Wot Grandad did in the war

When I was a kid I was very interested in amateur radio. This is hardly a surprise, since my dad was an electronics engineer at the time and his father an electrical engineer. I never got my licence, as it happens, mostly because I like to listen but I’m not so keen to hear my own voice. But I learned an awful lot from all those coils and condensers and ridiculously long aerials. In fact I learned a lot that I didn’t even really understand at the time but which comes in very handy for my present work. Understand radio and you understand everything!

Anyway, Dad was telling me recently about Grandad’s radio work during the war. His callsign was G2BPT, and I can imagine Grandad’s light Norfolk accent in my head, coughing politely and saying, “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is golf two bravo papa tango calling CQ.” Except in truth he probably only used Morse, so really it should be dah-dit-dah-dit, dah-dah-dit-dah, etc. But during the war, Grandad was a radio listener, writing down secret German messages that he picked up on his radio and sending them off to a mysterious post office box somewhere. Here he is with his wireless set:

Dad didn’t know very much about what my grandfather actually did, though, because of course people simply didn’t speak about such things at the time or even for decades afterwards. Walls have ears. He did show me one of Grandad’s message pads years ago and I’m pretty sure it was an Enigma message but that’s as much as I could say. But a few days ago Dad emailed to say he’d realized he’d been Googling for the wrong information: he’d been looking up stuff to do with the radio secret service, when in fact it was the Radio Security Service. So I just had a quick Google myself (Google is spelled  − −  .   − − −    − − −   − −  .   . −  . .   .   for you old folks) and came across this rather charming documentary about the Service, made in 1979. I thought it was really interesting so I thought I’d share it, partly because this year is Alan Turing’s centenary and this is my modest connection with that world, but mostly because I know a bunch of you are inveterate geeks just like me and will enjoy it…


Way to go, Grandad!

P.S. Who invented radio? If you say Marconi you aren’t geek enough! I came across this the other day and thought I’d help spread it. Nikola Tesla was a real genius, an oppressed hero and the owner of the mother of all spark generators. You might like to help preserve what’s left of it: http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_museum

About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

4 Responses to Wot Grandad did in the war

  1. harryosh says:

    I’m glad you said an “inveterate” geek and not an invertebrate geek! I think you should give credit to other factors because there a people with totally different interests and backgrounds and you cannot forget them. A classic example is that some of us could never understand a radio, it was too much. Instead we excelled at designing power supplies, and the inner workings of those was actually sufficient philosophical food to get through life. This is because of the deep and mysterious concept of Feedback that is at the heart of all analog systems. Just want to ensure sufficient diversity of viewpoints here 🙂 (I’m being silly)


  2. Gryphon says:

    When he was a boy, I’m pretty sure my dad viewed radios as transcendantly as you do. Then when his crystal kit was finally all built, he realized there wasn’t anything but commercials to listen to…Except maybe ball games. And ahahaha CB radio was worse, to hear my dad tell it CB was basically the 4chan of radios. Before I was born my parents had a neighbor whose massive unlicensed amp was so powerful you could hear his profane monologues and chest-pounding about the size of his antenna emanating tinnily from the TV, phone, lightbulbs etc.

    I have a similar relationship with computers and stuff, in that I’m mostly disillusioned to the actual uses we tend to put them to. Every time I use one for something legitimately futuristic and cool, though, my heart swells three sizes. I felt wildly proud of myself and validated when I was able to usher my parents down in the small hours of the morning to watch a livestream of Mission Control on one screen and that live-updating simulation of Curiosity’s approach to Mars on the other. “This, THIS is what technology is for, just as I was promised” kind of thing.

    Getting a signal from someone on the other side of the planet when the weather is just right must have been the same sort of magical in the radio age.

    • stevegrand says:

      Very nicely put! I was able to skip over the CB radio age. I don’t actually know what amateurs do nowadays, given that it’s just so easy to go out and buy a highly sophisticated radio set and hence building your own would presumably be so retro as to be laughable. When I was about 12 I used to go to sleep with an ordinary MW radio under my pillow, listening to all the hoots and whistles and mysterious beacons (I still remember the tune of one and it makes me sleepy just to think about it). But now and again I’d manage to get Radio Moscow or some halting English from Pakistan or whatever. It was really exotic back then, before the internet made it all so easy. And so much more exotic in the previous generation, when you finally got that signal out of a piece of coal from the backyard and a carefully positioned cat’s whisker of wire!

      Totally agree about the Curiosity landing, too! Not only did our own technology do us proud – photos of mars arriving on our desktops almost immediately – but it was so wonderful to watch all those engineers at JPL be vindicated too. Anyone who isn’t bowled over by such an achievement simply doesn’t understand the difficulty of the problem!

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