Monthly Archives: November 2014

Our Newest Advertiser: Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!

Ripley1921 is pleased to announce a new advertiser, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,  which was founded by iconic cartoonist and world explorer Robert Ripley in 1918 with his famous cartoon feature. Nearly a century later, the cartoon is still in production and can be viewed online .

The cartoon shown here appeared in the Washington Evening Star on November 15, 1921. The early cartoons often focused on sports, but also included other interesting oddities such as the gentleman who caught a 710 pound tuna in Nova Scotia.

Today, the Ripley’s empire includes “odditoriums” and aquariums worldwide in tourist destinations. When I was growing up, our local paper didn’t carry Ripleys’ Believe It Or Not!, but I took advantage of the various books. Young readers will especially enjoy the
RBI books
, containing the fictional adventures of young members of the “Ripley’s Bureau of Investigation.” The first book in the series is available as a free Kindle book.

Click Here For Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon

Discovery of Meteor Burst Communications, 1944-56

VHF Antenna at FCC Allegan, Michigan, monitoring station, 1944.

VHF Antenna at FCC Allegan, Michigan, monitoring station, 1944.

Seventy years ago, the November 1944 issue of Radio News carried a story of a phenomenon that was baffling radio engineers, and was under investigation by the FCC monitoring station at Allegan, Michigan. The station was reporting strange bursts from distant FM broadcast stations, then operating in the 42-50 MHz band. The FCC station had receivers tuned to the frequencies of distant stations, constantly making a record of the signal strengths as the distant stations came up out of the noise. The signals were bursts of a very short duration in the station’s signal strength. These bursts were rarely of a duration longer than a single spoken word or one or two notes of music.

The bursts have been observed at distances of up to 1400 miles, but were more common at distances of 300-700 miles.

The article was almost certainly describing meteor scatter.  A letter to the editor of QST, November 1946, from Gurdon R. Abell, Jr., W2IXK, seems to be the first reference by a ham to the same phenomenon. He noted hearing bursts of signals during the Perseids meteor showers on 144 MHz, which coincided with bursts from New York HF stations inside his skip zone. He concludes, “if this observation can be relied upon, it means that 144-Mc. signals can be refracted by the stronger meteor trails,” and he seeks further corroborating evidence.

This letter was probably inspired by a January 1946 QST article by Oswald G. Villard, Jr., W6QYT.  Villard detailed how to listen to meteors by monitoring short wave stations on 11, 15, or 18 MHz. A meteor would result in a signal being reflected, but with a doppler shift causing a change in frenquency. The two signals would result in a heterodyne, causing an audible whistle.  Villard followed up with another article in QST for July 1947,  but was still focused on the HF effects of meteors, the highest frequency investigated being 27 MHz.

Two follow-up letters to W2IXK’s appeared in QST in January 1947, from Villard, and also from Bruce Henke, W6TFJ, who noted a similar phenomenon on 10 meters. In April 1953, Villard, along with Allen Peterson, W6POH, wrote an article discussing the possibility of using “meteor scatter” for communications on 15 and 20 meters.

Between 1953 and 1956, VHF operators started to figure out the possibilities of this propagation mode. Many of these are detailed in the World Above 50 Mc column in October 1956.

With digital modes, able to make an entire exchange in less than a second, meteor scatter is now fairly routine. In the 1950’s, it required fast Morse code, and more than a little luck. It’s not impossible, however, with voice modes. From Minnesota, South Dakota is a difficult catch on 10 meters, since it’s well within the skip zone. I have South Dakota confirmed, and I’m pretty certain it’s courtesy of a meteor. During a 10 meter contest, I just happened to have the VFO on the frequency being run by W0SD in Salem, SD, a distance of 225 miles. (If you’re driving I-90 through South Dakota and wonder what those towers are as you pass Salem, now you know.)  He was calling CQ, and he came up out of the noise with a booming signal. I quickly called, we made the exchange, and then he disappeared. He was audible for only a few seconds, and it was dumb luck that I was on his frequency for those seconds. I can’t think of any explanation other than meteor scatter for this contact.

Note:  To view the QST articles linked above, you need to be logged in to your ARRL account.

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About Our Advertiser: Jameco Electronics

JamesElectronics1974AdWe are pleased to have as one of our advertisers Jameco Electronics.  One of their first advertisements, from the 1974 issue of Radio Electronics magazine, is shown here. The company was originally known as James Electronics, and is now known as Jameco Electronics. They were founded 40 years ago by Dennis Farrey, and have been based the entire time in Belmont, California, in Silicon Valley. They have always been responsive to the needs of hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, and they are an excellent option for parts orders for electronics and robotics hobbyists. They’re geared up for small orders, and they are an economical option for electronic parts in small quantities. You can read more about their company history at their website.

You can request a copy of their free catalog by mail or download a copy. If any of the posts on this site inspire you to build a project or perhaps restore an older piece of equipment, Jameco is an excellent source for any needed parts. If you’re starting out as an electronics hobbyist and need to stock your “junk box” with high quality components, their grab bags provide an excellent value. They also have a large selection of electronic and robotic kits.

We welcome Jameco Electronics as an advertiser, and encourage you to support them.

Nazi Weather Station in Labrador

Weather Station Kurt on display at the Canadian War Museum (Wikipedia photo).

Weather Station Kurt on display at the Canadian War Museum (Wikipedia photo).

On October 22, 1943, Germany made its only armed landing on the North American continent of the Second World War. On that day, the U-boat U-537 anchored at the northern end of Labrador and its crew loaded ten cylindrical canisters, each weighing about 220 pounds, onto rubber rafts and then ashore. Together, these canisters constituted an automated weather station, which the Germans had given the code name Weather Station Kurt. The station was one of 26 manufactured by Siemens and deployed around the North Atlantic to give German meteorologists data on weather as it moved across the Atlantic. Other stations had been deployed in Greenland; Bear Island, Norway; Spitsbergen; and Franz Josef Land. Another such station was intended for North America, but the sub carrying it was sunk en route.

One of the canisters contained the meteorological instruments, and one contained a 150-watt  Lorenz 150 FK radio transmitter. (A specimen of this transmitter can be found in LA6NCA’s collection.)  The remaining canisters contained nickel-cadmium batteries to power the system. The system was designed to operate for up to six months, sending a two minute transmission every three hours on 3940 kHz. The data was sent in Morse, which was to be manually transcribed by German radio operators.  Some technical details, diagrams, and wartime photos of the station can be viewed at the links below.

The station was camouflaged, and components were  marked in English with the words “Canadian Meteor Service.” Not only was there no such agency, but Labrador was part of Newfoundland and not Canada.  The station was placed far enough North in the hope, apparently realized, that the Innuit of Labrador would not encounter it.  To confuse anyone who might stumble upon the remote site, empty American cigarette packages were strewn about.  A satellite image of the remote site can be viewed at Google Maps.

The station apparently worked flawlessly, but but was subject to jamming from a source that has never been identified. The Allies apparently never learned of the station’s existence, but It apparently provided weather data for only a few days.

The station was abandoned and not found until 1981. A German researcher working on an unrelated project stumbled onto records of the station in 1977. A retired Siemens engineer who was working on records of the company also stumbled upon references to the station about the same time. He contacted a Canadian Defence historian, who eventually sent a team to the site in 1981. Although some canisters had been disturbed, the station was still there. The station is currently on display at the Canadian War Museum.


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Free Download of 1962 Civil Defense Plan & Shelter Management Handbook

I now have available on my website a complete scan of the 1962 Civil Defense Operational and Survival Plan of the City of St. Paul, Minnesota.  This 104 page document goes into great detail as to how the city planned to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack.  Of particular interest is the complete handbook for managers of public shelters.  The handbook would give the fallout shelter guidance on all aspects of operating the shelter.  There is some information in this document of practical guidance.  For example, the section on radiological defense contains some useful information.  However, the document’s main interest is as a fascinating historical look at civil defense plans fifty years ago.

Measuring Longitude Between Washington and Paris, 1914

LongitudeRadioIn an earlier post,
we showed how radio was being used in 1924 for accurate measurements of longitude. And the newspaper a hundred years ago today, November 21, 1914, shows the work that was taking place then. This clipping from the New York Sun shows measurements of longitude being made between Paris and Washington.

The Eiffel Tower radio station continued in service throughout the war, and a hundred years ago, it was busy comparing time signals with its counterpart in Arlington, Virginia, station NAA. By comparing the instant of local noon at both locations, the tests were able to very accurately measure the difference in longitude. The time difference between the two observatories was found to be 5 hours, 17 minutes, and 36.658 seconds. This corresponds to a difference in longitude of 79.40274 degrees.

Today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Cartoon

Eagle Scouts, Class of 1944

1944EaglesSeventy years ago today, November 19, 1944, these four young men were featured in the Chicago Tribune after having become Eagle Scouts.  For the first time in the history of their community, five Scouts had become Eagle at the same time.

The Scouts were John L. Guyer, George L. Otis Jr., Harrison C. Stearn Jr., Richard Wallace Jr., and John H. Hafner.  Mr. Hafner, who was a student at a military academy at the time, was not pictured.

If you know one of these Scouts, or you are one of them, I would love to hear from you about your reminiscences about Scouting and your experiences over the years.  You can contact me at


Knight-Kit Star Roamer Receiver, 1964


Fifty years ago this month, November 1964, Electronics Illustrated reviewed Allied Radio’s Knight-Kit Star Roamer Receiver.  I never had one, but this basic receiver was ubiquitous in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and many SWL’s got their start with the four-tube receiver.

According to the magazine, the kit sold for $39.95 and took about 20 hours to build.  The receiver’s low tube count was courtesy of a selenium rectifier and solid-state diode detector.  The radio did receive CW, but without a BFO.  The final IF stage was designed so that it could break into oscillation, making the receiver quasi-regenerative.  Interestingly, the radio included a key jack, since the oscillating stage could be used as a code practice oscillator for an aspiring novice to work on learning the code.

The receiver tuned 200 kHz to 30 MHz, but as the review points out, the longwave band was almost useless, and the overall performance left a lot to be desired.  But in an environment filled with strong shortwave signals, even a simple receiver like this one would give hours of interesting listening to the new SWL.

Good specimens seem to go for about $50 on eBay.  But if you’re in the market, there’s really no sense in getting a working one.  The simple receiver is easy to work on, and the full assembly manual is readily available.  This receiver would be a good candidate to “re-kit”: Take it apart, and keep the mechanical parts, IF transformers, and variable capacitors.  Then,  replace the resistors and capacitors with modern replacements.  The selenium rectifier is probably best replaced with a more modern silicon rectifier.  The old tubes are almost certainly good, and even if they are not, they are all easily obtainable as “new old stock.”  Finally, put it back together according to the manual (and the cautions contained in the EI review).

Houdini’s Ice Escape Explained…Except for One Small Detail


Houdini going in to the Detroit River (from the 1953 Paramount movie)

Seventy years ago today, November 17, 1944, the Milwaukee Journal carried an interesting item about the escape artist Harry Houdini.  The previous Sunday, November 12, the radio program John Nesbitt’s The Passing Parade had carried a description of Houdini’s famous escape from under the ice covered waters of the Detroit River.  This stunt was immortalized in the  1953 Paramount Movie Houdini starring Tony Curtis as Houdini.  A still from the movie of the great escape artist’s crate being dropped into the icy water is shown here.

The Journal’s radio editor recounts the broadcast describing the “famous occasion 35 or more years ago when Houdini jumped into the Detroit river through a hole cut in otherwise solid ice that covered the river.” According to the paper, Houdini “stayed under water for six–or was it eight?–minutes, well beyond the time limit of known human endurance.” According to the paper, the mayor of Detroit and a “good crowd of sober citizens” witnessed the stunt and had the scare of their lives.

According to Nesbitt, Houdini “knew something.” He knew that the river had fallen an inch or so, and that there was an air-filled void between the surface of the water and the ice. As famously depicted in the movie, Houdini merely went to the surface, breathing the air until he located the hole.

But the mystery was apparently solved by a mysterious letter that showed up at Milwaukee station WTMJ after the broadcast.  The anonymous author of the letter was from Grand Rapids, Michigan,  (It’s quite plausible that the Milwaukee station had listeners in Grand Rapids, since the two locations are separated mostly by the waters of Lake Michigan, over which the groundwave signal of the 620 kilocycle station would easily pass.)  The mysterious author of the letter offered up what seemed to be a very plausible explanation for the stunt.

The radio editor Richard K. Bellamy, opines that “to us it sounds as though the writer of the letter knew what he was talking about.” It also sounded to me like the writer knew what he was talking about, since he included a number of corroborating details.

The anonymous letter writer stated that he was an “expert diver” and “one of Harry’s accomplices on that day” and that he was paid $350 for his part. According to the writer, a sheet metal worker in Brooklyn fabricated a can which was filled with compressed air. The letter writer’s job was to place that can in the river, which he says he did the Sunday prior to the stunt. “Harry and I carefully measured the distance” from the hole in the river to the can, says the writer. The can was attached to “a sort of head mask and some rubber hose.” “He could have stayed under 30 minutes,” opined the writer.

The mysterious letter writer does offer some corroborating details. He notes that there “probably is, or was, a tinsmith in Brooklyn who could corroborate part of my story.” He noted the exact location, noting that “if you will check today, you will find a quantity of concrete piling along the banks of the river,” and that the can and its anchor “is probably still at the spot” under the water. He concludes by noting that “a little research will probably bear me out.”

The letter writer says that he can’t divulge his identity “for ethical reasons.” But he believed that it “is hardly fair to the radio public to let the hoax explanation be unchallenged.”

That certainly seems like a plausible explanation.  After all, anyone could have gone to take a look at those concrete pilings.  And retrieving, or at least locating, a large cylinder and concrete anchor down at the bottom of the river doesn’t seem like a major undertaking.  And the anonymous explanation certainly seems more plausible than breathing, for an extended period of time, the tiny bit of air trapped under the ice.  So the radio columnist was apparently convinced.  And I was almost convinced, but for one small discrepancy.

That discrepancy was that the supposed ice escape, with or without assistance, never took place.  The mayor of Detroit didn’t witness it, the sober citizens of Detroit never witnessed it, and Houdini never did it.  It simply never happened, as shown at some of the links below.

Fact checking was harder before the Internet.  For a news story, a reporter might be expected to go down to the vault and find clippings about an event “35 or more years ago.” But this wasn’t a news article, and they didn’t have that Google thingie to help with the fact checking.  It was just an account of an interesting letter sent anonymously to a radio station. And it was a good story, good for a few column inches.  If I were the editor, I would print it, too.

Who sent it?  It could just be some guy playing a practical joke.  Or perhaps it was a publicist hyping a movie that wouldn’t come out for another nine years.  It seems like a good way to reinforce the “ice escape” story:  Plausibly explain how it was “really” done, without quite enough details to disprove the official version of the story.  It seems to me that adds a little bit of credibility to an official story that never happened.


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