Freaks

The uneven, partly unpredictable nature of radio wave propagation continued to fascinate hams during and after the war. The solar cycle had peaked around 1917, just in time for hams to miss it because of the war shutdown.  Now, with the next solar minimum little more than two years away, hams had just gone through the first winter season of prime-time operating since the reopening—and had begun to notice some peculiarities and marked differences in signals from when they last listened.

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Solar cycle history – from NASA’s Web site

In late December 1919, radio was blacked-out again—but this time it was nature’s doing, not a government edict.  Strangely, the shorter wavelengths were dead despite the fact that 600-meter signals were still “pounding in.” No stations further than about 100 miles away could be heard. A QST editor later wondered whether there could have been any connection with the “cosmic disturbances in progress at the time.”1 The idea was confirmed early the following year. Hams observed that a particularly severe radio blackout had immediately followed an intense and widespread auroral display. Both were evidently caused by a solar flare on 21 March 1920,2 and had brought message handling to a complete halt. While stations “inside the daylight range” were unaffected, no one further away could be heard and the air was unusually quiet. Conditions gradually returned to normal after a day or so.

There were other oddities too. Aside from the blackouts, hams sometimes experienced greatly increased static during winter, the season when quiet was usually the norm, along with other erratic behavior of the “operating weather.” The League collected opinions and theories about the causes of these anomalies, no matter how unlikely. One amateur claimed to have heard signals fade away during a lunar eclipse.3 He asked, was it a coincidence or was it the same effect some claimed to have heard when the planets were on the same side of the sun? But the QST editor endorsed a theory being proposed by many scientists that the main cause for the disruptions was sun spots. It was perhaps the first reference to the phenomenon in QST.

ARRL Traffic Manager J. O. Smith asked whether the phenomena of natural signal variations were not really “fading” at all, but actually enhancement, since signals that could not be heard in daytime became detectable at night.4 He was right, but he also repeated a mistaken observation that signals were stronger on nights following a cloudy day than after a sunny day, and then disproved it by noting that the increase did not occur evenly or proportionally for all stations and in all directions. Selective enhancement seemed to have a directional or distance dependence, with fading occurring more quickly or slowly according to where the far station was located. He concluded that this must be due to ground effects as well as atmospheric ones, and noted the existence of “pockets” where, if you were in one, you could work far-away stations easier than intermediate distance ones—for example, New England to the Midwest, compared with New England to New York City. He called for observations from amateurs so that these things could be studied collaboratively.

Charles A. Lowry of Toronto wrote a two-page letter on fading phenomena, also commonly referred to as freaks or swings5. He had spent a long time monitoring 600 meters during the summer and fall of 1918 at a British naval station on the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia (specified as “somewhere about” 43N, 65W, which is actually off the coast). He reported several cases of fading he heard on signals coming from naval vessels and stations from a variety of locations including the midwestern US, the Caribbean, and places to his north. The strange variations usually began around 5:00 p.m. and changed in nature through the night, ending around 8:00 in the morning. To accompany his monitoring he logged the weather at several locations and in doing so disproved any connection or correlation to weather conditions.

He also observed stations fading out completely at his location while simultaneously fading in at another. Thoroughly fascinated, he puzzled, “How, I ask you, do NAJ’s sigs miss Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo and yet come in strong and clear at a station 1500 miles from him and in a straight line over their heads?”

Striving to answer that question, hams would lead the world into the unanticipated, unexplored landscape of the short waves.

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The League proposed that amateurs should make use of the upcoming summer months to collect data on so-called fading phenomena in a systematic, scientific way.  Still viewing it as a problem rather than an indicator of new abilities, they would seek an explanation for it, hoping to find a “remedy.”6 For example, groups could use several receivers located at equal distance but in different directions from the transmitter, and then could detect directional effects on signal strength. Division managers could arrange a regular schedule of transmissions and collect reception reports.

In fact, the Radio Section of the Bureau of Standards had requested the ARRL’s help in a similar study and arrangements were being made to accommodate. The League’s capability for organizing, collecting and analyzing reports in such a test far outclassed the Bureau’s. “The request of the Bureau constitutes another governmental recognition of the value of our A.R.R.L., and we are proud and happy to be of service. Let us do our level best for them,” wrote Warner.

“QSS” was proposed as the new Q-signal abbreviation for fading phenomena.

A month later, featuring a glamorous woman wearing headphones on its cover7, QST carried the announcement of an ambitious set of QSS tests.8 Stations across the country would transmit “an arbitrary QST” according to a schedule to be published in July. Anyone interested in participating could receive these transmissions and keep track of fading phenomena over time, then report their observations. The results would be analyzed by a group at ARRL, and as Warner explained, “it is hoped and expected that valuable and intensely interesting information will be forthcoming. Thus is what the radio game most needs right now—reliable information on the subject. Attempts to correct it can have no chance unless based on a knowledge of the problem, and this we hope to develop.” Just as there was hope for a cure for strays (static), surely freaks could be done away with too, through study, understanding, and ingenuity.

A test plan came together that included a procedure to help standardize observations and reporting. Transmitting stations would send a complete alphabet five times at a speed of 18 wpm. Receiving stations would then record the strength of the signals for each letter according to the “well-known Eccles scale, running from 0 to 9.”9 Collaborating with the Bureau of Standards, the League developed a QSS test reporting form which members could replicate for themselves. They were still so convinced that the phenomena had something to do with the weather that a section of the report form was devoted to recording the weather conditions in a standardized way.

The huge analysis job would be divided up and handled by each of the 17 divisions in the League’s Operating Department. Amateurs were instructed to send reports to their home division’s Fading Committee (FC) or that of the division where the transmitter was located, if different.

Members responded with enthusiasm – the announcement generated the highest level of interest the editors of QST had ever seen for a cooperative operation. The tests would be done for the Bureau of Standards with participants chosen from among ARRL members because of their location. The ARRL also “enlarged upon the idea” and was arranging for similar tests in each Division.

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  1. A Lesson,” Editorial, QST, February 1920, 17.
  2. # $ % & * @ ? !,” Editorial, QST, May 1920, 23.
  3. “Eclipse Observations,” Radio Communications by the Amateurs, QST, June 1920, 51.
  4. J. O. Smith, “Variation of Strength of Amateur Station Signals,” QST, April 1920, 17.
  5. “Observations of Fading,” Radio Communications by the Amateurs, QST, April 1920, 47.
  6. “Fighting Fading,” Editorial, QST, May 1920, 23.
  7. The August Strays column later noted, “The Editor refuses to answer inquiries as to why the June QST had the cover it did.”
  8. The A.R.R.L. QSS Tests,” QST, June 1920, 5.
  9. See W. E. Eccles, “On Measurement of Signal Strength,” Proceedings of the IRE, June 1919, 267-278.

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