Sending Out An S-O-S — When I Knew How

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A recent (at least to me) episode of “Big Bang Theory” featured one of the characters using Morse Code. He was tapping out SOS on the wall in vain hopes of summoning his roommate, by tapping three short raps, three long raps, then three short raps. His roommate had no idea what he was doing or why. He had never heard of Morse Code. I suspect there are plenty of young folks who haven’t, or have at best a vague idea what it is.

I was a little nerd as a kid, with thick glasses, a bad haircut and a penchant for hanging around fellow nerds. Those of us growing up in Allenstown, N.H. liked to build homemade model rockets powered by our own concoction of gunpowder, made of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. That didn’t work out so well. After a small grass fire resulted, we were directed to purchase the venerable Estes Rockets to satisfy our desires for propelling objects into the sky.

We were also fascinated by shortwave radio and learning Morse Code, then still used widely by ham operators. It was developed by Samuel Morse, of course, with help from other inventors, in order to efficiently transmit information over the telegraph. With radio transmission replacing the telegraph, knowing Morse Code eventually fell into the category of a charming hobby, though it was still a requirement to be a amateur radio operator for some classes up until 2007, when it was eliminated entirely. Even then, one was only required to be able to translate at 5 words-per-minute. I doubt I got that fast as a kid, even at my peak,.


The catalog of choice for young nerds in the 1960s was Heathkit. From these pages we could order the electronics projects of our dreams, limited only by our finances — money earned shoveling snow from driveways in the winter or mowing lawns in the summer. Heathkit sold do-it-yourself projects ranging in complexity from a simple AM radio to an analog computer kit for $995. I found an image for the latter online. One could build oscilloscopes, vacuum tube testers, amplifiers, even an early version of an LED clock.  So our group of nerds saved our money and ordered projects from Heathkit, got out our soldering irons and went to work.

My first project was a crystal radio, which used ferrite core coils and, magically, no external power or battery to pull in AM signals. I was about 10 years old when I painstakingly followed the directions and built this radio. It had no speakers, just a pair of earphones. I will always remember that feeling of satisfaction when I finished, and fiddled with the knobs until I tuned in a radio station, probably from nearby Manchester. I found it amazing.

My friend Garry Osgood was further along than me on the tech nerd highway. He had already built a shortwave radio and had a tower antenna outside. I spent a lot of time at his ramshackle house near the Suncook River. We would spend hours trying to transcribe the signals sent in Morse Code, though I admit I was never very good at it, only able to catch the occasional word. It was far more fascinating to tune in to the BBC, Voice of America or other stations where folks were speaking, even if it was in a foreign language.

I can’t remember if I built my own Heathkit shortwave radio or was given one as a present. I do recall building a volt-ohm meter, though for the life of me I don’t why. I loved to solder together the resistors and capacitors, to read the directions and schematics and end up with something that actually worked. My father was quite adept at keeping me going in the right direction on these projects.

We moved to Longview, Texas in the summer of 1968. For some reason my interest in electronics waned. Probably it was because I fell in with a different set of friends, who were more interested in football and playing other sandlot sports, and fixing up an old Cushman Eagle my parents allowed me to buy at age 14, and other activities.

I remained a nerd, just in a different way.

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