W8KTZ St. Joe's High School Radio Club
---Ham Radio Club Member recollections growing out of the 50's, 60's, and 70's

"The Fabulous Fifties"


The Cyclotron

During the summers from 1955 on, for several years, Mike went to Columbus, to take regular 4th quarter courses for a master’s degree in nuclear physics. There was interest at that time in the effect of radiation on iron, in case the reactor vessels of steel, in submarines and on land, might lose their strength and explode. Mike was directed to irradiate iron powder and to identify the decay scheme of the resulting radioactive material, so that the theoretical model of the iron atom could be determined and its departure from the familiar steel product determined.

To bombard the iron powder into radioactive material, Ohio State University had an “atom smasher” called a cyclotron. A separate block house had been constructed by the Olentangy River to house the 20-ton instrument. So much power was consumed at maximum bombardment that some experiments could only be carried out at night because much of the campus power had to be borrowed to satisfy the atom smasher. Mike was fascinated by the facility, but was also mystified by the mysterious workings in the apparatus.

He requisitioned many bombardments and spent long hours watching the decay spectrum buildup on spectrographs. However, no discovery was emerging, for only well known radioactive decay sequences emerged, and this had been obtained by many labs.

There was a problem, namely the quick decay, or the short half-life, of the “hot” atoms. One prohibition in doing the experiment was that the test specimen had to be very tiny for all the geometry formulas to be valid. Trying to get a longer exposure by putting a bigger sample in the spectrograph simply overloaded the radiation counters. But then Mike thought of a way. He started by making a tiny target specimen. Then he made a second target twice the size. Then he made a third target four times the size. In this way when the first target got too weak, the second target had decayed to a level like at the beginning and could be inserted. When this one got weak, the 4–fold sample had decayed to the level of the original radiation rate and would not overload the detectors. Of course, the geometry was violated, because the sample was no longer a point source. But it worked! A spectrum was now printing out that showed clearly that there were peaks on the graph showing four radiation lines. It was a major discovery and Mike’s professor readily assigned the project to be Mike’s master’s thesis. In addition, the university now had an original scientific discovery to report, and Mike was sent to the Physics convention in New York that year, to read his paper at the nuclear symposium whose chairperson was Madame Wu, the renewed Chinese nuclear authority. Mike Stimac graduated a Master of Science in Nuclear Physics in March 1959. But all of this would not have happened if the cyclotron had not worked – and it did breakdown in the middle of Mike’s experiments.

More data runs were needed. It was a frustrating time – having the likelihood of a major scientific discovery and not having the radioactive materials to prove it.

Mike got an idea: fix the cyclotron. This was not a reasonable idea, but it was enough to have the professorial overseers give him the key to the cyclotron lab. Nobody was interested in the useless thing, so he had the lab all to himself!

Imagine the miles of wiring, the cables, the big ducts leading from a side equipment room, and then the long channel sprouting from the main body of the monstrous assembly where the target atoms were smashed. All of this had to be maintained under perfect vacuum so an array of low level and high level vacuum pumps lined the walls.

What could a ham radio person possibly hope to figure out here!? Mike prowled around and scrutinized the equipment area by area. Suddenly a grand discovery – a BC 610 transmitter was wired into the electrical section of the gigantic machine! The BC-610 is a 1945 army field transmitter running about 600 watts, and for any amateur, just another little old “rig”! This was driving the 8 Million Electron Volt cyclotron! From it two big coaxial feed lines went to the vacuum section of the cyclotron. Suddenly the mystery evaporated. The top of a cyclotron has two half-moon sections each one fed by one of the coax lines. It was quickly obvious to Mike that a cyclotron is nothing more than a peculiarly shaped dipole antenna, and just as the two halves of an antenna oscillate, going from plus charge to minus charge, the two “D’s”, as the cyclotron “antenna” is properly termed, alternate from plus to minus, jerking the proton projectiles back and forth. The 20-ton magnet provides a field that keeps the atomic particles going in a circle until they get accelerated to 8 million electron volts and then break out of the track and smash the target. How simple, now. –but certainly a major accomplishment the when it was invented!

Mike promptly warmed up the BC 610 and tried to power up the cyclotron. As he started power from a few watts and got just past 300 watts going into the D’s, the transmitter unloaded—everything just went out of tune, like when high winds blow apart an antenna on the roof and the transmitter can't tune up a faulty load.

Mike studied the problem – something was wrong with the ‘antenna’, and this is what he reported to the professors. They took the amateur radio expert’s word for it! Promptly the problem was discovered --- some ‘smart’ professor tried to increase the power of the OSU cyclotron and he rebuilt the D’s, making them larger. But in he used thinner copper sheet. Radio Frequency currents cause heating and so the new Ds’ would start to get hot and expand and change their dimension, throwing the whole system out of tune!!! Ripping open the monster, they installed nylon supports to keep the Ds’ from sagging, and happy day, the cyclotron was running again. Mike now had all the ‘hot’ samples he wanted with nobody asking questions what he was doing! In actual fact he was having fun getting better and better spectrographs of the iron 55 nuclear decay.

The nuclear part of studies involves much math and theory, but the practical side is all electronics and the SJHRC would have been at home in those laboratories.

Field Trips:

Ohio State University held one more attraction for radio Amateurs. There was a man, Professor John Kraus, W8JK who was a leader in antenna theory. A small expedition with mobile equipped cars went to Columbus to view the installations. This gave meaning to the SJHRC emphasis on trying to scientifically perfect antenna operation.

Each year there was a field trip of this type, a new group of students would learn how to gimmick up installing Ham radios in another group of cars. There were usually a few "veterans" who had done this before and showed them how. Those were the days when cars still had 6-Volt electrical systems and inefficient "generators" unlike today's alternators, so challenges, and dead batteries, were frequent.

But the radios were invaluable in keeping the group together both physically as well as conversationally. There were no "freeways". The roads were single lane with many curves and "no passing" double-yellow lines. Of course with a lead car sending back the message that the road was clear, the act of passing slower cars, even on "double yellow", was done with complete safety. Those drivers being passed up were undoubtedly thinking the worst!

At another time, when the SJHRC was allowed to make their Easter retreat going down to the Trappist Monastery where Thomas Merton was a monk, the route led through Columbus. The little caravan of cars could have easily separated, and using their radios, rejoined further down the road, but there was another way. A left turn had to be made in a complicated intersection, so the lead car boldly stopped in the middle of the intersection, big 8 foot whip antenna waving, while the 5 other radio cars roared past, to be followed by the paused leader. The sight must have been intimidating to the unknowing traffic, for there was not a whisper of impatient honking or anyone pushing ahead!

The Link Trainer. . .

SJHRC members could do anything, so when the aviation program got going, the bright idea of having a Link Trainer, used by the army for instrument flight training, came up. The Link had instruments which had to be maintained in adjustment, and it had an electric plotting device which scrolled the meanderings of the pilot flying under the hood.

These occasionally became available through the government surplus disposal channels, but the club thought they would be in high demand and their chances of getting one would be very low. However, then club members surmised that very few people could be able to keep up with the electronic maintenance if they did get a Link from the Army. So after a bit of creative thinking, and asking around, soon a bright yellow Link Trainer, with cables and plotter and power supplies was being unloaded at SJH! After conquering so many problems with all kinds of army surplus radio units, the Link wasn’t even considered much of a chore, --let alone a challenge. You see, this particular unit had been given to a Civil Air Patrol unit on the west side of Cleveland and they were happy to see it go, realizing they could not keep it going!

. . .and More Lessons in Just Plain Getting the Job Done!

Such was the reputation of SJHRC that whatever idea popped up and equipment was needed, people did not hesitate to give it. One day in 1959, project planning saw the need for teletype equipment. A request was promptly sent to Teletype Corporation along with a package of clippings and reports of the SJHRC accomplishments and ssome plans of how such machines would be used.  A freight truck arrived shortly thereafter with a pair of brand new Model 28 Teletype machines, with tape punch and tape readers! Besides using them for ham radioteletype modes, one of the ambitions the club had was to send a radio signal toward the moon and try to detect the return signal, --called moonbounce. The teletypes with their paper tape "memory" would be used to key the transmitter, pause for the 5 seconds that a signal might take to complete its bounce and be received on the other machine.

The SJHRC did things in grand style. When an order of 20 Heathkits – oscilloscopes, multimeters, signal generators, etc. was needed for the electronics class, a flight with a Cessna 172 was made to Benton Harbor,on the other side of Michigan. The Heathkit Company was not accustomed to this kind of order pickup, but in very friendly fashion they drove the boxes out to the Benton Harbor airstrip and stuffed them into the Cessna.

Another time, needing an electronics unit for decoding the Model 28 Teletype signals, a surplus dealer was located, but he was down south in Lima, Ohio. An hour flight was made to pick it up right away. It might have looked like impatience, but in fact SJHRC had facilities available and used them without second thoughts about the ways of the rest of the world.

Of course, those were also the days when a car could still have its gas tank "filled up" for $3.00, and a small plane for $40, and UPS and Fedex were not around yet.

Who participated in all of these adventures? Everybody. If truth be told, the record would read like a roster of the radio club. One amazing feature, looking back, is how every person was a full member of this club, whether a freshman who was only learning the code, to members with commercial licenses already making adult wages. One might say the training and lessons learned with the radio club had become a way of life, and for many it never ended.


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