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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter three
High School Years

My interest in radio expanded greatly during my high school years. I had obtained an amateur radio operator’s license, but had put off getting a station license. My first objective was to buy a receiving-type electron tube. Of the two available, the Audiotron and the Moorehead Electron Relay, I chose the latter and soon had it working in a 1-tube regenerative receiver. Compared with the crystal detector, results were an order of magnitude better. Not only could one now be assured of sensitivity, but also, signals were louder and, by placing the circuit into oscillation, I could receive continuous-wave signals as well.

The U.S. was divided into 9 amateur radio districts; I was in the 2nd. Every amateur call signal which began with any number other than 2 represented a considerable distance. Soon, I was hearing many 1st, 3rd, and 8th district stations; less often, I was thrilled to hear 4th and 5th districts. However, the 6th and 7th districts, which were in the far west, were elusive. The vast majority of amateurs in 1921 were still using spark transmitters and the nearby ones (2nd district) would come through “like a ton of bricks.” A few of these loud signals used call letters preceded by a 10, making them clearly illegal. The object of amateur radio was fun anyway, so I decided to put my spark coil to use and see if I couldn’t join in. I used the call letters 1ONE and was soon thrilled by my first two-way code talk with another amateur. I made some friends this way; my identity was no longer secret.

Radio broadcasting was just getting started. One of the first stations in the country was right in my hometown, Newark, New Jersey. WJZ started broadcasting October 1, 1921, at a frequency of (p. 8) 830 KHz, close to the frequencies used by amateurs. Thus, amateurs easily tuned in to let family and friends put on earphones and hear this remarkable new source of entertainment. One affluent amateur near me in East Orange had enough equipment for audio amplification and a loudspeaker; one evening, he invited a group of neighbors and friends to hear the WJZ program. Unfortunately, that night I was using my spark coil transmitter so that every dot or dash of mine totally blanked out his receiver. He called me on the telephone and, although I agreed to desist, he also reported my illicit transmission to the authorities. When, in a few days, I received a letter demanding my appearance before the Radio Inspector, Mr. Arthur Batchelder, I was thoroughly frightened.

I went to New York and explained to Mr. Batchelder that I had an operator’s license and that the missing station license was a mere formality. Nevertheless, I was “punished” by a suspension of my operator’s license for three months which, at the time, seemed to be a lifetime. With my grocery store delivery earnings, I soon bought a 5-watt transmitting tube, the UV-202, and a power transformer. In the spring of 1922, I received my station license with the call letters 2AEW. I never again used a spark transmitter.

In January 1922, my second letter to Just For Boys was published, in which I described how to make a regenerative receiver. However, the article included nothing original because such circuits were well known to radio engineers, if not to 14-year-old boys like me.

The Newark Public Library, one of the best open-stack libraries in the country, was an important asset available to me. I used it extensively and doubt that there was any book on radio in that library that I didn’t borrow. (p. 9)

My radio interests found me new friends at school, among whom was George Elston who was destined to be a life-long friend and relative. George had an amateur station on 13th Street in Newark, with the call letters 2CRD. We spent many after school hours in radio contact and in trying to improve our equipment. At first, we used only code, but we both eventually built rectifiers to permit a relatively hum-free continuous-wave signal suitable for telephony. To avoid the need for more electron tubes, we used the simplest method possible: we bought surplus Signal Corps carbon microphones which were very cheap, and coupled them to our oscillating circuit by a loop. The microphones often got very hot and we lost some by overheating, but the mode was much more fun than using the telephone, although less reliable. In my station, the rectifier I used to convert a-c to d-c was something unheard of today: an electrolytic method. I bought sheets of aluminum and of lead, cut them into strips, and fitted one of each to a 10-cent-store glass which was filled with a borax solution. Each glass was good for only 20 volts (approximately) so I had to use 20 or more in my series. My box, with all those glasses, was one of the messiest contrivances I’ve ever worked with. The water required refilling regularly, and the borax would crystallize and climb up the sides of the glass to make a crusty white mess. To retard water evaporation, I’d pour some oil-on top, which made the mess even worse. Today, anodized aluminum is used only for capacitors which carry no d-c current and produce no mess.

Between the time I received my station license and my high school diploma, amateur radio advanced rapidly. When radio was in its infancy, the amateurs were assigned the short waves (high frequencies) because these frequencies were not believed to be useful for long distances and were difficult to generate at high power. By 1922, such notions had been dispelled. Amateurs found (p. 10) that, in fact, short waves were actually better for long distances—provided that the correct frequency and time of day were matched. The advent of the electron tube made generation easy.

During my last years in high school, it was no longer unusual to receive California amateur radio operators who were using only modest amounts of power. In May 1923, the amateur magazine, QST, published a special issue on antennas so most of us amateurs rebuilt our antennas. With a good antenna, even a modest 5-watt station like mine could hope to be heard in California. In my case, I don’t think this actually happened until 1925, but I remember many a night before that when I’d awaken at 2:30 AM, go up to my attic and listen for west-coast amateurs whom I’d try to contact.

A few months before my high school graduation, a classmate told me of an employment opportunity in the Engineering Department of the Western Electric Company at 463 West Street in New York City. We both applied and were given a series of competitive examinations on mathematics, physics, and general intelligence. I was accepted and must have done particularly well because I was assigned to the research department. Many other applicants were put into development or into a drafting room; the classmate who had told me about the job wasn’t accepted at all.

I graduated from Barringer High School, Newark, New Jersey, in June 1924. I was 16 years old. (p. 11)

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