The Squeak Box

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A correspondence school ad in December 1916 QST

Among pre-teens, mostly boys took to radio.1 At its simplest, radio was affordable. Boys could buy or make parts to build simple receivers and even low power spark transmitters. Typically, a kid would hook together a crystal receiver using a metallic mineral such as galena, scraps of used wire and a set of headphones, perhaps the most expensive component. This basic receiver was not much more than a rock, some wire and a telephone receiver. But it was magic! A radio receiver that required no battery, no AC power, no power at all except for the energy of the received radio signals themselves.

Transmitting was only a little more complicated. An old automotive spark coil, dry cell battery, fixed spark gap and key constituted a simple spark transmitter, albeit a broad, noisy, un-tuned one. With a setup like this a kid could communicate with his friends over several city blocks. As this became wildly popular, it also was the bane of the serious urban ham trying to work long distances. A kid using a squeak box, as the simple spark coil transmitter was called, could easily cover up weak signals coming from the next call district or further away. Even today, many hams have experienced the situation when, straining to hear a weak CW signal from far away, a relatively strong station begins transmitting just as the weak distant one is about to send a call sign or signal report or other piece of information crucial to making a complete contact. Imagine doing this with a broad bandwidth receiver and coarse tuning (or none at all).

Marconi’s experiments with wireless ignited the imagination of a particular 11-year-old boy in Mt. Vernon, New York like nothing else ever had. The morning papers on 14 December 1901 reported the latest thrill. A transmitter in Cornwall, England had just been heard in Newfoundland by the great man himself using a wire suspended from a kite! For young Irving Vermilya and thousands of his contemporaries, however, transmitting signals across ever greater distances was not what grabbed them. Although exciting, it took engineering skill and financial backing to build powerful transmitters. But even a kid from Mt. Vernon could receive radio signals with some wire and a few relatively inexpensive parts. He knew he absolutely had to be a part of it and pleaded with his two main authorities—his father and the family minister—to help him not just get information and equipment, but to meet Marconi!2

Reverend C. H. Tyndal, pastor of the Mt. Vernon Reformed Church, was not a typical clergyman. Drawn to wireless himself, he had closely followed Marconi’s work and often talked about it to his congregation. This was unusual enough to warrant column space in the New York Times, which announced his sermon “Wireless Telegraphy and its Spiritual Similitudes” to be delivered on 19 May, complete with a live demonstration. When interviewed, however, Rev. Tyndal said he saw nothing remarkable about the event at all, despite the press interest.3

A few months later Tyndal had not only met Marconi, he had been given a code key, a coherer and plans and documents on how to use them, all of which he shared with the boy from his congregation. Backed with some cash from Dad, Irving bought 150 feet of wire from J. H. Bunnell in New York City. A long established source of telegraphy equipment, Bunnell probably had seen few if any customers show up looking for wireless supplies at this point.4

Using a crude, uninsulated, multi-wire antenna on a wooden frame and following Marconi’s instructions, Irving assembled a receiving station. Excited and overconfident, he invited all his neighbors in to witness his reception of Marconi’s signals.

Without tuning ability, a technology yet to be widely adopted, adjusting the length of the antenna wire was the only way to select a wavelength. Most large transmitters at this time operated at wavelengths in the neighborhood of 10,000 meters (a frequency of 30,000 cycles per second as expressed at that time, and in units of hertz many years later). Since his antenna was only 12 feet long he heard nothing.

His embarrassing failure was quite public. Over the course of several hours of silence, his audience went from commenting how “wonderful” it was “what a bright boy Irving is,” to “I don’t believe there is any such thing as wireless telegraphy.”

Undeterred, Vermilya and a group of friends hooked up a private telegraph line between their houses powered by batteries in his basement, and used this system to converse in code and hone their skills. As they built their network they reached a point, with 36 “stations” in the loop, where the batteries were just not sufficient to power it all. To satisfy the new demand he secretly tapped into the power mains atop a telephone pole, hiding the connection from everyone including most of his telegraph group, which included his cousin, the city electrician.

Two years later, with a proper, much longer antenna and some new equipment supplied once again by his minister, Vermilya began to hear signals from the Marconi stations and some ships. But having never learned and used Continental Morse in his local group, he could not understand what they were sending. In 1904 there were as yet only a few amateurs, if any, transmitting signals.

As the years went by, one by one, new acquaintances began to show up on the air, each using a two-letter identifier called a sine—Irving’s was VN, probably short for Van, his nickname. A friendly competition with another enthusiast, George Cannon, located a few blocks away in Mt. Vernon, escalated in stages until both of them were operating 5 kW spark stations. VN’s setup consisted of a Clapp-Eastham transformer pulling 53 amps from the 110-volt power line and a home built rotary spark gap driven by a 250-volt DC motor which, he claimed, he “just hurried … along a bit by putting 550 volts on it, which somehow or other mysteriously leaked off a trolly wire into my radio shack.”5

The two amateurs started a war of sorts with the operators at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (using sine PT) and the United Wireless commercial station (sine NY) in New York, vying for time on the airwaves. No regulations yet existed to give priority to anyone in particular. Hughes, the operator at United Wireless, while annoyed was also impressed with the teenager’s skill, and eventually offered him a job as a ship’s wireless operator, at least in part to silence his 5-kW spark. Vermilya eagerly accepted the offer—the beginning of a long career as both amateur and professional.

This progression, driven by undamped enthusiasm, would become a pattern often repeated.

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  1. With some notable exceptions to come later.
  2. Irving Vermilya, “Amateur Number One,” QST, February 1917, 8., March 1917, 10.
  3. Talk on Wireless Telegraphy, The New York Times, May 19, 1901.
  4. That would all change over the next decade or so and Bunnell would become a major advertiser in QST.
  5. Irving Vermilya, “The ‘BD’ Mystery,” Radio Communications by the Amateurs, QST, April, 1921, 59.

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