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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amateur Radio

There’s a group of people out there – men and women, both – who are more giving, more helpful during emergencies, and probably less appreciated than about any other collection of folks you could find.
Specifically, they’re amateur radio operators.
You probably don’t know much about them beyond those funny license plates that combine letters and numbers and, underneath say, “Amateur Radio” or “Ham Radio.”  Or they may be the group that you were blaming for interference with your television, though it’s far more likely that such interference was coming from a citizens’ band operator (an entirely different group, most of whom have no knowledge of radio technology).  The CB operator is interested solely in communicating with other CB operators – at their licensed or greatly-increased power.
Why am I writing about amateur radio operators?
Well, first, to say thanks.  You’ll find ham operators helping out in just about any emergency.  And the bigger the problem, the more they seem to offer.  Emergency radio traffic and messages, coordination of aid and relief, even first aid and delivery of medicine.  More than once, ham operators have been pressed into service as air traffic controllers operating at ad hoc air strips when airports have been closed.
In many places they’re still the backbone of the public’s side of emergency action.  
It’s for the money, right?  Uh, no.  Especially since operating on any of the amateur frequencies (bands) requires a license which explicitly forbids use of amateur radio for “pecuniary interest.”  No.  They do it for the service.  And they maintain readiness – regular meetings, field day operations (going out, setting up temporary operations and passing traffic on a regular basis), meetings with local, state and even federal emergency officials.
Quakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, lost children, just about any emergency you can imagine, you’ll find amateur radio operators mobilizing to help.
And you ask again, why am I writing about this?
Well, I spent a part of a recent weekend at a “hamfest”.  This is a convention of amateur radio operators.  It consists of learning sessions, FCC examinations, group meetings (like emergency operating groups), and an esoteric flea market offering items 99 percent of folks wouldn’t recognize, let alone want.  
If you have interest in radio technology – and by that I mean any sort of wireless communication – it’s a blast.  You can find everything from the latest computer and wifi gear to an iconoscope.  And if ever there were a place where one man’s junk is…well, this is it.
Cool.  And, yet one more time, why am I writing about this?  Well, by observation, I’ve established that the average age of a ham operator is somewhere between 60 and deceased.  There’s just been very little influx.  Nothing to interest the kiddies.  And that’s doubly disappointing since most amateurs acquired their first [usually “novice”] license in their early teens – or before!
So I got to thinking, why the lack of newbies?  Here’s what I’ve come up with 
·    The mystique is gone.  Once upon a time, you could tune up your homebrew rig into a homebrew antenna and “work” into any number of states and, depending on frequency, around the world.  You’d exchange QSL cards with the other party, noting the specifics of the contact.  Today, you boot up your factory-made computer using your factory-written OS into a factory-made modem and across a pair of wires (possibly through a factory-made wifi transmitter/receiver) to your Facebook page.  There, someone may have left a message wanting to contact you.  Afterward, you may even exchange emails.  There was a magic to waves leaving an antenna and delivering a message halfway around the world.  That’s been doused by the multitude of means by which we can achieve the same end.  For some, there’s a bigger mystery to data packets migrating from device to air to line to server to line to server to friend to deliver the message, “C U L8r.” 
There’s just no big deal to radio.
·    It’s a throwaway society.  Kids want the latest and the best.  Build something?  Nah.  Takes too long.  And, besides, I want the same xyz that everyone else has.
·    There’s not a lot of interest in helping others.  Wow!  Where’d that come from?  Well, with FEMA around along with a number of other government agencies, a lot of people feel that their taxes are taking care of paying for emergencies and for the help needed in the middle of them.  “Hey, I pay my taxes.  I shouldn’t have to do more than that,” seems to be the battle cry.  Worse, though, are the reports that some government agencies have become uncooperative – eschewing the help of dangerously suspect outsiders like ham operators.
The real loss is in the technology that’s not being developed.  If you look back through the history of radio and television, you’ll see so much of the development came from individuals applying for and operating experimental stations, or holding “ham” tickets.  2XG was Lee DeForest’s experimental radio station in New York.  If it weren’t for DeForest’s audion, we’d still be waiting for anything beyond Morse code. Charles Herrold’s 6XF became KQW which then became KCBS. There are many of others – launched by rugged individualists rather than corporations.  And Philo T. Farnsworth and his work with television changed the “face” of communication.  I call them rugged because you have to know that they were bitten by their power supplies once or twice.  No fun. 
Usually on their own, they develop circuits, write software, and spend their own time putting it all together to create a new product or service.  And they do it because they just want to.  Most realize that they’ll never see an ROI.  But that’s not what they’re about.  It’s that big smile when they break the distance record at 243gHz or do a moonbounce, or radio-control their lawnmower.  
And a lot of products have come from them – not all from the knowledge required for the license, itself, but from the analytical thinking that it brings about.  And we owe a lot more to ham operators than we admit.  For everything they’ve created, for the services they perform, and because, by a far greater percentage than the general population, they’re genuinely good people.
By the way, if you’re one of those genuinely good people and you’ve always wanted to figure out how things work, or build something electronic, an amateur radio ticket isn’t that hard to get.  You can ask around or check the web. (American Radio Relay League) is a great place to start.  If you have a kid who’s interested in the subject, send him or her there, too.  In fact, it can be a pretty cool family pursuit.  For younger folk, besides the radio experience, a ham ticket today provides a good foundation for the IT world.  And, by the way, the converse – IT being a good foundation for radio/television – isn’t necessarily true!
So thanks, to all of you out there having fun helping.  
NB:  Just a few additional noteworthy hams:  Howard Hughes, Nolan Bushnell (Atari)  Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (first transmission of human voice), Robert Moog, Julian Hirsch, Luke Montgomery, Steve Wozniak, Joseph H. Taylor, Jack Kilby, Leo Fender, David Packard (the “P” in “HP”), Wilson Greatbatch (invented the pacemaker), Perry Spencer (inventor of the microwave oven)  Norio Ohga and Akio Morita (Chairman and Founder of Sony, respectively) and about half of all astronauts!


  1. I only have one quibble with your rather nicely written blog: there is a huge "maker" movement going that belies the reluctance you described to building stuff. Perhaps that could be channeled and leveraged to build that aspect of our hobby. It's not that big a deal to buy vs. build - I'd rather have a trained cadre of good communicators than worry about whether they know how a transistor works. Our annual BSA Radio Merit Badge Day is always fully-booked with up to 65 Scouts, and the requirements when completed represent nearly 3/4 of the Technician class syllabus. Many of these kids will go on to get their ticket. The question is will we welcome them as we were welcomed into the hobby. Will it be fun for them?

    BTW, if you check out "" you'll find a very complete list of famous hams - and virtually EVERY astronaut has a Tech license anymore. And every cosmonaut as well...73

  2. Check out the Arduino micro-controller and the Raspberry Pi LINUX box and their use in ham radio. Quite interesting..

    73 /paul W3FIS