The Old RF Curmudgeon

The year is 1960, and the young Curmudgeon-to-be, still a university student, is working part-time as a counter clerk in a general electronics store and is simultaneously soaking up an “old school education” from his work experiences there.

The parts side of the business was more interesting and more educational for me than were the consumer sales.  Having independently studied electronics during the previous year with the goal of earning an Amateur radio license, I had “book-learned” mostly just the fundamentals.  Now I could deal with actual parts and circuits, and with the people who bought and used those parts.

Independent commercial radio/TV repairmen were the major parts customers, although the occasional hobbyist or ham did come through the store.  The TV guys (I never met any female techs) were a crusty bunch.  They usually didn’t have much formal education, often having learned electronics repair in the military or as apprentices to older guys.  Most of their diagnostic and servicing knowledge was at the practical rather than the circuit analysis level.  Thus their conventional knowledge: “If the picture tube shows no sweep, just replace the sand-covered, 10 watt-rated, power resistor connected to the cathode pin of the horizontal output tube; it’s blown.”

As a group they didn’t make much money and they had to scramble to keep moving and to get enough work to support their businesses.  Thus in dealing with them this young salesman learned customer service skills quickly.  These guys didn’t have time to waste, and they didn’t have much regard for the young clerk who thought electronics was “the neatest thing since sliced Coors in cans!”  Electronics was just their “pork and beans,” and there was nothing at all romantic about that.

Vintage 1950’s Radio-TV Repair Shop
Vintage 1950’s Radio-TV Repair Shop

The major consumer electronics products of that time were intended to be fairly inexpensively repaired if they quit working, since products of those days did not have the inherent reliability that is common today.  No consumer would ever think of just discarding a relatively new TV set that had failed; it would be repaired and returned to service, period.  Much of the repairmen’s trade was “tube swaps” in the customers’ homes, and the men traveled with well-stocked tube caddies.  But some TV sets did develop fried under-chassis components, and these sets went back with the repairmen to their shops. So the repairmen would come into the store with lists of parts needed for current bench jobs, or items necessary for new rooftop antenna installations, or to refill their tube caddies.  They typically needed three different categories of supplies.

The first category was vacuum tubes.  In those days we did not sell many semiconductor parts.  Commercially, transistors and solid-state diode parts had been on the market for only a few years and they were expensive.  A “cheap” experimental transistor, the Raytheon CK-722 germanium point-contact small signal amplifier, cost the equivalent of $10 (in 2012 terms).  It was so low in performance that today no one would consider using this device for any purpose.  So there was not much call for replacement transistors for repair work.

Vacuum Tubes in All Shapes and Sizes Were Used in 1960
Vacuum Tubes in All Shapes and Sizes Were Used in 1960

In vacuum tubes we stocked probably two hundred replacement types, and they formed the basis for a lively trade.  Some types were absolutely “standard,” and I quickly learned these types and their prices.  A 6AL5 was a 75 cent dual-diode FM detector, almost universally found in TV and FM receivers.  A 5U4GB was always the power rectifier in TV sets, and it cost $0.95 in 1960 dollars.  Type 6SN7 was the sweep oscillator and 6DQ6 was often the horizontal output tube in TV sets, 6L6s (with a metal tube envelope) and 6L6GTs (with a glass envelope) were often audio output tubes in stereo amplifiers, etc.  We mostly stocked tubes made by Tung-Sol (a well regarded company, which is now long departed) but we also sold GE and RCA tubes.

There was also a continuing trade in a different kind of vacuum tube: rebuilt CRT picture tubes.  We stocked a good supply of these in large sealed cardboard cartons in the store’s rear storage area, and often I would have to dig for one to meet a repairman’s request.  It wasn’t easy, moving all the stock around to locate the right one.

These “rebuilts” sold for half the price of a brand new tube or even less, and everybody installed them as replacements.  In reality, the only part of the CRT that was re-used was the thick glass envelope; all the internal parts were new.  We sold only black and white CRTs of course; it was too early in the game for replacement color picture tubes.  Replacing a CRT wasn’t a particularly difficult job; I once did it successfully on my own TV.  One needed only to remember to keep his fingers well away from the 25 kV anode connection on the glass envelope of the old picture tube, lest a memorable “bite” be delivered from that HV point.  The HV potential, even in a “dead” picture tube, resulted from charge being stored in the inherent distributed capacitance in the tube’s physical structure.

Second, the TV guys needed published service information for the sets on which they were working.  In those days the needed information didn’t come from the TV set manufacturer, although with some effort it might have been obtained there.  Rather, it was provided by the Howard W. Sams Corporation, in monthly “magazines” known as Sams PhotoFacts.  Each monthly issue contained service “folders” for about six or so new television receiver models, in an assortment from all the major manufacturers.  Each of the individual folders contained all the information necessary for working on one particular chassis (or a few closely-related ones): complete schematics, voltage and resistance maps, parts lists, alignment instructions, tips, etc.  Some of the larger repair shops routinely purchased each month’s magazine as it was issued and they kept all of them in file cabinets.  Smaller shops bought from us just what they needed for the current work. The price for a month’s magazine was $2.95, not a small amount!

Industry Repair Bible – Sam’s PhotoFacts
Industry Repair Bible – Sam’s PhotoFacts

Third, the repair guys needed passive electronic parts.  Parts could be resistors and pots (generally IRC and Ohmite), switches and capacitors (Centralab), coils, signal transformers, RF chokes, and inductors (J. W. Miller).  All these companies were “American standards” in the parts business of the time.  Or they might be power transformers (Thordarson-Meissner or UTC).  Vacuum tube equipment drew considerable primary electrical power (relative to today’s solid-state gadgets) and required high voltages (200 to 500 volts d.c.).  No “regulated 12 volt buss supplies” were used in that world.  Almost every device of significance used a power transformer which would heat and occasionally short out, and replacements were needed.  TV sets also used a “flyback transformer” to produce the 25 kV potential for the anode of the picture tube from the horizontal sweep amplifier, and these required frequent replacement also.

So in doing this work I learned to deal with many different types of customers.  There was the repair guy who used one of the first artificial larynxes I had ever encountered in a human.  Apparently he had “smoked out” his original larynx.  He had a primitive battery-operated vibrator which he held up to his Adam’s apple while he spoke.  It produced a weird, robot-like, monotone speech pattern that was a bit difficult to understand, but he got his parts as quickly as I could move.

And then there was the fellow who once routinely asked for a “300 ohm (twin-lead), 20 dB pad,” a fixed-attenuator to be inserted into the TV/FM antenna’s flat ribbon transmission line.  Based on my (then) “half-vast” knowledge of the parts business, I quite confidently assured him that “there is no such device,” and thus we certainly wouldn’t have one.  His response was simple and direct: “Out of my way, son!”  He stomped past me over to the Centralab parts cabinet sitting in the shelves behind the counter and in a split-second he fished such a pad out of it.  I sheepishly wrote up the order.  And that’s how my old school learning, the kind of learning that was nowhere to be found at the university, progressed over the course of the months.

Well, this education couldn’t go on forever, and it didn’t.  After about a year of this, my bride informed me that she was tired of sitting home alone all weekend, and that I had better find other work.  She was correct of course (when was she ever wrong?), and so I bade farewell to my dream job and moved on.  I picked up enough other part-time work to get us through to our graduations, after which I moved into full-time industrial science and engineering.

A few weeks ago I was back in that city of my youth and, for nostalgia’s sake, I cruised past the old store.  Yes, the building is still there (it’s now a retail unfinished furniture shop), but my bosses Mike and Erv and the business itself are long since gone.

After that wonderful experience I would never again work that special kind of job, but I treasured the fact that I once had the chance to do it.  Only for a very few, very brief periods in my later career would I experience anything even remotely close to it again.

The fact that this kind of old school education is no longer available in today’s world is a real loss.  New engineers are somewhat limited if they did not get that kind of learning.  So, about forty years after leaving the old school I was the engineering representative on a small panel conducting a job interview for a candidate B.S.E.E to join our project.  I had earlier read the candidate’s resume and knew that his professional engineering experience and university education were solid.  And I also knew that a job offer awaited him; the interview was just a formality.  But I had to ask him some sort of question during the session.

Venerable Resistor Color Code – In Use Since 1920
Venerable Resistor Color Code – In Use Since 1920

So I used one of my “default” electronics questions, in an innocent attempt to “toss him a softball” and make him look good before the non-technical managers on our team:

“What is the color code for a 4.7K-ohm, ½ watt, 10% tolerance resistor?”

(How many of these same devices had I pushed across the counter to the TV repairmen at the old store?

To judge from the candidate’s response, you would have thought that I had asked him to derive Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity starting from Newton’s Laws of Motion!  This graduate engineer instantly turned crimson.  He wheezed.  He gasped.  He stammered.  “Oh!  Er!  Ummmm!  Mmmm!…..Gee, I can sort of vaguely recall something about Roy G. Biv!”  Sputter.  Choke.  (Long swallow)  And then, sheepishly, “Oh, if I could just get to the Internet I know that I could find the answer!!!”

(The answer that I hoped for and expected to receive would have been, “yellow-violet-red-silver, of course, and I used a bunch of them when I was building my kilowatt amplifier for the HF ham bands that I designed myself.” But alas, it just wasn’t to be.  There was only sputtering.)

“No need to look it up,” I said aloud, “you passed.  No further questions.”

And in the same instant that I spoke the above statement, in my mind’s eye I could just see those crusty old TV repairmen looking down on the scene and rolling around in the aisles of our long-ago, far-away store, uproariously laughing their fool heads off!  They had been my unwitting but exacting “professors” at the “old school,” and they had taught me very well indeed, bless ‘em all!

What do you think?

“Let’s save the universe for RF!”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

Since 1963, LBA has been providing RF equipment and technical consulting services for radio and television broadcast and wireless communications.

About The Author

Old Curmudgeon

The Old RF Curmudgeon has been poking his beak into the RF world for very close to fifty years. With both commercial and amateur radio experience, close contacts in broadcast engineering, radio site management experience, lots of paper pushed into the FCC, an immense curiosity about “how things work,” and a “real gud college education,” the RF Curmudgeon has seen a lot of telecom evolution. And he remembers almost all of it, can relate historical items to “modern developments,” and has a sharp sense of “what’s proper….and what’s not!”

17 Comments

  1. Just stumbled upon your site. Great article! Sure took me back.

    Don’t write off vacuum tubes. They are huge in the music world. Tube-based guitar amplifiers are the most sought-after and highly regarded out there, primarily due to the “warm” and sometimes saturated tone they produce versus solid state. It’s very similar to the vinyl LP vs. CD situation. Some things just sound better on an album.

    One side note: Tung Sol tubes are still out there but they appear to be a TM brand of Electro-Harmonix.

    Looking forward to future articles.

  2. Very interesting stuff sir. I’ve only been in the game since 1980 and well at the “end” of the tube period (though it’s final demise seems to be on permanent standby..) but remember sitting thru a few periods of basic tube theory at trade school.

    Many thanks for the articles.

    ln

  3. Love the curmudgeon approach! “Parts is parts!” Or as they say here in the Boston area, “Pahts is pahts!”

    ln

  4. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I worked on a number of “hollow-state” TVs and radios back in the late 70s, and while I don’t miss them, I do greatly miss the ready availability of replacement parts. I blame our reliance on proprietary components for the near-death of the home-electronics repair industry. It’s even a problem in broadcast engineering at times, when the only source of a specific integrated circuit is no longer in business, or when an entire generation of SMT/SMD electrolytic capacitors contained a design flaw that led to failure.

    ln

  5. What a great story! I am a little younger than you but was blessed to have such a store in the town where i lived. I had a wireless business and whenever we needed something NOW we could always head down to that little store and get what we needed to get whatever ailing transmitter we had back to life. There were a lot of retired folks in there that probably were the TV repairmen the author spoke of. I often concocted a reason to pick something up down there just to listen to these guys talk.electronics. Again Great Story!

  6. There used to be a chain of pharmacies and general stores with the name Rexault Drug Store in Massachusetts. Next to the soda fountain, was a tube tester, with charts and a stock of tubes. I used to sit at the soda counter as a kid and talk to the guys buying the tubes. I became pretty knowlegable about standard failures. I’d advise some guys to “try this tube first”, if the symptoms he told me matched the problem. Got my novice ham ticket in 1969 as KN1SUI.
    Bob

  7. Love the story. Much of my education came from hanging around a Radio-TV repair shop near our combination high school/ junior high building ( yep, small town!) Mr Lawson let me hang around watching the magic, sometimes cleaning up some, always with words of wisdom or time to answer questions from a kid working on a new crysta set, and later regenerative receiver, sometimes letting me have parts knowing I couldn;t afford it and at one point troubleshooting a homebrew receiver that I could not get going. We had an air force base nearby at the time and there were often part time techs working the bench there off duty time from the base and I could pick their brains, too…and sometimes drag a chassis from a stone dead tv from the pile under the bench to get a power transformer or something for a project. During that time I got my ham ticket, second class radio telephone and eventually first class radio telephone studying on my own in the venerable Q&A manual, Amateur Radio Handbook and the RCA tube manual, with questions answered by Mr Lawson and later by some of the transmitter sitter engineers at a couple of local radio stations. Without their help, none of this would have happened. I happened to see Mr Lawson shortly before his death and was always happy I had another chance to visit with him and let him know what his time and patience had meant. It was because of his patience and that of radio station engineers ( who were probably bored taking readings every half hour at the tower sites out in the country) that this kid got a better education for part of my carreer than I did at A&M
    (not to diminish those profs at all!!)

  8. I occasionally get to help my son track down some obscure (now) old tube for a antique guitar amp he’s working on. It gets harder and harder to find those kind “Radio & TV Parts” stores. There’s something to said for a place where you’re able to poke around among the dusty old boxes! The internet has likely killed most of ’em these days. As a broadcast tech when you’re looking for a part to get back on the air, you want it now ! You don’t want to have to wait for a delivery. I don’t know if my long white beard makes me a another curmudgeon, or not, but keep up your good works !
    M

  9. Nice! I got my first “formal” training the summer I was 10, in a local TV repair shop…

    ln

  10. I can easily see myself in the experiences that the readers have generously shared. Many of us grew up building kits, shagging old parts for our “home brew” circuits, soldering together projects that were really just a little beyond our current abilities! And knocking on the front door of the guy who had the biggest ham antenna within walking distance and, when the door opened, blurting out “I want to become a ham. Would you help me?” These too were part of the curriculum at the “old school.”

    What’s to be done for today’s kids, spending entire long summer days endlessly playing “World of Warcraft” and exchanging their views of the world within just 140 characters or less? Where do they find experience? Growth? The satisfaction that results when a simple self-built circuit works, the relay closes and the LED lights? Or do they just automatically assume that the world is “pre-built” and that all cable plugs will always fit only into their correct matching jacks?

    The generations pass, one after the other, and the world changes. But some things are abandoned by the roadside during the trip. The “old school” slowly fades in the distance as the horizon engulfs it. A sad farewell to you, my alma mater.

    ORFC

  11. Some of us were self-taught. The book to study was Foundations of Wireless, by Scroggie.
    A veritable tome of information. Then Transistors came along, you remember, little three-legged doodits, before LSI and chips with everything

    ln

  12. David:
    Great Book…the rest of the self taught “old school” tech’s library:

    ARRL Radio Amateur Handbook
    The Radio Handbook
    Radio Communication
    The Q&A Manual
    NAB Engineering Handbook
    RCA Receiving Tube Manual
    RCA Transmitting Tube Manual
    Repairing Superheterodynes (Old Rider book)
    Antenna Engineering ( RCA book)
    ARRL Antenna Book

    If you had access to them, what else did you need!!!! (I did manage to finally collect them all!! In the early days there were many hours at the Waco Public Library pouring over them)

  13. Great article. It brought me back to the tube days and flyback transformers. I was the “bench tec” in a small shop and the things I learned. How to fix a hum bar with a cap and black tape, using the SAMS to rethread a radio tuner so the right station would play with the correct display (painted on a piece of glass) showing. The list goes on and on. One last comment… I am not sure which took more space the shelves of SAM’s or the wall of tubes we had to have on hand. What a business it was then.

  14. Ohmygosh, you are an old curmudgeon! All kidding aside, you brought up some fond memories for me. I too had my first “real” electronics job as a parts counter man for a local distributor, and from there I joined the ranks of the crusty old TV service men. Yes, I changed my share of those CRTs. I joke with others that I started with cleaning tuners, and finished with flashing eproms – I worked the circuits! That was the early ’80s, the local distributor closed a few years after I worked there, and the crusty TV men are almost extinct. Even I moved on to other parts of the industry. Thanks for the romp in the past, and let me know if you’re interested in an old RC subber box.

  15. Mr. Coulson:

    I passed my Novice exam in 1960 with just the following thee paperback pamphlets, which were the “ARRL Beginners Trio:”

    “How to Become a Radio Amateur:” (50 cents)

    “The Radio Amateur’s License Manual” (50 cents)

    “Learning the Radiotelegraph Code” (35 cents)

    The stream of electronics/radio books began after I got my Novice ticket, and it’s never stopped!

    Code practice in preparation for the exam was with a fellow university student at lunch time. There were few code practice phonograph records in those days, and few other good ways to practice the code.

    In those days the Novice exams were “mail order,” and I took and passed the code exam administered by the neighborhood ham on whose front door I had originally knocked. My father administered the written exam. And then we mailed all the papers back to Washington.

    More than fifty years later, I still vividly recall the day I returned home from classes at the university and found, in the heap of mail the postman had left, a small white envelope with the inscription in the upper corner, “Federal Communications Commission, Washington D.C.” I knew that I had qualified! I was a “ham!”

    ORFC

  16. Yes… I was 11 years old when my headmaster gave me his copy of The Foundations Of Wireless. Complete with AC/DC circuits of dubious safety for radiograms and so on.

    ln

  17. What an awesome article. Thank you for reminding me of my roots. I did not have ‘exactly’ the same experiences as you; I actually took the school bus to the “old school”. I went to tech school and studied electronics engineering. The course no longer exists. It’s now called computer science, and I doubt they ever crack open the hardware. We would quiz each other on resistors by seeing how quickly the other kids could identify it.

    Thanks to 10 years as a cable company technician, and my Real education as a kid, I recently started work at ESPN. Just yesterday, I replaced capacitors in a non-functioning cable box here on campus, and it came to life once more. In that moment I remembered my old retired Navy electronics teacher, who would never shut up about gyros, and pictured him standing over my shoulder.

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