An article by John DeMajo, Chairman and Curator
The Museum of Yesterday
Richmond, VA. USA


It's no secret today that our nation, and the world for that matter, is extremely vulnerable to chaos. Whether it be from natural and weather related occurrences, failure of critical infrastructure, or outright criminal or terrorist activity, our government is now spending considerable money to alert us to the concept of "being prepared."

Many times a day, we hear public service announcements on the radio, from Homeland Security, telling us to have a "plan" in case of a disaster. But what benefit would such plans for immediate survival have if our entire infrastructure were to be knocked out for a prolonged period?

As a member of the post-World War II "Baby Boomer" generation, I grew up in the Cold War era of the 1950s. As children, we were taught survival skills that the government thought would be beneficial in the event of a dreaded nuclear attack by a foreign enemy. The old "Duck and Cover" videos can still be seen on YouTube as a memento of those unsettled times. Back in the '50s however, it didn't take the Civil Defense folks long to realize that these encouraged programs would only serve to delay the inevitable horrible death that close range release of a nuclear weapon would have caused on the population

Today, as recent events have demonstrated, we still have the threat of nuclear weapons and terrorist actions used against our citizens. Our leaders don't seem to be able or willing to take the action necessary to insure that these risks to humanity don't continue to grow. The present leaders do not even seem to be able to bring themselves to identify the enemy by name, or call out subversive terror groups in the public media.

But as isolated as some delusional folks believe that risk may be, there are other situations that could seriously affect our lives, that have no direct connection to terrorism or acts of war. Weather, as proven by the likes of Katrina, Sandy and other major storms and tornadoes of the last couple of decades, serve as a demonstration by Nature that our world can be zapped in a matter of 24 hours or less. The thing about weather is that it generally affects a limited area of the landscape. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was the worst storm in modern history, yet most of the property damage it caused was really the result of the flooding of New Orleans that was due to insufficient levee construction, and not directly related to the storm's damaging winds. Tornadoes, likewise, may cause extensive damage quickly, but that damage is usually limited to a relatively thin line where the storm has traveled. Earthquakes can cause extensive damage, as we saw recently with a relatively low value quake that hit the Washington DC and Virginia area. While the quake measured a mere 5+ points on the scale, it did as much damage as some of the more severe West Coast quakes in history, mainly because of the difference in the makeup of the ground near the East Coast.

Aside from these potential natural disasters, the daunting proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, is what we call EMP or Electro-magnetic Pulses. EMP's are high energy electrical shock waves which can play havoc with electrical and electronic equipment. These EMP waves can be produced in a number of ways ranging from nuclear explosions to man made EMP generating weapons, to natural activity on our own Sun.

Discounting acts of war involving EMP generating devices, we are still extremely vulnerable to sun spot cycles which routinely yield EMP's that could potentially devastate our electrical, communications and data systems and networks. These sunspot disturbances occur on regular cycles, something which we here on Earth have no control over. In the last cycle, an EMP wave was released that had sufficient strength to completely destroy the electrical grid for most of the United States. By the Grace of God, that pulse narrowly missed the earth and instead hurled off into space. Had it passed a few degrees closer to the Earth, the damage may have been so great that civilization, as we know it, could have literally ceased to exist.

In assessing the possible risk from EMP waves, we must take a realistic look at our world and the infrastructure we have created and come to depend on. Historical logs and reports from the railroads reveal us that an EMP pulse, recorded in the mid 1800s, destroyed most of the railroad telegraph systems that had been installed at that point in history. Remember that these systems were made up of primitive, ruggedly built electrical devices which could normally withstand lightning storms, rain, hail, prairie winds and other adversities. There were no solid state electronics around in those days. Yet we find that one EMP occurrence was able to instantly destroy most of the batteries, coils and other critical parts of that system.

Today, our entire world is based on relatively delicate electronic circuitry. EMP vulnerable transistors and electronic circuitry control our entire power grid, the medical equipment in our hospitals and clinics, the computers in our financial institutions, all radio, TV and Internet communications, and even things like our automobiles, refrigerators, heating systems, lights, and home appliances.

In the event that a severe EMP were to impact our infrastructure, we would first loose major components of the electrical grid such as the huge transformers and generators in electrical power plants, distribution stations and even those on the neighborhood utility poles that directly supply our homes. Power plant and grid control computers and equipment would be destroyed as well. There are thousands if not millions of such devices in service, and most would require months, if not years, to reconstruct. To make matters worse, we have discontinued much of the manufacturing of these large generators and transformers in the United States, so we would be relying on countries like China to assist us in reconstructing or replacing critical damaged equipment. It could easily take years or even decades to return electric service to most of the nation.

Of course our military and government operations also rely heavily on vulnerable computer networks, so it is not beyond reason that a strong EMP could affect the ability of the United States to defend itself against enemies who might want to use the opportunity to commit acts of war. Furthermore, all transfer of money, social security payments and government funds would be impacted if computer networks were rendered inoperative, and government agencies and banks could no longer communicate.

Even in the most primitive of circumstances, radio communicated news to war ravaged Europe.

Similarly, food production, processing and transportation would grind to a halt. Railroads and trucking companies would be crippled as their solid state, fuel efficient vehicles were rendered inoperative. Refrigerating equipment, which relies heavily on electric motors and solid-state controls, would fail, thereby making it impossible to store or transport spoilable food. Computerized dispatching systems would fail completely, thereby causing super market and department store shelves to go bare in a matter of a few hours.

Our roads and highways would be clogged with stalled vehicles that are both unable to get fuel from our computerized gas stations, and because their internal computers, which control the government mandated fuel efficient operation of the vehicle, would be fried.

In our own homes, we would have no light, heat, refrigeration, cooking appliances, or communications devices such as radio, television or computers. Hospitals would not have access to their electronic medical devices, and those who rely on home or portable medical devices that use computer controls, would die.

It's not a pretty picture, is it? Just picture yourself in Marshall Dillon's Dodge City in the 1850s and you will immediately get an idea of just how bleak things would be, assuming that you managed to survive the millions of dead bodies, rotting food, and other adverse conditions that would have been created from the refuse of a dead society of 250 million human beings. Most people today could not survive this kind of shock, and estimates from disaster agencies tell us that at least two-thirds of the population would die in the first sixty days.

But then, this article is about radios, and "what does that have to do with the price of onions?" you ask. Well to answer that question, we can't use old radios to grow food, or fix our medical problems directly, but when it comes to establishing basic communications with our fellow human beings who did manage to survive, having a few working vacuum tube radios around, could reasonably provide some ability to communicate. You see, a device is usually only subject to EMP damage when it is energized. There are some exceptions to this. Personal computers, for example, would probably be totaled in a strong EMP, whether or not they were operating, mainly due to the fact that components of the computers are connected to the lines outside our homes and offices. EMP damage would therefore enter the circuitry through power lines, internet cables, and wireless devices.

In the case of tube radios, the hand-wired circuitry and the tubes themselves, are not subject to EMP damage unless they were connected and operating at the time the pulse occurred. Of course we would need power to run a radio, but today many homes, and most commercial buildings are equipped with emergency generating units. If these units are simple in design, and if they are off-line at the time the pulse occurs, they may survive and be able to provide some limited amount of power until such time as they run out of fuel.

This primitive home-made crystal set, discovered in German occupied Europe after WW-II, could have resulted in certain death to its owner had it been discovered by Nazi police.

This concept of survival is what sparked the growth and popularity of amateur or Ham radio back in the mid 20th Century. Those who were familiar with radio and the part it played in World War I, II and the Korean War, knew that ham radio could provide a vital link in times when conventional means of communication were not available. Even today amateur radio operators have been responsible for bridging the communications gaps during natural disasters and events the world over. It is important to realize, for both the station operators themselves and especially for government agencies who interface with ham operators in time of emergency, that having all solid-state radios would be of absolutely no use in an EMP disaster. Therefore, any station operator or government agency that relies on radios in time of emergency, should have access to at least one well maintained and working tube based radio transmitter and receiver.

Modern day Ham radio operators participate in regular exercises as training for service in disaster situations.

By having a trained radioman, and access to some tube type radios, some form of radio communications can probably be established in almost any situation short of total annihilation. In the case of the Museum Of Yesterday's permanent collection, we house a number of 1930s, '40s and '50s vintage ham and commercial receivers, transmitters, and station gear, that could be easily pressed into service in the event that solid state radios were ever totally disabled. If all of the nation's 250,000 estimated ham radio operators and radio technicians, along with critical government agencies, infrastructure provider companies, and emergency services providers were to maintain a tube type transmitting and receiving station, there would be a ready network available for at least limited communications in a severely crippled world.

Web sites such as this one by Bob Weaver, available at:
demonstrate interest among today's radio hobbyists and technicians in being able to
duplicate vintage tube radios.

In fact, wouldn't it be great if the government were to decide to subsidize the modern day manufacture of tube radios, such as they did with the solar and electric automobile industries? There are lots of old abandoned manufacturing facilities in our cities where some industrious entrepreneur could set up a tube based radio equipment manufacturing plant quite easily. It could mean a lot to the survival of our country some day.

John DeMajo

Chairman of the Museum Of Yesterday