Monthly Archives: April 2016

Enrico Caruso and The San Francisco Earthquake

Enrico Caruso

Enrico Caruso

The name Enrico Caruso comes up regularly on these pages. His career was in its prime in the late 1910’s, just as both radio and audio recording were coming of age.

He was first on the air in 1914, and in 1915, his voice appeared on what was probably one of the first “pirate” radio broadcasts.

110 years ago today, Caruso earned another distinction, namely, being a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

He was on tour in San Francisco and had appeared in Carmen at the Mission Opera House just hours before the quake. On that Wednesday morning at about 5:00, he wwas awakened to the bed rocking “as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming that I am crossing the water on my way to my beautiful country.”

As the shaking continued, he went to a window, where he witnessed the buildings crumbling around him. His valet rushed to his room and advised him to get dressed and go quickly into the open. His valet gave him some clothes and they rushed to the street. The valet hauled six trunks to the street, where someone tried to take them away. When the man didn’t go away, Caruso identified himself to a soldier, and the solder advised the man to “skiddoo.”

After wandering the city for the day, Caruso found some friends, and wound up sleeping in the open that night. The valet managed to contract with a cart, who took the party to the Oakland Ferry. From Oakland, he was able to catch a train to New York.

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Caruso in The Sketch, London, July 1, 1906.

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1926 Carborundum Crystal Set


Ninety years ago, the April 1926 issue of Radio In The Home magazine carried the plans for the “200 Mile” crystal set shown below.  The author describes the set in the following terms:

Many readers will be surprised to learn that a simple crystal set has given a fairly consistent nightly range of more than 200 miles. Yet this is not unusual; it is just the average performance of a well designed crystal set and has been done repeatedly this and the latter part of last winter.

From our location in Niagara Falls, New York, with an aerial and location no better than the usual, we have regularly listened to Pittsburgh, 200 miles, to Schenectady, 250 miles and to Chicago, 450 miles.

This record may seem out of the ordinary and indeed we ourselves were surprised at first. But the manner in which the first set and others of the same type, used on our own and other people’s aerials operate, has convinced us that the feat may be duplicated almost at will.

It then goes on to describe the set, emphasizing how low-loss components are used throughout.  Any detector could be used, but for best results, “it should also bear a certain relation (rather difficult of exact specification) to the input impedance. These conditions can best be met through use of the electrically controlled carborundum permanent detector (Carborundum Stabilizing Detector Unit).”

The Carborundum Stabilizing Detector Unit was manufactured by the country’s only producer of carborundum (silicon carbide), the Carborundum Company, which just happened to be also located in Niagara Falls, New York.

The carborundum detector does have the advantage of being permanently fixed, with no cat’s whisker to fiddle with.  It requires a reverse bias, provided by a flashlight battery.  The Carborundum Stabilizing Detector Unit included a potentiometer for adjusting the bias voltage.  So the listener accustomed to fiddling with the cat’s whisker could instead fiddle with the potentiometer.




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1941 National HRO FM Receiver


Here’s what the well equipped audiophile would have in his living room 75 years ago. The receiver is unmistakably made by National, and it’s shown in the April 1941 issue of FM magazine.

The ad’s caption conceded that the set was designed primarily as a communication receiver, but that it gave superb FM rception.  It had dual high fidelity output circuits, an excellent signal to noise ratio, and extreme sensitivity.  The ad doesn’t say so, but it would look nice in any living room.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to identify the model number, or even whether this receiver actually made its way into production.  According to the ad, the set was described in the December 1940 issue of the magazine, but that issue isn’t available online.

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Kalaupapa Leper Settlement/National Historical Park, Hawaii

Kalaupapa National Historical Park. NPS photo.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park. NPS photo.

During the ARRL National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event, Amateur Radio operators are setting up their stations in various units of the National Park Service and making contact with other Amateurs around the world. Since the beginning of the year, there have been over 3600 activations from 378 different parks, with over a quarter of a million individual contacts.

One interesting aspect of this event is learning about the different parks, some of which I did not even know existed. One of the most fascinating is Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii, located on an isolated peninsula of the island of Molokai.

The peninsula was originally the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement, created in 1866 to isolate Hawaiians suffering from Hasnen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy. From 1866 to 1969, a total of 8500 persons were relocated there for the rest of their lives. Since the 1940’s, Hansen’s disease has been curable with antibiotics, and it was also learned that the disease was not nearly as infectious as imagined. The settlement closed in 1969, but residents, many of whom were disfigured by the disease, were allowed to remain there for the rest of their lives.

Father Damien, photograph by William Brigham.jpg

Father Damien shortly before his death. Wikipedia photo.

For many years, the residents were cared for by Belgian missionaries from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The most well known was Father Damien, who served there from 1873 to 1889, when he himself died of leprosy. He was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2009. He was joined in 1883 by nuns including Mother Marianne Cope, who served there until her death in 1918. In 2012, she was also canonized by the Catholic Church.

When he arrived, Father Damien was instructed by his superiors not to touch his flock, and to eat only meals that he himself had prepared. Finding it impossible to minister under these conditions, he eventually ceased following these directives. After he had been there about fifteen years, he was cooking and spilled some boiling water on his foot but felt no pain. He purposely poured boiling water on his foot, but felt nothing, because he himself had leprosy.

He would normally begin worship with the words, “my fellow believers.” But that Sunday, he began “my fellow lepers.”

The historical park was established in 1980 to preserve the physical settings, which is still home to a few elderly surviving patients. The park also constitutes Kalawao County, Hawaii, the second least populous county in the United States, with a 2010 population of 90. (after Loving County, Texas, with a 2010 population of 82).

Access to the park is extremely limited, requiring an advance permit. Access by sea is prohibited. The park is serviced by Kalaupapa airport. The only land access is by a 3.5 mile mule trail connecting the penninsula to the rest of the island atop a 1600 foot cliff.

KH6BWG Silent Key notice, June 1959 QST.

KH6BWG Silent Key notice, June 1959 QST.

The Amateur Station at the park was KH6BWG, the William O Kupele Memorial Club Station, which bears the call sign of the settlement’s last resident ham, William O Kupele, who died in 1959. Because of the park’s isolated location, Amateur Radio plays an important role in emergency communication. The main purpose of the KH6BWG team’s visit was to administer license exams to residents, and to ensure that the settlement’s station was in good operating condition. The settlement is connected to the outside world not only by HF, but also by VHF, since the team ensured that contact can be made with Hawaiian repeaters. A special concern was ensuring that the settlement’s emergency evacuation location had VHF access with the outside world.  The park is in the process of formulating a management plan for preserving the site, and recognizing the communications challenges, the plan includes the use of Amateur Radio as one of the park’s vital links.

As a secondary goal of the trip, the KH6BWG group made about 2000 NPOTA contacts with other hams, including one with me.

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1936 Wobbulator


Eighty years ago, the well equipped radio service shop could very well have been equipped with a Wobbulator. Shown here, in the April 1936 issue of Service magazine is the Model 180 Wobbulator, manufactured by the Triumph Manufacturing Company of 4017 W. Lake Street, Chicago.  The unusual name is for a signal generator covering 100 kHz to 30 MHz.

The Wobbulator should not be confused with a Gonculator, a device used only on submarines.

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Amateur Exams, 1926

Taking the code test in 1926.

Taking the code test in 1926.

The April 1926 issue of Popular Radio contains an interesting article detailing the requirements to get an amateur radio license 90 years ago. Written by prolific author Howard S. Pyle, 7HP, W7ASL, and W7OE, the article notes that examinations were given at the various radio inspection offices on a regular schedule. In Detroit, for example, Amateur exams were given on Saturdays starting at 10:00 AM, “and it is wise to appear promptly at this time, for the examining officer dislikes to be compelled to run the code test again for late comers.” It also explains that for those living in outlying areas, a temporary permit could be issued based upon a questionnaire and sworn affidavit of code ability, to be followed up by a personal examination at a later date.

The code test was originally set at “an arbitrary speed of five words a minute, … but experience proved it to be too slow.” Therefore, the speed as of 1926 was 10 words per minute, meaning 50 characters per minute. “An applicant is really offered five opportunities to demonstrate his ability,” since a single minute of solid copy was all that was required. “It is assumed, however, that he will put down a reasonable portion of the balance, in addition to the required number.”

Until a few years earlier, no sending test had been required. But “large numbers of operators, notably at sea, were later found, on observation, to have extremely poor ‘fists’ as their sending hand and style is termed in radio phraseology,” including the “Lake Erie Swing.” Therefore, a sending test was also required.

The code test out of the way, the applicant was then tested on his knowledge of radio theory. This test was based not upon a transmitter “you’ve seen on a steamer or in a broadcast station, but the one that is actually on your own operating table.”

Therefore, the first part of the test was to prepare a complete diagram of the transmitter, receiver, and source of power. “This must be complete in every sense of the word.” Then, the applicant was to explain to the inspector how it worked.

This does not mean that you are to say, “I throw my antenna switch to the transmitting position; cut in my power and work my key.” What is wanted is something like this:

“Using the alternating current of the house lighting circuits, through the medium of a setp-down transformer, the filament of the vacuum-tube oscillator is brought to incandescence, thus emitting an electron stream, which is caused to flow to the plate by reason…”

The remainder of the exam consisted of showing similar familiarity with the radio laws, operating procedures, Q signals, and other items deemed important by the examiner.

Pyle concludes:

Let the aspiring applicants to the “blue ticket” of the full-fledged amateur be encouraged and may the great fraternity remain foremost among the country’s youthful experimenters!

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GE Model L-500, 1941

1941April7LifeSeventy-five years ago today, the April 7, 1941, issue of Life Magazine carried this ad for the model L-500, as a second set for the study or den, with which you could enjoy your own program, while the family enjoys theirs on the big set in the living room.

The set was a basic “All American Five,” with a tube lineup of 12SA7, 12B7, 12SQ7, 50L6GT, and 35Z5GT tubes.  This set was ready to tune the entire broadcast band, with coverage up to 1700 kHz.  With the recent NARBA reallocations, the band now extended up to 1600.  The speaker was four inches, and the plastic cabinet was award winning, having “won the top award for styling in the nationwide Modern Plastics contest.”

A nicely preserved specimen of this set can be found at the Radio Attic Archives, courtesy of the California Historical Radio Society,

Also shown in the ad is the Model J-602, a restored example of which can be seen in this video:

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Quist Quiz Solution



Yesterday, we presented the problem shown above and promised that we would show the solution today.  The problem isn’t particularly difficult, and there are probably other ways to do it.

Since 15 volts is measured across the 30K resistor (and R2), this means that 30 volts is dropped across R1, which happens to be twice as much as 15.  This means that R1 is twice as large as the combined parallel resistors.  Since only the ratio is important, it’s easier to work in kilohms rather than ohms:

R1 = 2 (30 R2 / (30 + R2))

We’re also told that R1 + R2 = 15.

They might look a bit messy, but we now have two equations and two unknowns, meaning that we can solve them.  In my scribbling below, I used the variables X and Y to keep things a bit more legible.

After crunching the numbers (including use of the dreaded quadratic formula), we arrive at the answer:

R1 = 9416 ohms, and R2 = 5584 ohms,  [See the comment from eagle-eyed K3CHJ who caught my earlier typo!]

the same answer given in the June issue.  So when you asked your poor sainted algebra teacher, “when will we ever have to use this in the real world?,” he or she should have pointed out that you might need it someday for your blog.




Quist Quiz, 1959


During the 1950’s, QST ran a regular feature called Quist Quiz, which presented an electronic brain teaser. This one appeared in the May 1959 issue.

I’ll provide the solution tomorrow.  If you can’t wait, you can look in the June 1959 issue, where the answer (but not the full solution) is shown.

Unless you want to do a lot of trial and error, you’ll probably need to use the quadratic formula,  Back in the day, the 1959 ham probably had to go dig out his old algebra textbook.  Today, you can just click on the link and Wikipedia will help you.


Largest Number That Can Be Written With Three Digits


In case you’ve been wondering what the largest number you can represent with three digits, the answer was provided ninety years ago this month, in the April 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine.  That number is:


According to the magazine, this is equal to a is a 369,693,100 digit number, the first digit of which is 4, the last of which is 9.  In other words, rounded, it is 4 x 10^369,693,099.

According to the magazine, the number was calculated by one M. Laisant of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.  However, it’s unlikely that M. Laisant wrote down the answer, since, it would take 28 years to write down the number, as depicted by the presumably hypothetical gentleman shown in the illustration.  If written with the digits spaced a sixth of an inch apart, the number would stretch about 919 miles.  (The 919 mile figure is given by the magazine, although it seems to me that the answer ought to be 972 miles, since 387,420,489/6/12/5280 = 972.)

It should be noted that the order of operations makes a huge difference in the outcome.  To put it another way, the associate property of addition or multiplication does not apply to exponents.

(9^9)^9 is a very modest 78 digit number, 1.9662705 x 10^77, since it is merely 387,420,489 multiplied by itself nine times.  9^(9^9), on the other hand, is 9 multiplied by itself 387,420,489 times, which results in 4 x 10^369,693,099.

We can do a quick plausibility check of the magazine’s answer by noting that 9^(9^9) < 10^(10^10),  Ten to the tenth power is one followed by ten zeroes, 10,000,000,000.  Ten to the power of 10,000,000,000 is one followed by 10,000,000,000 zeroes, a ten billion and one digit number.  The answer given by the magazine, a mere 369,693,100 digit number, is indeed smaller.  The quick jump from 369 million to 10 billion digits isn’t surprising when you consider the following:

1^1^1 = 1

2^2^2 = 16

3^3^3 =  7,625,597,484,987

Unfortunately, Google calculator fails us, since it reports merely that the answer is “infinity.”  But on the other hand, that’s probably close enough.  Since there are only about 10^80 atoms in the observable universe, a number much larger than that probably has little practical use.


The M. Laisant identified in the article is apparently Charles-Ange Laisant, who wrote more about the problem in Thresholds of Science: Mathematics, published in 1914.

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