#155 A Retro New Years Eve…What Survives of the Past
Evidence of the first World Wide Web…radio
For New Years Eve, to put paid to 2016, I was under house arrest following a supposed routine cardiac catheterization that went unexpectedly awry. I spent the evening listening to this radio whose resurrection has been a several months long basement project. If the occupational specialty “Marine Radiotelegraph Operator” still existed…(phased out in 1986) this radio in working condition would be proof that I earned my ticket. It was made sometime during the Second World War by Radio Manufacturing Engineers, Inc of Peoria, IL. There’s a well documented story of the service of an earlier model from this company with the Dutch underground throughout the war years.
No serial number gives a clue of exactly when this one was built during the period 1941 to 1945, but the radio is perhaps slightly younger than I am.
I got this radio from a very elderly gentleman who was dispersing his life collection at the regional Elmira NY fall hamfest last autumn. It looked terrible, but intriguing. The price of a six pack and a fancy pizza changed hands and the radio came home with me. I am truly glad there are no “Before” pictures to show its condition as received. It apparently had been stored for years in a barn, had serious surface rust, hay and mouse turds and an awful black paint job that seemed at least partly of roofing tar. A preliminary inspection showed that at least two different technicians had been inside. One was a real crude hacker, but another had carefully done a lot of replacement surgery of failed or deteriorated parts. I almost gave up when I discovered that the radio used “7-series Locktal Snap In” tube types, an historical technical dead end by the end of the 1950’s and quite rarely found today even in radio flea markets.
Two factors made me persevere. The radio has a very unusual mechanical bandspread based on anti-backlash gears. They feel “Classy” under your hands. Tuning such radios is an analog pleasure difficult to communicate to the digital generation.
When I pulled the chassis out of the steel case I discovered that the black paint covered up a lovely light blue gray original finish that I can only describe as “RAF light camo blue” like the paint on the underwings of Royal Airforce Spitfires and Hurricane fighters from the Battle of Britain. I got to thinking that this radio could have been produced during the war by “The Arsenal of Democracy” on contract with the Brits or Canadians. The radio was offered to general public during the war in the USA at $110. (almost $1700 in 2016 money.) I have no real evidence to support this fantasy. I do know that the heavy hitter intelligence radios made for Atlantic allies during the war were Hammerlund Super Pro’s, National HRO’s and various Hallicrafters. The RME-43 is quite a good radio, but not in their league. It would have been highly serviceable in, say, squadron ready rooms or unit liaison. The colors I could find in my local Lowe’s home store are not the original color at all.
It was not my intent to create a museum grade restoration of the original radio. I wanted to getting it working as well as possible given my highly limited shop instruments, deteriorating eyesight and shaking hands no longer suited to fine under chassis surgery. I do want to leave it working well so that some other techie later on can continue the project.
Imagine my surprise, after preliminary safety checks, when I plugged the sucker in, turned it on and it made noise ! At first it took a local right wing hate/talk politics station to blast a signal through the front end and innards out to a loudspeaker…but from that point on I knew roughly what to do. Maybe I’ll tack a technical addenda on later for the few who might care.
There is a cohort of radio cookoo’s who maintain a tradition for New Years Eve called “Straight Key Night.” when Olde Tyme operators talk with each other in Morse code and listen to their old radios as the old year goes out and new one comes in. I had to push the envelope a little to get the RME-43 ready for this occasion. There is a terrific difference between the performance of an un-aligned radio and one that’s been properly “tweeked.” Think of the difference between road a Chevy that’s been four years of stop and go traffic without an oil change or tuneup and one that’s been stripped down to the crankshaft, blueprinted, polished and race tuned by a team that intends to win. I was unable to get all six bands of the RME-43 up to spec, but the four that I got working are quite good. I made to see what might still be pulled in from the ‘ether’ as 2016 took it’s leave. Tuning up from the bottom of the AM broadcast band a strong station in Buffalo NY was happy to report a hockey victory over Boston. Nearby Binghamton NY had really good country music with few commercials. At 900 Khz CHML in Hamilton Ontario had an interesting hour long interview with a athlete who rowed a 24 foot boat from San Francisco to Australia…SOLO…NON_STOP. It took him seven month rowing and average of 15 hours a day. This was followed by a re-run of a 1948 episode of DRAGNET…Jack Web…”just the facts, mam. ”
I got a real surprise tuning at the top of the AM broadcast band where the stations all seems so crowded together. Unlike your average transistor radio, the RME-43 has the performance to separate these stations and pull them in clearly. There is now a bastion of local ethic stations from 1560 (formerly WQXR, NYC) up to 1700 Khz where I heard Bollywood pop music, Jamaican funk and music in languages I can’t even identify. Cool stuff is there if you’re interested.
The real tests began as I moved up the bands. The ham radio amateurs were out in full force and you’d be surprised at how many people consider Morse code a living language. Religious station spend enormous power and money spreading different versions of what they all believe is the only truth. Radio Cairo, Egypt has wonderful music, but it’s hard to get their take on the news. The same is true of Radio Hellas from Athens, Greece. The age limitations of the RME-43 begin to show when you try to listen to modern single side band traffic in the military, marine and aviation bands. It can be done, but takes real skill and a while to pull these stations in clearly. I spent almost a quarter hour listening to gale warnings for the western Atlantic region from the National Hurricane Center in Miami transmitted by the U.S. Navy in Norfolk VA. I finished the evening off with a 1949 episode of “Nick Kelly, Crime Photographer,” but decided I needed bed more than listening to “Fibber McGee and Molly.” “T’Aint Funny McGee !” (My dad quoted that often.) Sometimes olde tyme radio was really terrible. If this is what making America Great Again means…I’ll pass on most of it.
Radio has always been a part of my perception of the universe and I even got to thinking of the historic roster of my life between headphones. It started with a black bakelite Zenith I inherited from my little big sister Ivah “Bazzoir” rip. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? the Shadow knows….bwahahaha”.
Next came a Silvertone three-bander my dad and I rebuilt as a bonding project. It worked. I built a Heathkit AR1…it was always squirrelly. I’ve had sequentially an NC-88, NC98, DX-28 (now there was a radio !) an NC125, an NC 183, A Halli S-43 (a true challenge), a Sat 800, an s-38C, S-38E a S-86, a 1943 Army Air Corp BC-348Q (will go to a museum soon.) A TS-440S is still in service. Now there the RME-43. Sometimes I think when I die that it will just be the noise floor coming up in the headphones and the audio going down until there is no signal at all.
I sent out the old year as a marine radio telegraph operator. I bring in the new one as a writer and photographer. ? Are these occupational specialties already as obsolete as the rest of me ?
Technical notes: The good prior technician had replaced the power supply filter capacitor and quite a few under chassis in locations that must have required considerable dexterity to install. The Auto Volume Control capacitor had been replaced with a very large one to slow down the AVC action, but that capacitor died of heat exhaustion and leaked oil. I replaced it with original spec. I replaced the old power cord with a three wire grounded type required by current safety codes. I had to replace two precision caps in the alignment section that perished of old age. In the process I broke a fine coil wire that normally would have been repaired under a microscope. I did the best I could with 2x magnifiers and got lucky. I’ve downloaded the DOX for the post war model 45 which is almost identical expect for the addition of a VR150 voltage stabilizer. I completely re-tubed this radio and so have a complete set of spares. It can live on. I’m still unable to diagnose why the top two bands will not align properly but for now I’m going to leave them for the next guy. It’s an awfully nice old radio, but I still covet a GPR-92…outta my league…
Next Post: It’s been a very long time since I’ve put the work into one of these efforts. “#154, the Riddle of Batsto'” is still in the pipeline. Eventually it will emerge.