Talking to An Airplane

Eastridge Street Apartments, Cedar Hills, Oregon
1954 – June 1956

Talking to an Airplane

About 1955

      Back in 1951, in the Brown House, at the “Weed Patch,” on Southwest Thurlow Drive, before Tommy was born, Dad enlisted my help in building a homemade “crystal set” radio. Even at the tender age of four, I understood the basic reasoning behind closed-loop circuits, the winding of a coil (magnet wire wrapped around a Quaker Oats box), the need for a crystal to pacify the oscillations in the current that the long antenna wire picked up, and how a pair of headphones basically worked. (An 8mm home movie still exists of me tucked in bed with my simple old headphones on.) Dad was so good at explaining things in simple terms that my grasp did not entail a string of memorized terms, but of interlocking concepts that “just made sense.” I have him to thank for launching that wholistic approach, which has remained with me and underpinned my electronic projects and technical career ever since.
      We carefully brought that crystal set along through three family moves – to Gramma Grace’s place on Portland’s SW 10thAvenue (Tommy’s first home), then to Marquam Hill, then to “the apartments,” as we called them, in Cedar Hills. I often listened to the radio on it, privately, in the bedroom I shared with my brother in the apartment. It was in that 100-unit complex that I made friends with a nearby kid who was about my age. I think his name was Johnny, and I don’t remember much about him or what we did together, but for sure I walked the 25 yards or so to their place on a few evenings to watch Disneyland or Mickey Mouse Club with his family on their TV, since we did not have one. And I seem to remember that Johnny had a cute sister, at whom I stole a furtive glance now and then when Annette Funicello was not on the screen.
      But the clearest memory I have of Johnny was setting up a tin-can-telephone between his place and ours. There were three or four apartments in each two-story building, and if his was like mine, the kids slept in the single bedroom upstairs next to the bathroom, while the living room and kitchen took up the main floor. My folks slept on our living room hide-a-bed couch, and I imagine that his did something like that too, affording them a bare minimum of privacy in the night. But with our buildings at right angles to each other, separated by a paved walk-through gap, Johnny’s bedroom and mine were in a line-of-sight arrangement, perfect for stretching an unhindered string. Initially, we used empty Campbell’s soup cans, with a hole punched in the middle of the intact end. But the string stretched so much, and the diaphragm ends of the soup cans were so small and stiff, that the sound was disappointingly soft and muffled. We had to yell to be heard, and then we could clearly hear each other directly through the air, diminishing the telephone effect. We soon upgraded to big-diaphragm V8 juice cans, wire instead of string, and got much better results. That was the beginning and the end of my tin-can telephone days.

      I must have been seven or eight years old, 1955 or early 1956, and Dad was working feverishly, days, nights and weekends, on the most engaging invention of his entire life. His autobiography sparkles as he recounts his collaborative effort to solve an urgent accounting payroll/mortgage pay-book problem for his key Remington Rand (business machines division) customer, the First National Bank of Portland. They needed him to make the Remington 319 Collator count a programmable number of punched cards, which it was not designed to do.
      Dad had planted in me an active interest in communications of all kinds, including the importance of the sender and receiver being on the same page regarding language, protocol, and shared expectations. He tended to break down an argument among children, adults or couples into terms that might illuminate the underlying impediments to getting their points across. So, it was natural for me to muse about the other side of the spoken and musical communications that I listened to over my headphones. What kind of transmitter was it? How much power would it require and how far away from the receiver could it be?
      Over some days or weeks, an experiment took shape in my imagination: could I make a simple transmitter by running my crystal set backward. I knew it would need a power source; that could be a small battery. It would need a microphone; maybe I could talk into my headphones. I expected it might need a few other tweaks as well. But who would I talk to? And what made me think my murky plan was even remotely feasible?
      Living under one of the take-off and landing paths of frequent airplanes accessing the Portland Airport, only about 12 miles north-east as the crow flies, may have gotten me wondering if I could talk with them, being close-by as they passed over. Now, was I listening to pilots talk by means of my crystal set, tuned within the standard AM broadcast frequency band of about 1/2 to 1-1/2 megahertz? No. By the 1950s, aviation voice communications were not using such low frequencies. It is a head scratcher. Was the springy tuning contact, which rubbed on the coil that Dad made and explained to me, capable of selecting frequencies up in the 2-megahertz range or higher, which pilots did use? Not hard to imagine. On the flip side, would a plane flying nearly overhead be close enough for my tiny signal to make the leap up from my second story bedroom, assuming there was a signal at all? For me it was pure speculation, but worth a try.
      Maybe my tuning frequency could remain fixed at a point where I had already achieved receiving success with pilots, then I might reverse the signal flow and boost its power for transmitting. It needed to be easily switchable between transmit and receive so I could hear a response indicating that my words got through. I was attempting to make a rudimentary walkie talkie. There were moments of doubt when I suspected it was a fool’s errand.
      The details are missing in my mind’s eye. No diagrams or pictures survive, if there were any. Somehow I decided where to connect the battery into the existing crystal set circuitry, without Dad’s help; he wasn’t around to vet the design. But I thought I might get lucky and was eager to find out. At least, when I tested it, the battery did not destroy the circuit; it still received just fine. I felt the stars aligning in my favor.

      I remember well the following Saturday morning asking Mom how to call the Portland Airport and find out when a plane would be coming overhead. Not patronizing, but just a genuine smile, she looked up the number in the phone book and copied it to a piece of paper. Then she gave me the phone and watched as I dialed. To my surprise, a woman at the airport answered promptly, and I explained (in my high, kid’s voice) that I wanted to know when an airplane would be passing overhead where I lived in Cedar Hills so I could talk to the pilot. She didn’t answer right away, but then she said in a straight voice to hold the line and she would find out. It was a lengthy wait, but then she came back and said that I could expect a plane to fly over at a particular time in the mid-afternoon. I jotted down the time, thanked her and hung up.

      My heart is pounding; it’s go-time for last minute preparations. I’m stationed at a little table just inside the wide-open bedroom window at the foot of Tommy’s bed. He and Mom are there. Dad is somewhere downtown working on his own technical challenge. My antenna wire swoops from the window to the little tree in the front year. I fret that the wire may not be long enough to deliver enough signal. Or it could be oriented in the wrong direction. The day is mostly sunny, but I hope the high clouds will not block my view of the airplane when it comes. I fiddle with the cat’s whisker on the galena crystal to optimize the reception. I double check the switch that is supposed to convert the receiver briefly into a transmitter.
A couple of neighbor kids happen by and look up. They notice that I’m wearing headphones, appearing intent and adjusting something on the little table. “Hey, what cha you doin’?”  I explain that I’m waiting for an airplane to fly over so I can talk to the pilot. Word gets around; half an hour later a little a group of friends and neighbors are gathered on the sidewalk. They ask a few questions but my one-word answers are unsatisfying. Mom tries to cover for me as I watch the minutes creep by on the little nightstand clock. Will any plane actually arrive? And if so, will my experimental device work?

      I almost hear the drone and phasing of airplane engines far away. I stick my head out the window, self-conscious, as if I were on stage without knowing my lines. Turning my head side to side, I become certain that a plane is coming. Back to the crystal set with full concentration. Gradually the plane gets louder, closer. Still I wait, hoping to hear a pilot’s voice in the headphones, perhaps announcing that his take-off is going according to plan. But I hear only static. I begin to panic; my window of opportunity is beginning and it won’t last long. I move the spring slider on the coil, hoping to stumble on the pilot’s frequency. Of course, I don’t know if he is even using his radio at this critical moment for me.
I decide to go for it and throw the transmit switch. “Hello, this is Timmy Tompkins calling the airplane flying over Cedar Hills right now. If you are the pilot, can you hear me?” I switch back to receive mode and wait. Nothing for many long seconds. I try again, attempting to send the same message. Nothing. I frantically move the tuning slider back and forth, hoping that the pilot heard me and is answering but not on my receive frequency. But only static greets me. The airplane climbs away and vanishes into a cloud.

      “Well, did it work,” the kids below yell up to me?
      “No,” I reply, unable to hide my disappointment and embarrassment.

      Mom gave me a big hug and said it was alright. There would be more experiments, in fact life itself is a big experiment, whether we like it or not. She essentially said, “Enjoy the process,” just as she had in the Erector Set episode about three years before. I closed the window and turned my attention to disconnecting the antenna wire from the crystal set and putting it all away. My takeaway was a small measure of satisfaction at having made the attempt, and a big hole where success might have been, a hole that motivated other attempts at transmitting in the years to come, by very different means and yielding very different results.

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”   – Winston Churchill

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