November 1961 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Here is a pretty funny
"ham-drama" story from a 1961 issue of Popular Electronics magazine that, although fictional,
could easily have really happened. I'm not much of a party-goer, but based on what
little experience I've had at social functions and the stereotypical electronics
nerd behavior often portrayed in movies, the author's scenario likely actually did
occur. Maybe he exaggerates just a bit, though. The follow-up situation would be
a great gag to play on someone if you ever get the chance. It probably would not
be hard to get people to fall for it.
How to Talk to Non-Hams
By Fred Ebel, W9PXA
It happened during one of those awkward conversational vacuums abhorred by party
hosts. My host, an up-and-coming insurance man, suddenly turned to me and said,
"I understand you're a radio ham."
I produced one of those it's-really-nothing type of smiles. But secretly I was
flattered. All eyes were on me, including those of three beautiful young ladies.
And then came the question that must come to all hams at one time or another.
"What do hams talk about?"
My interrogator was a platinum blonde.
When our eyes met, it was like an a.f.c. locking circuit. We resonated.
"Well," I began, "take that QSO - that means talk - I had with a ham in India
the other day. He--"
"I know, I know!" broke in a bearded chap who had just recited some weird poetry
while tapping a bongo rhythm on his knees. "This fellow had just been bitten by
a king cobra. Your message made it possible to fly in antitoxin in the nick of time."
"No, this ham lives in the Himalayan country-"
The blonde squealed. "The home of the man-eating tiger. The tiger had attacked
a native and was roaming the village for its next victim. The ham wanted you to
send in professional hunters."
I winced. "No, no, no! This ham was just" an ordinary postal clerk. He gave me
an S9 report and said my modulation was tremendous."
I had delivered this information with considerable heat. But all I saw were blank
expressions. Perhaps they didn't understand. I cleared my throat. "You see, this
ham was on the other side of the world, yet he gave me that wonderful S9 report.
It meant I was really barreling in."
Another of those vacuums resulted.
My host smiled through clenched teeth. His words would have made good battery
acid. "How very interesting. Please tell us more."
"Yes," a pretty redhead said, "tell us, what do hams really talk about?"
I searched my brain for a typical example. I had it. A very interesting QSO during
which my DX contact had successfully made two transmissions, though his antenna
had fallen to the deck of the ship.
I managed a smile, then: "I once talked to a ham who was the radio operator on
a tramp schooner that was crossing the South China Sea, and here's the interesting
"The ship was caught in a typhoon. sinking fast. But thanks to your quick action,
port authorities were notified and a rescue ship got there just in time," said the
redhead, beaming like a quiz kid.
I wiped my brow, counted down from x minus nine to zero before I answered. "No,
the interesting part was that the antenna wasn't in the air. It was lying on-" But
I got no further.
"I know," blurted a shiny-eyed guest.
"Mutiny had broken out on the ship. The captain already was bound to the mast
and the crew of cutthroats was trying to get to the radio operator!"
The circuits in my brain shorted out.
I jumped to my feet and ran out as I screamed: "Yes, that was it. Mutiny! The
crew had gone berserk. The typhoon had ripped open the cages of the wild-animal
cargo. Three gorillas, two tigers, an elephant, and five cobras were loose. The
boiler had just exploded, and-and-" But the rest of my words were lost in the wind
as I raced home, hat-and coat-less.
How long I stood behind the closed door of my apartment having visions of two
men in white coats coming to get me, I don't know. But finally, letting out a huge
sigh of relief, I sank into an easy chair, after automatically switching on the
TV set. It was time to review the past events with analytic calm. What had happened?
What had caused me to blow my top?
Breaking into my thoughts came an excited voice
..."CQ emergency! CQ emergency."
I looked up. There on the television screen, parka-clad and kneeling next to
a dog sled, was a man speaking into the microphone of an emergency transceiver.
Then a cut to the radio shack of a young operator. "Read you loud and clear,
old man. What is your message?"
Cut back to the frozen north. "Dogs broke loose, partner broke legs in crevasse
fall, wolves closing in. Need immediate help! Our position is-"
I switched off the TV, smiled. Of course, that was it. The public is conditioned
to make-believe hams who have exciting adventures. For them, no talk about weather
or technical stuff. These fictional hams are men of action, their conversation laced
with "Medical help on the way" ... "Stand by for instructions on emergency appendix
operation ... "
An idea played around in the back of my head. Why not give my friends a show?
They wanted drama. I would give them drama. Hama-drama !
I immediately wrote a dramatic sketch of exciting, imaginative ham adventures
and put it on tape. Being a mimic, I had no trouble taking off three different voices,
representative of hams from three different parts of the world. I even inserted
sound effects, teletype and fast code - who ever heard a re-broadcast of a short-wave
transmission without those dah-dit-dahs?
The big job in taping the playlet was synchronizing the voices so that my live
voice would track with what my characters said. I arranged to have a relay in the
transmitter actuate the recorder hidden in a closet, and I used my regular receiver
speaker to heighten believability.
How does it work? Wonderfully! My public relations are the very best. Guests
in the ham shack no longer suppress yawns - they're on tenterhooks waiting for the
next thrilling installment.
Consider the demonstration I gave last Sunday to a new neighbor and his family
- including two kids. After seating my guests comfortably, I put on the show - with
a warm-up period first.
The warm-up feature is actually an audio-visual aid as I fuss over ancient ham
gear - a spiral-wound oscillation transformer, rotary spark gap, huge capacitors,
and loose couplers. It's junk, but the effect is terrific. My modern transmitter
and receiver don't even get a glance - how could anything so small, compact and
silent be effective?
With my audience properly primed, I started the main event by giving the globe
a twirl, stroking my chin, and then muttering: "Hmmm, suppose we contact this part
of the earth."
My neighbor gulped. "You can talk - anywhere ?"
My smile was indulgent, as I nodded in the affirmative, my finger stopping the
globe at the Arctic Zone. "I haven't talked to the top of the world for some time.
I wonder what Professor Schloggenfloober's doing. He's the scientist, you know,
who's heading that project to determine what lies at the bottom of the ice cap."
Open-mouthed heads nodded as I grabbed the dead mike to intone: "CQ, CQ, CQ Schloggenfloober
After an appropriate time, I switched on the tape recorder, and from the speaker
came what I like to think of as a pretty good imitation of a German scientist. ..
"Dis iss Professor Schloggenfloober shpeaking from de Nort Pole. Ve are haffing
a heat vave here - sixty degrees below zero."
"Thanks for coming back, Professor.
What's new in Santa Claus land?"
This was for the benefit of the children, who leaned forward to catch every word.
Chuckling came through static - I didn't forget to throw in some static on the
sound track. "Tell the sshildren that ve got a pet walrus. Ve call him Blubber Boy
unt ride him every day. Oh, unt annuder ding, ve found a mastodon at the two-hundred
foot level in a vunderful state of preservation. Dose mastodon steaks go good vit
"Boy, a pet walrus. Wish I had one," said Junior.
I signed off with the professor, then purposely yawned as if I were bored.
"I'll try to raise something more interesting," I said, noticing through the
corner of an eye the amazement on the faces of my guests. "Suppose we point the
beam in the direction of the South Pacific Ocean."
Again, after a suitable pause, we heard a voice (mine, of course), this time
the voice of an excited British radio operator of a steamship ... "This is the S.
S. Glugkloop (I had put my hand in front of my mouth) ... Can you take a message?
Very urgent! Very urgent!"
My neighbor poked his wife in the ribs.
"Did you hear that - very urgent!"
"Go ahead," I said, reaching for a pencil and pad of paper.
"Here's the message." The voice was almost a scream, as though some awful thing
were impending. "Just sighted strange sea animal with huge serpent-like head. Body
length estimated one hundred feet with ten loops breaking water. Crossed bow some
fifty feet ahead, creating wave estimated six feet high. Position - mid-Pacific
near Ogre Island. Relay message to the Society for the Investigation of Unusual
Sea Life. The address is ... " Here the voice rises to a blood-curdling scream,
and a sound effect as of wood splintering is heard.
Naturally I make a valiant effort to learn what has happened. But only static
comes through. I turn to my white-faced guests, say: "I - I wonder what happened
But I know that, in their mind's eye, they know what happened. They see the huge
head of a sea serpent landing on the ship's cabin, spike-like fangs ripping the
wood asunder ....
Later that evening, I turned on the last installment, which is a harrowing account
of an explorer in a Burma jungle making an urgent request for penicillin.
How do I feel about these hama-dramas? Like a kindly Santa Claus who wouldn't
tell the kids for all the money in the world that the beard isn't real. My guests
get quite a kick out of these mythical adventures.
So do I. So much so that a strange and somewhat frightening thing is happening.
Instead of going on the air and having real QSO's with real hams, I find myself
writing and recording new adventures and talking to myself.
Maybe those two men in the white coats will get me yet!
Posted August 23, 2022
(updated from original post