In preparing for publication the story I wrote for the October newsletter about the visit to Ensor Park and Museum by members of the Kansas City Blind Amateur Radio Club,
I had cause to send an email to Dave Plumlee of Independence, Mo., K5POU, asking if I had accurately rendered the information I had received from Craig Martin of Northmoor, Mo., KY0O, in regard to how individuals who are visually impaired are able to effectively function as amateur radio operators with the assistance of computer software capable of supplying them with essential information aurally.
After confirming the accuracy of my proposed statement with respect to modern transceiver rigs, Dave felt led to write, “‘But what about rigs of the 50s and 60s before we had all the speech synthesizers available?’ you might ask.” And then he proceeded to enlighten me as to how hams who were blind and on the air during the last 10, 15, 20 years of Marshall Ensor’s life managed to be “part of the action,” so to speak, using equipment that was strictly built with the amateur radio pioneer of W9BSP fame and other sighted hams in mind.
Dave said that the “most popular approach” to the safe operation of the DX20, DX35, DX40, DX60, DX100, Apache, Viking II and other equipment that included “home-brew rigs” involved the use of a transistorized ‘gimmick oscillator’ that was “connected across the meter movement in these rigs.”
According to him, these “gimmick circuits” were designed in such a way that the pitch emitted by the oscillator was related to “the amount of current drawn by the meter.” Consequently, in order to tune the circuit, the pitch produced under what he called ‘key down’ conditions was compared to the pitch produced when the gimmick was switched to what he called the ‘comparison’ tone. And if there were multiple circuits that had to be tuned, the gimmick was constructed with multiple buttons the operator would push, one after the other, to get the tone he needed to match “when tuning a particular stage.”
Dave said that in the case of operators using a DX40 or Apache who usually only had to concern themselves with the adjustment of the grid drive and the plate current, the ‘comparison’ tone switched a potentiometer that had a Braille scale associated with it. After a sighted ham had marked at least a few points on that scale for the benefit of a ham who was blind, the ham who was blind could then turn the dial to one mark to adjust the grid drive and to another mark to adjust the plate current.
Dave reported that some hams “modified voltmeters, SWR bridges, and other devices in a similar way” in those days.
Another “tuning scheme” mentioned by Dave involved the use of a “chopper circuit” that had the operator tuning for a “null” to make “the chopper noise” disappear. “This type of tuning worked with Wien Bridge circuits where the object was to null the reading on a visual meter,” he explained.
Antennas? Dave reported that there were a few instances in which hams altered “certain older rotator-control boxes” for beam antennas if both the rotator assembly at the antenna and the control box included “a pot.” This being the case, the motor for the antenna could be operated while the ham “set the knob for the desired antenna orientation.” When the signal ‘nulled out,’ as Dave described it, the Wien Bridge circuit was “balanced,” with the antenna pointed in the right direction.
“While these controllers may have lacked a bit in precision compared to modern rotators, they worked well enough for many of us to work a lot of good DX with rigs such as the Apache, DX100, or Viking II,” he related.
Dave also recalled “the so-called CDR rotator” that had a “big knob” the operator “turned to the desired orientation,” then the box “clicked repeatedly” until the antenna got to where it was supposed to be. For “good antenna orientation” to be achieved, a ham had to file a notch in the control box “in line with the pointer.”
According to Dave, back in the 1930s and ‘40s and on into the early ‘50s, hams who were blind were doing the same thing Ensor, the brains and brawn behind “The Big Kilowatt Beast” of 1937, did: building their own rigs to communicate with others. And mind you, that was a number of years before there was a Courage Kenny Handiham Program to help them overcome any of the various challenges they undoubtedly encountered along the way.
In the photograph accompanying this story, Ensor's 1,000-watt rig bearing his call sign, W9BSP, and that of his younger sister Loretta, W9UA, is pictured as it can be viewed today in the Radio Room at Ensor Park and Museum.
After pointing out that “some modern equipment is virtually inaccessible to a blind operator” because of the way it is designed, Dave was quick to sing the praises of the Handiham Program. Through it, he said, he and others like him can get study information as well as instructions pertaining to the operation of “several popular modern rigs.”
Dave, who earned his Novice license in 1957, went on to mention the public service another ham who was blind, Beryl Masters, WB0EJJ, had been able to perform during the course of his life by giving travelers unfamiliar with the Kansas City area directions. He wrote, “It was widely known at that time, ‘If you are new to KC and need directions around town, try to hook up with Beryl, EJJ.’ He helped many folk on the 34/94 repeater in those days.”
Several years Dave’s junior, Ronald “Butch” Bussen of Wallace, Kan., WA0VJR, was born blind and was first exposed to amateur radio while he was attending the Kansas School for the Blind in Kansas City as a seventh grader. Interestingly enough, according to Part 1 of a four-part article Butch penned for QST in October 1987, “Amateur Radio and the Blind,” his first Elmer for all intents and purposes was an Elmer, Elmer Rose, a licensed Kansas City, Mo., area ham who taught the Novice license class he and some of the other students took when it was offered to them.
An active operator since 1969, eight years after he received his Novice ‘ticket,’ Butch reported that up until microprocessor-controlled radios arrived on the scene, determining his operating frequency was a problem he “never solved” and that the “best solution” he ever came up with involved the use of a crystal calibrator, finding the “beat notes” and counting the turns of the Variable Frequency Oscillator knob. “If I lost count, I went clear to the top or bottom of the band and started counting all over,” he wrote.
Butch went on to address the tuning of tube-type transmitters. “Tuning a tube-type transmitter is critical, and I’ve tried several approaches,” he wrote. “I found I could take a standard broadcast radio, key the transmitter and find a heterodyne. By listening to this, I could adjust the drive, plate and load controls.”
He then mentioned how he “really came up in the world!” when a California ham sent him what had to be a ‘gimmick oscillator’ like the one Dave talked about earlier, as this transistor device “hooked across” his plate-current meter and provided him with “an audible indication” of what was happening from an operational standpoint. “As the current rose, so did the tone pitch; if the current fell, so did the pitch,” he related.
Butch said the device was “the most sensitive and stable” tuning device he was aware of at the time and that he also used it with his Standing Wave Ratio meter. Just by hearing “the pitch of the tones on forward and reflected power,” he could “get an idea” as to what the SWR was at that particular moment, he explained.
Dave and Butch. K5POU and WA0VJR. Two hams separated by approximately 400 miles but proverbially joined at the hip by their ability to persevere in learning how to function successfully as amateur radio operators in a world of darkness they share with many others.
For more information about the Courage Kenny Handiham Program mentioned earlier, visit http://handiham.org/wordpress1/.