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A Shout From The Attic: Marconi Made It Look So Easy!

...What a few wires and terminal will do when they are connected and have the right components in their proper places. How the world shrinks as distance evaporates and the far away is brought into our very ears. That is the wonder of radio, and that is one of the major wonders that thrilled me as a boy when I heard a wireless set pour its magic sounds into whatever room was blessed by its presence...

Ronnie Bray recalls the explosive failure when he trying to build his own radio set.

To read earlier vivid chapters of Ronnie's life story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

Sat in the condemned cell, awaiting his judicially determined appointment with the necktie that adorned the Tyburn tree, murderer Charlie Peace said to his wife, "I'm a changed man, Hannah!” Perhaps everyone should have some time in the condemned cell with the threat of an early hanging to help them focus their mind and make the necessary changes before they commit foul deeds.

Dr Crippen was very sorry for his murders after he was caught. Whether he was changed by his experiences after his apprehension and incarceration to await execution, I do not know, but I do believe that he harboured some unkind thoughts for inventor, Guglielmo, Marchese Marconi, whose shore to ship radio caused the captain of the America-bound steamship on which he was making his escape, turn around and deliver him into the arms of the British Bobbies.

What a few wires and terminal will do when they are connected and have the right components in their proper places. How the world shrinks as distance evaporates and the far away is brought into our very ears. That is the wonder of radio, and that is one of the major wonders that thrilled me as a boy when I heard a wireless set pour its magic sounds into whatever room was blessed by its presence, and so I say, though others may disagree, "God bless you, Signor Marconi!” Moreover, I mean it – except for the fact that he made it all look so easy.

On the pages of Hobbies magazine, sometime around the year 1948, were countless designs for all kinds of wonderful work and machines made with the most basic set of tools. In one issue, there were plans for a one-valve radio receiver that grabbed my attention. From one of my friends, through insider swapping, I obtained a galvanised steel radio chassis and a small biscuit tin cluttered with radio parts.

Secretly sneaking them into my attic bedroom to avoid the awful question that no boy likes to hear from voices of authority, "What have you got there and what do you think your going to do with it? " and at the earliest opportune moment I began to assemble my radio.

"Ha!” I thought, 'Now I shall bring the world into my desolate domain, and make it gloriously bright and full of friendly utterances and soothing euphonies of the Elysian fields, and stay no more in solitary silence waiting for music to waft down on sunbeams from the bandstand in Greenhead Park!” As it turned out, something did come down, not wafting, that would hardly describe it, neither was it from the bandstand in Greenhead Park.

After I set out my precious pieces on top of the mirrored chest of drawers that stood against the door wall opposite the small attic window, I began to inspect them with all the aplomb of the untutored who can make the simplest of acts seem possessed of a gravamen that is unfathomable to ordinary geniuses. My attempts to understand what each piece was and how it fitted into Hobbies scheme of things ended in total failure. I will not say abysmal failure for my confidence was still unmarked. Like all dedicated amateurs when they reach the limits of their knowledge, and I had done that when I had entered the bedroom, I resorted to guesswork. Not educated guesswork, but to the guesswork of the sublimely ignorant for whom heaven has some special rules and, thankfully, some extraordinary protection.

This kind of guesswork is what makes electrical work exciting and unpredictable. I had the magazine open at the relevant diagram on the dresser and turned from its diagrams to the components in their cobwebbed repository and back again several times, failing to make connection between the squiggly and arrowed parallel lines of the plan with anything in the tin.

Without any special training, I deduced that either I had the wrong parts or else the plan was a fake. However, I decided that lack of knowledge should not stand in the way of accomplishment and forged ahead. I would ignore the diagram that would not yield up its secrets to me and manage without it.

My intuitive programme from then on was to fit pieces of componentry into wherever they would fit on the assumption that if they fitted in somewhere, they belonged there. True, some pieces did not fit anywhere, but there were places still empty. I decided that these reluctant parts were in denial and playing awkward and I found that with a little - all right, a lot - of pressure, I could get them to go in - somewhat. What are a little untidiness and a few broken pins on valves anyway? Soon, everything was more or less in somewhere and I looked to the next phase.

Next came the wiring. Again, I referred to the abandoned plan. This time, it made less sense than ever and so I consigned it to a darker comer of the room where it would not interfere or lead me astray as it had heretofore. I had a roll of one-gauge-suits-everything copper wire that was insulated with a coat of translucent lacquer. I cut off some short lengths with the pliers from the kitchen table drawer and wound the bright ends around the tabs at various points on the underside of the chassis.

I had no particular scheme in mind as I wired, just as seemed good, so I did. When everything that stuck out was connected with another piece that stuck out by a length of the cat's-cradle of circuitry, my installation was complete. To be accurate I have to admit that it was not the most elegant wiring loom I have ever seen, but I allowed myself a certain feeling not unrelated to pride, of the lowly kind, of course. "A poor thing but mine own, " I soliloquised interiorly. After all, it was my first attempt.

Now, it was time to conduct the final test, and that thought produced one of the few thrills of excitement I felt during childhood. I rated this one at seven-point-two on the Richter Scale. In common with most of the bedrooms in England at that time, my attic bedroom had no electrical outlets. The only supply was to the light bulb that hung from the long beam against the ceiling.

This lamp, that no one ever thought of insulting by fitting a lampshade, hung on two short twisted strands of purple brown covered flexible cable, attached to which was a brass and Bakelite bulb holder. From somewhere, that mysterious and indefinable place where all kinds of children get all kinds of things, I got a two-way adapter. These were useful if you wanted to run a smoothing iron or a radio -YES! - from the light socket. From somewhere I had also obtained a bayonet plug, and I ran two pieces of copper wire from the bayonet adapter long enough to reach the radio waiting on the sideboard.

It was obvious that the mains input went through the two large round holes at the back of the chassis, so, having removed the varnish from the ends of the wires I doubled them up to make them fit the sockets snugly and shoved them in. Then, I plugged the bayonet fitting into the spare socket at the light fitting and went over to the light switch at the side of the door. Looking across at my Ronnie Bray Experimental Radio Mark One, I flipped the switch down. Nothing!

I hardly expected the thing to burst into revelries of music, shouting, singing, and dancing the moment I fired it up. These things need a few moments for the valves to get aglow and warm up and things like that. I gave it five minutes but nothing happened.

Not a valve glowed in the whole apparatus. It was to have been a one-valve radio, but I had more than one and had them all sited appropriately according to my good judgement. I was a tyro so I expected a few teething problems. I poked gingerly with my finger, not wishing to be burned by the intense heat that glass valves generate, neither wanting to be incinerated by the high voltage thrown out by the transformer that was fed on 240 volts, but could lift that to several thousand volts for the high tension side of things. It did not respond to being poked. It emitted no sounds, no buzzing noises, no hums, no famous BBC pips, no whines, and no hint of those awful atmospherics. Something was wrong. Something else besides the fact that I had not fitted a speaker on the radio. The only reason I didn’t attach one is because I didn’t have one, and I didn’t see why I should I let a minor detail stand in the way of progress.

My observations of its negative qualities complete, I turned to thinking, which is when I am at my most dangerous. Passive observation causes few disasters, but thinking without the proper equipment has been responsible for many calamities. My immediate and single thought was that there was a failure of the power to reach the contraption. Why else would it not work? To test my hypothesis, I devised a simple test for current, now known the world over as the Dubious Electrical Appliance Test (Hand-held), more commonly referred to by its acronym, D.E.A.T.H.

I removed the wires from the socket on the back of the chassis, spit on the sideboard and stuck the naked wires into the pool of saliva. The test determined that current was actually leaving the light fitting and travelling down the wires to the sideboard. It is an effective test. I know this because the current vaporised the wires leaving me holding on to nothing and apart from the brief but blinding flash there was no forensic evidence that there had been any wires in the first place apart from a blue-grey pall of smoke that drifted slowly down to cover me.

I had expected to be covered with glory but this would have to do. I settled for the smoke, took my radio silently and disappointedly down into the back yard, and thrust it into the dustbin and waited for someone to invent the transistor.

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