The “Good Old Days” (?)

WB2LQF Early 60s Vintage Operating Position

WB2LQF's 1960's Vintage Operating Position

The above picture shows my vintage station.  To the left is a Heathkit DX-35 transmitter and next to it is a Heathkit VF-1 VFO.  On top of the VF-1 is a Drake TV-1000LP Low Pass Filter.  In the center is a homebrewed Transmit/Receive relay and next to that is a Drake 2B receiver.  To the right of the 2B is a homebrewed wooden speaker enclosure with a real 8 ohm vintage speaker inside!  Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, electronic keyers were little more than concepts, so the average CW op used either a straight key or a semi-automatic ‘bug’.  The two non-vintage items in this photo are the MFJ antenna tuner on top of the DX-35 and the MFJ Frequency Counter with its little whip antenna sitting in front.

Those hams too young to remember the pre-transceiver days might be interested in learning what was involved in just making a simple contact back then.

Imagine yourself sitting in front of the softly glowing dial of your Drake 2B in 1964.  You’re tuning around the 40 meter band but your display is analog so you have a little button you can press and it sends out a marker signal every 100 kHz.  That was how you deduced (approximately) where you were in the band.  Better not get too close to the band edge!  Aha!  There’s someone calling “CQ” and it’s in a portion of the band that your privileges authorize you to operate in!

OK..calm down.  You’ve got some work to do. Quick, now turn the VFO to “SPOT” and swing the VFO tuning dial down (or up) to the frequency you’re hearing the CQ on.  Now very carefully, tune the VFO so you hear the null.  That’s zero beat and that’s where you want to be – sitting right on top of the other guy.  He’s sent “K” and now he’s listening but you’re behind the eight ball – you still have to tune your transmitter up.

Reach over and turn the rotary switch on the DX-35 from “Standby” to “Tune”.  This sends out an unmodulated carrier.  You have two big knobs, marked “Plate” and “Ant”.  Adjust the “Plate” knob until the meter monitoring the plate current dips.  You don’t want more than about 120 mils on the 6146, not if you plan to use it tomorrow night again.  Now adjust the “Ant” knob until you have maximum power going out to the antenna through the transmitter’s “pi-net” output circuitry.  Back in the old days, you could usually count on the pi-network to match somewhere between 40-600 ohms impedance.  SWR?  Hey, as long as nothing catches fire, we’re OK.  These 6146s could take it a lot better than today’s sissy transistors!  Ah…we’re not done yet.  Now we have to switch the meter to “Grid” position and make sure we are not over driving the 6146.  Around 35 mils sounds about right.

OK. Good.  Surprising as it may seem, after a little practice we could do all this in a matter of a few seconds.  So…now we got a guy who just called CQ, we’ve used a 100 kHz marker generator to confirm his frequency, we’ve zero-beat our transmit frequency to his transmit frequency, we’ve matched the transmitter to the load  impedance and made certain that we are operating within the final power tube’s parameters.  Are we ready to answer this CQ?  Almost.

The last job we have to be concerned with is switching the single antenna we have from receive to transmit and making certain we don’t overload the receiver’s front end and blow it up.  Those hams with a healthy budget owned Dow-Key Relays; the rest of us often had to make do with a knife switch and a pair of back-to-back 1N34A diodes across the receiver’s antenna terminals so if the RF voltage got too high we could save the receiver.  At best, the operator flipped ONE switch to go from receive to transmit and back.  But most of us flipped MORE than one – in this case, we have to flip the Drake 2B receiver into “Standby” mode to mute the receiver, then flip the changeover switch to disconnect the antenna from the receiver and connect it to the transmitter, and finally we could flip the transmitter’s switch from “standby” to “CW”.

Now we can put our fingers on the key and answer the “CQ” — but be careful.  Your vintage transmitter is either cathode-keyed or grid-block keyed.  There may be a couple hundred volts across that key!

ALSO…..there is no such thing as a sidetone with this setup.  Remember, the receiver has been muted to save the front end, so now you can send CW the way Mr. Morse intended it to be sent —- listening to the clicks!

Full break-in CW?  Fuggedaboutit! Using one of these stations in a modern day contest would be a laughable exercise in futility considering the ¼ to ½ second most ops allow after a CQ before they press their memory buttons and start resending it!

Vintage stations reflect an earlier, wonderful time in the long history of our hobby.  Finding, refurbishing, and using vintage equipment is a special little niche among the many, many special interest areas that we have the flexibility to enjoy as hams in the 21st Century.

It can be educational and satisfying for those so inclined but it’s not for everyone, especially in light of the lethal voltages and currents present.

As for my vintage station, I enjoyed restoring it and made many contacts before finally selling it.  It was a very satisfying trip down memory lane and made me all the more thankful for the incredible advances in technology that we’ve enjoyed in the ensuing years.