Saturday, March 04, 2006

Unboxing the Past... Old Radio Gear

It is time to visit some old "friends", they are pieces of Radio Equipment and Accessories. Some are called "boatanchors", because they are so heavy that they could anchor a small boat! These are radio transmitters, receivers and accessories from the 40s to the 70s.. Vaccuum Tube Technology. Tubes are the reason that "real radios...glow in the dark", the glass electron tubes have a filiament that heats the magic tube, voltage is placed on the elements and electrons flow.
Sometimes when using Vaccuum Tube technology in Transmitters, you can see bluish colors
dance around inside the tube, or if the tube is not happy, it may glow red or even white.

These radios were put in storage in Weaverville through the years. Some were set up and used periodically, but this special group I am unpacking now have been boxed since 1990. Some are WW2 vintage Military radios from aircraft or ships, others amateur radio equipment or commercial communications gear. Many were collected because they contain specific technological "breakthroughs" or improvements. Many have a story or even a place in History.

As I unpack them this week, and take pictures so I can put them on my website, to share with others I often remember a person or a place contacted with the radios. Most of these radios will belong to someone else soon, I have too many, and they take up too much room. I will be keeping some select radios and accessories, but most will be in new homes in the next year or so.

Radio tubes seem to last a long time.. I have a short wave receiver made by the Hallicrafters Company in 1959, it uses tube technology, and still has most of the orginal tubes that it left the factory near Chicago with. In the early 60s I used to listen to Radio Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba, Radio Japan, The BBC (when it actually told the truth..), Radio Peking, Voice of America and many more short wave stations that sent programming in english as part of the "war of words" , propaganda, or world news. Ironically, the "Voice of America" is not doing much broadcasting on the "short waves" anymore, some signals to Africa, Some to Indonesia, some to areas that were the former Soviet Union, but now the VOA is on the internet, and some satellite channels. Mostly their budget has been cut..and the reality is that the large numbers of folks that used to listen to short wave, now look on the internet, satellites, cable and other technologies.

When I started listening 45 years ago, radio was amazing... I heard rebels attack an official government station in Africa, and it eventually went off the air.. I used to listen to soccer matches, baseball, football and other activities through my headphones or the "high fidelity" speaker. I could tune my radio to the proper wavelength for the time of day around the world and tune in World News as it happened. I could listen to the same news event, with perspectives from several countries. In recent years I have talked to Russian and American Astronauts from space stations as they orbit above. I have used satellites to relay digital information from a briefcase station in Weaverville, to networks in USA as our local Amateur Radio Emergency Service practices for things that we hope will never happen. But my favorite technology is the use of tube type radios, some I make or adapt from other uses myself
to make "communications" a bit more "personal".

When the first bombs exploded in Bagdad, in Desert Storm 1... I left CNN and tuned into the military aircraft channels and listened to aircraft landing in Saudi Arabia and Turkey...and radio operators refer to "scuds" whatever they were... a couple days later on CNN we all found out. They were rockets being launched from mobile launchers into Isreal, Saudi Arabia etc.

I took a quick "tour" on my 125 pound "state of the art" 1968 military grade tube type radio receiver. The BBC, VOA, some European stations, some "Alied" countries and some less "friendly" or "politically oposite" views to the same news story. This radio cost the US taxpayers about $6,000, in 1968. I was able to purchased a broken one in 1975 that I was able to repair, with total investment of about $400. It covered the AM Broadcast Band to the short waves. (.5 to 30 mhz). I could listen to ham radio stations while communicating with them around the world utilizing morse code or single-sideband voice mode. This radio was one of the best ever made, the model R-390a, designed by the Collins Radio Company, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA. You would be amazed where it is still in use today.. even though more modern radios are availiable.

This analog radio is still in use today, it is used with a 1946 Collins model 310b-3(m) a 25watt input Morse Code Transmitter. The are bolted into a rack mounting cabinet one above the other and atleast a couple times a month, I "fire-up" this bit of radio history, and communicate with my morse code key, vintage WW2. I use the speaker, or sometimes some 1920s headphones that are as useful with a Crystal Radio Set or a modern radio. The radios are hooked to a tuning device and about 100' of wire. The "magic" of radio allows me to contact all corners of the earth exchanging ideas, signal reports and pleasantries with other folks with similar desires.

What on earth would possess me to operate a radio that is "older than I am?"... well it is one way of paying homage to those that came before, and it is like those folks that drive old cars.. it is something "different" and it is many things to many people. I have modern radio equipment that are more computer than radio now, but technology requires that it be this way now. I can communicate with Civil and Military Authorities with special licenses, and also fellow radio amateurs , or "ham radio operators" as they are often called.

I can enter numbers on a keypad and command a menu on the radio screen to select the proper channel for my operations. I can talk from mountain top "repeater" stations in Trinity County at 6000' powered by solar panels located in frozen buildings that are covered with snow and ice in the winter. Or I can talk across town or the nation or the world using skills and information developed over 45yrs. I can even hook my laptop or PC to the radio, and watch letters turn into words on a computer screen, as information is exchanged. Even pictures can be transmitted, sharing an event or identity across the county or from a Space Station, it is all still "magic" to me.

Now we have portable transistor radios that are tecnological marvels that run off batteries or even sunlight through a solar panel, charging a battery. Some are small "walkman" types or can be the size of at brief case, including a battery, that will power it, and a whip antenna that will receive signals across town or across the world.. Some of these marvels can even transmit
voice, code, images, data completely portable. They are less interesting to me, they are cool to the touch, and when they break, usually do not smell, have smoke pouring out, or even hot to the touch as something Vacuum Tube Technology often does.. "Real Radios Glow in the Dark".

The amazing thing is now that technology keeps marching forward, I have "solid state" transistor type radios that have become "classic" them selves, and I often take a small station in a wooden case on picnics or just out into the woods, string up a wire, and communicate with a
lantern battery as the power for the radio station... or sometimes a solar panel, and a modern gell type battery that can run the station for days.. on a single charge, or be maintained by a small solar panel. Perhaps you are old enough to have memories of the "first" portable radios, and how much fun it was to listen to them, or perhaps you have a radio that has been in your family for years, and just keeps working.

I hope that you have enjoyed the "magic of radio" in your life..

The Oldtimer

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Restoration of Tube Type Ham Radio Equipment

Well, it happened again. I now own the same model RL Drake T4Xb Ham radio transmitter, and R4b radio receiver, that owned 12 years ago, a circa 1968 tube type communications radio. It is a fine radio, well engineered and together with it's matching receiver, speaker/power supply, and microphone form a very useable Ham Radio Station. Many of these fine sets are still in daily operation. Many people comment that people sound warmer and clearer with tube type radios.. I just know that radios that glow in the dark are part of my life, and I feel obligated to keep fixing them and selling them to someone else, and taking the money to buy another radio.

I have owned the same make and model equipment previously, and retained the operating manual, and some spare tubes. I decided to take the cabinet off, and investigate the condition of the radio. The units do not have any gross dents, scratches, and likely have not been owned by a smoker.

So far so good, I found the top of the chassis to be clean, and not much dust. I looked under the chassis, and observed that all the switch contacts, fixed and wiper, were "Black" with oxidation.
The wiper scraped against the switch contact, but no visible disturbance in the oxidation.

There is only one way to proceede, I will obtain some TARNEX, Denatured Alcohol, and DI-OX5 contact cleaner. Some "Q-tips" will spread the TARNEX across the switch sections, and when that is cold, some denatured Alcohol will be sprayed over the solution. After a day drying, the special DI-OX5 solvent/cleaner will be applied with clean "Q-tips" and left to dry again.

After this happens, the radio/power supply will be plugged in, and the tubes will warm up for a minute or so. A dummy antenna, microphone and morse code key will be attatched and testing will start. After normal warm-up, the operational instructions will be followed and the
tune-up procedure followed.

If I am lucky, it will respond properly, and the meter will respond to the tune-up instructions. We shall see. If stages do not properly respond, the set will be unplugged and the tubes tested.

The next step is to apply some cleaner- lubricant to the volumne controls and other controls/switches so they may glide across the conductive surface of the electronic component.

It will be monitored in a nearby radio receiver for quality, and checked for upper and lower sideband voice quality. Then the morse code key will be connected and away we go.

Voice peaks should be noted on the plate meter, in relation to the sound of my voice. The usual observation looking for smoke rising from the chassis is always noted. When this radio is working properly, a pleasant communications quality radio signal is transmitted. The exact tuning instructions will be followed, and the proper fuses will be in their holders, along with the proper dial lamps.

It has the ability to transcieve with the addition of the Drake R4B receiver, that can h listen to the very same frequency that I am transmitting on. Conversely, it can receive voice signals and place the Transmitter on the same frequency, allowing voice communications. Cables from the back panels of the transmitter and receiver interconnect them.

I will use a vintage desk or hand microphone that has already worked for me since the 1960s with several other radios. Some aquired skill will allow me to tune in the voice signals and to
tune the transmiter correctly, resulting in almost 100Watts of output power. A tired WW2 vintage morse code key will also be part of the communications too.

A combination of tubes and a few transistors will do their respective jobs, and it will be fun to communicate again. A pale green light is behind the analog dials, with a slight change when the transmitter starts.. Continued visual inspection will be useful, and notes taken.

I own modern digital radios too, they are computerized, dependable, and run off 12volt batteries during emergencies.. The tube radio needs a generator, or solar panels with inverters to simulate the generator.... and has allowed the radio to operate when the AC power is missing from the socket.

After a few minutes, of warm up, and listening to the interconnected receiver, it is time to find
others to talk to. Voices with accents around the world, crisp morse code characters, and the
magic of intelligence impressed on a radio carrier, passing through the ether...

Well, I will let you know how the radio works if at all in a few days, some parts are to be ordered, and some references reviewed.

Real radios glow in the dark..

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Ham Radio To The Rescue

The TV and RADIO is full of Hurricane KATRINA... We have all seen the devastation of the Gulfcoast, Florida and New Orleans. We watch the mobilization of Military, and Civil Authorities with great interest. We have all become quasi-experts from the talking-heads on TV.

I have been doing emergency communications since 1963, my first experience was the Anchorage, Alaska tsunami and quake. As a 16 year old, I was amazed that ham radio was
making such a difference, and I even got to stay home from school to operate my Red Cross Radio Station.

I could clearly see that civil authorities had failed in the storm area to do the level of planning that we do here in California for emergency communications. Even our under-funded VHF Ham Radio repeater system on local mountain tops has solar panels to power the radio if fire, snow or terrorism takes the power away.

I have listened to the short wave bands, and heard fellow hams passing traffic to aid the health and welfare of the displaced. I hear other fellow military ham radio operators (MARS) sending
various reports to update civil and military authorities on the situation at various locations.
The hams near to the effected areas do their best to help, those marooned in New Orleans in hospitals, civic buildings and locations of opportunity are saving their batteries, and selecting their words carefully. Voice and Data radio traffic is exchanged, information for rescuing
the radio operators is collected, lists of supplies, personnel, and situation reports are collected.
Clearly, lessons are to be learned.

The "amateur radio operators", Ham Radio, operate their networks, and individual stations
and seem to get the job done, when nobody else does. The zillion dollar cell phone, commercial radio, and high tech died when the power failed, or when they ran out of battery power in a few hours. The Hams resourcefulness is legendary...

Every emergency plan I have worked on for years usually involves the fact that when the power fails in our 12 volt communications batteries, that auto, boat and other 12 volt batteries will be
"borrowed", or recharged from vehicles, etc. Many of the handheld radios operate from AA rechargeable or alkaline batteries.. very common, and that is part of the plan too..

Often part of Amateur Radio Emergency Plans has to work around failed civil authority's communication failures, and provide them with links to the amateur communications system.
Back-ups to the back-ups are the order of the day.

The current KATRINA crisis seems to be product of poor or no plan from the local and state
authorities, and they could not even get how to invite FEDERAL authorities into the effort in time right. The federal government has mounted a historic effort, much of it not in view of the
television cameras. We are reminded that just because it is not in view of the TV camera, that does not mean it is not happening.

We have already heard stories of people receiving help while hanging on to rooftops indirectly from Ham Radio communications hundreds of miles away that are in contact with local authorities due to radio signal propagation.

Local Trinity County ARES ..amateur radio emergency service members practice the same
techniques used in the hurricane area, and use the same procedures during the CA forest fires that the flood victims benefit from.

Consider joining your local Amateur Radio Club, they will help you become licensed. Morse code is not necessary anymore.. you nolonger need to be a rocket scientist with pocket protector and a calculator... a few simple mulitiple guess questions and a ham radio license is yours!

Most of your local Trinity County Emergency Communicators are dinosaurs.. old geezers and geezerettes that move slow but deliberately during times of disaster. We have wireless BBS system that can be accessed from great distances. Last week I left a message on our Trinity Packet Radio System, with a low power radio , connected to a 42" piece of wire and a 1980s vintage laptop from South Sacramento. The technology is slow, it took about 30 seconds to get the message from mountain top to mountain top..but it made it!

We invite you to join us or other community service organizations like Red Cross,etc. in preparing for community disasters, and responding with others to the rescue.
You can visit CLICK on HAM RADIO and learn more.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Armchair Astronaut

I am glad to see the TV coverage of the shuttle visit to the space station on the TV.

It allows my mind to travel at 17,000 MPH, high above the earthly activities like war, terrorism, my simple country life and all those other things we humans do to eachother and end up part of the news...each day.

I can now focus on activities on the International Space Station, where men sleep velcro-ed to the wall.

I can view it's crew of astronauts/cosmonauts and their techno-guests from Florida parked nearby. They have brought water, food, care packages and spare parts . They are monitored by us from our armchairs with our TV remotes in hand.

I have always had an interest in space travel, starting with Mr. Robert Heinlien's books that
put me in orbit from grade school, to listening to the NASA on my own short wave radio, with access to government radio back feeds from Mercury Astronauts, Gemini, Appollo, Skylab, and early Shuttle... but then they went to satellite communications almost exclusively, and the short waves went silent...but I found some back-up radio links to listen in now and again. I was
able to actually touch a Gemini capsule that had returned to Earth, on display at the San Francisco Museum as I waited in line as a young man long ago.

The same hand has touched a locally restored 1850s stagecoach, a Norse Ship that traveled the Baltic, Roman Marble Sculpture in Italy, WW2 Warbirds , Radios that "Glow in the Dark" and has tapped out morse code messages around the world for 45yrs.

I have been fortunate enough to talk with my Ham Radio Station to MIR and ISS space stations
and some of the brave folks that inhabit it. For about 6 minutes during a good pass, I bring the
earth and "home" a little closer to them, and they bring my armchair a bit closer to orbit.

Godspeed Discovery...
Earthly Events...

Somehow... "The Hot Dog Lady" crisis at the Historic Bandstand in Weaverville does not seem earth-shaking anymore... the county supervisors have placed it on the back burner for now...