The Radio Engineer Died

Back a few years ago, missionaries in Tanzania relied on what was called “Radio Call” for inter-station communications. Even some stations ‘way out in the bush’ had a transmission/receiving set – but that necessitated a gas-powered generating machine to keep the radio battery in operating condition. As one who was involved in keeping the network operating, I often found that drained batteries were the problem. Some folks charged them infrequently, no matter how long the radio sets were operating, and that drained the battery more quickly.
In the beginning we operated the network using VHF transmitters. These “line-of-site” transmitters were fairly strong and, atmospheric conditions permitting, well used. One, “line of sight” bounced the radio signal off a cloud and disrupted a police chase in South Africa, much to their ire! A radio technician with Missionary Communication in Kenya came down to set up most of the transmitters and erect the towers. He and I often worked together and he gave me instructions on maintaining the towers and how to keep the VHF transmitters tuned up so they gave maximum output power. I even had to erect one 75 ft. tower on a distant station, but that is another story!
Our mission station in Mwanza town was the central operating point. They set the operating schedule and what other station spoke when- except for emergencies when they could break in out of order. It operated quite smoothly and was a real help in communicating information or requesting help. Once, there was an urgent call for penicillin to be sent out to the station where the missionary children were attending their boarding school. Of course, with everyone listening in, parents were concerned thinking that there was a problem in the school. Later we found out that visiting friends from the USA had been taken to the Serengeti Park to see the animals and, on the way home, saw a warthog family. One of the small ones had gone down a hole and one of the guests thought he could pull it out – so he reached into the hole and was promptly bitten on the hand. The penicillin was for him!
The Mwanza transmitter was down, blanking out almost all of the network. I was asked to come in to see what I could do. All checked out well; I could find nothing wrong. The set would not transmit but it could receive fine. What to do? Call the radio engineer from Nairobi. In a few days he came and delved into the innards of the set, in the transmitting section. He seemed stumped but after about an hour or so announced, “I found the problem. The engineer is dead”.
Consternation was, no doubt, evident in our faces as he went on to explain. A small lizard had taken up residence in the set and had passed across some electric contacts at the moment when the “transmit” button had been pushed – and was “fried”, with the contacts now insulated by its body. Removal of the “engineer” and cleaning of the contacts soon had everything back in operating order.

4 thoughts on “The Radio Engineer Died

  1. Bill – you are right. Ken, since he first came to Tanganyika with Missy Communications (Jim Voss outfit) and lived at Bwiru, set up the RCA VHF system and maintained it after he moved to Kenya. The single-sideband system didn’t come in until after he moved and the Post Office admin. took over communications. Single-sideband was better – wasn’t “line of sight” and had good power even when clouds interfered. Great days! Your dad came down once, I think it was to be a vacation, but spent time checking some of our SSBs! Also, for interest, your dad (Chai) and I were in RVA together ‘way back in the dark ages.

  2. I would venture to guess that you are referring to one of three radio engineers who had a hand in setting up the “radio call” systems in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Congo. One was my Dad, Ted Teasdale, another was Kathy’s Dad, Don Steeves, and the third was MAF avionics guy Ken Schlehr.

    The joke about the engineer being dead sounds a lot like something my Dad would say! 🙂

  3. Interesting about those lizards! Even in the US they spread mayhem. They can short out well pumps lie across the “eye” of lights turned on as the sun sets each day. Their bodies fake the sundown that turns on the light. They get into sprinkler system pumps.

    I don’t remember the radios at Kijabe during my years at RVA. What I do remember is the horns (truck horns) that were placed in each home around the station. We were each given a number of blasts to blow when a Mau Mau alarm was signaled by the ringing of the station bell over by the generators that supplied our electricity. In number order each house was to sound their horn the assigned number of blasts. If someone failed to signal with the horn, then the assumption would be that there was trouble at that house.

  4. 7:00 a.m., can’t remember if it was 7 days a week or not, Dad was up and on the same system in Kenya for all the AIM stations there. And Kijabe was the head operator, in part because of the size of Kijabe, but also, I’m sure, because of the hospital and RVA. Although I don’t ever remember anything like a lizard mucking up the system!

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