Monthly Archives: October 2017

Florence “Dot” Cheers Dawson

1923AustraliaXtalSetShown here in 1923 is 17-year-old Florence “Dot” Cheers of Brunswick, Victoria, Australia, listening to a crystal set accompanied by her young sister Jean. The set had been constructed by their brother Ronald.

Smoky and Dot Dawson, 1952. Wikipedia photo.

Florence went on to become a radio announcer known as “Aunty June” on station 3KZ in the 1930’s and 40’s.  She married Smoky Dawson in the 1940’s, and the two achieved fame in country music in both Australia and the United States.  The video below is a performance by Smoky Dawson.

Smoky Dawson died in 2008, and Dot died in 2010 at the age of 104.

The public-domain photograph, donated by Dr. Christina Cheers, is in the collection of Museums Victoria.

1917 Lighting Gas Bus

1917OctPMA hundred years ago, wartime conditions in England were such that there weren’t sufficient liquid fuels (gasoline or methyl alcohol) to run the buses. Undaunted, they switched to the same gas that was used to run the streetlights, conveniently stored in rooftop bags, as shown on the cover of the October 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Complete information was apparently not available to the editors of the American magazine, since they noted that “the amount of power obtained from the lighting gas depends upon a number of things, and a reliable estimate could not be made without more detailed information thanis at hand.  It is also not altogether clear why unwieldly bags are being used instead of compact steel cylinders which could carry gas under high pressure.”

But since the streets were already wired for gas, adding filling stations along the route was a minor matter.  Indeed, some of the filling stations consisted merely of existing lamp posts situated near the curb.

1947 Radio Parts Sales

1942OctRadioNewsCoverShown here as it appeared 70 years ago is the sales room of Concord Radio Corporation in Chicago. The picture appeared on the cover of the October 1947 issue of Radio News, which notes that complete stocks of radio parts, well displayed, were the secrets of the distributor’s success.

Escape of POW Walter Smith, 1917

SMS Möve.jpg

Commerce raider SMS Möve. Wikipedia photo.

A hundred years ago today, the October 16, 1917, edition of the Chicago Tribune carried the story of  Walter Smith of Norway, Connecticut. Earlier in the year, Smith, who had worked as a brakeman on the New Haven railroad, signed on as a muleteer on the British Cargo steamer Esmeraldas, which was sailing from Newport News to Liverpool with a cargo of 950 horses. At about 2:00 AM on March 10, the twelfth day of the voyage, the ship was overtaken by the German commerce raider SMS Möwe, shown above.

Smith was awakened by another crew member who announced, “they’ve got us,” to see the Möwe lying astern. Smith reported that the Möwe “looked like a tramp steamer, but it could travel, believe me. It had eight guns forward under a folding deck, and when it fought they raised the ship sides. They lowered them after battle and then it looked harmless.”

Soon, the ship was swarming with Germans, three of whom carried bombs. They took the 350 crew and passengers off and proceeded to blow up the Esmeraldas.

Smith reported that the prisoners were treated well aboard the Möwe, but also served as unwitting participants in five more battles as the Möwe continued her raids. On March 21, the ship reached harbor at Kiel, which was “full of warcraft, battleships, and hydroplanes, and it was a pretty sight to watch the hydroplanes darting down to the water like gulls.” The prisoners remained in Kiel for four days, and then another two weeks in Durmen. From there, they were taken to a prison camp near Brandenburg on April 4, and “we were in that dump until early in May. They pushed us and shoved us a good deal and called us swine and some other things.” Food consisted of “one chunk of bread daily and turnip soup. That turnip soup was good water spoiled.”

At some point in May, Smith and several hundred other prisoners were transferred to Lubeck, where they were put to work on the docks loading ships bound for Sweden. When the German freighter Undine was being loaded, Smith came up with his escape plan.

Prisoners were marched to the deck in groups of twelve at 6:00 AM, but Smith noted that men who had reported sick were not seen until later in the morning. So Smith reported himself sick. When the men were marched to the dock the next morning, he waited until a group had been counted, and then slipped in. The guards didn’t bother counting during the march, and they didn’t expect an extra man. At the dock, he joined in the loading. As soon as he was aboard, he hid himself in the hold along with the load of fertilizer. He remained there from Saturday morning to Friday morning of the next week. “It was dark, but I had a pocket lamp that lasted quite a while.”

Smith had brought some food, some crackers, but didn’t bring any water. Therefore, he was unable to eat “because my mouth and throat got so dry I would not swallow them. I tried to eat them, but they were like sand in my mouth and would not go down. All the time I was afraid and my tongue was getting bigger and bigger. It felt a foot thick.”

A few times, Smith considered going up and turning himself in, but after remembering the conditions at Brandenburg, he decided to wait.

On Thursday night, the ship docked at Norrköping, Sweden. In the morning, “looking like a wildman, a week’s growth of beard on his face, his tongue swolen from six days’ raging thirst, eyes blazing with fever, body shaking with nervous chills, but still full of fight,” Smith made a leap from the deck of the ship into the arms of a Swedish dock policeman. The Swedish stevedores, realizing the situation and manifestly sympathetic, shouted to the policeman to hustle Smith away from the ship.

After Smith’s imploring gestures, he was ushered to a hydrant “where he thinks he must have drunk a gallon of water without stopping, the policeman patting him on the shoulders the while.” He was taken to the police station and a telegram was sent to the U.S. Consulate in Stockholm.

The Chicago Tribune correspondent and a few others chipped in to buy Smith a suit of clothes, after which “Smith began to look really respectable.” The American Vice Consul went to the station to get Smith, saying that “I thought he’d proved himself a good American and deserved welcome,” and the consulate was making arrangements to send him home.

The following German propaganda film shows a number of the exploits of the Möwe, which was the most successful German raider of both wars.



Calibrating Your Watch With The Stars

1947OctPSSeventy years ago, the October 1947 issue of Popular Science showed this method of making sure your watch was accurate.

While this method would not, by itself, give you the exact time, it would very precisely tell you the elapsed time.

The method was very simple. You simply installed a piece of tin with 1/16 inch hole on some fixed location, such as the side of the building. You used it to sight a vertical fixed object, such as a lightning rod or distant skyscraper. Then, you observed the exact time that any star was occluded by the object. Since the star is essentially a point of light, it would disappear suddenly. You noted the time.

Then, the next evening, you would observe the same star. It would be occluded exactly 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.09 seconds later–one sidereal day. In other words, the time on your watch should read exactly 3 minutes 55.91 seconds before the previous night’s figure.  (For all practical purposes, a sidereal day is 364/365 of a solar day.  This makes sense, since the Earth itself has moved 1/365 of its way around the sun in 24 hours.)

Depending on whether your watch was fast or slow, you could thus adjust the spring.

If you knew the exact time the first night, then you could also create a table showing the exact time of occlusion subsequent nights. As long as you didn’t move the piece of tin, you would always know what time it is.

This method has two applications.  After the zombie apocalypse, presumably WWV will be off the air.  The stars give you a method to keep your clock calibrated very accurately.  It could also be the basis for a very interesting science fair project.



Taking a Break With the Radio, 1943


Shown here in 1943 is eleven-year-old Beverly Ann Grimm of Buffalo, New York, taking a break from sweeping to listen to the radio. Beverly was largely forced to take care of herself and her five younger brothers and sisters. Her  mother was widowed, and worked all week as a crane operator with Pratt and Letchworth.  The mother’s name isn’t shown on the photograph caption, but according to the 1940 census, she was Thelma Grimm, and in 1940 lived at 60 Newman Street, Lackawanna, New York.  According to the photo caption, Mrs. Grimm was 26 years old in 1943, but according to the census, she was 26 years old in 1940.

The photographer was Marjory Collins of the Farm Security Administration. The photo, taken here from Wikimedia, was digitized by Yale, and more information is available at this link.  In the photo below, Beverly is shown bringing home the groceries purchased from her mother’s list.

I’m not able to make out the brand of the radio, which makes identifying it difficult.  If anyone has any clues, please let me know!  You can also find more information about this family and some of the artifacts in the pictures at this link.


The Banana Plug Goes To War


The war effort of the United Nations depended on many minor miracles, and according to this ad in the October 12, 1942, issue of Life magazine, one of those minor miracles rolled off the assembly lines of the United-Carr Fastener Corporation of Cambridge, Mass.

That minor miracle was the banana plug, or as it was called here, the banana pin. The cause of war was calling Americans to every corner of the globe, and their communications depended on American radio equipment. And those sets contained banana plugs, lots of banana plugs. Hundred of thousands of banana plugs were in constant operation in planes, ships, and tanks, under all conditions of weather and battle. The banana plug was unseen and inconspicuous, but it insured the constant contact to keep the far-flung forces in touch with their commands.

Science Fair Ideas: Fun With Air Pressure (With Optional Explosive Gas)

1937OctPS3Is it just me, or is there a slightly diabolical look on this young woman’s face?  This picture appeared in the October 1937 issue of Popular Science, meaning that it was probably taken right around the time of the Hindenburg disaster.

She is preparing what was probably the first place experiment in the 1937 science fair by filling soap bubbles with hydrogen gas.  The magazine carried a number of scientific experiments involving air pressure.  Most were very safe, even by our modern standards.  But instead of settling for those completely safe experiments, she decided to generate some hydrogen gas.  Normally, soap bubbles fall, because they’re heavier than air.  But by blowing soap bubble with hydrogen gas, they rise to the ceiling.

Hopefully she didn’t try to relax by lighting up a Camel while doing the experiment, since the magazine (perhaps with the Hindenburg fresh in the memory) warned that the experiment should be “kept safely away from open flames.”  The hydrogen gas is easily generated in a flask or bottle containing scraps of zinc. To make the hydrogen, you simply add a little bit of sulphuric or hydrochloric acid.  This 10% HCl toilet bowl cleaner will probably do the trick.  You should be able to find some inexpensive item made out of zinc at the hardware store.  If you can’t, you can probably use galvanized nails, or just buy a small piece of the metal.

1937OctPS1If your parents or teacher are uncomfortable with you playing with dangerous chemicals and explosive gasses, then the article includes some other less dangerous experiments.  Perhaps you can start with one of these to convince them that you use good lab practices.

For example, shown at the left is a simple experiment showing the effects of air pressure.  You first inflate a balloon inside a bottle.  The magazine didn’t tell you exactly how, since they realized that kids 80 years ago could figure it out themselves.  You can also figure it out yourself, but just in case you can’t, simply insert the uninflated balloon into the top of the bottle, blow it up part way, tie it off, and then poke it in.

1937OctPS4Once the balloon is inflated, you seal up the bottle and either blow air in or suck air out.  The balloon will expand and contract depending upon the pressure in the bottle.  The same general principle is used to construct the barometer shown here.  If the barometer isn’t quite sensitive enough to respond to changes in barometric pressure (or if you’re impatient), then you put it inside a larger container and blow in or suck out air to make the barometer show the changes in pressure.

Finally, the magazine showed how to weigh air, using a system similar to what we previously showed for weighing smoke.  As shown below, you put a little bit of boiling water in a jar and firmly seal the lid.  As the water cools, the steam in the jar condenses, leaving a partial vacuum.

After it cools, you carefully weigh the jar.  Then, you loosen the lid, to allow air to rush in.  The total weight increases, and the difference is the weight of the air.




RM2C Robert Melvey, W7HUX, 1924-1944

1942OctRadioNewsThe October 1947 issue of Radio News contains this report of a rare case of the FCC issuing a specially requested amateur callsign prior to the “vanity” callsign programs of later decades.

Ernest Melvey, formerly W7HVS, of 6416 Francis Avenue, Seattle, Washington, requested a waiver of the rule requiring calls to be assigned systematically.  Specifically, he requested the call sign of his son, U.S. Naval Reserve Radioman Second Class Robert Melvey, W7HUX, who had been killed in action, along with 132 other sailors, when the cruiser Nashville had been hit by a Japanese kamikaze plane on December 13, 1944.

USS Nashville after the kamikaze hit. Wikipedia photo.

The elder Melvey had made the request “in remembrance of the good times,” and the FCC was sympathetic to the father’s request to perpetuate his son’s call letters on the air.  The FCC granted the request, but “did not mean that it was relaxing its long adhered to policy against transfer of amateur call letters or requests for particular amateur calls.”

The younger Melvey is interred at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, Seattle.

USS Nashville (CL-43) off the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on 4 August 1943.jpg

USS Nashville, 1943. Wikipedia photo.


1937 Remote Control Display

1937OctRadioRetailingEighty years ago,  Aeolian’s store in St. Louis (apparently a dealer in radios and pianos) managed to attract a big crowd to the sidewalk in front of their store window with this clever display, shown here in the October 1937 issue of Radio Retailing. The plate glass window contained four “buttons,” consisting of cards mounted inside the glass, each with the call letters of a radio station and the words “Place Hand Here to Tune.” Sure enough, when a visitor placed his or her hand on the glass, the console radio four feet away mysteriously tuned to the selected station, and the program came over a sound system piping the radio to the street. Over the course of three days, 5000 people placed their hands over the cards to tune in the radio. Many of them went into the store for a better look.

According to the magazine, the display was the brainchild of parts jobber Bob Ferree of Interstate Supply and Fred Pitzer of RCA. The cost of materials was $50, which the magazine proclaimed to be “cheap, when the timliness and effectiveness of the stunt is considered.”

The magazine carried the full schematic for the circuit, shown below. As most readers probably guessed, the circuit relied upon hand capacitance. Each foil pad was connected to an oscillator circuit, set so that the added hand capacitance would stop the oscillation. This triggered a relay, which in turn triggered a second latching relay which tuned the set’s remote control to the selected station.

Each of the cards had behind it 3.5 by 5 inch strips of tinfoil. Another card was glued to the back to conceal the foil. From each piece of foil ran a tiny 40-gauge enameled wire which ran to a relay unit hidden behind the set.  Each station required two tubes plus two relays, plus one rectifier tube to power the entire unit.