Ham Talk by Warren Lange, W8KAN

This was presented by Warren Lange at the September 22nd Cherryland ARC General Meeting:


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When Joe asked me to give a talk at the meeting, I was tempted to think along technical lines and the foibles of radio communication. The physical laws of radio transmission and reception are pretty solidly set. We have all had to deal with the headaches those laws give us. All of us have been there and done that!  We are all different and  got to our hobby in interesting and unique ways. So here is a brief synopsis of my own ham hobby trip.  

I’m going to share some technical aspects of my ham radio life. I attempted to find, without success, a diagram of the first superheterodyne radio that I built as a high school teenager. At the time I had the assistance of the local AM broadcast station engineer. There were others who helped me but he was my main guy plus my source of many of the parts needed (and donated by the radio station, unknown to it!). 

I recall that my first receiver was what was known as a “crystal set.” How many of you know what I am talking about?  Well, it was a mounted germanium crystal and a “tickler.” The tickler was a piece of fine wire applied ever so gently to the crystal surface. The rest of the circuit included a variable capacitor and an RF coil. Finding an old Atwater Kent tuned RF receiver went a long way in getting you into the receiving business with this unit.

Sid was a local “sparker,” a spark-gap transmitter operator, whose rig blasted the whole spectrum so that he was the first person I heard. I became enchanted with the idea of being able to communicate with other folks. This sparker taught me code. A visit to his shack which was awash in ozone was my first exposure to that odor. The place reeked of it and I came to associate ozone with Sid, whose company I enjoyed.

 [An aside: as I understand it, the Titanic used spark equipment. Messages sent via it  would have been heard by those who could have responded with aid, but the latter had shut their stations down for the night.]

Sid introduced me to the AM engineer mentioned earlier, who encouraged me. This engineer convinced me that there was better radio equipment available and that I should build an Edwin Armstrong superheterodyne receiver. Have any of you ever heard of Armstrong? *PAUSE* (It is my understanding that he was the one behind the heterodyne signal handling system in present day receivers.)

Just to show you how hooked I was, I took the money that I had been saving from my Chicago Tribune paper route—for a new bike—and bought a kit with an Armstrong circuit diagram. It showed the component values required and also included the coils and IFs.

Over the years of building and foraging I accumulated an impressive store of radio parts. At one time, I even knew the color code for the various resistors. I would be hard pressed to do it now. Later in life I retired from equipment building and sold my parts at a swap and shop. It was hard to let go!

Unfortunately, I threw the old circuit drawings away years ago. My best recollection is that the superheterodyne receiver used a 57 as a mixer and IF amplifier, a 58 as a detector, and a 27 as an oscillator and audio. The power supply used an 80 rectifier. I bought the condensers but my engineer friend had a friend who found a plate transformer and built a 2.5 volt filament transformer for me. Those early tubes really absorbed filament current so I was pleased that I did not have to use batteries.

A little side light here: since I was fresh and new in this radio business I did not know that a plate transformer could have a grounded center tap and No One Told me! When I received my transformer, in my haste to get things rolling, I hooked it up. I then plugged it in and began to run some tests with light bulbs.

I did not have any test instruments so plodded on. While doing a hookup, I placed my hand on the transformer which was “hot” because of the center tap ground. When I came down from my area, my mother asked me if there was something wrong. I left that question unanswered although I must have appeared “shocked.”

Course, I was anxious to get on the air. Why have it if you don’t use it? If I recall correctly my first transmitter was a 47 with a hand ground crystal and ran at 400 volts. It so happened that our local street cars ran on 400 volts DC. The car’s service had a bare wire running relatively close to my QTH (my second-floor bedroom).

I peeled a length of my AM radio station supplied multiple strand wire, attached a weight and threw it over the streetcar’s line-feed wire and it served as my power supply. It was a workable idea except, when the car went past, my plate voltage took a real dive and along with it my rig frequency stability.

We had lost our Minnesota farm during the Great Depression and moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, my parents could not afford to send me to Madison, Wisconsin, where the nearest FCC field office held exams. The result? I operated “boot leg,” until I graduated from high school, using W0ONM.

After graduating from hIgh school in 1940, I moved to Detroit and got a job. ( I recall that, during the depression, various folks would talk in awe and say, “He’s got a job!”) I was renting so could not really do any building or operating. I had not brought my rig with me and besides I found other pursuits, known as girls.

W.W.II came along and I enlisted in the Navy. After a few hectic years I returned home, used the GI bill to go to college and graduated as a mechanical engineer. I now had a family in a small home so radio took another back seat.

How many of you have ever been on a “Fox Hunt?” Does the club still have them? While I was in college I hooked up with another Sid. He had been the chief radio operator on Navy ships for five years. Sid was a CW man par excellent.

He is the only CW operator that I have known who could be receiving a message on the “mill” (typewriter) and be on the phone delivering a message at the same time.

Sid is now deceased. Prior to his death he suffered a stroke which caused him to lose his old message handling ability. His radio club held monthly fox hunts. We had some great times and did well hiding the fox (a 2 meter transmitter). One time in a movie marquee, next under the root of a tree while we keyed from the branches. Another time Sid donned a female dress with a huge bonnet and was hoeing in a large garden, with the transmitter in a basket next to the hoe and key.

Having been raised on a farm I was anxious to get back to the land. We bought a 40-acre farm near Belleville, Michigan. I now had my own place and time for ham radio, with a FCC office in Detroit so I became legal with a reissue call of W8KAN.

At the new QTH I began building transmitters. One was a T35. After operating that for awhile, I would come out of the shack reeling from the high intensity flashes from the tungsten plate.  My next rig used a pair of inverted metal 6L6s each immersed in a soup can of water operating in “push-pull” mode.  It worked well but I was not enchanted with it and went on to audio.

Want to share with you a little Field-Day incident that occurred about this time. I had just gotten my Extra Class license. Those days you took your exam at the FCC office in the government building in the heart of downtown Detroit. I may be wrong on this name, but think that it was Dick Cotton, who was the head man in the office. I do know that one of the license requirements was to receive and send solid 20 CW. Quite a change.

I was now a member of the Tin Lizzy Radio Club (really the Motor City Radio Club) bivouacked in the Henry Ford Museum. Was a great place for a meeting. Prior to the meeting we could stroll through the museum and enjoy the exhibits. That particular Field-Day we set up in Kensington Park near Milford, home of the G.M. Proving grounds.

This was also the period of the CBers. Seems that those folks went through the trouble of setting up illegal Field-Day stations. Around 0100 a drenched Dick Cotton stumbles in out of the rain into our cozy trailer with his CB rig and three-element beam. He had been out tracking down some of those stations. 

The audio rig, my first non-CW, required a little engineering as I was using 100 watts of RF, driven by 500 watts of audio. I used an 866 as the negative peak clipper. I recall having people tell me that they were hearing me loud and clear but their S meter was not moving. Such things can be pretty heady.

A few years later we built a new home in Livonia, Michigan, on a specifically selected lot. I went around with a hand-held radio and checked propagation. I was also looking for a long lot. What I found was 80 feet wide and 800 feet long. What extra effort we put into antenna systems pays off handsomely.

I had become interested in antennas and this was just the place for them. I designed and built a 20-meter, wide-spaced five-element beam. That was installed on a purchased eighty-foot fold-over tower. I placed a 40-meter single-element below the beam and a 15-meter, 3-element quad above. The rotator for the system was a converted airplane prop-pitch motor.

I also installed an array of 80-meter phased verticals. I found them hard to control so installed a ground-plane network which cured the problems. Though it worked, I was never really attracted to the system. Since I had a long enough lot, a full wave 80-meter dipole was in order and became a new challenge.

That full wave 80 turned out to be a great antenna except the Q was so high that changing frequencies was a lot of work so I never used it in a contest. Automatic tuners were not available. The feed-ladder spacers were 20 inches long with the bottom of the feed-lines tied together and grounded. The QRNs were just little “swishes.”

By this time the station-final was a hefty 4-1000 final running 4800 volts using a dry commercial pole transformer for power. I was doing a lot of traffic handling at the time. A card that I got from KC4USB, Antarctica, sort of tells it all.

I have never really been a DX’er as that is not where I went. My enjoyment came from designing and building. I still attend Field-Day, as I’m able. I feel that it is still really the only ham activity available and of interest to me, other than the Emergency Net on Monday evenings. (I did design a dipole antenna using coax feed which I used for Field-Day for many years. It was portable, dependable, and not too pricey.

In closing, I am going to share a personal story. In the late 50’s or early 60’s there were several tornados, all on the same day, that hit Indiana and Ohio. I was flying enroute from Chicago to Detroit on that day, in a W.W.II  workhorse C54, four-engine plane, because jet flights had been canceled due to bad weather. I was able to observe the heavy weather, to the south, from the air.

I realized that it was going to be a turbulent ride to Detroit. I like to sit in the rear of the plane under such circumstances as I can get a feel of how hard the pilots are working. As we waited for takeoff a very comely woman came and sat near me. I warned her that it would be a rough ride and that she might opt for a more comfortable seat forward.

She chortled at such nonsense and informed me that she was on the last legs of an around-the-world excursion so this was old hat. We had not been in the air for five minutes when I saw that she was in trouble and called the stewardess for a bag. When she delivered the bag to the lady, we hit a particularly vigorous turbulence and the stewardess landed in my lap. Who says a good deed goes unrewarded?

Once home in Livonia, using my more powerful station, I volunteered to help with traffic. I was asked, and accepted, to act as the control station, covering several states. This included telephone messages to and from interested friends and relatives, for approximately 20 hours. I was whacked!

A disclaimer: Don’t ask me about the care and feeding of the present day solid- state units. I just never did catch up with the new technology. At 92,  perhaps I am a bit too old for that sort of thing. Thanks for listening.