The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

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Boat Anchor Nixie Clock Plays The Cold Warrior Role Convincingly

The early Cold War years may have been suffused with existential dread thanks to the never-ending threat of nuclear obliteration, but at least it did have a great look. Think cars with a ton of chrome, sheet steel toys with razor-sharp edges, and pretty much the entire look of the Fallout franchise. And now you can add in this boat anchor of an electromechanical Nixie clock, too.

If [Teti]’s project looks familiar, perhaps it’s because the build was meant as an homage to the test equipment of yore, particularly some of the sturdier offerings from Hewlett-Packard. But this isn’t some thrift store find that has been repurposed; rather, the entire thing, from the electronics to the enclosure, is scratch built. The clock circuit is based on 4000-series CMOS chips and the display uses six IN-1 Nixies. Instead of transistors to drive the tubes, [Teti] chose to use relays, which in the video below prove to be satisfyingly clicky and relaxing. Not relaxing in any way is the obnoxious alarm, which would be enough to rouse a mission control officer dozing in his bunker. [Teti] has a blog with more details on the build, the gem of which is information on how he had the front panel so beautifully made.

We can’t say enough about the fit and finish of this one, as well as the functionality. What’s even more impressive is that this was reportedly [Teti]’s first project like this. It really puts us in mind of some of the great 6502 retrocomputer builds we’ve been seeing lately.

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The False Alarm That Nearly Sparked Nuclear War

The date was September 26, 1983. A lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces sat at his command station in Serpukhov-15 as sirens blared, indicating nuclear missiles had been launched from the United States. As you may have surmised by the fact you’re reading this in 2021, no missiles were fired by either side in the Cold War that day. Credit for this goes to Stanislav Petrov, who made the judgement call that the reports were a false alarm, preventing an all-out nuclear war between the two world powers. Today, we’ll look at what caused the false alarm, and why Petrov was able to correctly surmise that what he was seeing was an illusion.

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Civil Defense Disco Ball Rocks Ground Zero

Old Civil Defense survey meters like the V-715 are interesting conversation starters, but of very little practical use today. These devices were intended to be a sort of litmus test that survivors of a nuclear blast could use to determine when it was safe to venture out of their radiation shelter: if the needle on the meter moves, even when it’s on the most sensitive setting, you should probably go back inside. Since [Hamilton Karl] would (hopefully) never need such an indicator, he decided to have a little fun with this Cold War holdover and turn it into a Disco Containment Unit.

Technical details are a little sparse on this one, but we can infer most of it just from the pictures. In place of the original meter [Hamilton] has mounted a tiny mirrored ball inside of a protective cage, which is spun by a geared motor that’s occupying the space that used to be taken up by the ion chamber.

A handful of Adafruit NeoPixel RGB LEDs, an Arduino Nano, and a few switches to control it all round out the functional aspects of the build, and a new disco-themed trefoil replaces the original Civil Defense logo on the side. The project page mentions there’s a piezo buzzer onboard that performs a stirring rendition of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, but alas there’s no video that shows it in action.

Thanks to the rugged construction and built-in handle of these old survey meters, [Hamilton] can now take the party with him wherever he goes. Not that he can really go anywhere with this whole global pandemic hanging over our heads, but at least he’ll be ready when things start trending towards normal. In a way the device’s functionality has now been reversed from how it originally worked, since the meter going wild will now be an indicator that its safe to come out.

While the V-715 isn’t of much use outside of a post-apocalyptic hellscape, the V-700 is actually a proper Geiger counter that’s still useful for surveying or research. An important distinction to remember if you ever get a chance to snap one of them up at a swap meet or flea market. Whenever we can start having those again, anyway.

Indoor Antennas Worthy Of 007

Many ham radio operators now live where installing an outdoor antenna is all but impossible. It seems that homeowner’s associations are on the lookout for the non-conformity of the dreaded ham radio antenna. [Peter] can sympathize, and has a solution based on lessons of spycraft from the cold war.

[Peter] points out that spies like the [Krogers] needed to report British Navy secrets like the plans for a nuclear boomer sub to Russia but didn’t want to attract the attention of their neighbors. In this case, the transmitter itself was so well-hidden that it took MI5 nine days to find the first of them. Clearly, then, there wasn’t a giant antenna on the roof. If there had been, the authorities could simply follow the feedline to find the radio. A concealed spy antenna might be just the ticket for a deed-restricted ham radio station.

The antenna the [Kroger’s] used was a 22-meter wire in the attic of their home. Keep in mind, the old tube transmitters were less finicky about SWR and by adjusting the loading circuits, you could transmit into almost anything. Paradoxically, older houses work better with indoor antennas because they lack things like solar cell panels, radiant barriers, and metallic insulation.

Like many people, [Peter] likes loop antennas for indoor use. He also shows other types of indoor antennas. They probably won’t do as much good as a proper outdoor antenna, but you can make quite a few contacts with some skill, some luck, and good propagation. [Peter] has some period spy radios, which are always interesting to see. By today’s standards, they aren’t especially small, but for their day they are positively tiny. Video after the break.

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Russian Doomsday Radios Go Missing

Normally we like hearing about old military gear going on the surplus market. But if you encounter some late-model Russian radio and crypto equipment for sale you might want to make sure it isn’t hot (English translation). If you prefer not picking through the machine translation to English, the BBC also has a good write-up.

The Russians maintain four large planes set up as flying command and control bunkers in case of nuclear war — so-called “doomsday planes.” Like the U.S. ABNBC (better known as Looking Glass) fleet, the planes can provide the President or other senior leaders a complete command capability while in flight. As you might expect, the radios and gear on the plane are highly classified.

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AUTOVON: A Phone System Fit For The Military

It’s a common enough Hollywood trope that we’ve all probably seen it: the general, chest bespangled with medals and ribbons, gazes at a big screen swarming with the phosphor traces of incoming ICBMs, defeatedly picks up the phone and somberly intones, “Get me the president.” We’re left on the edge of our seats as we ponder what it must be like to have to deliver the bad news to the boss, knowing full well that his response will literally light the world on fire.

Scenes like that work because we suspect that real-life versions of it probably played out dozens of times during the Cold War, and likely once or twice since its official conclusion. Such scenes also play into our suspicion that military and political leaders have at their disposal technologies that are vastly superior to what’s available to consumers, chief among them being special communications networks that provide capabilities we could only have dreamed of back then.

As it turns out, the US military did indeed have different and better telephone capabilities during the Cold War than those enjoyed by their civilian counterparts. But as we shall see, the increased capabilities of the network that came to be known as AUTOVON didn’t come so much from better technology, but more from duplicating the existing public switched-telephone network and using good engineering principles, a lot of concrete, and a dash of paranoia to protect it.

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