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04.13.2007

Balloon Pirate Radio

One of my earliest childhood memories is the peppy Solidarity stickers that were ubiquitous in Poland in 1981. A third of the population had joined the first indepenent trade union in the Eastern Bloc, and the country was still flying high from John Paul II's 1979 visit, when crowds in the millions had greeted the new Pope. There was the sense that something finally had to give, partly because things couldn't get much worse. In the 1970's the Polish government had performed the macroeconomic equivalent of maxing out its credit cards on shoes, and the country was about to slide into default.

When you're a People's Democratic Republic, having your workforce join an independent trade union is socially awkward, a bit like when guests order pizzas at your dinner party. The Communist Party was in an untenable position. Moreover, with Brezhnev's reanimated body still running the Soviet Union, there was always the risk that further social turmoil would lead to fraternal assistance of the kind that had left such an impression on Czechoslovakia. With the strategic ham reserve running dry and fresh strikes imminent, the government decided to begin with the crushing.

On the morning of Sunday, December 13, small children racing to the TV to get their morning dose of Teleranek were instead treated to three hours of static followed by General Wojciech "Shades" Jaruzelski reading from a proclamation:

A wave of bold crimes, attacks and break-ins is spilling over the country. The sharks of the underground economy have amassed millions. Chaos and demoralization have taken on the dimensions of tragedy. The nation has reached the limits of its psychological endurance. Many are being overcome with despair. Not days now, but hours separate us from nationwide catastrophe...

Operation "Piss All Over Christmas" had begun.

It was a pretty scary time. For a few days, communication with the outside world was cut off. There was no television, no radio, no telephone service, no way of knowing what was happening or whether the Soviet tanks had rolled in. I was in New Jersey at the time and recall learning "martial law" (filed as mar sza lo by my kid brain) before I even had a chance to pick up "he" and "she". My mother and I also discovered the delightful American innovation called the infographic. A blonde newscaster would read something in moon language, while next to her head hovered a giant tank wrapped in barbed wire, riding over an all-caps POLAND.

The coup turned out to be pretty gentle as these things go. There were lots of arrests but not a lot of bloodshed, and for all his faults Jaruzelski had a light dictatorial touch. Nevertheless, martial law traumatized the country. Poles were used to having their quixotic uprisings crushed by foreign superpowers; having the Polish Army do it was devastating.

Many people debated what to do that glum winter. Strikes and attempts at demonstrations were quickly suppressed by detachments of police thugs. There were spontaneous displays of civil disobedience - everyone would go out for a walk during the evening news, to demonstrate their contempt for Party propaganda - but organized dissent was difficult.

It was in this discouraging context that the radio astronomers of Toruń (a Hanseatic city in north central Poland) decided to stick it to the man, Maxwell-style.

Jan Hanasz, leader of the Toruń chapter of Solidarity, describes the operation in an interview:

As physicists, radioastronomers, and electronics engineers, we were all struck by the possibility of doing independent broadcasts, if nothing else because that was our profession. My colleagues took part in broadcasts in Warsaw and other cities. Rooftop transmitters had low range. And they were easy for the security services to locate. We had to think of something else.

Our colleague Andrzej Jeśmanowicz, son of the noted Toruń mathematician Leon Jeśmanowicz, was an electronics engineer and an ardent glider pilot. He determined that even a weak radio transmitter in an airplane flying at great height could be heard perfectly well over a significant area. That was an idea. Jerzy Wieczorek, a physicist (later president of Toruń) pointed out that we could attach the transmitter to a balloon. It would make the transmitter harder to find while enabling us to reach a wide audience. We couldn't use a weather balloon, however, since it would be easy to check where it had come from.

The plastic beach balls that were popular back then had rubber inner tubes inside them. You could buy them in sporting goods stores. A group of six inner tubes looped together with string could lift a transmitter weighing around three hundred grams. We would get hydrogen from a chemist colleague, Jerzy Tomaszewski, and transfer it from a large cylinder into a fire extinguisher, the kind you find in public spaces. Dr. Zygmunt Turło, a fantastic physicist and radioastronomer, for whom the intricacies of radio wave propagation as well as transmitter and receiver design held no mystery, built the transmission apparatus. The American embargo on advanced electronics limited our technical possibilities. Later we made contact with a colleague, the French astrophycisist Jean Pierre Lasota, who would send us the necessary components through trusted couriers. Jurek Wieczorek would rip most of the innards out of an automobile tape deck, leaving just the motors and casing. We used the acoustic signal from an audio tape to modulate a transmitter in the UHF band. Wieczorek created a superlight antenna out of thin copper foil that required extraordinary care in assembly.

On launch day we would drive the hydrogen-filled fire extinguisher, the balloons and transmitter to some out-of-the-way place far upwind from the city. [...] We would fill the balloons with hydrogen and attach a transmitter, which had a built-in timing device that would turn it on 15 minutes after takeoff. That way we could easily disappear without worrying about anyone pinpointing the signal. Despite its low power, the range of a balloon transmitter was enormous, several dozen kilometers. Broadcasting time was effectively limited by the kind of batteries we could get back then.

Of the many things that fill me with joy in this story, the idea of a fire extinguisher filled with hydrogen has to be at the top of the list.

Other scientists got into the mix. A chemist (Eugeniusz Myśliński) created a special heater to keep the device working as it rose into cold air. Someone else engineered an ejection mechanism to spit the audiotape out of the player after the broadcast ended, so that the tape and the balloon would not be found together. The first episode of balloon radio aired on November 9, 1982.

One reason you don't want to cross Eastern Bloc scientists is that they are by necessity handy people. Operating in a barter economy, even the most unworldly theoretician learns certain marketable skills. Besides the inevitable need to jury-rig spare parts for their own experiments, scientists have to horse trade for basic conveniences like anyone else. And so it was not uncommon to see ultraprecision machine tools and other laboratory wonders take on a second, clandestine life under advanced socialism. The local plumber who needed a new piston rod for his Fiat 126p certainly didn't mind if it happened to be machined out of elemental titanium to a tolerance of 0.05 microns, and the next time a pipe froze you could count on him to show up bright and early. In this context of creative craftsmanship and mutual aid the government had only itself to blame when illegal transmitters started floating by overhead.

The underground press would announce broadcasts in advance. Sometimes they pasted flyers on walls. People knew to scan the UHF band at a certain hour. We didn't announce a specific frequency range so that there wouldn't be interference.

The broadcasts would start with a long call signal: "This is Radio Solidarity Toruń". People needed time to tune their radios. Then there would be fifteen minutes or so of programming. We had a lot of trouble with recording. Sometimes it was just hard to find a good microphone. We would record in various places to avoid making noise, to not get caught. Toruń is a small city and everyone knows about everything. It's hard to remain discreet.

The broadcasts were audible in Grudziądz, Inowrocław, Bydgoszcz, Golub-Dobrzyń [roughly a 40km radius]. The wind carried the balloons a long way. We found out from the Security Bureau that one had landed in Belorussia. Another made it to Silesia. Press reports of that event gave us great publicity.

It was a really safe undertaking - no one got caught. The SB guys knew about the broadcasts in advance because of our flyers. Radio direction finding vans would rove around the city but they couldn't pinpoint the transmitter. We were able to watch them search. Once they even landed on the banks of the Vistula, completely lost. The helplessness of the security bureau brought laughter and satisfaction to people who were tired of the repression of martial law.

During the January 1983 broadcast, they used a helicopter to patrol the rooftops. The next day the SB guys even climbed the chimney of the heating plant in Grębocin. They didn't find anything.

To put this in context, in 1982 the Ministry of the Interior announced that it had destroyed 360 production facilities for illegal literature, confiscated 1196 copying devices and 468 typewriters of various kinds, and saved the population from the malign influence of 4,000 posters and 730,000 flyers. Eleven clandestine Radio Solidarity radio stations had been shut down across Poland. Of the 10,131 people interned at the outset of martial law, 317 were still in camps as of December 1982, while a further 3,616 had been arrested for violations of martial law in the interim. The scientists who cooperated in the balloon project were risking serious jail time in addition to the loss of their career and livelihood.

As the figures show, the Toruń balloon launches weren't the only Radio Solidarity broadcasts in Poland (you can hear others here [1,2], including a snippet of the zesty disco music the Security Bureau favored for jamming [3]), but they were certainly the most ingenious. Once the balloons went up, there was basically nothing the Security Bureau could do. It wasn't until the radio astronomers tried their hand at television that the police finally caught up with them.

But that's a whole other story.

Note: by California state law, Title 17 U.S. Code § 1030, Rz. Pl. u.1994 nr 24 poz. 140, and binding international covenant it is forbidden to use the word "hack" in conjunction with this blog post.

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