On the relationship between radio and computers.

After my last post, about my 50 years of Hamming, in discussion on Facebook, where I also posted the same thing, several people also confessed their experiences with Ham Radio in their past.

I was fortunate to attend a high school that offered some computer courses then. In the late 60’s computers were big machines usually found at universities or the largest of companies.

A teacher at my school was also an instructor in computer study at a local community college. He taught courses there in the evenings. During the day, along with his duties as a math teacher at my high school, he offered to teach some computer courses. Data Processing and Computer Programming were the very simple names for the two courses. One was the requirement for the other.

Data Processing taught the basics of how machines came to be made that could manipulate numbers. We studied Babbage and Hollerith and looms and computing machines. But mostly, we learned how a keypunch machine and card sorter worked.

The only computer equipment available to a high school then was a keypunch machine and it’s cohort, the card sorting machine.

We spent a lot of time learning how they worked. How the holes in the card translated into letters, numbers and special characters. ASCII data. How different parts of the 80 columns were used for different purposes and that the first few columns were used for a sequence number. You could drop or shuffle a deck of the Hollerith cards and use the card sorter to quickly put them back in sequence.

Of course, this was all necessary to know for the second course, Computer Programming, because your programs were punched onto cards which were taken in the evening to the community college where they could be loaded into the big IBM computer there to run. If they worked, you would get your results back later.

This was the same time where my interest in radio became an interest in Ham Radio. Two fellow students in my class happened to be Ham Radio Operators and when they found out they could communicate secretly in class by tapping or quietly whistling Morse Code, all sorts of shenanigans began.

They decided it would be a cool thing if they could form a school radio club and set about to do so. They found a willing sponsor, our chemistry/physics teacher and we were allowed to meet after school in the lab.

The first thing on the new club’s agenda was to have all the members of the club get their licenses. The two who were already licensed set about tutoring the rest of us. Electronic theory and rules and regulations were pretty straightforward. They were taught from the ARRL license manuals. But the Morse Code had only one way to be taught – practice.

Hand-sent code with a practice oscillator was used starting out simply with only a few letters at a time. The letters were memorized unti you could recognize them quickly enough to write them down before you missed hearing the next one.

We all struggled along, but I don’t recall even one of us getting good enough to pass even the 5 WPM test for the Novice license.

We also put a lot of effort into a club station. Some borrowed equipment was obtained and a dipole antenna was installed on the roof. The center was supported by the chimney of the schools boiler. It was well above the roof of the gym, so it was a pretty decent height. I don’t think much was ever done with the station because none of us ever got our licenses and the two who had them, had their own stations at home. A few demonstration contacts, at most, were made. But the club call WB2EET was born.

So that’s why my roots of both Ham Radio and computers are intertwined. I just read an article about Dr. Leonard Kleinrock a pioneer in the creation of the precursor to the internet. It was about the same time as I was in high school, and there it was, another guy whose interest in radio and crystal sets led him to an interest in computing. This is a quote from the article in PC Mag. Lots more in the article.

Let’s get your backstory now. Your first interest was in radio while at the Bronx High School of Science, right?
Ah, no, it was long before that. I was a typical kid on the streets of New York. I loved gadgets, puzzles, games, and comic books. Inside the Superman centerfold, one day, was a set of instructions which explained how to build a thing called a crystal radio.

My Beef with Ham Radio

With acknowlegment to Dan Maloney at Hackaday

At some day this June, which I will have to look up, because I don’t remember the exact date, I will observe my 50th Anniversary of becoming a Ham Radio Operator.

Things were quite different then. I started as a Novice which allowed me to use Morse Code on a few shortwave frequencies. I scraped together enough to buy a used receiver for $50 and a really abused transmitter for $13. Stuck up a wire antenna that despite breaking a few rules for how it should be done, worked anyway. I got on the air and managed to make QSOs (conversations) with other Hams. In Morse Code.

Time passed and I got better at it. Seeing how far I could talk and collecting evidence of having talked to Hams in other states – the coveted QSL cards as proof, I stayed up late in hopes of even further distances – DX and through repetition, got better at the Morse Code. I felt ready for the 13 word-per-minute test that was part of the General Class FCC license.

The test was given in the FCC office in Buffalo, in the Old Post Office building. Last I knew, that building is now used by Erie Community College. A friend also planned on taking the test and we studied the theory questions and he drove us to the exam.

I don’t remember much about the written test, but the code test was no laughing matter. It was given by a real FCC field engineer, who came out and ran a paper tape on a machine that sent the code. Despite being stuck behind a column, I copied more than enough to show the required one minute of solid copy. You don’t need to see, only hear the code.

I was pretty confident about the code, but there was still a sending test back then. I watched as examinee after examinee went up and nervously tapped out the sample text the examiner showed them. When my turn came, I sat down and tried the key. I asked if I could adjust it to my liking. He said yes and I proceeded to adjust the keys spacing and spring tension the way I preferred and sent a series of Vs to test it. I began to send the sample text and got about half way into the second word when he said it was enough, I passed. Apparently anyone who had the moxy to adjust the key, knew what they were doing.

Some time later, my General license arrived in the mail and I was now allowed to do just about anything Hams could do. I could now use voice. I could now run 1000 watts, the famous Kilowatt. Over time, as money allowed, I improved my equipment. A better receiver, a Hammarlund bigger than a breadbox and heavy as the whole refrigerator. A transmitter with a VFO that put out a whole 100 watt signal. No more being stuck on the handful of frequencies that I had crystals for in my Novice days.

I still sought out contacts with new states. I wanted to get the ARRL Worked All States award, a certificate that I’m sure was quite prestigious in part because of elusive states like Delaware and Idaho. But I also discovered traffic nets where hams passed messages on behalf of the public. People could have a telegram-like message relayed by hams anywhere for free, as long as it was non-commercial. It kept Hams trained in case of real communications emergencies and the system that allowed me to send a message on it’s way to Idaho even though I couldn’t seem to talk there directly.

It seemed more satisfying than random conversations. It was already getting boring exchanging the weather, your age, your job and what version of Heathkit/Collins/Yaesu/Hallicrafters radios you were using. Most conversations ended with the other guy getting called for supper, no matter what time of day it was. It was like a code for I’ve run out of things to say.

This went on for years. I discovered contests, where you exchanged short, quick pieces of information in as little time as possible. Each was worth points and it was a race to collect those points. Maybe you’d get a certificate if you did well, but you got to see your score next to your callsign in a magazine. It was easy. No pretense for breaking the conversation off for dinner!

More equipment upgrades and I soon was using voice. I found you ran out of things to say even faster and while you occasionally had a good conversation, mostly they were just as formulaic as on code. I got into some voice nets that facilitated finding the Hams in those rare states for Worked All States. I finally achieved that goal a couple times over. I also got into VHF FM, a voice mode that covered locally using repeaters. Finally, talking to people you actually could get to know and meet face to face.

At some point, they announced some new series of callsigns that were only available by license class. An Extra Class – the highest one available – would get you a short callsign beginning with ‘A.’ As I still preferred CW and during contests, a short callsign could be an asset, I decided to go for it. The theory was pretty tough, but I had learned a lot and brushed up on it so that I could pass the test. The Morse Code portion was at 20 words per minute, which I could do no sweat.

The new style of callsigns began to be issued and we’d hear other Hams on the 2 meter repeaters announcing their new calls. I kept asking them when they took their exam and how long it took to arrive. Pretty soon, I had a good feel for when I should take the test in order to get the ultimate short callsign in the second district – AE2E. I hoped to at least get something close to that. Anything would be an improvement over my six-letter-long general call.

At this time, the code test was now a fill-in-the-blank test where if you copied the sample code, you’d get the answers to the questions. There was no longer a sending test. Also, if you could show your scratch paper with one minute copy, you could pass even if you didn’t get enough of the questions.

The test, now in the new Federal Building, was simple. I now drove myself there, being older and employed and a car owner. I did well enough on the written theory and sat for the 20 WPM code. Solid copy in block letters and easily answering all 10 fill in questions.

I can proudly say that I hold a true FCC examined, 20 WPM passed code Extra Class license. No VE exams, no multiple choice code test. No no-code license. My new license arrived with my new callsign: AE2T, the second shortest possibility.

Since then, I’ve been hot and cold on Ham Radio. I’ve been very active in contesting. I’ve earned DXCC (100 countries confirmed) been very active in something called The Geratol Net, a group that specializes in a specialized form of a worked-all-states award. I’ve done traffic handling at several levels in the system and emergency communications support. But I’ve also gone years without getting on the air. It’s always been there when I had the interest. It just comes and goes.

I’ve dabbled with QRP (Very low power operation) and recently, digital voice communication on VHF/UHF augmented with the internet. I’ve dabbled with HF digital and Packet radio several times. But it still comes up less than fulfilling these days.

I’ve seen the quality of the people who get into Ham Radio decline as the exam requirements to get licensed got easier. The code requirement has been totally eliminated and the Technician exam can be passed by someone who paid attention in high school physics class and had an hour to study a guide. You can’t tell me there is no relation.

And technology – the internet and cellphones being ubiquitous – has made Ham Radio seem quaint and irrelevant. Sure there are new forms of Ham radio that leverage those technologies, but I’ve tried them and they just seem to miss the point.

So, I stumbled upon this article in Hackaday and it really paralleled my thoughts. The author never really got very far into Ham Radio, so he’s probably a lot smarter than I.

I will still piddle around with my radios, but it’s strictly a hobby, an amusement. It certainly doesn’t hold the gravitas that all the Emcomm “When All Else Fails” types like to justify it with.

Hackaday Article
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