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January 2024

The soldier, the signals, and the solder

('Solder' is pronounced 'sodder.')

When he was twelve years old, Tom Warner played with his first crystal radio set in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Then he got serious about electronics. When he was fourteen, he built a Hartley oscillator and connected it to a modulator.

His six-watt radio signal carried across the Lehigh River to the other side of Easton.

“That made me a radio broadcaster,” he told us, his four sons. From his bedroom radio station, he played all the popular records of the time – the music of Bing Crosby, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, and other big bands. Friends and even strangers phoned the Warner house, and he put their requests on the air.

Decades later, at Warners’ quarters in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Dad still worked on radios. As a Signal Corps master sergeant in the early 1960s, radio-guided drones were his job. But even at home, he toyed with one electronics project after another.

With a volt-ohmmeter and a soldering iron at his side, he’d work hours into the night installing tiny components around vacuum tubes on metal frames. His soldering iron looked like an oversize pen at the end of a thick electric cord.

The solder wire, a mixture of soft lead and tin, rolled off a spool when Dad needed it. Smoke rose as his red-hot iron melted the solder to join capacitors, resistors, and other components to their circuits, and to piece together what seemed like hundreds of little wires.

I couldn’t imagine how Dad read the complicated instructions and kept track of all those parts, but I could see the intense concentration on his face. It was a quiet, hazy atmosphere.

To me, the smell of hot solder was the smell of a man thinking.

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Tom Warner Black tower Sensor Lab Fort Huachuca 1962

Photo: Master Sgt. Thomas Warner at the Sensor Lab next to the Black Tower in Fort Huachuca, 1962