The Linear Effect


The allure of and addiction to high power and how it changes us.........



As far back as I can remember, once I finally got involved with CB operators who owned radio equipment beyond that of simple kid's walkie-talkies, I've been aware of a device known as a "Linear Amplifier" or simply "Linear" for short.  A linear amplifier was an add-on device which took a CB radio's standard 4 watt output and boosted it to a much higher power level.   Back in the 70's, the most common linears ran anywhere from 50 watts to 500 watts.  In those formative days,  tales of the elusive "little black box", as linears were referred to, left me in awe.  I was told, while I was still green in my primordial stage of radio knowledge, that having one of these almost magical devices would enable the operator to reach many states away, they could melt ice and snow off of the operator's antenna, and you could even burn up another operator's radio if they were parked too close to your house or mobile unit.  That certainly seemed like an insane amount of power to someone like me, who was still struggling to upgrade from piddly 100mW walkie-talkies to 4 watt radios.  Back then, comparing me to a CB'er putting out 100 watts seemed analogous to comparing a battery powered flashlight to the Sun.  I didn't yet know the math involved in calculating signal from power output, and still thought in terms of linear (no pun intended) numbers, so the potential signal jump seemed much greater.  This linear naiveté wasn't just confined to me though, as one of my later neighborhood locals, when he found out that I had 75 watts on tap, was scared that I might actually fry his radio from 2 blocks away and he begged me not to turn it on.  But I digress.......  Anyway, back in the early 70's, although the local crew were always talking about linears and what they'd do with it if they ever managed to get one, no one I knew actually had one.  This probably explains why so many of these mythical tales were allowed to proliferate.  But things would soon change, and it was no surprise that Steve, being the most savvy in the ways of radio and also the most technically connected in our group, would be the first to actually own one.  I remember when he showed it to me, and how I waited in awe and anticipation to see it.  But when I finally saw it, I couldn't help but feel a little under whelmed.  This magical linear turned out to be an unimpressive looking small mobile 2 tube unit that probably put out no more than 50 watts.  It was enough that I could hear a difference when he turned it on, but no sparks erupted from my radio and it didn't seem to be that all-powerful device of radio legend, which promised to bring the channel to its knees for miles around.  So it was that the first of many CB myths were busted, and I slowly began to doubt some of the other tall tales that were told on a regular basis.


As the years went on, more of the people I knew ended up with some flavor of linear amplifier.  Even though they were strictly forbidden by the FCC, the people who ran them figured that if they ran them sparingly, they wouldn't draw the attention of the FCC.  By this time, I had been slowly realizing that much of what I had been told just a few years ago was just not true.  No, a 100 watt (or even a 500 watt) amp wouldn't fry your radio if you were out front or next door.  No, it didn't melt the ice off the antenna.  But it DID make talking long distances a lot easier.  Most of the people who ran linears back then did so mostly to talk skip or to make a rare long distance local shot.  By the mid to late 70's, the sunspot cycle was on the upswing again, and having that bit of extra power often meant the difference between making that DX contact, and being hopelessly lost in the noise.  


Owning and using a linear amplifier wisely was a great responsibility.  It was all to easy to succumb to the power on tap and use it to muscle your way above the fray.  I didn't think all that much about the psychological effects of using a linear amp until I got my first amp, a 65 watter, in the late summer of 1975.  Other people I knew had run linears, and some of those guys were a bit arrogant, but I chalked that up to the personality of the person himself, and didn't consider the influence of the "power factor".  They say that power corrupts, but I didn't realize just how easily it could corrupt, until it started happening to me.  As it were, once I got my own amp, it didn't take long for me to become hopelessly addicted to it.  It happened slowly and I blindly kept justifying my behavior along the way, as the addiction grew.  I was making DX contacts with relative ease, I could effortlessly override my neighborhood nemesis (Uncle Albert), when he would try to key on me, and it also helped me to get over jammers and agitators who looked to pick a fight with our group.  Before the amp, I had been somewhat humble, due to my relative newcomer status as a member of the big leagues of the CB fraternity. That, along with living in an area with relatively low elevation, which translated to a signal strength which didn't carry all that far out.  So, in short, I wasn't someone worthy of much attention.  But once I realized I had that extra power, I started to become a little more cocky and aggressive.  Instead of being one of the average weaker stations forced to deal with what the bigger dogs would dish out, I saw myself as one of the forces to be reckoned with when the channel conflicts would start.  I was easily able to hold my own against clueless newbies, adults with "Channel Master" complexes, and antagonists, and I could dish out a little of my own agitation, when the situation called for it.  I always justified this by claiming that "they started with us first", but truth be told, I was itching for any excuse to flip that big switch, and as the addiction grew, that big switch found itself on more than off.   Once, when my amp blew up, and I was without it for a few days, I felt the psychological withdrawal symptoms in much the same way as a druggie does when he's forced to stop taking his favorite hallucinogenic compounds.   No longer being able to run with the top dogs of our group was a strangely humbling experience once again, and I didn't like this feeling of vulnerability.  And like vultures circling a weak and dying animal, the antagonists couldn't wait to pounce when I was in my weakened state. So needless to say, I made sure that I fixed the amp in short order, so that I could regain my former position of strength.   I also made sure that I had spare parts for the amp at the ready, so I wouldn't be without it for very long, should it decide to cook again. 


However,  when my old channel group faded off, I found a new home channel with a much more civil and family-oriented group.  Not only was the need for linear infused, testosterone enhanced aggression not necessary, it was actually actively discouraged.   No longer needing the extra power to do battle with misfits, I traded the amp away for a SSB mobile radio.   I was now of driving age and enjoying the freedom of mobile CB-ing.  So while I didn't miss the extra power on the base, I soon realized that a little extra power in the car could make the difference between being heard well, and being lost in the noise.  So it didn't take long before I picked up another amp for the mobile.  I discovered that there was a big difference in purpose between running an amplifier on the base and from the mobile.   On the base, running an amp, apart from making occasional DX contacts, was mainly to become the big man, in order to override troublemakers, which not only solved a problem, it also worked to pump up one's ego.  In the mobile though, running an amp primarily allowed for better readability when you were out and about in the valleys and altitude challenged places that the CB'ers in my area frequently drove through.  So consequently, I found myself leaving the amp on constantly in the mobile, unless I was really close to other stations.  Having a tube amp in the car was not without its problems though as I was prone to leaving the filaments on and running my battery down overnight on more than one occasion.


I thought that I had completely gotten that corruptive influence of "the linear" out of my system, but eventually the calm and relatively docile channel group that I had been running with, slowly evaporated, and I found myself on yet another new channel with mostly peers of my own age again.  Once again, the co-channel conflicts began, and it didn't take long before the need for the "20 lb maul" rose up again.  First, I found another 75 watter, then a couple of years later, a 300 watter found a home on my bench.  Anytime someone tried to disrupt our conversations, or otherwise caused trouble, the switch would be thrown and "the enforcer" was back, ready to dispatch CB-style vigilante justice to any and all interlopers.  But all was not well.  As more and more consumer electronic widgets began to appear, I started causing RFI issues with neighbors and at one point even received a notice from the FCC before things settled down for good in the late 80's.  After witnessing an FCC raid (the first in my area) and some high profile (by virtue of their own linears) operators getting pink slips, plus my recent acquisition of a ham license and growing interest in ham radio, I eventually sold off all of my base amplifiers.  I went into "power rehab" as I learned even more theory and matured in my attitude.  I have been pretty much "linear-free" on my base since then, even when I moved to my new location.  But like a recovering alcoholic, I still feel that urge to flip the switch when a local idiot makes things rough on the people I'm trying to talk to.   Fortunately, I don't have a big switch to flip.  So far I have resisted the call to "power-up" again.  Here's hoping I can maintain my will power.....