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Where did the magic go?

I was a mere lad of 12 with a burning desire for knowledge.  Our scout troop was in its infancy, I was only a second class scout working toward merit badges for 1st class scouting. I was also a den chief to a cub scout pack.

One of the merit badges I was working on was Morse Code.  As luck would have it, there was a commercial pipeline company working on a construction project thru the county. Among the employees of this company was a radio operator. I don’t recall his name but he was a ham and our scout master had convinced him to help some of us with learning enough code to qualify for the merit badge.

After a couple of weeks of learning the code there were about 5 of us who were interested in learning more than just the code.  We would regularly stay after the meeting to talk with this fellow about his hobby of “Ham Radio”.  He would tell us about the equipment, antennas and discuss the most basic theory of operation.  I was more than a little interested!  A couple of the guys even bought receiver kits from Allied Radio to be able to listen to shortwave broadcasts. There was this one kid who’s folks had a good bit of money and he bought both a Space Spanner and an Ocean Hopper kit from Allied.

The Ocean Hopper was a 3-tube super regenerative receiver using a 35W4 as a rectifier and the audio complement was a 50C5 and a 12AT6 as an RF detector.You could purchase 5 plug-in coils to increase the coverage from 165 KHZ to 35 MHZ.  There were connections for an external speaker the receiver also has pins for connecting headphones and a fahnestock clip to connect a piece of wire for an antenna.

The Space Spanner was a bit cheaper and only covered from 6-18 MHZ but this would easily cover all the commercial short wave frequencies in the 41 meter band as well as the ham bands of 40 and 20 meters. Utilizing the same basic circuitry as the Ocean Hopper the Space Spanner came with a built-in speaker and the 50C5 provided almost adequate output to hear weak stations.  With either of these receivers a good antenna with a proper ground would provide hours of pleasure just listening to all this new world of information.

As the weeks wore on I began to keep saving part of my weekly allowance of 50 cents along with my earnings from doing chores for my grandmothers and cutting grass. My goal was to get the $15.95 price of the Space Spanner along with a couple of dollars for a soldering iron and a few hand tools.The wooden cabinet was an additional $2.90!  With shipping costs from Allied the total cost for this rig would be just north of $20.00, quite a “princely” sum for a 12 year old kid who earned roughly $2.50 a week!

One night following our code lesson a couple of guys and myself were able to convince our instructor to let us see his “shack” as he called it. So off we went along with our Dads to see what this hobby called “Ham Radio” was all about!  As we entered his home he directed us to a room to the side of the living room.  Inside was the most complete compliment of radio gear I had ever seen!  Not only did he have his ham station equipment he also had all this commercial gear for the day to day communications needs of the construction company as well.  I remember watching him sit down in front of his ham station and flipping switches, turning knobs and all of a sudden the room was aglow with the illumination of vacuum tube radios!

I was absolutely speechless as the receiver came to life and the sounds of 20 WPM code came bubbling out of that massive 12″ speaker!  He then tuned to 40 meter phone and proceeded to make contact with another ham in Arizona.  Arizona!  That was hundreds of miles from my small town home in Southern Kentucky, initially I thought no way!  How could this box of wires, resistors, capacitors and tubes allow a fellow to speak into a microphone and talk to someone hundreds of miles away?  Seeing our amazement he then performed a trick that I still to this day consider nothing short of “magic”.  He took a small fluorescent tube, held it in his hand above his transmitter and closed the key.  To my amazement the tube actually begin to glow!  Needless to say I was “hooked” this was truly magic to me and from that night on I have been hungry for knowledge and more information about this scientific phenomenon!

Over the next few weeks the “rich kid” lost interest and I was able to secure the Space Spanner and the cabinet from him for 10 Bucks!  He had botched the assembly of the Ocean Hopper and had thrown it away!  Wow I bet I could have restored that one too but it was already in a land fill somewhere. I painstakingly followed the assembly directions and learned to read basic schematic diagrams while assembling the kit.  I was a bit nervous when I finally got up the nerve to “throw the switch”.  To my total amazement the little receiver came to life!  Sounds like I had never heard before came out of that little 4-inch speaker!

That was 1957 and today at the tender age of 69 I still have that little receiver along with my first transmitter, a little 50 watt Heathkit DX-20.  Once in a while I plug in a J-38 and turn this rig on just to enjoy how I felt back in the late 50’s as KN4MZW!

Although by today’s standards with the Internet, cell phones, tablet computers and instant gratification available at every turn, it’s easy to see that the hobby of “Ham Radio” isn’t nearly as mysterious. However, being able to call a friend across the oceans at will, have a long conversation while developing a lifetime friendship; all on a station that I assembled myself and did not have to pay an internet or cellular provider a single penny to accomplish, is still “Magic” to me!

Upcoming 37th Anniversary of Packet Radio

At around 9PM on May 31, 1978 were the first KNOWN transmissions of Packet over Amateur Radio. The location was Bill Wong’s Restaurant in Montreal, Canada.

The Montreal Packet Net Group C/O:

Bob Rouleau VE2PY; Norm Pearl VE2BQS; Fred Basserman VE2BQF; Bram Frank VE2BFH; Jacques Orsali VE2EP; Ted Baleshta VE3CAF; Ian Hodgson VE2BEN; among others not mentioned.

They operated on a single 220Mhz channel using start-stop ASCII with the Ethernet CSMA/CD protocol. The protocol was modified for amateur applications by Robert T. Rouleau, VE2PY, and implemented by Fred Basserman, VE2BQF. Montreal Packet Net (MP-Net) Operated at 2400 bit/s using home-built modems.

A detailed description of the Montreal Protocol and hardware used in the experiments is given in the TAB book #1345 “PACKET RADIO” by Bob Rouleau and Ian Hodgson published in 1981. An interesting note is that the Montreal Modem design used the Exar XR-2206/2211 chip set. I am told that a sample of the Montreal Modem was sent to the Vancouver group (VADCG) in the fall of 1978 and it is probably no coincidence that the same chip set appeared in the TAPR TNC modem of which Doug Lockhart of VADCG had a hand in designing.

After an initial spurt of activity in amateur packet, Bob Rouleau and several others in the group turned to commercial applications for packet radio. The resulting company, DATARADIO Inc, today is building and marketing commercial packet radio systems around the world. A typical application is the Canadian Weather Radio packet service introduced some years ago using DATARADIO equipment specially designed for the application.

Bob was inducted in the CQ Magazine Amateur Radio Hall of Fame in 2003.


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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor