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The Old Man: Rotten Damped Spark Stuff

TAGS: old man, time

In the early years of the ARRL, co-founder and first President Hiram Percy Maxim occasionally penned editorials in QST magazine using the pseudonym "The Old Man." These "rants" became legendary. As part of the ARRL Centennial celebration, we'll be re-publishing a number of The Old Man's observations throughout the year.

Rotten Damped Spark Stuff

By The Old Man

Take it away and bury it — sprinkle some saw dust on it and sweep it out — give to the kids to play with — I’m through with it. After what I have seen tonight, I’m all for CW. Let the kids enjoy squarking at each other with their damped sparks; let them set fire to their houses, put their telephone companies out of business and blow up their electric light stations with their kick-backs. I am no longer interested. I am going to set my bulb oscillating, light the old pipe and sit back in gentlemanly comfort and push through relay traffic with the sweet little peep stuff. There will be others like me and soon we can get a message almost anywhere we want on CW, judging by what is going on over east.

I’ve been fixing for this shift for some time. QRM has got so fierce that most of the time it is impossible to work any distance at all. With rotary gaps belching forth five amperes on any old tune, as loud at 2500 meters as at 200, and the unlicensed moonshine spark coil stuff from the way-nots going at it every night, doing any relay work is like listening to a whispered life story in a night-life restaurant with the jazz band gone amuck close up on your starboard quarter. It is too hard work making sense out of what you get, and when you count up the hours and the number of messages and divide the latter into the former the answer is too darned many man-hours per message. And if what I saw over on the other side of town tonight is any criterion, it is not going to improve any.

While waiting for the fading tests to begin, let me jot down the jar I had tonight. It started with the telephone people insinuating that I was putting the telephone system on the blink with my wireless. They said their switchboard lights were popping in and out, their bells ringing steadily and buzzing businesses coming in on the lines until they were about crazy. To prove an alibi, I made a swift guess as to where the trouble probably was and proceeded to get their expert and myself invited over to the house of a certain young Marconi person who had been asking me to cure him of kick-backs. He had been having the trouble for some time, and hesitating to suggest Sloan’s Liniment or Indian Swamp Root, I had been holding him off. He was more than glad to have me come over, so taking Mr Phone Expert, we went.

It seemed to me about time to notify somebody of something, so I beat it for the front door seeking for the push button as promptly as may be. Imagine my state of mind when I discovered the blame thing snapping and shooting fire on its own account and the bell ringing somewhere inside steadily. Not caring to monkey with a flaming push button, but feeling that it was my duty as an American citizen to hasten before the whole blamed town got going, I knocked rather firmly on the door. Mr Phone Expert was at my elbow and had seen all I had seen and was also impressed with the necessity for prompt action.

Mother opened the door and greeted us smilingly, sweetly and deliberately. She was one of those lovely little old ladies you like to talk to and wait upon. The last thing in the world on her mind was danger and vigorous action. You saw the whole story at a glance. If Harry was interested in wireless, why hinder him? Why disturb his scientific investigations? How happy we all should be that Harry was interested in such a wonderful science instead of idle amusements as were most other boys. What if the light in the garage did behave like a Bessemer converter? What if the door bells did ring bloody murder by the hour? What if the push button on the front porch did electrocute somebody? What if the trouble department at the telephone station had been up all night for the past two weeks trying stop subscriber’s bells ringing all night? Was it any reason for interrupting Harry in his radio research work? No! Harry was a born leader and he must not be coerced into considering the rest of the town, nor into getting up to breakfast nor into going to school. He must have free play for his wonderful talents.

The boy wonder of the Wabash was found in a little back room surrounded by blue flame, submerged in deafening racket from a naked rotary gap, merrily pounding the key, and calling a ninth district station that was as far beyond his range as heaven is beyond for mine. Flame and evil sparks were chasing themselves across dry woodwork all over the neighborhood. I hankered for a fire extinguisher and no one to interrupt while I distributed its contents as fancy dictated. With the instinct of self preservation uppermost, I touched him on the shoulder, and as I had hoped he stopped abruptly and rose to greet us. The fire hazard was at least reduced in part, although heaven only knew in what place some dry clapboard was smoldering. Suggesting that he shut down the crazy rotary so we could talk without straining our vocal chords, I introduced the dejected gentleman from the telephone company, took a chair, and proceeded to look around.

There were a couple of wires coming in from somewhere outside which led to a one kW Thordarson and to my horror they were noted as paraffin coated annunciator wire. The paraffin had drained down to the bottom in spots, which suggested that at some time those wired had been warm. As I looked I thought I detected a wisp of smoke curling away from one of them. Probably carrying ten amperes or so at 220 volts and coming in through a window that had been shut down upon them. Glancing to see how Mr Phone Man was getting along, I caught him transfixed and staring at a telephone on the table beside the oscillation transformer, the flexible cord from the phone reclining up against the high tension wired of the Thor. That poor telephone had been subjected to the 10,000 volt secondary of the Thor and Mr Phone Man knew it. I was willing to lay a bet with anybody that the phone was on the table for the sole purpose of conveniently calling the fellow to ask, “How do you get me?”

The Boy Wonder took a shot that we had come over to prescribe for his kick-back problem, and he plunged into symptoms. It seemed that ever since he picked up his new one kW 110-volt Thor and hooked it onto the 220-volt wires he had been having kick-backs and fuse blowings. Did I think there was something wrong with the Thor? And was there any other way to connect it? The kick-backs were not so bad, as they did not shut him down, and the family and neighbors had gotten used to them, but the fuse blowing was rotten, for it interrupted his transmission. He said he had put in the largest size plug fuses he could buy in the town — thirty ampere — but they were just as bad actors as the little ones. How big did fuses come, and was it a fact that there was some kind of a law against jumping them with a piece of copper wire so they would not blow?

I am use to this sort of thing, but Mr Phone Man was not. He thought he was in a trance and was for disbelieving his ears.

Mother sat in and beamed proud delight at the technical lingo of her hopeful. To her he was indeed a Boy Wonder. I asked him how many times he blew a fuse. “Oh it’s terrible. Some nights a pocket full.” What to him was worse, there were no more thirty ampere plug fuses in town. He had exhausted the supply. He only has eight left and that was not enough to get in on the long-distance stuff and last out the evening. I had come in the nick of time. What was it I would advise? I wanted to advise the patrol wagon, but with poor little smiling Mother sitting there I had not the nerve.

 Just then a stranger came in. He was introduced as the man living in the other half of the house. He wanted Harry to have Harry’s sister send while Harry himself went in next door and watched their gas stove. Gas stove! What in blazes could ail the gas stove? Fearing a cataclysm of some sort I vetoed any more sending. The Phone Man said he did, too. Being urged, and sister promising faithfully that she would limit her activities to three short dots, I gave in, and we all filed out and into the other side of the house.

Here we ran against more trouble. In this family the man was a machinist during the day and a student of pyrotechnics at night. All hands were anointed by the sweet personality of Harry’s mother, and anything Harry did was all to the good, because dear little smiling Mother wanted it that way. It mattered not that the door bells all up and down the street rang until two in the morning; that the lights blinked so it permanently impaired your eye-sight to read the evening paper; that fifteen or twenty times a night they went out altogether. The point was the Harry was trying to get Peoria, and wouldn’t that be just wonderful for a boy of seventeen! Peoria! Away over there in Illinois!

After pushing us all back from a galvanized wire run across the kitchen used for drying clothes in wet weather, the stranger nodded to his wife and she gave a couple of raps on the wall. This was the signal to Sister to send the three short dots, and incidentally I found it was the signal every night for Harry to pull back a minute while they put out a fire in one of the electric light fixtures.

The three dots came all right. The stranger kept his eagle eye on the galvanized wire because earlier in the evening he had walked under it, and being a tall man, an evil blue speak and hopped out of the wire and picked a hole in his bean and it had made him timid. The first dot made a tea kettle on the coal stove shoot a fat blue sheet of fire to the snout of a coffee pot on the gas stove alongside. This had been discovered by accident by the machinist man, and it was to show Harry that he had a receiving station right there in the kitchen that we had been called over. He has been copying the dots and dashed an intended to learn the code so he could read what Harry sent out. The second dot caused the front door bell up over the door to explode and vomit a cloud of smoke, and nearly scare Mr Phone Man to death. His nerves had gotten a tad jumpy. The third dot caused the electric light socket in the kitchen to emit a report like a shot gun and proceed to go off like a Roman candle, after which the lights went out and left us in inky blackness. Candles were handy, for this was a regular performance, and we soon had light enough for Harry to beat it back to his cellar and the machinist man to also beat it for his. In an incredibly short time the lights came on again, thanks to a couple of thirty ampere fuses, showing how expert these people had become.

It seemed to me and the overwrought Phone Man that the exhibition was most convincing and that more would be superfluous. He was entirely satisfied and the machinist man was quite pleased at the success of his venture. He related how the neighbors up and down the street had queer things also, such as all the lights blazing up at two-thirty in the morning and both front and back door bells going off like fire alarms. But they had gotten used to it, and it did not bother them much. The only trouble was that the telephones would ring at the wrong times and had been working badly the past month. Harry explained all this away by stating that the troubles started when he got his new Thordarson transformer, and would be fixed as soon as he found out from me how to connect it properly. The Phone Man did not look convinced; he was speechless. You could see he was figuring out in his mind what would be the strongest language he could command for his report.

On the way back Harry insisted upon showing us where the paraffined annunciator wire came from. On the way down cellar he pointed with pride to each light fixture, showing us how everyone was blackened or pierced with a big ragged hole where the 100-volt arc had melted out the brass. Down in the cellar it was explained the Thor had a binding post on the iron frame and the question was what to do with it. Of course it was the ground connection to keep the Thor from acting nasty if anything got into its frame, but I let this pass.

When we reached the business end of the paraffined annunciator wires we found that they were across the 220 volt outside wires from the meter, merely being twisted around. There was a wire dangling from one side of the service system and I asked what might it mean. It was explained that this had been used to ground one side of the lighting circuit, in the hopes that it would cure the kick-backs, but after having it in for a while and not getting any improvement he took it out because he noticed it made the meter run backwards. He feared that this might indicate that the electric light company owed him money and might bring on acrimonious dissension.

At this explanation Mr Phone Man sickened. Walking over to an ash barrel he gazed hard into its dusty contents and then spat sincerely and copiously, even as I have been wont to do in happier days when our Maltese pet has been within range.

I noticed casually that the paraffined annunciator wires led the full length of the cellar and made their untimely exit through a cellar window, also shut down hard upon them. I also noticed that they were not only parallel but attached at intervals to the ground wire that also came through the cellar window from the set up stairs. This of course brought radio frequency in intimate and friendly touch with the service wires for quite some little length, and anyone having had the advantages of a high education in mathematics, as had been my good fortune, and also that of the Phone Man, knew that service wires thus exposed quickly lose their discipline and behave in scandalous manners.

By this time I had seen enough. Ditto the Phone Man. So we returned upstairs, desiring that Harry’s mother hear our conclusions. With all hands assembled, I explained that the wireless station was fine, but the electric light end of the thing was rotten. They subscribed heartily. I explained that it was like fooling around a powder magazine with a match, and that any minute not only would Harry be likely to go off in a puff of blue flame never return to earth again, but most of this end of the town would do the same, unless things were fixed.

The reference to Harry did the job. One of the things Mother was not in favor of was Harry leaving for parts unknown in a cloud of blue flame. She did not realize wireless was so dangerous. The rest of the town might take a crack at the journey, but if that was what was hanging over Harry it were better that a halt were called until things could be fixed. I indicated that the authorities would probably have a few pointed remarks to make if the fireworks business kept up, and referred to the dejected gentleman who accompanied me from the Telephone Company. He thought the Telephone Company might have something to say if the thing were not improved, as most of the town’s phones had been out of commission for two weeks.

I suggested that it was also unhealthy to monkey with the fuzes and use thirties when the house wiring was only intended for sixes, and as for running the meter backwards, if the Electric Light Company ever got wind of such a thing as that, they would froth at the mouth. As for the paraffined annunciator wire, I made it plain that is was about on a par with lighting the kitchen stove with gasoline. Some real wiring by a real electrician was the proper way to attend to this, and if this wire were all right angles to the house lighting, it would cure the kick-back disease. All in all, it might be well if no more transmitting were done until the Telephone Company and the Electric Light Company had sent men out to look things over.

Then we said good night all around, and little Mother smiled again and thanks us for stepping in at the critical moment and saving her boy from a flaming exit. She wanted to spend the rest of the night telling us about his wonderful talents, and how he was the center of all things, a born leader, and took after her father, and built a patent umbrella out of kindling wood at the age of seven. When we got outside the Phone Man heaved a deep sigh. With dreadful profanity he inquired if I could tell him what we were coming to anyway if kids could go on like that, flirting with fire, flame, and the public utilities. I told him he may have thought he had his troubles, but he did not know what trouble meant. Let him just try to operate a wireless station with a whole country full of such stations as these and see how he liked it. That was what I had been up against for six months steady, and was there no wonder that I had formed bad habits.

No Sir, I’m through with the damped spark stuff. I understand that all you have to do to get out of the QRM is to find somebody who will snaffle a power bulb for you, wind some wire around something, hook in a couple of variable condensers and there you are with two amperes CW in the antenna, which will reach out father than twenty amperes of the damped spark stuff. That’s my size. May be I will have something to tell about when I get into it.

Well, it’s about time for the alphabet practice to start. So long and 73’s to the gang.




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