Sunday, June 2, 2013


So what brought me to this place over fifty years ago. How did it come to be that its second nature to sit in this chair, left hand going on its own to the tuning knob, right resting on its side with thumb and pointing finger straddling the paddles that will send waves leaping into the air and flying around the world? How did this place  become more at home to me than most my age would find in a recliner? Those would most understand it would probably find themselves just as comfortable sitting in a bass boat or riding in a golf cart or sitting in a duck or deer blind. But instead of hunting for fish or fowl, I am catching something else that flies through the air, just as elusive as the startled duck or doe. Instead of rifle or shotgun or fishing tackle and net, my "tools"  an assembly of aluminum in the air or a network of wires between the trees, an electronic version of the fisherman's net.

But back to the question at hand: How did this come about? It can truthfully, probably be traced back to something very unlikely: A tiny puff of smoke!

It was in the early 1950's in a farm house on Orchard Lane outside of Waco, Texas when I was about five years old and my dad was working two jobs and farming.( How did he do all that?) It was the fourth thing that occupied his time that had gotten my attention. I am not sure what had drawn him to electronics, with his farming background and chosen work as a carpenter. But he had used his GI Bill benefits earned with his service in World War II to enroll in a correspondence course in radio and tv repair. The early months of his reading and filling in exercise and exam papers had not caught my eye. But the first of many kit projects did: He was learning to solder.

It was not even a real working circuit that he was wiring up. It was simply a collection of resistors, capacitors, a potentiometer and wires on a white card that he had to assemble. And it was the thin, white smoke from the soldering iron that caught my eye. ( It was many years later reading through his course materials that I learned exactly what he had been doing). To a five-year-old, the handling of the iron, the threading of wires from the parts through the eyes of solder lugs held by screws in the corners of that white card, the touching of the silver strand of the solder and the puff of white smoke when the iron touched was mesmerizing.

But that was just the beginning. The next week, more boxes arrived in the mail with a shiny chassis and more mysterious parts and pieces. Among them a large light socket and glass cylinders he called "tubes" and more wire. He spent hours each night for about two weeks soldering parts and assembling strange things onto the chassis. Then there was the outside work: Him climbing on a ladder to the high peak of the side of the house attaching glass objects hanging off a hook screwed into the high peak, then running wires through trailing down the side of the house and in through the dining room window, and another stretching across the side yard and to a high pole he had stood up in our garden behind the garage. What was all this? It was more puzzling than watching the soldering and smoke.

The answer came a little later when he went inside, set the silver chassis up on the dining room table ( under the watchful eye of my mom who made sure there were towels under it so as not to scratch the table) with the mysterious wire attached to a clip on the back of this thing and another wire going out the window to a pipe he had driven into the ground.

Then he just sat there awhile, as if contemplating what was about to happen ( years later I would truly understand the pause before flipping the switch on each new project) Then there was a "click" as he turned one of the three knobs on the front of the contraption with the light bulb in the socket on top coming on and faint orange glows coming to life in the three "tubes" also plugged into sockets on the chassis.

I had goten the idea that perhaps this was a radio from the black cardboard panel on the front of the unit with a pointer that crossed a zero to on hundred scale in a half moon across the top. It was emblazoned with the capital letters "R.T.S." and trianglural antenna towers on each side. He had struggled mightily on a system of strings that went around one of the knob shafts and around a big drum on one of the parts mounted behind that cardboard panel. After watching the tubes come to full brilliance, he picked up something I had not noticed lying there before and placed a pair of headphones on his head, covering both ears. He adjusted the knobs then turned the one that caused the dial needle to move and a squeal loud enough to be heard across the room came from beneath the headphones. He turned one of the knobs and the squeal went away...and a smile came on his face.

"Here, listen to this," he said, taking the headphones off his head and placing them over my ears. I barely noticed that they were too big and slipped around and off my ears. I had reached up to hold them steady when they first slipped because I could immediately hear one of my favorite things coming out of those headphones: fiddle music! It was magic!

Hearing music come out of a radio was hardly magic to me anymore at that age. I spent many hours lying in front of our Silvertone console radio-record player with either records spinning or the radio playing. I had learned to find the radio stations that carried the things I liked, even though I was not yet able to read. I knew where the Cameron and Rockdale station was near the "13" on the dial for fiddle music, where the Marlin station was near the "10" for the kiddie stories in mid morning, where the Waco station was just past the "14" where the Lone Ranger could be heard.

But to hear music through the headphones was certainly a novelty. And to have them coming from something my dad had assembled and somehow connecting that to the wire "trapping" something from the air outside, well that was something else again. I was hooked.  I wanted to know how this worked. I wanted to do this myself. And as he tuned around and wrote down what he was hearing at different spots on the dial, I could not move as he talked.

"This one's from Waco, this one's from Mexia, this one's from Hillsboro, this one's from Temple, this one's from Dallas, this one's from Austin".  How did he know?

I wanted to turn the knob and find the stations and was allowed to do so for awhile. But only for awhile. There were concerns about touching something that might hurt me. I was told I could listen all I wanted on the "other radio"( which I found myself doing more and more, exploring the dial as I got older).

It was years later that I learned exactly what had been going on with that first real project. It was part of the correspondence course. There were to be a series of kits to be constructed, of increasing complexity, with things to be learned and experiments to be conducted to learn not only how radios worked, but the design of various circuits and how to repair them.

This first project had been a three tube simple radio. It was a regenerative receiver with one stage of audio amplification...just enough to drive headphones. The third tube was a rectifier for the power supply. There had been no power had been an ac/dc design with the filaments of the tubes across the incoming AC power line. The 25-watt light bulb had been for voltage dropping for the filaments of those tubes. The squeal had been from the radio being in full regeneration or oscillation as it was tuned across the first station heard with the regeneration control then being backed off enough to stop the oscillation and the squeal.

There would be more radios as part of the course, working up to a six-tube design that was really quite sensitive and selective for what it was. That receiver that would eventually be my first receiver with which to explore the short wave bands. But that would be five or so years in the future. For now, it was decided that if I wanted to tune around on a kit built radio, it should be one without exposed AC voltages and one that I could build myself without the danger of being burned by a soldering iron.

I actually found it myself the next year when I had learned enough to read in the Sears catalog. There it was. A beginners crystal set by Remco. It was a beauty, with a plastic cabinet, a simulated loop antenna on the top and its own headphones. And it was only $3.95. I had almost that much saved out of allowance and chore money. That was to be the real first step.

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