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!

Jack, W4JBR, is a special contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Georgia, USA.

8 Responses to “Where did the magic go?”

  • Roger G3XBM:

    Sadly I agree that modern kids are less struck by the pure magic of radio. When we were young we were able to talk all over the world,even to stations behind the Iron Curtain. Today all this is possible (and more) from a phone or PC. To me – a keen QRPer – it still is magic and it is this we have to rekindle in the youth of today.

  • Wonderful, wonderful story Jack. Thanks!

  • KO4PU:

    I was licened 1986 and there were a few hams around but now there are none that I know of.
    I am thinking lots of things have gotten too exspensive.

  • Ed K5GRI:

    Wow, does that bring back the memories! I got to be KN5GRI 01-12-1961 and never looked back. Got General in 06-1961 and Extra in 1972. The magic will always be there for me. Great piece, Jack. Best 73’s!

  • joe ws4r:

    I am exactly your age and at age 10 got my novice license.
    Some older friends in the Boy Scouts got me interested in Ham radio.Among them George k2mlj and Vince can’t remember his call. Wnderful memories.
    I stil have the old Zenith TransOceanic “portable” sw receiver I bought from Vince.
    Wish I was that boy again (sigh).
    Joe Sanders

  • Ron K4SX:

    Amateur Radio for me has been a wonderful hobby. Like many, I was first introduced to Ham Radio at a very early age and took my Novice exam at the age of 13 (WN0ETV). I have the very first radio receiver that I heard a Ham signal on along with a TransOceanic radio (brown leather cover).

    Ham Radio has not lost its amazing fascination. The evolution of the electronic industry and its affect on Ham Radio equipment/technology still keeps me interested along with the challenges of working DX and sitting goals for myself to achieve. I still love AM radios and own several including the Johnson Viking 500 I use occasionally.

    Ham Radio is up to those of us from that long lost era of the late 50’s and early 60’s. We are now the “old timers”. We must keep Amateur Radio alive with an enthusiasm supported by our respect and the privilege of having a license for this amazing and wonderful hobby called Ham Radio.


    Ron Lowrance

  • Chris N4YA:

    I also was introduced to ham radio through scouting. I will never forget some guys from the Douglasville Radio Club doing a presentation and inviting us to a class that was just starting. I dragged my father along and we both got licensed. Now, almost thirty years later, I remain eternally grateful to those guys for introducing me to this wonderful hobby, as well as friends like you, that I could not imagine living without!
    73 ‘ol man,
    Chris Wynn
    Douglasville, Georgia

  • Bill Burnette W4MA:

    Jack…..enjoyed reading your story very much which brought back old memories. Also learned the code in the scouts and my father was a SWL. Still enjoy the old tube gear but also the new stuff. Take care OM.

    Bill W4MA

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