Summer 2008 Issue

The Basement
Laboratory Group:
A Pioneering VHF Club
Part 1–Carl Scheideler, W2AZL



Following his successful year-long series on KH6UK, Mark Morrison continues his look back at other pioneers of weak-signal VHF communications.



By Mark Morrison, WA2VVA

 

Photo A. Left to right: Mike Markus; unknown; John Manna, John Linse, K2HAC; Carl Scheideler, W2AZL; unknown; unknown; Benny Cembrola, WA2MTT; unknown;
unknown; unknown; and Bob Henne, W2FCC.

The hills of northern New Jersey, bordered to the west by the Delaware River and to the east by Newark Bay, have always been rich in natural resources. History tells us that the Lene Lenape Indians first hunted and fished in these hills hundreds of year ago. In the 1800s, the rivers that cross this region supported a thriving canal system, bringing coal from Pennsylvania to the industrial centers in Paterson and Newark. Later came the railroads, transporting huge quantities of mineral ore and fueling an industrial revolution here. Hematite, an ore used in the production of iron and steel, spurred the building of factories and railroads. Copper and zinc, which were used to make wire and batteries, helped the telegraph and telephone industries grow here. Galena, an important mineral to “crystal radios” was processed into lead for batteries and other uses. Mica, which even today can be found in large sheets, became a critical component in vacuum tubes due to its electrical and thermal-insulating properties.

Industry flourished in these hills, with names such as Edison, Marconi, RCA, and Western Electric all setting up shop. For all its natural resources, however, the greatest was that of the working class people who lived here in the first half of the 20th century. These were the people whose hard work and determination shaped the world we live in today.
With a huge technical pool to draw from, northern New Jersey played a central role in the development of amateur as well as professional communications in the years following WW II. Logbooks from the late 1940s show a spattering of VHF calls, mostly within 50 miles of each other. In those days you had to be something of a pioneer to be on VHF, as commercial equipment was not yet widely available. Before the war a typical VHF station might have been home built, but in the years following WW II, surplus equipment such as the venerable SCR-522 VHF transceiver made it possible for practically anyone with a license to get on the air.

Although commercial VHF equipment would eventually become available to hams from northern New Jersey companies such as Clegg Labs, Whippany Labs, and to a lesser extent Federal Telephone & Radio, it was helpful to know someone who happened to work for one of these companies. This was likely to happen if you belonged to one of the local radio clubs.

The Basement Lab Group

The Tri County Radio Association, one of the oldest ham clubs still in existence, became a local gathering place for numerous hams, including many notable VHF men. A small group of Tri County members with an interest in VHF radio started an informal group known as the Basement Laboratory Group, largely made up of employees of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, but open to anyone with an interest in VHF radio. Some members of this group would later play important roles in VHF radio, including many significant firsts. In this series of articles I hope to acquaint you with the members of this informal VHF group, and the roles they played in the history of amateur VHF communications.
Photo A, taken sometime in the early 1960s, shows some of the members of the Basement Lab Group . Included are some members of the Tri Country Radio Association as well as the local MARS VHF networks, both Air Force as well as Army. The location is thought to be Neptune, New Jersey. Note the classic halo VHF antenna on the bumper of the Plymouth Valiant.

The Basement Laboratory Group (BLG) was headed by Carl Scheideler, W2AZL, a talented RF design engineer who worked for Bell Labs. Carl’s work is believed to have involved the microwave repeaters that were spread across the hilltops of America in the days before satellite communications. In those days both telephone and broadband television programming were distributed via microwave relay towers spaced 30 to 50 miles apart and using specially designed horn antennas. The low-noise amplifiers and traveling-wave-tube amplifiers developed for use in these towers would later be used in the satellite ground stations that ultimately replaced them. An upscale version of the repeater horn antenna (photo B) was used to track the Echo satellite, a metalized balloon recognized as the first (passive) communications satellite, although experiments of this nature were conducted by BLG members as early as 1959 (see figure 1).

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