Larry Woodworth pulled a lever to begin transmitting and watched as his radio roared to life this month.
First came a loud buzz as 2,300 volts rushed through its system. Then he watched the mercury vapor in the vacuum tubes burn bright violet.
“This is W-9-bravo-sierra-papa,” he said, giving the amateur radio’s call letters. “W9BSP. Olathe, Kansas, Ensor Museum.”
For the first time in more than 40 years, the radio that Marshall Ensor had built was transmitting again.
Ensor, a longtime Olathe dairy farmer, high school teacher and radio operator, built the amateur radio in 1936 and 1937. He is remembered by some as a pioneer for teaching others about amateur radio, and his old house, now the Ensor Farmsite and Museum, is listed as a National Historic Site and on the Register of Kansas Places for his contributions.
But the radio he transmitted on to teach others hadn’t been used since 1972, two years after his death. Since then Ensor’s old radio equipment had fallen into disrepair.
On Jan. 5, his largest radio and the centerpiece of his radio room began transmitting again, with Woodworth announcing the call letters.
Work on repairing Ensor’s old equipment began after Harry Krout, one of Ensor’s former students, visited the museum. While he was talking to Woodworth, the museum’s manager, he pointed out what a sorry state the radios on the farm were in.
“He made an observation that the old equipment was a sorry mess to look at because he remembered it from when it was all in new condition,” Woodworth said. “I said to him, ‘Harry, is that an offer to make this equipment nice and operable?’”
Harry Krout set to work by rebuilding a smaller radio with his son Joe Krout. But restoring the transmitter was no small feat. Built into a black walnut cabinet, the radio is nearly 5 feet tall and weighs about 700 pounds, Woodworth said.
It took the pair almost 150 hours over three years to get the radio in working condition, Joe Krout said. They had to replace almost 90 percent of its wiring and rebuild many of its components. Plus, the radio had to have certain safety modifications made, Joe said, because “the level of safety concern in 1937 was quite a bit different than it is today.”
The time, though, was worth it for the father and son. Harry Krout had been a student of Ensor’s in the 1940s, and Ensor had inspired him to pursue a career as an electrical engineer, Joe Krout said.
“He had a great deal of respect for what Marshall had done and represented, and this was just a way to pay back what he learned,” Joe Krout said.
Gregory Sheffer, who made a short documentary about Ensor’s life, said that Ensor is remembered for using the transmitter to teach others how to use amateur radios during a time when the technology was rapidly developing.
“I think the real significance of what he did is how much he did that, how long he did that and how he did it for free as well,” Sheffer said.
The Ensor Farmsite and Museum is a gem, Sheffer said. “These areas south of Kansas City have very little history left, especially Olathe… it’s also so well-preserved, and there’s so much that’s there.
Woodworth and Harry Krout operated the radio for three hours that Saturday evening, and before signing off, Woodworth said they had made contact with other amateur radios from around the country.
And now that Ensor’s old radio is back in commission, Woodworth plans on transmitting from it periodically during the months when the museum is open.