Monthly Archives: April 2017

Wake Up America Day 1917

A hundred years ago, April 19, 1917, it was “Wake Up America Day,” an event designed to boost recruiting for the First World War.

The days main event was a parade in New York City.   In the photo here, Abraham Lincoln impersonator Benjamin Chapin is shown riding in an antique coach.  He is followed by Boy Scouts bearing illuminated signs with the points of the Scout Law, along with the words, “We are coming, Father Abraham, thousands strong.”

1942 Ground Current Communication


During World War II, Amateur Radio was off the air for the duration. However, unlike the situation in the First World War, hams were allowed to keep their equipment, and there were no restrictions on listening. Hams were eager to communicate, and with radio unavailable, they were eager to explore other possibilities. Starting with the March 1942 issue of QST, each issue included an experimenters’ section, which discussed many of the possibilities. Among the possibilities were carrier-current radio over power lines, and modulated light beams.

The first ideas started to trickle in 75 years ago this month in the April 1942 issue, and some of the first experiments focused on ground current communications. Leslie C. Merrill, W1NEI reported his preliminary results with the schematic shown above. The receiver consisted of the audio section of his receiver, and the transmitter consisted of the venerable spark coil from a Model T.

From the transmitter, the signal was fed to ground rods three feet apart. At the receiving end, the ground rods were only two feet apart. Despite the close spacing, he was able to copy the signal fifty feet away.

Merrill reported that he lived out in the country, and had the possibility to space ground rods 3/8 mile apart. By extrapolating his initial results, he speculated that a range of 30 miles might be possible with a similarly equipped station at the other end.

We’ve previously covered similar ideas.  In 1940, Popular Mechanics carried plans for a similar setup with a range of about 75 feet.  And in the First World War, the Signal Corps had a field buzzer that could be configured with a similar setup.  And a 1957 “Quist Quiz” showed a similar setup using a telephone, and even noted that old timers would be familiar with such a hookup.

Escape of Gen. Giraud, 1942

Gen. Giraud during his daily walk during imprisonment, 1940 or 41. Wikipedia photo.

On this day 75 years ago, April 17, 1942, French General Henri Giraud escaped from prison in the Nazi Königstein Fortress near Dresden, one of the largest mountain fortresses in Europe.

In 1940, Giraud was commanding in the Netherlands where his men were trying to block a German attack through the Ardennes.  He was at the front with a reconnaissance patrol when he was captured by German troops.

Giraud spent the next two years planning the escape. He spent the time learning German, memorizing a map of the area, and making ropes out of smuggled-in pieces of twine, copper wire, and bedsheets.

Just before the escape, the 63-year-old General shaved his mustache, climbed the wall, and descended the steep rock on which the fortress lay. He jumped aboard a moving train, and eventually made his way to Switzerland, from which he transferred to Vichy France.

When word of the escape spread in France, the Nazis were beside themselves, and an order to assassinate Giraud was issued, along with orders to arrest his family members.

He tried to talk Marshal Pétain out of continued collaboration, to no avail. He was then secretly contacted by the Allies, and eventually took a submarine to Gibraltar, where he met with General Eisenhower. He was flown to Algiers in November, but Vichy French forces there initially refused his command and his plea to join the Allies.

Giraud’s 1942 escape was actually his second escape from the Germans. In the First World War, he was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield before being taken prisoner and placed in a prison camp in Belgium. He escaped after two months by pretending to be a roustabout with a traveling circus, eventually returning to France via the Netherlands.

Texas City Disaster, 1947

Parking lot a quarter mile from the blast. Wikipedia photo.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, the Texas City disaster of April 16, 1947, which started as a fire aboard the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp docked at Texas City, Texas, with 2200 tons of ammonium nitrate. The disaster killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.

Smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp at about 8:00 AM. The captain ordered his crew to steam the hold, which probably made matters worse by converting the ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide.

Spectators gathered, believing that they were a safe distance away. The sealed hold began to bulge, and water splashing against the hull began to boil.

The cargo detonated at 9:12 AM, with a blast leveling over a thousand buildings on land and destroyed the Monsanto chemical plan and ignited refinery and chemical tanks on the waterfront. Bails of twine from the cargo were set afire and hurled around the city. People in Galveston, 10 miles away, were forced to their knees, and the shock wave was felt as far as 250 miles away.

The ironically named SS High Flyer was docked nearby, and the blast set fire to that ship’s cargo of ammounium nitrate. Fifteen hours later, that ship exploded.

As might be expected, the blast destroyed much of the city’s communication infrastructure, and amateur radio operators quickly responded to fill the gap.  Many of these stories are detailed in the July 1947 issue of QST (pages 38-40).

B.H. Standley, W5FQQ, on the air at city hall, along with city clerk Ernest Smith, Nurse Mrs. E.L. Brockman.

B.H. Standley, W5FQQ, on the air at city hall, along with city clerk Ernest Smith, Nurse Mrs. E.L. Brockman.

By noon, the first amateur portable and mobile stations had moved into the city and were on the air, working in conjuction with Army, Navy, Coast Guard, U.S. Engineers, FBI, and local and state police. Links were quickly set up between City Hall and stations in Houston and San Antonio. Most traffic was handled on 75 meter phone and 80 and 40 meter CW. W5KMZ reportedly handled over 200 messages, mostly involving needed medical supplies. As the hours went on, additional traffic was handled by W5FQQ at the mayor’s office, with over 300 messages passing on behalf of city officials, the Army, Red Cross, and Salvation Army.

An impromptu three-way net was established on 3989 kHz between Texas City, Galveston, and Houston.

Two hams, W5FQQ and W5EEX, had been advised to evacuate but remained at their stations. They narrowly escaped death when the High Flyer lived up to its name with its explosion. W5FQQ was on the air at the time of the blast, and the blast was heard by W5IGS in Houston. 21 seconds later, the Houston station experienced his windows shaking.

W1AW declared the emergency to be over 11 days later, on April 17.

As might be expected, considerable litigation followed, much of it under the Federal Tort Claims Act for alleged negligence of the U.S. Government. The case ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dahelite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953), in which the court held that the Government was not liable, since all of the claimed government negligence amounted to discretionary acts.

1977 Fish Attractor

1977101projectsWe previously showed you the modern electrical method to catch worms.  (In fact, if you catch too many for your fishing needs, we even showed you how to make big money selling worms.)  But now that you have all of those worms, you’ll want to take them fishing, and this electronic project from 40 years ago practically guarantees that the big ones will start biting.

The circuit puts out a repeated click-click sound which is reportedly a dinner bell for fish.  With this circuit in a suitable waterproof container, the fish will be biting in not time.

The circuit appeared in the 1977 issue of 101 Electronic Projects, a special edition put out by the publishers of Elementary Electronics.

1967 Homemade Galvanometer

1947AprRTVExpStudents looking for a simple but meaningful science fair project involving electricity won’t go wrong in constructing a simple galvanometer. The instrument can easily be constructed in an evening at little or no cost, and will prove to be very sensitive in detecting even small electrical currents.

The plans shown here appeared fifty years ago in the April-May issue of Radio TV Experimenter.  The plans are very straightforward, and most students can probably figure it out simply by looking at the diagram here.  It consists of a normal compass (even the most inexpensive toy version will work just fine) surrounded by a coil of wire.  When hooked to a battery, the compass will immediately deflect.

The sensitivity of the instrument is illustrated by using it to test a “dead” battery.  Even though an old battery is incapable of putting out enough current to run anything, it will still show a deflection if hooked to the galvanometer.

For students wanting to do something a bit more extraordinary, the homemade galvanometer can be paired up with one of the homemade batteries we previously profiled.  Most of the parts can be found around the house or at the closest dollar store.  Just about any type of insulated wire will work just fine.  If you can’t find any wire at the dollar store, you should be able to find some donor electronic device at the dollar store and you can scavenge the wire from it.  They’re not really necessary for the project, but if you want to match the design of the one shown here, the two “Fahnestock Clips” for hooking up the battery are available at Amazon.

Station D-E-B-U-N-K, 1942

1942Apr12ChiTribSeventy-five years ago, the April 12, 1942, issue of the Chicago Tribune carried this story about a wartime curiosity on the shortwave bands, Station DEBUNK.

After the United State entered the war, the station sprung up on 7.2 MHz, and tried to pass itself off as a clandestine station operating from inside the United States.

But according to the newspaper, the FCC had confirmed what most SWL’s had already figured out, namely, that the station was broadcasting from Europe. The newspaper noted that the station was on the same frequency as the Berlin shortwave station.

The newspaper also noted that many listeners saw the hand of Freddy Kaltenbach in the station’s appearance, noting that it expressed his manner of expression and thinking. We previously wrote  (here and here) about propagandist Kaltenbach, a former Iowan of German birth.

The station was also profiled in the April 18, 1942, issue of Radio Guide, which noted that the station normally signed on to its 41 meter frequency between 7:30 and 8:00 PM Central War Time. The transmission began with an interval signal consisting of a piano playing part of the melody from the Star Spangled Banner, repeatedly playing the music for the words “by the dawn’s early light.”

The announcer then asked listeners to phone their neighbors to tune in and then played some jitterbug records. After about ten minutes, the announcer, one “Joe Scanlon” unleashed propaganda that was “anti-British, anti-American, anti-Communist, anti-Jewish, in fact, anti everything but National Socialism.”

After the diatribe, the station would sign off with the Star Spangled Banner. The Radio Guide profile noted that the station was amateurish in nature, with “the modulation as rotten as the talks.”

Announcer “Scanlon” was actually Herbert John Burgman, originally of Hokah, Minnesota.  Burgman served in the U.S. Army from 1918 to 1920, posted in Germany. In 1921, he was employed as a clerk at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin and married a German national. By 1941, he was a committed Nazi sympathizer, and declined repatriation to the U.S. along with the rest of the embassy staff, and he signed on as a propagandist for Radio DEBUNK.

After the war, he was arrested a tried for treason. The prosecution relied not only eyewitness testimony, but the recordings of the broadcasts from the FCC’s Silver Hill, Maryland, monitoring station. Despite a plea of insanity, Burgman was convicted of 13 acts of treason and sentenced to 6-20 years in prison. In 1951, the Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction. Burgman v. United States, 188 F.2d 637 (D.C. Cir. 1951).
He died in prison in 1953 at the age of 59.  He then found his way home to Minnesota and is buried in Austin, MN.

You can listen to a sound clip of Station DEBUNK at this link.

1947 One Tube Broadcast Regen

1947AprPM1947AprPM2Seventy years ago this month, the father-son team shown here at the kitchen table couldn’t decide which of them was going to get the one-tube radio after they finished putting it together. But fortunately, the circuit was simple enough that they decided to simply make two of them, one for each. They are following the plans that appeared in the April 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics.

The set was billed as being for the beginner, and both easy to build and simple to operate. It used a single 6J5-GT tube as the regenerative detector, and could pull in standard broadcast stations with good headphone reception up to about 400 miles. To keep things simple, it used a transformer to supply the 6 volt filament current, but used a 45 volt battery to supply the B+.

1947AprPMchasisConstruction was made easy by the “semibreadboard” chassis shown here, consisting of two wooden slats mounted on two wooden strips. The two slats were spaced so that the tube socket could be mounted between them, eliminating the need to cut a large hole for the socket.

The magazine promised that the next month’s issue would show how to convert the set into a more powerful all band 4-tube set, although the one-tube design was more than adequate for the beginner who simply wanted to build a set to pull in local stations.