By Norris Chambers

             Clifton and I first became aware of code when an oil company cleared a path through our ‘possum hunting area and installed a two wire telephone line to a refinery not too many miles across the pastures. Since we were curious and a little bit nosey we took a ladder and a telephone receiver and prepared to see what kind of gossip was being spread over the new wires. I scaled the ladder first and clipped the receiver wires on the line. I heard a noise, but no words. What I heard was a splattering of sounds sort of like I had heard from the railroad telegraph rooms at the railroad stations. I came back down a little puzzled and handed the receiver to Clifton .

            It didn’t take him long to listen to all the chatter he needed and he came back down as puzzled as I was. We talked it over a little and decided that they were communicating in telegraph code instead of plain language. The school’s encyclopedia gave a version of Morse code and explained how it was used for communication. A dot and a dash was the letter “A”. A dash and three dots was “B” etc. Every letter, number and punctuation mark had a dot and dash code signal. There was a slight pause between letters and a longer pause between words.

            The science teacher gave us a little more information. You could use a Model T ignition coil for a buzzer. A short contact with a key or switch was a dot and a longer contact was a dash.. The key was just a switch that you operated with your finger. He also told us that the radio waves emitted by the buzzing of the high voltage coil were radiated and with an antenna could be received for several miles by a radio receiver. This type of transmission was called “spark gap” transmission.

            We had plenty of Model T ignition coils and our ingenuity found no problem in making a couple of hand operated spring loaded switches that served as keys. Radio receivers were scarce in the area but we had built simple crystal radios previously and they worked with a telephone receiver. With a short antenna connected to the high voltage output of the coil and the ground side connected to a metal stake driven in the ground we were surprised to find that we could send signals for several miles using a six volt car battery.

            We began to send messages immediately and before long we had learned the whole alphabet and were picking up a little speed.

            At this time we did not know about Ham Radio and that we needed a license to transmit. We did hear a few complaints from the few who had radios. The code was received at all frequencies and could not be tuned out. After the novelty wore off we found other projects and more or less ignored the code communication.

            During the war Clifton and I joined the U. S. Maritime Service and went to Catalina Island for basic training. When we finished the training we were given an opportunity to go to an advanced training section before being assigned to a ship. Clifton chose an engineering school in California and I selected the maritime radio operator facility on Hoffman Island . Hoffman Island was located southeast of Staten Island near the extreme edge of New York harbor.

            The school’s intent was to teach the recruits code and radio theory that would enable them to pass the FCC radio telegraph operator’s test and become a licensed operator on a ship. The FCC required that the applicant be able to receive and send code at 16 words a minute and pass a written exam on basic electronics and FCC rules and regulations. The Maritime Service required us to receive and type 25 words a minute before taking the FCC exam. The curriculum also continued the basic training and gun practice. The school was rough but we were allowed to go into New York on the week end. The whole deal paid military wages - $50 a month! I passed the FCC test and received a Radio Telegraph license.

            After the war I took the FCC test for my Ham radio license. The requirement at that time was for only 13 words per minute on code and a written test on electronics and FCC regulations. I breezed through that test and became a licensed amateur radio operator. My station call was W5LTZ  In the early fifties it was customary for the ham operator to build his own transmitter and use a commercial receiver. I built a 500 watt transmitter and began conversations with other amateur operators around the world. Sometimes we communicated in code and sometimes in just plain talk. It was an interesting hobby. Most of the hams exchanged what were called QSL cards after a contact. These verified the conversation.

            During this time I also acquired an FCC experimental license, KK2XAD and a first class radio telephone license that qualified me to operate commercial radio and television transmitters.

            Ham radio operators in the early days operated mostly for fun but modern operators perform many useful and necessary duties. In any disaster or emergency situation they provide communication facilities. During any weather-related emergency you will hear them stationed in different areas giving exact details of the storm.

            After several years of participating in this worthwhile practice I got so many irons in the fire that I had to withdraw a few. Regrettably the ham radio activity was one of them.

            Anyone who is now interested in becoming a ham can do that without having to learn code. I highly recommend it as a fun thing and a worthwhile contribution to the community!