Ham Radio Nostalgia


For those of you interested in history, on these pages you can read about and view some photos of my radio history.

The Zenith console radio and the Royal 50 transistor radio shown below gave me my first experiences with the world of radio and got me started down the path of learning electronics and becoming a ham radio operator.

Zenith Console Radio of 1930s and 40s Zenith Royal 50 - my first radio  

It all started back in 1960 or 1961.  I received my first exposure to shortwave radio at age 11 or 12 while my mother and grandmother visited my aunt who lived a few miles from us in Essex, Maryland.  They would visit regularly and during the summer I would go along with my younger brother.  My aunt Dorothy had a small house in Essex with a partially finished attic.  When I got bored listening to the adults "talk" I would climb the steep narrow staircase leading to the attic and explore.  The attic was dark, receiving light from two small windows and a few overhead lights.  It had a sloped ceiling with lots of nooks and crannies to explore.  In one corner I discovered a large floor model console radio with a large circular dial.  I think it was a Zenith radio, like the photo above left.   With my aunt's permission I listened to the radio to pass the time.  On this radio I heard local AM broadcast stations and on other parts of the dial I heard people speaking foreign languages.  I would pass the time searching for stations and trying to see how many stations I could hear on this set.

In 1962, on my 13th birthday, my grandparents gave me a portable transistor radio, a Zenith Royal 50 (photo above right).  At that time, transistor radios were beginning to replace tube sets.  Pocket size transistor radios were the rage - like cell phones today.  The quality of your radio was measured by the number of transistors it had.   I carried my radio with me everywhere I went since it fit nicely in my shirt pocket.   During the night I discovered that you could hear distant stations like WBZ, WGN, and WOR.  I started keeping a list of station calls that I heard and in a years time I was able to log over a hundred stations on the AM broadcast band.  By this time I was in junior high school in the 7th grade.  This birthday gift was responsibe for cultivating an interest in radio and electronics that would last a lifetime.

Basic radio theory in Elements of Radio

Later the same year my uncle, an ex-Navy man who attended radio school in Bambridge, Maryland, gave me a book titled "Elements of Radio" which he had used to study electronics in the Navy.   I read this book from cover to cover learning about the fundamentals of radio and the inner workings of a radio receiver's amplifiers, tuned circuits, detectors, mixers, etc.

My interest in electronics and radio continued to grow and in 1963, at age 14, I asked for, and received, a portable shortwave receiver for Christmas.   The Channel Master Trans-World radio (photo below on the left) was a real high quality set since it had 14 transistors!  By this time I had developed a good understanding of how a radio worked.   In fact, I had developed too good of an understanding because it caused me some trouble in school.

In my 8th grade science class we were given a homework assignment to describe how something worked.  The teacher told us we had to write the paper using our knowledge of science, without the aid of reference materials.  Since I was an expert on radio, I wrote a detailed description of how a radio worked, describing each stage of the radio from the antenna, tuner, RF amplifier, detector, mixer, IF amplifier, and audio amplifier.  On the day the teacher returned our graded papers, my paper did not have a grade on it.  Instead, it had a note written on it asking me to see the teacher after class.  I did not know what to make of this!  After class the teacher asked me if I had used a reference book to write my paper.  I told him that I did not use any reference books.  He did not believe me and started asking all kinds of questions about radio and how could a 14 year old kid know so much about radio.  After a long dissertation on how radio worked, and what I had studied on my own, I finally convinced the teacher that I had not copied the material from a book.  The teacher gave me an "A"... reluctantly.

Channle Master Trans World Receiver

In 1964 I began exploring the shortwave bands with my portable shortwave radio.  One evening I discovered a group around 4 megacycles (Mc) on the dial.   This group could be found at the same spot on the dial around the same time every evening.  They were on AM and had loud signals on my portable set.  After listening to them for several weeks I strung a wire out the window and connected it to the external antenna jack of my radio so I could hear the weaker stations better.   I later learned that they were "ham radio" operators.  Some of the regulars in the group with the strongest signals included W3DUQ, W3FDY, and others whose calls I can no longer remember.  Most of the stations were located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England.  They all ran AM (amplitude modulation) with broadcast quality audio.  Their converations were about technical subjects like techniques for improving transmitter audio, antennas, and advanced AM modulation techniques.  Super modulation using an "upside down tube" was a very popular topic.  Harry, W3FDY was the senior member of the group.  He is a silent key now, but I have heard Bill W3DUQ on 3885 KHz (as of June 1997).

Listening to this nightly activity on the air waves sparked my interest in amateur radio.  I did some research at the school library to learn what ham radio was all about and aspired to get my license and get on the air with these guys.   I wrote a letter to Bill W3DUQ telling him about my experiences but never received a reply.  In those days you were pretty much on your own, Elmers (amateur radio mentors) were hard to find.  I didn't know of any amateur radio operators in the neighborhood (after I was licensed I found one two blocks away) so I decided to learn the code on my own - you guessed it - the wrong way, by counting dots and dashes!  Using my portable receiver, I tuned the shortwave bands for CW signals.   I usually found NSS or WCC to copy.  My portable receiver did not have a beat frequency oscillator (BFO), so the signals had to be pretty strong to copy the code.   After several weeks of trying to learn morse code in this fashion, I quit in frustration.  I continued to listen to hams on-the-air and about a year later, unwilling to give up, I tried again - with the same frustrating result.

In 1964, in the 10th grade, I enrolled in the school's electronics program.  It was a three year program where you studied the principles of electronics and applied them in the lab by building an AM radio.  In your senior year your project was to build a five tube table radio from scratch.  I completed the first year of this program, building a simple crystal receiver and a one tube super regenerative receiver with a tuned input using a tickler coil made from cardboard from a roll of a toilet paper.  Later that year, my 10th grade guidance counselor advised me that I was college material and advised me to switch to mechanical drawing and focus on academic courses in preparation for college.  So, on the counselors advice I reluctantly switched to mechanical drawing in the 11th and 12th grade and pursued the academic courses.

Throughout high school, my amateur radio interests were put on the back burner as I pursed other interests... making the high school baseball team, weight lifing, popular music (the British invasion), and writing to penpals in England.  I continued to listen to the ham bands and started working to earn spending money.  I mowed lawns and at age 17 obtained my first job at a local retail store as a stock boy.  That job lasted only two weeks.  The store manager hired me without clearing it with his boss and when the boss found out about it I was let go.  My senior year of high school I acquired a paper route which kept me with spending money until I graduated from high school at which time I had to give the job up.

I graduated from High School in June 1967.  That summer I got a job at Read's Drug Store at the local shopping center which was walking distance from home.  I worked as a cashier full time during the summer months and during the evenings part time while I attended college.  I had this job until I finished my first two years of college.


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