Shortwave Nostalgia

Lafayette HA-350
Here is one of the most prized possessions of my high-school years – a Lafayette HA-350 amateur band receiver. In the days before home computers, amateur radio was a popular pastime among nerdy teenagers – right up there with reading comic-books (in fact, early issues of Marvel Comics featured occasional appearances by a group of young “radio hams” called the Teen Brigade). Nowadays, amateur radio is recognized as a valid educational activity – with, for example , astronauts on the ISS regularly using it to make contact with schools all round the world. That’s an opportunity I would have loved to have had – but as it was, teachers in those days tended to look down on amateur radio, just as they did on comic books, as a waste of kids’ time.

I didn’t have enough perspective at the time to dispute that view. In hindsight, however, it really is a very educational pastime. I had a map of the world on my wall with pins in it showing all the countries I’d listened to – giving me a much better understanding of geography than most teenagers have. I didn’t have a licence to transmit – you had to understand Morse code for that – but I was an avid listener and a member of the International Short Wave League (my membership ID was G-14007 – I was very pleased with the “007” part). Amongst other things, the ISWL ran a QSL bureau, through which radio hams would send you cards acknowledging reception reports you sent them.

Here are a few examples. To start with, four countries I bet most teenagers in 1972-3 wouldn’t even have been able to find on a map – Monaco, San Marino, U.A.E. and Oman:

QSL cards Monaco Oman etc
Now for some DX (i.e. long-distance) countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and Malaysia (in these days of satellites and the internet, it’s easy to forget that radio waves normally travel in a straight line – so hearing someone on the other side of the planet is an impressive feat):

QSL cards DX
In geopolitical terms, the period we’re talking about was the height of the Cold War – but as a shortwave listener, I had no difficulty hearing both sides of the east-west divide. Here are two cards each from the USA and the USSR:

QSL cards USA USSR
It was in the context of shortwave listening that I first saw my name in print – with an SWL report in the September 1973 issue of Practical Wireless magazine (reproduced below). The YV5 prefix that appears three times in this list refers to Venezuela, while 4X and 4Z are both Israel. The last two are from Africa – 5U is Niger and 6W is Senegal. In the course of 1973 I heard no fewer than 303 different prefixes – as you can see from my entry in the “ladder” printed in Short Wave Magazine in March 1974.

SWL magazines 1973

Space-Age Nostalgia


Here are two items I bought in W. H. Smith’s recently. The first is a special (and very expensive) issue of the BBC Sky at Night magazine about the Apollo missions, and the second (a much better deal at the same price) is a repackaging of a 2008 Discovery Channel series about NASA spaceflights from Mercury to the Shuttle, together with another magazine. Presumably both items were put out for the Christmas gift market – mainly as a nostalgic treat for people of my generation, I guess, although it would be nice to think some youngsters are interested in the subject too.

I learned quite a lot from both items, particularly about the earlier and later missions. Although I was always interested in space, it was only in a vague, general way up until the Apollo 8 mission. That happened shortly after my 11th birthday, and it was the first one I really got drawn into – in the sense that I knew the astronauts’ names and avidly followed every little phase of the mission. This really intense awareness continued through Apollos 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, but then started to get murky again after that point.

Not for the obvious reason, though. You might think, “well, of course, everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions” – but that wasn’t it at all. I’ve got files of newspaper clippings I carefully cut out about Apollos 14 to 17, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I’ve got some photos and fact sheets about Skylab that I sent off to NASA for (as well as another batch about Apollo from a few years earlier). But I never absorbed the huge amounts of information about those later missions that I did for Apollo 8-13 – for the simple reason that the information just wasn’t there to be absorbed.

In the early 70s Britain only had three TV channels, and they were all in the “general entertainment” category. There were no purely factual channels, no 24-hour news channels … and of course no internet. The TV gave blanket coverage to things like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but later missions had to compete for airtime with soap operas, sports, comedy shows and the like. Key space events were still covered – live – but they had a frustrating tendency to happen when you were at school, or otherwise indisposed. People didn’t have video recorders in those days.

So it’s an over-simplification to say that “everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions”. It was the mainstream media that lost interest – and in the 1970s, that was the only kind of media there was. We’re so much luckier today!