Saturday, October 1, 2022

Story Time

 I saw this at ExTex's place.

Reminded me of a story:

Long years ago, I was a broadcast engineer in Houston.  I took care of the transmitter at the Nolan Ryan site.  It was a Townsend.  Used off the shelf components from WW Grainger.  Three visual, one aural.  Power at the combiner was 185 KW at 674-680 MHz.  Effective Radiated Power was 4 MW.  Four linear particle accelerators.  I don't remember the combined heat we had to lose, but the heat exchanger out back was about 30 x 100 feet with I don't remember how many fans. 

I was hired by the chief engineer who had lost a toe due to something very close to that picture.  He was touching a meter (monitored the 50KV line for the klystron), when it arced from his finger through his body and out his toe.  Somehow they got him to UTMB and saved him.  He had that sock in a frame on his wall in the office.  He got the chief engineer job to save him suing the station (I may be wrong on that, but I think that was the story).

In old versions of the dictionary, if you looked up audacious, his picture was there.  Think Leslie Nielson, only at 127%.  He was about 6' 6", and everything was scaled up to match.  Except his ego.  It was WAY bigger.

When he quit and moved on, his duties were split.  I did the billing and ordering, as well as tower site maintenance.  My buddy did the studio maintenance and was the defacto chief, until the Hialeah Homobre was hired.

Remember those old black and white tv's?  The one's where you had to wait a few minutes while the tubes warmed up?  Remember that hot dust smell?  High voltage components attract dust and then weld it onto everything.  It's crazy hard to clean off.  

My first overnight pulling transmitter one down for cleaning was eye opening.  I loaded up the squirt gun with alcohol, got the rags out, my little job table on wheels, called master control to advise them of the lower power output alarms that would be firing off soon, and started the shut down on one.   

The transmitter was about the size of a bathroom, about 50 square feet, 5x10 - ish.  There were a few "Jesus" sticks, and the high voltage had a drop switch on it.  It would short to ground if you opened the door with it running.  A literal crowbar switch.  The HV ran around the top of the machine, just about  head high to me.  After touching everything remotely dangerous with the rounding stick, I opened all the doors and started scrubbing down the interior.  It was caked.  CAKED in dust...  

I began to wonder if the old chief had ever really pulled maintenance out there, or if he just slept on the couch out of sight of the security cameras.  There was no way to get it cleaned out completely by 0600, so I did the best I could.  Second or third overnight, when I finally got to the back wall, I found a sticker there, invisible under the dust.  Seems the guy that was there BEFORE the old chief had even been hired was a documentarian.  He initialed and dated every dusting he'd done.  And it had been years since the transmitter had been cleaned.

So, old "Leslie"  had shirked his job.  The dust accumulated until it arced over and bit him.  He managed to use that "accident" to get the chief engineer job.  Man what a piece of work.  Reminds me of an old bromide:

"Show me a self-made man, and I will show you the product of unskilled labor."

Some data points I remember:

The remote control was a mass of small yellow wires that were like angel hair pasta.  I was scared to touch the water fall of wiring.  No way to get it back to working without a total rip out and replace.  It was on my list, but I never got to it.

The klystrons were water-glycol cooled. Water and high voltage are bad bedfellows, so there were flow switches installed in case there was a blow out.  I don't think there was a flow switch in the place that wasn't held open with an old toothbrush. 

We had a huge variable transformer to adjust three phase power to the transmitters.  The bare parts of the windings were coated with something like tin to keep them from oxidation.   It was worn off, and no effort was made to replace it.  I found the proper stuff and took the whole thing down one night to re-coat it.  My phone call to mater control went like this:  "Okay, look, I will call you every fifteen minutes.  If I don't, call the ambulance.  If you don't answer, I will let it ring until you do."  Working alone on high voltage / high current isn't for the intelligent.

The billing was another issue entirely.  I found all sorts of "creativity".  I remember calling the general manager and asking for a meeting time after time after time....   

Here's a neat article, and the pictures show a single visual and single aural transmitter site co-located with the studio.  We had three visual and one aural.... The Townsend transmitter looked very similar to that CCA.....   Halcyon days....


  1. High voltage scares the shit out of me.
    I have swapped out more than a few 6000 amp breakers before with zero safety gear.
    Double and triple checked that everything was properly locked out first.
    I am very, very glad I don't work at that asshole place anymore.

    1. I do and don't miss those days. I've worked alone my entire career. No need for tag outs and lock outs when you are the only one there. But then, you are your own first responder. That can suck if you knock your self out...

  2. STxAR, I handle anything remotely electrical with great care, even just plugging things in. Electric shock is often one of those "you do not get a second chance" sort of events.

    1. When you work alone on stuff like that every move has to be thought out. No autopilot allowed. At least that worked for me. I've been my own helper since 1991. My kids didn't get the knack and all my jobs seem to be solo: riding line, into the sunset...
      ♫ my rifle, my pony and me..... ♪

  3. One day while I was still doing contract engineer work in the early 90s, I was working in the back of a 35KW FM transmitter, an old Collins if I remember correctly. I had of course grounded everything I could reach. Anyway, while I was working, my wife got bored watching me and absentmindedly picked up a piece of bubble wrap and started to pop the bubbles.

    After determining that I was still alive, unharmed, and did not need to change my pants, I turned around to face my wife and firmly told her "Do not ever do that again while I am working inside a transmitter!".

    1. Oh, that is gut wrenching.... for second.

      I got a new pager with a working vibrate function finally. I was arms deep in a remote control rack between two Continental FM transmitters (25KW??) when that idiot thing went off. Electrocution!!!!!! I pulled out pretty fast, and spent the next 9 hours rewiring the remote control. "A frustrated Angola could not be reached for comment."