Winter 1962

My Dad brought me home the July, 1962 copy of Radio TV and Hobbies magazine. Inside was a technical dreamland of articles, one of which was “A Beginners One Transistor Radio” which, in the few seconds it took me to read the intro, took me from interested wonder to totally absorbed technical passion. That Saturday morning, armed with the list of required parts, my Dad and I ventured into the city. Walthams trading co. in Elizabeth street simply overwhelmed me. All that stuff! Racks and racks of radios, transmitters, power supplies, things you couldn’t name but which had knobs and dials and numbers. Our mission there was to buy a pair of disposals high impedance headphones which were duly purchased. They were of black bakelite with a single flat spring steel headband. We had to leave then for other stores, but I took with me the sights and smells of that unreachable pinnacle of radio junk land, and a sense that here I had found a kind of doorway into another realm. Next stop was Homecrafts in Lonsdale street. Through the shop, down the stairs and behold! Parts, multi-coloured and various dripped from the walls, lay in glass cabinets and counters, and everywhere was a feeling of bustling insight, as if I had fallen into the secret den of those few who knew and worked the mysteries.
My Dad engaged the attention of one of the counter salesman and I read out my list of parts to him. I didn’t need a gang, my Dad had already found me an old one out of a mantle radio, but they had everything else – except the .0015 capacitors. I was devastated, but kept this somewhat to myself. Naturally I had no idea that any other value would have done as well, nor did the man at the counter suggest any options.
So we came home, and I was determined to build the radio even if I had to leave gaps for the two capacitors I had not been able to get. I was too fired with enthusiasm to let this minor lack stop the ball rolling.  I made a base board out of some old pine and a front panel of masonite was duly nailed on. Holes were drilled, tagstrips were screwed in place, the regen pot mounted and the gang was bolted to the front panel. I was ready.
 My dad had lots of soldering irons, even a very small one which had a head about ½ an inch square and a neat point. So it was on to the gas on the kitchen stove while I busied myself with putting these strange, newly discovered components into place on the tagstrips according to the wiring diagram in the magazine. I learned colour code that afternoon. I learned capacitor values, I learned how to solder wires with a gas iron and flux and a 50/50 bar of solder. I made the coil as suggested, using a toilet roll and matches to hold the tapped turns out from the former. The wire was very thin, as it came from an old magnet my Dad had brought home. But I dealt with it, carefully scraping the insulation from the part held between the matches.
 Looking back, I guess the wire up was fairly messy, but it was good enough for me and when it was done, the real disappointment of the missing capacitors began to set in. But my natural exploratory nature took over and I got my battery – an old 6V lantern battery which I had been playing around with for a long time – and wired up the power leads to the fahnstock clips on top of it. What were capacitors anyway, I wondered? Signals went through them, that was clear enough from the text in the magazine. But what else? I hadn’t reached the concept of DC blocking at that time, so without any other consideration I decided that if signals went through capacitors then it only followed that they had a lot in common with a piece of wire. Simple. Without further ado I connected the base of the transistor to the next terminal on the tagstrip which was the top of the tuned circuit. Then I connected up my big antenna. Noise, music, voices! My joy was complete. I tuned the gang and broadly resolved some of the voices and music into separate stations. I turned the regeneration pot, but it didn’t seem to do anything. That didn’t matter at all. I fiddled with the alligator clips on the coil taps, changing them about until I found I could resolve about four major broadcast stations with a sweep of the gang. Bliss! I then decided to place another wire across the point where the other cap was supposed to be. Disaster! A loud click from the headphones and silence. I quickly removed I the short circuit and all was back to normal. I didn’t question my actions – clearly capacitors in some instances could be eliminated! I ran outside to where my dad was working in the garden and told him how I had made the radio work without the missing capacitors. He smiled in amazement and it was obvious how much he shared my joy. Running back inside, I spent the whole afternoon and evening tuning, adjusting and listening. It was like having my own personal window into a world I could only previously access through the mundane proxy of the household radio; something made by someone else and whose inner workings I could never be privy to. But this, this was the most empowering, the most uplifting insight into a world of new possibilities I could then only scarcely image. Another doorway had opened upon the vast “otherworld” that radio communication was becoming for me.   

My Next Project

My next project, “A Beginners One Valve Radio” came from an old Radio and Hobbies magazine. The idea of a valve radio I could build myself and which used only battery power fascinated me. I had seen the number 30 valve required for it advertised in the “Ham Radio Suppliers”  list in the back of my RTV&H magazines, so it was off to Hawthorn with my Dad in tow. Snowy Milbourne’s little old shop in Melville street was not far from the station and I must admit, had a kind of aura of hidden wonder for me even as I approached it. Inside, I knew, there would be more to satisfy my increasing lust to discover all the arcane secrets of wireless communication.
Snowy was a genial man, whose face lit up when I explained in my somewhat awestruck and shy way that I wished to purchase a number 30 valve and a “Reinartz coil”.
“So, you’re going to build a one valve radio,” he said. He disappeared out the back of the shop and came back, not only with the valve and the coil, but with a number of other parts including a variable capacitor I needed for “reactance” , a 2.2meg “grid leak resistor” and a 100pf “coupling capacitor”,  the operation of each of these components explained as they were presented, while the correct way to connect and solder to the base of the coil was explained to me with great care. I was given to feel that I was undertaking something extremely important, and that this knowledge being given to me was not suffered merely as a necessity, but as a kind of welcoming code, a shared illumination. After payment and some further discussion between my Dad and Snowy, we left the shop and I couldn’t help but feel I had entered a new dimension of understanding. I was no longer just a boy playing out of wonder with possibilities he did not understand. I felt like I had been accepted, without question, into the ranks of those who share the wonder. Snowy Milbourne made me feel like that, and I am eternally grateful to him and his memory. 
Once home, the usual construction began. A baseboard of wood and a front panel of masonite, gangs mounted, valve socket screwed down, wires connected, parts soldered into place. I used a torch battery for the filament of the valve, but for HT I had nothing but my old 6V lantern battery. High voltage batteries were very expensive and I had not wanted to make the need for such an item known to my father, so I hoped that it might work with what I had. God knows how much terminal voltage the old battery still had, but what can I say? I connected it up and … I worked! Once again, the “reactance” did not work, just as the “regeneration” hadn’t in my one transistor set, but it mattered not. This radio selected stations far better, and I did at least find when I tuned the reactance capacitor, some increase in the selectivity occurred. But this time I could hear other things – country stations at night, stations that faded and distorted curiously as they slowly came and went, just like the short wave stations on my big old STC radio. Wonderful!
At night I would run my headphone leads across the room from the table to my bed and lie there, listening to 3UZ (my favorite station) while, every now and then I would look up across the room to where I could just see the filament of my valve glowing in the darkness. It meant something, to me it represented the whole deal, the complete mystery. The whole mystical connection between the physical world, myself and the “out there” wonder of “wireless” was encapsulated in the loyal continuance of that tiny orange-red light.

Amateur Radio


I was first made aware of amateur radio when I got my first receiver, an old STC three band cabinet radio. My Dad said, ”you’ll be able to listen to the amateurs on that.” Sure enough, there were parts on the dial marked as “amateur band”, so once the radio was set up, I spent some of my listening time checking what was there. I was rewarded almost immediately, hearing a couple of local stations talking about their radio’s and antenna’s. Talking “my” language, I thought. I wanted to hear it all. It wasn’t long before I found that night time was the real pay-off, when I could hear operators from all over the place talking with each other. Soon enough I had my favorites, people who seemed to me to be like wise old mentors, whose every word filled yet another gap in my understanding. Not only this, but the fact of their existence, their connection to what I was connected to made it seem like I was part of a special secret society of people who knew and did stuff that no-one else understood or even knew about. And, no matter how much I tried to push down the disappointment it made me feel, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming desire to be included, to be an amateur, to be “out there” amidst the crackle and fading. But I was just an eleven year old kid, and such things were beyond not only my skill but also my age.
Just the same, this didn’t stop me from slowly becoming more bold in my experiments and desires, and I took to riding my bike on weekends, all over the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in a search for those give away antenna systems in backyards which spoke the secret of the owners passion. From hints and clues I would work out where some of the local stations were and went in search of them, mostly just to look in awe, but sometimes – more often in hope than reality – to meet the person behind the call. This however, wasn’t the prime reason for my wanderings. I was a dreamer, I lived in world of wonder and possibility, and the simple existence of those antennas out there, sometimes visible as a kind of symbol tracing across a sunset city skyline made me feel close to all the mystery and wonder of the universe.
If there is one thing that has remained with me through the years, and which now seems to be becoming even stronger again after falling into the background of my adult life for a long time, it is the sense of how I felt when I was a kid, when the mystery behind things was ever present to me. If it were possible I would gladly give this awesome sense of things to others, but it can only be found, not given. Nevertheless, I hope it remains within the words and the ways in which I now am part of the crackle and fade, and also hope that I can inspire at least something of the awe and wonder of radio in some other dreaming child. Not for the sake of radio itself, because when you know, when you find yourself part of the secret, you realize that it is a connection to the universe you are looking for, to the infinite, to the promises that lie behind the façade of the daily world – and these things are what make us yearn to be more and better than we are. 

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