Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Home-Brew: The Knight Kit

PART I: Ron and Gary at work in Chicagoland, 1958:

Ron Henselman:
How many of our readers ever wanted to be a deejay or operate his or her own transmitter to play music?  One of those readers was me, and another was my friend Gary Wegner.

We were both AM and TV DX’ers, but we were just kids twelve years of age.  We were inspired by stations which played rock and roll.  Our first inspiration was KOMA in Oklahoma City.  A.J. mentioned it was one of his inspirations too.

Then one day it happened: we found an ad for something called a Knight Kit Broadcaster.  The technical name for it in those days was a phono-oscillator.  Gary and I nagged his father to drive us to Allied Radio in Chicago.  Allied was the company which produced Knight Kits.  One weekend we finally managed to visit the wonderful store which had the product of our dreams.  Gary bought the kit, and we returned to his house and stashed it there.  It was a kit, and we were kids.  So who was going to build it for us?

It is really strange how we both developed head colds the next morning, and we were both too sick to attend school.  I reasoned with my mother, “Doesn’t it seem logical I can’t give Gary my cold because he already has one?”  This made sense to my mother, so she let me visit Gary during the afternoon.  Mom failed to notice I was armed with Dad’s soldering iron, a roll of solder, needle nose pliers, and a pair of diagonal cutters.

When I arrived at Gary’s house, we quickly went to his basement and unpacked the kit.  The instruction manual was full of pictorial diagrams, and it was written in simple language.  We took turns installing the tube sockets, resistors and capacitors.  We only had one resistor left to install on a terminal strip.  Resistors had all sorts of pretty colors on them, but it was tough to distinguish one from another.   As I installed the last resistor, I heard a cracking noise.  Oh no!  I ruined the resistor, and it wasn’t even my kit.  There went any hopes of getting on the air that day or did it?  I sneaked home, and I found one in my father’s resistor stock which was kept in a cigar box.  The resistor had the same colors, so I reasoned it would work.  We installed it, and the kit was finished.

Do we dare plug it into the wall?  After all, we were just kids.  We plugged it in anyway, but who had the guts to turn the power switch.  Gary did it, and the vacuum tubes lit up.  Hooray!  We did it, but did it really work?

We were working next to one of those large old console tube radios which had a wooden housing and a giant speaker.  We chose 1090 kilocycles because we had recently learned KTHS couldn’t be heard during daylight hours.  We set the radio dial to 1090 and plugged a crystal microphone into the jack on the kit.  As I used a small screwdriver to tune the little variable capacitor on the kit, we suddenly heard a burst of loud feedback.  It scared the hell out of me, so I threw the screwdriver into the air.  Surely I must be getting electrocuted.  When we figured out it was only feedback, we calmed down; then we centered the transmitting frequency to what we thought was 1090 kilocycles.  What do we do next?

Of course we thought we were deejays, so we announced and played our favorite top forty records.  We had an astounding revelation: kids don’t sound like professional radio announcers no mater how much they practice.   We had our fun, so the two horribly ill children decided to quit for the day.  Mom!  I need more Kleenex.

The next weekend we decided to check the range of the transmitter.  We used my small portable tube radio to check the range.  What a disappointment!  We couldn’t even be heard in the yard next door.  I was secretly hoping the three neighbor girls would be part of our audience.  There had to be a way to increase our transmitting range.

There was a little sticker included with the kit which stated, “Complies with part 15 FCC rules and regulations.”  The instruction book mentioned we could not use an antenna longer than sixty inches in length including the lead-in wire, or we would be in violation of the FCC rules.  Who was the FCC?  Most twelve year old kids didn’t have a clue.

I had the idea of disconnecting the twin-lead antenna wire from Gary’s TV and connecting one of the wires to the terminal on the little transmitter.  We suddenly had a signal which could be heard for blocks.  When were the cops going to break down the door and arrest us?  Would our parents share the same cell with us?  Would we have to pay Elvis money because we played his record over and over again?

The novelty of our little transmitter wore off quickly, and we sort of lost interest or did we?  There might be more to my story.  My discovery of the KTHS transition to KAAY rekindled those interests.  My next dream was to build a transmitter which was so large one would have to climb inside of it to tune it up.

After reading the KAAY blog, I have a good feeling when I realize many of our readers successfully followed their dreams.


Some References:


  1. In re my old buddy Ron Henselman's great story about the Knight Kit Broadcaster:

    I did the same exact thing, in 1968, when I was
    19; but on FM! During my high school days, when
    I was 15, I built that same little blue "Knight
    Broadcaster". I tried a long wire but still got
    only 100 to 150 feet of range.

    In 1968 I found a schematic for a tube-type FM
    transmitter in Radio-TV Experimenter magazine
    I loved White's Radio Log!). I built it, and
    the fidelity was amazing! So much better than
    AM. It had a pretty good range, maybe 100 yds.,
    but that wasn't quite good enough for this
    seasoned pro broadcaster. ;-). I connected the
    output, via RG-8, to my CB antenna on the roof
    of our building. I found that a CB antenna is
    great for FM! I had no idea how far my signal
    was going, so I made a 2-hour reel-to-reel tape
    of myself doing a radio show, complete with
    "commercials", rock and roll (lots of Fab Four!)
    and some locally-oriented announcements. Very
    professional! I took my little GE transistor
    radio and went walking around the neighborhood.
    I finally started getting noisy about 1/4 mile
    away. I saw some friends of mine sitting on a
    porch and gave them a show. They were totally
    blown away. They couldn't figure out how I was
    doing that; they didn't know about tape. I did
    a daily show after school for a little while,
    but not many of the kids were paying attention.
    That ended my radio broadcast career.

    73 Mike (Chicago area)

    1. It is a little late to reply to this message, but I walked up behind you at a radio flea market some years ago. You were playing a record by my favorite singer Janie Grant. You announced the title at the end of the song. I thought you sounded better than some of the announcers on WLS. You had excitement in your voice. I was more than impressed. Did you notice most announcers never tell you the name of the song or artist after playing a song. I always waited to hear the information about a song I liked when I heard it on my radio. That way I knew what to look for in the record store. I find it strange the stores never seemed to have the records I wanted. Was that the case with any of our other readers?

      73 Ron Henselman (Chicago area)

  2. There is nothing like the sound and feel of a portable tube radio.

    1. Hi Dan, Do you think you can still purchase the weird voltage batteries the old tube radios used.? You could actually get a shock from some of them. The batteries became very expensive after transistor radios took over the market. The tube radios seemed perform better. Was that your experience too?

      73, Ron Henselman

  3. NOW ONLINE: Allied Radio & Allied Electronics catalogs (1929 to present). Flip through the pages of the complete Allied Radio catalog archive.

  4. Hey wait. I set up my ALLIED KNIGHT radio station in 1961 follow one year of broadcasting "direct" to my radio in another room of the house. When I came across this broadcasting MONSTER that would put me "on-the-air" I had to have it.
    No sooner built and tested and finding a clear frequency at 1510, I was ready to put my radio studio directly on-the-air rather than through the old hot wire to the radio. Ran my two record players and tape recorder into a mixer and the output of the mixer to the broadcaster. WOW! I was now on-the-air. No more hot wire! Of course, like most radio stations, my power wasn't good enough. Walking around the neighborhood with a transistor radio my signal didn't get too much past my neighbor's house. After experimenting, I found the longer antenna wire the further the signal traveled. My cousins and I had a regular schedule of radio shows from morning sign on the late afternoon sign off. Having my older brother drive me around, I was able to pick up my signal up to 2 miles away. Now becoming increasing aware of the FCC and the big news story at that time of "The WHALe Harpooned in Atlanta" about an illegal broadcaster busted in Atlanta and fined $10,000 and 5 years possible jail time. After that, I was very careful of my broadcasting times, and many times pulled the plug immediately in case the FCC was zeroing in on me. One morning, I nearly died when I was about to go on the air at 1510 when I heard a loud hum coming in and then a series of tones. Crap! They caught me! They're on to me and just a matter of time before they fine me. My cousins and I disabled everything, hid the transmitter and didn't return to the air after that. Little did we know that a local radio station was about to go on-the-air in my town at 1510...WRAN1510 DOVER, NJ
    After that, me and my broadcaster went to college. The college had no student run radio station, so I started one. After one year of out of control broadcasting across the campus, the administration shut us down and started their own student run radio station where they had control of it contents. Yes, my little ALLIED KNIGHT radio kit certainly have a history together. And now, after all these years (2013) I having it worked on to bring it back on-the-air. (To be continued) George

  5. Who would have ever thought! After 40-years of my two ALLIED-KNIGHT transmitters sitting, rotting with the tubes missing, eetc. that they would be repaired and working again! Now that I'm a curator of a local museum, I plan to use these transmitters at the museum to explain local history to people in their cars and homes. It should be great fun for radio broadcasting.