Today I was cruising around the internet and ended up looking at the archives of the Radio Amateur Callbook. Amateur radio operators (ham operators) each have a unique radio call sign and this publication is a directory, sorted by call sign, that gives the ham operator’s name and address that is on file with the agency that issues these licenses. In the USA, the agency is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The older books are not useful except for historical purposes and in my case reminiscing.
My nearest neighbor that was my age was a couple of miles (several km) away, so I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with. Instead I became interested in radio and this developed into an interest in ham radio….talking to people on the radio was much more exciting than merely listening to others talk on the radio!
I received my first ham radio license, the Novice class, in the fall of 1972. For this license I had to demonstrate to a local ham operator that I could send and receive Morse code at 5 words per minute and pass a fairly simple written test.
I looked up my old callsign in the winter 1972-1973 Callbook and, sure enough, there was “my” listing.
My callsign changed in the spring of 1974 when I passed the tests to upgrade the privileges conferred by my license. I had to appear at an office of the FCC, transcribe Morse code sent at 13 words per minute to paper, legibly send Morse code at no less than 13 words per minute and take two written tests. One written test was for the General class license and the second written test, much harder than the first, was for the Advanced class license.
Sure enough, the listing in the fall 1974 Callbook showed my new call sign, license class and the same address.
In 1972, I was 11 years old and starting 6th grade. Ham radio was much more exciting than 6th grade, but…school came first. 🙂
In 1974 I was 13 years old and I likely was one of the youngest Advanced Class operators in the country, but…school came first…still.
Ham radio is what started me on the path to my career in radio engineering.
Eleven year olds don’t have a lot of money and I quickly learned that a good antenna makes up for a not quite so good transmitter. I also figured out that some very good antennas could be *very* inexpensive to make. I had the use of 2-1/2 acres (1 hectare), along with the four similarly sized vacant lots surrounding my home, so I had plenty of room to experiment.
We lived near a military base and there were a lot of drunk driving crashes that damaged utility poles and associated electric wires. The nearby crashes would cause a power blackout and that would alert me to go outside to listen for the police car sirens so I could figure out where the crash occurred. I would wait an hour and then ride my bicycle to the crash scene. By then, the electric utility crews were there and I would ask them if I could have the damaged wire. They could not reuse the damaged wire and my taking the wire saved them some cleanup work, so my request was always granted. I would coil the wire up into a large circle and carry it home. I even built a bracket on my bicycle to hold the coiled wire upright and slightly off the ground so I could get the wire home in just one trip. This was much faster than walking home with the wire, walking back to crash scene and then riding my bike home.
For me, I suppose it was fortunate that the military paydays were on Friday nights, so I could stay up later than on a school night. I’m also fortunate that my parents let their young son ride a bicycle a half hour to a late night accident scene.
Poles to support the wire were more difficult to source. At one point, the TV antennas in town that were needed to receive even a faint signal were atop 40 and 50 foot collapsible masts. When the TV stations installed a nearby relay station, these huge antennas and the poles were no longer needed. I would take the antennas down for free if I could have the poles, guy wires and guy wire anchors. Once down, I would drag the stuff home, often more than a mile (1.5k). It took several trips and the stuff was both heavy and awkward to move.
Between getting the wire and getting the antenna poles, I got a lot of exercise.
I still don’t know how I managed to avoid severely pinching a finger. Each mast section slid into next lower one and the sliding joints offered an excellent pinch point for fingers. The process was simple; place a tall ladder next to the mast, climb up 10 feet, remove a pin, loosen a clamp using a wrench held in one hand while holding the mast in place with the other hand, put the wrench back into my pocket, lower the mast, avoid losing a chunk of skin from a finger and, depending on the length of the mast, repeat 3 or 4 times.
Again I was fortunate, both at not ever crunching a finger and my parents not (visibly) worrying about me getting hurt. Since my dad was in the military, our medical care was free, so if I had pinched a finger and lost a chunk of skin, instead of “oooohhhh you pooor babeeeee”, it would likely have been, “I’ll bet you’ll be more careful next time.” 🙂
When I decided to build an antenna, I would look up an antenna design in a book, make the calculations to adjust the antenna so it would work at the desired radio band, figure out if I had what I needed to actually make it, place the antenna poles where I needed them and finally put everything together. Some antennas were flops and some worked amazingly well. As I gained more experience the “flops” were fewer in number and the amazing antennas were truly amazing.
I was a 6th through 12th grader doing basic civil, mechanical and electrical engineering work! Had the poles failed and fallen over due to a wind storm, it was unlikely anyone would be hurt, so it wasn’t what I suppose could be called “real engineering”, but it was a start.
For what it’s worth, the poles and antennas I put up remained standing even through the most violent of storms. The local AM radio station tower fell during one windstorm, so I guess my engineering was “better than the AM radio station”. 🙂
I still have my ham radio license and my original ham radio equipment, complete to the telegraph keys. Sometimes put it on the air. I no longer have the room for the big antennas and the equipment seems primitive now, but back in time more than 45 years, it was AMAZING.
I remember. And I smile.