Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Long Live Heath Robinson!

Have you ever written a post that, on rereading it, leaves you thinking it might make you look a bit of a nerd? I just have. So what. I'm going to post it anyway..

It all began with the clock. We were drinking coffee in the village hall (once a month the village holds a coffee morning - more about that here), when I spotted it. Stood beside a bric-a-brac stall was a large, wooden art deco clock. I went over to have a look. It didn't work, but the owner only wanted a fiver for it. I was tempted. If I wanted to get it going, she said, I should talk to Joe, who was into renovating old clocks. I didn't say so, but I thought of having a go myself.

In the end, I didn't buy it. It would end up, I felt sure,on my list of things to do that never get done, and that's long enough as it is. I did meet Joe on the way home though. He'd been heading the other way, but when I told him about the clock he promptly turned round and made straight for the village hall. If it had been an old radio, I said to K, I would have done the same. Come to think of it, I'd been meaning to build myself a decent radio mast in the garden (like you do - well you do if you're into amateur radio). All I needed was some lengths of "two by two". It wouldn't take that long...
Old Radios... Racal RA17 Receiver - first came out in 1954

An hour later I was back from the builder's merchant with the said lengths of wood tied to the car. An hour later I had them both painted with wood preserver. Up until now, my mast has been a fishing pole with a wire tied to the end stood on it's end in an old bit of pipe. This has enabled me to make two-way amateur radio contacts with just about anywhere in Europe and occasionally, places further afield: Chicago, Rio de Janiero, Svalbard spring to mind. I've always wanted to extend my reach and, without getting too technical, that means lifting that wire a bit higher. If I bolted two lengths of two by two, I reasoned, I should be able to raise it up at least five metres - possibly more.

Have prepared the lengths, I started to dig a hole to stand them in. Here I hit the first technical hitch. It's hard enough to dig a deep hole eight inches wide even when you don't hit solid rock two feet down. Oh well, I thought, I'd press on. I'd find other ways of supporting it later.

After a lot of huffing, puffing and struggling I managed to stand up the new mast and stick it in the hole. It looked quite precarious. I realised -surely I knew this already?- that sticking a heavy piece of wood in the air and getting it to stay there was a major engineering problem. Up to three or four metres was not so difficult but after that you -literally- pass a tipping-point. It's all about leverage. I tried screwing some wooden buttresses to it, but it still looked more than a bit dodgy. I went indoors and googled masts. I though it might need a few but it soon became clear that it needed lots of guy lines -six- and pretty heavy duty ones at that. (No wonder I went into music and not engineering).

I've compressed quite a lot of activity into a couple of paragraphs. In fact, at this point I realised it would soon be getting dark. With an anxious eye on the roofs of our two cars which were parked a lot less than five metres from this distinctly wobbly erection, I lashed the thing to a nearby tree (before anyone suggests it, not tall enough to serve as a mast) with all the rope I could find. I'd sleep on it. At least if it fell over in the night it would fall in the least bad direction.

Next morning I got up early, determined to sort out the whole problem before civilised Sunday getting-up time. I looked out of the window and was relieved to see it was still standing. I decided to combine the old and the new: reduce the height of the mast and stick the fishing pole on top. The pole could be removed when not in use, so the whole structure would be safer and less obtrusive.  (Incidentally, fishing poles are often used as masts in amateur radio - long live Heath Robinson!).While I was at it, I renewed a lot of the electrical connections - the wire bits are all held together with electrician's "choc block" connectors. The result was  far more successful. Sticking a lightweight carbon-fibre pole in the air is a lot less serious an undertaking that sticking up a piece of two by two. No guy ropes, and it goes up higher than the wobbly wooden Plan A. Why didn't I think of it in the first place? Fools rush in.

Does it work better than the original? The first two-way contact I made with it was with an amateur station in Berdichev in Ukraine, UT5XR. The second was with one in Amman, in Jordan: Munzer, call sign JY5HX. That evening I could receive Cuba, South America and the US, but they couldn't receive me: that's probably just the way conditions were at the time. My hunch is that, in the long run, the new mast will turn out to work a lot better than the old pipe. However, it's not a patch on that of the the aforementioned JY5HX. He's put out a photo of his aerial in Amman - and it's slightly more upmarket than mine! The thought that someone sat here in the Dales, and Munzer there in Amman can communicate like this via shortwave radio just for the fun of it is one of the things that, to my mind, makes amateur radio worth doing.

Aerial at JY5HX, Amman, Jordan

11 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

That's pure brilliance! Loved reading it. It's such a wonderful story - and true - too too much! And the whole wobbly pole, carbon rod - home-madeness of it all - well done, Dominic!

Jessica Maybury said...

wow! So you can randomly talk to people all over the world? It's like the internet with your *ears*! What have the people in Svalbard said? It's a place I've always wanted to go.

Gwilym Williams said...

Congratulations Dominic!
As a reward you may now go to YouTube and carefully type in the search box the following words: Gsellmann's Weltmaschine

Titus said...

Nerd.


Brilliant post though.

The Weaver of Grass said...

That aerial in Amman is quite something Dom - still I rather like your Heath Robinson affair - just wonder what it has done to your patch of rhubard which if I remember correctly, stood exactly where your mast is!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Sorry! I do know that rhubarb ends with a b - just a slip of the finger.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

RF: Pleased you enjoyed it.

JM: Yes. What did the people in Svalbard say? I feel a post coming on...

GW: Thanks - an incredible machine, by the look of it. Shades of Tinguely.

Titus: You weren't supposed to agree with me :)

WG: Enlarging the pic will show the rhubarb patch to be still thriving - a few feet to the left.

Alan Burnett said...

Fascinating stuff. I have always thought that amateur radio was the first cousin of blogging.

Argent said...

I really enjoyed this little peek into the word of amateur radio. My hubs used to talk about getting into it but never did. Long live the disciples of Heath Robinson!

Totalfeckineejit said...

You, Dominic, are a 'Character'!

tony said...

I Always Wanted To Get Into Amateur Radio & Never Did.Well Done For Making The Dream Real. The Way The Internet Is Increasingly Becoming Policed & Censored , This Is Probably All Our Futures For Communication.