Gatti-Hallicrafters, the First Grand Ham DXpedition

By Mike O'Brien, N0NLQ, 1031 E University St, Springfield, MO 65807 (Reprint from QST, december 1993, with illustrations from PA0ABM)
This 1947 DXpedition had all the fanfare, hype and mystery of a Hollywood safari movie. And although radio technology has made strides, when it comes to DXpeditions, they don't make 'em like they used to! Operating from a remote corner of the globe - being DX instead of chasing DX - is an appealing daydream for many hams, despite the fact that some recent DXpeditions have turned into nightmares of rowdy pileups, deliberate jamming and aggressive hype by the manufacturers that provided the gear. Blame the guilty for the rude operating. But don't assume that commercialization of DXpeditions is a new phenomenon. In fact, it is a made-in-the-USA marketing technique dating back decades. From the very beginning of radio, manufacturers have boasted DX achieved using their equipment. Artic explorer Donald MacMillan took Zenith receivers with him on his 1925 North Pole expedition, inspiring Zenith's advertising slogan."Long Distance Radio". A teenage ham in Cedar rapids, Iowa, named Arthur Collins kept in regular radio contact with MacMillan's crew, which included a US Navy officer, named Richard E Byrd. Eight years later, when Byrd, by then an admiral, headed an historic expedition to Antartica, he specified transmitters build by Art Collins - and the resulting publicity gave the fledgling Collins Radio Company a big push toward success.. Modern underwriting of ham DXpeditions can be traced to a 1947-48 trek to Africa that was largely sponsored by The Hallicrafters Company. It was a lavish production that generated widespread publicity for Amateur Radio and thousands of exotic QSL cards for hams around the world. The expedition was the brainchild of Attilio Gatti, a 50-year-old Italian adventurer who had led 10 pseudo-scientific safaris through Africa in the 1920s and '30s. In 1938-39, Gatti visited the Belgian Congo where, licensed as OQ5ZZ, he was introduced to Hallicrafters gear. After sitting out World War 11 in New England, Gatti yearned to return to Africa. He approached Hallicrafters chief Bill Halligan with a proposal for an electronic exploration expedition. In addition to putting ham radio in the international limelight, Gatti's plans called for measurements of atmospheric noise in equatorial regions and experiments in the 6-meter ham band to test the potential range of television signals that soon would be flooding the VHF airwaves. Gatti's pitch came at an awkward moment for Hallicrafters. The company, which did $36 million worth of business during its peak year of wartime production, had just seen sales plummet to $8 million in 1946. Exactly how Hallicrafters would adapt to the postwar marketplace seemed uncertain. Hams, who had been Hallicrafters' pre- war mainstay customers, were offered a new top-line receiver, the SX-42, in 1946. The company, however, was also busy developing television receivers, hi-fi gear and simple broadcast-band radios for general home use. Some observers predicted that ham receivers and transmitters would soon amount to only a minor portion of Hallicrafters' business. Nonetheless, Halligan, active himself as W9WZE, bought into Gani's project. A trade journal of the day, acknowledging Gatti's flair for publicity, interpreted the decision as "an effort to make Hallicrafters a household name" and "expand its market beyond the technically minded enthusiast". But first word of the venture was aimed squarely at hams. In the March and April 1947 issues of QST, full-page ads bore the headline "Going Places (Again)" and this terse, teasing announcement: "Hallicrafters' famous radio equipment, sold and distributed around the world before the war and used with superb effectiveness in every theater during the war, is once again on the move. Watch for latest details of the Gatti-Hallicrafters mobile radio-equipped expedition to the Mountains of the Moon in deepest Africa-a new and exciting test for the ingenuity of hams and the performance of Hallicrafters gear." In May and June QST, two-page ad spreads not only revealed the promised details of the journey, they announced a nationwide competition to select a lucky ham to go along as "the key figure, next to Commander Gatti, chosen to keep the expedition in touch with the outside world."

A Contest!

Applicants were instructed to submit a 250-word letter stating their qualifications (a Class A amateur ticket was required). Judges were to be Gatti, Halligan and ARRL Communications Manager F. E. Handy, W1BDI. It was reported that some 9000 entries were received by the July 1 deadline. By autumn, the contest had narrowed to a two-man race between Bob Leo, W6PBV, and Bill Snyder, W0LHS. Both were summoned to Gatti's home in Vermont for personal interviews. Leo was a 26-year-old Californian working as a transmitter technician for the Civil Aviation Agency. He'd become enamored with radio at age 12 when he followed plans in a Hugo Gernsback magazine to build an oatmeal-box receiver. "That radio changed my life," Leo recalls today. By 1937, he'd earned his amateur ticket. When the Mountains of the Moon expedition was announced, Leo had just gotten out of the Navy after five years of working in stateside radio intelligence. The Navy hadn't sent him overseas; he decided to try to join the Gatti-Hallicrafters expedition to belatedly see the world. Snyder, meanwhile, was almost 30, trying to get started as an industrial filmmaker and installing taxicab radios on the side in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. A licensed ham since 1933, Snyder had spent three war years in the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific. The idea of more world travel sounded like run. ";My girlfriend from before the war had sent me a 'Dear John' letter, so I didn't have anything much tying me down just then," he now says, recalling his outlook in 1947. "When I saw the ad in QST, I thought, 'Why not ?'" Leo and Snyder met on the way to Vermont and they hit it off so well that, although the original plan called for a single radio operator, they hatched a plot as they prepared to meet Gatti. Recalls Snyder: "I told Bob, 'Let's figure this so we both can go,' We convinced Gatti there' d be too much work for just one guy. So instead of taking one ham, he agreed to take two." Meanwhile, Gatti was running another contest to fill out the expedition' s roster. In cooperation with TRUE, a popular adventure magazine of the day, Gatti's advertised for applicants for two photographers (on still, one movie), a pilot and a camp manager. Some 20.000 entries were received. Gatti also was promoting equipment. He convinced International Harvester to provide a fleet of eight trucks. He commissioned the Schult Trailer Company of Elkhart, Indiana, to build four special 23-foot-long trailers, one of which was designated the "Shack on Wheels" and was turned over to Hallicrafters for installation of radio gear. Gatti also talked Aero-Craft out of three aluminium boats, convinced Evinrude to contribute outboard motors, and got Onan to weigh in with portable electric generators. A couple of Gatti's ideas didn't work out. At the last minute it was decided to leave behind a small experimental helicopter build by Bell, dubbed the Humming Bird, after tests indicated it wouldn't perform satisfactorily in the mountain regions Gatti planned to visit. And the "Diving Eye", a man sised metal cylinder with a window to allow a brave photographer to take underwater shots at depths of 30 feet, proved neither practical nor popular among those who were supposed to take plunges in the contraption. Perhaps Gatti's greatest publicity coup was convincing International News Service to lend reporter Jim Powers to the expedition. Dozens of Powers'colorful stories where distributed worldwide via the INS wires and appeared in hundreds of newspapers during the expedition.

The Gear

Hallicrafters equipped the Shack on Wheels with a blend of old and new technology: The company's latest receivers were installed -an SX-42, an SX- 43, plus an S-40A and S-38 for back up. An SP-44 Panadaptor was connected to the SX-42 to provide a visual spectrum display. The exiter and VFO The HF transmitter was an HT-4E, a descendant of a rig that was first offered to hams in 1938 and won fame during WWII as the BC-610. Accessories included the HT-5 (BC-614) speech amplifier for AM operation and the AT -3 antenna tuner. A new HT-18 served as an exciter and VFO for the old HT -4. Battery-powered HT-14 maritime radio telephones offered portable local communications on 160 and 80 meters. Hallicrafters Sky Fone aircraft transceivers, with battery packs, allowed mobile low-band communi- cations. Prototype portable FM rigs, forerunners of the Little Fone series marketed by Hallicrafters in the 1950s, provided 6-meter coverage. Prior to departure, rhombic antennas were fabricated with portable support poles. Double-extended Zepps were also packed. "I remember with the Zepps, we ran a slider with a light bulb up and down the open- wire feed line to adjust it," says Leo. "That light bulb really got the attention of the natives. They couldn't figure out why it would light up and get brighter, then dimmer, as we moved it along the feeders,"

They're off

The gear and crew were assembled and loaded onto the freighter African Pilgrim, setting sail from New York City on November 23. 1947. Forty-eight days later, the entourage disembarked at Kilindini, Kenya, and began to steer toward Kwale, 30 miles inland. where the first of eight planned base camps was established. While others set up tents, Leo and Snyder strung antennas, fired up generators and tuned up rigs. As luck had it, solar cycle conditions were extraordinarily favorable that year and band conditions were consistently excellent, especially on 10 and 20 meters. (This was before the 12, 15 and 17-meter bands existed.) "When we first went on the air, we had the Panadaptor hooked up and it was showing signals from one end of the band to the other," says Snyder. "Signals were great. We could hear guys from allover the world," The first QSO was on 20-meter CW with I1KN, Fortunato Grossi in Florence, Italy. Leo remembers this vividly because other QSOs with I1KN followed as the expedition progressed, and Leo and Grossi became such friends that a few years later Leo and his bride-to-be journeyed to Florence to be married, with Grossi serving as best man. AM phone operations to the US were most successful on 10 meters. "We'd usually set up outside the US band so everybody could hear us," Snyder says. "Once they knew we were on, we could just give the receiver dial a flip, like playing roulette, and wherever it landed somebody would be there calling us. It was really fantastic:' During the nine-month stay in Africa, the Shack on Wheels was operated under several call signs, including VQ3HGE in Tanganyika, VQ4EHG in Kenya and VQ5GHE in Uganda. Under the provisions of the special licenses, the expedition operators were supposed to limit their power output to 150 watts, but Snyder admits: "We were pumping out better than 400 watts." Nobody seems sure how many contacts were made during the expedition. Unfortunately, the logs somehow became lost. Gatti later claimed a total of 10,000 QSOs. Leo remembers that 123 countries were worked, 39 zones and all states except Montana- ironically now his own home state. Leo fondly recalls some special QSOs. With the aid of other hams, he was able to speak with his father, who was working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and with his mother in New York state. He also kept a regular sked with a friend operating Leo's home station in San Mateo, California. Leo thus was able to hear how his own home-brew pair of 250THs into a homemade beam sounded on the far side of the globe. Another California contact also sticks in Leo's memory: "We were set up in a town, and a lady from a nearby hotel strolled over to the trailer to see what we were up to. When I told her it was a shortwave radio station, she asked if we could talk to Oakland, California. I said, 'Gee, I don't know.' But I gave a quick 'CQ Oakland' and W6TT in Oakland came right back to me. That lady went away thinking that ham radio was really something!" The expedition's non-ham still photographer, Weldon King (whose generous recollections and personal scrapbook contributed greatly to this article), was able to keep in touch with his mother in Springfield, Missouri, from the Shack on Wheels with help from hams back in the Ozarks. A Springfield newspaper published an account of an April 4,1948, hour-long QSO that took place while the expedition was in Tanganyika. Most of the contact was via CW, with the hams relaying the conversation between mother and son. At one point, however, Leo switched to AM and handed the microphone to King. "Hello, Mom!" came booming through the loud-speaker on the Springfield end of the QSO. An excited Mrs. King later told a newspaper reporter her son's voice "sounded as if he were in the room with me." Snyder and Leo also kept in regular contact with a Hallicrafters-sponsored station in Chicago, but the operators grew uneasy over some of Gatti' s self -promotional schemes. "Gatti was a showman," explains Snyder. "He was still playing the 'Dark Continent' routine when, in fact, many of the areas where we went were quite civilized. But Gatti wanted to be seen stepping on a snake in every other photograph." Leo agrees that "Gatti wanted to do more business over the radio than we liked doing on the ham bands." As a result, Leo confesses with a chuckle: "We could always talk to Chicago when we needed to--but for same reason, we couldn't always get through when Gatti wanted to."

The Roof of Africa

Gatti had seized upon the Mountains of the Moon theme for the expedition because of its mysterious and romantic ring. The formal name for those remote peaks is the Ruwenzori Range. Because of weather, rough terrain and personnel problems, the main party never made it to the Ruwenzori. Instead, another mountain, Kilimanjaro, at almost 20,000 feet and the tallest point in Africa, figured most prominently in the expedition' s accomplishments. A base camp was established at the 6000- root level of Kilimanjaro. A five-man party was chosen to make the five-day trek to the summit in early May. Leo was among the climbers; Snyder was assigned to man the base camp station. The slopes were relatively gentle, as mountains go, but the low oxygen content at higher elevations made breathing an exhausting ordeal. According to journalist Powers' dispatches via INS, Leo led the way and was the first to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, "The Roof of Africa," as Gatti called it. Despite all the ballyhoo about radio experimentation at high altitude, Leo says it was all he could do to complete the climb. He did check in from time to time with Snyder, but he cannot recall which of the portable radios was used. Snyder, meanwhile, had his hands full down at the base camp. "Gatti and his wife were kind of, uh, difficult, and we didn't really get along very well," Snyder says. "We sort of got into it when we were left there at the base camp while the others were climbing, and soon thereafter we came to a parting of the ways." Snyder says that whatever radios were used (he can't remember exactly, either), there were concerns about conserving the batteries on Leo's unit. "So I told him one night on the way up, 'Why don 't you shine a flash- light down here and see if we can communicate by blinker?' And it worked. So at night I stood outside the trailer and 'worked' Bob that way." Gatti's version of the climb appeared under his byline in the Toronto Star in 1950. Snyder laughs uproariously when Gatti's words are read to him. As Gatti told it in the Canadian newspaper, the final day of the climb began thusly: "The radio operator (Leo) wakes up. Like a somnambulist, he turns the radio pack on, mumbles some words into the mike. From the base camp 14,000 feet below, a clear voice (Snyder) answers: 'A last effort, men! Thousands of hams in Canada, in the US and all over the world are following your every call. Don't let them-and yourselves-down! Call again from the very top '" Gatti also put words into Leo's mouth when he wrote this fanciful account of a transmission from the summit: "Yes, all here on the peak. Every job completed. Signing off and clear from the top of Africa' s roof!" Says Snyder: "That's pure Gatti. Bob checked in with us every now and then to let us know how the climb was going, but there was nothing that dramatic about it. But ol' Gatti sure knew how to make up a good story."

Loose Ends

After splitting with the Gatti-Hallicrafters expedition, Snyder hooked up with Hollywood radio playwright Arch Oboler of "Lights Out" fame who was accompanying a University of California-sponsored research trip to Africa. Snyder used his electronics skills to maintain the group's tape recorders and also applied his filmmaking talents in Kenya, the Belgian Congo, Rhodesia, and so on, for the next several months. After he found his way back to Fargo, Snyder helped put the community's first television station on the air. On the side he was a stringer for Walt Disney Studios, filming features for "The Mickey Mouse Club" television show and outdoor segments for Disney nature films. Eventually Snyder realized his earlier goal of establishing his own industrial filmmaking company. Today, at age 77, Snyder remains active as W0LHS, primarily on RTTY and AMTOR. He hasn't lost his taste for DX, with 251 countries confirmed on RTTY. Leo, meanwhile, continued on for another four months with Gatti after Snyder's departure. Snyder had been considered the resident expert on maintaining the HT-4 because of his experience with the BC-610 during the war. Leo had never seen one of the 500 pound monsters before signing on with the expedition to Africa. He was an experienced transmitter troubleshooter, though, and armed with a simple volt-ohmmeter and a schematic, he was able to repair a faulty driver stage in the only major breakdown of the 5000-mile land journey. "Other than that one time in Uganda, about the only maintenance I did was sweep up a few nuts and bolts every now and then", Leo jokes. When the expedition disbanded in October 1948, Leo hopped a Norwegian tanker to Saudi Arabia and worked in the Mideast Oildields for ARAMCO for two years, operating for a while as MP4BAL. Back in the States, he attended Standford University, worked for general Electric in Arizona and eventually took a teaching job at Montana State University. In 1963-65, he took leave for an assignment in Thailand, where he hammed as HS1L. Now retired from teaching, Leo, at age 72, remains active as a consultant and expert witness in cases involving electrical accidents. And he remains an avid DXer as W7LR from his Bozeman, Montana QTH, that has room for a 530 foot long dipole as well as a 70 foot-tall vertical and a 80-foot tower with a triband beam. With 327 countries confirmed, he's the top-ranked W7 on the DXCC CW Honor Roll. Gatti organized another expedition or two to Africa in the 1950s, but none with the fanfare of the joint venture with Hallicrafters. He died in the 1960s. For its part, Hallicrafters remained in an awkward position when it came to capitalizing on the Mountains of the Moon DXpedition. Almost no ads appeared boasting of the trek's radio achievements because the gear used was already obsolete. The old HT -4 was being phased out as a ham rig as development accelerated toward smaller, more efficient and less TVI-prone transmitters. The new SX-42 was short-lived, although it continued in modified form for many years as the SWL favorite SX-62. About six months after the Gatti-Hallicrafters expedition was completed, Hallicrafters announced the SX-42's successor for the serious ham, the double-conversion SX- 71. The widespread publication in newspapers of Powers' stories about the expedition apparently did broaden consumer recognition of the Hallicrafters name, and sales of television sets were impressive the next few years. Apparently, Bill Halligan felt sufficiently rewarded by his association with the African safari that in 1954 Hallicrafters again helped finance a DXpedition- a voyage to Clipperton Island headed by hams with no Gatti-like promotion involved. The Clipperton venture provided Hallicrafters positive publicity for its short-lived but still highly prized SX-88 receiver and HT-20 transmitter, both of which were used on the island. Hallicrafters also sponsored a DXpedition to Vatican City in 1960 to tout its FPM-200 transceiver, an imaginative forerunner of the transistorized rigs from Japan that would eventually spell the end of the proud American company. Hallicrafters, once the most prolific producer of ham equipment in the world, sputtered to an inglorious end in the 1970s. Bill Halligan remained active on the air into his 90s, as W9AC and W4AK. He died at his Florida retirement retreat in 1992. The Gatti-Hallicrafters safari lives on in memory as the first and in same aspects most spectacular DXpedition ever sponsored by a ham radio manufacturer. December 1993