XXth Century Radio Fiction

21:31 Fernando Luiz de Souza 0 Comments

Dear colleagues, let me invite you to take a break from daily radio issues and perhaps, in some cases, to recall a few memories too.

What I suggest to you is to check the presence that our hobby had in “works of fiction” during the century that saw its birth and its development. Works of fiction would mean in this context written stories, comics, television series and films.

And, along with the amateur radio strictly speaking, we would look for references to its younger brother the Citizen’s Band, or even to short wave listening in general terms; but excluding now the rest of the wireless services. The idea would be sketching how the pop culture and the entertaiment industry have seen us and reflected us.

“Hog Wild” (1930). A collection of MUST NOT do when you try to lift up an antenna on your roof
Let’s begin! Looking back to the first half of the XXth century we find in 1930 a comical short film named “Hog Wild”.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, that lovable pair, are witnesses of the expansion of broadcasting in that early age and live their funny events while trying to stretch a long wire between two masts on the roof of Oliver’s house someplace near Los Angeles, California. Seemingly, Oliver’s wife wanted to receive broadcasters from Japan…

Available at

“Radio Hams” presentation (1939) with a primitive
lion in the background as the symbol of MGM
An interesting documentary: “Radio Hams”, shot in 1939 in the United States.

It underlines the participation of ham radio operators in emergency situations and shows two examples, a domestic accident and the loss of an aircraft.

About ten minutes dressed with humour and well worth watching. http://www.youtube.com/

As to written stories, I remember a couple of British adventure novels from the forties, which I read in my childhood in the sixties. One of them belonged to Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series and the other was a part of Anthony C. Wilson’s “Norman and Henry Bones” collection. Strangely enough, these little novels feature false hams, individuals pretending to be amateur operators in order to use the airwaves for spying or communicating with criminal organizations. Of course they finally got arrested. Not a good image for amateur radio! Perhaps the Second World War and its stories about sabotages were too close yet... In 1949, the British writer Gerald Kersh tells us, in his science-fiction story named “The Copper Dahlia”, about an aristocrat who fills his leisure time by setting up complex receivers (“I hear the things that radio amateur operators send by their homemade transmitters”, the protagonist says). He finds by chance an extraterrestrial emission in morse code announcing to human kind a close and inevitable end. But he is considered mad as he desperately tries in vain to re-tune that transmission, day and night, by resizing again and again the dahlia-shaped copper coil the story is named after.

From the fifties on there is a pretty good bunch of references… so let’s have a go with comics.
The famous comic series “The Adventures Of Tintin”, by the Belgian cartoonist and scriptwriter Hergé, records a critical communication between Captain Haddock and a radio ham who turns out to be the pain-in-the- neck insurance agent Joylon Wagg; this guy, who assumes Haddock is joking and proves to be of no help, spends his free time exercising verbosity before the microphone of a big homemade AM transmitter, a logical rig according with the time (“The Calculus Affair”, 1956). This silly-natured character doesn’t do much good to the image of radio hams, don’t you agree?

Another Belgian cartoonist, Franquin, includes a clear portrait of amateur radio operation in his work “QRN over Bretzelburg” released between 1961 and 1963. The gang made up of Spirou, Fantasio and the Marsupilami (a strange but friendly animal) is joined by Marcelin Switch, a licensed operator with the callsign ON4 BB. He had made communication by radio with the king of a neighbour country who asked for help in a desperate situation of virtual imprisonment in his own castle. I haven’t found this comic in English, but anyway it shows quite properly some external signs of ham radio: an HF rig, a nice two-element quad antenna, and also the codes QRN, QRK and QSA. By the way, this ON callsign still exists and its current owner is aware of the curious story it involves.
Fantasio takes a look at ON4BB’s shack (“QRN sur Bretzelburg”, a story from the sixties)
Now let us take some adventure novels out from our shelf. A decent adventure may include, and often does, some radio communications. For example, spanning two and a half decades from the sixties to mid-eighties we found the excellent North American book series “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”, created by Robert Arthur. This series deserves a special mention because the use of Citizen’s Band devices is explicitly recognized and even explained in some detail.

In “The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy” (1965) one of the young investigators is trapped inside a mummy case on the back of a truck. He desperately asks for help through a little home-brewed walkie-talkie but, as the truck is moving, he can’t get any stable communication; furthermore, one of the contacted users gets annoyed and says: “ought to be a law against letting kids jam up the Citizen’s Band this way with bad gags”. A gang of robbers uses powerful walkie-talkies in “The Mystery of the Fiery Eye” (1967) to stay in contact. The author refers there to the fact that those devices needed a license, though the gang didn’t mind that kind of details... I declare that these adventures had something to do with the beginnings of my own passion for radio operation.

What about TV series? Or films? Well, now and then, among the various situations where radio communications are involved, ham radio or CB is shown as taking a leading role in the plot.
A young Parisian ham hears the help call from Lutèce’s Captain (“If All the Guys in the World”)
First we must list the 1955 French film “Si tous des gars du monde” (“If All the Guys in the World”) based on the
novel by Jacques Remy, that obtained a special award at the United Nations.

A French amateur radio operator catches a distress
call from a fishing boat in the North Sea: the crew has fallen seriously ill and they need medicines at once. With other colleagues from Germany this operator activates an international solidarity chain that ends happily when the boat is rescued.
Flashing back to 1928, the 1969 motion picture “The Red Tent” recreates the doomed Nobile’s arctic expedition, lost in the Svalvard archipelago. An Italian-Soviet production directed by Mijail Kalatozov, it mentions how a Siberian amateur operator received the weak signals from the “Italia” airship’s crew and reported their whereabouts. You see, again radio hams and their altruistic work: it is a constant till our days.

The US entertainment industry is responsible for the rest of the productions mentioned here. It did pay attention during the seventies to the 27 Mhz band’s dramatic expansion, a social phenomenon in that decade. Let's quote the TV series “Movin' On”, a typical road teleplay with Claude Akins in the role of truck-driver Sonny Pruitt. It seems that producers were advised by experts so the play was as realistic as possible. It may have been the reason why a mike was always close at hand in the truck cab. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071012/ .

Another series was “2-40 Robert”, focused on police emergency patrols around the Pacific Highway. With constant radio communications, more than one CB user borrowed its title as his or her personal nickname on the air. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078558/ .

And, as far as movies are concerned, two of them witness CB communication’s strength and liveliness in the world of trucking: “Breaker breaker” (1977) with Chuck Norris http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075783/ , and the somehow frantic Sam Peckinpah’s “Convoy” (1978) with Kris Kristofferson http://www.imdb.com/list/-3aInYghaWk/?ref_=tt_rls_3 .

More relaxing, the interesting Jonathan Demme’s “Citizen’s Band” (1977) was a comedy with good reviews but low income. It reflects CB radios as a link among the lives of a set of various human characters. Some years later it was re-released as “Handle with Care”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handle_with_Care_%281977_film%29
From the images of the TV series “The French Atlantic Affair”, we can confirm Billy used a solid-state 12 V Atlas 215 X
Now a mini TV series comes to my mind: “The French Atlantic Affair” (1979), with six one-hour episodes. A terrorist command led by a psychopath (performed by Telly Savalas) takes the passengers of a luxury liner as hostages.

Unfortunately for him he doesn’t notice a kid named Billy, who has a modern HF solid state rig in his cabin. The kid succeeds in alerting the authorities by this means.

Doc Brown gives from a distance some advice to his young time-travelling companion Marty McFly (“Back to the Future”)
In the eighties, we can’t avoid the walkie-talkies scenes in the adventure film trilogy “Back to the Future”, a classic by Robert Zemeckis. In the second part of that trilogy (1989) doctor Emmet Brown fetches a couple of Archer Space Patrol walkie-talkies. Those free-use devices have an extraordinary importance in the plot (and they have an unbelievable range, I
should add) as they become fundamental in the scenes of pursuit. Technically it is quite likely they are miliwatt sets working on 49 MHz band.

And just a short reference to the TV family series “ALF”, aired from 1986 to 1990 in the USA. Alf is a furry alien who finds his way to our planet on the trail of a ham radio transmission out of Willie Tanner’s antenna. He becomes Tanner’s family guest after crashing into their garage. Http://www.tv.com/shows/alf
A distress call for fear that the hungry worm will pop out of the soil at any moment (“Tremors”)
More about Citizen’s Band. In 1990 “Tremors” was released, an unpretentious science-fiction movie with some touches of humour.

The residents in an isolated town in Nevada’s desert, where there is no telephone, must face a very dangerous giant worm-shaped creature dwelling in the sub-soil. The action goes up to peaks when two groups of people, one apart from another, plan a strategy against the monster thanks to a 27 MHz base transceiver and a walkie-talkie, both quite reasonably featured.

“Contact” is a motion picture directed in 1997 by Robert Zemeckis, featuring Jodie Foster in the role of a radio-astronomer fully immersed in the world of science. When she was a young girl her father sometimes let her use his callsign W9GFO. She was amazed at the communications world she discovered from the radio shack. A sixties rig, a nice CQ and a subsequent QSO are properly shown. The callsign, vacant at that time, is now in use.
CQ, CQ... No answer. “I need another antenna”, she says. Isn’t this situation familiar to you?

John’s father can’t believe the range of that extraordinary propagation back to 1969
The century comes to its end with the film “Frequency” (1999), by Gregory Hoblit, another classic work about time travels.

John lives obsessed over his father’s early death when trying as a fireman to extinguish a big fire. One day, a strange geomagnetic phenomenon related to solar radiation makes possible for him to get in contact with his father back in 1969 through the same rig he used. Not many short shots to this HF rig, but it might well be a Heathkit SB-102. You can see the antenna as well, a three-element yagi. For me this movie captures pretty well the amateur radio magic, even if it involves the chimera of a leap in time.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this collection of radio fiction. I´m sure you know other examples. Some more information is condensed on the web page www.ac6v.com/popculture.html . My thanks to Randy, KK4BNC, for his useful advice about the translation of this work into English .

Best 73. Always QRV

Alfredo Fernández-Magdalena EA1BCS

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