In 1962 I was hired as a transmitter engineer with radio station WAEB in
Allentown, Pa. The transmitter site was several miles remote from the studios in
Allentown and the site covered a rather large, clear area to accommodate five
tall 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 AM transmitter window, which exposed the
tubes and final amplifier wiring. 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 final tubes.
The floating/slightly dancing motion reminded me of a Karaoke
bouncing ball. There was a distinct "hissing" sound which accompanied the ball. The ball
very slowly "walked"
the horizontal voltage buss feeding the right hand Machlett ML-357B tube and after 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
fascination with the generation of the ball itself and of how slowly it walked
across the buss by
the tubes, and how very quickly it dropped into the power supply cabinet and why did
it take that route.
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 rectifiers and replaced
them with two from a special rack that were previously pre-warmed (to get the mercury
to the bottom of the tubes) and fortunately the transmitter came back up.
Days later, during maintenance, the removed tubes were found to be good. I
realized that I could have merely reset the breakers and the transmitter would
have come back up.
It was one of the most interesting things I have ever seen and to this day I
don't know how the ball was created. I was at the transmitter site many times
during strong thunderstorms and why it happened this particular night, I can not
provide an explanation.
Below is a cropped
photo from the old WPIC transmitter in Sharon, PA, which is an exact duplicate
of the old WAEB transmitter. Original photo made by
Charles Ring W3NU.