A GHOST STORY
SHARED BY IAN DE. BAINES, P.ENG. SCIENCE '74
With photos courtesy of CFRC Alumnus, Cameron Willis, CFRC Music Manager and longtime volunteer, 2011-2020
This is a ghost story. I don’t really believe in ghosts or goblins or spooky things. But this story is true, and it happened to me. If you have a better explanation, I am open to ideas.
Fifty years ago, while a post-graduate engineering student I was student Chief Engineer at the campus radio station CFRC; with both AM and FM on air stations. Founded in 1923 by other graduate students, CFRC had been going strong for almost fifty years at that point. Two of those students became our instructors and in 1974 I went to a retirement dinner for one of them. Professor Jemmett had been a part of the electrical engineering department for a very long time and is remembered as a fine teacher, a radio pioneer and founder of one of Canada’s earliest broadcast stations.
I have long been fascinated by radio and have held an amateur radio license for 55 years now. In addition to my electrical engineering training at Queens, I worked as a radio engineer while still a student for two Toronto radio stations and for the CBC. My jobs involved fixing everything that was inside a studio, including the transmitters.
In 1974 CFRC-AM was a 100-watt station that ran a 1946 vintage RCA transmitter donated by one of our Kingston, Ontario radio stations. I pored over the manual and learned all its workings. Built like a tank, it was reliable and trouble free. At least until that November night when it failed and brought down the station.
I well remember that night, as it as a classic dark and stormy fall night with leaves blowing and a cold rain blowing in my face as I cycled home from the campus library. Studying in the library until late was how I managed to pass my courses, and I often stayed until almost midnight. It was cold and wet as I pedaled home across campus, the central park, and down deserted downtown rainy streets. No sooner had I got in the door of my Princess Street house than the phone rang advising me that the AM station was off-air. Mary Lou Keating was operator that night and she told me that she had tried unsuccessfully to restart the transmitter. I knew that she was a well-qualified announcer / operator and if she could not get us back on air, something was very wrong. It was sometime after midnight, and I did not relish pedaling back to campus to fix things. But I did, as it was my job.
CFRC in those days had studios in the basement of Caruthers Halll and transmitters in the adjacent Fleming Hall. On the third floor there was a transmitter room packed with equipment. I had keys to the building and, as Chief Engineer, to the transmitter room as well.
Feeling very much like a drowned rat I let myself in to the dark transmitter room. The old RCA transmitter was fully illuminated, casting a warm glow on the walls but the high voltage had tripped. I reset it repeatedly, but it would not stay on. After an hour of troubleshooting, I gave up and headed home. No sense working alone on high voltage late at night. I would look at it the next day after classes and before the station was due on-air at 6 pm.
Arriving in Fleming Hall the next morning I found notices that classes were cancelled. No reason given. So naturally I took advantage of the free time to really dig into the problem. Three hours later I had finally found the issue.
It was a hidden, obtuse, and very unlikely fault. A high voltage wire on the power amplifier had shorted against a 120-volt line breaker. The problem was buried deep in the circuits behind other wires. Both components were well insulated, and it almost looked like they had been pushed hard against each other and the insulation rubbed away. This was impossible of course, as nobody could enter the cabinet to do this without tripping the safety breaker. Those old transmitters had three switches on the back door, and if you opened the door the high voltage went off instantly. It was as if some hidden hand inside the cabinet had forced the two together and welded the high voltage to ground. Weird.
Then I found out why classes were cancelled. Professor Jemmett, founder of CFRC back in 1923 had passed away that Thursday night. He died in Kingston General Hospital, just across a field from Fleming Hall where he had worked for so many years.
I ran the logger tape back to see when the AM transmitter had failed. A tape recorder constantly monitors a radio receiver and records what is sent out. It does not keep track of the time, but Mary Lou was very precise in her time checks, and she announced the time five minutes before the station went dead. It was not hard to measure the time between her announcement and loss of signal. Midnight. I kid you not
Ghost story? Maybe, maybe not. Who is to say? But it was a weird and surprising fault at midnight the day that one of the stations founders had died. Did I figure all of this out right away? Truthfully, I am not that aware. It was only a few days later that I put it all together, checked the logger tape and started to wonder.
It was as if the old graduate student, professor, and radio buff had signaled his passing to us.
I hope that by telling this story I am not disrespecting the memory of Professor Jemmett, or the many things that he accomplished. He was a fine teacher and the communications laboratory in Fleming Hall was named for him. I am fortunate that I started my engineering career under the direction of him and Professor Steward, another graduate student and founder of campus radio. We owe them a vote of thanks.