LITTLE MOUNTAIN — A high school physics teacher’s demonstration of battery operated tools and mention of ham radio led 99-year-old Marvin Bernstein on a journey that included defense contract work.
Now the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group (DFARG) is benefiting from his life’s experiences as he became one of their newest members.
The group, which serves the Midlands and surrounding area, has some members from Fairfield County such as Malcolm Skipper who transitioned from the Columbia Amateur Radio Club to the DFARG due to its closer proximity to Jenkinsville, where he lives.
A former electronics instructor, Skipper’s interest in ham radio goes back over 20 years but he didn’t become a hobbyist until the 1990s.
For Bernstein, the connection to DFARG has been shorter but his ties to ham radio, much longer.
Marvin Bernstein has been a member of the group for a few months and during that time gave a presentation on the early years of radio. The high school science experiment involved an amplifier constructed with vacuum tubes and batteries.
The teacher took a screen and rubbed rod with a wool cloth. As he flicked static at the screen the class heard clicks from electrons striking.
Bernstein was hooked.
He researched the QST American Radio League and read about ham in his local library.
In 1932 he realized a ham license could lead to a job so he pursued a license in Buffalo, N.Y.,with the call sign W8DLU. As he neared high school graduation, Bernstein used the skill to land a job at a time when 25 percent of men in that area were out of work.
He worked eight years at a radio factory, making radios for Sears Roebuck. In 1940 the company received a contract to make transmitters for RAF airplanes.
He used his ham license to test and repair the transmitters and suddenly Bernstein’s skill set was assisting in the war effort.
One week after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he received a telegram from the Commanding General at Fort Monmouth. He reported to the civilian personnel office and was hired to work with the Army Signal Corps, a position that turned into a 30-year career.
Radios used by ground forces were equipped with a button that could change channels using different kinds of crystals at different frequencies. Those frequency changes prevented the Germans from radio intercepts.
Part of his job was selling World War I era generals on the security of radio versus wire communication. He explained strategic limitations to the wire communications.
“Communication by crystals instead of wire radio,” he said, “was crucial because the new warfare was fast-moving. That was different from the WWI trench warfare. They needed radio equipment but there was a shortage of crystals and at one time that was more important than any other element used by the Army communications.”
He said the facility was involved in state-of-the-art work with quartz crystals. Bernstein hand delivered crystals to jet propulsion labs.
A civilian employee with security clearance, in 1939 he married Alma, his wife of more than 70 years. They had a daughter, Judy, in 1940. In 1943, the military started to draft married men, but the Army determined he could help the war effort more from his civilian post.
During and after the war expatriated German experts worked to develop better rockets for the United States.
“The most important thing I helped develop crystals for was the Red Stone Arsenal Jupiter Missile, an inter-continental ballistic missile,” he said.
Crystals were needed with specific characteristics including high stability that allowed them to transmit signals back to the ground from rockets.
He made the crystals used in the first American satellite.
In fact, he had been working in crystals for so long that NATO experts called upon him as an expert from 1962-1971 and he attended meetings.
Bernstein retired after a 30-year career, spent 1.5 years hamming it up and then went to work for a German electrical company. He started off making minimum wage but wound up in the engineering lab.
As chairman of the Mallard Technology Group, he used logic chips to develop and patent a device that controlled unauthorized use of copy machines.
He moved to South Carolina in 2009 to be closer to daughter after his son and wife passed away.
The technology side of his life came south as a package deal.
Every morning his on air with voice and digital communications at his home off Highway 391 and interacts on the Air Force Military Auxiliary Radio System.
As they rode by one day, Jack Jackson and Lee McKenney were riding around and saw several strands of wires coming from Bernstein’s house, so they dropped in unannounced to introduce themselves.
Along the way the explained about DFARG and invited him to join. He’s been a member of the group for a few months.
Bernstein is the tech support guru for the club, often assisting members with computer troubleshooting.
He also brings in old gadgets, gizmos and tools to see who can either identify them or figure out what they are.
DFARG leader Bill Weathersbee said ham radio is a diverse hobby and DFARG is a diverse club. DFARG members have included a doctor, a pharmacist, a lawyer and a veterinarian all with ham hobby.
Anyone can join the club but only ham certified members can be officers.
The group has about 44 members and meets the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. They plan to eventually offer classes for licensing and upgrading credentials.
Prepared to serve, if needed
This June DFARG members hold a field day to test their radio equipment and personal skills for use in an emergency, if needed.
For the 24-hour exercise, HAMS set up their radio equipment in a setting other than their homes to simulate conditions in a field operation.
The Town of Little Mountain is supportive of those and other efforts, according to Weathersbee.
“Little Mountain is a great place to meet,” Weathersbee said, “and we have great cooperation with the town.”
The club makes its services available to the community should a catastrophic event take place that would disrupt traditional communication lines, such as cell phones.
The building has capability for the ham operators to work on nine frequencies and has PSK digital communications capability via voice and teletype.
So long as operators are licensed hams by the FCC, they could do amateur television, too.
“We hope to never be called upon but we could be an area of operations in an emergency,” Weathersbee said, “helping get communications in and out of the local community and region including county and hospital communications.”
Thanks to the support of his new DFARG friends, who surprised him recently with a party to honor his 99th birthday, Marvin Bernstein remains ready should his country need his expertise once more.