Electronics World articles Popular Electronics articles QST articles Radio & TV News articles Radio-Craft articles Radio-Electronics articles Short Wave Craft articles Wireless World articles Google Search of RF Cafe website Sitemap Electronics Equations Mathematics Equations Equations physics Manufacturers & distributors LinkedIn Crosswords Engineering Humor Kirt's Cogitations RF Engineering Quizzes Notable Quotes Calculators Education Engineering Magazine Articles Engineering software RF Cafe Archives Magazine Sponsor RF Cafe Sponsor Links Saturday Evening Post NEETS EW Radar Handbook Microwave Museum About RF Cafe Aegis Power Systems Alliance Test Equipment Centric RF Empower RF ISOTEC Reactel RF Connector Technology San Francisco Circuits Anritsu Amplifier Solutions Anatech Electronics Axiom Test Equipment Conduct RF Copper Mountain Technologies Exodus Advanced Communications Innovative Power Products KR Filters LadyBug Technologies Rigol TotalTemp Technologies Werbel Microwave Windfreak Technologies Wireless Telecom Group Withwave RF Cafe Software Resources Vintage Magazines RF Cafe Software WhoIs entry for RF Cafe.com Thank you for visiting RF Cafe!
PCB Directory (Manufacturers)

ConductRF Phased Matched RF Cables - RF Cafe

Axiom Test Equipment - RF Cafe

Please Support RF Cafe by purchasing my  ridiculously low-priced products, all of which I created.

RF Cascade Workbook for Excel

RF & Electronics Symbols for Visio

RF & Electronics Symbols for Office

RF & Electronics Stencils for Visio

RF Workbench

T-Shirts, Mugs, Cups, Ball Caps, Mouse Pads

These Are Available for Free

Espresso Engineering Workbook™

Smith Chart™ for Excel

Anritsu Test Equipment - RF Cafe

The Skin Effect Talking Lightbeam
January 1939 Radio-Craft

January 1939 Radio-Craft

January 1939 Radio-Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

Modulating a light beam for secure communications was not a new concept is 1939 when Gerald Mosteller invented his device, but doing so with inexpensive equipment, using "outside-the-box" thinking, was new. Exploiting the relatively recently discovered physical phenomenon of "skin effect," his system used a specific range of frequencies to modulate the filament of a standard flashlight type incandescent light bulb that could effect temperature changes - and therefore intensity changes - rapidly and of significant amplitude to transmit information in the audio frequency range. Mr. Mosteller's contraption evolved as the result of a college thesis project. There does not exist a plethora of modern-day modulated light communications systems using incandescent bulbs as the source, so it is safe to assume insurmountable physical and/or financial obstacles prevented it from going mainstream. There are, of course, many modulated light communication devices in use, but primarily at infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The Skin Effect Talking Lightbeam

The Skin Effect Talking Lightbeam, January 1939 Radio-Craft - RF Cafe

Gerald Mosteller, University of Southern California graduate, is shown with a portion of his apparatus for sending sound over a lightbeam, using an ordinary 5-cent flashlight bulb and simplified radio parts. His discovery formed the thesis for his Master's degree at the University.

By Gerald Mosteller

The University of Southern California has cooperated in making available to Radio-Craft readers this first detailed description of the principle and equipment comprising the "skin-effect" lightbeam telephone discovery of a U. of S. C. graduate. Anyone can easily duplicate Mr. Mosteller's experiment.

A new means of transmitting sound over a beam of light by use of amplifiers and an ordinary 5-cent flashlight bulb constituted the writer's thesis, for his Master's degree at the University of Southern California last June.

This simplified form of sending music, voice and other sounds over a lightbeam, discovered during studies in Physics, has been the subject of experiments by scientific laboratories over the country with expensive equipment for a period of years.

Its use in secret communication by the army and navy, landing of airplanes with lights that penetrate fog, and adaptability by automobile races in communicating with their pits, are given among possibilities.

In contrast to radio communications, messages cannot be intercepted except by instruments set up directly in the beam of light. By using infra-red filters an invisible beam can be created which further prevents interception.

How it Works

By means of a radio-frequency oscillator and equipment similar to that of the ordinary home radio set, sound is amplified and the output caused to modulate the oscillator.

A "skin effect" is created on the surface of the light filament and instead of heating the entire filament as heretofore, the current travels along the surface . Thus the filament may change temperature fast enough to transmit sound.

Skin Effect

 - RF Cafe

The receiver consists of a photoelectric cell "detector" followed by 3 stages of A.F. amplification. Condenser C1 and resistors R3 and R4 are mounted directly behind the P.E. cell in the reflector.

 - RF Cafe

The transmitter consists of a speech amplifier, oscillator and ordinary flashlight bulb. The A.F.-modulated current flows along the surface of the filament (skin-effect) causing rapid fluctuations of the light intensity (which, in turn, are translated into intelligibility by the receiver).

Skin effect is a phenomena of alternating currents. The maximum inductive reactance in a wire or filament is at its axis. In general the inductance offered to other filaments of current decreases as the distance from the axis increases. Thus the current is distributed so that it is greatest near the surface. The heat generated by this current is proportional to the square of the current. The heat is radiated from the surface, conducted to the cooler center and used in raising the temperature of the filament.

The high-frequency alternating current (radio-frequency) causes the skin effect, the modulation of this current varies the surface temperature of the filament so that the light varies with the modulation. The conductivity of the metal carries the surface heat toward the center of the filament when the modulated current is great, thus allowing the surface to cool more rapidly so the radiation may follow the modulated current down. This improves the audio response at high frequencies.

A curve was drawn to show the advantage due to skin effect. It was shown as a percentage of the oscilloscope readings of a sine wave at some frequency compared with the reading at 768 cycles per second. This curve of the efficiency of lightbeam modulation was measured on an oscilloscope having its vertical sweep connected to the output of the receiver. The input to the oscilloscope was a beat-note oscillator connected to the transmitter.

A photoelectric cell is mounted in the focus of a parabolic reflector which may be made from an electric heater by removing the heating element. The particular heater purchased was selected after testing several because it concentrated rays from a distant light at a very small area. It is necessary that the rays focused by the parabola form a sharp-pointed cone of light which can get into the curved plate of the cell rather than hit on its outside edge.

Directly behind the cell is mounted a midget 0.01-mf. coupling condenser, C1; a 1-meg. resistor, R3, through which the cell receives its positive voltage and the 5-meg. resistor, R4, which is the grid resistor for the 1st tube. The shielding afforded by the metal reflector and the wire shield in front of it is enough for shielding these elements, however they might be further shielded to cut down A.C. hum by wrapping them in tinfoil and grounding the foil.

Similar phenomena have been developed before by means of high-voltage equipment and the use of cathode-ray and neon lights, but never before with simple equipment including the use of a "nickel" (5c) battery lamp.

The 12-meter grid coil is wound with 18 turns of No. 14 enamel-covered wire on an air core 2 x 1/2-in. inside dia. The 12-meter plate coil has 12 turns of E.C. wire on a 1 1/2 x 3/4-in. dia. air core; the coupling to the Mazda-lamp circuit is accomplished by means of a single turn of No. 14 E.C. wire around the center of the plate coil.

One position of the S.P.D.T. switch connects the mike through a 4 1/2 V. mike battery, the other cuts the battery out so a low-impedance phono pickup may be used. The single-button carbon mike used had low impedance.

List of Parts


  • One American type SB single-button carbon microphone, hand type;
  • One Yaxley No. 75 phone plug;
  • One Yaxley No.1 phone jack;
  • One H&H S.P.D.T. toggle switch;
  • One u:r.c. No. CS6 microphone input transformer;
  • One Aerovox No. PR25 condenser, 10 mf., 25 V.;
  • One Cornell-Dubilier electrolytic condenser, 4 mf., 450 V.;
  • One Yaxley No. M25MP volume control potentiometer, 0.25-meg.;
  • One I.R.C. type B1 carbon resistor, 1,250 ohms, 1 W.;
  • One I.R.C. type B1 carbon resistor, 1,500 ohms, 1 W.;
  • One U.T.C. No. C823 class B input transformer, 6A6 plates to two 6A6 grids;
  • One U.T.C. No. CSR modulation transformer, 6A6 plates to 30,000 ohms;
  • One Ohmite "Red Devil" resistor, 400 ohms, 10 W.;
  • One Aerovox type 484 tubular condenser, 0.001-mf.;
  • One National type R100 high-frequency R.F. choke;
  • One Cardwell "Midway" type MR50BD split-stator condenser, 50 mmf, both sections;
  • Three Sylvania type 6A6G tubes;
  • One Eveready "Mazda" spotlight reflector and light bulb;
  • One chassis and hardware;
  • One power supply, 450 V., 100 ma.;
  • Two 12-meter coils (see text).


  • One RCA PE. cell, No. 921;
  • One Aerovox No. 450 condenser, 0.01-mf., C1;
  • One Aerovox type 484 paper condenser, 1 mf., 400 V., C2;
  • Two Aerovox type PB25 electrolytic condensers, 25 mf., 25 V., C3, C5;
  • One Cornell-Dubilier electrolytic condenser, 8 mf., 200 V., C4;
  • Two Aerovox type 484 tubular condensers, 0.1-mf., 400 V., C6, C9;
  • One Aerovox type 484 tubular condenser, 0.003-mf., 400 V., C8;
  • One Yaxley L potentiometer, 0.1-meg., R;
  • Two I.R.C. B1 carbon resistors, 0.1-meg., 1 W., R1, R6;
  • One I.R.C. B1 carbon resistor, 75,000 ohms, 1 W., R2;
  • One I.R.C. B1/2 carbon resistor, 1 meg., 1/2-W., R3;
  • One I.R.C. B1/2 carbon resistor, 5 megs., 1/2-W., R4;
  • Two I.R.C. B1 carbon resistors, 2,250 ohms, 1 W., R5, R10;
  • One I.R.C. B1 carbon resistor, 0.25-meg., 1 W., R7;
  • One I.R.C. B1 carbon resistor, 20,000 ohms, 1 W., R8;
  • Two Yaxley type M potentiometers, 0.25-meg., R9 (volume control), R12 (tone control);
  • One I.R.C. B1 carbon resistor, 50,000 ohms, 1 W., R11;
  • One ohmite "Red Devil" resistor, 200 ohms, 10 W., R13;
  • Two Sylvania type 6J7 tubes;
  • Two Sylvania type 6F6 tubes;
  • One Thordarson tapped input choke, No. T7431;
  • One Wright DeCoster permanent-magnet magnetic loudspeaker, with output transformer to 6F6's in push-push class B; One power supply, 250 V., 80 ma.



Posted August 8, 2023
(updated from original post on 8/13/2015)

Anritsu Test Equipment - RF Cafe
withwave microwave devices - RF Cafe

Anatech Electronics RF Microwave Filters - RF Cafe

Innovative Power Products Passive RF Products - RF Cafe