“Real” Ham Radio

[J]ust a couple hours ago, I found myself looking at my old Hallicrafters Novice station — an HT-40 transmitter and an SX-140 receiver, which were the stars of a “Boat Anchor” presentation I’ve given at a number of amateur radio gatherings over the years. Suddenly overcome by a wave of nostalgia (or perhaps the creosote fumes from the neaby railroad tie factory) I threw caution (and sanity) to the winds and hooked up the radios once again.

What followed was an enjoyble evening experiencing what ham radio used to be like in those prehistoric days when I first got on the air (1966). It was the next best thing to time travel! Within a matter of minutes, I had cleared off some space on my desk, hooked up my homebrew T/R switch and plugged the radios in. Upon turning on the receiver, I was rewarded for all the careful restoration work I did almost 10 years ago by the warm, inviting glow of the panel lamps and tube heaters, followed in 13 seconds by the sound of amateur radio — the 40 meter CW band. And it was full of beautiful Morse code! Wall-to-wall signals poured out of the speaker, reminding me of what the congested Novice bands sounded like every night when I first got my ticket. This evening, there was a CW conteest, and thousands of Morse code lovers were having a blast!

With all the noise, I didn’t think it likely I would make any contacts, but nevertheless, I tried several different crystals in the transmitter to see if I could fnd a clear spot. It didn’t take long to find that the contesters, gentlemen all, were honoring the bandplan, and good old 7.038 was clear of contest traffic for a couple hundred cycles above and below. So I quickly tuned up the transmitter, tapped out a CQ and lo and behold, WA4ZYN called me back immediately!

Instantly, I was 13 years old again, and felt that old rush of excitement upon discovering once again what only 30 or 40 watts of RF and simple equipment could do. We settled into a nice QSO for a half hour or so, and discussed rigs, antennas, the history of our callsigns, and how much we liked using CW. Yes, talking with your fingers can be a real thrill!

By the time we were finished, the shack was starting to fill up with the wonderful smell of hot vacuum tube equipment. It’s a mixture of hot wax, hot dust, hot plastic (1960s vintage) warm shellac, and phenolic insulation. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are several toxic or carcinogenic fumes outgassing from the old radios, but whatever the risk, to me that distinctive smell is worth the hazards. As I’ve always said (and you may quote me):

“I love the smell of tube gear in the hamshack. It smells like… history.”

That wondrous smell is familiar to the thousands of us who are old enough to have been first licensed in the 60s and 70s, and speaks to a generation who like me were drawn to Amateur Radio by the technology. Those of us who were licensed as kids often found that our youthful exposure to electronics, science and math naturally led us into technical careers. We who were bitten by the radio bug remember the thrill of turning the knobs on a warm, glowing radio, and hearing the magic pour out of the speaker, spilling across our desks and finding its way into our logbooks. We remember the anticipation building as we turned the knobs, tapped the key and wondered what adventures awaited us when we sent the “K” and switched back to receive.

We were rarely disappointed!

[A]ll of us senior hams share that common bond, and when we smell that good tube smell, the spirit of the old time radio “religion” moves us in ways that newcomers reared on solid-state, broadband tuned, surface-mount, computer controlled DSP, plastic, “disposable” radios cannot understand. The “appliance” radios took all the magic away. When an old timer is waxing nostalgic about the wonders of a heavy, hot, metal radio, and all the good times that memory implies, do not break his (or her) reverie. Instead, close your mouth, open your mind and learn what amateur radio was before the days of appliance rigs (and operators), repeaters, fish-in-a-barrel DX clusters and ham-cram licensees who can hardly spell “Amateur.” (Do a google search for “amature radio” and you’ll see what I’m talking about!)

But don’t think for one minute that us old timers are out of touch! Indeed, we have kept up with the times. We own, appreciate and enjoy using the most modern equipment. After all, it was the technology that brought us into amateur radio, and it is all the exciting new technology that persuades us to stay! Where else are you likely to find a group of seniors in their 60s and 70s who are as excited as hams are about modern technology such as smart phones, and the latest computers? What other group of retirees will spend an afternoon wiring up their whole house with Ethernet cables (or Wi-Fi)? Who is it that buys most of the brand-new wonder-rigs? You got it — us old timers!

[A]mateur Radio changes those who participate. There is a massive amount of knowledge required to become an active, involved ham, and those who voluntarily accept the challenge of all this advanced learning are so much the better for it. To us, Amateur Radio is much more than “just a hobby.” We are passionate about what we do, be it building, adjusting or repairing electronic equipment, learning the ins and outs of the latest technology, or serving the public in time of need — we take it to the limit. Remember, the first computer hobbyists who popularized the personal computer — before it became the sweetheart of the masses — were hams! NASA requires all astronauts to be licensed hams, in part because they believe in the value of the lifetime of knowledge required for licensing.

As I write this, the first Amateur Radio licenses were issued 101 years ago (in 1912) and I’m approaching the 50-year mark myself in just a couple years. I, and others of my generation have witnessed an enormous number of changes, growth and not a few mistakes and problems among our ranks, but Amateur Radio is still very much alive and well, thank you. Its future is up to all of us, and how willing we all are to keep up with the times while remembering our past. When we achieve that perfect balance, we will continue to be a relevant, up-to-date radio service with rich traditions and history, a service that is ready, willing and able to continue to be a gateway to technology careers for our youth, technology advocacy for our friends, peers and neighbors, and in time of need to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity in the next century and beyond.

It all begins with the magic of radio.

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