Monday, 9 March 2009

Fun with Short Wave Radio






I received a surprise through the post the other day: an envelope full of QSL cards. Perhaps I should begin by explaining what these are. QSL cards are customised postcards exchanged by amateur radio stations to acknowledge the contacts they have made. Perhaps I should briefly explain what radio amateurs do. Radio amateurs train themselves to operate (and sometimes build) their own transmitting and receiving stations. These, most famously, operate on the shortwave band. Each has a call-sign which identifies it and the country it operates in.
Anyway, back to the QSL cards. If you ask me, they are one of the great things about amateur radio and I've amassed getting on for a shoe-box full of the things since getting my licence. Some are straightforward, others humorous or artistic. Here a few I have received over the years. The countries they come from can be identified by the callsign. As a guide, those beginning with a D are German, U from the Ukraine, OK Czecheslovakia and PT Brazil. /m denotes a mobile station:





I'm a great believer in hobbies. You don't have to be ambitious or work your fingers to the bone to enjoy a hobby. In fact, if you have the kind of job you're glad to get home from (I don't – I enjoy my job, even if it does wear me out!) a hobby can give life the kind of meaning we dream of it having as children. Put another way, you may not be able to be an engine driver, but a model railway layout is yours to design and run as you please.

I suspect my father instilled this in me. Some of my earliest memories are of him building and maintaining a greenhouse to grow tomatoes. I can still smell that thick, green smell a humid tomato plants when I think of it. He built canoes and sailing boats. He got into early music and learnt to play the recorder. He built drums and gemshorns (recorder-like instruments fashioned from cow horns). He encouraged me, too: I spent quite a few hours sat in canoes and sailing boats or dangling from the end of a rope in a local quarry (this wasn't a punishment – I wanted to rock-climb). He also built my first radio mast.

When I was a child, my great passion was radio. If I could get hold of an old one I was there, transfixed by the glowing dial with its mysterious-sounding foreign station names: Zeesen, Rome, Daventry (I later realised this was English), Hilversum and so on. Without realising it, I was already interested in “DX”: the art of receiving (or even communicating with) distant stations. I spent many happy hours winding wire around toilet roll holders (anyone who has built a crystal set will know what I mean) and many more trying to get slightly more complicated radios to work. When the glowing dials of the old radios went dark, which they did from time to time, I'd be in the back, tearing out their guts for the variable capacitors and coils I needed for my next crystal set. Radio parts had a surreal aura about them in those days: the variable capacitors with their interlocking vanes and the valves, with their glass bulbs full of odd complexities. There is a magic to radio, which we often take for granted: these are machines that work without moving, and enable you to hear voices that are speaking thousands of miles away, not to mention the weird atmospherics and other mysterious sounds that can be found between the stations. I think people will notice this even less in the future, as we are entering an era in which most communication is carried out via cables and 'wire-less' is merely a convenient way of connecting machines that are a few feet apart.

My great ambition when I was ten was to be a 'radio ham'. I never got it together then. The exam looked difficult, and to get onto shortwave (the natural home of “DX”) you needed to pass a 15 words per minute Morse code test. I did spend hours pouring over a book, Fun with Shortwave Radio by Gilbert Davey (I still do, from time to time. The cover, reproduced above, shows the amateur station GB2SM, which used to exist at the Science Museum). It was full of radio designs that I suspect were more poured over than built by most readers. While I was contemplating the possibilities, life took over: I slowly realised I would never get anywhere with anything technical or scientific as I was no good at maths, and that my main passion was music.

Thirty years later I got it into my head to build a crystal set. There were a number of reasons. I had children of my own and I think everyone should build or at least experiment with one. Also, I had this sense of unfinished business. I found I had been reinfected with the radio-building bug, only now I had the resources and the application that I had lacked thirty years before. I took the amateur radio exam in 2002, along with the morse test – mercifully, the speed requirement had been reduced to 5 words per minute! I finally had a call sign: M0KXD. I joined an amateur radio club and through my contacts there I bought a transceiver – an ancient valve 'rig' that had been built in the days when I was first considering taking the exam.

I said at the outset how I was surprised to receive the cards. The reason is that as I write, the hobby is on hold. The ancient transceiver has broken down, I suspect, for the last time. I have had to repair it more than once – but this time I am stumped. I had great fun with it. It never managed to put out more than 10 watts (imagine a 40 watt lightbulb...) but it enabled me to contact the USA, Brazil, Russia, Israel and Iceland. Such is the magic of short waves. Sadly, it never made it to Australia or Japan. I am building myself a morse transceiver in my spare moments. It is taking me a while. Partly this is because I am short of time to do all the things I want and need to do but also I sense myself procrastinating, spinning it out, as I enjoy building radios at least as much as I do operating them.


23 comments:

Totalfeckineejit said...

Hey Dominic ,what a great hobby and your Da sounds like he was fun.I love postcards so i think its magic that you hams send them to eac other(Didn't realise you had to qualify-wow!)I think the one of the fella sleeping on the motorcycle is brilliant.Keep going with the morse reciever and why not have another go at the old radio I'm sure there's some magic left in it yet.

Dominic Rivron said...

I will. It was really annoying. I'd just bought another old radio and got it going. I'd not had it on 5 minutes when it broke down. Oh well, thinks I, it's not the end of the world... I'll turn on the other one on and... it broke down too! (It reminded me of people I've known who had two old cars in the drive, one "for spares", only to find they'd two wrecks sat there instead).

Qualifying isn't that hard. In the UK there's now a "foundation course" which leads to a Foundation (ie, novice) Licence. It gets you onto shortwave and I suspect a lot of people stop there. The hard bit, I think, is finding a course and getting organised. (There's always CB radio, too, which used to be popular. It's completely seperate from amateur radio really, but it doesn't require the operator to pass any exams).

Frances said...

I sit alone and watch your light/My only friend, through teenage nights ...
as Queen sang. I'm never quite sure what the lyrics of that song meant but I'm astonished to find there are exams in amateur radio-ing. A fascinating post Dominic.

(Word verification is 'etherize'. Let us go then, you and I...

Dominic Rivron said...

Pleased you found it fascinating. (There is great scope to google amateur radio topics, by the way. It's the kind of thing that lends itself to the internet and there's loads of stuff out there). I must admit I had to google the lyrics - Radio Gaga!

Etherize, eh? Interesting, as it used to be thought that radio waves travelled through "ether".

BarbaraS said...

You see, this is why I come here - you never know what you're going to write about next! I had a cousin and uncle who were into it, but they were a bit, 'this is for boys' about it, in much the same way as my dad was about stereo music equipment. Didn't stop me learning from the side-lines though.

I have a feeling there's a poem in this, Dominic!

Sorlil said...

Definitely a boy's thing, lol (my brother was forever taking apart radios, unfortunately he never managed to put one back together!). Seriously, it's a good skill to have, you never know when you might need it!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

On the question of gender, a quote from Fun with Short Wave Radio (the book mentioned in the post) comes to mind. It was first published in 1960:
"If you propose to learn [Morse code] I suggest you should purchase for 2s the RSGB booklet The Morse Code for Radio Amateurs. It is written by Margaret Mills G3ACC (yes, a lady amateur!)".
Yes, well. That was 1960.

It is a bit of a boys thing, but there are more women involved than one might think. The only statistic I can find is that 15% of US amateurs are women. (There are 722,330 amateurs in the US. By my calculations, that means there are 108,350 women).

patteran said...

Well, this comes as something of a surprise - although I have some notion that we might have established this common ground already. I'm licensed too. My callsign's G0 EUV. Not active at the moment, sadly - I have no site here for a decent antenna and I'm used to favourable working conditions. At the school at which I used to teach I ran the radio club. Much DX from an old Yaesu 707 and a tribander yagi on an extendable mast. We're looking to move at present. Not much available, but each prospective property is carefully checked for antenna clearance and good takeoff!

patteran said...

And I have a poem about DX-ing to Australia. How's that for an unlikely theme? I might chase up your post with a re-post of that poem.

patteran said...

Sorry - back again. I re-posted it last summer. Here's the link:
http://patteran.typepad.com/patteran_pages/2008/07/page/2/

Poet in Residence said...

Enjoyed this. I was back in the days of dad's old valve wireless warming up on the wall above the kitchen door away from childish fingers...when I was mystified (and still am) as to why it was called "the wireless" when it had wires enough. The word "radio" came into common parlance much later.

The Weaver of Grass said...

This post has given me such pleasure to read - as your Mum I was only too aware of the hours you and your Dad spent up a cliff, down a hole, in the shed or on the water!!
I do agree that hobbies are the most important features of one's life. How do people approaching old age (me for one) manage if they haven't got lots of hobbies to mess around with.
You never seem short of things to do Dominic - and I admire you for it. Life is too short to be bored.

Poet in Residence said...

Weaver's comment reminds me of a grim faced slow moving retiree I bumped into in a supermarket in Accrington. I could sense a problem, so I smiled and asked him how he was enjoying his new found well earned freedom: "I wish I were back at work. I dunno what to do wi' me self all day."
So there's a man who never had any hobbies, I thought as I quickly left the shop.
About the same time I met another man in a pub. He was a fisherman. He had his rods and wellies with him. Made his own flies. "I used to be a runner but I got too old so I took up cyling. When I got too old for cyling I took up hill walking. When I got to old for hill walking I took up fishing."
And when you get too old for fishing? I ventured. "Then I'll think of summat else," he said. And that's the difference. It's all in the mind.

Dominic Rivron said...

patteran: Thanks for the link. Visited your poems. As I said there, there is a poetic side to amateur radio which gets less coverage than it warrants. These poems capture it.
I've never had a really good antenna (just dipoles strung from the gutter to a tree) but I can imagine how one would get very used to having one. I have often considered (but never got round to)helium balloons.
PiR and WG: I wouldn't say hobbies are the most important thing in life, but there does need to be more to life than work. Early radio transmitters transmitted Morse code and I think "wireless" was originally short for "wireless telegraphy" as opposed to the cowboy-film kind.

Get Off My Lawn! said...

I thought music was math. Just not the same symbols. Maybe you are good at math.
Regardless, short wave radio seems like a lot of fun. My hobbies always included sports where I got the crap kicked out of me. Maybe I should have stuck with reading.

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting you should say this. If I'm any good at maths, I've yet to discover it! However, when, as a teacher, I started to study learning styles, radio taught me quite a lot about myself. I had not previously realised what a kinesthetic learner I am. I know everybody learns by "doing things", but I realised I was learning things from building radios that really I struggled to learn in book form. I then realised how this applied "across the board". If you enjoy reading, it's easy to assume that it's your learning method of choice.

patteran said...

Many thanks for the helium balloon links, Dominic. An exciting idea and it would certainly get an antenna clear of the trees. But I'd have to use an end-fed wire or some sort of wire dipole and, even at the kinds of heights they might reach, performance wouldn't be brilliant. Years of beams, mini and full-size, and the DX that they net have spoiled me, I'm afraid!

Dick.

Poet in Residence said...

Dominic, I went for a run today and saw a man climbing a tree. Just had to tell you! It's not something you see every day. Oh, his female companion was gazing up, I'd say ... nervously impressed.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this, PiR. My partner and I went for a walk the other day. I ran up ahead and climbed a tree by the road, concealing myself in the branches, with the intention of jumping out rather foolishly when she walked past. She met a woman and child leading a horse up the lane. They stood talking at the foot of the tree, the woman glancing up now and again obviously thinking who's the idiot up the tree? Why is he there?

Ken Armstrong said...

What a great post. Radio has always been my passion too. As a teen, we DX'ed in a pirate fashion with sidebands on CB Radios and huge Homemade DV27 aerials. The word would go out that 'The Skip was high' in the same way that 'Surf's Up' might be celebrated in other, more energetic circles. :)

Get another old transceiver - why not? You know you want to.

Dominic Rivron said...

One can get well and truly hooked on radio. If you want a bit nostalgia, you might enjoy The Online CB Museum: a defunct but once much-posted blog. I found it searching for the antenna you mentioned.

Might get another old transciever - but I might bite the bullet and get a newer one instead. Not sure yet. I do like the old ones - I'm a sucker for glowing valves/vacuum tubes. I've almost finished building the one I'm building, so that might be on air soon - albeit on one band.

swiss said...

i knew there was some sort od radio connection! it was my dad who was the radio ham but i used to love going in to listen, not just to the wonderful voices we'd come across but for me the sound as we scanned what i still think of as 'the ether'. i'll have a dig about to see if he's still got nay qsl cards. they weren't the most imaginative but they're still soaked in memory!

Dominic Rivron said...

It does have a real magic. The effect sounds on a short wave radio have is not unlike that of gazing into a coal fire - it can be mesmerising and other-worldly.

It would be great to see some more old QSL cards!