Alfred P. Morgan: A Generation’s Radio Hacker

I was surfing the web looking for interesting projects the other day when I ran into [SkyKing’s] exquisite transistor demodulator radio builds. He mentioned that they were “Alfred P. Morgan-style” and that brought back a flood of memories about a man who introduced a whole generation to electronics and radio.

[Morgan] was born in 1889 and in the early part of the twentieth century, he was excited to build and fly an airplane. Apparently, there wasn’t a successful flight. However, he eventually succeeded and wrote his first book: “How to Build a 20-foot Bi-Plane Glider.” In 1910, he and a partner formed the Adams Morgan company to distribute radio construction kits. We probably wouldn’t remember [Morgan] for his airplanes, but we do recognize him for his work with radio.

By 1913, he published a book “The Boy Electrician” which covered the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism (at a time when these subjects were far more mysterious than they are today). [Morgan] predicted the hacker in the preface to the 1947 edition. After describing how a boy was frustrated that his model train automated to the point that he had nothing actually to do, [Morgan] observed:

The prime instinct of almost any boy at play is to make and to create. He will make things of such materials as he has at hand, and use the whole force of dream and fancy to create something out of nothing.

Of course, we know this applies to girls too, but [Morgan] wrote this in 1913, so you have to fill in the blanks. I think we can all identify with that sentiment, though.

However, [Morgan’s] best-remembered books were from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The first one was titled “The Boys’ First Book of Radio and Electronics.” You can guess the successive titles (just replace the word “First”).

The first book covered some basics about how [Hertz] performed experiments and theory but aimed at young people. [Morgan] was adept at making the topics accessible. He’d studied at MIT, so he knew the complexities of the subject, but he also knew his audience. The books talked about subjects of interest at the time like how “underwater sounds” (SONAR) helped to win World War II.  Chapter 5 and beyond of the book, however, was the part that got dog-eared from constant examination. Here’s the start of Chapter 5:

For less than one dollar you can buy a marvelous scientific device–namely a “tube” for a radio receiver. This inexpensive creation of scientific research does its work with a precision and a certainty that are astonishing.

If you were a kid who’d stared into the holes at the back of your family TV and saw those glowing thing inside, this chapter was a revelation. Chapter 6 was even more practical. It covered schematic symbols and the resistor color code. That chapter laid the groundwork for what every reader wanted: construction plans! Chapter 7 showed how to make a detector (basically a diode) out of some scrap material and iron pyrite, galena or silicon (see right). After that, it is a short trip to radio receivers that became progressively more complex.

The projects were well described, with detailed plans and notes and–most importantly–used parts you could obtain. The book didn’t have just radio projects. Chapter 10 contains an audio frequency amplifier (so you could put your radio’s signals out on a speaker). There’s also chapters on antennas and Morse code. The section on soldering is informative, but I’d hate to handle SMD with [Morgan’s] choice of irons (see left).

Building things in those days was a lot more artistic than most projects are today. Look at that crystal radio layout above, the picture of [SkyKing’s] radio above that, or you can see a few [Morgan] builds in [kc9kep’s] video, below. You constructed projects on wood or a steel chassis. You did wiring by hand. You could not get amplifiers, product detectors, and mixers as functional blocks in an IC containing 100s of transistors. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to romanticize the era. I like building complex things out of ICs on PCBs and making things that would have amazed [Morgan] and his contemporaries. Imagine meeting Morgan in 1950 and telling him that your latest project had thousands of transistors (most of them, of course, bundled in an Arduino; even an old RCA 1802 had 5,000 transistors inside).

What I do wonder, though, is how does a budding electronic experimenter get this kind of start today? Sure, it is easier than ever to slap together some very complicated projects. But where are the simple projects you could slap together from stuff you found in the garage? (Well, ok, you don’t want to use my garage for that example, but you know what I mean.) Even an LED blinker today is likely to have a microcontroller in it. That’s a good thing, too, but maybe you’d learn more by building a relaxation oscillator. Sure, we’d never do that in a real project. But there’s some merit to having starter projects to–well–get started.

So here’s the challenge: What’s your ideal beginner’s project? That is if a middle school kid came to you and said “Where do I start?” what project would you have her do and why? Hackaday is, of course, an excellent resource even if many of the projects are not suitable for a beginner. There are a few, though, that come to mind. What other sites or books would you send our hypothetical student? Perhaps a bigger challenge is what project will you create for that target audience (and, maybe, post them on Hackaday.io)?

29 thoughts on “Alfred P. Morgan: A Generation’s Radio Hacker

  1. I had that book as a kid in the 60s. The crystal set was my first homebrew radio, although I replaced the “galena detector” with a diode out of my dad’s junk box. I can say that book was the start of my over 40 year career in IT.

  2. I wish I had known about the existence of those books when I was growing up. Fortunately, I had almost everything Forrest Mims wrote at my disposal (and still do) which I perused constantly, and built many of the projects contained therein.

    1. I suspect that if you grew up with Mims you wouldn’t have found these books all that useful. I grew up in a small town in the 80s and early 90s. I don’t remember if I read Morgan’s books specifically or just ones like it. I read everything I could find in our local library, the school library and the library one town over. It was all out of date even then and this stuff looks familiar.

      I’m sure it was great in it’s time but the problem was that they would say things like.. ‘just pop down into your basement and sift through your coal pile for a piece of galena’, or ‘head over to the local drug store and pick up a vacuum tube’. Yeah… what is coal?

      Pre-internet if you didn’t live in a big city then if you couldn’t find it in the local Rat Shack it didn’t exist. Even the Mims books weren’t that great because that chain was already losing it’s way and didn’t always carry everything needed to build Mim’s projects anymore.

      Today these vintage books are a whole lot more interesting than before because you can just pick up those esoteric pieces off of eBay and rock like it’s 1932.

  3. I’ve tried encouraging kids with projects and the simple radio seems obvious but can be a let-down. Crystal radio projects can be notoriously hard to get right and then there is only AM stations that don’t usually interest the kids for long. Better success with LED (flashlights, flashing gadgets, light beam alarms) and music projects (guitar amps, music tone boxes)

    1. “notoriously hard to get right”

      Since when? I built a “foxhole” radio using pencil lead, a safety pin, some wire, and a razor blade. It worked fine. The next one I built used a diode and a tuning capacitor. I ran a couple hundred feet of wire for an antenna and used to listen to AM stations at night from hundreds and thousands of miles away. They were very easy to get working.

      1. I agree, and I’ll say that an antenna is key.

        Part of the problem is that we get used to modern highly sensitive receivers, so if we get 10 AM stations on your car radio or home stereo, we think that a crystal radio should get all of those. The truth is that you must be much closer, and that cities are much larger. So you may be too far for a crystal radio to pick up a strong enough signal.

        And then blame it on the crystal radio.

  4. I spent some time teaching a young lady (grade school) the basic of electronics. The first project we did was a MintyBoost, more to teach her how to solder than to teach theory. From there we went to an LED cube and worked on 3D printing after that.

    Beginner projects should have a high cool factor, something that can be shown off and actually used from day to day. LED cubes with animations over simple blinkies. Stuff that makes sounds. I remember a joke project I think was called the cricket. Just two 555 timers but connected to a photosensitive resister so it only chirped when the lights were out, making it more difficult to find.

    Complexity can be conquered by using modules. A bluetooth module is complex but using one to build a bluetooth speaker is a good beginner project. Once they get a taste of the simple stuff they’ll be interested enough to learn the complex stuff.

  5. I’m 56 years old and first found The Boy Electrician in my local library when I was too young to make any of the projects. I was hooked. Building stuff became a hobby, an obsession and eventually lucrative work. Now I’m an industrial laser service engineer and a copy of The Boy Electrician sits in the book case in my bedroom.

  6. I think I would start a budding EE off with a simple 386 amp project. They are quite simple to make, and can be used with something that most youngsters have (e.g. an iPod or cell phone). They can be built using mostly re-purposed parts as well. A simple project, but one which has a lot of theory going on in there.

  7. My first project, and a good one for other kids: electromagnets. No messing around with microcontrollers — wire wrapped around a big nail, hooked up to a battery.

    Maybe a switch. Or make your own switch from a piece of metal flashing. And then make a clicker, and you’ve got a horrible telegraph. And sometime around then, you head off to speakers. And then you need a transistor amplifier.

    And sometime around here, you either get into radios or motors, and all heck breaks loose.

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