ray wright

I know I have one of his QSL cards in my archives.  I will try to find it and scan it here.  This is Ray Wright, WA7BSG, my Elmer.  I found out yesterday that he is now a silent key.  (I had just worked a commemorative station in Tuckerton, NJ, built with 1914 Goldschmidt alternators.  I remembered the dawn of my interest in early radio.  I Googled Ray.)  His obit said he loved teaching his kids and grandkids. He and his wife took in several foster-care children too.  I guess he liked helping people grow generally.  He made Morse code tapes for me, and he was the guy who came and administered my Novice exam as FCC examiner.  He talked hamming with me endlessly on the phone after that, he lent me two whole stations-worth of equipment, and he came over to do the dangerous antenna stringing. He even made sure I got the right ARRL book every Christmas. Where did that easy generosity come from?  I don’t know.  He must have been one of the Lord’s own.  I don’t think he was even aware he was being generous.  Nor did I, being just a kid.  Now I do.  I’m just heartsick.  But now’s my chance to learn from his example.

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Filed under the 1970's

amateur radio gets regulated

Titanic's radio room

You’ll know, if you’ve browsed back-issues of QST, that teenager Irving Vermilya was probably the first licensed ham operator in the United States.  He sat the exam at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, a place full of government operators he had tormented for several years from the powerful spark station in Mount Vernon, New York.  He ran it from power stolen from the tram line that ran near his house.  He was an enterprising lad, one of my heroes, really, and I’ll have much to say about him another time.

Here is the New York Times article (Dec. 15, 1912) that Irving probably saw, announcing the coming of license requirements, and opining that it was about time.  Which it probably was.  Amateurs really were numerous, and we got underfoot sometimes.

But the problem of the noisy ham was not straightforward.  In 1910 Outlook magazine had suggested windily that there were too many of us, and we disrupted the work of the navy and those nice Marconi men.  The public didn’t really know much about us, though.  Putnam’s magazine shrilled about how exhilarating it must be to sit upon “untold ohms of power.”  People could only be pleased by our legitimately good efforts in restoring civic communications during disasters, as we did in Michigan the next year after the famous windstorm.  That’s why Popular Mechanics was so tickled when Hiram Maxim finally set up a relaying league, for getting free messages across the country.  Unlicensed we may have been, but weren’t we also a sort of public service?  Didn’t we do things that the professionals did, only for free?

But it is true that we were raucous.  We didn’t even get along very well with each other.  There were on-air tirades in the early days, like e-mail discussion group flamings.  They were known to end in vandalism and broken noses.

It’s not clear how many of us there were.  In 1911, Electrical World said that you can count scores of antennas in every village.  One Boston manufacturer was selling 30 complete sets a month.  The New York Times in 1912 thought there must be several hundred thousand active amateurs in the country.  One doubts this, but there were enough of us to cause real trouble for commercial wireless systems, whose frequencies we shared.  Hugo Gernsback’s Wireless Association had a Blue Book by 1910, that listed 90 member stations; its print run for the second year was 30,000.  Collisions were inevitable.  After licensing began, the government began publishing a ‘callbook’ directory.  By 1916 there were over 10,000 legal operators in the country; its editors guessed that unlicensed receiving stations could number 150,000.

We were so noisy in the evenings that we barely heard each other sometimes.  An operator in Hayward, California, declared that for two hours after supper each night the town radio community was completely shut down by all the chatter.  By the ‘teens the situation was genuinely serious, and there were discussions of quiet hours, and special frequencies for relay work.  Sober operators believed in simple proscription of conversation altogether: radio was for message-handling, and not for anything else.

Our neighbors on the air didn’t like us much at all.  Nor did we like them, friendly ship operators aside.  Marconi men were pretty unpopular around 1909 for breaking everybody, which they could do by virtue of having powerful stations and a commercial near-monopoly.  The littler for-profit stations had been gobbled up by Marconi, mostly, like jelly beans for five or six years by now, and few of them remained.  On the other hand, a large wireless club in Chicago did treat with local commerce to share the air peaceably, and it worked well enough for a time.

It’s best not to overstate the amateur-commercial divide, though.  Or at least we shouldn’t represent it as a simple feud between amateur operators and professional ones.  For one thing, amateurs and professionals were often the same people.  Their day jobs and evening hobbies weren’t dissimilar, as it were.  (There was a funny turn on this theme for a while early on, when amateurs who were also land telegraphers turned up their noses at all the hobbyists’ clumsy Morse Code.)  For another thing, and this is related, youthful amateurs often grew into commercial operators.  And for another, the definitions of “amateur” and “commercial” (or at least “professional”) weren’t ever clear, except that the one activity didn’t involve a paycheck and the other did.  On the other hand, paychecks, and accountability to investors, and all these fiscal things, did inevitably make for a clash of cultures.  The war wasn’t between early hams and early radiotelegraphers, in other words.  It was between two ways of thinking that hadn’t matured into their enduring selves yet.  We’d never think it was all right to interfere with commerce now, as an amateur population.  Nor does commerce generally want us off the air.  But this social contract was not settled yet in 1912.  In another decade, broadcasting would emerge—that second commercial culture—and another kind of protracted interaction would have to take place until amateur and entertainment interests would reach stasis.  But not yet.

The government, of course, would be expected to settle things.  Not that business or amateur interests relished the idea at first.  Regulation was a dour and threatening affair.  Governments generally, and not just ours, were all worried about chaos on the air.   The 1903 wireless congress worried at the same subject again in Berlin in 1906.  In the United States, the naval interest in particular drove the movement for making laws, which often pointed right at us amateurs.  The military had suffered much from us, to be fair.  There had been fake distress calls.  there had been wars of profanity.  There were editorial letters about it all in Scientific American.  We also had better stations than the navy did (which could tune, for one thing), and often more powerful ones too, and we made up at least 80% of the on-air population.  We were probably better operators than the navy’s, too, actually.  They trained for two months, a lot less than a lot of us had.  The wireless companies had long complained of naval incompetence, in fact.  The navy’s code speed was about 10 words a minute, roughly half of our average by 1912.

There had been a good 28 bills introduced by 1912, some of which could affect us directly.  Just one of them passed, a harmless bit in 1910 about seagoing wireless, along with an amendment in 1912.  But amateurs were in trouble often.  In 1909 there was the Roberts Bill, sponsored by the navy, designed specifically to abolish us.  It was defeated by Marconi’s argument, oddly, that the navy and non-Marconi commercial interests (like United Wireless, its principal competitor) simply needed modern equipment with good tuners, which Marconi had, by virtue of its patent holdings, and was willing to sell.  Framers of other bills made more trouble for us by intentionally forgetting to include amateur radio as a category, which could have made us illegal by simple default: the Burke Wireless Bill of March 8, 1910, and the Depew Wireless bill of May 6 of the same year.  The Depew Bill nearly passed, but failed probably because of huge club lobbying.  The mighty Hugo Gernsback, for one, organized his Wireless Association for a torrent of protest mailings.  Against the navy’s charge of civilian eavesdropping on military secrets the amateurs pointed out the easy solution of communicating in cipher.  Another attack, the Alexander Bill, introduced on December 11, 1911, and sponsored by the navy and United Wireless, was wrestled to the ground only after heroic opposition by influential bodies like Armstrong’s Radio Club of America and the Wireless Association of Pennsylvania, headed by the Philadelphia blueblood B. Frank Rittenhouse.  Campaign rhetoricians sometimes brayed that, fear not, amateur radio could never be shut down.  But in 1917 it was.  Bills like these were dire threats indeed.

This was the early pattern, then.  The stupefying history of amateur-relevant radio legislation before the coming of broadcasting in the 1920’s reduces to a ten-year series of these formulaic attacks-and-repulses; and then came the Radio Act of 1912, a descendant of the Alexander Bill, that passed undoubtedly because of public horror over the way wireless had not saved more passengers on the Titanic that year.  It involved amateurs because not everyone was sure that we were always above suspicion of compromising maritime safety.  The London Times, the Literary Digest, and even President Taft, thought we had probably sent false dispatches about this stricken vessel, in fact.  Ham operators, in other words, had killed people on the Titanic, if indirectly.

The Act, the one that drove Irving Vermilya to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, distils to this:  everyone (including us) needs a license from the secretary of commerce and labor, President Taft’s old bailiwick; different classes of station have to stick to particular bands; and everyone has to pipe down when there’s a distress call.  (Because frequencies still overlapped for a time, you actually heard broadcasts stop occasionally in the 1920’s when ships got into trouble; and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds script from 1939 has us listening to lonely amateur CQ’s on a now-silent broadcast frequency.)  More broadly, amateurs could no longer use spark, its bandwidth being far too wide to accomodate everyone.  And finally, we could only transmit on 200 meters or less.  (Marconi, who may have been a force behind this legislation, was rid of us for good.  The navy moved to 600-1,600 meters, and he’d by now bought out the bulk of his competition.)  We complained loudly about the 200-and-down restriction, not realizing yet that signals propagate much, much farther there.  600 meters has opened recently in the United Kingdom as a novel special-interest band.  But it’s a short-range, season-dependent band.  People like me gather to it, but only so we can hear things close to the way Marconi heard them.

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Collegiate radio: Penn in 1910

This is the station of the Wireless Club of the University of Pennsylvania in January, 1910.  The Club had formed three months earlier, and already attracted more than 50 members.  City newspapers were following breathlessly, reporting night contact with the Hamptons, Cape Cod, the Philadelphia naval yard locally, and with numerous other collegiate stations.  In April the Club joined forces with friends at MIT and formed the Intercollegiate Wireless Association, attracting notes of interest from Cornell, Princeton, and seven other colleges.

You can see the Tesla ‘tank’ coil here, the spark gap in front, the condenser pile to the left, underneath what looks like a loose coupler.  To the right is the receiving apparatus, the nucleus of which is probably a ‘coherer’, on which I’ll do another post.

The Penn club still exists.  See its superb history page, with all its linked resources, here.

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loose coupling

This is a ‘loose coupler,’ or a ‘receiving transformer.’  It’s a modular component from the early ‘teens, whose function was to be the tuned circuit at the heart of a receiver.  It worked by sliding a primary and secondary coil past each other; you could add variable condensers for more precision.  A little telephone condenser filtered out RF noise.  The larger Loose Couplers were sometimes called “Arlington” types, because they could tune to the very long wavelengths for time signal reception, broadcast from Virginia.

This picture, with a lot better informed commentary than mine, comes from Henry Rogers’ absolutely magnificent online Western Historic Radio Museum.  If you’re serious about ham radio history, you should go start learning this site by heart.

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Filed under the 19-teens

the ‘quenched’ gap — a refinement of spark

The rotary spark gap manufacturers RF energy more smoothly than a static gap does, does not turn cantankerous when air temperature varies, and handles much, much higher power.  An efficiency limitation is the speed at which each spark dies.  One way of managing this was to conceive of a ‘synchronous’ rotary, about which more in a different post.  Another was to dispense with wheels, and quench the spark quickly across a series of stationary plates.  Here is a picture of such an apparatus, and an explanation of its operation as it was understood in 1916.  I’ve always thought it’s what I would have used as an Edwardian operator.  Those high-speed rotaries are alarming.  The ones they used on ships were the size of dinner plates — and as loud as automobiles.

This very fine video is the work of Anton Pankratov, at ‘CJSC Chip & Dip’, an electronics supplier in Moscow.

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spark gap transmitter in action

This breathtaking replica project — I’m too Youtube-primitive to figure out its creator’s name, or I’d give him well-deserved credit — shows what a ham station sounded like to its operator in about 1910.  This is ‘spark gap’ transmission.  Don’t confuse it with rotary spark transmission.  That was an innovation on this, a mechanical way to manufacture RF (‘radio frequency’) energy.  This is nothing more than a Tesla coil, whose arc causes radio noise, exactly the way lightning does.  Because their signals splattered across huge sections of the radio band, they were regulated out of existence quickly.

‘MESCO’ was an early supplier of amateur radio equipment, principally coils.  The condenser stack is small here.  Marconi’s transoceanic ones were the size of a small building.  There is a picture of this, in a superb paper, here, by Jack Belrose, VE2CV, explaining the physics that made spark work.  Marconi wasn’t sure what frequency (well, frequencies) he was transmitting on.  Nobody was very sure about their frequency, but it didn’t matter much.  The antennas were so out-of-tune, and often so overpowered, that they buzzed.  Kids could sit on your lawn of a quiet evening and copy your code from the arcing overhead.

Oh, the code here translates like this:


This is around 15 words per minute, slightly faster than average speed in 1910.

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rotary spark gap in action

Here is KB8WFH’s truly superb replica station, showing what a rotary spark gap transmitter would have sounded like for the man at the key.

What about how it sounded to listeners on the air?  For that, here is VK7RO’s tape recording of another re-creation project, this one probably from the 1960’s, under the aegis of the Antique Wireless Association.  It is meant to be what people heard on 600 meters in the early 1920’s.

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Filed under the 1920's

‘Springfield’ mystery solved by ham radio!

‘Springfield’ being the most common place-name in the United States (and Mrs. Spackman had us test this with an atlas in the 5th grade), the writers of ‘The Simpsons’ chose it for the place Homer’s family live.

Principal Skinner is a ham.  His callsign is WA3QIZ.  That 3 puts him in Pennsylvania, Maryland, or Delaware.  All three of those states have a Springfield.  (I looked on Google.)  Ha!

Almost Ha.  This call (now expired) really belonged to executive producer of the series, David Mirkin.  My original callsign is of the same vintage as his.  (It was WN7WXD.)  That makes him about my age.  I can’t think of a cooler job than one in which you can write in features of your life than this.  I did write for TV in the UK for a while.  I should have thought of doing this.

On http://www.qsl.net/kb9mwr/files/ham/cartoon/cartoon.html is a very good compendium of ham radio references in The Simpsons and other, less-funny cartoons.  It’s very good reading.  Sorry to say, television writers’ composite portrait of us amateurs is not especially flattering.  Oh well.  It’s still good reading.

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Filed under the 1980's

the demographics of repeaters

One of the new features on the amateur landscape in the 1970’s was repeaters.  We used them all over the 2-meter band and elsewhere, like on sunsoaked 10 meters.  This was to extend our range in bands where propagation was normally short, and also to overcome dampened atmospherics do to solar activity, and partly to make reasonable use of an accessable new technology.  Part of the repeater’s cachet was that we used them in space.  The Oscar 6 amateur satellite used 144 megahertz for uplink, and 27 megahertz for downlink.  At the American Radio Relay League’s national convention in Denver, in July of ’76, the kickoff event was the launch of a balloon-borne repeater on 146.16.  It was going to hit 100,000 feet.  That meant a range of several hundred miles, which was exciting on two meters.  Three co-channel repeaters agreed to shut down for the event.

There were fancy ways to use your repeater, too.  There was the autopatch, for one.  It worked by touch-tone keypad.  You’d connect with the public phone system, and make calls from your car.  Everyone could hear your conversations, of course.  And you weren’t supposed to make business calls or run personal errands.  Nor was it good form to use the system to circumnavigate long-distance tariffs.  Autopatch managers thought of this as bootlegging.  They were known to identify offenders by taping and analysing their tones.  Touch-tones were also a way to lock down your repeater.  Late in the ‘seventies, repeater group offered homemade tone-burst generators for their members, to use like on-air keys.  Simple crowding was another reason for touch-tone access.  In some cities repeaters were so dense that keying your microphone could activate more than one machine at a time, which was a chaotic situation on the air.

Repeater clubs, being local affairs, were hugely social.  What were they like?  The BRATS, or the 225 members of the Baltimore Radio Amateur Television Society, who ran W3DID/R, were a mid-sized example.  They encouraged participation from the technically-minded, so their repeater community got the reputation of guys in the know, and people flocked to join.  Their equipment, mostly homebrew, worked on 440 mhz., 2-meters, and 2.3Ghz., and could handle ATV and packet radio digital signals.  They held discussion nets every evening, with subjects rotating nightly among equipment-trading, message traffic, radioteletype, radiotelephone, some ham reading for the visually impaired, photography, DX, and general technical answer-man sessions.  They didn’t solicit new membership, but just answered when spontaneous inquiries came.  They stayed in synch with local club meetings, public service events, and local hamfests.  The point of the net was to have a little fun, promote local achievement, and just get friends talking.  I remember accessing Rocky Mountain repeaters variously from WA7SLG, the University of Utah’s amateur radio club.  Fun it was, and very buzzy.  It was an FM signal, so the fidelity was stereo-like.

Repeaters were numerous enough late in the ‘70’s that they warranted their own directory, and a whole new specialty publication from the League as well.  They were also powerful enough that the FCC wasn’t sure how to handle their legality.  We insisted, and so did amateur division chief, W4BW, luckily, that the machines generally ought to be allowed to function freely, that their every action need not be logged, that the periodic transmitter identification signal could be automatic, and that there be no reduction to power limits.  And repeaters were so immediately critical to the communications needs of entire communities of hams that whole municipalities, even metropolitan New York, set up repeater councils to manage them right.  The self-policing worked, much as the QRM agreements among clubs had cleaned up a lot of interference in the 1920’s.  People were surprised by the maturing effect of setting up a frivolous repeater and then finding huge numbers of operators relying on the machine.  In 20 years owners of servers and websites would pass through the same sobering moment.

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Filed under the 1970's

the coming eclipse of public service radio?

Amateur radio was probably at the peak of its popularity in the 1960’s.  The lay-public knew a lot about us because we were so big.  In popular culture you’d hear about the ham in neighborhood who had that big antenna thing and who talked to Timbuktu all the time.  And so we did.  And it was especially well known that we handled civil crises routinely.  We bailed out a lot of lives in Hurricane Carla in 1962, for example, the worst storm in Texas history.  Because we could do things like this, the Red Cross was happy as ever to renew its formal personnel-sharing arrangement with the American Radio Relay League, a pact which had been in place since 1940.   For our part, we trimmed our sails a bit.  The traffic-handling AREC and the NTS networks combined in 1964, to form the much more streamlined Amateur Radio Public Service Corps.  This was for peacetime work; there were special war plans in place, under the rubric ‘RACES’.

It wasn’t out of vanity (entirely) that hams hastened to stricken places.  Amateur radio was still sometimes genuinely necessary, in remote areas especially.  In New Zealand, 71 year-old ZL1ANI saved his own life by summoning help 35 miles off after he’d had a heart attack.  In Chile, CE3OX and CE3IW spent 18 hours working American stations to find (successfully at last) some rare plasma for a local 7-year-old hemophiliac who needed it.  Our ability to respond to trouble was so good that there were occasional false alarms.  WA4LQN listened one day while his QSO partner W5HTV mobile happened onto a crowd of people surrounding someone supine and wet on a river bank.  There were two minutes of silence while he jumped out of his car to offer the rescuers communications help.  Everything was fine.  He had gallantly interrupted a baptism.

Subtly, for all of this, our role in public service was beginning to change.  Perceptive observers could see that we were not going to be as crucial a channel of civil communications as we had been forever.  Some of us sensed this, judging by hectoring admonitions on magazine editorial pages to Stay the Public-service Course.  The process at work was probably not our slackening attitude toward service, so much as our awareness of the growing availability of new modes and pathways of communication.  There were some obvious signs of change, such as faced David T. Geiser, WA2ANU, assistant radio officer in Oneida County, New York, when he was charged with the task of setting up a CD station: it was to work on 10 and 11 meters.  The CB operators had gotten active lately in scouting for local trouble and finding help.  A less obvious clue to change was in our traffic numbers, the free messaging system that we offered like telegrams.  Yes, there were still ARRL radiogram forms zigzagging across the country.  But what of the 1964 peak in traffic net registry?  There were 709 of them on League books.  A year later it was down to 578.  Were we being displaced by CB, or by the humble telephone?  Perhaps it was a far-sighted amalgamation, of the NTS and the AREC.

Still, for the moment, public service was mostly our domain.  We were public-spirited in general.  The Single Sideband Radio Association in New York City troubled to donate a complete ham station to the St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, for example.  They’d already done the same for the Braille Technical Press.  For these last few years, anyway, our civil service ethic obtained just like it always had, in the same ponderous style that someone like the young David Sarnoff would know.  There was the Cosmo G. Galkins Memorial Award, for example, for Michigan hams who had done the most during the year for ham radio in their state.  Just that—even the name—would soon appear slightly antiquarian.  Things were changing.  Just listen to how Herman Munster has to justify his own on-air activity to his family.  (W6, by the way, is the right prefix for California.  The rest of that call sign is a carefully non-standard format, belonging you can bet to noone. )

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Filed under the 1960's