An Old Spark Soliloquizes
1931 QST Article
it has been a while since you read a story with terms and phrases
like "splinters of galena," "the day of the tuning coil that stretched
from the front bedroom to the back library; or from the attic to
the cellar," and "Ether God," then this article from the December
1931 edition of QST is for you. Galena, by the way, is a semiconductor
with a bandgap of about 0.4 eV that was used as the crystal
in crystal radio sets. It was used as a point-contact diode along
with a safety pin or similar sharp wire, commonly known as a "cat's
December 1931 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
An Old Spark Soliloquizes
By Earnest Sinclair Hook, W3IY
Last night I was urged
to visit a friend's house in in the city. I say "urged" because
I was sad and alone. My thoughts had scampered back into the happy
years that have gone forever. And there I met a strange man, a man
of queer mien, a man of mystery - and sorrow: a pioneer ham.
I hope that it will prove interesting, even if not instructive,
to those who only lately have been bitten by the Radio Bug, to hear
about some of the terrible difficulties that beset the path of the
beginner in those good old days (now with "Yesterday's Seven Thousand
Years") when wireless first "took to wing" and traveled to - ah!
too, 'twill be of some solace to those neglected wives of today
to hear of those old hams who left their better halves to pine away
alone and then took to brooding and stewing among the coiled wires
and tested crystals of the isolated wireless room.
As I remember it (although I must confess that the events are but
hazy spots on a dim and fading horizon) the very first step of the
Fiend was to get an antenna erected, by fair means or foul.
This incurred the overcoming of many problems and great obstacles.
There was one little fellow whose most disconcerting set-back was
his father's refusal to allow his "insane" son to put nail holes
in the family roof.
A problem of this nature was the
real test of the "fan." This was the time for earnest argument and
sincere coercion - if the rank of ether pounder was to be achieved.
But it soon made itself manifest, in this mentioned case, that the
only alternative would be to use rubber nails; or else, erect the
aerial in the regular way, while father was at work, and have it
greet the astounded paternal gaze when, too late, he returned home.
I suppose that it is quite unnecessary for me to say that the antenna
was put up and was proudly floating in the breeze, on the highest
pinnacle of the domicile, when Pop came home for supper. It happened,
once in a great while, that some lucky fellow would have the good
fortune to have his father's permission to "go ahead" with the work
of destruction. If so, the lad was lauded and praised - and "great
would be the distance thereof."
If the wash boiler escaped
the hawk-like eye of the outfit builder who was looking around the
place for something to bury for a good ground connection, you may
be sure that an equally good substitute already had been found and
Then came those long, tireless trips
among the second-hand and junk dealers in the town. Great, massive,
discarded switches of long ago were dug from beneath the rubbish
of ages and converted into lightning change-overs that could be
screwed beneath the newly-painted window sill - as a further means
of changing father's idea of what the house should look like to
the antenna and ground had been accomplished - with many holes in
the roof, risk of life and limb and the moving of mother's flower
bed to accommodate the tank or "what have you" there was the set
This was purely a matter of experiment,
practice, an eye for adaptability and gall - for even the salt boxes
and bird seed containers were unsafe around the Fiend.
Alas! This was the day of the tuning coil that stretched from the
front bedroom to the back library; or from the attic to the cellar,
depending only on the experimenter's idea of efficiency, and disregarding
entirely household arrangement and bodily hazard. It was necessary,
oh Ether God, if Nauen was to be heard on the long wave.
The detector was a piece to be pondered over. Acid spilled on
the new rug was only an incident; splinters of galena and silicon
in Pop's feet an accident; the disappearance of Ma's platinum pin
(from her breast pin) a mystery. Of course there was the piece of
pet galena (Arlington tested) worth its weight in gold and prized
more highly than the precious yellow metal; and there was the carefully
filed brass contact - delicately laid away.
were attempted - but few indeed were the fortunate fellows who could
make one. Those who could do so were of the First Order and their
praises were sung far and near.
The intricacies of the manufacture
of the condenser made it necessary to save pennies; and it always
proved to be a red-letter day when enough had accumulated in the
little tin box to send off to the Whosit company of Wheresit, makers
of "high-grade wireless specialties," for one of their guaranteed
Fixed condensers were a "pipe"
and consisted of almost any old thing around the shack that was
not tacked down. There were all sorts of shapes, sizes and degrees
brought about by the using of tobacco foil and various other odds
borrowed or stolen, were the headphones, always; often, conveniently
"lost." Per-force, in the beginning, the telephone companies suffered
the losses, for the Fiend was desperate where constructive skill
was insufficient to fill his needs.
I almost forgot to mention
the aerial lead-in bushing! The memory is a dark spot on the vista
of the past. An accidental push on the window pane or a quick drill
through the newly-papered wall of the room always brought its reward.
the neglected wives, these were the days of distracted mothers and
furious fathers. But it is rather hard to forget those martyred
women of the stirring pioneer days of the ether. How pathetic was
the case of Mrs. X whose husband, an old fellow who had been married
so long that he was beginning to like it, left her to knit alone
while he (after being gored by the wireless bull) lost all interest
in matrimony and began to wind tuning coils and cover her fruit
jars to use them for transmitting condensers.
The beginning was always attempted with a Ford Coil. These little
ether microbes caused more naval wireless operators and government
inspectors to take to drink than any other known reason.
From these squeak boxes the next step was a transformer, home-made
or otherwise, of great size - the bigger the better; for show and
efficiency was close kin.
Oh, those transformers! When the
key was depressed, there was a mighty roar that shook the house;
and a blue, flaming spark that shot raspingly between the electrodes
and sent its pale light over the drawn features of the Fiend at
the throttle. Neighbors ran frantically to father, complaining that
their lights were dimming to darkness, and the telephone and power
companies sent crews of men rushing to the scene of the crime.
Such great strains punctured the adolescent condenser; which
meant that more jars must he "procured" from the pantry and hastily
covered to replace the cracked ones.
followed burnt-out meters, kick-backs and ruined house wiring; but
the "work" went on, and on, and on - into the dawn. There were hollowed
eyes, pale cheeks and thinly covered, meatless frames, and endless
energy expended; and Static and Regulations and Radio Clubs to be
reckoned with. But perseverance, eventually, brought forth success;
and one night the time signals from NAA could be heard, and on another
evening the fruit jar condensers would hold together long enough
to blast forth a mighty "QST" (meaning, "If anyone hears this, for
Pete's sake let me know") on only Allah knew just what wavelength!
So you wives of today, whose husbands have been sacrificed
before the God of the Ether, and those of you who are just entering
the Mystic Spell, take heed. Should there be a stranger in your
midst some evening, who is a bit bored when you snap on the gold-plated
switch of your highly polished living room radio set, and who acts
queerly when some honey-voiced announcer purrs forth his silly twattle,
pay him homage and deep respect - and turn-off the "music box."...
For he is
One of the Ether Brotherhood,
He came with the first,
And, oh, how he cursed
And it's still here.