Monday, May 18, 2020

Peanut Whistle

From Transistor Transmitters for the Amateur by Donald L. Stoner
For decades, possibly up to a century "peanut whistle" has been slang for a low power transmitter. The two words have been bound together for 150 years or more and have evolved through multiple  different meanings.

In 1880 some models of peanut roasters released exhaust steam from the boiler or heat chamber through a pipe to sound a whistle. Ex patent # 225561. Metal working trade magazines shared simple designs. An 1897 issue of the magazine The Metal Worker describes the whistle itself.  "The whistle is made from two disks 1½ inches in diameter, raised and soldered together, and having a small hole in the underside, on the edge of which the steam is blown."  These typically brass steam whistles were the OG peanut whistles; and are now pricey collectibles.

That usage tied to the sound of the peanut roaster cart was later conflated with cheap and colorful plastic toy "peanut whistles." In the 1950s Planters manufactured them by the thousands. The term came to include any cheap toy whistles, plastic, brass, tin, anthropomorphic and/or otherwise. Strangely both of these meanings came to dovetail in small, under-powered transmitters.  Here [LINK] is a great story about a pirate station in Vietnam 30 years later.

In March of 1897 Forek Bain a then well-known electrical engineer in Chicago, wrote an article Whistling Arcs - A case of Electrostatic Induction, and the remedy for The Western Electrician:
"The strange phenomenon to which I refer was a loud, harsh whistling noise produced in the lamps as soon as the arcs were struck. The whistle was nearly identical in tone to that of the deviling whistle of the familiar peanut roaster. It registered somewhere between upper and middle C. It was very loud and could be heard at about two blocks distant from the lamb engaged in this disagreeable pastime."
There lies the onomatopoeic connection between small transmitters and the peanut whistle. They poth emitted a high-pitched sound. But it appears that the continuous radio wave itself was imagined by some as a "whistle" in comparison to the make/break nature of the telegraph. This goes back to the earliest spark gap transmitters. In 1892 George Francis Fitzgerald wrote in Nature:
"...the electromagnetic vibrations set up by Leyden jar or condenser discharges die out very rapidly, it was very desirable to obtain some means whereby the vibrations could be maintained continuously. Comparing such vibrations with those of sound, he said the jar discharges were analogous to the transient sound produced by suddenly taking a cork out of a bottle; what was now required was to obtain a continuous electromagnetic vibration analogous to the sound produced by blowing across the top of a bottle-neck. In other words, some form of electric whistle or organ-pipe was required."
So starting from there it's not hard to imagine why the original WOR transmitter with it's antenna on the roof of Bambergers department store would be called a peanut whistle back in 1922. Or why New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia would dismiss the WNYC facility at the Commodore Hotel as a 'peanut whistle' in 1934. Even as Edwin Armstrong began to develop transmitters that would improve clarity on the VHF and UHF bands, the usage continued. Vincent Galloway of Omaha, NB wrote into Radio World in November of 1922 and asked:
"In making up the Armstrong super-regenerative receiver, I have experienced a “peanut whistle.” This sometimes develops into a sound like a hiss or a water fall. My tickler coil, or ball, is 4 inches in diameter wound with No. 24 enamel wire and has about 90 turns. The filter condenser is not affected; neither is the potentiometer which feeds the coupler."

The magazine's editor wrote back to answer in the same column:
"The 'peanut whistle' you describe is the correct whistle to obtain. It should not be very strong, but it proves your oscillating tube is OK, or as we say 'She motes.' the connections are correct. We suggest that you get the switches on the primary of the vario-coupler at the exact adjustment for 360 meters, otherwise you will get nothing but the whistle. If there is a very great difference even the whistle will be blotted out..."

The term became more popular in WWII, referring to small transmitters, and moved into popular HAM jargon where continued to refer to low power transmitters. The term appeared often in QST magazine in reference to 2 and 5 watt transmitters. But we must not forget the disposable cheapness of those toy whistles. Those play their own part. The book The Birth of Top 40 Radio by Richard Fatherley and David MacFarland hammered home the idea that the facility of the 250 watt 1450 WTIX-AM in 1953 was in poor nick. They referred to it as both a "chewing gum & bailing wire operation" and a page later as a "peanut-whistle" technical facility. Already low power, small transmitters were synonymous with low quality... like a toy peanut whistle.


  1. Do you still have the "Practical Radio" booklet from the 103 series available for download? I'd love to see it, but the link on your original post is broken.


  2. I am pretty sure that I do. Comment me your email and I'll send you a DM. I wont post your contact info publicly.