My Family - Early Years

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Family, friends and events in my life in my early years


Youngman Street, Kingaroy, Queensland, Australia.






 My sister Karen and my cousin Scott






The Syrup Tin Event

I almost blew my brother up by setting off a "tuppeny bunger" (a large firecracker) inside a Syrup tin.

I worked out that the wick of the "bunger" could be ignited by placing the wick inside "steel wool" - which mum used for cleaning pots and pans - then putting the two wires from the electric train transformer into the steel wool and turning the transformer on. The ensuing short caused the steel wool to catch fire, therefore lighting the wick.
(For those wondering about the safety aspect, the voltage was 12 volts, supplying around 10 amps)

I used to put all of this inside a syrup tin, with a length of "figure 8 flex" running back to the transformer - around 20 metres away - and then fit the "press on" lid. When the switch was activated on the transformer, the short occurred, the fire started, the fuse was lit and the "bunger" exploded. The resultant explosion blew the lid off and it flew many metres into the air.
At our age, around 12 to 15, we were most impressed and did this many times until one time, it didn't work. My brother Russell decided that it wasn't going to work and ran up to reset it again. Just as he was about to open the lid to see what was wrong, it blew, almost hitting him.
Eventually we lost interest, especially after the tin, probably from fatigue, blew apart, instead of the lid flying into the air. Still, we thought that was very impressive too, the tin ending up a flattened piece of metal, instead of a round tin.

Hydrogen Balloons

I did many other "experiments" around that time, like making hydrogen from old aluminium television antennas. I'd cut them up into pieces about 50cm long and put the pieces in a large beer bottle. To this I added caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and water.
A balloon was put over the bottle neck and the hydrogen, produced by the chemical reaction, filled the balloon. The pressure created by the production of the hydrogen caused the balloon to expand and fill. I then tied them off before the balloon burst. After a period of time the heat caused by the reaction, caused the beer bottle to crack and we had to start over again with a new setup. We tried a lot of ways to keep the bottle cool but never succeeded.

Other than just "playing" with the balloons as they rose on a piece of string, I tied a light fishing line to the shaft of a low voltage motor that would run from the good old train transformer.
I attached the other end of the fishing line to the balloon and let it go. It would climb high into the air, with me wondering how I could put instruments on it to send temperature readings etc back to me as I had seen at, what were called in those days, "Adult Education Pictures".

(As there was no television in our area until mid 1962, mum used to take us to see them at night at the State Primary School. They consisted of 16mm documentaries of travel or other topics of interest and run by Doug Farmer, a local Kingaroy identity.)

Then I'd turn the motor on and wind the balloon back to me and of course, let it go again etc etc until I tired of that game.
On days with no wind, the balloon rose so high that it became a tiny dot before I wound it down again. On windy days I had troubles as it would hang low over neighbours houses in the adjacent streets. I can remember it being over power lines and panicking as I wound it back but I'm still here to tell the tale. Some of my first weather interests!

Gunpowder and Plastic Buckets

I also caused my mother a lot of worry after nearly blowing myself up after mixing Carbon, Sulphur and Sodium Nitrite to produce gunpowder.
I had collected all of the ingredients and mixed them in one of mum's 2 gallon plastic buckets - around a third full!
Somehow, I think from the steel wool trick, a spark dropped into the mix. Luckily for me or I wouldn't be here telling you this, the result was a huge column of fire, rather than an explosion, as the top of the bucket was open to the atmosphere.
I can tell you, IT WAS VERY SPECTACULAR. Mum wasn't as impressed as I was though, as her bucket ended up as a melted pile of blue plastic, dribbling across the grass.

At right - from the left, Russell, Cindy - my grandmothers dog of the time - and my cousin, Barry.

Flaming Hell

Then while doing "experiments" in the shed with Sulphur, I caught fire,  when the kerosene primus I was using for heating the Sulphur developed a fault and blew the jet out, spewing raw, burning kerosene under pressure, onto my face as I was leaning over it.
By instinct I turned my face away from the stream of flame and raced outside trying to extinguish the fire in my hair and on the back of my neck,  peeling cooked skin off while doing so.
The doctor who treated me, Dr Peter Bridgman, wrapped my head up like a mummy and after a few days I removed it. I then had great fun picking off massive scabs which were like a pizza crust.
Again, I obviously survived as I'm here and my "beautiful" face is no worse for the experience. The only hint of the burns now at 54 is a slight red mark on the burnt ear.

The Day Before Sports Day 1962

I also created more panic in mum while riding a bike around the back yard when I was 12 years old. In those days the bikes either had foot brakes, hand brakes, or both. I was used to foot brakes only on my bike.
I borrowed a visiting mate's bike that had hand brakes only. As I raced around and around the house and into the back yard I forgot about this fact!
After avoiding the clothes line props (seen in the picture above), running along the side of the weatherboard shed (same picture above) and ripping my leg open, I remembered. Too late!
I jumped up, looked at my right upper thigh, noticed it had about a 6 inch diameter hole in it, looked for the meat missing on the ground and couldn't find it.
I didn't seem to worry a lot. What fascinated me was the blue sheath of my right outside thigh muscle flexing back and forward as I moved my kneecap and that it didn't bleed at all, not a drop!

It was lunchtime and mum was in the kitchen. I hopped up to the house and showed her. She freaked and got me to lie down and then ran two blocks to the doctor's surgery. There was no telephone, as they were a luxury those days, so that wasn't an option.
The doctor's wife had the car, so he rode one of his daughter's bikes back to our house to see me.

The doctor, Dr George Ruscoe, showed me the reason why I couldn't find the "meat" laying around. It was because there wasn't any. My skin had torn cleanly as if a knife had cut it and the pressure of the skin pulled the wound open causing it to look like there was a hole. He wrapped a bandage around my thigh, pulling the flesh together and headed back to the surgery on the bike to call the ambulance. Apparently he followed the ambulance to the hospital because he was in the operating theatre when I was wheeled in. I then found what pain was.
The doctor couldn't get the local anaesthetic to numb the thigh properly on one side of the wound and each time he would thread the stitching through that side, I would almost go through the roof in pain. He gave me more anaesthetic but nothing seemed to work so I had to endure the pain on that side while he repaired the wound with seven stitches!
While staying in hospital to recover I had an itch in the front of my right shin. There seemed to be a long lump there. I showed the nurse and she went away and came back with another nurse. Together they lanced the lump and found I had a 3 inch long and about a quarter inch thick splinter that had pus around it. Apparently I got it and didn't feel it as I slid along the weatherboard of the shed.

While recovering, my main concern was, I couldn't compete in what I loved at the time, athletics, at the Kingaroy District Primary School Sports Day, the following day.
Looking at my frame nowadays, you'd never know that I was a very fast runner at school and won most of my races.



At left - I'm in the background with my back and bum towards you! 

From the left, my cousin Barry, then my brother Russell and another cousin, Greg.


You can see the different colour of the ground to the left of the picture where Dad had vegetable gardens and where I setup my electric trains, including little creeks I made, with running water and bridges, over which the train lines ran. Of course, using that wonderful transformer.





The Cold

Temperatures in those days were measured in Fahrenheit.
In Kingaroy the morning temperatures were given on the local radio station, 4SB, now 1071 AM, as "grass readings", as well as air temperatures.
I can remember hearing the announcer giving "grass readings" in Winter of 18 degrees Fahrenheit, which is minus 7 degrees Celsius.

Mum had a "wringer" type washing machine in those days and used to boil clothes in a "copper" and then transfer them into the washing machine. It wasn't unusual to find ice, 2 inches thick, floating on top of the water left in the "copper" overnight. Those days were really cold!

In fact it was so cold on some mornings that the frost was like snow on the ground. The toilet was at the back of the yard, no sewerage in those days, about 30 metres from the house. As a small child, around 7 - 10, when visiting the toilet first thing in the morning, I used to drag my slippers (feet in them of course) in the frost and make what I thought of as railway tracks, much to my mothers disgust. On the way back I'd play with the ice stalactite and stalagmites formed from the dripping outside water tap.

Some days it was so cold that the taps split from the water inside freezing and when the ice thawed, water streamed out.
A lot of houses in Kingaroy have had fresh water storage tanks for as long as I can remember. Our house was one. Many a time in Winter we either had no water for breakfast, or had a dirty black flow until the corrosion on the pipes cleared after the pipes thawed. For some reason those times seem very rare now.

In the background of the picture above is the wood heap.

We had a wood stove to heat the house and do the cooking. We spent many hours cutting the wood for the stove and carrying it up to the house.
For a lot of people, including my family, electric stoves were out of the question because of cost, so, everything was done on a wood stove.
We had no hot water system and when you wanted a hot bath at night you heated the kettle on the wood stove. I can remember getting home from work in my teenage years, late at night ( around 11pm ) after playing pool until the shop closed. When I came home filthy and tired, wanting a bath, there was no hot water. I had to relight the wood stove and wait for the water in the kettle to boil. Because of the size of the kettle, you would get an inch or less of hot water in the bath. As well, the temperature was around 10 degrees Celsius at that time of night in winter, so you bathed really fast before the water became cold. No electric blankets at that stage either!

Because of the need to have wood for the stove constantly available, Russell and I had the job of cutting large blocks into sizes suitable for burning in the stove plus "chips" to light the stove. As it was a real pain carrying the wood up to the house, we used to dream of building a conveyer belt to take the wood up to the house. We loved splitting the blocks and spent hours doing so, but then having  to cart it up to the house and stack it for mum to use was just too boring by that stage.



To the right - The axe that dad had made up as the handles continuously gave up.

It's still going all these years later (July 2004) and is used to cut wood for mum as she has both an electric stove and a wood stove in use now.



So in the good old days, they weren't always the good old days. At least now you can get a hot bath by turning the tap on. 
After becoming qualified as an Electrical Fitter and Mechanic and Russell, my brother, training to be a Mechanical Fitter and Turner we decided to pay to get a storage tank and plumbing fittings to install our first "hot water system". That was about 35 years ago. I know everyone in our family really appreciated the results.

 At right - Greg on Russell's back

Telephones - Wonderful Telephones

For entertainment, as we had no money, we used to do things that gave me my interest in communications.
We ran a string between two jam tins and used them as a telephone. By playing with them I learnt how vibrations from my voice could be reproduced via the string in the jam tin at the other end.
I went to the local council library and read about how the first Carbon based telephones worked. I tried my best to reproduce the results but due to lack of knowledge didn't succeed but learned a lot in the process.

This interest led me to tender for 2 old PMG ( Post Master General - the equivalent now of Telstra in Australia ) telephones. They were the old magneto type. We connected them  between my house and one of my friends, Trevor Smith, who lived 4 houses down the block and 3 across.

A PMG technician of the time, Ken Connors,  told me of the upcoming tender as he knew of my interest in telephones.
I wrote out a formal letter and posted it to the PMG for 2 telephones at a massive tender of 10 shillings per phone ($A1), to us, a fortune. Still being in school and having no money, we decided to pay for them by collecting soft drink bottles.

Those days a glass soft drink bottle was worth  6d (pence) - ( 5 cents ) - per bottle, as a deposit was charged at the point of sale.  Many hours were spent after Speedways, at the Kingaroy Showgrounds, checking under seats for bottles and carrying them home in "sugar bags". Luckily the Showground was only a couple of blocks away. We had to collect a total of 40 bottles, then clean and carry them to the corner store, another 3 blocks in the opposite direction, to get the cash.

We managed to get the money and finally one day I got an official letter stating that I had been successful in my tender and was the proud owner of  2 telephones - if I collected and payed for them at the Post Office. I felt really proud as I handed the money over.
We carried the two heavy wooden cased phones home, stopping many times to rest and ogle them as we travelled the three blocks, excitedly planning what we would do with them.

Having the phones was one thing but learning how to connect them was another as they were really old and had various terminals designed for a range of situations. Connecting them between houses was also a problem. We had no wire!!

So for the next few weeks we went to the rubbish dump and collected the wire left after they burnt the rubber tyres. Those days they were everywhere at the dump. The remains showed as coils of wire in a grey ash. That ash looked innocent but at times was extremely hot. Russell stood in what looked like cool wires and burnt his feet badly. Mum was not impressed, let alone Russell, but we continued on till we had dragged a heap of wire home from the dump. The dump was about a mile from our house in those days.

The next problem was getting the length needed to run between our houses. Doing this was very boring and dirty but as we wanted to get them going we continued on. Each piece of wire from the tyres had to be joined to the next and run out in a line along the back fence, twice!

We found we needed two wires to run the phones, just like the "real" phone lines, which, at the time ran overhead in pairs on insulators on cross arms, not in plastic insulated copper cables or optic fibres as now, underground. We felt we were just like the professionals and knowing we soon would be talking to each other between our houses drove us on.

I imagine you can picture our "length" of wire.
It was made up of probably hundreds of short pieces of bare, rusty, steel tyre wire, twisted together, with our fingers, (no pliers), at the end of each short length. Thinking of it now, I think I would have given up but at that age everything was new and a challenge.
Well, we finally had the lengths necessary and had them strung along the fences of our neighbours yards. The neighbours didn't say anything but we certainly were given some strange looks as we tried to hide the wires in passionfruit vines and anything else we could use to disguise the fact that they were wires running along our neighbours property. Luckily we were well known as we had lived there for years.

At left - my cousins, Robert (left) and Barry (right)

An example of the fence lines we ran the "bare" wires along to my neighbours house can be seen in the picture.


The big day came to connect both ends. I had been playing with the phones at home, driving everyone mad with the ringing as I worked out the terminals to use. So, I knew exactly how to connect them on the day.

They worked perfectly and for days we drove each other's parents crazy by ringing each other and chatting on about rubbish.

Then disaster struck. It rained. The perfect time to use our phones because we couldn't be outside. But we had no phones. Nothing worked!!
We noticed the handles that you turned to ring the bell at the other end became really hard to turn - at both ends. Depression set in.

All that work and they were broken!!

No they weren't.

Finding out why they wouldn't work, taught me a lot more about electricity.

Shocking Discovery

What I worked out by a slow, tedious process and a lot of shocks from someone at the end of the line ringing the phone for me, was that our bare wires were causing the problem. They needed to be insulated but at that stage of my life I had little idea of the differences between an insulator and a conductor, let alone the existence of semiconductors.

I started at home and worked my way along the wires carrying the heavy wooden phone and connecting it across the bare wires, through the wet passionfruit vines etc and the ringing got lower and lower in power and the voice at the end became lower and lower until it became just a whisper. I also noticed I was getting shocks from the ringing even - though I was only in contact with one wire and yet when we first installed the wires I only got shocks when I was across both wires.

I came to the conclusion that the wet passionfruit vines, wet fence etc was acting like another wire and when I was touching them plus one wire, the electricity was flowing through me, into the plant, fence, whatever wet surface was around and back to the other wire.

I then concluded that if that was the case, if I kept the wires in the air, where everyone would see them, ooops, maybe we'd lose the problems.

I started on a small section. It worked, then the next and the next, till I made sure all wires were in the air, tied to posts. It worked!!

Later  I realised why porcelain insulators were used and made my own out of bottles tied to the posts which then carried the wires.

In time I could afford "figure 8 flex" which I ran the entire length of the network we made. No more troubles with leakage due to moisture.

What's That Noise

I made other discoveries based on my experiences, one being that by using an "earth", a stake driven into the ground, I could do away with the second wire and use the "earth". That doubled our number of wires we had for other telephones we eventually connected to kids in our neighbourhood.
The other discovery was the "50 cycle hum". I noticed when I was still getting success before the rain problem that when I ran the 2 bare wires under the ground for a metre or so to get to my grandmothers house that the phone gave out a loud humming which made hearing the person talking nearly impossible, yet when I lifted the wires out of the dirt it went away.

All of the above sounds so simple now but then as a kid still going to school and learning about electricity in Physics it was all a mystery but very exciting.

Eventually I had switching at home so I could select different phones at different houses.
As others in the neighbourhood lost interest I learnt how to use the "figure 8 flex" as a link to my grandparents for a 2 way intercom based around a radio I used as an amplifier at home. I installed a small speaker - removed from an old radio I had found at the dump - at my grandparents. I used it as the input to the amplifier to listen to them and then by arranging switching using a double pole, double throw switch, used another old speaker to talk into at my end, sending the audio output back to the speaker at my grandparents.
At that time I learnt about impedances, so eventually used an audio transformer to match the speakers to the amplifier for really improved performance.

Lifelong Interests

My interest in all things electrical and radio has continued through, the advent of Black and White Television, my job as an Electrician, the advent of Colour Television, then Citizens Band Radio, Amateur Radio (Ham Radio) and then in the 1983, my first computer, a Tandy TRS80.


Last Updated : 27/03/2009 01:10 PM +1000