The Hair-Raising Dots and Dashes Of the Old Wireless

A ROUGH guess is that it was about 1916 that I became aware of the wireless. Not radio - that came later. The wireless had to do with messages by dots and dashes; radio meant a broadcasting station and entertainment.

By 1916 Marconi had laid the groundwork, and not much was to happen until Lee De Forest gave us his audion tube. So my introduction was important only to me, and in 1916 I knew little about one nor t'other.

My chum, Homer, had an older brother with a "shack" above the garage and a wireless set he'd made himself. Yes - Homer's father had a "tin lizzie," the first in our neighborhood. This older brother had an unkind streak (we learned), and he had been inviting us youngers one at a time to climb up and see his marvelous contraption at work.

He had a friend off across town and with him would "work" to impress the visitors. Then the big brother would ask his unsuspecting visitor to hold this wire so, and that wire thus, and when all was ready the friend across town would depress his key. In this way the boys experienced their first electric shocks, and Big Brother had a lot of fun.

Not knowing any of this, I was properly pleased when my turn came and I was invited to go aloft.

I heard the thing dit-dah-dit-dah and had the letters spelled for me, and was much impressed. Then Big Brother told me to hold this wire, and also that one, and the next thing I knew I was tingled out of my socks and fully instructed in the mysteries of a sudden electrical encounter.

But I did not react as the other boys had.

Instead of backing away for my going-home-a'crying, I (in a reflexive jerk) yanked on the two wires and thus brought the whole wireless set off the shelf to the floor, where it lay trembling in a jumbled help. Having no notion of what I was doing, I then jumped up and down to render the rig docile, as well as silent and worthless.

Big Brother spoke to me without love, and then went to his mother to complain - saying I had been malicious and vindictive and retribution and costs should be exacted.

His mother was in sympathy with him rather than me, so she approached my mother, who was not. My mother inquired of me, and shortly heard about all the other small tads who had been victimized, and accordingly told Big Brother's mother to go fly a kite.

AFTER that, my participation in the development of the wireless was minimal, until about 1920. I found that a spark coil from a Model-T Ford had a capacity as a transmitter (or broadcasting station) and continuous wave oscillation was introduced.

Every Model-T had four of these coils, and when one was adroitly adjusted so it performed gladly, the noise would bring any ham radio operator within ten miles to instant attention and galvanize him into eternal animosity.

There was, naturally, no great admiration amongst a certain group of youngsters toward ham operators, so shortly spark coils were hard to find, and with a six-volt dry cell every kid in town was a menace to the Morse code.

After somebody from the federal government began nosing around, my father spoke to me quietly one evening after supper and said something about broadcasting with spark coils and how if I got him in trouble I would regret it forever.

At this, Art Moore, across the street, and I rigged a land-line on the lilac bushes and became simple telegraphers, ditting and dahing to ourselves with no offense beyond our own headsets. We used the village water system as our other "side" and this circuit was adequate for our small messages, such as, "Joe Petrov is coming up the street with his dog."

It is wonderful to observe how far our numerous colleagues have brought communications since those unsophisticated days. I'd have to hunt it, but I think somewhere I could find my old dot-dash key. It dangles a bit of wire, and should be in a museum.

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