Get your start in the world of amateur radio

Kudos to the Champlain Valley Amateur Radio Club and Bob Grabowski (KB5RG of Texas) on the recent station to station QSO between silos.

Amateur radio (“Ham radio”) is the world’s oldest and first electronic/wireless/digital social media. For well over 113 years, people have been meeting electronically/digitally/wirelessly while never leaving their home. Complete strangers (in the beginning) communicating in Morse Code. Lots of lifelong good friendships came out of this in generations past. It’s like hiking in our beloved Adirondacks: You generally meet nice people on the way.

CW/Morse Code is the most reliable form of communication especially during emergencies. In the movies: “Transformers” first movie, “Contact,” “Frequency,” “The Martian,” “Interstellar,” “Titanic,” “Independence Day,” and many others, all had an amateur radio operator keying CW/Morse Code that punches though the interference/noise floor to get through.

Cell phones are not much use when the towers go down. BaoFeng hand held style “walkie-talkies” would not be of much use when the repeaters are fried in the EMP/CME event.

Do you have a Ham set up at home can communicate across the nation/entire world? Join the American Radio Emergency Service network (all Hams, all volunteers, 20,000-plus of them all over the country). When all else fails: Hams doing CW will get through. Per Matt Pray (W2UXE): A big part of amateur radio is emergency services — EMP attack, CME flares, natural disasters, SHTF power grid down. Virtually every one on the ISS is a licensed Ham and the ISS has its own “Ham Shack.” That means with your Amateur license you can talk directly in real time with the folks floating in space. And with a Ham radio on board, they have reliable back up comms if things go kerplunk.

The oatmeal box is round since before the 1920s: Hams used them as forms to make perfectly round coils for their “rigs” (80m and 160m bands). The Quaker Oats people never changed the shape out of nostalgia. Amateur radio was the only social media back then. Folks put up wire antenna all over their trees, yards, etc. Spouses would disparage that it looked more like the rigging on an old fashioned pirate ship than a home. Rigging. Rig for short. Generations later, truckers would refer to the CB radios in their trucks as rigs as well. Then “rig” for the entire truck.

Get started: You can take the license exam (the question and answer pool are on the internet). Or, you can start at the beginning and learn the science and art of amateur radio: Make your own radio receiver that uses no conventional electric input –not from the wall socket, not from a battery. With it, you can pick up transmissions from as far as the Arabian Gulf. Search “crystal radio kit” on eBay. It’s about $20. It takes about 30 minutes to build. When you’re done with that, start exploring/experimenting. Try new coils, LC tanks, antennas, etc. In Ham parlance this is “Home-Brew.” You will be able to make a working radio out of junk: Paper, aluminum foil, odd pieces or any wire, oatmeal boxes, etc. In no time, you can build a transmitter that can be heard in every state. Take that, MacGyver!

You can diagnose/fix/tune/change your rig in no time because you designed and built it. You will acquire oscilloscopes, VMMs, spectrum analyzers and others along the way. You will even build your own test equipment. Experimentation, exploring new ideas were a big part of Ham Radio in the past and much of today’s wireless whiz-bang started with Hams tinkering on the kitchen table after dinner. Your buddy has a new ICOM brand radio? Your home built contraption glued to a piece of scrap ply-wood can pick up just as many stations just as far … and you built it from scrach. This is the original spirit of “Ham Radio.”

Long before Elon popped up, Hams launched 119 OSCAR satellites (first one in 1961), Hams satellites were the first satellites to give real time two way commo. It wasn’t the CIA or AT&T, it was Hams. They were the first to have store-and-forward messages (like you have in your email and Facebook account). They did the first facsimile wirelessly no less. They invented SSTV (Ham radio TV transmission). SSB and so much more came out of guys tinkering in the basements late at night and collaborating with peers/exchanging ideas wirelessly a century ago.

Have you ever thought about bouncing powerful radio waves off the moon to communicate with people on the other side of the Earth? Of course you have. EME (Earth-Moon-Earth) radio is high power (and expensive) stuff right out of a sci-fi movie. All done by amateurs at their home.

The other extreme is QRPp: Transmitting with super low power. How far can we get on a common nine volt battery? Fox Hunting: There is a hidden small transmitter in the woods sending out a “ping” every 30 seconds, the first team that can zero in on its location and find it wins. (Hint: It may not be hidden under leaves by a big tree but way up in the branches.) The nice folks at the NSA love people with these self taught skills.

Speaking of the NSA: In ancient times, when prospective employees applied to the NSA, the first thing the government asked was to see was their amateur radio ticket.

My comments here haven’t even scratched the surface of the amateur radio world. So when you get tired of watching cat videos/arguing with strangers/looking at adult content on the internet. (Oh come on! Just admit it. Everyone watches cat videos.) Check out Amateur Radio.

Just a few thoughts and 73/72. (Ham parlance for best regards.)

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Ira Weinberg lives in Saranac Lake.


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