Mr Collins ─  The Wizard of ‘Oz’

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Ray Howes G4OWY relates the tale of Art Collins, engineer, entrepreneur and designer of some of the finest amateur radio gear

 

 

Ray Howes G4OWY relates the tale of Art Collins, engineer, entrepreneur and designer of some of the finest amateur radio gear of years gone by.

 

Guglielmo Marconi and Arthur ‘Art’ Collins in the same breath? Both men had that rare trait of genius. Both men would ultimately change the future of radio communications. Both were inveterate electronic tinkerers and in Art Collins’ case, obsessed with an original idea that would eventually lead to what was at the time, a cataclysmic shift in how amateur radio and avionics communications would be perceived and utilised. But although neither of them actually invented anything new from a bright and shiny scientific point of view, their genius lay in the way that they adapted the radio technology of their respective times and fashioned it into a brand new future.

Arthur Andrew Collins, was born September 9th 1909 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. Aged seven years old, he, his mum and his dad Merle pitched up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This was where, one day, his Collins Radio Company would light a raging fire under the then emerging electronics industry and go on to blaze a trail through the communications world with its innovative amateur radio and avionics products. But before then, his early pre-teen years found him tinkering with the then prescient electronic landscape − building crystal set receivers with what he could buy or find. Winding coils on cereal boxes, thumb tacks for contact points, using what was at hand for a rectifier, pieces of glass for insulators and so on in order to tune into the airwaves. But it wouldn’t be long before Arthur upped the ante and began to design and build what become the forerunners to all those fabulously fashioned HF receivers, transmitters and transceivers that are now collectable icons of the radio art within the worldwide amateur radio community.

Crystal set receivers, kitchen table type transmitters and tin cans connected by wire strung out between Arthur’s radio hobbyist friends’ homes soon gave way to more reliable communications. Fortunately, Arthur’s father, Merle Hunter Collins, was a wealthy man. He'd established the Collins Mortgage Company and, later, the Collins Farms Company, thus allowing him to indulge his young son in his unbridled love of radio. But a disastrous lightning incident at the home of a boyhood friend led to Arthur having to remove his equipment.

 

Lightning Strikes

At age nine or so, Arthur had been at his friend’s home where they were busily exploring the new marvels of radio, when the lightning incident occurred. It had apparently struck a 60ft spark antenna via a cable routed through a basement window attached to a radio, with the inevitable disastrous result! This necessitated Arthur having to immediately transport all his equipment back home on the orders of his none-too-happy father. Radio experimentation was now going to get much more intense. And although a few of his young friends were also having fun building crystal sets and doing what most boys do at that age − outside playing ball − Arthur remained indoors fixing his radios. His shack was stocked wall-to-wall with radio equipment, courtesy of his dad. A veritable treasure trove of radio paraphernalia. But not for him inexpensive little valves. Big expensive valves would come to rule the airwaves instead.

1923 came around and saw Arthur pass the Federal Radio Commission’s test to gain his first amateur radio licence at age 14 − 9CXX. Several local amateurs visited Arthur at the behest of his father, to tutor him, but all were stunned at his knowledge of radio in someone so young. Arthur wasn’t taking any prisoners. His driving ambition, philosophy and dedication to experimentation saw to that. Besides, he was never content to just build a transmitter or a receiver. He wanted to completely understand the scientific principles and physics that underpinned every part of an electrical circuit that caused all radio communications to work, tirelessly testing why components work the way they do.

Arthur kept himself abreast of the early experiments of Hertz and Helmholz, along with Heaviside and Kennelly, who proposed the theory that the sun’s ultraviolet light ionised the outer atmospheric layers, which seemed to dispel the notion that electromagnetic waves shorter than 200m were useless for worldwide communications. And by way of confirmation, he’d contacted John Reinartz, a fellow amateur, via 80m, demonstrating that shortwave communications do work! Following experiments with Reinartz, he and Arthur became friends, resulting in Arthur later being proclaimed a ‘radio wizard’ in several newspaper interviews when Collins received Arctic messages sent by Reinartz.

 

Greenland Expedition

Reinartz had come to the attention of Captain Donald B MacMillan and his sponsor, the National Geographic Society, and was offered a job. And so the Greenland expedition, equipped with long-wavelength Navy communications with Reinartz aboard the Bowdoin as radio operator, set sail for Etah Greenland during 1925 with Richard E Byrd on board (Byrd would later use Collins amateur radio exclusively during his 1928/1930 Antarctic expeditions). Reinartz used 15/16 and 21MHz (Mc/s as it would then have been known!) to contact Arthur in Cedar Rapids (because the US Navy struggled to accomplish it). Once received, Arthur would high-tail it down to the local telegraph office with Reinartz’s decoded message where it was sent on to Washington, DC. These communicational circumstances had come about as result of the on-air experiments done by Reinartz, Arthur and other amateurs, all of whom, had been exploiting the benefits of consistent long-distance double-reflective communications via the ionospheric E-layer as predicted in 1902 by the American engineer Arthur Kennelly and the British physicist Oliver Heaviside.

Byrd's 1933/1934 expeditions to the Antarctic were a different matter because, from there, voice transmissions were scheduled to be heard on radios in America nationwide, courtesy of several 1kW transmitters loaned to Byrd by Arthur Collins, a daring proposition for those times. The broadcasts from this region would utilise shortwaves via commercial broadcasting links and radio telephone networks, back to the USA, sponsored by the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) and others. The main rigs were 20Bs (a broadcast transmitter, occasionally owned by the odd amateur who could afford to purchase one) featuring Class B modulation, designed by Collins, and would later become the de facto radio standard with two 100W 150B valves (tubes, in US parlance) plus the necessary peripheral bits and pieces.

This expedition would in greater part be feasible due to the Collins Radio Company and its success. Byrd had been determined to use Arthur’s company for its radio products. After all, they were streets ahead of the competition. It had been a huge gamble for all concerned. Arthur’s company had provided Byrd with the very first voice transmitter ever to be used from the bottom of the world. A spectacular success that ensured brand loyalty.

 

The First Collins Amateur Radio Rigs

While his first receivers and transmitters were rudimentary, Collins amateur radio rigs soon had a huge following. But it took a little while. Arthur, like his friend, Reinartz, was self-taught. But by now a famous amateur (well, at that time, famous in the world of hamdom, like Reinartz), he began to build rigs to order in his factory basement. These were sold mainly to other amateurs wanting the best. In passing, one of his early transmitters was a 20W 4A. I seem to recall it cost about $60 or so. The October 1925 QST magazine featured a write-up dishing the details about Arthur’s station and his on-air exploits with the MacMillan expedition, his contacts with Reinartz aboard the Bowdoin (callsign Wireless North Pole, WNP) and Arthur's subsequent celebrity status. Suffice to say, Arthur’s ‘rig’ then was laid out semi ‘ugly bug’ style. Apparently two transmitters, one of 50W plus a one kilowatt unit. And wire antennas. No pre-built gear in those days! DIY.

After recently getting hitched, Arthur and his bride moved into their first home. During 1931, the basement became a factory, putting together transmitter kits only. Receivers came later. His first advertisement appeared in January 1932, as ‘Arthur A. Collins Laboratories Inc, W9CXX’, then ‘Collins Radio Transmitters’, offering crystal-controlled transmitter complete kits. However, Arthur soon dropped the kit idea. In 1933, the business having outgrown his basement factory, he leased part of a commercial premises, also in Cedar Rapids. Arthur would now be building and selling complete transmitters − the first company to do so. These first rigs (rack-mounted for the different RF modules and other units) were no-expense-spared engineered productions. Only the best components were used. This was an important factor that would come to epitomise the revered name of Collins and make it the number one choice for those amateurs that could afford to buy what was for several decades, the obvious destination.

Also in 1932, the 150B transmitter came about. This was an adaptation of the previous 30W model, adding a UV203A valve, which provided, yes, you’ve guessed it, 150W output. And a beefier PSU and the 30B modulator for AM/CW operation. The story goes (CQ or QST magazine?) that an amateur, W4PL, visited Arthur at his home around 1932 and bought one of the first Collins rigs. Probably a 30W and apparently with no serial number. Does it still exist in one piece, I wonder.

 

And Broadcast Transmitters

As the 1930s sped on, Arthur’s company became the place to go not only for amateur rigs (he employed the best electrical engineering expertise), but commercial broadcast transmitters too. Their innovative built-in pi-network outputs were a godsend when matching the many varied wire antennas that were in common usage. Hence, just one of the reasons why Collins were chosen to supply the SSB/CW communications for Byrd’s South Pole adventures (a 45A transmitter was used by a 1938 British expedition to the Antarctic). And why, again, Collins were the first stop for radio communications worldwide. The plaudits came flooding in, tsunami style.

Everything changed when America entered WWII in December 1941. Arthur’s company went over to solely producing communications equipment for the military. A previous experience with fitting out radio communications in aircraft for the Columbian government during the 1930s (a potential spat with Peru) would help stand him in good stead for the next leap into avionics that, after the war, would see Collins aviation products in use in virtually every commercial airline company. They would be the de facto purchase.

The biggest contribution to the war effort was the invention of the Collins ‘Autotune’. This automatic tuning device would revolutionise aviation communications. Pilots were now able to change frequency in the cockpit themselves at flip of a switch, without the need for someone else doing it. The Autotune (it had ten preset frequencies, which could be operational within seconds) was an integral part of the AT/ART-13 transmitter. This devilishly futuristic device soon transformed Arthur’s company from small to very big. Collins built and sold thousands of them to delighted customers. A UHF unit was also available, the AN/ARC-27, primarily for use in light aircraft.

 

Post-War

After WWII ended, Collins aficionados everywhere began to wonder what the ‘radio wizard’ would come up with next. It would be the 75A HF receiver, an absolute sensation at the time. Amateur radio would never be the same again, until SSB arrived, that is. But what made the 75A unique and coveted was its updated permeability-tuned oscillator (PTO).

The 75A’s PTO yelled out frequency accuracy. Once set on frequency, it stayed there! No drift. No chasing stations up down the band − its stability was legendary and still is. The 75A-1 receiver went on sale in 1946/47 and the 75A-2/3 would come along later. A 75A-4 was an SSB/AM/CW receiver (there was also a KWS-1 transmitter). Most had Collins mechanical filters installed. This ingenious device would usher in the Collins preferred filter method of generating SSB signals rather than the then phasing type method. A shack table-top 310A transmitter or the small wardrobe-sized 30K transmitter could be mated up with the 75As. All units except the 75A-1 covered the160m to 10m bands. The 32V-2 transmitter, along with the 51J-1 AM/CW receiver, came on sale during 1949. The cabinet sized KW-1 1kW transmitter was available for those with deep pockets. But even so, despite the steep price, they flew out the door.

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The KWS-1

Sometime in 1955, after much previous experimentation and months of engineering work, courtesy of Arthur’s talented band of dedicated engineers, the KWS-1 1kW 80 to 10m rig went on sale. This rig incorporated the most advanced technological features ever seen in an amateur radio product and took the world of amateur radio to new heights. It consisted of a separate power supply and, for the time, a remarkably small unit that housed the RF power amplifier (Class AB1), a Collins mechanical filter and associated electronics. The world could now be your oyster. For the lucky few.

 

The KWM-1

However, the next rig to emerge from the Collins project laboratories, would be the world’s first HF transceiver − a rig that would change everything. This was the revolutionary KWM-1 20 to 10m HF 100W transceiver. When introduced during early 1957, the amateur radio community greeted it with open-mouthed wonder. Collins had done it again. A receiver and a transmitter in one compact metal box! Originally designed for mobile use, it soon found plenty of eager converts. Orders were taken without it being seen.

The KWM-1 went on to be used by the military and also became the standard communications unit for installation in various embassies worldwide. Allegedly, Arthur took a KWM-1 with him on his honeymoon. A brave man indeed!

KWM-1s were subsequently used on many scientific explorations in some of the most inhospitable and remote places on the planet. The KWM-1 excelled. And like its next update, would become a legend in amateur radio circles. A seminal Collins radio that would create history and become the radio to own, to lust after. “I want one”, would be the constant refrain spoken by those amateurs that appreciated the absolute best.

At the time of the KWM-1 release, moves were afoot by the US Strategic Air Command (the Cold War was about to begin) to utilise a compact KWM-1 in a secret military project called U2. Arthur Collins and Air Force top brass had been testing and evaluating the installation of SSB on the US SAC fleet of bombers. So it was decided that this radio would be installed in a U2 spy plane, its primary role to gather covert intelligence while flying at near stratospheric altitude over Russia and the like. By all accounts, this Collins radio performed well. Unfortunately, one U2, piloted by Gary Powers, was shot down during 1960. But did Powers’ aircraft land in Russian territory miraculously intact, resulting in most of the equipment on board being salvaged? The KWM-1, too?

 

The S-Line

The Collins S-Line (‘S’ for SSB) separates, the 75S-1 receiver, 32S-1 transmitter, 30S-1 1kW linear amplifier powered by an Eimac 4CX1000A valve, and a 312B-4 speaker console, popped into amateur radio shops around 1958/59. And they popped out again pretty quickly too. In fact, the S-Line units were so popular they were probably the most successful range of amateur radio products ever manufactured. The 75S-1 was a delight to operate as was the 32S-1 100W transmitter. Yes, they were expensive rigs, but you really did get what you paid for.

 

KWM-2

If the KWM-1 was a revelation, the 1959 updated version of this revered rig would again shake the very foundations of amateur radio. This time, though, the wizard of radio excelled himself. With the appropriate Collins Radio Company fanfare, radio amateurs worldwide were greeted with the arrival of the KWM-2 80m to 10m 100W HF transceiver. Like its previous incarnation, built like a tank, truly portable and resembling the S-Line units. Because of its unequalled versatility, a KWM-2A was manufactured for military use.

Many hundreds of the KWM-2As were purchased by the US military, simply because they didn't have anything like it at that time. These rigs went on to be used in the Vietnam conflict (and the Iraqi Desert War during 1990/91), being carried in specially built suitcases. Inside these was the rig, a PSU and other necessary accessories. It was known as the Blue Suitcase set. The KWM-2A was fitted with an extra crystal circuit board, which enabled it to cover frequencies outside the amateur bands. Another task was its application for MARS (Military Affiliated Radio Systems). This was primarily an amateur radio relay between the US army MARS network using amateur equipment to patch messages to and from US troops in Vietnam.

There are so many heroic stories courtesy of the Collins KWM-2A that it would take a whole book to list them all! For example, all US Navy bases used KWM-2A’s in Antarctica, ‘Operation Deep Freeze’, callsign KC4USN. And, of course, there are many other extraordinary stories of where and when other Collins amateur radios were utilised. Thousands of 51J-4 HF receivers were put to use both by the US military and intelligence agencies in Vietnam and Korea. A later part-transistorised version, the 51S was also available.

 

SAC and Space

Long before the advent of smartphones and satellites whizzing about providing communications to all, it was SSB that provided reliable communications not only for amateurs but for almost all commercial aviation and US military purposes too. And, as mentioned earlier, it was a result of Arthur’s (and his brilliant design team) ongoing partnership with General Curtis E. LeMay K0GLL/K4FRA/W6EZV (parodied in Kubrick's film Dr Strangelove) during experimental single-sideband trials aboard a C-97 aircraft and others during the 1950s that finally sealed the deal for SSB to be used for all SAC (Strategic Air Command) aircraft communications.

Collins would also be deeply involved with the US space program, providing communications for the Mercury and Gemini manned space projects along with many of NASA’s space flight tracking stations. Space communications would be a vital link. Collins provided it, including the Cape Kennedy launch facility radio communications in Florida.

Notwithstanding Arthur’s many other ‘radio wizard’ type firsts in the realm of Earth-bound radio, the wizard of Cedar Rapids would bring forth yet another super surprise. It was Arthur’s company that would provide the communications link with which to thrill the world. Literally, an accomplishment that was out of this world.

That accomplishment occurred during July 1969. While millions of people worldwide were glued to their TV sets watching enthralled (as did Arthur) as television pictures were beamed from the Moon into their homes, little did they know that the historic event of Apollo 11 − the first mission that successfully put two men on the surface of the Moon − that all the television pictures and all the words (including, of course, those now immortal words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, spoken by Neil Armstrong) were broadcast back to Mission Control, Earth, using Collins telecommunications equipment. The entire communication uplinks and downlinks for this mission and all other past and future Apollo missions used Collins gear.

 

Last Hurrah

One last amateur hurrah was the solid-state KWM-380 in 1979. This was a Rockwell Collins collaboration. But although the early glory days of amateur radio manufacture would see Collins reach an enviable pinnacle in its innovative amateur radio products, mainly a result of Arthur's astonishing work ethic, the main dollar earner for Collins would ultimately be avionics, commercial broadcast transmitters and its military sector clients. With these, it would remain a number one manufacturer for a long time. And not unlike its amateur radio products, Collins avionics were industry leaders. Perhaps that’s a story for another time. Lastly, I doubt whether Arthur Collins, the ‘ham’s ham’, will ever be forgotten because his lasting memorial to all of us are those fantastic Collins transceivers that, even in the 21st century, still remain eagerly collected, coveted and operated by Collins aficionados the world over.

The illustrations with this article show some of the early advertisements for Collins gear that appeared in the amateur radio press, along with photos of some S-Line gear taken just recently by PW’s editor on a visit to PW advertiser Moonraker – yes, immaculate examples of this fine gear still exist and are highly prized.

 

This article was featured in the July 2018 issue of Practical Wireless