Nick Kendall - Looking Back


Two South African radio enthusiats in front of a 1922 Gecophone BC2001 'smoker's cabinet' two-valve receiver (Photograph circa 1924).

The following is an interesting and fascinating account of the early days of radio in South Africa during the 1920's as told by late South African Dxer, Nick Kendall (a respected and prominent dxer during the 1970's when I first joined the SADXC).

The candid account, in Nick's own words, provides an insight into what was involved in being able to listen in during those early pioneering days of radio broadcasting.

I have transcribed and edited the 5-part series (with additional information and comments) from the 1978 July - December issues of the SASWL.


Constructing a crystal receiver


It was about 1920 when all my friends were “wireless mad”, some of whom had built crystal sets and some valve sets. One of them said to me, “Why don't you make a crystal set. It is great fun. Come and see mine”.


So we went up to his bedroom and he showed me his set which consisted of a coil of wire around a former about 10 inches x 3 inches (approximately 25 cm x 7 cm) diameter – one end of this connected to the aerial and crystal and the other to earth and one leg of the phone. The other leg of the phones was connected to the “whisker” end of the detector.



Tuning was effected by a variable condenser “shunted” across the earial and earth. In order to find a “sensitive spot” on the crystal, somebody pressed an electric bell-push. The detector would pick up the spark made by the break - and break on the bell. Then you were all set to listen in.

All there was to hear were ships (if you were lucky) in morse code (CW) and the time signal from Slangkop Light House at 11:00 pm. Anyhow, I got bitten and made up a crystal set and listened to ships on 600 metres.



Slangkop lighthouse, situated at the southern boundry of Kommetjie, Cape Peninsula. A radio station with a 5 kw Marconi transmitter was established on the seaward slopes of Slangkop in 1912. The station was later relocated to Kommetjie (Photograph Wikimedia Commons).

John Samuel Streeter's early record broadcasts


In 1919 radio amateur John Streeter began broadcasting records on Tuesday and Thursday nights on 200 metres (initially from Sea Point and then Observatory, Cape Town - GD). It was so weak on the crystal set that I decided to build a one valve set.


(Two other prominent amateur radio enthusiasts also began broadcasting in 1919 :


Reginald Hopkins broadcast pianola music and messages from his home in Wynberg, Cape Town. With local newspaper publicity, both Cape Town stations became popular and were received across the Cape Peninsula and thoughout the Cape Province including the Karoo region of South Africa.


Further north, Arthur Sydney Innes was very successful with his broadcast of gramophone recordings from his radio station, known as 2OB, located in Observatory, Johannesburg - GD).




Arthur Sydney "Toby" Innes, broadcasting from his radio station 2OB, situated in Observatory, Johannesburg. Standing behind is Alf Goodman who became a well known radio enginner with the SABC (Photograph circa 1922).

Constructing a one valve receiver


I went to R.M. Ross & Co. (where Electricity House is today) and saw Mr. Smith who had helped me with my crystal set and bought the necessary parts : A 60 volt H.T. Battery, a 2 volt accumulator, a rheostat (for reasons unknown in those days , each valve filament had to be controlled by its own rheostat). I built my one valve set and Mr. Streeter was so loud that he had to be de-tuned. I still remember his signature tune, “Carry Me Back To Ole Virginny”.


2LO London


2LO London had just begun to broadcast and people here were trying to pick them up – the power used was 1.5 kw. Occasionally, due to unusual reception conditions they were heard here.


(2LO commenced broadcasting on 350 metres with 100 watts on the 11th May 1922 - a more advanced 1.5 kw transmitter was rebuilt and installed soon afterwards during that year, in line with new regulations which allowed for the increase in transmitter power.


The 2LO antenna, situated on top of Marconi House in London, consisted of a 100 ft long two cage system of four wires each and was suspended between two 50 ft masts - GD).


6BM Bournemouth


I tried with my own one valve set and one night as I took my hand off the condenser knob, I heard music. Boy, was I exited. As long as I kept my hand just poised above the condenser, the signal stayed. Fortunately, I was able to rest my elbow on the table so that it was not so tiring. This was not 2LO – the wavelength (frequency was not used in those days) was not right and it turned out to be 6BM Bournemouth. Like Sullivan's “lost Chord” it was not heard again.


(A sensational catch! 6BM commenced broadcasting on 385 metres with 1.5 kw on the 17th October 1923 - GD).


The Cape Town broadcasting studio opened officially in September 1924 and was was situated in J.N.X. building, Greenmarket Square (Photograph circa 1924).

It was about 1923 when Johannesburg started testing (and a little later Cape Town).

Five Valve Superhet

I decided that I wanted a beter receiver so I bought a home-made five valve superhet from a friend. This comprised of three staged HF (RF), oscillator, detector and two stages of LF (AF). It had thirteen controls : seven rheostats, three variable condensers, volume, potentiometer and tone.

The tuning was so tricky that it took about 10 minutes to tune Cape Town. Just imagine three stages of HF - each tuned by a separate condenser - there was no "ganging" in those days.

After a while I got fed up with the set and wrote to "Modern Wireless" for a suitable circuit. I told them that I wanted a four valve set and enclosed a postal order for 2/6 (25 cents).

The "Family Four"

The set was called the "family Four" and consisted of one HF (tuned anode), a detector and two LF's with switching arrangements so that one, two, three or four valves could be used.

They sent me a blue print (actual size) template, drilling panel, wiring diagrams (both practical and schematic). I had the panel drilled by sombody that I knew - did not take a chance myself. Ebonite had a nasty habit of splitting at the last moment. These days ebonite panels have a glossy surface. It was believed that this glossy surface acted as a conductor so it had to be sandpapered and polished again before using. You have no idea of the trouble we went to in building those old sets. I wired it up okay, switched it on and it worked fine - picked up Johanessburg quite easily.

Amplion Horn Speaker

I had an "Amplion" loudspeaker - the only one with an oak horn which produced a much better tone than other metal horns or trumpets.


Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban radio stations

Johannesburg opened officially in 1924 (1st July) and a couple of months later, Cape Town (September 1924), followed by Durban (December 1924). We thought it wonderful to be able to switch between Cape Town, Johannesburg or Durban.

AUDIO CLIP

In September 1924, the Cape Peninsula Broadcasting Association officially launched Cape Town's radio service in JNX Building, Greenmarket Square.

Studio manager Rene Caprara (who later became the Director-General of the SABC) described those early broadcasting days during an interesting interview with Colin du Plessis, available here.


The Johanesburg Broadcasting Station cage antenna on top of Stuttaford's Building, Rissik Street. The control room was located directly below the antenna and the studio was situated on the third floor (Photograph circa 1924).

Marconi, Gecophone and home-made radio sets

Everybody was thrilled and either made or bought sets. As far as I can remember, the only sets on the market at the time were Marconi and Gecophone but nearly every shop sold components - not at all like today (1970's) when if you ask for an for an egg insulator, the chap just googles at you and says "W-w-what is that ?"

I used to try for stations after Cape Town closed down but heard nothing but atmospherics.

The reception of KDKA in Cape Town during the early 1920's



While reading through The Argus (Cape Town newspaper) one evening, I saw the caption "New Experimental Radio Station from the United States heard in Cape Town" or words to that effect :

" Mr. X from Long Street reports hearing the new experimental station KDKA - owned and operated by the Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company, Pittsburgh. He said that he sat up night after night trying out different coils to get down to 63 metres and eventually his patience was rewarded. He heard the announcer say "This is KDKA" followed by music. The signal faded between 4:00 am - 5:00 am. Reception of course varied ".

(From July 1923, apart from the regular broadcast frequency of 326 meters / 920 kHz with an output of 500 watts, KDKA programs were also transmitted via shortwave station 8XS on a frequency of 63 meters / 4 760 kHz with an output of 40 kw. The shortwave station made it through to Cape Town as described in the Argus newspaper report - GD).

A couple of nights later he wrote an article entitled, "How to listen to KDKA"

" The aerial and secondary coil should consist of 3 turns of no.16 bare or enamled copper wire - each turn about 3/16 of an inch apart and kept apart by ebonite spreaders. The reactor coil should be 5 turns ".

This greatly intrigued me and I decided to see what the "Family Four" could do.

After hours of winding and re-winding coils, I managed to get the set to oscillate over just one half of the condenser - I hoped that it would be the right half. At 3:00 am I patiently and slowly tuned the condenser dials. The only sound was the oscillation "hiss". I plugged the hydrometer into the accumulator (LT battery) - it showed only half charge. The next day I lugged it up to the garage to be recharged and borrowed another one.

After sitting down again with the set during the third morning (after two previous fruitless efforts), I was delighted to hear a strong carrier wave. Moving the reactor coil away from the two other coils and after adjusting the condenser a fraction, I heard music.

As I took my hand off the condenser dial, the signal disappeard (capacity effect) so I had to hold my hand on the condenser to hear the signal which meant standing about two feet away from the set in order to tune it.

Then I had an idea - using two bicycle pump clips which opened and closed like cloths pegs when attached to the condenser knob, I was able to slip a 3 ft long bamboo rod into the other end of the clip - as the panel of the set sloped, the rod rested on the edge of the table - it worked very well.

I heard an announcement which I shall never forget :

" This is KDKA - The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, Pittsburgh - The Pioneer broadcasting station of the world ".

(During late 1924 KDKA programmes were also received in South Africa via shortwave and rebroadcast via the JB mediumwave station in Johannesburg - GD)

The commercial sets before 1925 (as far as I can remember) were all battery powered.

It must have been at the end of that year that the "all electric" sets arrived from the U.S.A. They were all cabinet or "console" designs - beautifully and solidly built - seven or eight valves. Thanks to Rice and Kellog the sets were all fitted with Moving Coil speakers which in my opinion are far superior to present day Permanent Magnet speakers.

(General Electric engineers Chester W. Rice and Edward W. Kellogg designed the moving coil loudspeaker in 1925 - GD).

Well known makes were FADA, Radiola (RCA), Stewart Warner, Majestic, Stromberg Carlson, Capehart and a few isolated custom built sets. Incidently, all the dials were calibrated in kilocycles - not metres. If you were lucky you could pick up Johannesburg and Durban.


Philips was next with their two, three and four valve table models with separate speakers followed by the Loewe "Three in One" set.

Philips brought out the H.T. Eliminator which plugged into the mains. It took the place of the H.T. and grid bias batteries but I still had to contend with the accumulator and keep it charged to work my three volt home-made Reinartz-grebe set. The Reinartz-grebe set proved to be far more sensitive than any of the commercial sets on the market so I decided to wait before purchasing an "all electric" model. I continued to use the set for broadcast band reception and easily pulled in Johannesburg and Durban.

The Pilot A.C. Super Wasp Receiver

The Pilot A.C. Super Wasp receiver was available in kit form.

In or about 1927, while glancing through "Cape Town Calling" (a weekly bulletin that provided program details for the Cape Town broadcasting station), I came across an advertisement for the Pilot AC Super Wasp - an all electric shortwave receiver - Yes!

I had never heard of the Pilot Company before so I phoned Carlton Davies (who was familiar with the set). He operated from his house in Sea Point and I was invited to come out and see him. After our initial meeting, I got to know him very well.

The Super Wasp came out in kit form and when assembled became a four valve set. It was similar to the Reinatz circuit but had the advantage of a tuned RF stage and a separate power pack and speaker. Five pairs of plug-in coils were supplied giving a coverage of 500 to 17700 kilocycles (600 to 16 metres). Tuning was very broad but it did not matter as there were only a few stations on the air. If you used one today you would get at least ten stations all in a jumble.

A few months later the Pilot Company (USA) sent out a table model complete with speaker. Valves improved and special ones took the place of the all purpose ones. Screengrids were used in the RF stages and detectors, power valves in the amplifiers which of course improved the performance of the set tremendously.

A great number of American sets arrived on the market but broadcast band only. The all wave with a wave change switch was introduced much later.

The Crosley Corporation tried to market their bandbox all wave set but it was not a success. As a matter of interest they owned WLW at the time.

I cannot recall any other shortwave all electric sets available during that time and so the Super Wasp reigned supreme.

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