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"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!) 
Lyle Arthur Seefeld

Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld 

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Chapter 13: Early Radio Days (1922-1926)

Although we lived in an out-of-the-way small town, which some people laughingly called "the last jumping off place" we did keep in touch with the "outside world."  The postman regularly brought us our newspaper, the Wisconsin News, and Dad, since he built boats, subscribed to Motorboat and Motorboating magazines.  Mother, because she did a lot of "fancy work", subscribed to Needlecraft magazine.  And there was always a small stack of Popular Mechanics magazines which I read from cover to cover, including (maybe even especially) the ads.  Intriguing ads, like "Build your own Automobile" and "build a Wireless Set."  And there were always those ads for the ultimate bicycle, the "Ranger" which sold for all of twenty-five dollars!

When wireless communication became more common, there were ads for "Coto-Coils", "a coil for every wavelength!", loose couplers, vario-couplers, and variable condensers by Clapp-Eastham Co., which later became General Radio.  All fascinating, but useless to me, since I had no money to buy "wireless" gear, and besides, I didn't know how to use it anyway!

Then, in the summer of 1922, I got my first paying job.  (See next chapter).  And in the fall I used some of my savings to subscribe to "Radio News," a monthly magazine with "how to" articles for people like me.  After a lot of study, I knew what I needed to build a small radio, and started accumulating parts.  I don't remember where they all came from, but I do remember that I bought my "variable condenser" from Sears, Roebuck and Company!  The tube was a UV-200 and cost seven dollars. To power it I bought a six-volt storage battery and a 221/2-volt "B" battery.  I bought a pair of headphones made by Brandes and a sheet of shiny black Bakelite to mount everything on.  After much hand-drilling of holes, bolting things in place, and wiring it with stiff solid copper wire, I finished putting it together.

I hadn't put up my roof antenna yet, so I strung some wire around the room.  Then, after waiting until dark, because AM broadcast signals travel farther at night, I put my headphones on my ears, turned on the tube, and started turning dials.  And there, right in the middle of the dial, I heard a man say he was at KYW, in Chicago!  I turned the dial some more, and near one end, I heard KDKA in Pittsburgh.  At the other end of the dial I heard WBZ in Boston.  But those were the only stations I could hear.  And to make things even stranger, the three transmitters I could hear were all Westinghouse stations!  I knew there were many more broadcasters out there, so now I had to trouble-shoot my first radio. After much taking apart and putting back together, I discovered the culprit.  It was that variable condenser I had bought from Sears Roebuck. The little brass shaft on which the dial and the aluminum condenser plates turned was supposed to protrude slightly from the hole in the bakelite support in which it turned.  And a little brass plate was supposed to make contact with the end of that shaft as it turned.  But the shaft was just a little too short.  So the condenser of large plates was in series with a tiny one made of the end of a quarter-inch diameter rod and the metal plate a few thousandths of an inch away.  No wonder it tuned so broadly and no wonder its range was so small.  To fix it, I placed a tiny metal washer between the shaft and contact plate, and presto! many more stations.  With this success behind me, I now put up antenna wire between a ten-foot pole on the barn (converted from Dad's shop) and a similar pole on the house.

That winter I was a high school senior, and the senior class had some money left over from its various activities, none of which I can remember.  So the class decided to buy the school a radio.  George Oelhafen said his father could get it wholesale, so we bought it.  I remember it very well.  It was a Westinghouse Model RC, with three tubes and a horn-type loudspeaker, the necessary batteries and a battery charger.  We set it up in the Physics room, and George and I went up on the roof, strung the antenna between two chimneys and ran the lead-in wire down a ventilator shaft to the Physics room.  And then in the evenings, interested students gathered in that room to experience this new thing called radio.  I wonder if that radio was still in that building when it burned in 1977.  I don't suppose so, after fifty-five years!

In the meantime, I enjoyed listening to the little radio I had made.  For a while the headphones made my ears sore, but they soon became quite accustomed to the pressure.  I think one reason these ears don't stick out like some is that the headphones wouldn't let them!  Besides listening a lot, I started to do a little experimenting with this new gadget, and  learned a lot of things which helped me later on.  One thing I learned was that by changing the coils a little, there was a place on the dial where I could hear a lot of code signals.  Radio amateurs, or "hams!  This discovery got me interested in "ham" radio, and I studied the code so I could understand what those people were saying.  I never did master the code, though.  About all the code I can decipher today is CQ, the general call inviting other amateurs to talk, and SOS, the international distress signal.

To hear these code signals, I had to adjust my radio so that it was, in effect a small transmitter, which my friends Phil Werner and Don Danielson could hear on their "store-bought" radios.  The next step was to connect an improvised telegraph key between the radio and its ground wire.  Now I had a code transmitter!  After hearing my signals, Phil and Don followed suit, and for a short while we sent signals back and forth.  Since none of us could send, much less read, the code, this phase soon passed.  Besides, transmitting without a license was strictly illegal! But the basic idea still lingered, and one day I found myself in the alley behind the telephone company building, going through the pile of discards that was there.  Suddenly, a man stuck his head out the door and inquired as to what I was looking for.  So I told him I thought I might find an old microphone from a discarded phone.  He disappeared, but came back a few minutes later and presented me with a perfectly good microphone from an old style telephone!

I thanked him profusely, and rushed home where I discarded the telegraph key and put the microphone in its place.  I now had a voice transmitter!  So I called Phil and Don, asked them to listen for me, and then chattered into the "mike" for minute or so.  Then the phone rang. They heard me!  Soon they both acquired microphones, and we were able to carry on conversations over the radio.  After a while, the novelty of this new activity wore off, and we stopped "broadcasting."  It was just as well, because this, too, was illegal.  We always tuned our radios away from the commercial stations so as not to interfere with anyone's listening, and, besides, our "flea-power" transmitters couldn't be heard more than a few blocks away, so I doubt if anyone else ever heard us.

Having about exhausted the capabilities of my first radio, I began to think about building a bigger one.  By this time I had a steady job and income, so I began gathering parts for a radio of revolutionary new design, called the super-heterodyne.  This new radio circuit was developed by E. H. Armstrong during World War I, and made possible radios that were not only more sensitive and selective than older types, but were also easier to tune than the earlier popular designs, in which three dials had to be adjusted just right.

This new radio used six tubes, and that in itself posed a problem. Six ordinary tubes could run a storage battery down pretty fast, and I didn't have a charger.  Fortunately there was now a new, smaller vacuum tube, the UV-199, which jokesters called the "peanut tube" because of its small size.  It was about three quarters of an inch in diameter and about three inches tall and did almost everything the larger tubes did while using much less battery current.  Along with this operating economy came a disadvantage.  To achieve this low battery drain, the working elements in the tube had to be made thin and light.  As a result, a radio using it was quite sensitive to vibration, and just tuning it could cause unwanted "twanging" noises in the phones or speaker.  So along with the six tubes (at $4.50 each) I had to buy six shock-mounted sockets.

This radio also required four "intermediate frequency" transformers ($7.00 each).  The ones I bought were unusual for those days, because I think they were the first of their kind to have tuning capacitors, allowing them to be all tuned to exactly the same frequency, greatly increasing the selectivity and sensitivity of the radio.  I wound the special tuning coils myself, and mounted the two tuning capacitors (with their gear drives for fine tuning) and the other controls on a bakelite panel seven inches high and twenty-eight inches long.  A BIG radio!

I wired it in the "approved" bus-bar fashion, with bare, heavy, stiff copper wire bent in a series of 90 angles so as to reach from one terminal to another without touching other bare wires.  After completing the wiring, I plugged in the tubes, connected the batteries and the antenna, plugged in the headphones and turned it on.  And it worked!  In fact, it worked very well, and, after I adjusted the four special transformers it worked exceptionally well.  So well in fact that I discarded the antenna on the roof and used a short piece of wire strung up on the wall.  My confidence in my design and construction abilities was boosted tremendously by this success, and I guess it helped me a lot later when repairing radios became my business, and then later, when I designed and built instruments for Boeing.

This radio was powerful enough to run a loudspeaker.  So I went down town to Ball and Lambert's electric shop and bought one.  It was, of course, of the popular (for the time) round base, vertical bent horn variety and sounded terrible by present day standards, but we thought it was wonderful! It cost me eighteen dollars, but then, a week after I bought mine, the price went down to twelve dollars!  By this time, I had left my job at the Marinette depot and was the paper mill timekeeper.  And two of my cousins from Germany (Herman and Otto Schmelter) were staying at our house, having come to this country sponsored by my Mom and Dad.  One day I was adjusting this radio, when Cousin Herman, watching me, pointed to something inside the radio with the screwdriver he had in his hand, shorted just the right two wires, and bingo! there was a bright flash as all six of those $4.50 tubes burned out!  I lost interest in that radio then and there, and never replaced the tubes.  Now you know a lot more than you ever wanted to know about my early experiences with radios, and I've sort of gotten ahead of my story.  So now we go back to 1922 and my summer  job.