Amateur Radio in the 1950s

by Jim Musgrove, K5BZH

The novice license which got the attention of our nation’s youth happened in the middle of 1951.  Though not widely known, the primary reason to create a license that only required code skills to 5 words per minute and be able to pass a simple test with multiple choice answers was to create a pool of young people semi-trained as radio operators in the event our nation ever were to need them for military service as radio ops. We had the major wars; however, there wasn’t a need to pull those people into service.  Many volunteered anyway.

Actor Jackie Coogan looks a little scared to be using a telegraph machine in a scene from a 1924 movie. JOHN KOBAL FOUNDATION/GETTY IMAGES

My brother Sanford, he was 5 1/2 years older than me, and two of his high school friends Web Mays and Colburn Ward, they were about a year younger than him, decided to get into amateur radio.  Sanford became WN5FIT, Web became WN5FIS, and Colburn, known to most at that time as Gar, became WN5FIP.

That was a different era, ham radio and most everything else in the 1950s was somewhat different to what exists today.  Tube technology was the standard in those days. Some transistors existed, but they were not too impressive at that point in time.  Keep in mind that from around 1900 to around 1928 that spark gap transmitters were in use.
Money was tight.  Most likely the best amateur radio equipment available was made by Collins Radio and it was expensive.  Collins included the 75A1, 75A2, and 75A3.  The 75A4 hit the market around 1955.  It was considered the ultimate.  Collins made transmitters and they included the 32V1, 32V2, and 32V3, all CW/AM units.  They also made a 1 KW AM/CW transmitter that was huge, it stood as tall as a person.  The new Collins KWS-1 was CW/SSB.

To paint this picture truthfully, money was worth several times more, probably well over 10 times as much in that era compared to today.  Our money has been devalued through the years.  A simple Hallicrafters S-38C receiver of 1955 sold for around $50.  That would be worth around $500 today, maybe more.  The S-38C was basically the same radio as a housewife had in her kitchen, but it was mounted in a metal cabinet, had a switchable coil set to select the bands one wished to hear.  It tuned the AM broadcast band to around 30 MHz. It included a makeshift BFO that enabled one to copy code, and a bandspread dial that was not calibrated, it was marked 0 to 100.  Today’s ham would be shocked at how many contacts the hams made using such a simple radio.  As By Goodman of the ARRL pointed out a few times those radios didn’t really work well above 40 meters.  A novice of that era was usually content to operate on 80 and 40 meters.  Those wishing to get on 15 meters were hurting.

A large number of the novice transmitters were homebuilt using magazine or handbook articles.  An even larger number were purchased as kits.  There were several who bought completed units, new ones, or used ones.

Let me move on to the operating part: novices were required to be crystal controlled.  The FCC realized these operators for the most part had no real knowledge or experience. The novice bands were narrow as in the order of 50 KC (KHz now).  Requiring them to be crystal controlled would help solve the problem.  Most crystals were fixed as in one frequency only.  A few were variable and my guess is the FCC wouldn’t like them being used by novices.  A crystal sold at that point in time for around $3 each.  Remember, that would be like $30 in today’s money.  Very few novices had that kind of money to toss around.
There was a solution for “One Frequency Johnny.”  After calling CQ, the novice would tune plus and minus 10 KC or so, then listen for another novice responding to their CQ.  I made a lot of contacts with this method.

Oh, surplus military rocks (crystals) were available for around 50 cents each.  There were just a few that were within the novice bands.  There would be a high percentage of the novices with these crystals, they soon figured out a $3 rock was worth it. One could grind a crystal.  The grinding process would move the crystal up in frequency. Most novices were terrified at the thought of opening a crystal and messing with the quartz itself.

TV sets of that era were typically VHF channels only as in Channels 2 thru 13. People that had TV sets (they weren’t in every house), if not in a major city, usually had to erect an antenna.  These sets were susceptible to TVI.
I still remember my brother was accused by someone in our area of causing TVI.  He asked the question how they knew it was him.  “We could hear you talking!”  He was a novice at the time and operating CW, how could they identify him?

Sanford was using an Eldico TR-75TV transmitter, running it without the top cover in order to be able to change the coil sets as required to change bands. That was the same transmitter I started out using as a novice with the call KN5BZH.  It would have been a pain to take the cover off each time one changed bands.  That transmitter, I still have it, used a 6AG7 tube in a colpits crystal controlled oscillator driving a 1625 final amplifier to 60 watts input.  Power in those days was measured by input power.  That 60 watts resulted in about 40 to 45 watts output.  The legal limit for a novice was 75 watts which would result in around 50 watts output.

He copied the station of his high school principal, Lee Tesson, WN5ZTB (later W5ZTB).  Lee had a TR-75 transmitter and a Hallicrafters S-40B receiver.  The S-40B was significantly better than any version of a S-38.  Like the S-38s, it used a logging scale for the bandspread control, even a kid like I was when I got my ticket a few months later as KN5BZH could make the system work reasonably well.  It wasn’t remotely like the accuracy we have on today’s radios, even the less expensive ones.

We had another adult ham in the area, George DeVoll, WN5EFJ, who become W5EFJ.  George had been hired as the new Church of Christ minister in Goldthwaite.  He was one amazing person.  George built his own transmitter from an ARRL Handbook article. His unit looked exactly like the pictures in the handbook.  For a receiver he had moved up from an inexpensive National receiver to a World War II Hallicrafters SX-28.  He had far the best receiver in the area.  It had a much better i.f. section and a lot better RF section.  In addition it had a single pole crystal filter that once the operator learned the proper way to use it was magnificent to cut out a lot of interference.

George had a lot of patience and showed me as a kid before I got my license how to make that filter work and how to get the most performance out of that receiver.  George did all sorts of thingks preachers aren’t famous for doing.  He did his own mechanics work, he took care of his car himself.  In his life he built some amazing pieces of ham gear.  I remember a receiver he built a few years later that made use of Collins mechanical filters and various other items he purchased in their surplus store in the Dallas area.
As an off the wall comment maybe I should share that George had a younger brother that was also a Church of Christ minister named Jim.  He had an older brother named Sanford that was a Texas Game Warden.  Jim is a common name, but Sanford isn’t.

The story of typical hamshacks, many with chest of drawers with all sorts of parts comes to mind.  There are other stories of yesteryear, but this has gotten long enough for now, maybe later.

For more of Jim’s articles, click here

If you know of a ham with a story or you would like to share some of your experiences or expertise on any ham radio topic, contact Melinda KG5NWD.