Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Before Metal was Metal

I had a chance discovery in the book Another Life: And, The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifonov. It's actually two books, urban novellas in the Russian povest genre. It's translated from Russian of course, but there was an adjective use of the word metal which reminded me of some things I've written about the history of metal (and metal radio shows) in the past [LINK] and [LINK].  The reference starts on page 243:

"Among the guests were some musicians, a chess champion, and a poet who had been deafening people at student parties with his crashingly metallic verses in those days, for some reason, they were regarded as highly musical— and there was he usual gaggle of colorless, loud, shy or indolent students."

There was the verbage "metallic verses." The poet goes on to be described as loud, disruptive and non-conventional. It reminded me of Burroughs original usage of "metal music" in 1962. The book House on the Embankment was written in 1976, when proto-metal was in full swing in the West. But it certainly was not in full swing in Moscow. Trifonov was following another, earlier usage of the term. Metallic was used for a century to to describe the dissonance and abrasiveness of modern art, music, poetry and prose.  That exact same phrase metallic verses, even appears in multiple other works by other authors. Pondering that, I decided that music critics (myself included) have been very complacent, in giving William Burroughs the full credit for coining the term.

In other words, this use of the word metal has roots.  My theory is that the use of the word metal and metallic to mean abrasive, discordant, dissonant or powerful is an artifact of the industrial age. It was a time when enormous machines first stamped out metal parts in dark smoky factories. In the 1800s the word metal, was going thru a radical change in connotation; and we can see it art criticism over the last century. 

I'll start about a hundred years ago in a 1924 issue of the American Mercury. There writer Lewis Mumford used the term criticizing the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which dovetails nicely with the gothic trappings of early heavy metal:

"In the abstract universe of Pure Art, Edgar Poe might be a very great figure indeed: his cold metallic verses are like the notes of some thin brass instrument which admirably echoes the plutonian tears he drops over the graves of his impalpable maidens." 

Similarly in an 1872 edition of Watsons Art Journal, a review of a live performance of Miss Kellogg's Paulina visited a similar use of the word metallic:

"Her voice was in superb order; it was full, melodious, and sympathetic; and came out in passages of force, with ringing metallic power which surprised while it delighted everyone present."

 In 1865 Madame de Gasparin wrote in The Near and the Heavenly Horizons of metallic music describing that particular repetitive, percussive marching music.

"I shall  never forget those beautiful evenings—melancholy nevertheless, for civil war muttered on the horizon— when, under the acacias in blossom, we listened to the military music,— that admirable metallic music, so correct so disciplined, under which throbs a spirit all the more ardent, because it is well restrained. "

This one is kind of on the nose, but Henry John Whiting, published Portraits of Public Men in 1858, using the word metaphorically in two different contexts, in one paragraph.

"Some roomy old premises were taken, the merry rat-tat of the rivetters ' hammer gave out its metallic music, indicative of other metallic music at the pay table on Saturday night, and passengers who went that way saw a large building labelled Martin Samuelson and Co;. engineers and iron shipbuilders."

There is no shortage of examples, I only gave a small sample here to make a point. I found dozens of references rather quickly. The literal word metallic became a metaphor, and today that metaphor has become a literal meaning or the word, and can in turn be used metaphorically again. Art is an iterative process, but it took a decade for that connection to dawn on me.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Whistling J. Donald Wilson

Our story starts with two radio announcers born only a few years apart with similar names, both working as radio announcers on national networks. Donald Harlow "Don" Wilson and John Donald Wilson. With John and Don being relative homonyms, some confusion was inevitable. Multiple sources claims that in 1938, he had adopted the name "Norman Wilson, but later changed it back to J. Donald Wilson. This is correct and is  documented in the January 1, 1938 issue of Broadcasting Magazine [LINK] which states (on pg 50) in their Behind the Mike column the following:

"J. Donald Wilson, Hollywood announcer on the 'Charlie Chan' and 'Strange as It Seems' transcription serials produced by Raymond R. Morgan Co... has changed his name for professional purposes to Norman Wilson. To avoid confusion with Don Wilson, announcer of the NBC Jack Benny program, J. Donald Wilson, a year ago inverted his name, but it didn't sound right. He has now taken the new name."

The timing of this text is apropos, because on page 19 of the same issue it reports that the other Don Wilson repeated his 1936 victory and was chosen as the best announcer of 1937. (This happened almost annually thru about 1952) John clearly felt like his career was in the shadow of the other Don Wilson. But the newsy, present-tense delivery of the text makes a mess of the chronology. Is his real name Donald John Wilson or John Donald Wilson, which is the inverted form?  His headstone reads "John Donald Wilson" so I take that to be his real name. But that means that his resume may be divided over three pseudonyms.  

The choice of  the name "Norman Wilson" has no clear origin. It was the name of the short-lived bandleader of the Norman Wilson Orchestra on KRKD in Los Angeles. A decade later but there was also a Norman Wilson Co. record distribution company located at 2562 Holmes St. in Kansas City, MO. They operated from at least 1952 - 1960 moving London, Mercury and Hollywood records. They appear in both issues of Billboard and Cashbox in that era. Norman Wilson Distribution had moved to 1914 Washington Avenue in St. Louis. 

Our John Donald Wilson was born on June 5th, 1904 and was a radio and film writer, producer, and voice actor, born in Kansas City, MO. There lies the only connection to that record distribution company. But based on that I'm guessing there is at least a family connection there. It's too much of a coincidence.  But his fame centers mostly around his writing on The Whistler. The Whistler began as a radio mystery drama which debut on May 16th 1942 and ran until September 22nd 1955 on CBS. That's a 13-year run.  There were 692 episodes. This was followed by a series of 8 Columbia films, (below) and a short-lived syndicated TV version in 1954. That's a home run by any measure.

  • The Whistler – 1944
  • The Mark of the Whistler – 1944
  • The Power of the Whistler – 1945
  • Voice of the Whistler – 1945
  • Mysterious Intruder – 1946
  • The Secret of the Whistler – 1946
  • The Thirteenth Hour – 1947
  • The Return of the Whistler

As both a writer and producer on the radio series, you would hope J. Donald Wilson would have earned some decent royalties and licensing fees. Not that Wilson was the only writer on the series; George Allen was the main writer on most of the later episodes, taking over duties in 1944. Allen donated over 100 of those scripts to UC Santa Barbara [LINK] making for a nice research library. Allen actually made some pretty significant changes to the structure of the series, even changing The Whistler from a participant to an observer. Nonetheless, when the first film was in development, it's producer Rudolph Flothow hired J. Donald Wilson to draft that story. More here and here.

Despite writing and producing The Whistler, Wilson wasn't the announcer for The Whistler.  That duty went to Joe Kearns and Gale Gordon in the early episodes and later Bill Forman. Forman was an odd pick. His prior resume included no acting credits at all, and his big gigs were the Fitch Bandwagon and Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge. But Forman was a natural, and later even co-wrote scripts. More here.

But there was a fourth narrator, Everett Clarke. At the same time Signal Oil was sponsoring it's broadcasts on the West Coast (KNX, KQW etc.) from Feb. 1946 to Feb. 1947, a completely separate and local broadcast of The Whistler was airing Sunday nights at on WBBM in Chicago sponsored by Meisterbrau beer.  They used the same scripts and music as the Los Angeles-based production but broadcast it as a live performance, with an audience and of course, a completely different cast.  It even aired with the same opening narration:

"I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak. And so I tell you the amazing story of..."

In addition to the radio series "The Whistler", J. Donald Wilson also wrote, produced, and/or directed The Adventures of Bill Lance, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and Dark Venture. Wilson also did his own voice work in radio in the 1930s.  He voiced Mickey Mouse in select 1938 broadcasts of The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air as well as other characters in Disney productions such as The Reluctant Dragon. He was the announcer on Strange As It Seems and Charlie Chan. After more than a decade of acting on radio, in march of 1945, he became production head of NBC Blue (aka ABC) and later was promoted to vice president. More here.

The Adventures of Bill Lance, private eye, aired in two non-consecutive runs. This detective series first aired on CBS was from April 1944 into September 1945. Wilson rebooted the series at ABC and it ran from June 1947 into January 1948, sponsored by planters peanuts. John McIntire portrayed Bill Lance in the first run, and Gerald Mohr took on the role in the second run.  Mohr  had been in the Mercury Theatre and was quite good. Wilson didn't write the scripts in that second run. A short news piece in The Winona Republican-Herald claimed that ABC hired writers specializing in criminology for the series.  Dick Joy announced both runs, with some fill in by Owen James. Adam Graham will tell you anything you want to know about it More here.

Nero Wolfe was different. That detective already existed, and Wilson just re-worked it for radio. By the time the Nero Wolfe series aired in 1950, author Rex Stout had already published 17 detective novels in the series. The radio series only ran into 1951 but the books kept coming for another 25 years.

The more famous, Donald "Don" Wilson was born on September 1st, 1900, was an American announcer and actor in radio and television. He was sometimes described as having a "Falstaffian" voice. This term is usually used to describe a fat jolly fellow who's a bit mad kind of like John Belushi. The reference is very old, it alludes to Shakespeare's character Sir John Falstaff in the play Henry IV from 1597. You can't be too debauched on the radio, so Wilson was just a bit cheeky. The reputation comes from his time as the rotund announcer and comic foil to the star of The Jack Benny Program. That reputation came from Jack Benny himself, who made Wilson the butt of numerous fat jokes. When they made the jump to television, Jack toned down the fat jokes a little.

His career has been written about much more extensively so I'll just hit the pre-Jack Benny highlights.Wilson began his radio career as a singer over Denver radio station KFEL-AM in 1923. By 1929, he was working at KFI-AM, and shortly afterwards for Don Lee at KHJ-AM, in Los Angeles. Though best known for his comedy work with Jack Benny, Wilson had a background as a sportscaster,  right before working with Benny he was actually the announcer on the George Gershwin series. Wilson first worked with Benny on his April 6, 1934 broadcast. The program ran for 30 years.

Don Wilson died April 25th, 1982 and J. Donald Wilson outlived him by 1 year and 9 months, dying on January 26th, 1984. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Another Nielsen Radio Survey (Part 4)


The diary has arrives and even since that date another reminder letter and I think at least three phone call reminders have come. I got one on my voicemail and I hung up on the other two. I thought someone was trying to sell me an auto-warranty extension. 

Inside the diary box itself was yet another letter. They're promising $10 per diary. They push that ten-spot hard. But what the hey, it's basically a free tenner. Can't knock that.

Of course by that point you should have already begun keeping the diary.  But after 3 calls and 4 letters if you haven't, you are really quite bad at following instructions.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Another Nielsen Radio Survey (Part 3)


Since the second letter arrived the diary has also landed; I've not scanned any of it yet.  But at first glance, it looks very similar to the last one. [LINK] This communication came with five crisp dollar bills fulfilling the previous promise.

It says that each member of my household, who is 12 years or older, and fills out a diary, will earn us a $10 bonus check each.  I find it interesting that at the $10 mark they switch from cash to check.  I did go back and look, the price remains the same from 2019.

I've moved between each survey which makes me question their claim that households are randomly selected. They state plainly that every household in the U.S. has a chance of being selected, but not that it has an equal chance. Adjectives matter.

It makes me think of the quote often attributed to Disraeli "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Monday, October 04, 2021

Tropical Fish Capacitors


Tropical Fish Capacitors are one of those obscure electronic components really only known about in the DIY electronics community. Even people with a passing knowledge of electronics likely wouldn't know. Even if you're opened up an off-the-shelf radio or a guitar pedal, you likely haven't ever seen one. So they fall into that obscure category with "Bumble Bee", "Wima", "Mustard", "Black Beauty" and "Vitamin Q" PIO capacitors.

Introduced to the market in 1964, they were also called "licorice allsort" capacitors which is equally fitting. More properly they are named Philips-Mullard C280 miniature metallized polyester film capacitors. They came in two voltage ratings, 250V and 400V wkg. Value coding is standardized with capacitors, but traditionally the colored stripes were vertical. Phillips flipped it horizontal like a flag, or a tropical fish. More here.  I think of them as tiny LGBTQ flags. You can read the the original data sheet HERE.

I suspect that a lot of their appeal is purely for the visual effect rather than just their function. But they do have some unique electronic properties. Polyester film has a high dielectric constant, high dielectric strength and good temperature stability. Polyester aka polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is a pretty efficient dielectric. So they have a low equivalent series resistance (ESR) and are able to tolerate large fast spikes. [SOURCE]  I broke out their dielectric properties in the chart below:

 Relative dielectric constant (@ 1MHz)  3.2
 Dissipation factor at 1kHz (tan δ in %) 0.5
Insulation resistance (MΩ x µF 25,000
Dielectric absorption (%)
Capacitance drift (ΔC/C %) 1.5 
Maximum temperature 125 °C / 257 °F
 Temperature coefficient (ppm / °C) +400 ±200
 Moisture Absorption (%) 0.4

In application they're considered general purpose capacitors and they are most often employed in DC applications. So you will see them used for decoupling, DC blocking, bypassing and perhaps most notably for noise suppression. So you can find them in mode power supplies, electronic ballasts, RC snubbers and other filter circuits. You can find them in a number of audio applications. They're not perfect for every application, in terms of physical integrity they are not perhaps as tough as the Mullard ‘Mustard’ capacitors. Actually, the "tropyfish" caps are often derided as brittle. The first one I ever saw was in a wah-wah pedal which makes perfect sense, because it was broken.  

Mullard Ltd was founded in 1920 by Stanley R. Mullard, based in London; first in Hammersmith then Balham and later in Bloomsbury.  IN 1923 they formed a partnership with the Netherlands-based Philips N.V. (Yes, that Philips) Mullard finally sold all its shares to Philips in 1927 and it became just another part of that already large 36-year old conglomerate. But the Mullard division continued to operate and the brand persisted at least in the UK until 1988. Sovtek revived the brand name in 2007 for some thermionic tubes.

These capacitors and the company that originally made them were so favored among hobbyists there even used to be a fansite/ electronic store that focused on them: Sadly it is no more, but there are are a few captures on the way back machine. Mullard-style metallized polyester capacitors are still manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Vishay Intertechnology, but without the colorful horizontal stripes. More here.

The "C" in C280 stands for capacitor, and the 280 is the series type of the capacitor, the prefix commences with AE for  250V rating and CF for the 400V rating, and it always contains an M or K indicating uF and nF respectively. The numeral in between is a measure of the capacitance. The number C280AE/A330K = capacitor 280, 250v, 330 nF. Below I have made a chart of the various original Mullard models that were available:

 C280AE/A330K 0.33 330 330000 250
C280AE/A470K 0.47 470 470000 250
C280AE/A680K 0.68 680 680000 250
C280AE/A1M 1 1000 1000000 250
C280AE/A1M5 1.5 1500 1500000 250
C280AE/A2M2 2.2 2200 2200000 250
C280AE/P10K 0.01 10 10000 250
C280AE/P15K 0.015 15 15000 250
C280AE/P22K 0.022 22 22000 250
C280AE/P33K 0.033 33 33000 250
C280AE/P47K 0.047 47 47000 250
C280AE/P68K 0.068 68 68000 250
C280AE/P100K 0.1 100 100000 250
C280CF/A330K 0.33 330 330000 400
C280CF/A470K 0.47 470 470000 400
C280CF/A680K 0.68 680 680000 400
C280CF/A1M 1 1000 1000000 400
C280CF/P10K 0.01 10 10000 400
C280CF/P15K 0.015 15 15000 400
C280CF/P22K 0.022 22 22000 400
C280CF/P33K 0.033 33 33000 400
C280CF/P47K 0.047 47 47000 400
C280CF/P68K 0.068 68 68000 400
C280CF/P100K 0.1 100 100000 400
C280CF/P150K 0.15 150 150000 400
C280CF/P220K 0.22 220 220000 400