Monday, July 8, 2013

First Shortwave DX

The first night with  short wave receiver controls in my hands is still most memorable, after more than fifty years. After a bit of a rushed dinner, I came back in to my room with the newly operational receiver. There was still no real frequency calibration. The medium wave dial on the basic receiver was just calibrated 0-100 as was the tuning dial of the single tube HF converter that fed into it at about 1620 kc(still using the old abbreviation because that was what was used at this time).

From the first few hours of exploring the dial I knew that on the AM or medium wave dial, 1620 kc was about 92 on the dial. I knew that WWV at 10 mc was about 48 on the converter dial. That was where we were beginning.

I had planned to start on 31 meters and do a band sweep just like I had been doing on the Standard Broadcast Band. That is, start at one end of the band and stop and identify each station along the way. There were a few problems with that I was to quickly learn about. Short wave stations did not fully identify nearly as often as US broadcast stations. They were in languages that I did not begin to understand ( though I had begun to be able to pull out the Mexican station slogans to help identify them while exploring the standard broadcast band). Most important, I did not have a good list of stations other than an almost year old copy of the shortwave list from White's Radio Log that came in the back of radio-TV Experimenter Magazine. It would also be hard to use my “ count the carrier” method of tracking what frequency I was on like I did on the broadcast band because I did not have any “beacon” stations that I knew the frequencies of and also these stations were not uniformly 10 kc apart like on the US broadcast band. They might be five, might be ten apart, there might be gaps, some stations might be so strong and the selectivity of the receiver not so good that it could be hard to keep track.

But I was listening to shortwave for the first time in the dark with a fairly good antenna. It was my seventy foot longwire suspended between two 20-foot-tall two -by-four masts in the back yard, with the antenna made of wire taken from the field windings of a burned out 1951 Chevy pickup generator. None of the shortcomings or problems really mattered!

So the plan rapidly changed to starting at the top of the band with the first station I heard coming down frequency from WWV and then stop at the English speaking stations. I did have a little help. There was an Electronics Illustrated Magazine article about English Language news broadcasts with a few stations listed as examples.

I had a four inch speaker fed by the radio. The “ enclosure” was a six inch cube cardboard box that a shipment of parts for a correspondence course kit had come in. My dad had mounted that speaker in the box when he first built the broadcast part of the receiver when taking that correspondence course almost ten years before. It was nothing fancy, but then the radio wasn't anything fancy either.

As the first official band sweep began, it became clear this was not going to be easy. I tuned slowly past several stations in Spanish or German or French. It also became obvious that the 31 meter band was much more crowded at night than in the day and that the receiver was not very selective. The heterodynes were horrendous. But I did not know any better and just put up with it. After about ten minutes of what would have appeared to any seasoned DX-er as excrutiatingly slow tuning, I came upon a station playing an English language hymn, followed by what was obviously a religious broadcast. My first DX was about to be a historic station that I am sure many SWL's had in their logs very early: HCJB, The Voice of the Andes from Quito, Ecuador.

HCJB became more than a DX target over the years, becoming a good friend to listen to, not only for their general program content but their positive on the air attitude and great DX programs. Many years later while working on building a transmitter site in Laredo, Texas I discovered the same group had an FM outlet there. I visited the station and was given a copy of a book about the history of HCJB, their origins and growth in South America that was a truly amazing read. The book is called “Seeds in the Wind” and would be worth anyone's time to hunt for a copy! Also as an aside, the invention of the cubical quad antenna is credited to one of their engineers who was looking for a way to deal with high voltage corona discharges causing damage to their antennas in the high altitude.

But back to the story at hand. After about a half hour of listening to HCJB another problem with the receiver became evident: frequency drift! During that half hour, the tuning had to be touched up two or three times to stay on frequency! Experience soon taught me that it would drift around quite a bit until temperatures stabilized and after an hour or so, it would settle down. This was a problem with several basic designs of even the commercial variety that had simple power supplies operating transformerless directly off the power line.

Further tuning around that night brought the first transatlantic DX of any kind for me: The strong signal from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The wonderful music and strong signal soon became another good friend. It also triggered the first of many runs down the hall to yell at my folks:

” hey, come in here and listen to what I found!” They got used to that over the coming days and weeks.

Others found that night included my first reception of the BBC from London, the strongly anti- communist broadcasts from The Voice of the West in Lisbon, Portugal and Radio Sofia, Bulgaria.

There were several Voice of America transmissions in different languages that were heard and what must have been The Deutsche Welle with strong signals in German, though I did not know it at the time.

There was something about the sounds of the signals coming in that really cemented my interest in the hobby. It was the fading effects, I think, that actually did it, especially on some of the stations I could not at that time identify. You know the sound if you have tuned the bands any length of time at all, a sound that will never be heard on the all-too-clean internet feeds of programs today. Those may as well have come from the next room. It is the sound of selective fading, that “swishy” phase shifting sound as first the lower sideband, then the carrier, then the upper sideband take a dip. This is probably the result of reception via multiple paths off the ionosphere. There is also the slight echo and flutter effects of signals taking the polar route and being bounced about in the auroral zone. It adds something to the mystery and exotic appeal of hearing stations from around the world without the benefit of interconnecting wires or networks.

The DX hook was set!

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