A Tribute to the Walkie-Talkie      

Many of us started our radio hobby with one of these..   



First the Earth cooled, and then the dinosaurs came.   But they ate too much, got too fat and soon died, and turned into oil. Then came the Arabs, and they drove Mercedes Benz's.........  Here we have an example of a typical historical progression.  And for my friends and I who discovered the fun of 2-way radio, and Citizen's Band radio in particular, there was a definite progression.  Progressions all have one thing in common,  they all have a beginning, and that beginning is where the subject of this story will focus. 

Most of my friends and I started off in CB radio with a low power portable transceiver, commonly known as a "walkie-talkie"(WT).  WT's ran the gamut from low end, low budget toy radios targeted at kids, all the way up to quality, full powered portable CB radios with features which rivaled regular mobile radios, along with a price tag to match.  Our group pretty much started out on the low rungs of the ladder with the "el-cheapo" toy walkie-talkies.  These units were bare bones 3 or 4 transistor designs, normally sold in pairs, were equipped to transmit on Channel 14, had about a 3' telescopic antenna, and ran on a single 9V battery.  Features were usually minimal, with some not even equipped with a volume control, just a simple On/Off switch.  Others had such awe-inspiring extras, like a Morse code key, complete with the international Morse code chart prominently displayed on the front or rear panel.  The receivers on these little radios were crude super regenerative designs which, on the one hand, had very poor signal to "hiss" ratios and generally poor sensitivity, and on the other hand were so broad banded that you could hear traffic on all 23 CB channels simultaneously.  These generally poor receivers were the primary reason why range between any two of these little radios just barely made 1/4 mile.  They were great for monitoring the local chatter on the other channels, but being able to hear all channels at once meant that you could be subject to a boatload of conversations all on top of each other.  Fortunately, back in the early 1970's, there weren't all that many CB'ers yet, so we didn't have to worry all that much about interference while we were trying to reach each other from half a block away.  Popular examples of some of those bottom of the barrel WT's include the Archer Space Patrol, the Transette, the Midland 13-1xx and others.  Myself, and one or two others, also ran "Base station" versions of these radios. My base station was sold by Sears and it included a Volume, a "Regeneration" control, and a variable Tuning control which broadened the already wide bandwidth receiver coverage to reach the upper shortwave and ham bands as well as the CB band.  It also had 1/8" phone plugs for an external  microphone, headphones, and a code key. While the base radio had a few more bells and whistles than the typical walkie-talkie, performance-wise they were similar, and suffered from the same regenerative receiver shortcomings as their hand-held counterparts.

Operating with such limited equipment really made you appreciate every little bit of signal improvement that you could get.  We quickly learned that the best range was had when we were all outdoors.  But a lot of time we would be talking at night and even at bedtime (Sometimes without our parent's knowledge).  So we also learned that certain rooms in our respective houses offered better signals than others.  It sometimes grated on the nerves of other family members when that optimal signal room happened to be in the kitchen or where the family TV was.  Luckily for me, my optimal signal room happened to also be my bedroom.  But being indoors usually meant that the signals from your buddies would be a bit weaker than when outside.  Usually it was an exercise in frustration trying to understand what your friends were saying when they were more than one or two houses away, and those weak signal issues are what started our pursuit for a method to improve our range.  First we tried tying lengths of wire directly to the built-in antenna, and that provided minimal improvement.  But those antenna "improvements" also brought in more receive interference, so in many ways, it was a double edged sword.  In the end, we finally realized that there was only so much you could do with such limited equipment. Therefore, the next logical step was to upgrade the radio.

The next step up on the Walkie-Talkie hierarchal ladder were those better 100 mW designs, which utilized 8, 9 or 10 transistor designs, a much more sensitive super heterodyne receiver, and usually more than one channel.  Examples of the more popular models of these radios included the Midland 13-428, the Realistic TRC-25, as well as similar examples from Lafayette, Sears, and others.  Since they were still only 100mW transmitters, many still utilized a single 9V battery, but a few used "AA" size batteries, which yielded a longer operating time.  Some units included such niceties like a battery meter,  a "call signal" tone switch, and provisions for an earphone and/or an A.C. adapter for indoor use.  Because of the much better sensitivity (and much less hiss) of the superhet receiver, range between units increased dramatically, even though transmitter power remained at the 100mW level.  Having a crystal controlled receiver also eliminated the wideband "hears-all-channels-at-once" design drawback of the super-regen receivers on the cheapie W/T's, which greatly reduced adjacent channel interference.  It soon became routine for our range to extend out to 1/2 mile, and at times close to 1 mile, which was much greater than the 1/4 mile we used to get with our old gear.  Having multiple channel capability also lent some flexibility for multiple conversations, and also gave rise to utilizing "secret" channels, to hide from other people.

Of course, despite the improvements gained with this upgrade, we could never remain satisfied at any one level for very long.  Once we had obtained decent 100 mW radios, with greater range potential, the group began to discover other similarly minded people out there, some of which ran full power CB sets.  As our young people's group started to coalesce in the early 70's, the network of people would stretch out for 2 or 3 miles, which was beyond the range of our 100mW radios.  While the closer people could hear us, the more distant could not.  Those who had the advantage of a running a full blown CB, along with an external antenna could hear us a little farther than someone on another WT.  But overall, our typical range was still limited to around a mile max.  To add to the signal angst, we added in a few new school friends, who had caught the radio bug and wanted to hang out with us but lived more than 1/2 mile away, which made 100 mW contacts spotty at best.  The combination of these factors became frustrating and they drove the search for the next major step up in power.  The next logical baby step (The jump to full blown 4 watt radios was still out of reach for our meager income potentials), was to obtain WT's which had power output rated in actual watts instead of milliwatts.  These higher powered WT's were larger and heavier than 100mW units.  They also required many more batteries (usually 8 or 10 AA-type).  They also offered more channel capacity, and a few more bells and whistles such as a squelch control, battery/power output meter, and external antenna jacks.  Some of the more common examples of WT's in this higher powered category that we young-un's chose were the Midland 13-700, the Realistic Rover-1500, the Lafayette HA-310, the Realistic TRC-99.  These popular radios ran from 1 watt to 3 watts. There were some full 5 watt (input) W/T's available as well, which had even more features and range potential, but were generally too expensive for us, as their cost approached that of a full powered mobile rig.  While the difference in power output among our various choices varied from 1 to 3 watts, there really wasn't all that much difference in range potential.  Once you broke into the "watt" rating, the differences were negligible.  Understanding the math pretty much explains why. A jump from 100 mW to 1 watt equates to a 10db (nearly 2 "S" units) jump in signal.  But a change from 1 watt to 3 watts, is just over 3db (About 1/2 "S" unit). Factor in the variations in antenna designs and efficiencies and the differences in power shrink even further.  Having that initial 2 "S" unit jump in signal potential went a long way toward increasing usable range from just under 1 mile to well over 4. Those who went to the next step of hooking their WT's to an external CB antenna (Antenna's were cheap back then), saw even bigger increases in range.  Running around outside with one of these higher powered "bricks" was sometimes awkward though, and many of us reverted to our old 100 mW radios for that.  I also noticed that if someone with an "el-cheapo" super-regen walkie-talkie would get close, that the "hiss" from the receiver would actually radiate into my radio causing a sharp rise in noise level.  This was a trait that I learned to use as a "detector" for when someone was sneaking around outside with their radios on. The better WT's usually had 2 or 3 channel capacity , which gave us the ability to "escape" from interference or from those we were having arguments with.  Most of us bought more crystals than the radios could hold, so we were always popping the back cover off, to swap out crystals. By the time I finally left my WT behind to get a 23 channel radio, I had built up a collection of 7 channels, yet the radio could only hold 2 at a time.

Now that we had our higher powered radios, there were still some subtle differences within our group in how we ran them.  It became obvious in very short order, that batteries did not last all that long, and became a costly frequent replacement.  Since 90% of the time we ran from inside our homes, an A.C. adapter became a logical solution.  Most went out to the local Radio Shack and purchased their universal AC adapter. The problem with that was that the highest voltage that could be set was 9V, while the radios were designed to run on 12V.  Knowing that reduced power supply voltage would translate to reduced power output (Something I wanted to avoid at all costs), I made my own "battery eliminator" out of a toy train transformer, which could be dialed up to the full 12V, which probably gave me a small advantage in signal potential over some of the others in the group.  Other than power supply concerns there were also the ubiquitous homebrew antenna experiments.  We played with random length wire antennas back in the 100 mW days and had gotten some fair improvement in range.  We therefore figured logically, that similar improvements could be had with our higher powered WT's. Surprisingly though, those random wires didn't work all that well. This could be partially explained by the longer and more efficiently matched internal antennas on the better WT's, which the radio's transmitter was designed and tuned to operate with.  Eventually, right before the core members of our group finally made the jump to "real" 23 channel radios, some of them put up external, commercially made base station antennas and plugged them into their walkie-talkies.  If there was ever any doubt that the antenna was the most important element (no pun intended) in the quest to radiate a good signal, this pretty much confirmed this important fact.  Running a matched external gain-type base antenna on a 1.5 watt WT, jumped signal about another 10db over the attached antenna.  Or to put it another way, it was equivalent to increasing the transmitter power from 1.5 watts to 15 watts.  If only we had the resources to do this back when we had 100 mW radios.....

The years have gone by and bigger, better, and more versatile radios have graced my operating table.  But I always save a special place in the depths of my memory for those hand-held radios that we all cut our teeth on during our rookie years in the CB radio hobby. Many hours of talking, and discovering the wonders of wireless communication were done using these crude, low powered radios.  A lot of learning and a ton of fun were had, which also shows that we didn't have to have the best equipment to still have fun with a radio hobby. In many ways, it was more fun, because you never knew who you might talk to, or how far you might be heard on any given day.