Silver Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago this month, when the American Radio Relay League was nineteen months old and numbered 635 members, the first issue of QST appeared. The magazine was first published at the private expense of A. R. R. L.'s founders, Hiram Percy Maxim and Clarence D. Tuska, because they had decided that we absolutely had to have some sort of regular bulletin if our movement were to grow. Its objects were "to maintain the organization of the American Radio Relay League and to keep the amateur wireless operators of the country in constant touch with each other"—to which twin aims it has been constantly dedicated to this day.

How mighty have been the changes we have witnessed since that day: in the whole way of life, in the very political geography of the earth, and within the walls of our own art! It is sufficient of a span to warrant the production of a special issue of QST to celebrate the occasion. It justifies us, too, in looking backwards long enough to sketch a little of the background of those early days which saw our birth.

Despite extremely modest beginnings, we remember that QST was instantaneously accepted as pure manna from heaven by the amateur of those days. We remember because your present editor was then a young lad back in Illinois, struggling with the intricacies of "wireless" and worried about his nonexistent DX. The publishers announced their hope that, after financing three issues, QST would attract enough response to carry itself. They advertised that "Every amateur will help himself and help his fellows by sending in twenty-five cents for a three-months' trial subscription." Our two bits, we remember, started for Hartford the very day we read those lines, and there were enough others who thought the same way to give QST its start towards its present indispensable position in our radio lives.

Our first editor and business manager, Tuska, was then a college day student in his late 'teens, QST's office an attic room in his home, his office hours what he could spare from his study. His fundamental management policy was to cast up a month's cash receipts, find out how many copies he needed to print, and ask the printer how many pages could be printed in that quantity for that money. Because QST really was "of, by and for the amateur" it grew quickly, soon was invaluable. It reached its pre-war peak in April of 1917, at that time sported both a part-time stenographer and a part-time advertising manager. Then came the war and, after a few issues devoted largely to recruiting, Tuska got out a final September issue and himself joined the Signal Corps, heavily in debt for those last few months of operation.

Came 1919 and the post-war reopening of the League. Tuska wanted to go into manufacturing and the League wanted to own QST. With money borrowed from its own members, the League acquired the magazine, enabling Tuska to pay off his debts. Since that day, every member of A.R.R.L. has had QST sent him monthly. How vividly we remember our first post-war office! For the League had a regular office now, even if it was only two windowless and airless rooms in a wretched rookery. With the June 1919 reopening issue staring us in the face, we were the whole staff. We remember deciding, at the end of the first week, that we'd have to hire a stenographer even if we didn't know how the League could find the money. We hired a girl, let her go at the end of a week in favor of a boy who wouldn't mind getting his hands dirty at that other three-legged table which constituted the circulation department. It was grand fun, traversing most of the road that Tuska had gone over before us, until finally, with acquired momentum, we outstripped his pre-war records and dimensions and came gradually into the magazine you know to-day. Looking back at that last sentence, we think it rather a model for compact writing—reflecting, as it does, 21½ of the 25 years we are talking about to-day. Do statistics interest you? There have been over fifteen million copies of QST printed. QST belongs to the DX Century Club, with 117 countries on its mailing list at the last count. The headquarters staff now numbers 40 people, counting those who have only indirect association with QST. In this generation the activities of the League have created and have disbursed upon the advancement of amateur radio something like five million dollars. To an age inured to government figures these statistics may have a very low audibility but we think they're of pretty respectable proportions for a hobby.

It wasn't always that way. Our first number had only twenty-four pages in a blue paper cover, and only ten of those pages reading matter; seven were advertisements and the rest notices and data. But for all the humble dimensions of QST and the League in those days, there was one close parallel to to-day: the World War was on in Europe and the United States was becoming national-defense conscious. We find the President of the League writing to the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, offering the facilities of the League. Editor Tuska commented:

". . . We are confronted with extremely serious national defense questions. Our country has never before faced a more serious situation. National defense has become a question which every American realizes concerns him personally. The President is preparing plans and the Army and the Navy are both studying every phase of the problem. One of the most important factors is radio communication. The great possibilities of the American Radio Relay League, with its organization of over six hundred relay stations in nearly every state of the Union, are bound to attract prominent attention. The directors of the League have anticipated this, as will be noted on another page."

Multiply this figure of 600 by to-day's terms and the editorial might well have been written this year. In fact, the very next issue reported work towards the formation of a Volunteer Radio Corps:

"The idea seems to be to have the owners of the best relay stations offer their stations to the government in time of need, and bind themselves to comply with certain regulations, regarding secrecy, permanence, drills and regular listening hours, and log records, just as owners of automobiles and trucks in England and France join in a Corps and offer their cars and services to the government on demand. . . What is said upon this subject on another page should be carefully considered by those of us who look upon our country as something to serve to the best of our individual abilities. . . ."

And the advertisements in that first issue! You folks who know ham radio only in terms of tube transmitters and umpteen-tube receivers and are interested in no DX this side of the Philippines—you really missed a lot. When our first issue appeared, the amount of money you have in your present rig would just about pay for a one-inch spark-coil transmitter and a two-slide tuner, normal DX five city blocks if you were lucky. We find just one advertisement of vacuum tube equipment, an audion detector. Prominent is the rotary gap, "required in every transmitting station" because "this type of gap produces a pure wave of low damping decrement" and gives a note that "cannot be mistaken for static." There was a key with "straight-line" contacts that had the merit that "fading signals caused by varying resistance of contact points are entirely eliminated." There was a Universal Detector Stand "capable of holding crystals up to and including ¾ inch." No, not quartz plates but rectifying crystals. This one was a complicated gadget with a hollow standard, a ball, a spring, a thumb-screw, an arm, a set-screw and a few more jiggers. It was something really nifty. You have missed a precious part of amateur life who did not live through the days of hot arguments over whether it was better to use a silicon detector with a hard blunt point or a galena crystal with a cat-whisker made of a strand of iron "picture wire"!

The advanced amateur station of those days was something fearful and wonderful, a combination of witchcraft and execution chamber. The transmitter had to contain a condenser and inductance, and a spark gap to discharge it. Since the energy in the condenser depended upon the voltage to which it was charged, and since the size of the condenser was limited by the wavelength and was "too small" even when the inductance was reduced even to a single turn, voltages were enormous—2,000 to 40,000 volts at a kilowatt. Because the instantaneous currents were high, perhaps several hundred amperes, this primary circuit was connected up with copper strap at least an inch wide and the heavy plate-glass condensers were frequently immersed in oil for cooling and to stop brush discharge. This circuit was discharged by a motor-driven rotary spark gap that was pure hell-on-wheels. But ah, what a beautiful thing a well-made rotary was! Here was where dreams were made. Here, in its crashing blue-white spark, was tangible evidence of its might. No matter if it could be heard for blocks—as indeed it could, unless it were put in a double box. No matter if it blinded the operator as well as made him deaf, and gave him red-rimmed eyes from its vaporized zinc electrodes. What if it did lose most of its energy in light, heat and sound; was it not the visible and mighty heart of radio? We hold it up to you to-day in sweet nostalgia as something whose marvelous symbolism we shall never know again.

The output of this remarkable device was coupled to a pancake inductance two feet or so in diameter which was in the aërial circuit. No linear antennas cut to 95.461% of a half-wave. Marconi antennas. That meant that one side was grounded. Grounded to driven pipes and wells and buried tanks and plates and to whole systems of plowed-in wires. Because the instantaneous currents to be handled were large and the voltages terrific, the antennas were of big wire and made into a "flat top" having relatively high capacity to earth. Say four to twelve wires, spaced about four feet apart on spreaders. Large wire, too. Some of us used aluminum but No. 9 solid copper was a favorite. (No wonder the telegraph companies had deficits!) And this antenna had to be high; none of your 40-foot stuff. Amateur masts in those days were real structures, running 80 to 200 feet high and surrounded by forests of guy wires. Hugh electrose insulators were the favorite insulation. Such an antenna system was an engineering job of no mean magnitude. We well remember that our antenna was so much heavier than we were that it would pull us right off the ground, three-quarter-inch halyard and all, and we had to get our dad to help us hoist it.

On the receiving side the modern 1915 station would have junked the slide tuner for the loose-coupler, which had separate primary and secondary and could vary the coupling by sliding the secondary in and out. Navy type, too—meaning switches to vary the number of turns—and a variable condenser across the secondary for fine tuning. Run from amateur wavelengths all the way up to 3500 meters, too, right on one instrument. The detector would be a genuine deForest round audion, hung from a gooseneck socket on a little cabinet that contained the B battery. You made your own battery by soldering up flash-light cells; none of these block jobs on the market until after the war. The audio was a "soft" tube; it worked on a kink in its characteristic curve which you found by careful fiddling with A and B voltages, so you had a potentiometer across your B battery and some fool-proof system of disconnecting it when you closed down the station, else you'd need a new set of cells to-morrow. And because the tube was soft, it would do wonders in a magnetic field, so most stations possessed a strong bar magnet that could be adjusted to a critical position near the tube. Sometimes the tubes got too hard with the passage of time, got too good a vacuum in them, lost their sensitivity—because the gas occluded to the walls of the glass bulb. So an important instrument in most shacks was an alcohol lamp over which the audion could be cooked to drive the gas off the walls and make it "ionic" again. (But shucks! Any of us old-timers could do the job with a match and think nothing of it!) A very rare station sometimes possessed a stage of audio amplification but it was practically unheard of. Moreover, it wasn't needed. Don't feel too sorry for the sensitivity of these detectors. The tuning apparatus was crude and the spark method highly inefficient but actually the sensitivity of a good soft audion, operating at the right blue-glow point and under the stimulus of the left pole of a magnet taken from a telephone ringer, was simply enormous. We've often thought that many multi-tube rigs of to-day don't touch it in sheer sensitivity to modulated signals. Trouble was you couldn't hold it in adjustment for long.

Well, there you were, except for the gadgets such as blocking condensers, 'phones, kick-back preventer, change-over switch and a key with contacts as big as dimes to carry the heavy current. What could you do with it? You couldn't do much in the summer, particularly at night, because of the static. You couldn't hear anything when anybody else was sending in the same town, because a nearby signal occupied the whole tuner. But given a break, you could talk for miles, many miles. And given a really good break, a crisp clear winter night in the wee hours after the young squirts with the spark-coils had gone to bed, you could have the time of your life and actually work for hundreds of miles . . . if the signals didn't fade out, if interference didn't start up, if you didn't blow a condenser, or if you didn't lose that critical adjustment. Or if the cops didn't run you in for maintaining a nuisance, or a wind blow down your masts. And you could investigate the phenomenon known as kickbacks-in-the-power-wiring and, as we twice did, set the house on fire. Or the phenomenon known as corona losses, watching the great fuzzy caterpillars on the high-voltage parts of your antenna system. Or involve yourself in endless arguments over high note versus low, what the power factor is in a freely oscillating circuit, or how loose the coupling ought to be to obtain a "pure" wave.

Those, our friends, were the days from which amateur radio has come—come a great long distance in this past quarter-century. You can see it all mirrored in QST, a complete file of which will bulge the ends right off a Five Foot Shelf of Radio Knowledge. We look back with some measure of pride upon the job that QST has done in chronicling these twenty-five years of progress, and we also like to think that our magazine has left its own impress upon the development of the art and helped to shape its course. The editorial staff here hasn't done that alone, of course; it has been possible only because of the unique position of QST as the technical forum and centralizing point for amateur investigation. That has resulted only from the fact that ours is a coöperatively-owned magazine, with every member of the League feeling a personal interest in QST and wanting to do his bit to help. The first twenty-five years are supposed to be the hardest. We can say that we look forward with nothing but unalloyed eagerness to the next twenty-five.

From Kenneth B. Warner, "Silver Anniversary," It Seems to Us, QST, December 1940, pages 9 through 11.