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First-Hand:It Started with Ham Radio

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It Started with Ham Radio

Submitted by Pete Lefferson

It started in New Jersey with Ham Radio on April 16, 1956 when my Novice Ham ticket arrived in the mail. (KN2SHS) I had built through the years an extensive electric train set but now it was time to forget the toys. I sold it all and bought a National Radio NC-98 for about $150. On school vacation days I was off to “Radio Road” in New York with Ham buddies. (The city replaced “Radio Road” with the Twin Towers.) The first transmitter was a modified war surplus ARC-5. I took the General Ham license test in New York within a year and passed. (God is good.) Then it was my first grand construction project – 100 Watt all band transmitter of my own mechanical design in a 19 inch rack using a schematic from QST magazine. It was AM modulated and with an internal VFO.

The family moved to Florida in 1957 and I became K4POB. I was off to the University of Florida (Gator Nation) the next year with engineering as my goal. I wanted to design radios. I graduated along with a few graduate level courses in December 1962.

Summer vacations were filled with electronics. Two summers I did electronic maintenance and a little on air time with WNOG in Naples Florida. One summer was on a drafting board with Florida Power and Light in Palm Beach. Another summer took me to Cape Canaveral and Boeing Aircraft Co. where I had the boring job of identifying electrical outlets in all their hangers. (The Cape was unique having hangers everywhere and no airplanes.)

After graduating U of F it was back to the Cape working for NASA on the Saturn program. That was not very challenging. I was designing strain gages and thermocouple thermometers for measurements around the launch pads. Essentially I was installing equipment already designed. I had passed the Graduate Record Exam and so went back to U of F after only one year with NASA. I missed the glamour of the moon race but I wanted design work. I earned the Masters in EE and got a real design job with ECI (Electronic Communication Inc.) in St. Petersburg. Marriage to Kathy came about that time. (God is good.) ECI was designing VHF radio sets for the military. Now I was in the thick of real receiver and transmitter design and sometimes working long hours. There was a severe government cut back in the early 70s and a long series of lay offs. I was caught in the last round. That was a hard blow and kept me out of work for three months. A year later I was asked to come back twice.

To better my technical growth I was trying to publish one “design idea” a year in the electronic trade magazines. I also became engrossed in the topic of radio impedance transformer circuits. They all used twisted magnet wire as RF transmission lines. No one had yet published a way to predict the natural impedance of these twisted lines. I set out to solve that problem in an after hour study using ECI equipment. After being laid off I published my findings (“Twisted Magnet Wire Transmission Line” IEEE Transactions of Parts, Hybrids, and Packaging). It later was re-published as a book chapter.

I picked up a job in Tampa with GEO Space. They were designing a laser tracking tool for large earth moving machines. It was my task to design the optical receiver that would see a bright light emitting diode on the machine and instruct the laser tracker how to move and keep a laser spot on the target of the earth moving machine. It was a receiver design problem but this time with light. It had all the usual noise and sensitivity problems that I was used to in RF. I finished that task in three months.

I realized that I should be able to put PE behind my name. This is the Professional Engineering license that is issued by all the states after passing a two day exam. I had forgotten too much and so re-took college chemistry at the local junior college and spent a year reviewing things like thermo dynamics, statics, and dynamics. I passed the test on the first try in Tampa. (God is good.)

During my time without a job I accepted a pro bono project for my old friend Dave Traer (Chief Engineer at WNOG in Naples). He had been asked by a doctor to design a medical electrical pulse machine to help prevent muscle loss for people who had lost the use of some muscle group. I finished a crude prototype but Dave’s doctor expected a finished product, not a circuit board of parts. Knowing that Milton Roy Co. in St. Pete was in the medical field I presented the product to them. After my three months of driving to Tampa to GEO Space I received a call From Milton Roy Co. and a job offer.

Milton Roy Co. was a diverse company with businesses all over the country. Design work here was also very diverse. After about five years they chose to invest heavily in contact lenses and that was their downfall. Before the end they had decided to build an advanced development department in Florida and I found my self representing electronics along with PHD types covering the other sciences. Milton Roy Co. took a few of my design ideas to the Patent Office and won twice. (“Constant Pressure Pump” actually an adaptive control system and “Device for Isoelectric Focusing” actually measuring current in extreme noisy environment.) Milton Roy Co. finally had to give up the advanced development idea and I went home with a contract to continue development of a hydrogen detection meter based on the diamagnetic property of hydrogen. It was a good idea but the few months in the contract was not enough to perfect the product. But in the mean time I was home for the birth of number three child, a boy. Kathy had given me two beautiful girls. (God is good)

I wrote a paper on the adaptive control system that won me a patent (“Constant Pressure Fluid Pump Adaptive Control system” IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics and Control Instrumentation) Twenty years later that patent and paper made me an expert witness in a California patent trial where a large company was trying to say that their patent was valid. The small company won. I should say also that research into the IEEE Journals saved the day on several occasions for me through the years.

I liked the idea of working in the home lab. I was picking up small design jobs. Bread and butter work came from EC Apparatus Corp. and the design of high voltage (500 to 6000v to 300 Watts) power supplies used in chemical laboratories. These supplies one could set and control in all three modes of voltage, current, and power. I learned to design high voltage ferrite core transformers and wound all the prototypes in my bench.

The fourth child came along to make life a little more interesting. The kids, Mary, Anne, and Ed, finished high school and then off to college. (Ah, but no Gators) And then they left the nest. We lost the last boy David at nine and a half years to complications of Downs Syndrome and diabetes.

Another interesting consulting job was with Pro Tech Monitoring Inc. They were developing a system of GPS monitoring for the criminal justice industry. For them I developed the antenna for the ankle bracelet that spoke to a GPS locator the client carried near him. Then for that box with the GPS locator I developed two “inverted F” antennas, one for the GPS and the other for the cell phone link. This work introduced me to the RF network analyzer. We didn’t have them back in my ECI days.

That is where I received the third patent (Tamper Detection for Body Worn Transmitter). The voltage standing wave ratio of the bracelet antenna rose dramatically if it was taken off the ankle. That would indicate the client was on the run.

When I turned 65 the consulting business seemed to dry up on its own. Never leave an engineer with nothing to do. I started collecting simple ideas and taking them to the Patent Office. I wrote and sent 11 Provisional Patent Applications (these only establish an invented date) I wrote and sent 5 Utility patents and paid a patent lawyer to write and send the other two. Out of all that I was granted three more patents. Only 2% of granted patents make money. So at this writing I have my name on six patents. I’m making money only on one of these. I’ve helped 4 other product developers by designing and making their first prototypes. Kathy and I have had a good time mixing with inventive people and have attended shows and conventions to pitch our ideas. We’re not done yet.

I have had little time for the old high school hobby of Ham Radio but I kept just active enough to maintain the license. The FCC made it easy to get the Extra Class license so I took the test and passed on the first try. (God is good.).

So the love of engineering and electronics started with HAM Radio and has given me an exciting ride. Back then we were able to wire a few tubes together and make something interesting. Now days it seems that integrated circuits have put simple things out of reach. Today’s young people wire the integrated circuit modules and make something work but without a grasp what is happening to the little electrons in these modules. I am very impressed with their computer skills when I see them programming robots to do so much. It is just a new age.