Saturday, 2 April 2016

A Trip Down Memory Lane Pt1

Before my blog ventures into anything of a technical nature I thought it would fun to briefly document how my journey into the world of electronics and radio all began.

In 1972 I was 8 years of age and had a great fascination for batteries and bulbs, I purchased a Pifco torch from the local TV rental shop which gave me hours of fun especially when equipped with a fresh set of batteries on a smog laden foggy evening, the thrill of shining that torch beam into the depths of "pea soup" were a testimony of the "Big Smoke" a period where everyone had coal fires and polluted the atmosphere.

British coal miners went on strike in January and February of 1972 for 47 days and the UK was declared in a state of emergency. Britain experienced regular and lengthy power cuts during the seventies which put the nation into darkness. I remember my parents rationing the use of candles in fear that they would not be able to buy more and the Pifco torch I used as a play thing became a necessity providing much needed light in the pitch black of night.

On December 7th 1972 I witnessed the launch of Apollo 17, this was NASA's final Apollo mission and the crew made a historic journey into space for a record 12 days returning to earth on December 19th.

During 1972 I embarked on a journey of my own that would be life changing and catapult me in to a whole new world... Okay my journey was not as exciting as the Apollo spaceflight and a mere stroll down to the local newsagents but what followed was tinkering bliss.

My local newsagent and confectionery shop was a good source for all things sweet and somewhere to off load my pocket money. I would visit the shop on a weekly basis and on one particular occasion I noticed a new display stand containing books, I was drawn to the stand as it contained Ladybird books which were familiar to me as we read them at the infant school. I browsed through the collection of books and one in particular caught my eye which I purchased in preference of my usual sweets.

This book introduced me to the principles of electricity and magnetism and opened up a whole new world which I was eager to explore. The book provided colorful illustrations and experiments that could be carried out with some basic materials. To start with I made do with a battery and bulb but in order to work through the experiments I needed items that required more pocket money and further shopping trips.

Over the next few months I saved my pocket money and visited the local hardware, electrical and chemist shops building up a collection of items which included, batteries, bulbs, plasticine, iron filings, nails, copper sulphate, drawing pins, paper clips and a glass jar.

What followed was months of fun experimenting and learning about electricity and magnetism. I built some fun and interesting items which included; making a compass, building a lighthouse and finally an electric motor. My father was impressed by my new found ability to electro plate, I found some steel nails in his garage and plated them with copper thanks to the books chapter on how to plate using copper sulphate and a battery.

As my interest continued to grow I became obsessed with collecting bits of wire, bulbs, switches and magnets and unbeknown to my parents I began smuggling my paraphernalia into school and storing it in my wooden desk. I used every opportunity available to mess with the electrical items I had accumulated often impressing fellow school kids with some of my creations. One of my finest moments was when I built a loop game for the school summer fair which attracted a lot of interest and won me a few new friends.

Sadly my fun at school came to an abrupt end after my Mother was summoned to a meeting with the headmaster, it transpired my teacher had concerns over my apparent "head in the clouds" demeanor and desk full of junk, being duty bound she reported me to the headmaster and that was the end of my tinkering at school, needless to say my parents were not amused!

By the mid seventies I had developed a bad case of OTD (obsessive tinkering disorder) with a desire to pull anything to pieces that I could lay my hands on, often landing myself in trouble with my parents.

The next milestone in my evolving world of tinkering happened when I was 12 years of age, it was 1976 and the year I would get hooked into the world of electronics. My brother had just received an electronics kit for Christmas and I was instantly drawn to it and in awe over its contents. Fortunately my brother was happy to share the kit and we both had great fun building the various circuits. I remember the kit well it had a perforated hardboard chassis also known as pegboard. Components were secured in place with hairpin like clips that were passed through the pegboard holes and secured with springs. The kit was a great learning tool and an ideal introduction to common electronic components. We built an electronic timer, light operated switch, water alarm and many other fun circuits.

1976 was proving to be an exciting and fascinating year and just when I thought it could not get any better I came across another book that would set the foundations for a further milestone and sow the seeds for what has become a life long hobby.

This book was written by the Rev. George Dobbs and published in 1972. George is a very well respected radio amateur and founder of the GQRP club and holds the callsign G3RJV.

The book is presented in the usual Ladybird format with plenty of colour illustrations and easy to follow text.

After reading a few pages on the principles of radio waves the book presents Stage 1; building a crystal set, this is proceeded by a further 5 Stages with each adding to the previous until a powerful transistor radio is completed.

I read the book over and over with great excitement but feared the latter stages of the book were beyond my technical ability and pocket money budget.

The Stage 1 crystal set was eventually built and I spent hours on a daily basis listening to it using a pair of SG Brown headphones that my father had acquired.

SG Brown headphones were legendary and had a double metal headband that worked a treat for hair removal. The earpieces were made from aluminium and bakelite which made them excruciatingly painful to wear for any length of time.

Despite having a tendency to rip your hair out and cripple your ears SG Browns were very sensitive and ideal for listening to crystal radio sets.

Throughout 1977 I worked through the remaining stages of George's book, each stage that I completed provided some improvement but the pinnacle was completing Stage 6; this final stage transformed my crystal set into a three transistor regeneration radio. The radio could now receive a lot more stations and with its loudspeaker I was able to share the joy and thrill of listening to a radio that I had built myself.

The success and completion of the radio was an achievement I felt very proud of. There were times I thought It would never get finished, I found sourcing components a challenge, I had no idea where to obtain them and in the end I took to recycling components from unwanted circuit boards acquired from Radio & TV repair shops. One particular shop gave me a Mullard Data Book which contained components that I had yet to encounter!

Whilst using the radio I discovered I could pick-up other stations by sliding the tuning coil up and down the ferrite rod, this led me to experiment with the number of turns on the coil and one day I picked up a booming station which identified itself as Radio Moscow World Service, I had just discovered Shortwave Radio.

Me and my brother became hooked on Shortwave radio spending hours listening to international radio stations, just before the hour and half hour new stations would come on the air playing there ident signature tunes which made finding new stations easier.

Click on the radio play button below to listen to a nostalgic collection of radio signature tunes and station idents.

The following web link also contains many nostalgic radio clips from shortwave radio stations around the world:

Some of the clips are of poor quality but a testament of the propagation conditions often experienced.

By 1978 my shortwave listening had progressed to another level, my grandfather gave me a a Philips portable transistor radio which had incredible sound, its ability to pick up stations was far superior to that of my home-built radio. Stations from all over the world could be heard and I became a fully fledged shortwave listener and DXer.

Radio stations were always eager to hear how well they were being heard, they encouraged listeners to write in and provide reception reports and in exchange they sent listeners souvenir cards, stickers and other collectable items.  I built up a colourful collection of cards and souvenirs after sending in many reception reports and I still have my collection today.

Shortwave radio stations often included a dedicated program in there schedule aimed at DXers, these programs were a platform to answer technical questions and help listeners improve there reception. The most famous and enjoyable DX program was without question The Swiss Shortwave Merry-Go-Round hosted by Bob Thomann (HB9GX) and Bob Zanotti (HB9ASQ) who became known as "The Two Bobs". Sadly The Swiss Merry-Go-Round came to an end in 1994 despite protests to keep it on the air.

In 2004 Bob Zanotti launched his own website called Switzerland In Sound, this enabled Bob to bring a new and fresh platform for delivering English language audio about Switzerland. The website contains Swiss news, interviews, travel info as well as vintage recordings from the SRI days.

Visit Bobs website at the following link:
The Two Bobs made a return to the microphone in 2004 with a one hour program talking about there 24 year radio partnership. Click on the link below to listen to this recording:

Listening to Shortwave radio was exciting and finding new stations was a bit like panning for gold, instead of extracting gold from gravel I was extracting radio stations from noise, interference and fading.

Tuning the radio dial gave me a sense of traveling around the world providing a unique insight on other countries views, news and culture.

1978 was certainly a prominent year for my interest in shortwave radio and it would also define another milestone taking me back in time!

Find out about my journey back in time in part 2 coming soon

73's From Andy G6LBQ
Its all About The Radio Ga Ga...

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