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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter two
The Turning Point

It now seems clear that the years 1915–1917 influenced my entire future. I don’t suggest that it was a sharp turn because my fascination with electricity and radio had started at least as early as age 8. I still possess the last pre-World-War I catalogs (c. 1916) of the Electro Importing Co. and of the Manhattan Electric Supply Co. (Mesco), the two best-known suppliers of radio equipment for experimenters and amateurs. Both catalogs show signs of heavy use, which means only that I turned pages and pored over the apparatus descriptions, but not that I ever bought anything. By the time that my earnings and savings exceeded a dollar or two, the U.S. had entered the war (April 1917) and all radio reception and transmission became illegal except for government use. We did have some batteries and a spark coil around the house with which I had played, and I recall that I was given some old copies of a Gernsback magazine, Modern Electrics, which provided stimulation.

The first of several important events occurred at Christmas, 1917, when I was given an A. C. Gilbert Electrical set. About this time a friend had enrolled in Newark’s Vocational School and described to me some of the practical aspects of electricity which he was being taught. We had a large unused attic in our home, and it became my “laboratory” for all the electrical experiments in the gift set and for some of my own devising. I pretended to form the “Herold Electric Company” and remember hand-printing letter-heads and bills. On my paper route, I noticed a curbside box of trash with an old telephone receiver. After I retrieved it and found it operable, I succumbed to the temptation to try radio reception, even though I knew it to be illegal. I bought a coil of bell wire to make a simple antenna in the attic, and I used a piece of coal to try to make a crystal (p. 4) detector. The results were absolutely nil, so technically I didn’t violate the law, but I certainly didn’t tell anyone that I had tried.

The war ended in November 1918, a month after my 11th birthday, but the ban against radio reception wasn’t lifted until April 1919. That’s when a real bonanza came my way. We were living next door to the Rawl family whose oldest son was married, had become a ship radio operator, and was killed during the war. His widow lived with the Rawls; she knew of my interest in radio, which was not shared by any of the other Rawl boys. As a result, she gave me an assortment of radio gear which her husband had accumulated. It included a pair of Murdock earphones, several radio tuners (called “loose couplers”), some variable and fixed capacitors, and a considerable number of galena crystals. It didn’t take me long to put up an outdoor antenna and complete a receiving set using a loose coupler, crystal detector, and the earphones. I learned the Morse code but found it difficult to catch more than an occasional word or two from the rapid transmissions of the ship and shore stations which I could hear.

In October 1919, amateurs were again permitted to transmit and many more code signals were available on my set. Shortly thereafter, my family got a big thrill when I tuned in on a rare event: an experimental radio telephone transmission from a ship located off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. I let each, in turn, wear the earphones so that they could hear the music of a Harry Lauder record coming in loud and clear. It’s hard to imagine, today, what excitement this caused, but it was about a year ahead of the first broadcast by KDKA in Pittsburgh which is credited with starting the radio broadcast boom of the 1920’s. (p. 5)

Around this time, the Radio Corporation of America was formed and some family friend, I’m not sure who, knew the first RCA president, E. J. Nally. Through this connection, I was given a book by Elmer E. Bucher (also with RCA) called “Practical Wireless Telegraphy.” Bucher had a clear and lucid style of writing, well suited for me. I also had been a steady reader of Electrical Experimenter, the magazine which became Radio News in 1919. Also, Ed Stevens, my “big brother” neighbor, put up an amateur radio station and told me what was involved. One needed to take an examination on theory and code reception to get an operator’s license and then apply for a station license. Most amateurs at the time had spark transmitters. I realized that the spark coil I had was enough for a simple transmitter and, of course, I already had a receiver. I then practiced the code in earnest, using a homemade key and buzzer. It was easy to transmit, but difficult to become proficient at receiving. Most amateur operators transmitted at 20-words-per-minute or more, too fast for a learner.

The record is clear on my interests at the time inasmuch as they led to my first publication. The Newark Evening News started a boys’ club called “Just for Boys” which published selected letters from members. We each had pen names; I chose “Aerial” as mine (a common term for a radio antenna). In the fall of 1920, my description of how to make an ornigraph, a code-practice machine, was published. In truth, I never made one because an amateur license required receiving at only 10-words-per-minute; by the summer of 1920, at the age of 13, I had reached that level without a mechanical aid. That fall, I took the plunge, went to New York to the office of the Radio Inspector, and passed the examination and code test. I came home proudly displaying an operator’s license. Getting a station license was only a formality, but it did require a description of the proposed (p. 6) transmitter. I was embarrassed to say I had only a spark coil, so I put off an application for a station license until I could afford something more elaborate.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, all these events were to shape my entire future. From this point on, radio (later called electronics) became permanently intertwined with my life. (p. 7)

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