As an amateur astronomer, I knew it was only a matter of time before the astronomical community became involved to save WWV. Specifically, it’s a group of mostly amateur astronomers who observe and record occultations.
What’s an occultation? It’s the term when a solar system object passes in front of, and blocks out a star. Why is this important to observe? Lunar occultations are the easiest to observe (if the star is bright enough, one can do a crude observation with binoculars or even the unaided eye). But there is very valuable science to be had with smaller objects. When a dwarf planet [like Pluto] or an asteroid – passes in front of, and “blinks” out or blocks the light of a star – measurements can be taken that reveal the dwarf planet or asteroid’s size/diameter. We can even determine if an object is round/oval – or maybe cigar-shaped when multiple ground observers record and accurately time how long the star “blinks” (or if the star doesn’t get covered by the asteroid in some locations but does in others). Okay, that is Occultations 101 (if you are interested in learning more, see the link).
Credit: Upcoming occultation – showing the path where the occultation is visible – from IOTA: International Occultation Timing Association
Equipment used to record and document these fleeting events (some graze occultations only last fractions of a second) requires – you guessed it – time stamped video devices. Back in the old days before video and other advanced equipment, astronomers would sit a shortwave radio next to the telescope with a tape recorder to audibly capture & record the time signal with the observer noting the start/stop of the event (we’ve come a long way since then – time stamped equipment has advanced this from “approximately” to “exact science”!).
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor Dan Robinson who shares this fascinating story about what has to be “one of the most important occurrences involving a SWBC station that no longer exists — the Voice of Biafra”:
Biafra: One of the rarest of SWBC QSLs
by Dan Robinson
Many SWLing Post readers will no doubt have heard, in recent years, the station Radio Biafra broadcasting via various relay locations on shortwave, and also on the Internet.
Those of us who have been SWLs for many decades remember the history of Biafra and the story of the original Voice of Biafra, which when the station was active on shortwave, before it was closed down by Nigerian government forces.
My own SWLing career began in the late 1960’s, but alas my receivers at the time, and my knowledge of what was on the air were such that I did not hear the transmissions from Biafra (I’m one of those who regrets having missed many former tropical band broadcasters, such as Tonga, Fiji, Gilbert & Ellice Islands (later known as Kiribati) when they used shortwave, and Biafra was on that list as well).
I first learned about the original Radio Biafra from articles written by the late Don Jensen.
In one of those [download PDF], Don re-printed a copy of one of the most famous SWBC QSLs of all time — a Biafra verification sent to DX’er Alan Roth.
Typed on a piece of notebook paper, it had “Broadcasting Corporation of Biafra, P.O. Box 350, Enugu” at the top. Three paragraphs of text followed, referring to Roth’s reception dated January 28th, 1969 of the station on 7,304 kHz.
Pictured with the letter to Roth was the envelope with “Republic of Biafra” mailed from the Biafra mission on Madison Avenue, in New York City. I will always remember the caption, which said that Roth had taken his reception report to the Biafran delegation office which:
“managed to get it flown into the breakaway nation with other official correspondence, on the emergency airlift. Radio Biafra’s chief engineer wrote the verification letter and returned it via the same route. . . a high contrast photo was required to bring out the typing since a well-born typewriter ribbon had been used.”
For decades this Biafra verification to Roth was indeed considered to be the only one in existence, though because so many SWLs and DX’ers were active through the years, it’s always difficult to state this with certainty.
Those of us who collect historic SWBC QSLs, going through thousands of eBay listings, always keep an eye out for cards and letters and station materials.
So it was that a few weeks ago, as I was doing my usual due diligence looking through eBay listings, I noticed something unusual. Listed among SWBC QSLs from a seller in Ithaca, New York was something astounding — another Biafra verification letter!
Looking closely, it seemed to be exactly like the famous QSL letter sent to Alan Roth in 1969, with the exact same date, but sent to a James G. Moffitt, in Dallas, Texas.
Days ticked by — I had the QSL on ‘watch’ status on my eBay account, and as I do for any QSL of high value, I also had it on automatic bid status. For this piece of SWBC history, my maximum bid was very high, something I rarely do unless the item has extreme historic or collectors significance.
I envisioned furious bidding for this Biafra verification, but in the end only four bids were recorded. I won the QSL at what I consider to be a very low price ($81) considering its rarity.
The “Undiscovered QSL of Radio Biafra”, as Jerry calls it in his new article, now resides with me here in Maryland. Unless/until another of its kind emerges somewhere on the QSL market, it has to be considered the only one of its kind in the world.
As for the question of whether this previously “undiscovered” QSL is genuine, Jerry notes the similarities between the Roth QSL letter from 1969, and the one sent to James G. Moffitt, who he notes was active as a DX’er in the days when Radio Biafra existed.
“. . .what about the common date, and date-time-frequency details, in the two veries? If the reports had arrived in Biafra at roughly the same time, it would not be unusual for the replies to be prepared on the same day. As to the common date-time-frequency details, perhaps whoever typed the letters thought these references were standard boilerplate rather than information that was to be tailored to the specific listener. Certainly the frequency could be expected to be the same. The common date of reception is harder to explain, but it is not difficult to see how the almost inevitable difference in dates of reception could have been overlooked. QSLers know that verifications can be wrong in their details, misdated, even sent to the wrong listener. As for the different fonts, and for Alan’s letter being light in appearance and Moffitt’s dark, perhaps the typist changed typewriters because one was running out of ink. We will likely never know for sure, but I think the Moffitt verie (which sold on eBay for $81) is genuine. In any event, the story reminds us how, in every endeavor, even shortwave listening, today’s connected world can cast new light on old events and turn longstanding certainties into question marks.”
I am quite happy with having acquired what surely is one of the rarest of SWBC QSLs. It has been added to a collection that, in addition to my own QSLs that I carefully kept over the years, includes other unique cards, including one from ZOE Tristan da Cunha and the station at the former Portuguese Macao.
Amazing story, Dan! It pleases me to no end to know that someone who values our shortwave radio history–and does a proper job archiving it–has acquired this amazing piece. I especially appreciate the time that you and Jerry Berg put into sharing the history of the Voice of Biafra with the shortwave listening and DXing communities. Thank you!
Readers: As Dan suggests, I strongly encourage you to check out Jerry’s website, On The Shortwaves. It’s a deep treasure trove of radio history.
IN THE EARLY 1930s, Bell Labs was experimenting with making wireless transatlantic calls. The communications goliath wanted to understand the static that might crackle across the ocean, so it asked an engineer named Karl Jansky to investigate its sources. He found three: nearby thunderstorms, distant thunderstorms, and a steady hiss, coming from … somewhere.
Jansky studied the hiss for a year, using a rudimentary antenna that looked like toppled scaffolding, before announcing its origin: The static was coming from the the galaxy itself. “Radio waves heard from remote space,” announced The New York Times in May 1933. “Sound like steam from a radiator after traveling 30,000 light-years.” Janksy had unwittingly spawned the field of radio astronomy.
Today, a replica of Jansky’s scope sits on the lawn in front of Green Bank Observatory, one of the four world-class public radio telescopes in the US. Along with the Very Large Array, Arecibo Observatory, and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), it is the legacy of a boom time in federal investment in the field that began in earnest after World War II.
In the past several years, though, the National Science Foundation has backed away from three of those instruments. In 2012 the NSF published a review recommending that the foundation ramp down funding to Green Bank—just 11 years after it was finished—as well as the VLBA, which can resolve a penny from about 960 miles away. Three years later, the foundation asked Arecibo for management proposals that “involve a substantially reduced funding commitment from NSF.”
[S]upport for pure science in the US is always complicated, since it relies on the good graces of federal agencies and annual budgets. As funders balance building and operating new scopes with the old, while giving grants to the astronomers who actually use those instruments, something’s gotta give. And no matter what it is, the science will not be the same.
[…]THERE IS A new facility potentially on the horizon: The Next-Generation VLA (the VLA itself, while upgraded, is 40 years old). As currently envisioned, the ngVLA’s many antennas will together have 10 times the sensitivity and resolution as the VLA, at a wider range of frequencies. The primary array will have 214 18-meter antennas, spiraled across New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Mexico. Nineteen smaller ones will sit close to the center, and 30 18-meterers will constellate the continent.[…]
Check out this video for more info about the ngVLA:
Spread the radio love
Please support the SWLing Post by adding us to your whitelist in your ad blocker. Our advertisers are by invite only and are only radio related--no junk ads here! Ads are what helps us bring you premium SWLing content! Thank you so much!