Category Archives: Radio history

Sputnik: October 4, 1957

Sixty years ago today, the Space Age started when the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik 1, the Earth’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957.

Soviet news agency TASS made the official announcement:

As a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and design bureaus the first artificial satellite in the world has been created. On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According to preliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted to the satellite the required orbital velocity of about 8000 meters per second. At the present time the satellite is describing elliptical trajectories around the earth, and its flight can be observed in the rays of the rising and setting sun with the aid of very simple optical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, etc.).

In addition to reminding the West that the satellite could be seen by anyone, TASS went out of its way to make sure that even radio amateurs could hear for themselves that the Soviets had won the race into space.  The official press release included Sputnik’s frequencies:

 It is equipped with two radio transmitters continuously emitting signals at frequencies of 20.005 and 40.002 megacycles per second (wave lengths of about 15 and 7.5 meters, respectively). The power of the transmitters ensures reliable reception of the signals by a broad range of radio amateurs. The signals have the form of telegraph pulses of about 0.3 second’s duration with a [312] pause of the same duration. The signal of one frequency is sent during the pause in the signal of the other frequency.

Sputnik 1.jpg

Replica of Sputnik 1. Wikipedia photo.

Receivers for the 40 MHz signal would have been a rarity, but thousands of hams and SWL’s had receivers that would easily tune 20 MHz.  The frequency was cleverly picked to be close to WWV’s powerful 20 MHz signal.  Thus, even though most receivers weren’t calibrated well enough to show the exact frequency, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards unwittingly made sure that everyone knew exactly where to tune.

In addition, the signal was so close to WWV, then at Beltsville, Maryland, that the unmodulated carrier from the satellite would create a heterodyne with WWV, allowing it to be heard even if the receiver was a simple one without a BFO.

The national association of amateur radio operators, ARRL, was flooded with calls from reporters.  They gave instructions to listeners to “tune in 20 megacycles sharply, by the time signals, given on that frequency. Then tune to slightly higher frequencies. The ‘beep, beep’ sound of the satellite can be heard each time it rounds the globe.”

1957DecQSTThe December 1957 issue of QST included several photos of hams who had heard the satellite,  And in many cases, those hams made the signal available to local broadcast stations and news outlets.

In Chicago, it was 27-year-old ham Jerome Tannenbaum, W9JJN, of 5240 Harper Avenue. He was described in the October 5 Chicago Tribune as the owner of an electronic engineering consulting firm and radio operator since he was 15. He told the newspaper that he heard a steady stream of “dahs” on 20.005, and definitely believed that the signal was from Sputnik, based upon the fact that it faded out right when predicted.

Hams quickly figured out how to track the orbit and predict the next time the satellite would be in range.  Again, Moscow made sure they knew Sputnik’s orbital inclination of 65 degrees,  and orbital period of 1 hour 35 minutes, by including this information in the first announcement.  The simple locating device shown here was made at ARRL headquarters, merely by mounting a loop of wire around a globe.  Once the satellite was heard, it was a simple matter of predicting where it would be heard next by rotating the Earth 23.75 degrees, the amount it would move during one orbit.

Apparently, Sputnik had at least one deliberate QRM’er.  A letter in the December 1957 issue of QST reports that someone showed up on 20.005 MHz on October 7 with commentary such as, “this is the moon speaking,” sending the safety signal, and signing the call sign UA3ABD.  The letter writer, Dave Harris, K2RRH of Lyndhurst, N.J., hoped “that donkey realizes that he is on tapes all across the country.”

Sputnik 1 remained in orbit until January 4, 1958, having completed 1440 orbits of the Earth.  When it re-entered the atmosphere, WWV played another role.  Hams and others were already familiar with meteor scatter, the reflection of radio signals by the ionized gasses caused when a meteor enters the atmosphere.  Scientists and hams correctly guessed that Sputnik would cause the same phenomenon on re-entry.  As a convenient signal source, WWV was once again used, and as predicted, the WWV signal appeared or got louder as the satellite entered the atmosphere.  With this data, it was possible to track the satellite’s location until it completely disintegrated in the atmosphere.

Thousands of Americans were able to see or hear Sputnik.  In many cases, this sparked a lifelong interest in science, space, and/or radio.  I asked some of the hams at to share there stories about their experiences.  A number of hams posted there or e-mailed their recollections.

Glen Zook, K9STH, currently of Richardson, Texas, shared this story of hearing Sputnik as a 13 year old in LaPorte, Indiana, and he gave me permission to include it here:

Hallicrafters S-40

Hallicrafters S-40

There was a garage shop TV repair facility about a block south of my parents’ house. When Sputnik was launched and was operating, the frequency, 20.005 MHz, and the expected times when the satellite could be heard, were published in the LaPorte Herald Argus newspaper. Orville Hartle, the owner of the TV shop, had a Hallicrafters S-40 receiver and invited my father to come down and listen to Sputnik. I “tagged along” with my father.

As the expected time for the satellite to become in range, Orville started “fiddling” with the receiver. Nothing was heard! Finally, the “beep, beep, beep” from the satellite’s transmitter came faintly from the S-40’s receiver. Today, such a happening would be “ho hum”. However, in 1957 this was very exciting if, for no other reason, that the signal could be received by “Joe Blow” and not just by a very sophisticated scientific or military installation.

The repercussions from this evening, at least in my personal life, were great. Orville discovered that I had a serious interest in electronics which his son, who was about a year younger than I, had absolutely no interest. In fact, his son had very little interest in anything! Orville was an unusual character! He was a graduate EE but worked in the “tool crib” at the local Allis Chalmers plant, ran the TV shop evenings and weekends, and wrote books!

Orville started giving me as many old television chassis that I could “haul off” for the purpose of stripping for parts. I would take my sister’s “little red wagon” (she is 7-years younger than I) down to the TV shop and Orville would put 2, or 3, chassis in the wagon and I would bring them to my house. There were outside stairs to the basement and I would carry the chassis down and put them next to a workbench that my father had built next to the coal bin. My “experiments” were conducted, primarily, on that bench.

Thinking back, I cannot help but believe that Orville was a contributing factor to the fact that for Christmas, 1957, my parents bought me a used Heath AR-3 receiver (from Allied Radio Company in Chicago). Prior to that Christmas, I had been using an old TrueTone (Western Auto private brand) receiver with a shortwave band.

He was not an amateur radio operator, but he did encourage me to experiment with electronics and even gave me a television set, for my room, that was better than the one in my parent’s living room!

With the help of Dave Osborn, K9BPV, I passed my Novice Class examinations on my 15th birthday, 13 February 1959. It took over 3-months for the license to arrive in the mail. The license is dated 15 May 1959 but took an additional almost 2-weeks to come in the mail. I was just ending my freshman year in high school. In October, I took my General Class examinations at the FCC office in Chicago.

Then, in August 1962, between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college, I took the examinations for my commercial radiotelephone operator’s license. My junior year at Georgia Tech, I got married and also got a job at the Motorola Service Station in Atlanta, Georgia. My senior year, I was hired directly by Motorola to establish, and then manage, the first Motorola owned portable / pager repair facility away from the Schamburg, Illinois, plant. After graduating, I was employed by the Collins Radio Company at the “new” corporate headquarters here in Richardson, Texas, and the “rest is history”!

All of this starting with the listening to Sputnik in October 1957!

Jim Allen, W6OGC, of New Braunfels, Texas, sent this account, which I share with his permission:

Sputnik went up in October, 1957, and lasted something like 3 months

One evening as we sat eating supper, the telephone rang. My dad got up and answered. He recognized the caller, the Superintendent of Schools, then became as flustered as I ever saw him. “Why, yes, he’s here. I’ll get him.”

He gestured to me, I got up and answered the phone. My dad hovered around with a look in his face, “there better be a heck of a good story for this!” He could not imagine why this big shot was calling for me, a 6th grader.

Hallicrafters SX-100. Radio News, ______.

Hallicrafters SX-100. Radio News, Feb. 1956.

The Super, W5FFE, said to me, “listen to this.” I heard the beep, beep, beep, that no one had ever heard before. He explained it was a satellite, the first one, and he was listening to it on his radio, an SX-100 as I knew. I had been watching the launches from Florida, none successful thus far.

A few of us had been going to Novice classes, he knew of it, and had called some of us, each pass.

I don’t think my dad ever forgot that.

One surprise for me was the number of hams (and other members of the public) who saw Sputnik with their eyes.  A number of such reminiscences were posted, although many of the viewers realized years later that they probably hadn’t seen Sputnik itself, but rather the larger covers that had been jettisoned from the smaller satellite.   But still, they were watching with their own eyes something the Soviets had put into orbit.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that so many people saw Sputnik (or the other parts of the spacecraft).  Today, when randomly stargazing, it’s not uncommon to see an artificial satellite cross the sky.  After all, there are thousands of them, and just by randomly looking up, you’re bound to eventually see one.  In fact, it’s almost mundane.  When I was growing up in the mid-sixties, it wasn’t uncommon for my parents to point one out to me.  It was already mundane, but there they were for all the world to see.  It did strike me as amazing.

I remember reading about the Lykov family, who, starting in 1936, lived in complete isolation from society in Siberia for 42 years.  According to one account,  They had noticed starting in the 1950’s that “the stars began to go quickly across the sky.” The father, Karp Lykov, surmised that “people have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars.”

When Sputnik 1 went up, it wasn’t mundane, and the predicted times of orbits were published in newspapers.  Millions of people were looking up, expecting it.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that so many of them still remember.



1942: Bringing the Car Radio on a Bike

1942OctPMThere was a war going on 75 years ago, but that didn’t stop this young man from enjoying a picnic with his girl, complete with emergency news and entertainment from the radio, as shown in the October 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics.

The war did, however, make planning the outing a bit more challenging.  Gas rationing meant that the family car was out of service, and shortages of B batteries meant that the portable receiver wasn’t an option. Undaunted, he simply borrowed the receiver out of the family car, along with a six-volt battery, probably borrowed from the same car. Dad wasn’t going to be driving anywhere, anyway, so he presumably wouldn’t miss it.

The radio and battery were mounted in the bicycle’s luggage carrier, and Junior and his girl were off to a picnic lunch at this secluded spot.  Junior works on one of the sandwiches as he tunes in some appropriate musical program, and his girl looks on with admiration at his ingenuity.  Not even Hitler and Tojo can put a damper on their romantic picnic.

1942 Crystal-Tube Set


Shown here from the September 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics is a crystal/tube receiver built with junkbox parts. The construction article noted that the set “really goes to town” by combining the fixed crystal with one stage of audio amplification. This set was built into the case of a broken clock, but the article noted that another suitable enclosure could be used. The author noted that many distant stations were pulled in, especially at night.

The batteries were mounted inside the clock case on a base made of cigar-box wood.


1960 CONELRAD Monitor

1960JanRadioElecThe plans for this CONELRAD monitor appeared in the January 1960 issue of Radio Electronics magazine. As part of the nation’s civil defense structure, the CONELRAD system was designed to alert Americans to an incoming attack, but also make sure that broadcast signals did not serve as beacons for incoming bombers.

To prevent this from happening, all radio stations ceased broadcasting. Selected stations then resumed broadcasts, but only on two frequencies, 640 and 1240 kHz, in order to confuse the navigators of those incoming bombers.

1960JanRadioElecSchematicWhen the station first left the air, this would serve as the first warning to the public. And this device sounded a bell when the monitored station left the air. In some more remote areas, a more sensitive and selective receiver might be required. But in most areas, the ubiquitous “All American Five” receiver could be used. This alarm tapped into the receiver’s AVC circuit. If the incoming carrier disappeared, the bell would sound.

1942 Kate Smith & Jell-O

1942Sep28LifeThis Jello ad appeared in Life magazine 75 years ago today, September 28, 1942.

Kate Smith, whose program was heard Friday evenings on CBS, reported that she was tickled pink when she learned that Jell-O and Jell-O puddings would be her sponsor. She loved to eat real lucious food and loved to talk about it.

And when she thought of all of the marvelous things that could be made with Jell-O and Jell-O puddings, she said that she could write a book, and just might write one.

She reported that she was busy rounding up her favorite recipes and figuring out new tricks. A few of those recipes appeared in the ad, and she was crazy about every one of them.  And Kate wasn’t one to jump on the all-natural bandwagon.  “Jell-O’s Strawberry, Raspberry, and Cherry flavors seem better than ever to me these days.  Richer, with a real fresh-picked taste.  And they tell me it’s because they’ve found a way to artificially enhance the flavor and then keep it ‘locked-in.'”

Here’s Kate Smith singing the White Cliffs of Dover in 1942:


GE Touch Tuning, 1937

1937Sep27LifeEighty years ago today, the September 27, 1937, issue of Life magazine showed this woman freed, once and for all, form the tyranny of dial twisting, as her heroic man lets her know that from now on, all she need do is “press a button–that’s all.”

The GE ad explained that she could now enjoy the greatest radio luxury, namely Touch Tuning. A double row of buttons was plainly marked with the call letters of her favorite stations. All she had to do was push the correct button, and the program was there, “automatically, silently, tuned to hairline precision.” With this advancement, General Electric finally “ended the long quest of the radio industry for completely automatic tuning.”

A mere $10 down payment would see one of these sets in your living room. Eighteen models were available for 1938, raning from personal radios to armchair sets to beautiful new consoles.

Typically, these pushbutton sets had a separate L-C circuit tuned by the serviceman for the desired stations, and setting the buttons and marking them was taken care of when a new set was purchased.  For those who desired, dial twisting remained an option.  Typically, one button was marked “dial,” and allowed the big tuning dial to be set in the conventional manner.

Dr. Brinkley Answers: 1937

1937Sept25RadioGuideShown here from the September 25, 1937, issue of Radio Guide is an article written by radio pioneer and questionable physician Dr. John Brinkley.  Shown in the upper left is his radio station, XERA, Villa Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico.  At the upper right is a picture of his home in neighboring Del Rio, Texas.

The station was famous not only for promoting the doctor’s dubious cures, but also for causing interference with U.S. broadcast stations.  We previously wrote about how another of Dr. Brinkley’s stations, XEAW, Reynosa, interfered with WCFL, Chicago.

In an editorial published a few months earlier, the editors of Radio Guide opined that Brinkley’s Mexican stations operated “regardless of the codes which keep one nation from interfering with another,” and that “sooner or later, Mexican broadcasters will have to abide by American laws.”

The editors agreed to allow Brinkley to publish a response, and the result is shown here. Brinkley began by noting that he resented the editorial as an unwarranted attack upon his professional and personal character. He did acknowledge that the opportunity to offer a rebuttal showed that the editor “cannot be a wholly bad fellow.”

Brinkley spent most of his time championing the cause of broadcasters in the Mexican Republic, noting that of the 89 channels available on the broadcast dial, 83 had been “appropriated by the United States, and the remaining six by Canada, leaving none for Mexico.

In Brinkley’s mind, the good citizens of Mexico were entitled to radio stations. And those radio stations just happened to be his, broadcasting in English to audiences in the same country that had “appropriated” the rest of the dial.

Brinkley then concludes by testifying as to his own good character, noting that he was the son of a pioneer physician whose life was spent in unselfish, often uncompensated, ministry to the sick, in the rugged and sparsely settled Appalachian mountains. This inspired his “unusual research,” motivated by his “innate, inalienable, perhaps undue, ambition to serve his race.” This drove him to the air, in the service of more than 10,000 patients who found relief in his hospitals.

He concludes by noting that he had recently been elected as President of the Rotarians, and was on his way to Nice, France, to serve as their delegate.

1937 One-Tube Shortwave Regen


The plans for this handsome little one-tube regenerative shortwave receiver appeared 80 years ago this month in the September, 1937 issue of Short Wave and Television magazine.

The simple circuit was designed for the beginner, and could be put together even by “the man without previous experience in set-building.”

It employed a type 30 tube, although many other triodes could be substituted. The filaments were powered with two 1.5 volt dry cells, and the B+ was supplied by a 22.5 volt battery, although up to 135 volts could be used for added volume.

Band switching was accomplished by a tapped coil, with the wire running to the appropriate tap running up through the angled front panel. From there, it could be connected to a Fahnestock clip for the appropriate tap. Tuning and regeneration controls were on the front panel, as well as a connection to rotate the tickler coil.

As is evident from both the schematic and pictorial diagrams shown here, the set was easy to contruct, and could easily be duplicated with modern parts.  Sources of many of the required parts can be found on my parts page.


Fern Sunde 1918-1991

FernSundeFern Sunde (née Blodgett) was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1918, and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario. When Canada entered the war, she was a secretary at a life insurance company in Toronto, and enrolled in a night school to learn radio telegraphy. She received her certificate on June 13, 1941, and was the first Canadian woman to do so.

No Canadian lines were willing to take her, and she eventually signed on with the Norwegian freighter MS Mosdale as radio operator. She was initially the only radio operator aboard, but when regulations changed, she became one of three, working four hour shifts with eight hours off.

While she was the first woman to serve aboard a Norwegian merchant ship, 23 other women followed in her footsteps, 21 Canadians and two Americans.

The ship’s captain was Gerner Sunde, and the two eventually wed. She was awarded the Norwegian krigsmedaljen (war medal) in 1943.  She died in Norway in 1991.




1942 Two-Tube Broadcast/Shortwave Receiver

1942SepPM1The father-daughter team shown here are putting the finishing touches on the plug-in coils for the two-tube broadcast/shortwave receiver described in the September, 1942, issue of Popular Mechanics.  The set was designed to build upon a one-tube receiver described in the magazine’s July issue.


Most of the parts, as well as the chassis, of the earlier set were re-used to make the more complex receiver shown here. The 1Q5GT detector was re-used, and another 1Q5GT was used as audio amplifier. On strong local broadcast stations, the set would provide loudspeaker volume. For weak distant shortwave stations, the set would provide excellent headphone volume. The five homemade plug-in coils would provide the regenerative receiver with coverage from the broadcast band through 20 meters.

Three power supplies were required. A 1.5 volt dry cell was used for the filament voltage, and four flashlight batteries were used for the bias voltage. The B+ was supplied either by a 45 volt battery or a battery eliminator which was also shown.