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.
It is hard to imagine a time when there wasn't a vast network of
highways connecting not just the interior of the continental U.S.,
but also interconnecting all of the countries in North America.
Just as pioneers in covered wagons and on horseback forged the routes
that became the Oregon Trail in the early 19th century, so did teams
of explorers, cartographers and engineers do the heavy lifting in
the early 20th century in establishing the first defined roads for
expediting the transportation of goods and persons all up and down
the continent's west coast. Radio operators were among the crews
of the International Pacific Highway (IPH) project. Heavy, bulky,
and fragile tube-based radio equipment was transported in vehicles
equally bereft of adequate facilities in the form of power and shock
absorbing suspensions. This story from a 1931 edition of the ARRL's
QST magazine tells of harrowing experiences in the jungles and mountains
of South America, including very aggressive natives and even bands
of roving banditos. Reading the story conjures up thoughts of
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and famous "I don't have to
show you any stinking badges" line.
Zepp antennas were the order of the day for successful QSOs
in just about any environment.
In the Field with IPH
By Bertram Sandham, W6VO
The author (extreme left) keeping the radio car from starting
back down the mountain as a bunch of Indians turn it around.
Photo by C. W. Martin, Los Angeles Times
Like shelling peas:
Working a W9 with woolen gloves in extreme cold at an elevation
of 10,000 feet.
Weeks were spent cutting tracks for the expedition in jungles
such as this.
What a vicious look we gave those rugged and forbidding mountains
that lay to the leeward of the French liner as its bow tossed the
miles aside between Los Angeles harbor and EI Salvador. Beautiful
indeed with its cities buried in the mists of antiquity, but what
an obstacle it all offered to the progress of our expedition I I
chose to have my cabin on the weather side of the vessel.
The first expedition which set out last year to explore the tentative
route for the International Pacific Highway, which will ultimately
reach from Alaska to Buenos Aires in Argentine, had sufficient troubles
making progress over the ox-cart trails and boulder strewn terrain,
but it now seems a pleasant vacation trip when paralleled with the
vicissitudes that the party encountered on the second expedition
which began its trek from Mexico City January 25th and ended at
La Libertad, EI Salvador, May 1st.
The radio layout on this second trip was a vast improvement over
that of the first - at least in the physical make-up and added convenience.
As was the case with the first expedition, little advance notice
was given for preparation for the journey. The equipment was finished
and installed only a few hours before the expedition departed, and
IPH was not on the air until we were in the field. On the extreme
right in the photograph is the transmitter, a 50-watt tube in a
t.p.t.g. circuit. The power supply rests in its bin in the upper
left hand corner and is one of the new products of Ralph Heintz'
genius. This engine generator unit furnishes 52 volts at 350 cycles
as well as 10 volts for the filament. This 400 watt machine is driven
by a two cycle single cylinder engine and runs as high as 4000 r.p.m.
The unit weighs but 31 pounds complete. Below the engine compartment
is the frequency meter, and to the right of this the receiver using
three N tubes. The other compartments carry coils, vibroplex and
other parts. Forty and twenty meter Zepps were carried on a reel
and hung to anything that offered a support. Sometimes a tall building
in a city offered an almost vertical antenna while at other QRA's
it was impossible to suspend it higher than ten feet above ground;
but it seemed to get out just as well even so.
The infernal inquisitiveness of the natives is the biggest bugaboo
for the operator on such a trip as this. The radio car must be near
a street or road in the city and its array of instruments quickly
gathers the dark-skinned lads and men who are nearby, while the
racket made by the engine thoroughly advertises the QRA to those
not nearby and they come running like magic. At Tehuantepec, in
southern Mexico, some ambitious fellow started the game of "tapping."
This consisted of tapping someone else in the crowd and quickly
withdrawing the hand while the victim looked around in amazement
to learn who had struck him. The progress of this game grew like
a sunflower with everyone tapping someone else harder as time progressed.
In a few moments they were falling all over the radio car bumping
against me as I was QSO a W9. A member of the party happened by
and came to my assistance by rushing to the mayor's office and returning
with soldiers. The excitement even brought the Mexican federal inspector
to the scene who asked to see my permit for using a radio transmitter
in Mexico. Following the QSO I had to conduct him to our hotel where
among a ream of permits for motion pictures, firearms and what not,
I showed him the paper permitting the radio work. He read this and
left in great disappointment thinking that he was indeed about to
make a big haul.
While camped for the night in a dense jungle we had no other
choice than to camp with a forest single fire as our next door neighbor.
This burned slowly however, consuming dried leaves and dead trees.
A dead tree nearby was silently burning inside (unknown to us) and
suddenly, as I was QSO W9EUU, the tree toppled over missing the
radio car by several yards and filling the air with ashes and smoke
that made the completion of the QSO a very difficult task.
After departing from the city of Juchitan, we were proceeding
slowly over a narrow sunken ox-cart trail that was grinding the
rubber off the tires like an emery wheel. A guide whom we had employed
in this city rode in the first car with the engineer. The cars were
running about 300 feet apart due to the dense dust when suddenly
the guide appeared through a dust cloud holding his revolver in
his hand and running back toward the city as fast as "his feet would
carry him. He shouted "Hold-up" in Spanish as he passed our car.
I stopped instantly and started to open a compartment for my pistol
when my riding companion shouted to leave it there as we were covered.
The brush along the road was filled with rebel bandits with rifles
and bandoliers of ammunition. We were ordered to drive up to the
other cars where the leader was ordering them looted. Our interpreter
however, talked with the leader at length, and we were fortunate
to lose only a few articles which the bandits were in immediate
need of. These consisted of a case of sardines, flashlights, ammunition,
cigarettes, matches, etc. I was thankful no part of the radio equipment
was taken for the reason that I might have to remain behind to teach
"his nibs" the code. Some of the members of the expedition were
hazarding the thought that the bandits might follow us and attack
again while we were in camp. I added that they surely would if they
ate any of the sardines in the meantime. These we had purchased
in Tehuantepec and they were terrible. Our camp that night was made
with a minimum of equipment and we slept with our clothes on.
IPH was not on the air daily as on the first expedition. QSO's were
had from the principal cities and camps, but more amateurs were
contacted than on the previous trip. Very favorable signal reports
were usually given, IPH being rarely less than R6, several adding
that the sigs compared favorably with those of XDA. All districts
except sixth and seventh were heard each time on the air. The hours
available for radio work seemed to be those when west coast signal
were not coming through.
Operating a radio transmitter on this type of an expedition,
where there is a different QRA nearly every day, is not what it
is cracked up to be. In the jungle it is no easy task to keep the
car near camp and also have the Zepp hanging in a reasonably clear
space. The best tree was usually on the other side of the river,
necessitating the use of hip boots. In the small villages there
were but one story buildings. In the deep canyons, heavy mineralized
cliffs reduced signals to a whisper. The exhaust of the engine usually
prohibited copying signals that were less than R5 although the engine
was placed on the opposite side of the car at the end of a 25 foot
cable. Added to this, the operator drove the radio car - I mean
tried to drive it. Boulders half the size of the car covered the
path, while the sides of mountains had to be scaled with 40 Indians
pulling on a tow rope. Then we had to wash our own clothes, put
up and dismantle camp, work on the cars, etc. A mosquito head net
was necessary while QSO on the transmitter as well as oil being
rubbed on the back of the hands and neck. A small fire was also
kept running to keep the mosquitos, gnats and a thousand other varieties
of bugs at bay.
Skip and fading were continuously bad. Daily business was left
hanging on the hook many times due to this annoyance. One member
of the expedition interested himself with this phenomena and concluded
that if the flat top of the Zepp had an acute bend in it, the signals
would be sent out in such a ghastly form that Mr. Skip would hide
when he saw them coming. To keep peace in camp the Zepp was hung
the following day with an acute hump in it, and lo! sigs were R8
and no skip. This was no break for me. I had to tell him that it
was worse than ever.
About 15 miles were driven along the railroad right of way over
mahogany ties that were anything but straight. More than a dozen
railroad bridges were utilized to cross rivers too deep for fording.
The brakes on one of the cars locked as it endeavored to climb up
over the rails onto the bed with a train due in 15 minutes. The
mechanic hurriedly disconnected all of the brake rods but not before
the train came hustling down the line. It stopped within a few feet
of the car while the engineer shook his fist from the cab window.
The passage of the cars from the city of Oaxaca to Tehuantepec,
a distance of seventy miles, consumed fifty days, the party working
every day including Sunday to move the cars over the 40 percent
grades in the mountains. The Tehuantepec River was crossed 88 times
in 17 miles, about every third crossing requiring block and tackle.
Rain governs the length of time that the expedition can remain
in the field. Rains began falling when we entered the republic of
El Salvador so we headed for the nearest port (La Libertad) and
the cars were lightered out to the vessel and we headed for home.
A torrential downpour caught us high in the mountains among the
coffee plantations and, even though we used chains, the day will
remain indelible in my memory. Using low gear as a brake down a
steep grade the front wheels refused to respond to the steering
wheel as I came to a curve. The front wheels went over the cliff
while the right rear fender struck a coffee tree tearing the fender
away from the running board but holding the car back from a 1500
foot dive down to the river.
The political situations in Honduras and Nicaragua will strongly
govern the plans of the expedition for the third trip, which normally
would depart again next January to pick up the thread of the trail
at El Salvador and proceed to Panama if possible. Several hundred
miles of jungle in Costa Rica must be progressed through which there
is not a vestige of a trail today.
Radio conditions for short wave transmission and reception between
southern Mexico or Central America and the Sixth U. S. District
during our spring months is atrocious. It proved so on this trip.
An occasional QSO of the usual variety was sandwiched in several
times, but to get several hundred words of press for newspapers
and other messages off the hook daily is out of the question. Several
operators in the sixth district have related to me since my return
to civilization that they had heard operators in the ninth district
give IPH R7 and R8 copying me single, but the sixes in question
were unable to hear my signals at all, hunt and twist the dial as
they might even though they knew I was on the air at the moment.
However, there was not a single exception encountered when an amateur
was contacted that he did not stand ready to take press and other
messages and forward them. Many, no doubt, did not handle traffic
as a general rule but all were ready to help IPH. One cannot realize
what this means until buried in the jungles or high in the barren
mountains in terrific heat and has the amateurs to depend upon to
move the business. I want to offer my sincere thanks to all of them.
Here are the stations with which successful contacts were made:
W9BPL W6EW W6DK W4AEV W8BOJ W9UM W8BJX W9CES W5BOL W2AHZ W1KM W8BUM
W1ZZ OA4V W4AEM W4AJD W4LM W8DNO W7AAT W5AB W6CYR W8ANO YN2XUF W5YW
W6EPH W5AGG W4AEL W4ABS W4BC W2BO NJ2PA W4SR TI3XA W9YL W5CE W6BKL
W6DZD W6AHP W5HA W5VQ CM1BY W9ID W4AKH W8BF W3JM W5QL W8BF W5LB
W2BAK W2AHZ W9ETA W9EUU W4ALD W2DB W9DFT CM1EM.
Posted December 18, 2012