. It was Power
Cord's squat little helper, Power Plug. "Do you know what?" Volt demanded. "This
fellow wasn't even in his socket. He was lying on the floor taking a nap!"
"Hmmm!" The Sleuth glared sternly. "Maybe not murder, but certainly manslaughter.
What have you got to say for your-self? "
"P-please, mister, it's not my fault," Power Plug whimpered pleadingly. "The
Signal was already dead when I left my receptacle. Honest - I would never have left
The Sleuth looked at him keenly. "Well, there's one way to find out. Go down
there and plug yourself in, Plug, and we'll see. Volt, you'd better go with him."
A few moments later Power Cord seemed to come to life again. "The current - there's
the current!" he shouted, "Hey, up there - you A.C. Switch. Close yourself and let's
Twenty seconds later his face fell again. "It's no use," he said. "The set still
doesn't work. See - Dial Light is the only one doing a blessed thing."
When he returned, Volt's steps were dragging. "Nothing happened, eh? I thought
so, when I didn't hear any noise. Guess this fellow was telling the truth at that."
Volt was thoroughly dejected.
But Sleuth wasn't discouraged. " A thing like that can happen in the best of
circuits," he said kindly. "We'll just have to look a little further."
(To be Continued.)
Posted August 12, 2019
(updated from original post on 2/16/2011)