King Spark

fellow coastal ham member ve7aov on spark radios.  Thanks john for an informative article

We are a hundred years on from when King Spark ruled the air waves. Those days are out of living memory. Now without living advocates spark technique is too often in danger of being dismissed as lame and its importance lost to our “culture” as radio operators. What spark technology did was to “invent” the pattern of radio station operation that we hams still know today.

In its great days, spark found it’s major role on shipboard. A ship out of sight of land was on her own before the beginning of the 20th century. So it had ever been for ocean going sailors. For millennia whatever happened they had always been on their own. Within an eye blink of history, ten years, that isolation was gone. In an emergency a ship could now call for help. The range of her transmitter and the sensitivity of other ships’ receivers was not what we would expect today. Both, though, were sufficient to summon help from ships near enough to be of assistance to a vessel in distress. The survivors of the “Titanic” disaster would testify.

Radio also brought the luxury for passengers of being able to send and receive telegrams while at sea. The vessel’s master remained in touch with his company, too. Messages were relayed from ship to ship and eventually to a shore station where the message would be relayed once more, this time onto that still recent technical wonder, the land line telegraph. It also brought efficiencies to shipping by directing vessels while en route. The observation has been made that masters who had been the supreme authority at sea were not always pleased with the new technology though. Suddenly head office was looking over their shoulder. Pasty faced city clerks were requiring reports and changing instructions.

Spark was not a poorly thought out, half baked system. The quenched gap, the rotary gap and the synchronous rotary gap all did a very good job. They were all simple devices. The quenched gap enabled many hams, in particular, to get onto the air with rudimentary equipment cobbled up in the basement. The signals from all those spark transmitters along with the continuous, though wavering, output of the Poulsen arc, after it had been developed up to a commercial level, established what we think of today as high frequency radio technique.

The appearance of the high vacuum tube in receivers of ever increasing sophistication, along with higher powered high vacuum tubes developing reasonable power on the transmit side, brought in the era of single signal reception. Having built “radio”, almost all spark operations were gone again by the late ‘twenties. That fancy new tube equipment simply stepped into the big shoes that twenty years of spark technique had left behind.

Spark had worked well. Let’s keep alive the memory of King Spark.

John Nightingale
at radio station VE7AOV