radio direction finding

Where’s That Radio? A Brief History Of Direction Finding

We think of radio navigation and direction finding as something fairly modern. However, it might surprise you that direction finding is nearly as old as radio itself. In 1888, Heinrich Hertz noted that signals were strongest when in one orientation of a loop antenna and weakest 90 degrees rotated. By 1900, experimenters noted dipoles exhibit similar behavior and it wasn’t long before antennas were made to rotate to either maximize signal or locate the transmitter.

British radio direction finding truck from 1927; public domain
British radio direction finding truck from 1927; public domain

Of course, there is one problem. You can’t actually tell which side of the antenna is pointing to the signal with a loop or a dipole. So if the antenna is pointing north, the signal might be to the north but it could also be to the south. Still, in some cases that’s enough information.

John Stone patented a system like this in 1901. Well-known radio experimenter Lee De Forest also had a novel system in 1904. These systems all suffered from a variety of issues. At shortwave frequencies, multipath propagation can confuse the receiver and while longwave signals need very large antennas. Most of the antennas moved, but some — like one by Marconi — used multiple elements and a switch.

However, there are special cases where these limitations are acceptable. For example, when Pan Am needed to navigate airplanes over the ocean in the 1930s, Hugo Leuteritz who had worked at RCA before Pan Am, used a loop antenna at the airport to locate a transmitter on the plane. Since you knew which side of the antenna the airplane must be on, the bidirectional detection wasn’t a problem.

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Fleming and De Forest Rectifier Patents

The History And Physics Of Triode Vacuum Tubes

The triode vacuum tube might be nearly obsolete today, but it was a technology critical to making radio practical over 100 years ago. [Kathy] has put together a video that tells the story and explains the physics of the device.

The first radio receivers used a device called a Coherer as a detector, relying on two tiny filaments that would stick together when RF was applied, allowing current to pass through. It was a device that worked, but not reliably. It was in 1906 that Lee De Forest came up with a detector device for radios using a vacuum tube containing a plate and a heated filament. This device so strongly resembled the Fleming Valve which John Fleming had patented a year before, that Fleming sued De Forest for patent infringement.

After a bunch of attempts to get around the patent, De Forest decided to add a third element to the tube: the grid. The grid is a piece of metal that sits between the filament and the plate. A signal applied to the grid will control the flow of electrons, allowing this device to operate as an amplifier. The modification created the triode, and got around Fleming’s patent.

[Kathy]’s video does a great job of taking you through the creation of the device, which you can watch after the break. She also has a whole series on the history of electricity, including a video on the Arc Transmitter which we featured previously.

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