RPL as I Recall It, 1951-1956
By John (Jack) Wilson
It was September 1951 when I had just completed five years in the RCAF having been trained as a radar and communications technician. After training, I was fortunate to have been posted to the Experimental and Proving Establishment at Rockcliffe where I worked on a number of development projects as an assistant to a senior DND civilian engineer, and great guy, ANATOL PUSHINSKI, known to everyone as 'Push'. (He could recite Pi to thirty decimal places using a Russian-language mnemonic!).
It was my intention to sign on for another five years in the air force but Push suggested that it might be more appropriate for me to continue with a career in R&D. The opportunities for this in the RCAF were somewhat limited. Push offered to contact a colleague, JIM SCOTT, at Defence Research Board (DRB) Radio Physics Laboratories (RPL) and determine whether there were any vacancies for technicians at RPL.
It turned out that indeed there were, and an interview for me was arranged. I was not totally unaware of the activities of RPL as I had met BOB LANGILLE and LARRY MAIRS where they were working on a project with NRC and RCAF participation. On temporary assignment to 'Practice Flight', I was the technician responsible for ' DI's, that is, Daily Inspections of the aircraft's electronics, and signing off, the airworthiness of the equipment before take-off.
But back to my interview at RPL. I presented myself in one of the modest little buildings located beside the arboretum of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa overlooking the Rideau canal. I sought out JIM SCOTT. He was expecting me and we had a friendly chat quite unlike ones I had become used to in the presence of an officer. Nevertheless, I was able to resist saluting when I left his office. There was another short chat with FRANK DAVIES, affectionately known as "FT", who noting my girth (I was beginning to lose my boyish figure) suggested that I should get more exercise.
Eventually I was handed over to DEL HANSEN who gave me a good grilling on my technical knowledge, skills and 'attitude'. Apparently I passed musters because on the twelfth of September I received a letter, signed by LE Kelly for Chairman DRB offering me a job as an Assistant Technician Grade III at a salary of $2,436 per annum. I took my honourable release from the RCAF and reported for work at DRB on 1 October 1951.
I was assigned to work under JOHN CHAPMAN with JACK BATESON as my section supervisor. At RPL the assignment process was quite flexible and we technicians found ourselves doing different jobs for various professionals on various projects whenever it seemed appropriate. Indeed, there was an official caste system differentiating 'professionals' from non-pros, in things like signing in and out, but most of us 'non-pros' were treated as valued contributors and all worked mostly on a first-name basis.
One of my earliest assignments was to work outside in the early snow constructing a wooden tower out of 1X2 strapping helping MIKE PSUTKA. The lab's site caretaker BERT FETTERLY, helped us from time to time, mostly in an advisory capacity. Once completed, this tower became known as 'Psutka's Needle' It was eventually moved to the new lab site at Shirley Bay and, after a number of years of service holding up antennas, it was blown over by hurricane 'Hazel'. JOHN KEYS recalls being given the job of getting rid of it, which he did, by dousing it with stove oil and setting it alight. John says it burned real well after a slow start.
John Chapman, I believe, had been a university summer employee at DRB when he was working on his Ph.D. He was interested in continuing an experiment to discover whether there were horizontal movements in the ionosphere, and if so, what were the characteristics of such movements in terms of occurrence, direction and velocity. This experiment was labelled 'E-Layer Winds'. Outdoors, the receiving apparatus comprised three vertical loop antennas located at the vertices of a right triangle having sides of about 30 metres. These antennas were wound on wooden arms a metre or so in length and arrayed in the form of a cross on cedar posts two metres above the ground. They were tuned by variable capacitors operated by servo motors remotely controlled. On misty mornings the site took on a Calvarian aura.
The antennas were erected at the western end of the Shirley Bay site (Hut-17?) which also housed an LG-17 Marconi vertical incidence ionospheric sounder. This sounder was capable of recording the heights of the various layers of the ionosphere at swept frequencies from the top of the AM broadcast-band up to 30 megacycles (Hertz weren't invented yet). This came on automatically every 15 minutes and was an RPL captive installation, just one of a number of such 'observatories' located throughout Canada. The others were operated by the Department of Transport. The data from these were transmitted daily to Ottawa by HF radio using CW (Morse code) where ace operator JACK PETRIE received the information. The data were used to make predictions of Maximum Useable Frequencies (MUF's) and Lowest Useable Frequencies (LUF's) for various HF communication paths.
Hut-17 also housed the transmitter and monitoring apparatus for the Winds experiment. The transmitter operated on set fixed frequencies and radiated skyward with circular polarization via crossed delta antennas. The receiver was a fairly conventional A-scan CRT type radar which captured the fading pattern of the three loop antennas on photographic paper. The idea was that if there were inhomogeneities in the E-layer, about 80 km up, any horizontal movement (i.e. winds) would show up as time shifts in the peaks and nulls of the return echo at each loop antenna - much the same as shadows of clouds do in visible light.
By manually marking the peaks and valleys of the fading pattern on the photographic paper using a pencil, and measuring their shift with a ruler it was possible to calculate the velocity and direction of the 'winds'. There followed statistical analysis with other physical data including the magnetic K-indices obtained from the magnetic observatory at Agincourt near Toronto. This was my first introduction to statistical analysis and once I got the hang of it under John Chapman's tutelage I found it quite interesting. Unfortunately, I don't think we got much in the way of correlation and some critics (Dr. Straker was one, I believe) suggested that we weren't looking at winds at all. The whole thing became back burner stuff when someone finally put a transmitter on the other side of the ionosphere (Sputnik) and John Chapman began looking toward the development of our own satellite, Alouette.
While my major project was the Winds experiment, I was also called upon to work on PETE Forsyth's 'Janet' project. The idea of Janet was that, on infrequent occasions, meteors from outer space would enter the earth's ionosphere and greatly enhance the ionization level as they passed through. They left a trail of highly ionized gas which acted as a mirror (true specular reflection) to RF radiation. This would reflect radio signals in the VHF bands with as much as 60 dB enhancement as seen by receivers located in the right places. This enhancement would provide a temporary, but vastly wider, bandwidth for communication purposes. A great deal of information pre-stored on magnetic tape could be flushed through at a rapid rate while the effect was present. The geometry of the situation for 80 to 100 km altitude worked out to about 1000 miles.
An experimental link was set up with one end at Shirley's Bay and the other at Winnipeg. I was sent on temporary duty to work at the Winnipeg end. A vertical sounder was set up at the half way point near Kakabeka Falls, Ontario, hopefully just under the ionization trails which would be studied. A high-power 50-MHZ pulse was transmitted from Shirley's Bay. It was received weakly at Winnipeg (actually the farm grounds of Headingly Jail located several miles west into the prairies where there was a DOT ionospheric observatory as well as a 200-foot steel tower that had been abandoned by CBC radio station CBM). The normal medium of propagation of our 50-MHZ pulse was 'forward scatter', always there but almost undetectable. Person-to-person communication among the three stations was by conventional HF (ham-type) radio. I even got to use my halting Morse code a bit.
The effect, when we caught a meteor trail, was quite dramatic. The feeble little 50-MHZ pulse hidden down in the grass on the CRT blossomed rapidly and it was necessary to crank up the attenuator 50 dB or more to stop the pulse from hitting the roof!
One interesting anecdote. The guys back in Shirley's Bay, trying out the HF link, casually asked the Kakabecca Falls gang "how's the weather out there?". They got more than they asked for. RON SIGSTON, who was a veteran trained weather observer and wireless operator, took a look outside and rattled out a crisp high-speed-Morse, five-minute professional weather briefing which the boys in Ottawa were barely able to keep up with. Their best response was "weather fine here too".
While in Winnipeg, the RPL people stayed at the Marlborough Hotel on Smith Street, right downtown. We sometimes used the Manitoba Government's Headingly Jail shuttle bus to travel out to work and back. Some of the Winnipegers (including my future mother-in-law) wondered how come they let us out every night. On one of his brief visits to our set up, KEITH BROWN boarded the bus to return from Headingly and absentmindedly asked the driver "Is this the bus to Ottawa?"
The driver didn't reply then, but once back at the bus terminal in Winnipeg he flung open the door and grandly announced "All out for Ottawa".
Because of my time in the RCAF, it was my boast that I could enter any hotel lounge in Canada and find someone I knew (usually another airman). It worked in the Marlborough too, and the guy I recognized was in RCAF uniform, His name was Jack Mellish and I knew him from high school days. After an evening of fellowship, he arranged a blind date for me to go to a party at the corporals' club at RCAF station Winnipeg the next Friday night. My date's name was Grace Munson and I got to see quite a lot of her during my two stays in Winnipeg. During a visit to her married sister in Kenora I proposed marriage and she said "yes". We were married in Deer Lodge United Church, Winnipeg on the 14th of June. First to sign the guest list was JOHN CRYSDALE - my only guest. Last June (1999), Grace and I celebrated our 48th anniversary. We have four children and seven grandchildren.
I must mention just one more anecdote about the wedding. At the jail the DOT/RPL people had been given a small squad of prisoner 'trusties' to do manual labour and odd jobs for us. We rewarded them with little drawstring pouches of Bull Durham tobacco with cigarette papers which were available in nearby North Dakota for five cents each. Early on the morning of my wedding, I drove out to the jail to have the crew wash and wax my 1949 Austin in preparation for the day. It was one of those beautiful prairie mornings that Manitoba is famous for, but the trusties were uncharacteristically quiet and subdued. It was then that I learned that there was to be a hanging at the jail - I think on the same day, a sobering thought indeed. The trusties still did a first-class job on my little car, however.
Another project going on at Headingly was monitoring some VHF transmissions from Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids Iowa. This was JOHN CRYSDALE's project with Larry Mairs and me assisting. Larry and I had the job of constructing an antenna array comprising four five-element yagis, and mounting it some 80 feet up the CBM tower. This involved climbing up one of the legs which had ladder rungs for the purpose. Part of the way up it was necessary to negotiate out around one of the large obstruction lights - a scary manoeuvre indeed. However, after a week or so of sheer terror, both Larry and I found ourselves swinging around on the girders like monkeys as we built a platform and installed the antenna. The view of the Manitoba prairie to the west, and the Assiniboine River just to the south of us was great and we could hear the voices of people from a mile away.
We got to know our trusties quite well, according to their stories not one was ever guilty of any crime. As workers they were not great. It would take six of them to do the work of one man in the same time. One of their jobs was to put up some wooden posts upon which we were to install some antenna feeder lines to the tower. They would dig the hole, insert the post, fill in the hole and replace the sod just so and place little stones around in a circle. Then they would circle the pole in an Indian-style dance stomping their feet and issuing war whoops.
Once, two of them managed to catch a rabbit and immediately stopped work to light a fire and cook it on the spot. They obtained two matches from their obliging guard and a billy can from ERNIE LEGGATE the DoT OI/C. I asked the guard whether this was breaking any rules and he said "Heck no. It's not a government rabbit".
Enough about Headingly. Suffice to say, I wrote to John Chapman asking to be returned to Ottawa with my bride as soon as the job was done. After another month's stay in rented rooms we packed our wedding presents into the 'boot' and back seat of the Austin and headed back the 1300 miles east going through the states south of Lake Superior, crossing back at Detroit. In 1952 the Trans Canada Highway was not complete on the north shore. We made brief stops along the way, including Niagara Falls - a belated, and partially RPL-subsidized, honeymoon.
When we returned to Ottawa I found that the lab had moved my workbench to the new building at Shirley's Bay, so I missed having anything to do with the move itself. The part of the lab that I was mostly involved with was generally divided into three sections: LF (TOM STRAKER), HF ( John Chapman) and VHF (Pete Forsyth). I worked in HF with STAN MILLS as my lab supervisor, mostly bench work constructing circuits and running observations out in the field huts. Also, I took on the job as RPL's reporter for the DRB newsletter, the 'BRAD'. Part of my contributions were interviews with each new hire and individual returning after assignments at other locations. If copies of this newsletter exist in an archives somewhere, they may provide some interesting sidelights of pre-CRC history.
The Winds experiment was moved to the far northern reaches of the site where we placed a little prefab hut to be known: as Hut-23. ERIC VOGAN was involved at this point. A family of skunks soon dug a den under it, but we got along OK. Hut-23 was close enough to Shirley Bay itself that one could have had lunch at the shore and even go for a swim at noon break. I continued to gather Winds records at the hut in spite of hurricane Hazel blowing down my antennas on one occasion. During one summer I was assisted by FORBES LANGSTROTH, a student from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. He boarded at our house. Forbes went on to become a dean at St. FX and, I think, a member of the Canadian Science Council (founded 1966). We still keep in touch at Christmas time. (Ed. note: Jack has informed us that Forbes Langstroth passed away in April 2001.)
Every once in a while, especially in nasty weather, it came time to put up some antenna towers with Armour Warwick as crew chief. These were 'Valeriot' towers made of aluminum members rivetted together into six foot sections. The job was to hand-fasten these sections together, using little machine screws and nuts, into tower lengths up to ,80 feet, and to raise them using a gin-pole and guy wires. Armour joked that he could erect a waxed string if he was given sufficient guy wires but the tower section became too flexible above 80 feet. During one delightful snow storm we erected four towers for a rhombic antenna to point at the labs at Slough, England. KEN DAVIES was involved with this one. He came to us from Wales via Cambridge University.
While standing on the hood of a Dodge Power Wagon truck and attempting to tighten a nut on a section joint, I accidentally dropped a pair of Vicegrip pliers. These disappeared in the long grass and snow beneath the truck. Perhaps they are still there. More about these pliers later.
Another recollection I have is one of hauling cans of stove oil for the space heater in Hut 7 and joining DORIS JELLY laboriously reading the manuals and adjusting banks of trimmer potentiometers on a modified LORAN set to get some frequency divider circuits to count down properly. The set was full of the ubiquitous 6SN7 twin triodes each of which had slightly different characteristics. For the life of me I cannot remember what we were trying to achieve in doing this but it might have been part of a project called "Tides".
Jack Wilson in 1953. This is the photo he refers to in the text at right.
Photo courtesy of Jack Wilson.
I remember EARL MACDONALD who ran the photo lab. I spent some time in his lab on the third floor, processing my winds photos. Earl was experimenting with a new camera, taking portraits. On one occasion he used Armour Warwick an me as models. He 'snuck' over-size glossy prints of us on the inside of the doors on the ladies washrooms throughout the building. One of the young ladies, PHYLLIS ROONEY complained to Armour that she "just couldn't 'go' with him watching her". Jim Scott had the photos removed. I still have the one of me somewhere.
Fun and practical jokes were not unknown at RPL. I recall one engineering undergrad summer student who proudly packed a sixteen-inch scientific slide-rule in a leather holster even when at lunch in the cafeteria. Some of the gang in GORDON BRACKENBURY's shops constructed a gigantic six-foot replica and had one of their conspirators position himself immediately behind the unfortunate summer-student in the cafeteria line-up. We never saw the leather-holstered item again.
Another event, as John Keys relates it, involves the rather unreliable new elevator that served the three-storey Shirley's Bay building. Occasionally, the elevator stopped between floors, much to the temporary confinement of anyone who happened to be on board. On one such occasion, a great fun lady TILLY ( I cannot remember her by any other name) and old-fashioned gentleman Bert Fetterly, who had a prosthetic limb, (we called them 'wooden legs' in those days), were trapped together in the wayward compartment. Their voices were heard calling for release up and down the shaft. Tilly kept calling in a loud voice for poor old Bert to stop 'whacking her with his leg'. Bert, of course was doing no such thing and was more relieved than Tilly was when they were at last released. I cannot imagine this type of fun going on without 'politically correct' consequences today.
The fifties were years when penetration across the pole by Soviet bombers was considered to be a real threat to the USA (and perhaps Canada en passant). The military (NORAD) responded by building three radar 'fences' across Canada. In the far north was the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. Somewhat further south was the Mid-Canada Line and down near the border was the Pine Tree Line. There was a concern that migrating waterfowl, mostly geese, would trigger false alarms as flocks of them passed through the 'fences'. A project was launched to study this. I think it was JACKE HOGARTH's baby and anyhow, he was the one who named it 'Operation Wood Duck' after the prettiest bird around,
Early, during the spring migration period, an experimental bi-static Doppler radar fence was set up along the north shore of Lake Erie. I was not directly involved in this escapade, but word got back from those that were that a great time was had by all. The locals gave the nickname 'California' to Ron Sigston because he had a laugh like cowboy actor Hopalong Cassidy's sidekick of that name.
I believe Wood Duck was one of the first projects to offer an official report in the form of a documentary film rather than on paper. Jack Bateson, a true wordsmith, had quite a bit to do with it but he had a British accent and it was decided that a Canadian voice should narrate the film. I was asked to try out reading the script in synchronization with the film and still remember several of the opening lines. "Kingsville and Longpoint were the two locations chosen for operation Wood Duck. These are ducks, and swans at Longpoint. And these are geese at the Jack Miner bird sanctuary near Kingsville etc. etc." However, it was not to be and I was not immortalized on the sound track. John Keys tells me that he thinks Del Hansen narrated the film. If so, it was the obvious choice as Del had a perfect voice for the job (and still has).
One of the benefits enjoyed by RPL employees was to sometimes brush shoulders with 'world class' visiting scientists and others. Some of these were resident at the lab for several months where they consulted with staff and gave open talks in the little lecture room. I was pleased to note that these people, at the very top of their fields, were able to explain complex physics matters in understandable language, almost completely without esoteric mathematics, perhaps a lesson for some of our local professionals!
One special visitor to the lab was not a scientist at all but he was a world class celebrity - YOUSUF KARSH. Yousuf's brother Malak Karsh, who specialized in commercial photography, had been given a commission by some client in Vancouver to create a photo depicting a 'radar' antenna mounted high on a building, symbolic of a night-time guard overlooking a sleeping city. In the fifties, photogenic microwave dishes were hard to find and, apparently, there wasn't a suitable one on the west coast. However, there was one on the roof of RPL Shirley Bay. Although Yousuf was best known for his portrait photography, his brother Malak called upon him to help out by photographing the RPL dish. Malak already had a perfect picture of sleeping Vancouver onto which the Shirley's Bay antenna could be superimposed.
Yousuf obtained permission to visit the lab a night to take the necessary picture. This meant that the visit had to take place during 'silent hours' when the lab was largely empty of people. Somehow, I was assigned to stay on and act as escort for the visit ( I was probably chosen because I had taken my little '49 Austin to work in the morning while most others were using the buses chartered for the purpose). I had to phone my wife Grace and tell her that I would be late for supper.
Karsh and his helper arrived about six p.m. and, because it was late in the year, it was already dark. I led the visitors to the roof (reached by a door at the top of the elevator). Mr. Karsh, dressed in a light weight cape and wide brimmed black hat, surveyed the situation and asked for a step ladder and an electric extension. These I was able to provide with the help of one of the night cleaners. Karsh's wordless assistant lugged several items of photographic equipment onto the roof. It took a fair while to position the ladder and lights and the other stuff just where the master wanted them. He snapped out curt orders to his assistant and sometimes to us. Finally, he climbed half way up the ladder and rested his bulky camera on the top step. Although I was wearing my winter parka I was beginning to feel chilly. Karsh and his helper didn't seem to mind. Artists at work!
Eventually, the job was done and Karsh asked me if I would give him a lift downtown while his assistant took film and apparatus to their studio in the Hardy Arcade on Sparks Street. I think I dropped Karsh off at the Chateau Laurier where he was living at the time. Anyhow, I was really late for supper.
Several months later, I did get to see the picture on the cover of some trade magazine. There indeed, was a beautiful picture of our staunch RPL antenna bathed in moonlight, guarding the night sky over sleeping Vancouver.
It would not be possible to cover my period spent at RPL without mentioning the great extramural project carried out with the sympathetic understanding of RPL management. I am referring to the MEADOWLANDS ANNEX HOMES CO-OPERATIVE. Briefly, this was a project where a group of families, mostly of RPL employees, organized themselves into a house-building cooperative and built homes in the Meadowlands area of Cityview (now part of Nepean). It all started when Armour Warwick and CLAUDE MURRAY became aware of such activities going on under the auspices of St. Pats College. They got the idea that we could create a coop on our own and brought the idea to the people at RPL. The crunch came when those interested were asked to deposit $50 seed money to get things going. I cashed my one and only Canada Savings Bond to comply. The bottom line was we ended up eighteen months later with eighteen new homes costing each of us over 1OOO hours of after-work and weekend labour and mortgages as low as $9000. In my case we ended up with a house valued at $14,500 in September 1955. My mortgage, principal, interest and taxes came to $54 per month. I wondered how I could afford it.
A list of the families involved in the co-op is appended as annex 'A'.
By the time spring of 1956 rolled around I found myself with a wife, four kids, a dog and a mortgage, trying to make it on a Technician II salary. Through another ex-air force buddy I heard of an opening for a Technical
Officer 3 with a DND agency downtown called the Canadian Military Electronics Standards Agency (CAMESA). I studied up on the mandate of CAMESA with the help of BOB THANE, who served on one of the CAMESA committees, and prepared an application letter, kindly vetted by PERCY FIELDS. And it was accepted!
I resigned from RPL with regrets as I knew that I would miss the people and the friendly ambience. It was administrative routine at RPL for employees who were leaving to visit a number of offices to get signatures on a form certifying that you didn't owe anybody anything like library books, inventoried tools etc. The records showed that I was missing two things. One was Hut-23 which somehow had gone missing, and the other was - you guessed it - a pair of Vicegrip pliers! OSCAR SANDOZ, who had recently arrived on site and had never really known me, was my acting chief in the absence of John Chapman. He said he was willing to forget about the hut, but suggested that I should account for the pliers. I Considered getting a pair at Canadian Tire but, lucky for me, Bob Langille caught me in the hall and invited me into his office for a farewell chat and to wish me luck. I just had to tell him about the pliers. He raised his eyebrows, gave a professorial sigh and signed my release paper. Sometime later I: received a gracious goodbye letter from Jim Scott. A copy of this is attached as Annex 'B'.
It was a life turn point for me when I traded my workbench for an office desk and started with CAMESA just one day short of my 29th birthday 1956. But that's another story.
Some of the above was checked out with John Keys but most of it is from my own memory. If there are any errors they are mine alone.
Meadowlands Annex Homes Co-operative Limited
Following is a list of the families - original members of the Coop. All were RPL families except as noted. (Gaps in the house numbers are because the lots were large (105 ft. frontage).
Palsen Street Houses
77 Jacke and Rene Hogarth..(later occupied by Eldon and Helen Warren, Eldon deceased)
83 John (Jack)* and Grace* Wilson
87 Ron and Renee Sigston (Ron deceased)
91 Colin and Bernice Hines (taken over from Gordon Brackenbury)
95 Larry Mairs and his mother
99 Bill and Ida Rolfe (Bill deceased)
103 Clare* and Betty* McKerrow
105 Ross and Beverly Braun (DRCL, moved to Montreal. House taken over by John and Mrs. Gates, Mavis Buck's parents)
111 'Robby'* and Edith* Robertson (not RPL)
113 Jack and Elsie Sykes (Jack deceased, Elsie remarried Alvin Halpenny, also now deceased)
Oakridge Boulevard Houses
24 Armour and Helen Warwick (both deceased)
28 Brian* and Mavis* Buck
35 Claude and Joy Murray
36 Mike* and Gwen* Zay
42 John* and Fran* Keys
44 Bill and Ruth Hatton (DRCL - soon moved to Montreal. House taken over by George and Harriet Gibbs, Ruth's parents))
50 Ross and Jean* Kirk (not RPL, Ross deceased .Jean remarried John Pohribney*)
52 Alan and Christine Craig (Alan deceased)
* still in residence, 1999.