W6FQX memories

A collection of personal memories written by John Lemmer W6FQX, 2007.

I recently came across a history of W9YT by Fred Laun almost 24 years after it was published. Isn’t it wonderful what Google can find – even the W9YT web page. Fred left out some things. Here is some more ancient history from the rebirth of W9YT in 1957, fifty years after the fact.

I too was in on the founding of the Badger Amateur Radio Society. I was W9VBR in those days arriving from Wauwatosa in the fall of 1954. For the first three years, I lived in the Turner House, Kronsage Hall before moving off campus.

I remember well the Men’s Halls Radio Club (how quaint) operation in the basement of a dorm complex whose name I fail to recollect. That dorm complex was built in the form of a medieval castle complete with a iron gate (to lock the students in?) and a sally port. It was ancient then. I expect that it has long been demolished.

I did not participate in the pirate broadcasting operation although I did make a series of wireless microphones that I placed in the women’s rest room of the Turner House party room. These too operated in the AM broadcast band although with minimal power as the CK722 germanium transistors barely would operate at all even at the lower end of the band. The CK768 a little later made the signal much stronger. It is amazing what those women said about their dates. Of course, this was done by me when the EE department was teaching about the principles of vacuum tubes as if transistors did not exist.

When offered the opportunity to set up a ham station at the EE building, we jumped at the chance. Not to quibble, but the name of the faculty advisor of what became BARS and W9YT was spelled Koehler. Not that we ever saw him anyway – we pretty much had the run of the station and classroom anytime that the Signal Corps was not using it. At least we could pronounce his name.

The BC-610 transmitter that was in use on 80 through 20 meters used a 250-TH tube whose graphite plate glowed red on carrier but flashed to yellow on voice peaks. This was, after all, AM mode. To change bands, one had to turn the power off and change a pair of plug-in inductors. One day, the Signal Corps officer in charge went to change the inductors and turned the power off but failed to discharge the power supply capacitors using the insulated rod and grounding chain supplied with the transmitter. Upon receiving the shock, he rapidly backed out of the final enclosure and bumped into the wall – at which the Danger High Voltage sign fell off the wall and hit him on the head.

We at BARS had inherited a surplus 40 Mc dispatcher radio from the Madison Police Department. Yes, that’s correct – Mc. Heinrick Hertz had yet to get his name applied to cycles per second. The radio operated in AM mode and I think that was when the Police Departments were changing over to FM.

I elected to convert this beast to 6 meter operation by building a tuneable front end to feed the old receiver IF and constructing a new power amplifier using a 3E29 dual tetrode tube. The exciter circuits could be tuned or otherwise modified to tune to 50 Mc (that term again) but the original power amplifier was a hopeless case. I think that we had 2 or 3 crystals to select the transmit frequency.

Most of the guys considered the 6 meter band a dead end until one day the sporadic E mode kicked in and provided a lot of excitement as Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona stations started coming in at signal strengths that were unbelievable. Stations from the Southwest were much stronger than any local station and even overpowered the AGC circuits in the receiver at times. If you have ever experienced sporadic E propagation on 6 meters such as this, you will never forget it.

We were just a few weeks after receiving a briefing from the US Navy about the Vanguard program which promised to place the first satellite in space when we heard the news about Sputnik. We all dashed to the radio room to listen to the beeping signal on 20.005 Mc. Another day that changed the USA.

Reggie (W9ZQA) was bored one day and decided to fly an airplane inside the classroom that included the radio equipment. He fastened a small model airplane engine to a piece of wood shingle with a makeshift elevator arrangement and hooked up to a U-control rig about a dozen feet long. There was no aerodynamic lift to this arrangement – this plane would fly on pure thrust. He cranked up the prop and ran the plane around the room until the fuel gave out. You cannot imagine the noise level — and the stink. Reggie complained about being dizzy after this flight.

I still have QSL cards from Fred and Reggie from 1957 and 1958 and a W9YT card from 1958 with Fred signing. I was using my home brew 10 and 6 meter rig from my apartment only a few blocks away but the QSOs counted. I don’t know if they kept my W9VBR card but I still have a sample. I was out of there at the end of 1958. I lost touch with them a long time ago.

I must have learned something at the University of Wisconsin and with ham radio as I enjoyed a 40 year career as an RF design engineer, project engineer, and engineering manager. What a ride – from tubes and discrete transistors to MIMICs and radio on a chip. From slide rule and paper to computers on my desk more powerful that those that put men on the moon. From AM to SSB and QAM and narrow bandwidth to spread-spectrum and UWB.

I received my current call sign in the mid 1960s when the FCC allowed those previously holding a 1×3 call sign to apply for a vacant 1×3 call sign. It seemed a sign of prestige then but now seems old style. Oh well, I am used to it. No need to apply for a new “vanity” call sign. I still am active in ham radio (although never near as active as Fred) and have trained a number of new Technician class hams. My emphasis now is primarily public service and preparing others for the natural disaster that may eventually come in California. I even convinced my XYL to get her license and become a YL again after many years. I hope that those that have been active at W9YT and those that come later can get as much out of their experience there as I have.

73, John Lemmer, W6FQX ex W9VBR