Tinkering with Radios – Early Learning in Electronics
One of the ‘little piglets’ from our schoolyard games was Hans. He belonged to the so-called Ancient Language branch of the high school program with ancient Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin as part of the prescribed curriculum. He was one of my closest friends. He excelled in every subject and later on graduated with the highest average mark the school had not seen for many years. In contrast to the rest of us he did not have to work in order to achieve such fame and glory. Barely an hour after school while I was still laboring over a math problem or hastily finishing a Latin translation, Hans stood two stories below on the sidewalk and whistled our secret code tune by which we recognized each others’ presence. He held an electronic kit under his arm and waited to be let into the apartment building. By this arrangement he did not have to ring the bell and disturb Mother in her sacred afternoon nap.
We spread out all the electronic parts needed for the next experiment on the kitchen table, studied and discussed the instructions in the voluminous manual, and then went ahead with the experiment of the day. After several weeks we have come to the last and most demanding project in the kit, the building of our first radio. Unlike today’s kits with their ready-made plug-in parts, ours was primitive. We had to wind our own coils on cardboard spools, which we procured from the empty rolls of toilet paper. We scraped the lacquer off the copper wire to make the ends conductive. But most challenging of all was the endless tinkering with the crystal that served as a diode that even then would have been available in electronic hobby shops in the big cities for as little as a dime. To make a long story short, we never got the radio to work no matter how hard we tried. But what we gained instead was far more valuable, a meaningful friendship and companionship that lasted until we lost track of each other when I immigrated to Canada. As for me, I had just added another fascinating hobby that engendered a passion for the world of electronics, a field that on a number of occasions promoted personal and professional growth and almost became a life-long career and had certainly – no maybe in this case – an all important impact on the direction that the trail of my personal life would take me.
Quite early into my adolescent years Mother and Aunt Mieze decided to pay me a monthly allowance the equivalent of about ten dollars in today’s buying power. The purpose of this generous plan was to teach me to handle money in a responsible manner. Indeed I quickly learned to save money only for more valuable items rather than to spend them on candies and ice cream. Typically my first purchases were books on electronic circuits and theory. Then I spent a few marks on discarded unrepairable radios, which the local radio and TV stores wanted to get rid of. It did not take me very long to have in my possession one of the fancier American models, which even had a so-called magic eye indicating the strength of the tuned-in radio station. Aunt Mieze, always prim and proper with rules and regulations, promptly registered the radio, which with a little bit of tinkering was working very well. She paid the monthly fee at the Post Office, at the time in charge of licensing the use of radio and television reception. Unfortunately, only a few weeks later, she had to cancel the subscription, because of the ‘improvements’ I had made to the radio. After another debacle resulting from obsessive tinkering, Aunt Mieze had enough and bought a very fine Grundig radio with FM, which was placed safely out of my reach in her room. One day a promotional LP from a record company arrived in the mail. Of course, now I had to have a record player. I pestered the three electronic store owners in town, until one of them let me have an old broken-down record player without amplifier and loudspeaker. I played the record and listened to the faint, but quite audible sound of the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s Messiah. To make the music louder I took an empty open cocoa can, attached a record needle near the bottom and the entire contraption to the take-up arm of the record player. The sound of the classical music was now considerably louder, but also tinny and unpleasant to listen to. So this prompted me to build my own amplifier complete with volume control from the leftover parts of all my ‘improvement’ projects. My friend Hartmut was impressed, except that he did not like the Hallelujah Chorus, with which I greeted him each time he dropped in to borrow some money to go to the movies.