RTTY Got Me Into Amateur Radio

When I was a wee little lad in the 70s, I used to go to my grandfather's house on Saturday. He was a ham radio operator since 1956 and had a modest station. There was a 60' tower in the backyard with a Mosley TA-33 Junior tribander and a 6 meter beam at the top and 80 and 40 meter dipoles. His main rig was a set of Kenwood-Trio 599 Twins, probably the last of the silver front Kenwood rigs, with a separate transmitter and receiver. In the shack was also a Clegg Venus VHF rig, a Gonset G-20 6 meter AM rig, and some kind of Hallicrafters receiver from the 60s, all of which he rarely turned on. He was mostly a phone op who would ragchew, though I found out in later years he was quite a CW op in the early days.

After dinner I would be watching TV in the living room (I think Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk was usually on) or perhaps coloring a picture in a coloring book or something little kids would do. Grandpa would be back in the hamshack playing with radios. I'd hear him tuning across an HF band, probably 40 meters considering all of the broadcast station heterodynes you would hear flying by. There might be some phone signals which I always thought sounded funny. And then I'd hear that signal, that undeniable warbling sound. Back then I couldn't really describe the sound, but I always knew immediately that Grandpa would soon be turning on the old Model 15 teletype in the shack.

The Model 15 was nearly spotless and looked new, despite being maybe 30 years old. Grandpa somehow got it after the war, World War II in which he served, brand new in a crate. He built some kind of big metal box that it sat on which contained the electronics to decode the magical signal off the air. It was about three feet tall, about 20" wide, two and a half feet deep, black, and had lots of lights, switches and knobs on it. They weren't those wimpy little knobs and switches you buy today, they were big. Each switch was labeled with a blue colored Dymo label. The big black box had a round CRT picture tube about 3" in diameter that drew a bright green trace on the white screen. The whole box was built like a tank, or at least it seemed to a young aspiring radio engineer like me. The Model 15 was black with a crinkle paint finish and a typewriter-like keyboard on the front with dark green keys that almost looked like bakelight. The keys had the usual assortment of QWERTY keys, but all sorts of other different keys like FIGS, BELL, and BREAK that I never saw on a typewriter but I knew served some special function.

Upon hearing the warbling signal from the living room, I'd drop whatever I was doing and would run into the hamshack. Grandpa would be turning the big knob on the radio to get the signal tuned in just right. He somehow knew exactly what it was supposed to sound like. He would then flip some switches in sequence on the big black box and it would begin to come to life. The CRT screen would warm up and I would see the familiar green dot in the middle appear faintly and then grow bigger and brighter. And then he would flip on a big recessed switch on the Model 15 teletype. The unit would kick on and there was a nice warm hum and whirring sound that would emanate out of it, filling the room. As it warmed up, it had a distinct smell that is hard to describe....that "old radio" smell. The big black box and Model 15 would sit for perhaps a minute warming up, waiting to do its weekly duty.

At the right time, Grandpa would take a cable terminated with a quarter inch headphone plug and plug it into the Kenwood Twins receiver headphone jack. The teletype would spring into action and the CRT display drew all kinds of squiggly lines on the screen, like a madman trying to draw with a spirograph.

I could see and hear the teletype mechanism inside the big Model 15 rhythmically jumping up and down. It was like insides of a typewriter, with little metal arms sitting in a semicircle. The teletype then started tapping away, striking letters on ink tape and writing on the beige colored paper. I would sit there entranced by the whole event, watching the teletype type and looking at the secret message encrypted in the warbling signal travelling over the ether as it was revealed to me. Grandpa might adjust a few knobs on the big black box to tweak the green pattern on the screen.

Sometimes the teletype would make a mistake and miss a letter or two or misspell a word. I would read out the message to Grandpa and figure out what the misspelled words were. Occasionally the teletype would really mess up and would throw a bunch of line feeds out and jump the paper in the middle of a word or paragraph. If the signal was really bad it would start to spew several inches of paper at a time and Grandpa would quickly unplug the jack from the radio, flip some switches on the big black box, or try to tune the signal in better. The show would last 15 or 20 minutes and afterwards Grandpa would sometimes let me put headphones on and tune around the band and listen to Morse code or foreign broadcasts coming in from far off lands.

Later in my teens I got my ticket and operated mainly phone for several years and got into electronics. Years later when I was in my 20s and off to college and making my way into the real world, I became mostly inactive in amateur radio. The Kenwood Twins were displaced with a Kenwood 820 and Grandpa sold the Model 15 and used the extra space for his computer.

Today I'll sometimes fire up DM780 on the computer and tune in a RTTY signal, but I miss the hum, whirl, and clack-clack of the big old Model 15 that got me interested in this strange old hobby. But perhaps someday I'll have a grandson who I can show Hellschreiber and PSK31 and he'll want to click the mouse on the waterfall and decode strange-sounding signals from far off lands.

Anthony Good, K3NG, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Pennsylvania, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

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