An Old School Education – Radio & Electronics Course 1A: “Introduction to the Oersted”
In the past several postings we’ve gone through some pretty “heavy” matters: FCC blunders, pillaging of the RF spectrum, the prospect of future unlimited RF noise. Now it’s time for a summertime break from all the Sturm und Drang. This new two part series is just for fun. It’s a little “slice of life” vignette dealing with how a young Curmudgeon-to-be got an “old school education” in radio and electronics. And just to keep the syntax simple, it is written in the first person.
The time is early in 1960, and the place is a major US metropolitan center. My fiancé and I will be married that summer. We both will then have one more year of university undergraduate work to finish. We both will have to hold down part-time jobs to support our new family unit, but the overall economic prospects look “do-able,” since part-time jobs for university students were always available in those years.
Pursuing my newly-developed interest in radio and electronics, in the first months of the year I passed two of the FCC Amateur radio exams, received my “ham ticket,” and went on the air with old junk hardware. However after paying my university bills and our living expenses, there now would be very little cash available to devote to ham radio. I would have to remain mostly a kind of “paper ham” for awhile.
But that spring I lined up an ideal part-time job: a counter man in a large, general purpose consumer/commercial electronics retail store! I earned $1.50 per hour (equivalent to $11.50 per hour in 2012 cash) and no sales commissions, but I had up to 20 hours per week of work, mostly on the weekends. This was good for supporting the newly-weds, but bad for accomplishing a great deal of school work!
The store was located along a major boulevard only a few miles from our first apartment; commuting was just a matter of minutes by car. It was owned and operated by my cousin and his brother-in-law, Mike and Erv. Erv also did some consumer electronics repair work for the business at a little workbench in the rear. The business had almost no nearby direct competition, although the general metropolitan area even then was well-stocked with electronics outlets. I should add that the store was successful; the two of them ran it long after I left, until they each retired.
I would stipulate at the outset that this venue was not at all the equivalent of today’s Best Buy or Radio Shack kind of outlet. While we did sell finished consumer goods, mostly quality hi/fi-stereo audio products, we also carried a very complete line of electronics parts which were sold mostly to independent radio/TV commercial repairmen, in those placid days before Digi-Key, Mouser, and UPS deliveries. So, as a counter man, I needed to “know” the parts business as well as our consumer goods. By contrast, today’s typical Radio Shack “sales associate” couldn’t distinguish between a 10K-ohm resistor and an Intel microprocessor!
My duties were mostly to mind the front of the store, wait on consumer customers, fetch parts for the trades people, and ring up sales. Almost all of the sales (except for big ticket items) were paid with cash; I think that some of the repairmen had credit accounts. Personal checks from customers were not very common, and credit cards were not widely available or used in the early 60’s. Parts prices were looked up in a 6 inch thick, desk-mounted three-ring binder, filled with pages furnished by United Pricing Service. One of my tasks was to insert newly published price list pages when they were received in the mail.
(Gentle reader, please remember that in 1960 “computers” were rooms-full of electronics racks, isolated from the world by floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Although I had already learned the rudiments of “computer programming,” I had no expectation of finding a working computer within ten miles of the store! In those days prices just didn’t live on small computers.)
The consumer trade was relatively routine, mostly centering on selling stereo FM tuners, since the FCC had just approved stereo-multiplex FM broadcasting and stereo phonograph records were still in their infancy. In addition we sold AM-FM receiver/stereo amplifier combos, and speakers. Speaker “systems” tended to be just a pair of bookshelf or floor-standing units, some including separate internal woofers and tweeters. There were also a few reel-to-reel stereo audio tape recorders, but most people could not afford them. Almost all the consumer electronics was vacuum-tube based; fully solid-state products were only then just becoming available and they were expensive.
The store did carry some “radio gear,” but nothing overtly “Amateur.” Eleven meter Citizens Band radio was just beginning, and in those days it was still considered a legitimate radio Service. The store had a valid FCC license for its station, and we sold CB radios to the public. Popular brands of radios included Motorola and RCA, although they didn’t stay in the market long.
Even then it wasn’t widely understood about CB, but in the US the 11 meter radio band had been previously allocated to the Amateurs. The FCC closed down the ARS allocation a year or two prior to create the Citizens Radio Service. But while I was working at the store the conversion wasn’t complete everywhere. So, as I stood at the counter listening to a transceiver running in the background, the summer E-layer “skip” rolled in and I occasionally heard licensed Canadian hams making contacts with perplexed local US CB’ers!
Perceptive readers should now begin to notice that certain everyday consumer electronics items seem to be missing from my descriptions of the store. We did not sell wired telephones and allied accessories, and nobody else did either! At that point in time all consumer telephone equipment was rented from the local telephone utility. Rented, I said, not purchased! It was not yet legal to use a customer-owned telephone on “Mother B’s [God-almighty!] telephone network.” And what about cellular phones? Be serious — they were still twenty-five years in the future!
We also did not sell television sets. Customers were accustomed to going to specialty or department stores to buy them. Purchase of a television set was then considered a major household expenditure. Only a few percent of the population bought color television sets, which were new and exorbitantly expensive at that time. But we did sell almost all the parts necessary to install, operate, and repair television sets, including outdoor antennas, masts, and transmission line. Cable and satellite set-top boxes? Nope; cable TV was just being born and satellite TV was still years away. Everyone used roof-mounted VHF-TV antennas to pull in the local over-the-air stations; the UHF TV band wasn’t yet in service. And in general, broadcast television service worked well for the local population!
But what about all the other consumer digital crap that today smothers us? None of it was even yet envisioned by the average consumer. Computers, tablets, smart phones, GPS, DVDs, video game players — all were pure science fiction. We lived in an entirely analog world.
One final experience on the consumer side of the store. On a summer Saturday afternoon a fellow and his family came into the store to shop for a stereo loudspeaker system. Once he began to speak it became very apparent that he was British, and taking my cue from that fact I showed him our British-made, quality bookshelf speaker systems. But he wasn’t satisfied with just listening to them. From out of nowhere he demanded, “How many oersteds does the speaker magnet produce?” I was dumbfounded; I had no clue about the answer; I didn’t yet really understand what an “oersted” was. Nobody in the retail stereo equipment world ever worried about that kind of detail. I couldn’t respond to his question, eventually he grew bored and left without purchasing, and I forgot about the unpleasant interaction.
Several months later the next university semester began. I was scheduled to take a physics class, and as the first lecture session began out from the prep room walked……Mr. Oersted-man! Apparently he was a visiting physics professor who was assigned to teach this class as part of his year-long appointment. My heart immediately sank straight through the floor, thudding directly into the basement, since I had to take this class for my graduation requirements! Well, I finally did manage to pass the class, but it certainly wasn’t one of my finest hours. And, fortunately, during the semester I never needed to interact with Oersted-man and he never seemed to recognize me either.
“Retail sales is just like a box of chocolates. You can never tell………..”
In the next post we’ll take a look at the very different style of the electronics parts business at my “old school.”
What do you think?
“Let’s save the universe for RF!”
The Old RF Curmudgeon