QNCW, The QRP CW Journal

The Amazing Results of Patience and Skill

My Ghost Key

by Scott Laughlin / N7NET

February 2007

A sign reading Estate Sale caught my attention. Slowing, I wheeled into Herman’s drive and dogged the old Ford to a stop. We’d never met and shook. We’d never even QSOed. In fact, I didn’t even know his call. Now it was too late for any of that.

His yard was filled with portable towers, guy wires, coax, heavy transmitters, and antenna tuners, but nothing here would meet my budget. Then I noticed a sign over the door that read, More Inside.

His shack was a museum Equipment was everywhere. On the walls hung world maps and hundreds of QSL cards. However, what caught my attention was a photo of a B-17 with her flight crew.

“Herman, my father, was the radio operator on that bomber,” said a voice.

Turning, I found a short man of slight build. He was perhaps ten years my senior. His head was a glossy bald.

“Which one is he?” I asked, stepping closer to the photo, and studying the faces.

“The smallest of the group, the one on the end,” he said pointing an index finger. “He was five foot four and a quarter, and he probably never weighed ninety pounds.”

“Somewhere, I heard your father was already an operator when Fort Sam Houston came on the air with their Spark Gap.”

“True. He was.” He cleared his throat and shifted his weight. “Were you looking for something in particular?”

“I hoped there might be a stray key lying about, maybe your father’s favorite?”

Stooping, he reached into a pasteboard box and grabbed something. “Here you go,” he said. “This is a J-38, or was. These things are getting more rare with each passing day. My father, being a ham prior to his draft into World War II, spoke Morse. This may have been the one he took to war with him. Many hams did, you know. I guess it’s kind of like a trumpet player always has a mouthpiece in his pocket.”

“That’s an interesting analogy,” I said, plucking the key from his grasp and turning it in my hand. “The armature is rusted in place.”

“I know,” he said wistfully. “But you could breathe life back into this puppy. Then you would own the very key my father may have used over Tokyo.”

A host of possibilities raced through my head. There’s no way of telling what might be hidden beneath this rust.

“How much?”

“Twenty bucks.”

“Twenty bucks?” I echoed. For certain, a J-38 in working order could be found for less money, but not one bringing with it a legacy. What if the B-17 tail number were etched somewhere on this key?

“How about five bucks and I’ll save you a trip the dump?” I countered.

“Let’s get serious.”

“I am serious,” I said, smiling, and shoving a five-spot toward him while slipping the rusty J-38 in my shirt pocket.

He blinked, and shifted his weight again. “Well…, you add another five to that one and you have a deal.”

After arriving home, and taking time for a closer inspection, it was obvious that this J-38 would actually bring twenty dollars a ton on the scrap steel market. What a blunder. I should have walked away. But my remorse was countered by words echoing in my head. ‘This J-38 may be the same one my father used over Tokyo.’ What if…, I thought. My time was cheap. After a liberal soaking with WD-40, I slipped the key into a baggie and pinched the seal.

A polished apple tastes sweetest, say voices from the past. There is truth in these words, for as I labored over this gem, searching for numerals or initials that might disclose its heritage, the possibility of such clues grew less important.

A week later, it was buffed to a high sheen, but something was still lacking. Somewhere, I had a base plate.

From a box of spare parts, I retrieved a Bakelite base that had once served a Southern Pacific station agent. It fit perfectly. Even the nomenclature, J-38, was etched on it. I had something better than a key used over Tokyo

I had a ghost key.


Earning a Wartime WAC

by Scott B. Laughlin
Copyright 2009

Taylor Sullivan was in the fourth grade when he found a damaged issue of Boy’s Life Magazine. It was lying on the curb of a Portland street and the wind had flipped it open, exposing an illustration of a boy speaking into a tomato can. Pausing, he stooped and studied the picture. The article described how to build a crude telephone using things commonly found around the house—a length of string and two vegetable cans.
His mother had scolded him about handling things he found on the ground. He considered her words, but this seemed important enough to put her warning aside. Rolling up the tattered publication and shoved it into his hip pocket and then he headed home.
Taylor built a tin can telephone and he and Carl, his little brother, used it on the staircase. That’s where he learned that the string had to be taut and in a straight line. If the cord touched anything it stopped transferring audio. It seemed like a perfect solution for communicating between their bedrooms, so he built second system and cut a hole through the wall solely for that purpose.
“Hold the can still, Carl.”
“I am.”
“No, you’re not. You’re letting the cord touch the edge of the hole.”
Carl didn’t have a steady hand. After several failures, Taylor enlarged the hole. When that didn’t solve the problem he expanded it even more. Then their father discovered the damaged wall.
The telephone didn’t work well outside and Taylor quickly lost interest in it, but he was hooked on communications. Commercial radio had taken the nation by storm and he couldn’t get enough of it.
In 1937 Taylor’s father purchased a large, floor model radio. The adults gathered around it for the evening news, and he watched them await Gabriel Heeter’s opening statement: “Good evening folks—there’s good news tonight“. While he was curious about the AM broadcasts, he found more adventure in listening to the three shortwave bands. That was where Taylor became acquainted with Morse code and heard his first ham, a man called Marvin.
A neighborhood hardware store sold radio parts and the owner knew Marvin well. He even gave Taylor directions to his house. On his third visit he began learning Morse. In a short time Taylor experienced the thrill of making his first two-way contact, operating under Marvin’s call. After that he began preparing for the test that would fetch him a radio license of his own. Then he set out to earn his WAC (Worked All Continents).

Taylor was 19 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and the United States entered World War II. For national security reasons ham radio privileges were revoked. He enlisted in the Navy and soon thereafter, he was a radioman aboard a submarine. After a week at sea he found two others who, as civilians, had plied the night skies with electromagnetic waves.
Because receivers transmitted a weak signal that the enemy could follow to its source, radio silence was invoked, keeping strict transmission schedules. When not in use, the antennas were disconnected.

However, operating a receiver without an external antenna while the boat was submerged didn’t breach radio silence, so Taylor created a spare time radio activity of his own.
With the Captain’s permission, he used a receiver and began transmitting verses from the New Testament.
When time allowed, a receiver was moved from one strategic location to another. The noisy environment of the boat while underway coupled with a very weak signal made copy a sincere challenge. At a given point in time Taylor declared the quest finished.
Both hams scored high and were issued a WAC, a certificate stating that the bearer had successfully Worked All Compartments.



I achieved a Morse code speed of 13 wpm back in 1990 while still living in Oregon. I did it by participating in the West Coast Slow Speed Net. The operator who took our slow speed messages to the high-speed section net was called RN7. Win, a Canadian, was our RN7. Though we never met and shook I knew his FIST well. Near midnight on 16 June 1991 while plying 80 meters with a Swan 350 I found Win CQing on 3702, the old net frequency. We chatted for perhaps a half-hour. During this exchange he told me he was operating portable from a family owned cabin located the Northwest Territories. He was using a fistful of D cells, and a Heathkit HW-8 sending  one-watt going to an inverted V antenna.



Small Wonder 20 – Less than 2W output

003 (2)

My 40-meter tricycle QRP mobile rig. I earned several QSL cards, but some folks didn’t believe I was QRP and would not respond with a card exchange.

The battery say at the base of the handbars. The transceiver, a MFJ-9040 lived in the bag. The antenna is mounted behind the seat backrest.

Fun waiting to happen.

Ernie’s Workbench


After retiring from the US Navy, Ernie earned an electrical engineering degree and set up a radio repair shop. He intended to repair CB radios, but the local amateurs brought their broken radios to him. He built scores of QRP CW rigs. He didn’t like getting on the air, so he always brought his new projects to me for a road test.

Ernie, KB7HCW, has been a silent key for some twenty years. I still miss him.

WB7VSN’s Key Collection


WB7VSN began working American Morse as a Southern Pacific train dispatcher in Southern California prior to World War II. These are they keys he’s collected over the past 70 plus years.

During World War II he was General Douglas MacArthur’s personal telegrapher.

The last time I visited him he was operating American Morse over a phone line using a sounder. The Prince Albert Tobacco can was wedged into the sounder to provide a tone to the clicks, allowing him to identify his sounder before he heard an identifier.


R6 Transceiver


My late friend, N7JEU, was a Marine who operated a mobile high-speed communications post mounted in a jeep. His job was to report where his unit’s last heavy artillery struck. Then he had to change locations before Charlie could get fix on his location. I’ve forgotten exact power, but I think it was three or four watts output.

The rig above is very similar to the one he used.

I met him on the 40-meters one cold October night. I was using a rock-bound Heathkit DX-20. He was using a Hotwater 8.

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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