Let’s Meet . . . Dr. Gordon H. Pettengill, W1OUN

All through my childhood in the early 1930's I thought I wanted to study electrical engineering when I got older.  Even at the age of six, I was attempting to build radios -- none of which actually worked, of course -- out of old parts donated by the local radio repairman, parts pulled from junk radio sets built in the 1920's.  I remember showing some of these to a doctor who attended my father in 1935, and asking him if he knew why they weren't receiving radio signals.  He looked at one old vacuum tube, and saw the letters CX stamped on its base.  Remembering his Roman numerals, he suggested maybe I should be sending 110 volts to it, instead of the battery's six volts I was using.  I certainly hope he had a better knowledge of medicine!  And I definitely had my share of electrical jolts from the old power supplies -- called "battery eliminators" in those days.  It is a miracle I survived! 


By the age of 10, I had an elementary grasp of how radio sets worked, taken from old books I found in the local public library, but it wasn't till I was 11 or 12 that I first built a working radio - a simple crystal set.  But it was in high school that I began to meet others interested in radio, and get turned on to ham radio.  I owe particular gratitude to Henry Cross, who became W1OOP, an active two-meter ham in the Boston area.


Later, in college, I joined the MIT Radio Club, and studied for my amateur license in 1943 (test taken in the top floor of the old Custom House tower).  Although amateur radio activity and call-sign licensing were shut down during the war, the town of Dedham where I lived had a War Emergency Radio Service that permitted a group of us to set up very-short-range transmitters at a two-and-a-half-meter wavelength, for communication in emergencies.  My receiver was an acorn tube in a super-regenerative circuit (ugh!).  I wonder whether the output from the receiver wasn't stronger than from the transmitter!  We never did have an emergency, but we were allowed to run test transmissions on a regular basis from our homes, and this provided a pale substitute for normal peacetime ham activity.


In 1944 I was drafted into the army as an infantryman, but after the war I ended up in Austria, where I was transferred to the Signal Corps, and the unit I was in had a couple of unused Hallicrafters kilowatt radio transmitters.  Since one of my buddies was also a radio ham, we quickly converted one of these to a radio amateur station using the call sign: OE1NX - an Austrian prefix.  We worked a lot of stations on CW throughout Europe on 40 meters, and took advantage of 10-meter openings to talk back to the States.


After I was discharged from the army in 1946, I moved to Portland, ME, where my mother had remarried and set up my new ham station (W1OUN) there, including a 24-element rotating beam antenna for 2-meters, along with a decent transmitter (300 watts).  I was quite interested in radio propagation at these short, line-of-sight wavelengths, and over the summers of 1946, 1947 and 1948 arranged a nightly schedule with W1PRZ, in East Bridgewater, Mass., a distance of well over a hundred miles.  At that extreme distance, his signal was usually weak, but I could still recognize it, and we traded reports.  Once in a while, atmospheric conditions would bend the transmissions around the Earth's curvature, and we would hear each other loudly.  By keeping regular records, we actually began to find patterns in the propagation.  I was also interested in the occasional auroral-enhanced propagation, and in the use of meteor trails to hear very brief echoes from distant stations.


After finishing college in 1948, I took a job at Los Alamos, NM, and got a new call: W5PGY.  In those days you had to get a new assignment each time you moved into a new call area.  A couple of years later, I decided to go for an advanced degree, and moved out to Berkeley, CA - with another new call: W6JWA!  When I finally came back to live in New England in 1955, I was lucky to get my old call back, and have held it ever since.


Except for W1OOP, most of my former friends in the Boston area were gone by 1955, but one of the more interesting new ones, met through W1OOP and his radio circle, was Sam Harris, W1FZJ, an engineer with Microwave Associates Corporation.  Sam (and his wife, Helen) lived in an extraordinary spread in Medfield, MA, where he had a number of isolated wooded acres over which to spread large antenna systems, surrounded by a square mile or more of marshland.  Thus there were no neighbors to complain of radio interference on their TV!  A group of us formed a radio club called (after a nearby conservation preserve) the Rhododendron Swamp VHF Society, with the call: W1BU.  Yes, we later incurred the ire of the Boston University Radio Club, who wanted those same letters!


Sam, with help from our group, managed to construct a 64-element beam antenna and high-power transmitting system, that could just detect radio echoes from the moon at a two-meter wavelength.  At this extremely short wavelength, signals do not reflect from the earth's high-altitude ionosphere (as does traditional short-wave radio), and are thus normally received only over a line-of-sight distance of a few dozen to perhaps a hundred miles.  But, by bouncing from the moon's surface as it was viewed simultaneously by two separated stations, two-meter radio signals could be sent halfway around the world.  Since it takes 2.5 seconds to travel to the moon and back at the speed of light, we could easily test our equipment by transmitting a one-second burst, and then listening for our own echo.  Using this system, we managed to communicate with a number of other amateurs located in Europe and South America.


In early 1962, I left the States for a scientific meeting in Varna, Bulgaria.  After five days of meetings there (by the Black Sea), it was time to head home, but I thought it would be interesting to try and take the famous Orient Express, which crossed southern Bulgaria into Turkey.  On the day of my departure, I flew out of Varna on the local domestic airline, and landed in Burgos.  It was not a city on the usual tourist circuit, and I stood out like a sore thumb!  Burgos is a port city, and had the slightly rough look so often seen near docks, so I was a little apprehensive as I walked towards what looked like the downtown district.  As I waited for the light at a crossing, carrying my suitcase, I recognized a pin on the lapel of the man standing next to me: it was the internationally recognized emblem of the American Radio Relay League, with its logo of antenna and coil.  I pointed to it and identified myself as a fellow ham (in halting Russian, which is pretty close to Bulgarian, and widely understood in the region).  Without a word, he picked up my suitcase and motioned me to follow him!


We ended up in a small cafe, where I joined a group of young people over a jug of local wine and a waxed paper full of oily black olives.  For several hours, I described my American life as well as I could - it's amazing how much one can communicate in a halting mixture of Russian and English, when an eagerness to do so prevails!  The rest of that trip is another story, one that does not involve ham radio.


A year or so later, my work took me to live in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, for a couple of years, at the big 1000-ft radio astronomy antenna operated by Cornell University there.  Thus, another new call: KP4BPZ.  I set up a simple shortwave system from my house; I also used equipment at the site (see my QSL card below), and on several occasions was able to commandeer the big dish for a few hours of operation at both two meters (using a simple Yagi feed) and on the 420-450 MHz amateur band (in the middle of which Arecibo had its U.S. Government license to operate a megawatt radar!).  With the huge antenna behind me, it was possible to use reflections from the Moon to contact amateurs in Europe and South America, at 70 cm wavelength.  Because the sky coverage of the antenna is limited to only about three hours each day, we recorded a bandwidth of several hundred Khz after each transmission, and could thus patiently dig out weak signals coming back to us at our leisure over several days of replaying.  Everyone got a QSL!

When I returned to Arecibo for a second stint a few years later I was assigned a fresh call: KP4DFX (actually my favorite!), which I used intensively on 15 meters.  I managed a Captain Cook award for working 50 VK's as well as 50 ZL's in that bicentenary year.  There's nothing like a tropical location for good DX'ing!


Since returning to Massachusetts, I haven't been very active till recently, when I got back on two meters, and shortly hope to revisit some of my old HF bands!

Gordon Pettengill, May 2005



©Natasha Bochkov, M.C.S., Martin Bayes, Ph.D., and Donna LaRoche, M.Ed.

Here is a photo of

Dr. Gordon Pettengill.

His radio amateur QSL card  was sent to confirm
amateur radio contacts he made from Arecibo, 1963-1965.