There are some great ham history blogs out there, and many have found this gem already. It’s a short, one of many, by Pete Smith, publicity man for MGM and father of the film’s technical advisor, Douglas Smith. He takes up the cause of young people’s technical sophistication and enthusiasm for public service. He’s justified in doing so, for homebrew stations like this one did impressive work in disaster-relief and rescue missions. They wouldn’t have said ‘broadcasting’; they’d have said ‘transmitting’. And hams didn’t say ‘Mayday’, as a rule; it was more likely the in-house standard, ‘QRRR’. Communications for 5,000 miles was routine by 1939; 15,000? well, that’s still a stretch for a lot of us. Morse Code operators were all using a more efficient ‘continuous wave’ technique than they’d had 20 years before (which you can hear here when young sir tunes across the band); likewise the ‘phone operators, who had largely abandoned the old AM way of modulating carrier waves for a sleeker ‘single-sideband’ way. What does the code say in this soundtrack? ‘NO LUCK STAND BY NO LUCK STAND BY AR K’. (AR, sent together, as one letter, means that’s all the message; K means ‘over’.) Then, ‘STILL SEARCHING WX BAD AR K’. (WX is weather.) Then, ‘WX WORSE NO SIGN OF PLANE AR K’. Then, ‘OUT OF STORM PLANE FOUND’. And finally, ‘PLANE LOCATION LONG 73 WIII LAT 41 NIII OUT OF GASFALA’. That’s how I copy it, anyway. By the way, radio operators in airplanes, and tanks in WWII, used keys strapped to their knees. Know who else used them? Truck drivers, in the 1970’s. There’s some trivia for you.
Category Archives: the 1930’s
Won’t make the obvious parallel here, in this beautiful scene involving hip adolescents and their befuddled elder. This is Mickey Rooney declaring (and not for the only time in his movies) the power of technically-empowered youth culture, ‘all over the world’. Kids were one of the big demographic groups in amateur radio early in the century. Here, Youth elides with the public service ethic, another powerful strand in hams’ self-understanding. There were formal and informal traffic nets always listening for messages that needed delivering. The government allowed licenses to transmit on short waves precisely because amateur radio had been enshrined in successive legislation as a service, for emergency backup of public communications infrastructure. The licenses were a good idea, too, because the equipment was high-powered, and in the 1930’s usually homemade. See the heavy loading coil on the back of that transmitter? Notice the two-gang switch the kid uses, and how gingerly he handles it? Operating these rigs was not a trivial skill. Nor was avoiding government and broadcast interference. The technical advice behind this clip was good. W8XCR (Michigan, or thereabouts) and VE3AVS (Ontario) are exactly the right formats for callsigns. (One of these is currently in use, as a matter of fact.) ‘CQ’ is used differently these days, but ’73’ still means ‘best wishes’ and ‘DX’ still refers to long-distance contact. ‘Ham’ is probably old rail telegrapher slang for poor operator. Amateurs were using the term on the air at the very beginning of the century.