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The Amazing Results of Patience and Skill

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W5VL’s Early Years of Ham Radio

by J.V. Fitzhugh, W5VL (SK)

San Antonio, Texas 

Written in 1992

N7NET’s note: One day, while chatting on two-meters, I answered the call of a ham passing through town on a bus. He was an active member of the U.S. Army Band on tour. He was one of many who were aboard a chartered bus that was passing through Eugene, Oregon en route in the Bay Area where they were scheduled to perform. The musician’s name and call have slipped into my shadowy past. But his father K5VL, a veteran operator of the spark gap days, became the subject of our QSO. Before the year was out W5VL had sent me a fistful of audio tapes filled with memories from his past, which, in turn, were published in QNCW

In 1992, when this story was current, Mr. Fitzhugh was 99 years young.

Seventy years ago Spark Gap transmitters and Galena crystal receivers, with their infamous “cat whisker” tuning were the heart of early stations appearing on the 200-meter band.

Before the development of vacuum tubes, receivers consisted of only a few major components:

1. A large, wire coil with a narrow strip from which the insulation had been removed. A sliding, shorting bar, capable of contacting the bare strip at a given point, enabling the operator to change the electrical value of the coil at will.

2. A smaller coil capable of providing loose or tight coupling with the larger coil.

  1. A Galena crystal.
  2. A piece of small-gauge spring steel wire called the “cat whisker.”

By moving the cat whisker about the surface of the Galena crystal a sensitive area could eventually be located. For a time this was the only method for capturing and amplifying radio frequency signals.

When a ham turned on his spark transmitter he began transmitting before the motor, which turned his rotary gap mechanism, had reached operating speed. This caused the sound of his signal to increase, creating a rise in the tone as the motor revolution increased. During a QSO the operator might choose to switch off the power to the motor, causing the frequency of his signal to diminish, giving his transmitted signal a melodic quality.

Crystal receivers of that era had little selectivity. When an operator tuned in a station of his choice, numerous other stations were also heard. The sound resembled an orchestra tuning up prior to a concert, at first one station changed tone, then another, and still another by switching their motors on or off. It is regretful that recording equipment was not available during that period.

Electrical grounding of equipment was no less important then it is today. However, the task was accomplished in a much simpler fashion. Radial grounding wires where not yet in use. Instead, a single wire attached to a metal rod which was driven into the soil was sufficient for receiving purposes. Many amateurs attached their grounding wires to the plumbing. While this was satisfactory for reception, grounding the transmitter in such a manner often dispersed radio frequency interference over a larger area, creating problems even more difficult to solve.

My Spark transmitter was of the “open” type. By not enclosing the sparking area I allowed a very loud arcing noise to escape the sparking area. It often made exploding sounds and I was very fortunate not have had complaints from my neighbors.

Eventually, I went to the home of a friend who demonstrated his transmitter, which was enclosed. Also, he had a darkened glass in the front of the enclosure, allowing the operator to watch the spark without dazzling his eyes. I found both features an improvement over my spark system.

I was only twelve years old at the time and knew so little about the equipment I was operating. I was unaware that RF was finding its way into the motor windings of my rotary gap. After a few weeks the motor began to hobble, and I was unable to keep it running smoothly. After removing the motor housing I could see splattering of solder everywhere, indicating that RF had ruined the field winding. The defective motor curtailed my spark activity, but I continued receiving.

When radio was very young there were no commercial broadcasting stations operating on the 200-meter band, but in engineering circles the possibility of voice transmission was a serious consideration.

Flemming had created a diode-type tube. Doctor Lee DeForest followed, shortly after, with a vacuum tube featuring the first control grid.

Apparently, one of the first experimental voice broadcasts took place in Schenectady, New York, for the purpose of testing the public reaction. One night I nearly jumped out of my chair when a human voice came over the code frequency to which I was listening.

Soon, broadcast stations were operating across the country, and amateurs shared the band with them. The arrangement resulted in total chaos, with the hams taking the larger part of the blame. Tense discussions between Congress and the amateur radio operators resulted. The subject became so heated that amateurs were on the verge of loosing transmitting privileges, entirely. Had it not been for Herbert Hoover, the Director of the Department of Commerce, and pressure from the American Radio Relay League we might have lost our amateur privileges all together.

The Federal Communications Commission came into existence in the early 1930s. With it came rules and regulations. Eventually, the 200-meter band was given over to the AM broadcasters, where they remain to this day.

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QRP The Hard Way

QRP The Hard Way

by Scott B. Laughlin/n7net/8879

Copyright 2015

I tuned my radio to 14.060 MHZ then held my breath while listening in the headphones. Instead of copying Leo, KB7LOC, I heard what sounded like the War of the Worlds sound stage. But what should I expect on this frequency in the middle of the night? My being here was no chance event, but rather the result of carefully laid plans that might never produce a single positive result.

#

In April 1999 Barb, KC7BSY and myself, N7NET, traveled from Oregon to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and rented a comfortable spot to pause.

Many folks arriving at such desert locations search for stout walking sticks, large water bottles, and perhaps wide brimmed hats. For us radio people, however, digging-in means configuring VHF and HF radio stations. While Barb doesn’t share my CW enthusiasm, she enjoys two-meter radio and has more than once conducted the local two-meter traffic net when the NCS fails to show.

Our adventure began in earnest after purchasing a used fifth-wheel trailer. It came furnished with pots and pans, dishes, and silverware. Located more than a mile from the nearest power grid meaning we had top generate our own power.

With limited funds, our final choice consisted of a single 75-watt solar panel and two 6-volt, deep-cycle flooded batteries wired to provide a 12-volt power source. Only then was it time to consider a radio.

My old Swan 400, still in Oregon, had served me well during the ’91 Gulf War but it was a power hog. The new radio would have to be solid-state. After a day searching the Internet at the Ajo City Library, I chose an MFJ-9420 transceiver with a CW board. And a G5RV wire antenna from AES in Las Vegas completed the system.

MFJ reviews claimed there is no hotter receiver available. The speech processor on SSB is no slouch either. During the hours of midday sun the output to the coax measured just shy of nine-watts. It was enough signal to fetch sideband QSLs across North America, including Hawaii and Alaska. After sunset the power output reduced to a needles-width greater than five, close enough to qualify for QRP. Then, as though Leo held his ear to ground, Barb copied his message off the National Traffic System.

“It’s from Leo, KB7LOC. He wants to do some CW QRP,” she said.

Leo and I both attended tech school at Keesler AFB, Mississippi during 1956 – 1957. We didn’t meet again until 1991 during the Gulf War while we both served in Oregon Army MARS. The reunion was mind boggling.

QRP? Not a problem, I thought. His QTH, Seal Rock, Oregon, some seventeen hundred miles to the north northwest will be a walk in the park for this little hummer.

So, how are we going to do this QRP?” I asked him over the payphone.

I want to try out my newly acquired, gently used HW-8. I teach guitar and Wednesday evening is my only free time. How’s your schedule?” he asked.

He pauses upon learning the only rig I owned is a 20-meter mono-bander. “Well, it doesn’t sound hopeful, but let’s give it a shot. I’ll call you every Wednesday starting at seven, my time. I’ll continue sending for one minute. If you don’t respond I’ll continue every quarter hour on 14.060 plus or minus QRM. If we haven’t connected by eight I’ll secure my station until the following Wednesday.”

We began.

It was QRP the hard way, his one-watt and my five passing in the night. After several Wednesdays the escapade takes on a flavor of hopelessness, but we labored on.

One night I heard his suffix, a squeaking LOC. His frequency is too high, sounding more like an Irish penny whistle. Catching my breath, I listen with all the strength I can muster. Then KB7LOC finds its way through the dark. I issue him a signal report of 224. He sends me a 335. Then he’s gone, vanishing into the night like a wisp of cigar smoke.

Highlights of our second contact have escaped me. His QSL card is my only proof it ever occurred.

Our third time the band is filled wall-to-wall with atmospheric noises. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Apocalypses Now. Leo reports my signal as a perfect 599. His is signal, however, is heterodyning with another station that’s dead on. The echoes and ringing are reminiscent of a carrier fresh in from the Polar Region. I send him a 221, and I think that is generous.

Three contacts are our grand total for the winter of 2000. We should have tried harder for more QSOs. But neither of us foresaw the future.

In September 2007 Leo became a Silent Key, taking with him all our chances of another marathon.

His will left the HW-8 to me. It needs work. The band switches probably need cleaning. When I’m finished using it I’ll be casting about for someone with good ears who is interested in doing QRP the hard way.

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