Alan Roycroft – A Tribute

Alan Roycroft, long-time friend to DXers worldwide, passed away on February 13th 2001. Here is a tribute from the Pacific Business News Website.

Alan Roycroft has been associated with radio in New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Hawaii for over 60 years. He is now an Honorary Member of both the NZ Radio DX League and the Vintage Radio Society of NZ. In this feature, originally published in the ‘Radio Age’, we learn of Alan’s earliest days in radio.

Alan Roycroft reminisces on his arrival in NZ in the mid-30s…

“At last the sun came up as we finally sailed into the Auckland harbour – was I ever ready. I had mentally rehearsed every bit of the action that would take place before I laid hands on my beloved wooden packing crate and got it somewhere that its contents could be carefully re-catalogued. First a hurried breakfast, then up on deck at a spot I had planned where there was a clear view of the ship’s hold so that a careful eye could be kept on everything that would be lifted out onto the wharf.

Finally, the tarpaulins were whisked off the hold opening, then the battens piled aside on the deck. Oh, why didn’t those stevedores get with the crane? My knowledge of the ways of the waterside workers was about to be brought up to date. “Now take it easy boys, there are no other ships due in today, so this one will have to fill our time cards.” Dad joined me at my overlook and was amused at my impatience. “My guess is that it will be late afternoon before the Vancouver freight is brought up. Remember all the stuff that was loaded at Honolulu and again at Suva? Well, that has to come out first. Now come along and meet all our friends that have come to the wharf to greet us.

I reluctantly submitted to the kissing and endearments. When one is 15, this tribal custom is particularly distressing, but those aunts and uncles could only do it once. Dad suggested that I accompany him to the Storage Company. STORAGE? “Oh, yes, remember that we do not have a home here in Auckland yet, and we are staying with Grandma for a few weeks until we find a place.” WEEKS! My dreams of unpacking the crate faded into oblivion. Well, at least I would have the pleasure of playing my Philips OP radio at Grandma’s.

Dad’s performance at the customs ofice was a bellringer. He had brought in an Aston Martin from England, which was parked on the wharf awaiting our return. My brother had a Canadian CCM bicycle, so we had quite a pile to declare as worthless junk. My priceless collection of radio equipment was downplayed so far that no one wanted even to open the crate. All my brother’s efforts to scratch the beautiful blue point on his new bicycle and remove a pedal and bend the seat supports availed him nothing. An obviously new bicycle was a new one in any condition. But boy, did those ‘jerks’ work over that Aston Martin, they even found the special tools that Dad had hidden under the seats.

We were all edgy and tired by the time all the goodies were stowed at the storage shed and we headed for Grandma’s. I took great solace in renewing my love affair with the Philips QP radio. I was to bunk down on the lounge floor, so it took many hours to rig up an electrical extension, antenna, and headphones to my makeshift bunk. The next few days, Mum and Dad left early to go house searching. On the third day, they invited my brother and me to see the results of their efforts. It was right on a beach. It had only two bedrooms, but plans were being drawn up to add a second floor while we occupied the original house. I would be needed to clean up the section and help the carpenters. Sounded OK to me. It was late spring and the beach sounded most inviting.

We piled out of the Aston Martin at our new home. I led the inspection and suddenly discovered that all the lights were gas. GAS! Not even 12 inches of wire in the whole edifice “But Dad, how can we live in this joint?” “Oh, we’ll make do until the house rebuild is completed.” “But gas! No electricity!” Nothing I could do, say or threaten could change the awful truth. I would have to use my crystal set FOREVER! And that is how it went for 6 months. Mum saw that I was not my fully effervescent self after the novelty of swimming, yard work, picking up nails and helping the carpenters had worn thin after a few weeks. So, as the 1935-type of mum, she sat me down and suggested this enforced radio—idleness as a good time to catch up on a lot of theory that I was probably weak on. She hit the target right on, so she drove me up to the largest technical college in town in her bright red supercharged Austin Seven sports car. Mum would have been in her 40s at this time, and no doubt enjoyed the whistles that greeted her every time she went out in her sporty rig with a bandanna tied over her slightly greying hair.

The community college said that their radio courses started in May each year, and no way would they accept applications in between, so there! We next visited a commercial college downtown and met their rather grand principal, who I picked as a semi-destitute phoney. “Oh yes, we can start Alan right away in our radio servicemans course. Payment in advance please; Room 22 at 6 pm, 3 nights a week. Your instructor is fully experienced and licensed as a radio operator by the Post and Telegraph Department.”

I arrived at 5.30pm on the first evening and found nobody at Room 22 until 6:30. Finally, 4 students turned up and at 6:45 p.m. our instructor arrived, smelling strongly of that demon liquor. I was not introduced, but was asked if I had any questions. My first was the reason for the late start. The other students giggled, and whispered that “the pubs don’t close until 6.” Apparently the tardy arrival of the instructor was accepted by all.

We started in on a harangue by our teacher about how one went about tuning a spark transmitter to a ship’s antenna, including the choice of ‘jars’. I raised my voice and asked what this item was, and was derisively informed it was the tuning capacitor unit. At 7:30 we were asked for any questions, so I requested a drawing and explanation of an automatic volume control circuit of a receiver. It was obvious that our instructor probably knew more about the mating habits of gnus. This ended my career as a pupil.

The next morning Mum and tcalled on the Principal in his grandiose otfice and asked for our money back. This was refused in a most blunt manner, so Mum and I decided there and then we would call in the services of our secret weapon – Dad – who later in the day met with the Principal. He apparently believed Dad’s offer to dismantle the establishment if cash (no cheques please) was not immediately forthcoming.

A council of war over the dinner table that night decided that I should go around to used what I believed would be instructive in the subjects I needed, with my old Stewart-Warner serviceman, Roscoe Turner, helping out with any hard parts. And that was the plan of action. My bibles were “The Radio Manual” by George E. Sterling, and “Radio Fundamentals” by a Professor Terman from Stanford University. l still have “The Radio Manual”. The secrets of AVC and other more modern developments were supplied by one Hugo Gernsback.

My first radio position was in March 1936, and one Albert Yates, the head radio serviceman, kept me on track. More about Albert later. I discovered at No. 35 on our street a small cottage made from automobile crates – a not unusual source of timber as new vehicles shipped to New Zealand had to be crated by order of the insurance companies. The most magical part of No. 35 was a longwire antenna with two Zeppelin feeders. I knocked on the front door one evening and asked a kindly Mrs Jones whether there was a ham transmitter living there. “Indeed yes, my son Montague William Sidney Jones. Just one moment please.” Very soon there was Mont, stretching out a hand of welcome. I was 15 and Mont was 32. He worked in a city bank, but lived only for the evenings and weekends and his ham transmitter. We were pals for over 30 years until Mont left us with a sudden heart attack. There was no age gap. His sense of humour and youthful interest in radio never changed.

On this first night I was introduced to Mother and Pater of this very English family and also to Mont’s two sisters. Pater’s principal hobby was playing a one-stringed fiddle, accompanying the permanent classical music program heard on the NZ government radio stations. Mont led me into his bedroom, about 7 feet square, which apart from the bed and a small wardrobe also contained the transmitter and operating table. Some ZL hams gained worldwide prowess on 40 and 20 metres, the rest operated on 80 metres CW and phone, with most crystal controlled so that each ham was quickly identified by his frequency, poor or excellent phone quality, or the XYLs who took over regularly from their husbands. Mont’s ambition was to have the maximum power permitted – 100 Watts input – that could be translated by careful design and construction into 80 Watts in the antenna, but most importantly, to have broadcast sound quality at 100% modulation. Already we were both on the same wavelength, particularly when I learned that hams on 80 meters could play two sides of a phonograph record each hour. This was not quite as interesting as my broadcast pirating escapades (which horrified Mont no end), or the VK hams in Australia who were
permitted to use the top end of the broadcast band between 11pm and daylight for continuous musical programs.

Monty was not very up on audio amplifiers. Prior to my first visit he had paid a friend to construct a modulator amplifier with 6L6 output tubes. it turned out to be a dismal failure, with the friend returning Monty’s down-payment. This was a challenge tor me, so with Mont’s approval and his transmitter operating, I listened on headphones as Mont made some test calls. All above about 30% modulation was indeed mush. Using Mont’s test meter, I measured the bias volts on the 6L6 cathode bias resistor. Remembering a recent Uncle Hugo article on this same circuit, I believed the bias to be low at 10 volts and it pulsed badly with
Mont’s voice. I pulled one 6L6 out of its socket as Monty talked, and all modulation ceased. Monty was flabbergasted at this daring do, pulling out tubes with the power on! “Not to worry Mont” I said as I interchanged the 6L6s to prove that we had one dud. “But these are new tubes,” wailed Mont. Looking through the glass envelope, I spied the plate wire coming out of tile glass pinch at the bottom of the tube. It had burned up and was lying inside the glass envelope.

Mont found my diagnosis difficult to accept, so I suggested that we borrow the 6V6 from his receiver for a 30 second test. “But, but,” said Mont, but I had impulsively made the test. With the audio gain control turned down almost to zero, his transmitter modulated as never before. From that evening on, Mont was game for any trick I suggested. it was then that I asked Mont every question about transmitters and antennas that were bothering me. In response, Mont handed aver a years pile of ‘QST’ magazines. We had started a mutually rewarding association.

A few weeks later l spied a “jobs vacant” advertisement for a radio serviceman trainee at “505 Radio” in the downtown Auckland city area. Mum made sure that I had a clean shirt on and suggested a tie. Dad helped with my first shave and a lift to town so that I would be first in line. It was a cinch, there were 5 other applicants who vaguely thought that being a radioman would bring in more money than being a delivery boy. The radio store apparently shared the premises with a piano dealer. The radio boss employed a brother and his friend to erect outside antennas for other radio dealers.

Albert Yates a roly-poly Yorkshireman, was employed as a radio serviceman who repaired mostly warranty jobs on new English radios, known for their tricky circuitry so much that other dealers preferred to send their repairs to SOS. It was Yates who interviewed the job applicants. Although I was first in line, I was last to be interviewed. I bridled at the thought of such unfairness, which made me more cocky when my turn came. I could not toil to hear the interviews, as the dividing wall was a low divider between the shop and the service area. “Is this a triode or a tetrode?” “What is a likely source of hum in a radio receiver?” “What is the very last thing to be done to done to a radio under repair?” And so on. Finally it was my turn, and with a sly grin, Albert asked the questions of me. My replies were – “It is neither, it is a pentode.” “Depends upon the hum frequency, most likely open filter capacitors, but it could be a heater to cathode short inside a tube.“ “Connect the set ta an antenna and try all controls to make sure they all work properly” I wondered if Albert also read Uncle Hugo, as these questions were featured in recent “Radio Age” issues.

Since the preceding applicants had all been dismissed, I assumed that I had the job, but it was not formally announced. There was a list of do’s and don’ts, concluding with, “You shall buy a notebook and enter everything that I suggest you enter in it.” Shades at Jim Bowen at the Lyric Theatre. Apparently Albert Yates was another interested teacher. I was told to appear promptly at 8 the next morning with a toolbox and no tie. A short smile and I was dismissed. I was never told what the salary would be and I never asked. What better job could one ever wish for?

Editors Note — Alan Roycroft is truly one of the great personalities in Pacific Radio. QSLers of Hawaiian MW stations in past decades will almost certainly have some of Alan’s anecdote-filled verification cards in their collection. These reminiscences from Alan’s earliest days in radio show us a great radio career and character in the making. Now retired to Hilo, Hawaii Alan has suffered several serious strokes since 1995 and is no longer able to correspond. But thanks to Hilo DXer Chuck Boehnke and the Internet, his NZ friends are able to keep in touch. Alan was one of the 4 recipients of the special Certificates of Recognition
awarded in 1998 to mark the NZ Radio DX Leagues 50th Anniversary.

This article was first reprinted in issues of the 1999 DX Times from a “Radio Age” article supplied by Harold Looker and retyped by Bryan Clark.