Jim Cain, K1TN
(formerly WN9AUM, 1961)
I was fascinated by the new "transistor radios" and in about 1958, when I was nine years old, I convinced my parents to buy me a Zenith Royal 500, which I promptly took the back off of to see what was inside. It was hand wired. I discovered that if I wrapped some wire around its internal loop antenna and then strung the rest of the wire around, I could increase its sensitivity. It cost about $55 in 1958, which is $400 in 2007 money!
My parents were not rich, by any means; my mother was a factory laborer (she assembled cords in a Belden Wire and Cable plant) and my dad was a casket factory supervisor.
At about the same time I built a crystal radio (actually, a germanium diode radio) from a little kit, on a cardboard base. My town had only one AM broadcast station, so selectivity was not an issue. I was fascinated with this device. The science museum at Earlham College, up the street from me, sold mineral samples. I bought a hunk of galena, for probably a quarter, borrowed a safety pin from my mother, and learned how a real crystal detector worked.
I learned Morse code from the Boy Scout Handbook when I was 10 or 11 years old. A friend, Steve Bartz, learned it too. We used plastic telegraph keys and buzzers bought at the local electronics/radio and TV repair store. Later, we built code practice oscillators with all-new parts from the store, including two vacuum tubes! This was a very interesting exercise but it seemed that we'd learned a skill (the code) with no practical use.
Steve says that he and I used to pass notes in class, in Morse code. I hate to think that we learned the code in written form rather than by sound but I suppose it's true.
Mostly, I was busy playing Little League baseball and learning to play tennis, too, so radio was low on the priority list.
I had been lusting after a short-wave receiver that I kept seeing in the window of the radio store, and sometime in early 1961 I had saved enough paper-route money to buy a Hallicrafters S-120, a five-tube blooper. ($65 then, $450 today.)
Somehow, I knew that amateur radio existed. In those days, QST magazine was sold on newsstands, but in our small town the only place to buy it was at the railroad station. I do not remember ever buying, or seeing, a copy there. I must have bought copies of "How to Become a Radio Amateur" and "The Radio Amateur's License Manual." The radio store had ARRL books (but not QST) prominently displayed on a rack on the sales counter.
I did not know any hams in town but, not far from our house, on a hilltop (of course), sat a 100-foot windmill (Vesto) tower with a giant beam antenna (Telrex, probably).
My friend Steve Bartz had lost interest, or wasn't ready, but I pressed on. My dad drove us to the house with the tower and we just went to the front door. The occupant was Les Fraser, W9DD (SK). He was probably in his 50s. Les's brother was a ham, on a religious mission somewhere in Africa, and Mr. Fraser had put up the antenna so he could talk to him. Oh, man, what a station inside: a Hallicrafters HQ-170 and a Central Electronics 200V. I don't remember an amplifier. Mr. Fraser gave me the Novice exam and sent the paperwork off to the FCC.
I've always been a heaver, not a hoarder, but somewhere in my archives I do have my original Novice license. It arrived right around my 13th birthday, in early October, 1961 -- WN9AUM. I went to the radio store, where several hams worked (I had learned since meeting Mr. Fraser), and when I told them my call sign one of them said "WN9 Awfully Ugly Mug." I liked this moniker.
The hams at the radio store thought that my call sign would change to W9AUM when I upgraded. Wrong! When I ordered my first printed QSL cards, I had them printed W9AUM and filled an N into the space.
My first QSL cards were homemade. A few years ago, Norm Keon (now W8AWE), who has one of those cards from me, scanned it and sent the scan to me. I treasure that scan more than the rarest DX QSL in my collection.
I missed getting a KN9 call sign by about a month (which would later have made me a K9). So, I suffered with a six-character call sign for 16 years, until I got my (current) K1TN call sign, in 1977. I had passed the Amateur Extra exam in 1968 but in those days that wouldn't even get you a 1X3 call sign. In those 16 years I was extremely active on the air, and always resented that people who had not even passed the General (much less the Extra) exam had better (shorter) call signs than I.
It was more than a month before I had a transmitter and could get on the air. Mr. Fraser dug out a late-1930s QST with a schematic for "The QSL 40," the ubiquitous 6L6 40-meter CW transmitter. He gave me some parts, including a giant war surplus coil wound on a heavy ceramic form, and I bought the rest at the radio store, including two Bud chassis. One of the hams at the store gave me a power transformer and a few other parts that he'd rescued from dead TV sets. I bought a Greenlee chassis punch for the tube socket, and set to work building.
I finished this transmitter and it actually worked. I had two 40-meter crystals, both of them right on Radio Moscow frequencies, of course. The big crystals we used for transmitting cost five dollars (34 dollars today). I put up a dipole with TV twin lead feed line and set up the station on a workbench in the basement. Mr. Fraser showed me how to tape a short piece of twinlead with a small light bulb wired to it onto the feed line, so I could tune the transmitter for maximum brightness.
I had to sit on a high stool to reach the workbench. One day my mother was in the vicinity when I got across the high voltage, probably 250 volts, and got knocked right off the stool and onto my butt. I'm lucky my ham radio career didn't end on the spot, not because I could have been electrocuted but because my mother could have put her foot down. She didn't.
Steve says he remembers that this transmitter had a lot of RF on the key. There may have been more RF in the basement than outside on the antenna. Maybe this exposure is what led me to major in English in college instead of Electricity.
I didn't have much luck making contacts. The best time, I discovered, was four to seven a.m. I used an alarm clock that had a flashing light to wake me and, to this day, I can remember/see that light. To this day I also usually wake up around four a.m.
My transmitter may have put out only ten watts or so. It didn't have a meter, so the only hint I had that some power was getting to the antenna was that stupid light bulb. It's no wonder I wasn't having much luck making contacts. A local ham, Joe Holinko, K9ZUJ (SK) offered to sell me his Novice transmitter, a DX-20. 50 watts! With a meter. Joe sold it to me for a good price, I guess, and my success on the air went way up. I pounded brass like mad every morning. On Christmas Day, 1961, I worked California for the first time. I got in the February 1962 Novice Roundup and made 35 contacts. Wow.
Joe Holinko died not long thereafter, of a heart attack. It was reported that he had been on the roof of his house, working on an antenna on a very hot summer day, then had gone in and drunk a pitcher of ice water. His heart attack was attributed to that.
I joined the ARRL on January 1, 1962, and have been a member ever since (and a Life Member since 1972). I guess that means I will get a 50 Year plaque in January, 2012. Oh, man, I always thought that people who got those plaques were really old, ancient geezers. Now, I know better.
Sometime that winter the local newspaper published my photo and a story: "Local boy earns license as operator." The photo above is a scan of that newspaper clipping.
Steve Bartz got his Novice license a couple of months after me -- WN9DVS. While I was a CW wizard and a technical idiot, Steve was just the opposite. Steve built a Heathkit HX-11 (an upgraded DX-20) and got on the air a little. Later, he got a Tech license and built a Heathkit Two'er and then left ham radio. Steve came back a few years ago and is now AD5UQ.
After six months as a Novice I was itching to upgrade. The code was a non-issue for me. I suppose I studied some of the theory in preparation for the written exam. My dad drove us to Dayton and I took the exam at the 1962 Dayton Hamvention. In those days, the Hamvention was held entirely in the Biltmore Hotel. The FCC gave exams in a banquet room. There were at least a hundred of us in the room. The code exam was via an Instructograph through a public address system. Yikes. I was used to headphones. The audio was way too loud and the room had echoes. But I skated through 13 wpm, which seemed slow. After the code test, I would guess that about 3/4 of the applicants had flunked and left the building. I passed, and had a good feeling after taking the written exam, drawing schematics and all.
My operating as a Novice had been entirely on 40 meters. 15 meters was hopeless with my receiver (not to mention that 1962 was close to a sunspot minimum), and I didn't think I had enough room for an antenna for 80. Besides, I didn't have a crystal for 80. I worked a VP2S and a VK on 40 as a Novice and didn't even know where they were located at first. Years later I learned that a Novice had made DXCC in 1959, on 15 Meters, during the great sunspot peak.
My General Class license arrived and my dad took me to Srepco Electronics, in Dayton, and bought me a Drake 2B receiver with crystal calibrator option and 2BQ Q-multiplier. It cost $285 and, according to my inflation calculator, that is nearly $2000 today.
In 1994 I obtained another S-120 receiver, a clean, working copy of the one I'd used as a Novice. I was curious about what it would sound like. I tried it out on 40 Meter CW and was sort of astounded that I ever managed to work anybody back in 1961. I also obtained a DX-20 and for a little while I had my original Novice station reconstructed. I used a 1960s Hallicrafters HA-5 vfo and made a few contacts, but it turned out that this was a past I relished reliving in my mind, but not on the air. Sort of like driving a Model-T after you've owned a couple of Porsches (which I have).
Richmond, Indiana, was and is, just a small town of about 40,000 people, but it had some neat hams in the early '60s. Charlie Sperling, K9QAN, had built all the big Heathkit boat anchors and had a giant station in his basement: Apache/SB-10/Mohawk, Chippewa linear (pair of 4-400s), test equipment. Charlie even had some military surplus transceiver, an APX-something, that he was trying to get working on the 1296 MHz ham band. He had put a 2-element HF quad on about 70 feet of TV tower, which came down in a windstorm. So, he replaced it with an 80-foot Vesto tower. Charlie had some QSLs printed with all of his equipment pictured on them, sent a big batch of them to the QSL bureau in Moscow, and they were all bounced. They would have been a "bad influence" on Soviet hams back then.
Not long after I got my general, I was at Charlie's house and he let me get on 20 Meters with his monster station. I'd been working a little DX with my 90 watts and a dipole. I called an African station on 20 CW, over and over, with no luck. Charlie said "it's one-way skip." Sometime later I figured out that was just another DXer euphemism for "the other guy is a lid" or "the other guy doesn't want to work U.S. stations" or whatever.
My local Novice CW buddy was Lee Overdorf, WN9AVU. When he got his General he bought or built a Heathkit DX-100 and camped out on 40 Meters AM. I used to listen to him there but had no desire to work phone myself.
Phil Wilson, WN9EFI, built the big Heathkits, too. He was a tool-and-die maker and a shoo-in to handle the mechanical nightmare of the Heathkit Mohawk and Marauder. In 1964, when I had an HF quad up, I tried to convince him that a quad was superior to a yagi. I was 15 and he was about 50.
On evening after dark I rode my bike to the other side of town to visit one of the hams who worked at the radio store (whose name escapes me). His shack and workshop were on a back porch and I remember the porch groaning under the weight of tons of 1930s and later QSTs. I don't remember any fancy equipment or even a working station, but I sure do remember those magazines. I wonder what those local hams, all long gone, would think if they knew that Jimmy Cain would end up spending 20 years of his working life writing for ham radio publications.
Jim Cain, K1TN