In 1962 I was hired as a transmitter engineer with radio station WAEB in
Allentown, Pa. The transmitter site was in Whitehall Township, several miles
north from the studios in
Allentown, and the site covered a rather large, clear area to accommodate five
350 foot towers. My job was to take meter readings to satisfy
FCC requirements and keep the AM and FM transmitters on
One evening, during a violent thunderstorm, I heard a very loud crack outside
the transmitter building. This sound was indicative of a close lightning strike.
Instantly my eyes were drawn to the glass window on the front of the AM transmitter, which
large vacuum tubes. I was amazed because there, in the window, was
a very bright, very white ball, about the size of a golf ball, lightly
dancing on the high voltage buss attached to the top of one of the tubes.
The ball was round but it was not solid, rather is looked open
with very tiny sparks emanating everywhere from within, like the sparks from a 4th of
July Sparkler. The floating/slightly dancing motion reminded me of a Karaoke
bouncing ball. There was a distinct "hissing" sound which accompanied the ball. The ball
was sitting on
the horizontal high voltage buss feeding the right hand Machlett ML-357B tube.
The ball very slowly 'walked' from the top of the tube anode to the back of the tube section
taking approximately 4 seconds. It instantly
dropped or got sucked, 3 feet down into the high voltage power supply compartment at the
bottom of the transmitter. There was a bright flash inside the power supply
compartment and the transmitter went off the air. My first impressions
amazement and fascination with the generation of the ball itself; how slowly it walked
across the high voltage buss by
the tubes; how very quickly it dropped into the power supply cabinet and why it
took that route to disappear.
I didn't have much time to dwell on what I had just experienced, because my
job was to put the transmitter back on the air. Since the transmitter was so
very reliable, it was my first time to actually work on it and I could feel the
pressure to fix an unknown problem.
To shorten the story, I removed the mercury vapor rectifier tubes and replaced
them with two from a special rack that were previously pre-warmed (to get the mercury
to the bottom of each tube, so the mercury wouldn't short out the tube) and fortunately the transmitter came back up.
Days later, during maintenance, the removed rectifier tubes were found to be good. I
realized that I could have merely reset the breakers and the transmitter would
have come back up.
I revisited this webpage in July 2021 and I still remember the event as if it
It was one of the most amazing and interesting things I have ever seen in my life. I
don't know how the ball was created, I don't know if lightning stuck one of the
towers or struck the many hundreds of feet of 'copper pipe coaxial transmission
lines' or what, it is a complete mystery. There is not a lot of specific information, on the
internet, about the how the ball is generated, just a few observations. I was at the transmitter site many times
during strong thunderstorms and why it happened this particular night, I cannot
provide an explanation.
Below is the WAEB 1000 watt Western Electric 443A-1
AM transmitter where the ball lightning took place.