Dr. Phil Rules the Waves

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September, 1636, Prague, Bohemia

Dr. Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz, president for life of the Royal Academy of Science, knew what was coming the moment Samuel Hartlib, the secretary of the Royal Academy, stepped into his personal laboratory at the top of the Mihulka Tower—there could be no other reason for him making the climb. "What am I being dragged off to this time?" he protested as he put away his pen and got to his feet.

Samuel had the cheek to smile. "Prague Radio is almost ready to begin transmissions."

"And?" Phillip asked as he replaced his white lab coat with a jacket in a beautiful shade of orange.

"Someone from the Royal Academy has to be there when it is declared operational."

"Why me?" he asked. "You're the secretary. Why don't you go?"

"Because, Herr Dr. Gribbleflotz, sometimes only the president will do."

Phillip sighed. "And I suppose you're going to tell me that this is one of those times?"

Samuel nodded. "This is one of those times, Herr Dr. Gribbleflotz."

Phillip glared ineffectively at Samuel, whom he was sure was laughing at him. "There seem to be a lot of these 'one of these times' events," he protested as he gave his laboratory one last check to make sure he hadn't left anything on. Unfortunately, it seemed there was nothing more to delay the inevitable. "I'm ready. Let's go."


The room was full of the usual band of hangers-on for whom being seen in the right place, and more importantly, being seen talking to the right people, was important. Phillip managed to pretend most of them didn't exist—and thus he didn't have to greet them—as Samuel hustled him to a place of honor.

Phillip found himself seated alongside Vernon Fritz, the up-timer with overall responsibility for getting Radio Prague built.

"Hello, Dr. Gribbleflotz," Vernon said as he held out his hand.

Phillip knew enough to accept the offered hand. "Herr Fritz," he said as they shook hands.

"Sorry to drag you away from whatever you were working on, Doctor."

Phillip waved the apology away. "No need to apologize." He shot a glance in Samuel's direction. Yes, he was watching. Phillip redoubled his efforts to keep a smile on his face. "So Radio Prague is ready to go on the air?"

"That's why we're here," Vernon said. "Have you got your speech prepared?"

"Speech?" Phillip just managed not to shout it out, instead keeping it to a loud hiss, mostly directed at Samuel.

Samuel passed Phillip some papers. "Frau Kastenmayerin and I prepared something for you."

Phillip scanned the pages, shooting Samuel repeated glares as he did so. Samuel and his own wife were taking advantage of his disinterest in anything to do with the running of the Royal Academy to advance their own agenda. With a final glare that was intended to show Samuel that he knew what they were up to, Phillip put the prepared speech to one side and turned his back on Samuel.

Vernon had a grin on his face. "You weren't aware that you would be giving a speech?"

"Of course I knew I would be giving a speech," Phillip said, lying through his teeth. "It's just that I was so caught up in my research that I didn't get around to preparing anything."

"It's fortunate that you have such good support in Herr Hartlib and your wife."

Phillip shot another glare in the general direction of Samuel Hartlib. "Yes, it is," he muttered. "So, Herr Fritz, what do you do now Radio Prague is ready to go live?"

"I'm contracted to hang around for another six months to deal with any teething problems."

Phillip understood about teething problems—he had a son and daughter who'd been born on the 29th of February. Fortunately the nursery maid his wife's stepmother had located for them had known what to do. "We'll miss Frau Rutilius and Herr Bockelmann when they leave."

"Oh, they won't be leaving when I go. They're on two-year contracts."

"They are?" Phillip hadn't known that. It opened a whole new world of opportunities. "Would there be a problem with them wiring my apartment so that I have electric light?"

Vernon shook his head. "There shouldn't be a problem with that. Both Mags and Dietrich are qualified electricians. They'll just have to do the work on their own time."

"Naturally," Phillip said, even as he wondered how he could get them to do the work in their normal working hours. Nothing leapt to mind, but maybe Samuel could help. Sorting out that kind of problem was what he did best.

Samuel slid up beside Phillip. "Herr Doctor, it's time."

Phillip gave Vernon a smile before picking up the prepared speech. "I'll catch up with you later," he said before following Samuel to the podium.


Phillip nodded his head as a token bow to acknowledge the applause his speech was being accorded. After a few minutes he held up a hand to silence the applause. "Thank you, thank you. Now, it is my proud honor to pass the baton onto—" He paused to glance at Samuel, who like the good secretary he was, was indicating the next person. "—Herr Vernon Fritz, the man responsible for bringing us Radio Prague." He stepped back to allow Vernon up to the podium.

Phillip tuned out while Vernon spoke to the crowd. At some point, he was sure, someone was going to flip a switch. Obviously it wasn't him, because Samuel would have told him so. He edged away from the podium so he could whisper into Samuel's ear. "How much longer?" he asked.

"The formalities will end soon, Phillip, but you'll be expected to hang around and talk to people," Samuel said.

Phillip sighed, probably a bit too loudly judging by the way Samuel's brows lifted. "I have experiments I have to get back to," he protested.

"Have to?" Samuel asked. "What could be more important than keeping the Royal Academy in the public eye?"

Phillip knew that to Samuel keeping the Royal Academy in the public eye had priority over everything else. He also knew that if it weren't for Samuel acting as a gatekeeper, he'd constantly be pestered by people wanting the Royal Academy to fund their pet projects. In the interests of keeping Samuel sweet, he kept his mouth shut, settled back in his seat, and waited for the evening to end.


A few days later

Vernon Fritz was walking down the street listening to Radio Prague on a portable crystal set he'd knocked up out of some bits and pieces he happened to have lying around. Reception on his portable set was good, which considering how close he was to the transmitter, was as it should be.

In addition to checking reception, Vernon wanted to check on the local reaction to the new radio service. Obviously he wasn't going to find many people wandering the streets listening to the radio, and he could hardly go knocking door to door to ask if people were listening to the radio in their homes, so that left just one option. He was going to have to visit inns and taverns to check. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

He couldn't hear a radio playing at the first tavern he stopped at. He discovered why when he stepped into the main room. There were people listening to the radio alright, but they were taking turns listening to a single crystal set. That wasn't what he'd expected from a tavern. He approached the barkeep.

"Hello, I'm with Radio Prague, and I was just wondering what you think of the new radio station."

The barkeep snorted loudly and shot a glare at the single crystal set in the room. "It's useless. I thought I was being smart buying a crystal set, but while everyone wants to listen, they are too busy trying to hear to buy drinks. At least with the newspapers they buy drinks."

Vernon was nodding as he listened to the man's tale of woe. "What you need is a proper radio, not a crystal set."

"I most certainly do," the barkeep agreed, "but do you have any idea how much one of those things costs?" Before Vernon could utter a word the man continued on. "And then there's the cost of batteries. The crooks that run the recharging service charge a fortune." He stared at Vernon. "You're an up-timer, aren't you?"

Vernon nodded.

"Well, why aren't you doing something about it. What I need is a radio that can be heard anywhere in my tavern, that doesn't need electricity to work."

Vernon backed away, promising to see what he could do. It would have served no purpose to tell the man that a radio for his tavern that didn't need electricity was an impossibility—radio needed power in order to function.

The man shot a final couple of sentences after Vernon. "Maybe that Dr. Gribbleflotz can do something. I understand he's the world's greatest scientist."

Vernon sniggered as he walked away. Dr. Gribbleflotz was not the world's greatest scientist. If he was the greatest anything, he was the world's greatest and luckiest fake, and there was absolutely no way he was going to invent anything that could solve the man's problem. He headed for the next tavern, and this time he intended buying a drink before trying to talk to anyone.


Meanwhile, at the HDG Laboratories facility at the Mihulka Tower

Thump! Clatter! Thump!

Magdalena "Mags" Rutilius looked up from the new instrumental circuit she was struggling to assemble and saw a red-faced Georg Hoffman scrambling to pick up his crystal radio's earpiece. "Stop!" she said. "Now, jump on it." 

Georg looked at her in horror. "But that would break it," he protested.

"Really?" she asked. "I thought that's what you were trying to do." She looked over her four assistants. This wasn't the first time an earpiece had been dropped since Radio Prague went on the air, but on top of a fast approaching deadline to deliver the theremins they were making, Mags' left arm was itching like crazy under its cast—she'd broken the arm saving Dr. Gribbleflotz' lucky crystal from would-be thieves—as a result, her temper was not its usually sunny self.

"Look," she said, trying to keep her temper in check. "This just isn't working. You're spending half your time fiddling with your earpieces instead of working." She gestured to the incomplete theremins lined up against the back wall. "We need to get these theremins completed by the end of the week," she told them, "so, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to listen to the radio only during your breaks."

"But, Frau Rutilius," Fritz Schmieles protested.

"Put them away now!"

No one was expecting the command voice from the small woman. All four laborants scrambled to remove their earpieces and stow their crystal sets. As they did so, Mags caught sight of their faces and suppressed a groan. The expressions on their twelve-year-old faces put her friend and mathematics tutor Daniel Pastorius' best poor beaten puppy expression to shame, but Mags dare not show any apology for roaring at them however she felt. 

The four boys quietly turned back to their respective tasks, but their air of abject misery permeated the room. 

"It's no good trying to make me feel guilty," Mags informed the boys, schooling her face to sternness. She had no intention of telling them that they were succeeding.

"Why can't we have a radio like they have in the kitchen?" Georg asked.

Mags laid down her tools and reached out to cover Georg's hand with her own. "I'm sorry, but radios are expensive, and they need a source of electricity, which we don't have, even if I could afford an electric radio."

dprthrmn"But the Gribbleflotz Magneto-Etheric Theremins don't need electricity," Fritz said, gesturing to one of the said machines sitting against a wall in the room awaiting the installation of the components Mags was working on.

Mags' initial reaction was to smile at how Fritz insisted on giving the theremins their full name, with a lot of emphasis on Gribbleflotz. Clean clothes, three meals a day, and a warm bed to sleep in bought a lot of loyalty. She was just about to launch into an explanation about how the theremins converted the power generated by pumping the treadle into electrical power to drive the oscillator and amplifier when she realized what she was about to say and froze.

"Is there something the matter, Frau Rutilius?" Michael Thurn asked.

"Noooo," Mags managed to say. "Hans, Fritz, bring that theremin over here." She pointed to the space on her right.

"Lift it, don't drag it," she added when she heard the scrape of the theremin's wooden legs on the floor.

"What are you going to do?" Hans Grünhut asked as he and Fritz carried the nearly completed Gribbleflotz Magneto-Etheric Theremin over to Mags.

"Give me a moment," she said. Mags studied the amplifier unit she'd been working on. If she replaced the oscillator inputs to the coil with the crystal set outputs . . . A smile spread across her face. She might have a solution to the earpiece problem. She disconnected the oscillator and turned her attention to the nearest crystal radio. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the room, close to where the boys had been sitting.

"Okay, let's get everything over beside that crystal radio," she said, pointing to one of them.

The boys leapt into action and carried, not dragged, the theremin to the crystal radio Mags had pointed to. It took just a couple of minutes for Mags to solder the wires to connect everything

"Do you want this?" Georg asked.

Mags glanced round to see Georg was offering her fuel for the flame triodes. She shook her head. "Thank you, but we don't need the flame triodes for this," she said before she started to pump the foot treadle that spun the Alexanderson Alternator's rotor. Soon she could hear Radio Prague through the speaker.


A few days later

Vernon walked into the radio station expecting to see everyone busy. They weren't. They were gathered around a door watching something happening in the machine room. That didn't bode well for the rest of the day.

Ernst Goetz, the locally-employed manager of the radio station, looked up. "Herr Fritz. We have been looking everywhere for you. Hans here has a problem."

"What's the problem?" he asked as he walked over. The sight that greeted him wasn't pleasing. Hans had an access hatch of the main power cabinet open. He could hear that the Alexanderson Alternator was operating, which was comforting. It wouldn't look good for the station to be off the air so soon after going live.

Hans Rohfritsch lifted his hands in a show of frustration as he pulled his head out from inside the cabinet. "Someone managed to break a coolant pump. That meant the coolant in the first bank of liquid rheostats started to boil, which resulted in a surge going through the main power supply. Fortunately, the backup system kicked in as it was supposed to."

Vernon's whistle wasn't particularly pleased. "How the . . ." He managed to bite down on the expletive before it escaped. "The system is supposed to shut down before the coolant starts to boil."

Hans shrugged apologetically before turning accusing eyes onto Ernst. "Someone pulled the override."

Vernon turned his gaze onto the current villain of the piece. The override was only supposed to be used during maintenance operations and there were supposed to be safeguards in place to stop it being accidentally pulled during normal operations.

Ernst immediately started to stutter out excuses. "It was an accident," he said.

Vernon raised his brows. It must have been some accident, he told himself. "You're a front room guy, Ernst. What the heck were you doing in the machine room?" That got more mumbled excuses from Ernst. Vernon raised his hand to silence him. "Let's forget about how it happened for now and just worry about getting it fixed." He turned to Hans. "Can you fix it?"

Hans backed away from the cabinet he'd been working at and shrugged. "I'm pulling the boards to check on them. Meanwhile, it would be good if someone could unbolt the covers from the liquid rheostats." He paused. "Maybe Frau Rutilius?"

"She's still on the sick list," Vernon said.

"But it's her left arm that is broken, Herr Fritz, and she's right-handed," Hans said. "If Frau Rutilius can get at the mounting bolts . . ." He gestured to one of the enormous liquid rheostats to complete the sentence before going on. "Otherwise . . ." He left that sentence hanging, because Vernon would know exactly what the otherwise option was.

Vernon looked at the rheostats and realized that there was a design problem and winced. The bolts holding the heavy liquid tank covers in place were virtually inaccessible from above, blocked by another cabinet mounted above them. The space between them was far too small for Hans. He could unbolt the front of the covers from below, but there was no way for him to reach the bolts at the back.

He checked the rest of the watching team. Some of them were smaller than Hans, but they were all giants compared with the pint-sized Mags. If she could get into the gap between the rheostats and undo the bolts holding the covers in place, then they wouldn't have to disconnect complete rheostats, unbolt them from the floor, and lift the heavy units up just to remove the tops. It would save them days of backbreaking work. He made a note. The next time the station was down, they would have to move the upper cabinet. Meanwhile Mags was the answer, "I'll drop by and see how she's doing."

"Dietrich has said that Frau Rutilius is suffering 'cabin fever,' " one of the other technicians said.

That statement amused Vernon. Dietrich was actually Dietrich Bockelmann, an electrical trades graduate from Grantville who had graduated in the same class as Mags. The rest of the team at Radio Prague happily called or referred to him by his Christian name. Meanwhile, Mags was still Frau Rutilius to everyone but himself and Dietrich. As for the cabin fever, he could easily believe that, and he was pretty sure Mags would leap at the chance to get back to work. It was going to be his job to stop her from making her injuries worse. "If I don't think she's fit to come back to work, she won't be coming. So, Hans, I want you to look at ways to get at those rheostat covers while I'm gone. Meanwhile, the rest of you can get back to work."


Mihulka Tower, HDG Laboratories (Prague)

Vernon made his way into the workroom where Mags was muttering to herself as she fiddled with one of her retail crystal sets. He watched quietly for a while, listening to the sound of Radio Prague coming from one of the other work rooms. The reception was good, as was the sound quality. Eventually Mags looked up and saw him.

"Herr Fritz!" she said as she scrambled to get to her feet.

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