Amateur Radio Culture in the 1950s

by Jim Musgrove, K5BZH                                                       

Not long ago an old radio friend of mine who lives down in Malfunction Junction (College Station) touched base with me.  Rod Hotz, K5BGB, had received a surprise gift from another ham who had purchased a large group of old QSL cards of yesteryear from eBay.  In the group was a QSL card which Rod had sent to another ham. Rod’s QSL had a clever ditty on it and was an attention getter and probably increased the percentage of QSL cards he receiver per card sent.  The ditty was cute and truthfully rather polite.  He also had the QSL the other fellow had sent to him.  Rod then provided me with pictures of his novice QSL card and early general class card to jog my memory. 

One thing that really captured my attention was the second line of the address.  It was “Chief Coil Winder Roddy.”  I never received one to “Chief Coil Winder,” but I received a significant number that were started out “Chief …” and then something else.  I need to dig out my novice cards and see what all surfaces.  The thought occurred to me that using something similar today just might increase the percentage of QSLs received, especially if to someone who was an active ham during those days.  Virtually all of my activity is on CW and the term “Chief Ditty Bopper” fits well.
The date of the QSO was 1-15-1956 — it would be several years before we started using the logical order of day-month-year.  Same goes for Zulu time.
Both of these QSL cards were sent as postcards, the postage rate for a postcard was 2 cents.  The vast majority of QSLS in that era were sent as postcards as it cost another penny to send in an envelope.  I hear wheels turning — for another penny, why not in an envelope?  Two cents in that era would be equivalent of twenty cents in today’s money.

Another thing that was different about QSL cards of that era is they always listed the transmitter and receiver data.  The power data was included on the QSL, listing input power instead of output power, since the accuracy of measuring output in most ham shacks in those days was pathetic.  Just as a comment, the novices were limited to 75 watts input which would have resulted in about 50 watts output.

QSL cards received in those days were typically thumbed tacked to the wall of hamshacks.  Until the last 10 years or so I was still displaying QSLs with that method.  My current house has hard walls and I use large picture frames that will hold several cards and display select QSLs by that method.

K5BZH and a sample of his QSL collection

Before moving to other things, I want to also note that Rod, as a novice in the mid 1950’s, was already chasing contacts outside the borders of the 48 states.  Alaska and Hawaii had yet to become states.  His QSL card noted he had contacts to VE3, VE4, VE5, VE7,XE1, LU2, LU9, KZ5, CE3, WP4, and ZL1.  As he moved to a higher class license, in that era a novice was only good for one year and was not renewable, he improved his station and antenna farm and got serious. For many years Rod was a serious DXer, among the top of the bunch.  I don’t think he ever ran over 100 watts.  He lost interest when the internet and a few other things changed the ways of chasing DX.  One of them was posting where stations were active.  He in his senior years moved in other directions of our hobby.

Another memory from my earlier days, most serious DXing was done via CW.  One of my favorite ARRL Staff members was Byron Goodman, W1DX.  By was a DXer and a serious CW operator.  By Goodman wrote many articles published in the QSTs and ARRL Handbooks that were instructions for building transmitters and receivers.  I never got to meet By in person, but we had a lot of telephone conversations several years ago before we moved to Amarillo, in the era when Carol and I lived in Fort Worth and then in Goldthwaite, my little hometown, after I retired.  He designed a tube receiver that was featured in several of the 1950s ARRL Handbooks. There were 2 or 3 versions, all pretty much the same, with slight circuit changes.  It covered the 80 and 40 meter bands only.  By’s comment was that the other novice class receivers (think Hallicrafters S-38s and National SW-54s) didn’t either, never mind that the dials said they did.

W1DX (W1CKK photo)

My 1957 ARRL Handbook contains the plans.  It has 5 tubes, not counting the power supply’s tube rectifier.  The radio is dual conversion, 1700 KC first intermittent frequency amplifier and a 100 KC second i.f. amplifier.  A 6C4 takes the role of the H.F. oscillator.  A 6SN7 serves as a 2 stage audio amplifier.  The 100 KC i.f. transformers were in reality coils manufactured to serve as TV set horizontal oscillator coils that Goodman modified for his receiver to serve his needs.  The power supply was built in a separate chassis.

Byron became a silent key when I was living at Goldthwaite before we moved to Amarillo.  His daughter knew we chatted a lot on the landline and called me to let me know her father had died.  During the conversation she asked me if there might be anything of his that I wanted.  I described the 2 band receiver to her and explained that if it were in his shack that I would love to have it.  A little thinking as we talked, I told her that if she did find that radio that she should take it to ARRL Headquarters and that it should be placed in their museum.
By Goodman was an avid CW operator, not sure if he owned a microphone in his earlier days.  When SSB started gaining popularity in the early 1950s By Goodman took the role of getting into the mode bigtime and started to promote it.

The 1950s weren’t perfect, but some things I miss.  The neighborhood culture was somewhat different to that of the 2020s.  In those days, most people knew who all lived in their neighborhoods.  Television had a smaller role and some of us still had what we fondly called Hoop-n-Holler phones. My memory is failing in some areas, but I still remember our farm phone number: it was 1604F11.  The numbers after the F determined the number of rings.  Our ring was a long and a short.  Web May’s family was on the same rural telephone line, their number was 1604F21.  The 21 designated their ring as two longs and one short.  When your phone rang so did all of the others on the phone line.  One of my fondest memories is walking into our living room just in time to hear my father complete a rare phone call for him, his final words being “You all can hang up now we are through talking.”

Don’t take what I just said meaning that today everything is terrible because it isn’t, but it is different.  Odds are that the world and its culture will differ a lot in another 25 years.  It would be absurd to think it would be the same.

Back to the 1950s, popularity of amateur radio was increasing.  One could find amateur radio being promoted to various magazines.  Some such as Popular Electronics that wasn’t a surprise.  Some like Radio and Television magazines aimed at radio and TV servicemen fit ham radio pretty well.  Ham articles were found in other magazines too, Popular Mechanics often had simpler ham type projects featured in their magazine.  Of course QST and CQ were the primary ham magazines, but keep in mind that it was other magazines such as Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics that brought the hobby to the attention of the common public. 

Organizations such as the Boy Scouts helped lead some into our hobby too.
In that era, amateur radio was expensive if one purchased new gear from a dealer.  The younger folks usually found ways to manage. If they purchased new receivers and transmitters the radios almost had to be simple to be affordable.  In the 1950s, especially the first part, teenagers were prone to consider building their own transmitter from plans, most likely out of CQ or QST or an ARRL Handbook.

Hams scavenged parts from scrapped things like TV sets. Surplus electronic gear that would have never been practical to modify for ham use contained parts that could be used in a homemade transmitter or receiver.
Many hams of that era had a big cardboard box filled with various parts.  A few had an old chest of drawers which was filled with a reasonable order of parts.  Most seemed to have a policy that another ham could take a part or parts out as long as they replaced them with other parts of equal value.


World War II aircraft transmitters and receivers, known as Command Sets, provided an inexpensive path which some used.  The Army version had a BC number.  An Army BC-453  and Navy R-23 were virtually the same receiver, the Army version’s enclosure was bare aluminum an the Navy’s version was painted black wrinkle.

The BC-454 and BC-455 didn’t have good selectivity.  The bandwidth was pretty broad, way too wide by today’s standards and was truthfully poor in the 1950s.  Many still used them (Hallicrafter S-38s and National SW-54s weren’t very selective either). The BC-453 had selectivity just a bit wider than 2 KC.  Donald Stoner, W6TNS, showed folks how to make BC-453s into really decent 80/40 meter receivers by building a simple converter to put in front of the the military aircraft radio, converting 40 meter or 80 meter signal to the 190 to 550 KC range, which created a really nice receiver for the 1950s. 
The aircraft transmitters of that series were a popular solution to serve as an inexpensive transmitter.  They were prone to chirp when keyed, though, and the normal solution was to run the oscillator continuously when switching the high voltage on for transmit and to key the final amplifier only.

Popular novice class commercial transmitter kits of the 1950s

Philmore NT-200 – 2 tube crystal controlled transmitter, all were kits, 6V6 crystal controlled oscillator driving 6L6 final amplifier.  The power supply and transmitter were built on separate chassis, both with open sides, the manufacturer apparently assumed the owner would keep their fingers out of the circuit component areas to avoid a shocking experience.  The NT-200s were a product of the early 1950s, they were available at least until 1954 as WN5FIP at Goldthwaite  bought a new kit when he received his license.

Harvey Wells TBS-50C and TBS-50D – earlier versions of the TBS-50 apparently appeared in the late 1940s, think it was 1947, post WWII.  The TBS-50C and TBS-50Ds were a product of the earlier 1950s.  They were AM-CW transmitters that covered 80 meters through 2 meters (likely weren’t impressive on 6 and 2 meters).  The TBS-50C was for use with carbon microphones.  The TBS-50D was for use with dynamic microphones.  They apparently sold reasonably well as many were on the air and I have seen them in hamshacks.

Eldico TR75TV – 2 tube crystal controlled transmitter, most were kits, 6AG7 crystal controlled oscillator driving 1625 amplifier built on a .  It was the most popular novice class commercial transmitter in the early 1950s.  The components were surplused high quality new parts that had been by our government after WWII.  The power supply filter capacitor was an oil filled unit.  Ceramic coil forms were used.  The chassis was a 17X10X9 inch chassis.  The 1625 amplifier was supplied with a DC voltage of 550 volts and turned for a DC current of 110 mills max which resulted in 60 watts input that produced about 40 watts output.

Heath AT-1 – 2 tube novice class transmitter, all were kits, that quickly became the most popular novice class transmitter taking over that position from the TR-75. The crystal controlled 6AG7 oscillator drove a 6L6 final amplifier.  The thing that I found interesting was the AT-1 sold for approximately $30 and required an external antenna tuner that was a whopping $15, a total of $45, not that far from the price of a TR-75, but money was tight.

WRL Globe Scout 40A – a small transmitter with a built-in modulator and band switching that was popular among novices.  They used a 6V6 crystal controlled oscillator and a 6146 final amplifier.  The modulator used a 6SJ7, 6C5, and a 6L6 Heising modulator.

WRL Photo Album

The WRL CW-7 – a 1952 era unit, was a simple transmitter kit which had only a small number of sales before being discontinued. It sold for $21.45.  The kit included a telegraph key, crystal, and wire for an antenna.  It used a 70L7 tube as a Pierce oscillator driving  50L6 final amplifier to 7 watts input.  AC-DC transmitters could be a shocking experience, but at least the chassis had 4 sides instead of two.

Johnson Viking Adventure – 2 tube novice class transmitter, 6AG7 crystal controlled oscillator driving 807 amplifier.  Sold from 1954 to 1963.

Knightkit T-50 – a virtual copy of the Johnson Viking Adventurer.
Today the vast majority of the hams are using modern transceivers which have extremely good frequency stability, very accurately calibrated frequency readout, broadband tuning and most use an external matchbox of some type to match the transceiver’s 50 ohm impedance to that of that presented by the transmission line.  Many of the radios are small, requiring less space.

WA6DIJ’s Antique Radio Museum

Some hams run the vintage gear at times, which are now fondly called Boat Anchors.  A lot of the old transmitters chirp.  In the era when they were new, the vast majority of them didn’t have that problem.  Why aren’t the transmitters fixed?  Various reasons, but no doubt the biggest is that chirp in a radio event today sort of says “Come Hither” and the user gets extra points for running the boat anchor.  That chirp is like an advertisement!!
Putting vintage gear on the air is generally a fun thing, but is also for specific events such as the type the Straight Key Century Club does once or twice during their monthly Weekend Sprintathons.  Very few run the old gear consistently as it would be akin to driving a Model A in heavy traffic.

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.

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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.