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Radio and electronics

Radio and electronics has such a nice ring to it.  I remember being shown by my grandmother, how to tune this giant radio she had.  It was in a huge cabinet and at my eye level I could look right at the big semi circle dial with lots of lines.  There was a knob that I could turn and it would move a needle behind the dial.   There was another knob that clicked and turned on a light inside the box, then, sounds would come from the box.  Sometimes I could make music come from the box, other times it would just hiss or crackle and then there were people talking that I couldn’t understand.  Weirdest of all were these tones that would come on and off, sometime really fast, sometimes slow.   I wanted to know lots more about this box!

Years later, I had a transistor radio and I of course dropped it and broke it. I opened it up and inside was a universe of little things mounted on a board.  Back I went to the library and learned how to recognized the resistors, capacitors, transistors, loop antenna, rheostat, tuning capacitor and had no idea how it all worked together but I did know everything had to be connected.  The broken radio had a loose wire on the antenna loop and I could see where it was suppose to be connected.  Pop had an old soldering iron made to solder tin together so I asked Pop to take me to a radio store where I could get a smaller soldering iron.  He took me to this giant warehouse on Commonwealth ave in Boston called Radio Shack.  Back in those days, Radio Shack was an electronics surplus house with bags of surplus electronics.  Think American Akihabara.  I got my soldering iron and fixed my little radio.  I was 10, it was 1962.

A couple of years later during winter I had health problems that required a traumatic stay in a hospital just before Christmas.  I would be out of school for several weeks in the new year and forced to stay off my feet.   That year, I got my first shortwave radio receiver.  It was a Heath GR-91 kit that I would have to build myself!  Dad set up a card table in my bedroom with a chair so I could get up, work on my kit for a while, then crawl back into bed.  I had the kit built in less then two weeks.  The moment had come to plug it into the wall and see if it lit up or (horror) smoked.  My very first smoke test!  The radios back in those days (early 60’s) were tube based so they literally did ‘light up’  with a warm orange glow.  One tube had a beautiful purple glow and was marked as a ‘rectifier’ in the kit instructions.  A hiss came from the speaker I had wired up to the headphone jack (the speaker was pulled out of my transistor radio).  Tuning across the band and twiddling the rf gain knob, I heard my first stations.  Mostly local broadcast stations and Voice of America (the US shortwave propaganda broadcast).  I did hear a few faint tones that made up dots and dashes.  The instructions suggested using some test equipment to improve the sensitivity so I asked Dad if he knew anyone who had that kind of equipment.

Dad brought me one of his accounting clients (Dad was an accountant and did small jobs for little companies on the side).  This fellow was in Harvard Square.  He had a drug store with a soda fountain and made great grilled cheeses and lived above the store in a small apartment.  The apartment and drug store was across the street from the Harvard Square Gulf Station (which was a famous landmark torn down in 1989)   He was a lonely guy but seemed pretty happy.  On one end of his living room, near some windows, he had a bench with lots of electronic boxes on it.  He had a big chair centered in front of the boxes and the boxes formed a sort of semicircle facing the chair.  There was a microphone, and a funny paddle that looked like it had a metal bug attached to it.  Dad told him I was interested in radios and that I had just build a Heathkit.  Wow did this guys eyes light up.  He said:  “Let me show you something!”.

Elmer (can’t remember his name right now but he was my Elmer!)  started turning knobs.  Dials began lighting up, the cabinets began to show a faint glow from within.  The room all of a sudden seemed warmer.  As he tuned the radio dial strange sounds would come out of the big speaker (which was also in a nice cabinet).  When he had a station tuned just right, we could hear a man speaking, talking about the weather, where he was (this one was in Florida!).  When he tuned past the station the sound seemed to warp out, sounding like Mickey Mouse then disappear into the crackly background.  Another sound would come in, starting like low grunts then rising in tenor to a point where it was a voice again.  This time the man on the radio was saying ‘CQ’ over and over.  Elmer said, lets see if we can talk to him.  After the guy on the radio said ‘over’ Elmer pressed a button on the microphone, said some letters and number and then ‘over’.  The guy on the radio came back and said the same numbers and letters, told us his name (we’ll use George)  and where he was located (this time it was Georgia) said the weather was clear and cool then the letters and numbers again and ‘back to you’.  Elmer pressed a button and started talking about the weather, his location and this youngster in his ‘shack’ that had just built a Heathkit and would like to say a few words!   Yikes!  I was suppose to say something into this metal thing called a microphone!  “Hi!  I’m Paula.  I’m 11 years old and I’m interested in radios”  Dah, gosh did I mumble, did he hear me?  (Elmer sez say ‘over).  Oh, over?.  The George in Georgia sez ‘hello Paula, nice to meet you!  So you built a Heathkit?  Are you going to get your ham license? over. (Oh gosh, he heard me!  Now I have to say something back?  What did he say?  Heathkit?  ham license?  What do I say?   And so I made my first contact when I was 11.  (Elmer, opened up the heathkit, set some knobs on his station, turned a knob on my Heathkit and reached in side with a little plastic screw driver).  Soon lots of stations started coming out of the speaker hooked to my Heathkit.

This Ham stuff seemed interesting.  Someone like me could have a transmitter hooked to an antenna and electromagnetic waves would jump off the antenna, bounce around in the sky and be heard by someone else.   In the early 60s this was way cool stuff!  I wanted to build one of these transmitter boxes and get a ham license!  Elmer had given me a spare copy of the Amateur Radio Handbook by the ARRL and I had already flipped through every page.  Most of it was un-intelligable to me but some of it made sense.  My big break through was reading the section on how vacuum tubes worked.  There were diodes, triodes, tetrodes, pentodes and on.  The triode was the real key.  The basic element (I really liked dealing with canonical things) that let electrons flow through a single grid (like a bug screen on a window) where the electron stream would vary based on a small change in the charge (voltage) of the grid.  Easy stuff.  I came across a really simple transmitter circuit (in the new 1966 hand book dad got me) that I actually could understand and explain.  I decided that I’d ask Dad if I could build one and enter it into the science fair at my junior high school.  Dad took me to Demambro’s in Boston and I showed them my list of parts.  They didn’t have all of them so we had to go to an electronic junk store to find the others.  The junk store guy explained how sometimes you couldn’t get the exact part but another part would be really close, so I had some substitution parts.  Building the transmitter was really hard.  Well, at least cutting the holes in the chassis was really hard.  Once I had all the holes cut and drilled it was easy.  Soon, I was wiring up the parts.  During this same time I was studying for my Novice Amateur Radio License.  I wanted to pass the test before the science fair because I wanted to be legally on the air!  And then there were the poster boards for the Science Fair.  Giant versions of the schematics with descriptions of all the key parts.

A couple of weeks before the science fair, Dad took me to Elmer’s house.  He was quite serious this day.  Sitting me down at his kitchen table and asking me to sign a paper before he opened up the Novice test folder. The directions said I had to copy a steady 5 wpm of Morse Code before I took the written test and if I failed I would have to wait two weeks before taking it again.  Elmer sat down with a practice key and asked if I was ready.  Pencil in hand, paper on the table I said yup…  Five minutes later it was over and I had passed with flying colors.  Now it was time to take the written test.  A series of multiple choice questions.  I finished in about 15 minutes.  Elmer reviewed it and said it looked good but we wouldn’t know for six weeks as that’s how long the FCC took to check the answers and get back to us.   That was a pretty stressful afternoon.  Elmer asked if I wanted to operated his Colins station.  I said no, that I was pretty tired and wanted to go home.

Back home, I was just finishing up my transmitter.  I plugged in the transmitter and with a long stick flicked the on/off switch to the on position.  The rectifiers glowed purple for a second and went out.  I shut the switch off.   Opened up the ARHB and read through the project instructions.  No joy.  I checked all my wiring, everything looked pretty good.  Only thing that I wasn’t sure about was the two different symbols for ‘ground’  One was a sort or rake, the other was an arrow pointing down.  Turns out, that was my problem.  Mom had a niece who was married to a TV repair man so she gave him a call and asked him to come over and take a look.  He told me that I had to connect those two grounds together.  With a tiny piece of wire and solder I hooked the wire ground to chassis ground and we turned on the switch.  A beautiful purple glow came from the rectifiers.  I hooked up a Morse code key and pressed the key.  The light bulb I had hooked up to the transmitter output glowed bright with each key stroke.  Wow!  I’m transmitting.

The science fair came and went, I got an honorable mention since I didn’t do anything original.  .  It was one of two science fairs I entered during junior high and high school where students were rewarded if they kept good statistics on rats eating Cheerios but were not rewarded for demonstrating and understanding abstract concepts.  I’ll digress a bit here and talk about the great Science Fair Fix.  The second  science fair I was in I did a demonstration of various oscillators that used un marked transistors I had picked up.  It required characterizing the unknown transistors and designing an appropriate circuit that would make use of the unique characteristics of that transistor.  I had three separate single band tunable oscillators.  One of the three judges understood what I had done (he was an MIT professor and a ham radio operator) the other two were down right nasty to me, claiming all I did was copy some equations out of a text book.   I didn’t get an honorable mention and was hurt by these adults that said I somehow cheated.  The last science fair in high school I was warned by my physics professor not to enter because no one would understand.  It demonstrated the technique and use of modulating two different colored light sources, combining them sending them down a glass tube, un combining them demodulating and hearing the separate sources at the other end.  We call it wdm or wave devision multiplexing and its how most of Internet traffic is run through fiber optics.  Sadly, only those that were the teachers favorites got the awards, scholarships and went on to the big name schools.

A few weeks after the science fair I got a letter in the mail from the FCC.  It was my Novice class license! Call sign and all!  A real official recognition of my accomplishments.  I was now WN1GRX and could transmit on the novice bands.   Back in those days, the novice class license was only good for one year and it was not renewable so I had to immediately start studying for my General class license.  A much harder test and much faster code (13 wpm).

I was on my way to a career in electronics, computers, graphics, high speed processing, networks, data analysis and more.

6 Comments

  1. glenn wrote:

    2/23/10 – Hi, Paula. We QSO’d on 40M last night. Kind of short…I was getting tugged off to bed, but I had to return your call after seeing your QRZ page. I’m just getting back into CW after a hiatus due to hand tremor, which is now being treated. As I mentioned, I tour on a 1982 BMW. I’m also 57, and my first real radio (not counting a clock radio with a shortwave band) was a Heathkit HR-10. I was working on my Novice ticket in 1967 (had some old ARC transmitters I was trying to convert to 40M) when someone who knew I was a guitarist loaned me an electric guitar and amp. I soon found out the girls were a lot more interested in me now, so radio took a back seat to music until a couple of years ago. I’m gaining speed, making up for lost time. Nice to meet you.

    Glenn

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink
  2. Hi AG…

    Tnx 40M CW QSO. QRN was miserable. Read your “QRZ” bio and here too…Nice to meet you…

    73

    Steve, K4YZ

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Paula wrote:

    Thanks Steve, You have good ears to pick out my 5 watt signal from your rfi. Got your QSL. Yours on the way.

    73
    Paula/NX1P

    Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  4. Paula wrote:

    Hi Glenn,

    Thanks for Q and stick with CW. I’ve fallen back in love with dits and dahs. My speed suffered from being on and off the air so many times in my Ham career but have made a decision to copy and send code for a couple of hours every day and to be active in at least the major contests. I’ve gone and acquired a vacation/retirement QTH specifically to give me a signal edge (and to give me quiet spectrum, quiet quiet, an amazing views, great forest roads for bikes and nice neighbors). I’ll be building out my station over the next year or two. Finally know what I’m going to do when I grow up!

    73,

    Paula/NX1P

    Saturday, March 20, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  5. Hi Paula,
    I really enjoyed meeting you and having the cw qso with you the 25th of January. I love CW. I work with 500mw to 400 watts. Have worked lot of mobile CW. Hope to catch you again on the air. 73, Bob

    Monday, February 7, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Steve NU7B wrote:

    Hi Paula:

    I ran across your site(s) googling material related to the KX3. I enjoyed reading your blog – particularly this entry. I got into the hobby in the early ’70’s. Like you I built a simple vacuum tube TX from the ARRL HB – and was really excited to see the light-bulb load glow as I adjusted the pi-match.

    You reminded me that I also was confused about the different ground symbols, and whether/why something had to have an earth ground. We got our licenses at about the same age.

    I hope to chat with you on the air sometime. CW is fine – I also like a digital mode called Olivia which is great for rag chewing.

    73,

    Steve nu7b

    Saturday, May 28, 2016 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

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