This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.
Late 1940’s to mid 1950’s
Mom told me the first word I uttered, at nearly four years of age, was “ra-yo”, for radio. The console in the living room, bigger and taller than I, allured and soothed with the spoken word or music emanating from somewhere deep within, a voice never intimidating or scolding unlike grownups. An additional attraction was its warmth thanks to heat-producing vacuum tubes. Since my father was frequently on the road weeks at a time as a camera company representative, and my mother occupied herself with chores hence was often in another room or outdoors, that sonorous hulk of varnished wood became my companion.
Years later an uncle sent me a crystal radio kit for Christmas, launching me on a course of discovery that continued long after. That simple free-power, one-station-only setup pointed me in a direction that changed the course of my life giving a sense of purpose to a world I perceived as chaotic, bewildering, indifferent to my existence.
Soon after, I came across an old Boy Scout handbook somebody had thrown in the trash, leading me to a series of an exhilarating discoveries, in the end pointing me in a direction I would follow for decades.
A neighbor gave me a defunct radio, the kind with the round top popular at the time. I’d always wanted a radio of my own but they were expensive. Getting one repaired could also be expensive depending on the problem and cost of replacement parts. Also an older set could be on the threshold of failing again; if that happened one could incur further expense getting it repaired a second time. The problem with throwing it away after it’d been repaired was the new components got thrown away too, money down the drain. Thus it was frequently deemed wise to purchase a new set, which usually included a warranty against failure for a specified time.
Our school library had a modest collection of books, among them a few on the subject of radio. The town library had more but most were too technical for a thirteen-year-old neophyte to glean much. But that didn’t stop me; I read and reread the difficult passages hoping some of it might eventually percolate into my brain. It was slow going but little by little I began to make sense from the jumble of words and symbols staring up at me. Still, I hadn’t progressed far enough to tackle my broken radio. And I had no diagnostic equipment as described in the books I consulted.
But that didn’t stop me. Making certain the radio was unplugged, I removed the screws from underneath and slid out the chassis. But not all the way because its speaker was attached via a large four-pronged plug. It was in so firmly I had to use a screwdriver to work it free gently lest I break it. In those days speakers had what was called a field coil wired in series between the power supply and the rest of the radio to develop the magnetic field necessary for the speaker’s function (today’s speakers employ permanent magnets).
I turned the chassis on its side and peered intently at its innards, a tangled maze of resistors, wires, capacitors, tube sockets and other components I couldn’t identify, hoping to discover a clear indication that something might’ve burned out. Seeing nothing amiss I unscrewed the speaker from the cabinet and laid it face-down to protect its fragile paper cone before reconnecting it. Then I plugged the power cord into the wall outlet, switched on the radio and waited.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I heard music. The radio appeared to be working perfectly. Why hadn’t it earlier?
I found the answer after dinner. When I returned to my room and switched the radio back on, silence. Why did it work one time but not another? I turned it off and on several times to no avail. Then I noticed one of its tubes was dark. And it felt cold to the touch unlike the others. I tapped it lightly but nothing happened. I turned off the radio and unplugged it, extracted the tube and examined it closely. Most of its inside was coated with a silvery compound (called getter to help maintain the integrity of its vacuum I was to learn) obscuring the tube’s innards. As I rotated it, I discovered one of its pins was a mite loose. Could that by why the silence? I replaced the tube, turned the radio back on—and the tube lit up a bright orange this time; followed a few seconds by a soft hum I hadn’t noticed previously. I turned up the volume, dialed in several stations. Elated, I lay back, caught the tail end of a radio play. After it ended and I changed the station, the announcer’s voice faded into silence. The tube was dark again.
I removed it a second time, feeling its decaying warmth. I gingerly wiggled the loose pin—and it popped off! The pin’s interior was green with corrosion which had eaten through the wire and broken off clean at the base. My moment of triumph was now an illusion. And I couldn’t find a number anywhere on the tube’s face. All the others had identifying numbers but not this. I examined it under direct sunlight with a magnifying glass, could barely make out a marking but concluded it was probably a flaw in the glass. How could I expect to get a replacement if nobody could tell what the old one was? Success seemed so close minutes earlier, now it looked hopeless. I felt I’d gotten halfway to the solution. But if a resistor had opened or a capacitor shorted, I would’ve been sunk; maybe I was anyway.
The following morning, Saturday, I accompanied Mom as she drove to Redwood City where she did her weekly laundry and shopping. While she was at the Laundromat I located a radio repair shop two blocks away listed in the Yellow Pages.
I entered timidly, waited until a customer left, approached an elderly, grizzled man behind the counter, carefully unwrapped the tube. “Do you know what this is? I can’t find its number anywhere and need another because one of its pins came off.” I submitted the tube along with a list of the other tube numbers hoping that might help.
“Let me see.” He examined it briefly, glanced at my list and pulled down a shopworn book listing hundreds of tubes. He thumbed the soiled pages pausing now and then, glanced up. “Bet it’s a ‘58.”
“What does a new one cost? I asked, fearful of the answer.
I reckon he noticed my ill-fitting clothes that had been through too many mends, scuffed-up shoes because he said. “Tell you what—I might have an old one for a dollar.” Sound okay?”
Having not the slightest idea what a new tube might cost, and curious to know I asked again, “How much is a new one?”
“Six dollars.” He disappeared through a door in the rear. I heard him rummaging glass clinking against glass before he returned. “I think this’s what you’re after. It’s an old one so I can’t guarantee it’ll work.” He laid it on the counter. “On the house.”
He nodded, smiled gruffly. “Beat it before I change my mind,” he said good-naturedly. He wrapped it up, handed it over along with the old tube.
“Gee, thanks, Mister,” I blurted out.
Seemed like Mom had more errands than usual that day. “How much longer,” I’d ask each time she returned to the car.
She knew I was eager to get home because all I talked about was the tube and the radio.
“Maybe you could help with the shopping.” She knew that might help take my mind off the subject.
I carefully placed both tubes in the glove compartment, helped Mom shop for groceries. She was right; scarcely before I knew it we were on our way. I helped unload the car, retrieved my precious cargo and dashed off to my room, where I carefully unwrapped the newly-acquired tube and inserted it into the empty socked. I switched the radio on, anxious gaze focused on my new acquisition, gratified to see its filament light up. A few seconds later the radio came back to life. I was elated, leaving it on all night with the volume almost all the way down. First thing after arriving home from school the following day was to turn it back on to see if it still worked. Now I had a working radio my very own.
I tuned in episodes crafted for those my age, serials like Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong, Superman, which until then I’d almost never listened to. I lay back, suffused with rare contentment, eyes closed, absorbed by the sounds emanating from the hunk of wood, iron, paper, wires, glass and whatever else it took to convert radio waves back into spoken words and music that played into my imagination. It was magic, those sounds originating hundreds or thousands of miles away, all delivered to my ears via a vibrating cone of stiff, black paper.
Not long after, a daughter of one of my mother’s friends came west with her husband, a chap my father took an instant disliking to. He spoke of the guy as slimy, someone you wouldn’t trust. In retrospect his analysis proved essentially correct.
They stayed at our house for a week or so before moving on. The guy had brought along a fabulous radio, the likes of which I’d never imagined existed. It consisted of two components, a humongous power supply with a high-powered, push-pull audio amplifier nearly as big as the radio and twice as heavy. The radio itself was a high-grade professional affair covering the broadcast band through all the short-wave bands. Its sensitivity and selectivity were extraordinary; distant stations I could barely make out on the livingroom radio blared loud and clear as if local. Short-wave reception from all over the world came booming in, sounding fluttery because of rapidly-varying signal strength brought about by the ever-shifting ionosphere.
The radio, a Hammarlund Super Pro 400, was designed for rack mount, signifying its professional status. It boasted two tuned radio-frequency (RF) stages of amplification, a massive 5-gang tuning capacitor, two maybe three stages of intermediate frequency (IF) amplification and a passel of tubes. My radio by contrast was a mere infant with its four tubes and none of the bells and whistles boasted by the other. I never saw anything with so many tubes and dials until the advent of television (I once counted thirty tubes in an early TV consisting of a 12” round monochrome picture tube.)
The owner wouldn’t let me touch his precious possession, an unknown who could turn a knob too hard or twirl a dial too fast possibly injuring or breaking something inside. He loved his set, which was on nearly all the time he was present. He’d sit in front of it almost as if it were a shrine, twirling the dial end to end, sometimes pausing briefly before pressing on. I got the impression it was like a toy to him. I never saw him actually stop and listen to a station; he appeared more consumed by the set’s capability than its utility.
He showed me a book which was to make a huge impact: the 1946 edition of The Radio Amateur’s Handbook, published by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and updated with a new edition each year. Its pages displayed copious circuit diagrams, photographs of projects constructed from these schematics. I was introduced to abstruse-sounding concepts like microphone preamplifiers, modulators, mixers, oscillators crystal-controlled and variable, antenna tuners, voltage doublers and frequency triplers, pictures of tubes nearly a foot high powered by thousands of volts. Below one of these pictures was a black-bordered warning of the lethality of these voltages. I already knew ordinary house current could and did kill, and here were voltages twenty times higher!
I wondered how these sundry items worked, singly and collectively. Would I ever make sense of it all, maybe even construct my own ham setup someday? My poor head swirled with so many questions I burned to ask but I sensed the guy didn’t want to bother with me so I kept mum. Now I was reading every book on radio I could get my hands on, ham radio in particular. While I’d encountered a few other individuals at school with similar interests, outside of that our lives rarely intersected. I was dismayed at how quickly some of these guys caught on compared to my plodding slowness when it came to sorting things out.
Another pivotal book that came into my life, Calling CQ, by Clinton DeSoto and published in 1940, belonged to our school’s library. I checked it out again and again, never tiring reading it. It related how various individuals constructed simple receivers and transmitters and conversed with their likes around the world. Kids my age with little or no money in the Depression era and living in rural areas somehow managed to scrape together enough components, mostly from discarded radios, to build primitive ham stations and chat (via Morse code) with others like themselves in far-flung regions, and how other hams established emergency communications in disasters like the Jonestown Flood in the ‘30’s after all other communications had been cut off. It read like a romance and I was hooked, determined to join their ranks.
But a number of obstacles stood in the way. A slow learner and with much to learn, I would have to do everything on my own. I had no allowance since my father was frequently out of work. The biggest hurdle would be my having to demonstrate mastery of Morse code by sending and receiving Morse at thirteen words-per-minute.
For one legally to own and operate a ham station in the U.S., one had to pass a two-tiered examination administered by the U.S. Government, specifically the F.C.C. (Federal Communications Commission), which was established in 1934 in an attempt to bring order to an increasing chaos of radio communications. The first tier consisted of the code test, where one had to demonstrate the ability to send and receive a solid minute’s worth of Morse at 13wpm (words per minute) within a three-minute span. Fail that and you were excused. If you passed, you were given a written examination dealing with radio basics and laws regulating amateur radio communications in the U.S. Pass both and you’d be issued an operator’s license which would arrive in the mail several weeks later, entitling you to certain privileges and frequency bands in communicating with other hams.
Going through that process proved an almost insurmountable ordeal. Someone, usually my mother, drove me to the Greyhound Bus Depot in Redwood City from where I’d take the bus to its terminal on 7th Street just off Market in San Francisco, from there wend my way north twenty or more blocks to 550 Battery Street. The F.C.C. was housed in a massive, slate-grey granite, fortress-like building designated U.S. Customs. Its interior had high ceilings and darkly-stained window frames and copious, highly-polished brass fixtures. It was both impressive and intimidating, which I’m sure was the intent.
I and ten to fifteen other examinees would sit at a large oak table on the second floor, don earphones and suffer though the Morse code test. Those who failed were dismissed, the remainder staying for the second tier. If one failed either, one had to wait a minimum of four months before reapplying. Four times over two or so years I made the pilgrimage to 550 Battery Street full of hope and trepidation, donned the earphones and struggled to transform a rapid succession of dots and dashes into letters and words—and three times returned home in defeat. But I kept at it, persistence finally coming to fruition on the fourth go-around. By contrast other guys in my school commonly breezed through on the first try and received their licenses, whereas I was relegated to the sidelines to eat my heart out in corrosive envy and stinging self-reproach.
The usual method of learning Morse is to work with someone who already knows it, or is learning with you. One sends code while the other receives, then the roles are reversed. Since I had nobody to work with, and our not-too-welcome visitor seeing my determination, procured a military short-wave radio from the surplus market for a few dollars. The war recently over, the market was flooded with these superbly-constructed sets few knew what to do with. I’d spend evenings roaming the airwaves seeking stations sending Morse slow enough that I might copy it. Problem was most stations galloped along at twenty words per minute or faster so I got none of it at first. One invaluable service, run by ARRL and sometimes other stations nearer by, was nightly code practice sessions beginning at 5wpm and moving up to higher speeds.
What my schoolmates accomplished in months took me two years. But I made it, finally receiving my license and call letters W6AKG in 1951. After I ripped open the letter informing me I’d passed the second tier and had been granted a license to operate a ham station of my own, I dashed to my room tripping on the stairs smartly skinning the shin on my right leg in my eagerness to get on the air. My first contact was W6PR in nearby San Carlos.
I’d previously been preparing for the Big Moment right along. I already had a receiver, a near-pristine BC-312 ruggedly built for combat that must’ve cost the U.S. Government a mint per issue. I’d also procured two BC459s from Radio Row on Market Street not far from the bus station. These and sundry sets were stacked to the ceiling in one dealer’s basement. Primitive by today’s standards yet powerful, these units employed a 1626 tube as tunable oscillator, followed by a pair of 1625’s in parallel, essentially 807’s with 12-volt filaments. I converted one to the 80-meter band, the other to 40 meters by taking turns off its coils, a quick 100 watts input on the cheap.
Two lesser challenges remained. First was to construct a power supply capable of delivering 800 volts direct current at 200 milliamperes, a potentially lethal affair I enclosed in a wooden box with a hinged lid. Transformers were outlandishly expensive, but I got around that by procuring two from discarded radios and wiring their secondaries in series-aiding. This combo yielded 700 volts, a respectable beginning. Second was to construct an antenna tuner, also from surplus components, to match the transmitter’s impedance to non-resonant antennas since I didn’t have room enough for a full-sized 80 meter dipole. Even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked on 40 meters sans antenna tuner anyway. Add telegraph key, headphones, antenna-switching relay, logbook as mandated in those days and I was ready to go. And go I did, now that I had my ticket.
In short order I was receiving QSL cards from all over the world, postcard-sized cards confirming contacts made. I plastered a wall with these colorful cards. Mom employed her artist skills to make mine, which we had printed on one-cent postcards. It consisted of a simple line drawing since the cost of color reproduction lay beyond our means.
Through bartering with other hams, and occasional trips to Radio Row on Market Street, I gradually built up my supply of components. I was becoming increasingly proficient in constructing my own apparatus, in time reaching the legal limit of 1000 watts input. At its peak my setup consisted of three nearly six-foot-tall relay racks commonly employed by commercial radio stations, filled with miscellaneous gear. One rack held a one-kilowatt radio-frequency (R F) amplifier, a 600-watt plate modulator for the audio, antenna tuner and so on, much of it constructed during vacations and other breaks from college.
The kilowatt power supply is a story in itself, the most dangerous device I put together. It consisted of a small pole transformer (smaller version of transformers seen atop utility power poles to step 2200-volt distribution lines down to 220/110-volts for domestic or home use), whose two primaries I wired in parallel, the two secondary windings wired in series. This yielded 2400 volts each side of center or 4800 volts total.
Since my setup required direct current, I hooked this transformer to a pair of mercury-vapor rectifier tubes (which emit a particularly beautiful purple when energized) and an oil-filled 16-microfarad, 4000-volt capacitor as a filter, along with a hefty filament transformer to power the rectifier tubes. It took time to procure these components one-by-one, most of them government surplus. A generous friend of my father gave me a 100-ampere stepping transformer retired from color film processing, which also helped.
When completed, this contraption yielded 3200 volts direct current without load or 2700 volts at 600 milliamperes. And maybe more but I never found out because the house wiring and fuses weren’t meant to sustain anything that heavy. I was regularly blowing 15-ampere fuses. Now and then I’d screw in a 20-amp fuse for a quick test, resisted the temptation to try a 30-amp. I never left the house with anything bigger than fifteen-amp fuses in the fusebox. Also since testing resulted in considerable dimming of all the lights in the house, I confined my activities mainly to daylight hours.
I never told my parents about this project, a device unforgivingly lethal, more lethal than I wanted anyone to know. Because it could kill even when turned off, unplugged and disconnected. The danger lay in that 4000-volt capacitor which could, when fully charged, retain a lethal charge for days without a load. A way around was to construct a bleeder resistor assembly consisting of a number of power resistors wired in series-parallel which bled off the charge in a minute or so. But nobody in his/her right mind ever trusts a bleeder because should just one of those resistors burn out the capacitor could retain a full charge without anyone suspecting.
So I did what professionals do: made up a shorting stick consisting of a wooden pole about a yard long with a grounding wire attached to a hook at the far end. If by chance the capacitor still held a charge, momentarily touching the hook to the capacitor’s positive terminal could result in bang as loud as a rifle shot accompanied by a blinding blue-white flash which never failed to startle me, even when expected. Since touching it once to the capacitor didn’t always discharge it completely, I’d clamp the short in place while working on the beast, unclamp after I was done.
When I’d fire everything up and tune the kilowatt amplifier to resonance without a load by disconnecting the antenna, I could take an ordinary lead pencil—tied to the other end of a long wooden stick—and touch its point to the hot end of the output coil. Drawing it slowly away yielded a fat arc between it and the lead, sometimes for a distance of nearly two inches, accompanied by a soft pfffft and the acrid smell of burning graphite and wood. Figuring 30,000 volts per inch for breakdown in air, I must’ve generated upwards of sixty thousand volts of radio-frequency (RF) energy.
Had that arc formed to any part of my body, I’d most certainly have been gravely injured or killed, particularly if I’d been in contact with the racks which were grounded. The RF voltage would not in itself have been fatal though initiating a nasty burn; it was the 3000 volts direct current sitting on the output coil which presented the real danger, the arc acting as a bridge. [I recall seeing a picture of a young guy in QST (Amateur Radio Relay League’s monthly publication) who’d come into contact with 2200 volts (which most power poles carry, the wires nearest the top with large insulators) as he and his father were attempting to erect an antenna. One of their wires contacted the power utility’s overhead wires, instantly killing the father and resulting in his son losing both arms.] Nasty stuff!
Whenever I was on the air, each time I tapped the key the houselights would take a big dip in brightness. It was worst in my room—the one I’d wired at age 12—because it was farthest from the fuse box resulting in a greater voltage drop at high current peaks. Everyone knew when I was on the air because all the lights in the house flickered in sync with the dots and dashes of the telegraph key. The only way around was to use less power, that is to say bypassing the kilowatt amplifier altogether.
Things got more interesting when I finally acquired enough components to construct a 600 watt class-B audio modulator so now I could talk to other hams via voice in addition to Morse. The problem was this big item gobbled nearly as much power as the kilowatt amplifier at peak levels, resulting in my replacing blown fuses with depressing regularity. Each time I spoke into the mike, the house lights flickered annoyingly in step with my enunciations. A sure fuse-blower was to whistle into the mike during a test; the lights would dim even further—then go out as one more fuse died. Many was the time I’d be conversing with another ham, and by raising my voice a bit too much pitch my room into sudden darkness, one fuse less in my ever-shrinking armamentarium. Seeing the unsustainably of this approach, in time I downsized my setup back to its hundred-watt level.
Almost from the start I ran into a culprit which threatened to end my ham radio excursions altogether: harmonics. My setup was bare-bones, cheap and dirty one might say. I ran the tubes hard, in class-C, which though maximally efficient yields the most harmonics (integral multiples of the operating frequency). That was okay at first as my antenna tuner largely filtered out these unwanted byproducts.
Television was coming in and everyone had to have one. These early TV’s consisted of large, bulky cabinets with round 12” black-and-white picture tubes with the top and bottom masked off but not the sides. Since we lived in hilly country not line-of-sight of the TV transmitting towers atop Mount San Bruno just south of the City, reception in our area was spotty, ghosts and snow marring the image so badly it was hardly worth the effort at first. Over time TV stations increased their power and new ones joined in. Still, getting good reception continued to pose a challenge, one I attacked with vigor after we got our first TV, a defunct set I’d acquired and repaired.
Here is where the harmonics came in. If I transmitted on 14 megahertz, say, a popular ham radio hangout owing to the relative ease of communication to practically anywhere in the world, my setup invariably generated signals at 28, 56, 72mhz and so on. Though these spurious emissions were weaker than the fundamental at 14mhz, they were strong enough to wipe neighbors’ TV reception. That’s because the fourth harmonic (4×14=56) landed on TV channel 2 (54-60mhz). The result was the picture’s getting replaced by a meaningless tangle of rapidly-shifting bars and lines, no resemblance of a picture remaining. Similarly, the fifth harmonic took out channel 4 and so on. Since my setup was less than sixty feet from my nearest neighbors, and TV signals weak to begin with, the latter stood not a chance. Each time I pressed down the key or talked into the microphone, I took out reception in my immediate neighborhood.
That didn’t sit well with either neighbors or family members. This TVI (television interference), became a major issue for many hams since fixing the problem presented a major challenge. Many of us were forced off air as a consequence since it meant starting over with new equipment specifically constructed to deal with the issue. And in some instances the problem proved intractable.
Another problem was now and then one or more lights in our house would light up on its own though switched off, emitting a dull red whenever I held down the key, a nuisance at three a.m. The solution was to use a balance-feed antenna system instead of feeding the antenna at one end which could generate strong ground currents, some of it finding its way into house wiring.
Even with markedly reduced power I still wiped out nearby TV reception, resulting in angry outbursts. An early solution was to wait until TV stations signed off, usually around midnight. But that didn’t last; one by one they instigated longer and longer operation, eventually staying on 24/7. Before that I’d set the alarm for 3 or 4 a.m. on alternate days so I could continue operating. But as luck would have it, one of my neighbors worked swing shift so that soon came to an unhappy end as well.
Given these and other travails of my adventure into ham radio, and given that the novelty was fast wearing off, I began to sell or give away my equipment. Another factor leading to its disbanding was it seemed the majority of hams talked about nothing but their setups. The medium had become the message, quickening ham radio’s departure from my sphere.
But I wasn’t done. With leftover components I constructed a giant Tesla coil. Since I had procured a large reel of number 36 enameled wire, I spent hours and hours hand-winding this fine wire onto a 3-inch diameter mailing tube nearly five feet long. I started counting the turns but soon lost track, winding thousands by the time I finally reached the other end.
The primary coil was twenty turns of several strands of number 12 house wire held in place by a circular arrangement of spikes driven into a sturdy wood base. Ten-thousand-volt mica capacitors were used for tuning. With a smaller but still powerful transformed delivering 1700volts, I created sparks up to three feet in diameter, nearly two feet arcing to a nearby curtain rod. I suspected I might’ve done better because the coil appeared to be operating at twice its resonant frequency and I didn’t have enough high-voltage micas to lower the frequency of oscillation. Increasing the number of turns at the coil’s base might’ve helped but doing so would’ve halved the turns ratio putting me back where I was.
Whenever I energized this monster it handedly took out all TV and radio, beside adding a loud, raspy buzz to the telephone line making communication all but impossible. You can imagine the response from neighbors and family, which was universally swift and angry. Since I was playing with exceedingly dangerous voltages and currents, and given the intensity of interference, I decided it was time to call it quits. The project was a proof-of-concept, and having proved that concept, I was ready to move on and I did.
Shortly after, during a fierce storm the service wires leading to our house from the utility pole across the street came together resulting in gigantic sparks, a few big enough to remain glowing all the way to the ground despite the heavy rain. Each time the wires touched, the lights would go nearly out accompanied by a loud humming suffusing the rooms closest to where the wires entered the house. Minutes later they burnt through, plunging our house into darkness. During the height of the storm an irate neighbor called my father, angrily demanded “What’s that “god-damned son of yours up to now?” That had nothing to do with me but try convince the neighbor. Since his house was on the same circuit as ours, it too was plunged into darkness.
Even more interesting was this same neighbor calling my father complaining of interference to his precious TV—long after I’d departed.