Auckland Star, 30 July 1924, p 8
AN INITIATION CEREMONY.
“Come round tonight,” said Jenkins, as I swung on a neighbouring strap in our morning tramcar. “You will have a real treat; you will be able to hear KGO.” Who or what KGO was I had not the faintest idea. The cryptic letters conveyed to me merely a sense of my inferiority, and I was loath to seek explanation under the gaze of many envious eyes turned in the direction of our conversation. To display ignorance of radio terms in these enlightened days is tantamount to being unable to recognise a Ford car, either by eye or by ear. So, in a fit of misguided enthusiasm I declared that nothing would keep me from hearing KGO.
Often during our tram rides Jenkins had talked at me, from superior heights, of such things as neutrodynes, heterodynes, antennae and other weird devices, that seem the sole topic of conversation among that growing school called radio fans. Once, as a horticultural enthusiast, I had interpolated a remark about bulbs. He squashed me at once with the intimation that his latest set had five. Thereafter I merely endured his remarks, and that night, with the awe of one attending his first seance, I arrived at Jenkins’ residence.
I was ushered into his den, once, a study, now apparently an anarchist’s room for the construction of infernal machines. A chaos of wire, coils, dry batteries, accumulators, meters, and all the miscellaneous gear on which schoolboys love to feast their eyes, littered table, shelves and floor. Jenkins himself, surrounded by all the accessories to the crime, leaned over a cabinet with the intentness of a skilled cracksman operating on a safe. He merely glanced up on my entry. “Confound this resistance,” he muttered. I shut the door feeling his remark might apply to the draught, and waited in silence. The man who once used to greet me as a bosom friend twirled little black knobs, fiddled with little brass screws, readjusted a strange device about his ears, and looked annoyed. “I’ve caught their carrier!” he ejaculated at last. “Do they use pigeons?” I ventured. Jenkins’ glance withered me. There is nothing greater than the scorn of the radio bug for the blundering ignoramus. “It’s his carrier wave I’ve got; the wave on which the sound impulses are impinged.”
I failed to understand how he had got the wave and yet not what was floating on it. Thoughts of boathooks and other useful appliances connected with waves flashed through my mind, but the recent look of scorn made me chary of speech. Suddenly Jenkins’ face beamed. He became transformed. “I’ve got em! got em” he gasped. He looked as if he had, but reflecting a little enthusiasm, I queried, “Who?” “KGO — California!” radiated Jenkins with a look befitting a world conqueror. “Coming in strong too.” Then his countenance changed. Fierce oaths mingled with weird wireless terms poured from his lips as he anathematised, so it seemed to me, all the listeners-in of Auckland. They must have been behaving like frivolous flappers at a classical concert, judging by my friend’s imprecations. More accustomed to telephone trials than to radio, I even blushed for the girl in the exchange ere I realised that in this case she existed not.
Again Jenkins’ mood changed. Telepathically his cursings must have had their effect, for with the remark, “Here they are, clear as a bell, now,” he removed his strange head gear and crowned me with it. “You will hear an American orchestra right across the Pacific.”
I felt as if I were running a telephone exchange, and was tempted to call “Number, please!” but no sound came. “Your orchestra’s dead,” I said. He dived at his knobs and twirled. I was wrong. The orchestra wasn’t dead, but it sounded as if it soon might be, and that meanwhile it was suffering for its musical sins.
“Got San Francisco?” asked Jenkins.
“It certainly must be something in America,” I replied. “It’s undoubtedly American. To me it sounds like a jazz band in agony mixed up with a fourth of July fireworks display.” There were intermittent bursts of alleged music, mixed with crackings, zippings, and howlings of all kinds. The expert grabbed another set of head gear, donned it, jabbed a plug into a hole, and got busy with his twirling again. The explosions ceased.
“I think I’ve eliminated static,” he commented.
“Where is he sending from?” I asked.
“Heaven — or the other place,” was the reply.
There came faintly yet distinctly to my ears the strains of orchestral music. Jenkins assured me that I was really hearing KGO. I accepted his assurance, and, for the first time, realised that the apparatus in front of me was not a toy. I could even picture the scene in the ballroom of the big San Francisco hotel. Here was I far across the world’s greatest ocean held in a spell by this marvel of transmission. Suddenly the sound faded.
“Midnight! They’ve finished!” interjected my wireless pilot. Then only did I realise that it was last night’s concert in Frisco that I had heard, and that while with us the day was far spent, there it had just been born.
Again Jenkins twirled those uncanny knobs, and somebody who seemed right against my ear drum shouted at me, “1YA, 1YA, 1YA.”
“A lecture on mathematics,” I surmised, but as he had omitted to say whether the sign was plus or multiply I was in doubt whether he meant 3YA or YA cubed. Then came realisation, and I knew that Auckland, too, was on the air. The Lyric Four sang to me as well as I had ever heard them in the Town Hall, but with much greater volume. My wireless wizard fiddled and fussed again, two glowing globes ceased to glow, and the music flowed in with a beautifully modulated strength. I settled down to enjoy a cheap entertainment. “‘Zip-zip, zip-zip-zip,”‘ and the Lyric Four was buzzed out of hearing. I gazed a query.
“VLD,” growled Jenkins.
“Very loud disturbance, certainly,” I agreed.
Jenkins was plainly irritated.
“That cursed post office station,” he complained. “The most inconsiderate lot of fiends imaginable. Why can’t they keep off the air with their ship conversations till we amateurs have gone to bed.”
The zipping continued, with admixtures of more mathematical formulae of the 1YA type and spasms of local music. I realised that this listening-in business was one of the things that Job had not to bear. But more interruptions were to follow.
There burst into the room an excited individual with a “loud-speaker” tie and a voice of similar quality.
“Jenkins!” he yelled. “Here’s something in the way of DX records for you.” I looked for gramophone discs, but he bore none. Instead he flourished a piece of paper. “Logged the lot of them since yesterday,” he shouted. Jenkins pored over the paper.
“I’ve had him, and him, and him,” he exclaimed, “but who’s this?” Came then more talk in strange alphabetical language that sounded almost algebraic. The set was switched off, and the pair commenced swapping what I gathered were experiences in radio reception. I had heard before that all radio fans were liars of a class far eclipsing fishermen. These two may have been so, but at least their lying was most deadly earnest in character. I didn’t want to hear their experiences, I wanted more of any old group of letters from anywhere, so long as it signified music, of which I had but a taste. I longed to clamp on the headgear and twine these nobs myself, but feared profaning the sacred instrument. To the two enthusiasts I had ceased to exist. They were away arguing through the ether, so I simply faded out and walked home.
On arrival I found my small son poring over coils and diagrams on the kitchen table. “Dad,” he chirped. “Billy Jenkins has given me these. Come and help me make a wireless set.” Then the great temptation came to me. I gazed at the book and the diagrams and laid my hand gently on the magic coil.
“No!” I said resolutely. “I will join the bowling club!” And I went off to bed.