Spoofing Sputnik
Version 1.2
101 Doozies I've Met
Copyright ©2019 by
Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.


 It was some time in 1957, late in the year.  KTLA, a local TV station in Los Angeles, was broadcasting the evening news.  There he was, grinning into Klieg lights and out of the screen in my living room.  It was Dale Jensen.  He was handcuffed, and two burly cops were pushing him across the sidewalk.  They shoved him into the back seat of their squad car.  No doubt about it – Dale Jensen, for Christ’s sake!  My black-and-white television set did not have a remote control.  I rushed across the room and twisted the volume knob: “…signals by a battery-powered radio lashed to the top of a tree on San Gorgonio Mountain.  It was broadcasting on the Sputnik frequency!  If convicted he faces a $10,000 fine and a year of imprisonment.”  A commercial followed then the next news item. 

Fifteen years would go by before I learned the rest of that story.  Here it is...

First, let’s go back a couple of years to 1955.  As a newly minted engineer, I joined Hughes Aircraft as a technical instructor.  There were 11 of us new grads teaching military classes on the theory and operation of the company’s Falcon missile guidance systems.  One of them was an exceptionally cheerful chap named Dale Jensen.  He always seemed to be grinning and often made a honking sound when he laughed with noisy back-drafting gasps.  Dale and I were the same age and younger than the others.  They had graduated under the GI Bill, each with wife and most with kids.  Our offices and classrooms were in Building 114, remote from the company headquarters in Culver City.  Taking pity on our isolated environment, the company arranged to install a wooden box on an office wall.  It featured a slot and a stenciled label on the front, Suggestions Bldg 114.

As our work went along, weeks turned to months.  I got curious about whether anybody from headquarters was actually collecting suggestions from our box on the wall.  One night, I used a screwdriver to open it.  The box was crammed with folded, type-written pages.  All were dated and signed by one person, Dale Jensen.  The collection produced raucous laughter from all of us – except the author, who struggled to display a good-natured grin.

The first suggestion was straightforward enough: “The sink in the restroom has two separate faucets.  That means to wash one’s hands, one must use either ice cold water or scalding hot water and nothing in between.  My suggestion is to install a mixing faucet.”  The next suggestion was dated some weeks later.  A new first paragraph was added, which pointed out that the company should encourage hygienic practices by its employees.  The next suggestion said that providing a stopper for the sink might seem to be an improvement, but for soap-free rinsing, one needs to fill the sink and adjust the water temperature twice, which takes more non-productive time away from work assignments than using a mixing faucet as previously suggested.  The type-written pages became increasingly insistent, then indignant, and finally peevish, “The company management obviously does not care much about suggestions from the professional staff!”

Until I saw his grinning image on television a couple of years later, that was about all I remembered about Dale Jensen. 

Before the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, my technical career at Hughes had gotten interrupted by an undeserved promotion that took me into administrative realms and multiple geographical relocations.  More than a dozen years later, I held a position on the corporate staff of Xerox in Stamford, Connecticut.  During one of my oversight visits to XDS in El Segundo, California, I happened to drive past Hughes Aircraft one evening and saw a man wearing a necktie and a familiar grin riding a bicycle.  Sure enough, it was Dale Jensen.  I rolled down the window on my rental car and called out to him.  He greeted me back, with his characteristic laugh complete with back-drafting.  Dale then invited me to follow him home for a “grape juice.”

The Jensen residence was a stucco bungalow typical of 1950s construction in a neighborhood with tricycles and wagons in nearly every driveway.  Dale parked his bike in the garage next to a workbench piled high with home projects in various stages of completion.  He told me that his wife had taken the children grocery shopping in the family van.  “Typical Mormon family,” he grinned.  “The house will be quiet for a while.”   Dale took me through the kitchen with cluttered drainboards, stopping to fill two jelly glasses with grape juice, thence onward into the living room.  He cleared toys and pillows from the furniture, and we sat down.

Dale was a graduate of Brigham Young University.  I had forgotten that.  We reminisced about our teaching days in Building 114.  I did not bring up the suggestion-box incident.  Neither did he.  Dale told me the names and ages of his children, of whom I lost count.  As you might imagine, I was quite distracted – eager to get on to the Sputnik thing.  Nevertheless, I endured prolonged recitations of family matters until I ran out of polite questions.  I cleared my throat…

“You may not want to talk about this, but a number of years ago I saw you on television.”  I watched Dale for a grimace.  He grinned instead.

“You’re right, Paul, I don’t ordinarily like to talk about it.  What do you want to know?

“You were going to jail,” I said.  “It really looked like that anyway.”

“No, I did not go to jail, but I was guilty.”  Dale Jensen laughed.  “It was all a joke, really.”

“A joke?”

“Yeah, Travis and I built that transmitter as a joke. Travis owns the house on the corner.  We both have amateur radio licenses – that is, I had a radio license.  It’s a long story, Paul, but we figured that hams all over the world were set up for monitoring the original Sputnik satellite signals, on 20 and 40 megahertz – hey, back in those days it was still called ‘megacycles-per-second’, remember?  Anyway, Sputnik’s battery had gone dead after only three weeks in orbit.  Travis and I just gave all those ham operators something else to listen to.” 

            “If it was a joke, why did they arrest you?”

            “Somebody complained to the FCC about the signal strength was my guess.” 

            “Why didn’t you just shut the dang transmitter off?”  (As a courtesy to my host, I substituted ‘dang’ for one of my customary profanities.)

“We couldn’t shut it off, Paul.  Travis and I had lashed the thing up in a treetop in the mountains.   And the way the transmitter was programmed, its batteries might have lasted for months.”

“Your transmitter was ‘programmed’?”

Dale grinned.  “Yeah, it was automatically turned on for ten minutes about once an hour, to simulate an artificial satellite passing overhead.”

“Hey, you guys went to a lot of trouble for – well, I would call it a prank.”

About then, Dale’s wife arrived.  Marleen, if I remember her name correctly, was a harried housewife with frazzled coiffure, wearing a faded print dress and lugging grocery bags in both arms.  She came into the house surrounded by more than a handful of offspring of various ages along with neighborhood children, presumably, all exercising their voices as if they were in childhood training for solo operatic performances.  Dale Jensen and I took our grape juice drinks and conversation to the front porch.  He cleared toys and pillows from the porch furniture, and we sat down.

“The concept was elementary,” Dale said, quite noticeably content to engage in techie-talk with a former colleague.  “The transmitter itself used a 20 MHz crystal oscillator for the input to a pentode amplifier with push-pull triodes as base-band drivers for the antenna.  The Sputnik design actually called for two base-bands.  The other came out of a series resonant circuit synched to the first harmonic, producing 40 MHz as an overtone.  For switching between the two frequencies, Travis picked up a 60-Hz buzzer in the same junk-yard where we found the dashboard car-clock.”

“The clock was used to mimic orbital periods, am I right?”

“Yeah, we glued a microswitch to the face of the clock with its spring-loaded contact positioned to be flexed by the minute hand.  The microswitch energized the solenoid of a relay that controlled power to the whole system.  The transmitter came on slowly as the filaments heated up, like Sputnik.”

“But when the relay dropped out, wouldn’t the signal stop suddenly?

Dale shrugged.  “Our simulation of the orbital period was far from perfect.  Don’t forget, Sputnik took more than 96 minutes to go around the earth, not an hour.”

“So then you put all that stuff in a box and hauled it up to the mountains?”

“Travis and I are Scout masters.”  Dale gave me a grin.  “Our troops had a weekend hike scheduled with an overnight camp-out.  While the kids were putting up their tents near the trail-head, Travis and I took a walk in the forest and found a pine tree with branches suitable for climbing.”

“And the system worked, did it?”

“Did it ever!  When we got home from the camp-out, I powered up my ham rig in the garage with its audio beat-frequency oscillator switched on.  After a few minutes, the signal came on gradually and beeped loud and clear – much stronger than expected.  Travis and I cheered and clapped each other on the back.  In a dozen minutes the signal stopped.  We cheered again, of course.  Travis went home and listened on his own receiver and phoned me, laughing.  We speculated that when the F1 layer moved upward in the ionosphere every night, the signal might be refracted all over the world.

“Did you ever hear from other ham operators,” I asked.

Dale became solemn.  “No.   But an article appeared in CQ Amateur Radio, and it really spooked Travis and me.  It warned readers about the kind of trouble one can get into with the Feds by playing wireless jokes.  We decided to lay low and not submit our system design.” 

          “When did you find out you were in trouble?” I asked.

“A couple of weeks went by.  Travis called me one morning and said that the signal had gone off and was staying off.  It had been as strong as ever just the day before, but now it was off.”

“Your box up in the tree had been found.”

“No doubt about it,” said Dale.  “I listened to the local news on KNX and heard that the ‘Sputnik Imitator’ had been located in a National Forest, and now whoever was responsible for the thing was being sought by authorities.  Travis and I were both scared to death.  We agreed that each should get legal advice right away.  I called the only lawyer I’d ever heard of, Grant Cooper.”

“Grant Cooper.  Wasn’t he the guy who defended Carole Tregoff?”

“Yes he was, but that was years later.  Anyway, he did something strange, I thought.  He called a friend at KTLA with a heads-up for the coverage of my arrest.  I found out why later, but it sure seemed strange at the time. I was most worried that my parents in Utah would find out about it, but they didn’t.”

Throughout the Government, Dale told me, people were not fooled for one second by the simulated ‘resurrection’ of the dead Soviet spacecraft.  Moreover, they were not amused by our electronic spoofing of Sputnik, which had already precipitated a crisis in the U.S.  Indeed the Space Race was already getting under way.  A rumor circulated in which officials in the Pentagon had become concerned that a Soviet agent secretly planted some kind of radio beacon in the Los Angeles area to provide precise targeting for an armed spacecraft. 

“Any such ‘spy-craft’ was totally unnecessary,” Dale scoffed.  “Heck, there’s a 50,000 watt, 600-foot tower operated by 'Clear-Channel Station' KFI that has been permanently located in Los Angeles since the 1920s.” 

As evidenced by the clattering coming from inside the house, dinnertime was approaching in the Jensen household.  I really wanted to learn all about the trial of Dale Jensen, so I invited the man himself to dinner at his favorite restaurant, and he accepted.  Dale opened the front door and hollered at Marleen that he would be back after dinner.  I quipped that I might become a Mormon if it means I don’t have to get permission before changing plans of an evening.  Of course, Dale gave me his honking laugh with back-drafts aplenty.  Seems he was just as eager to talk as I to listen.

In my rental car on the way to the restaurant, Dale told me that, as advised by his lawyer, he entered a plea of not guilty and elected to request a trial-by-judge not a jury.  Various governmental bodies became involved in the investigation of the ‘Sputnik Imitator’.  The FCC played a key rôle in the courtroom drama. 

The FCC witness for the prosecution testified in detail that they dispatched a panel truck to Los Angeles equipped with a loop antenna on top, which can be rotated from inside the truck to determine the relative bearing of the transmitter – ‘determine’, that is, only during the ten minutes every hour when the transmitter was transmitting.  The truck, of course, is confined to roadways between transmissions, so the technicians inside the truck must draw bearing-lines hour by hour, day after day, night after night.  Each bearing-line must be laid out on roadmaps using a work-table inside the truck and marked at the exact location of the truck where it was stopped.

Dale learned later that, while the search continued, official progress reports were necessitated at higher and higher levels in the Government.  Eventually, one four-star general at the Pentagon was summoned to brief the White House staff and President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.  Serious business, that.

During dinner, Dale told me that the FCC investigating team did their stalking with the truck-mounted-loop-antenna from San Bernardino into the mountains.  At more than one point along the way, a deep draw or a riverbed separated the location of the stopped truck and the transmitter. That necessitated reversing course and driving around extra miles to find the most appropriate hill. 

Getting closer to the transmitter, the countryside got steeper and more rugged and, most significantly, the investigators ran out of roadway for their truck to drive on.  Progress was then halted while technicians drove back to their electronics laboratory in the city.  They developed and built a portable receiver that could be fitted within a backpack with its loop antenna referenced to magnetic north.  Days later and appropriately equipped, the FCC investigators resumed their search by climbing up the mountain on foot during periods of radio silence, stopping to take bearings from the transmitted signals and to plot intersecting fixes on a card-table. 

During one resting period, while waiting for the transmitter to power up, the weary hikers sat down on the hillside and munched their sandwiches.  One guy looked upward and saw glinting on a piece of wire dangling from a pine limb – the actual antenna of the Sputnik-spoofing system.  They summoned the FBI forensic team, one member of which was the next witness in Dale Jensen’s trial.

The FBI agent described climbing high into the tree with tools, camera and a two-hundred-foot nylon cord.  He took pictures from various angles, which were shown to the judge.  The agent then described how he donned rubber gloves and tied the nylon cord around the box. He cut the rope that was tied to the tree and carefully lowered the offending system to the ground.  One of his colleagues disconnected the dry-cells, which brought all transmissions to a stop.

Later, in the FBI lab, the box was examined by forensic analysts for latent fingerprints, of which there were many.  The examiners determined that they belonged to two people, but their identities could not be traced in the crime files of that time.  (Reminder to readers: It was 1957, decades before there were computers capable of scanning large databases of fingerprints.) 

FBI investigators then disassembled the transmitter system, piece by piece.  The handmade plywood box was painted olive drab and had no distinguishing marks.  Every electronic component in the transmitter system was carefully examined.  People in the courtroom laughed when the witness described a homemade inductor coil comprising a toilet roll wrapped in copper wire. All the rest of the parts were commercially available from popular retail outlets such as Radio Shack.  Except one.  The FBI found a 20-MHz quartz crystal oscillator which had "Hughes Aircraft" printed on it. 

The next witnessed was the inventory manager from the Hughes Aircraft lab where Dale worked.  The first question asked by the prosecutor was, “Where do you work, sir?”

Grant Cooper, defense attorney for Dale Jensen, jumped to his feet. “Objection!” he shouted.  “That question is not relevant to these proceedings.”

The prosecutor and the judge were both stunned.  So was Dale Jensen. 

Cooper lowered his voice and continued, “My client is prepared to concede that the crystal oscillator was the means by which the FBI tracked down the person who built the transmitter.  Furthermore, my client admits that he stole the oscillator from his employer.  However, Mr. Jensen’s employer was not involved in any of the matters before this court.”

Over our dinner, Dale Jensen explained the legal stratagem to me: “Before the trial began,” he said, “a top-level executive in Hughes Aircraft contacted Grant Cooper on behalf of Howard Hughes himself.  The executive adamantly demanding only one thing -- that the name of the company was not to be divulged in the trial."  Jensen evidently kept his job as a result of Cooper's success on that point.

Having no more witnesses to call, the prosecutor rested his case.  The judge asked Mr. Cooper if he was ready to begin his case for the defense.  He said he was prepared but requested a brief adjournment to confer with his client  The judged granted him five minutes.  Cooper leaned close to Jensen and spoke just above a whisper, “My advice is that we change your plea to nolo contendere.”

Dale was bewildered.  He asked his lawyer what such a plea meant.  Cooper told him not to worry – that the prosecutor simply had not met his burden.  “There won't be any fines to pay." he said, "and no jail-time for sure.”  Dale grinned and gave the OK.  His attorney patted him on the shoulder and said, “I’ll explain later.”  Cooper stood and addressed the judge, who granted the plea change -- to the consternation of the Federal prosecutor and his team of expert witnesses.

Dale and I walked out of the restaurant and climbed into my rental car.  He told me that the trial came to a quick end.  The prosecutor made only a perfunctory closing statement.  Grant Cooper delivered a polite speech to the effect that his client will apologize for what was intended as a harmless prank.  Cooper pointed out that, as far as the public is concerned, Dale Jensen has already been harshly punished by what was depicted on television during his arrest.  Apparently the judge agreed.

As we pulled into his driveway, I commented that only a few hours ago Dale Jensen was actually seen (by me) riding his bicycle out of the parking lot at Hughes Aircraft.

He grinned ruefully and allowed himself to chuckle.  “Probably work there for the rest of my life, Paul.” Then he became quite solemn.  “That judge ordered me to stand up in the courtroom and to express out loud my humble apologies for inconveniences I had caused for persons and organizations.  Like a child, I had to promise never to do any such thing again in the future.  Finally, I accepted full personal responsibility for everything, so there would be no trial needed for Travis.”   

The judge pronounced a simple sentence: the loss of Dale’s amateur radio license.  “It was only a hobby,” he said with a shrug as we walked to his front door. 

We shook hands.  I thanked Dale for sharing his story with me, then turned to leave.  “One more thing,” he said.  “Do you know what my lawyer charged me for that one day?”

“Probably a whole lot,” I replied.

“It sure was!  That guy sent me a bill for $500!” 

Standing there under his porch light, Dale Jensen was not grinning.


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