50 Years a Ham

On September 8, 1972 the US Federal Communications Commission issued me a novice class amateur radio license. I was 11 years old.

The novice class license was the beginner level license and had very limited privileges….and the tests reflected the beginner status. Passing the novice class test required I successfully transmit and receive Morse code at 5 words per minute, plus pass a 20 question written exam covering regulations, basic safety precautions and beginner level technical issues.

Fifty years later, the requirements seem very simple. To an 11 year old that had limited electronics knowledge, the process was quite daunting.

The ham radio hobby launched me into my career as an electrical engineer specializing in radio systems design.

6BTV Complete (more or less)

I hooked up the cable to the 6BTV antenna. There is no man made noise!!!!! This is wonderful!!!!

When I started with ham radio, I lived in the country and there was no man made noise. When I moved to the city to attend university, the man made noise was low enough to be okay. Over time, as the number of noise generators (computers, televisions, the black power packs plugged into the wall outlet, etc.) increased, the noise level went up to the point where using the radio at home was impossible.

I still have to complete more work for safety, convenience and efficiency. Currently the cable runs on the ground across the driveway which exposes the cable to damage if a car is driven across it. I also need to add some lightening protection to the cable. Additionally I need to do some optimization work on the antenna.

Most of this work will be done when the garage/workshop/music room/ham radio room is complete and I set things up its permanent location. I don’t want to spend a lot of effort setting up the station in the house when I’m going to move it in the near future. The optimization work does not depend on where the radio is located, so I will do that as I have time.

R-388 Visual Inspection

I don’t have any of my radio repair equipment at the house, so I couldn’t do much with the radio besides download a “pdf” copy of the maintenance manual, read what others have said online about the radio, and complete a visual inspection of the radio.

The manual is a typical military manual with *EVERYTHING* that could ever be needed included in the text and illustrations.

Nearly all of the people posting online about the radio agreed in saying this radio was very reliable, very well built and had few “gotcha” issues.

So, it was time for the visual inspection.

The covers on the radio were all there, as were *all* (probably 25, but I didn’t count them) of the 4-40 screws with the internal tooth lock washers that secure the covers in place. According to the online posts, the covers are often missing.

The fungus resistant coating on the wiring bundles and components appears to be undisturbed nor did I notice any “period incorrect” components. This leads me to believe that the radio’s wiring is undisturbed. Undocumented modifications can make it very difficult to fix a failed radio, so no disturbances to the wiring and components is good.

On the screw adjustments is a red insulating varnish that looks like red fingernail polish. This is “Glyptal 1202” and is made by Glyptal (Corporation). In this radio, the “stuff” is used to prevent vibration from affecting the adjustment points. If something is deliberately changed with a screwdriver, the varnish flakes away. None of the adjustments appear to be disturbed. This is good. I suppose it is possible that someone reapplied the product, but in my experience, most people don’t bother to “repaint” screw adjustments that they have moved.

The only possible problem that I could see is the rectifier tube, is missing. 99% of the radio operates on DC power and the rectifier tube is what converts the AC power to DC power. Without it, there is no DC power anywhere within the radio. Sometimes people will wire solid state diodes under chassis to replace the tube and then remove the tube. This was not the case here, so the tube could have been removed for use in another project, or it could have been removed after an electrical fault damaged the tube and the prior owner never bothered to fix the problem. When I get my shop set up again, I’ll be able to check for anything that could have damaged the tube and, if needed, fix whatever might have failed.

If I get impatient, I’ll go over and use my friend’s (Test Daughter‘s father) shop.

Since I have very weak self-control, I’ll very likely end up in my friend’s house.

Portable Digipeater

digipeaterThis is a portable digipeater.

Before I answer the “what’s that?” question, a bit of background.

Ham radio operators provide communications for charities running benefit events such as marathons, bicycle races and also for more serious things like search and rescue operations or the Red Cross and Salvation Army that are serving people in a disaster area.

Yes, ham operators can step in and provide communications to the police, fire and emergency medical departments and this has happened…like in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria..but (very) fortunately this level of destruction to an area is rare.

Back to the public service events.  Many of the events I help with are in *VERY* remote areas where there is no permanently installed communications equipment for even the police, fire and emergency medical systems.  This kind of situation is where the ham operators can “shine” and get practice for dealing with the things that can happen during the more serious uses of ham radio if the permanently installed communications equipment is damaged by the disaster.

  • No equipment?  No Problem.  It will be brought in.
  • No power?  No problem.  That, too, will be brought in.
  • Is terrain making it difficult to provide coverage to the target area?  No problem.  Equipment will be added, placed and configured to address the situation.
  • Need to talk across the country?  No problem.  That can be done too.

Finally the answer to the “What’s that?” question.  It’s a digipeater for APRS (Amateur Packet Reporting System).   It takes APRS transmissions from nearby ham operators and relays them so the APRS transmissions can be heard over a larger area or in a steep ravine or behind a hill…or…well, you get the idea.

Now the question is, “APRS.  What’s that?”.  You’ll see in a moment.

APRS does not require an internet connection to work, but if one is available on site, or an APRS station with an internet connection is within range of this device, the APRS messages are sent to the internet so that someone far away can see what’s happening in the area around this digipeater.  Because digipeaters can work together, “within range” is sort of “up in the air”.  During one use of this digipeater, two other digipeaters were working in concert and the station “within range” was a bit more than 100 miles/150Km distant.

See http://aprsdirect.com for what is happening in your area and a much better explanation of APRS.

This unit was quickly put together (it shows) as a proof of concept.  From start to finish, I spent about an hour on it.

It weighs about 10 pounds / 4.5 kilos, is small enough that one person can carry it with no difficulty and it can be powered from just about any source of power available–commercial power, generator power, car, car battery, military vehicle electrical system or if I drag out some other stuff, even a train locomotive.  🙂

Once I get it on site, I need another 2-3 minutes to apply power and make it fully functional.  Two or three minutes is not a hope or projection.  I actually have used this several times and 3 minutes was the longest amount of time I needed to get it going.

You may be wondering what happens in the rain.  I put an upside down steel trash can over the unit and put the car battery on top of the upside down trash can to hold it in place.  The antenna for this was mounted to a very strong magnet and stuck perfectly to the steel trash can.

Ham Radio, 1962

NCX-3aIn my first post, I said I liked to restore old radios.  Well, here is a post about this part of my hobbies.

A friend gave me a non-working 1962 vintage National Radio Company NCX-3 radio transmitter-receiver (transceiver), along with the power supply unit for use at home and the power supply unit for use in a vehicle.

This radio was in good enough physical condition that I temporarily switched my attention to this unit.

It took a couple of days to make this one work.  Even though the radio is 55 years old, only eight components needed to be replaced and then I did what an auto mechanic would consider to be a “tune up”.  It now works as the manufacturer says it should work.   This means it is capable of world wide communications without any help from an internet provider or telephone company.

By today’s standards, for what the radio does, it is huge, heavy and consumes lots of power.   In other words, using this radio is like driving a 1962 car.

Now, back to the old Gonset “cold war” radio.



Energy and Projects

I had quite a bit of energy soon after I retired, then that energy disappeared and, finally, it’s now coming back.  I’m wondering if it was just some sort of inertia that kept me going at first.

Over the years I’ve been collecting project stuff for the day when I retired and now I realized I have  enough stuff that it is difficult to find the space to actually work on the projects.   So, I’m starting on projects that don’t take a lot of space to complete, but will free up additional space when the project is complete.

A long time ago, before my employer moved my office across town and my commute went from 40 minutes to 3 hours, I had been working on a Gonset Communicator III.  It is a 1950s era portable ham radio transmitter-receiver that was intended for short range emergency and event coordination communications.  This article in  Wikipedia  gives some technical history on the radio and includes some pictures.

Now that I’m retired, that will be the first thing I finish.  Right now, it is in multiple pieces; the cabinet, the power unit, the transmitter and the receiver.  When it’s finished, it will free up enough room to allow me to work on other projects.

If one is interested, the process is the usual– clean the unit, check the vacuum tubes;, check for failed or out of tolerance components,  ensure the internal adjustments are set correctly and reassemble.

Since this is a hobby, this will likely take some time to complete as just about everything else has a higher priority.