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Conversations with Walt

Eric P. Nichols, KL7AJ

Reflecting on the passing of a transmission line guru.

I was personally and professionally saddened to hear of the passing of yet another Amateur Radio giant, Walter Maxwell, W2DU, on July 3, 2012, at the age of 93. Walt was a good friend and mentor. We had been in fairly regular correspondence up until a few months before his death. Walt’s passing was not a completely unexpected event; he had been in failing health for some time. I treasured his increasingly rare web postings right until the end.

This piece started out as a simple eulogy; naturally as a fellow traveler, I felt a need to say many kind words about Walt and his life. I saw that the ARRL® website had already done a wonderful memoriam and biography of Walt, so I knew I had to do something different. After all, that’s the way Walt did things.

My first exposure to Walt’s iconoclastic writing coincided with the arrival of my Novice license and my very first QST, in April of 1973. The title of the article, “Another Look at Reflections” immediately grabbed me by the curiosity glands.1 Not only did this article (the first of a four-part series) steer me clear of one of the major pitfalls trapping many new radio amateurs, namely, an unhealthy obsession with SWR, but it also largely informed my own writing style.

Walt wrote with passion and objectivity, a tough combination to pull off. He fought a long and tireless battle on the side of scientific truth against folklore and fallacy. This didn’t always make him popular, but he was more interested in being right and being right was something Walt did with staggering consistency.

Antennas in the Air

Long before Walt graced the pages of QST, he had already established solid credentials, and a long list of accomplishments, in the professional communications field developing on-board satellite antennas and other innovations. He knew whereof he spoke and was always confident that his assertions on any radio topic would hold up to laboratory scrutiny.

In the ham radio world, Walt is probably best known for the W2DU balun, a highly successful ham product that also did things in an entirely different manner than conventional wisdom had long dictated. He always put his money where his mouth was.

Upon hearing of Walt’s passing, I extracted my W2DU manila folder from my file cabinet and looked over the thick stack of letters and clippings he had sent me over many decades. (Needless to say, we’d started our dialog somewhat before the advent of the Internet). Walt had touched on just about every topic near and dear to radio amateurs; of course, transmission lines were dominant, but he also spoke eloquently about transmitters, tubes, Pi networks and the conjugate matching theorems, something nearly (though unnecessarily) as controversial as SWR.

Now, if some random person were to thumb through my “Walt folder,” he or she would have a hard time understanding why anyone could be so passionate about such obscure topics. (While Walt and I were in close agreement on these matters, we both quite vociferously disagreed with a few third parties, whose identities we will leave a mystery). But it was clear that such things did matter to Walt, and because of these conversations, they mattered to me, as well.

I think Walt understood that there was more at stake here than simply having a few incorrect notions about SWR meters or sundry other radio topics. What was at stake was the very ability for people to think rationally and objectively on radio topics. Walt had little tolerance for sloppy thinking. Since radio amateurs were a subset of human beings, the ills within Amateur Radio reflected the ills of society as a whole. Perhaps by fixing the ills within Amateur Radio, we would have a trickle-up effect. I won’t put words in Walt’s mouth posthumously, but we seemed to implicitly agree on this.

What He Said

Since Walt had long completed his definitive work on transmission line theory by the time I was a gleam in the FCC’s eye, for years I knew I had nothing useful to contribute to the matter except to point toward Walt’s book Reflections at every possible occasion and declare, “What he said.” Since about 1978, at least once a year at our local club station, I would present the dual SWR meter demonstration, inspired by Walt’s seminal work. This simple but graphic demonstration indisputably proved correct Walt’s assertions about the importance (or lack thereof) of SWR. (For those interested, I elaborate on this demonstration in my book Radio Science for the Radio Amateur. I trust you will forgive this shameless plug during such a somber occasion).

I don’t recall exactly when it was that I realized how lonely a voice in the wilderness Walt’s was. Like Walt, I seemed to be continually encountering hams who were peculiarly unencumbered by facts. About 3 years ago, Walt ever so subtly began to suggest that he needed someone to whom to pass his baton. I didn’t really think that was necessary; after all the third edition of Reflections in book form was already set to go to press. The only thing I could conceivably add to Reflections was 35 years of youth and a more bizarre sense of humor.

Nevertheless, Walt flat out told me at one point that: “You’re the only guy I know that gets it.” I assured him that there were certainly others who got it, but one did have to look for them. However, since I had already begun work on a bit of a tongue-in-cheek book about Amateur Radio, which became The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge and Lore, (CQ Publishing), I decided to see what I could do to help plug Walt’s Gospel of High SWR.

I condensed the premise of Reflections into a single chapter in the appendix of Opus, entitled “SWR Meters Make You Stupid.” I showed Walt the manuscript of that chapter and he was absolutely thrilled. He did suggest, however, that I might not be so blunt with the title. So I decided to make it a subtitle, with the more genteel antecedent:” Ladder-Line to Eternity.” So it ended up “Ladder-Line to Eternity: SWR Meters Make You Stupid.” I was careful to make it absolutely clear in the footnotes that all the information presented was Walt’s work I only contributed the extra sarcasm.

I’ve learned that there are three levels of work in a person’s life: a job, a career and a calling. Walt was one of those rare folks who achieved level three. It was an honor and a joy to know Walt and share in his calling, to impart understanding to people, a worthy calling as any.

RIP Walt, W2DU

1W. Maxwell, W2DU, “Another Look at Reflections Part I,” QST, Apr 1973, pp 35-41

Eric Nichols, KL7AJ, an ARRL® member, has written numerous articles for many Amateur Radio and electronics experimenter publications over the past 30 years. He worked as a broadcast engineer for a quarter century, later applying his radio experience to experiments conducted at the High Power Auroral Stimulation (HIPAS) Observatory and the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), as well as designing instrumentation for the UCLA Plasma Physics department.

Eric has published three books, Plasma Dreams, The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge and Lore and Radio Science for the Radio Amateur. He can be reached at PO Box 56235, North Pole, AK 99705,