Communicating globally in 1958

Over the New Year’s Holiday, while visiting my parents in southwest Iowa, we video-chatted with my brother and his family in Brooklyn, New York. This wasn’t a typical video chat, but a computer to phone chat using Apple’s Face Time (the computer to phone feature is relatively new – get it here). While this isn’t anything earth-shattering for 2011, I thought it was pretty cool that we could connect so easily with just a computer and a “phone”.

hamradio

This is part of my dad's original ham radio "rig". Using the black knob he tapped out the dashes and dots of Morse code to communicate with people around the country and world (see QSL cards).

The whole episode got my dad reminiscing about Christmas, 1958. My father was 10 going on 11 that year and received a large receiver (leftover from WW II) to listen to ham radio operators. He’d been learning Morse code with a 78 record that he listened to over and over and was very excited to listen to actual ham radio operators. An elderly neighbor who lived down the street, who’d been a ham radio operator for years, learned about his interest and became a mentor to him. He helped my dad build his own transmitter and gave him the “novice” test to become an officially licensed ham radio operator (only another licensed operator could give the test). In the early months of 1959 my dad, at age 11, became one of the youngest ham radio operators in the world. As a “novice” everything was in Morse code, but as he progressed (and improved his rig) he got to actually talk to people all over the world.

Listening to my dad talk about his rig and some of the physics involved (we’re sort of a geeky family) was amazing. With a short wave transmitter powered by little more than simple batteries you could bounce signals off the ionosphere and talk to people all around the world. Though my dad never did it, he said some enterprising operators were even able to do crude, one-way video over short wave frequencies – video chat in the early ’60s. One of the neater aspects of talking to people all over the world was that it was the custom to send postcards, called “QSL” cards, to other operators with whom you’d communicated. My dad had kept a number of the QSL cards from his early years as a ham radio operator and showed them to me.

Each card had a unique story and gave a short description of a person’s “QTH” (location), the call letters of the operator, their frequency, the type of antenna they used and, often times, a short message. My dad had managed to keep one copy of his own QSL card with the call letters K0TUE and the card from his mentor, with the written message “Glad to be your first contact Jimmy. Good luck with your new hobby.” The date on the card is April 9, 1959 (see below).

As we talked I was completed fascinated by all of it. I’d heard his ham radio stories before, but had never seen the cards before. It really brought it to life. While the world is very flattened with modern technology and chatting with someone across the globe is commonplace today – it was a huge challenge or impossible for most of human existence. Though trans-continental phone calls were possible – they were rare. For many years, after getting his ham radio license, my dad and other ham radio operators in the Kansas City area would patch through calls from service men (communicating through a relay in Pointbarrow, Alaska) to their families back home. For five minutes, families got to communicate with loved ones they wouldn’t see for years – all made possible through short wave radio.

Though I can now have my brother give my class a live tour of a New York museum through the lens of his iPhone, I know that it’s not something to take for granted. It also makes me think about what advances will be around 50 years from now? It also made me think about how mentors can make a huge difference in people’s lives. My dad was very fortunate to have that old neighbor in his life and speaks of him very highly. I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors (and great parents) in my life and hope that I can provide that spark to someone else. 73’s – MM

One thought on “Communicating globally in 1958

  1. What a wonderful story! Thanks so much for sharing it…and yes, now we know where your geeky genes come from!

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