Now and then I mention ham radio. I’ve been an “amateur radio operator” (the more formal title) for [gasp] a third of a century now; I’m K0RCC. You’d think, with the Internet creating instant, “free,” worldwide communications, that ham radio would be dwindling away, with just a few old-timers (heck: even older than me!) grasping at the straws of “No! Don’t change!”
I’m happy to say nothing’s further from the truth.
Dah-Dit Dah-Dit, Dah-Dah Di-Dah
The days of Morse code are numbered. One of its last uses, marine navigation, is virtually dead now that Ireland’s Valentia Island has retired its Morse beacon in favor of satellite-based systems. Its shutdown matched lights out at stations in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Iceland and Greenland. Radio officer John Farrelly tapped out the Irish station’s last message, GOODBYE, with the last, single dot of the “E” signaling the end of an era. “It is sad to see something go that you have been used to all your life but we have to make progress,” said station director Gene O’Sullivan. (AFP) …He’s not the first man to lament a missed period. Amateur radio isn’t necessarily pounding out Morse Code (the title of this essay is Morse Code for “CQ” — which in international use means “calling any station [who wants to chat]”). In fact, that holds little interest for me.
Nor does it necessarily mean huge antenna arrays blocking your view! I’m interested in very high frequencies and above, and specifically voice use, particularly in local and regional communications. (“Voice”? Yeah: did you know you can send data with ham radio? Even TV signals. It’s definitely not just Morse Code! But hey: you can do that, too, if that’s your interest. There’s something for everyone here.)
Ham radio operators have been at the forefront of most communications innovations for generations. “Ah,” some of you might say, “but what about the innovations done in industry, universities, and government labs?”
Indeed, not all the innovations are coming from amateurs tinkering in their garage or ham shack. But those professionals working in industry, universities, and government labs? A lot of them are, in fact, hams. Virtually all of NASA’s astronauts are hams, too — they “have” to be, if they want to use the ham radio on the space station! Ham radio operators are, if I may say, cool. Some of the smartest, cutting edge, innovators in communications and science.
The proof: the number of U.S. ham radio license holders is at an all-time high, reports Fox News — at over 700,000 — with 40,000 new hams in the last five years alone.
When I first moved to Colorado back in 1996 after leaving NASA, I was driving. As I rolled into Boulder, I picked up my radio to see if there were any friendly voices out there. I met Dave (KE0OG) on the air. I ended up living just a few miles from him, and we’ve been friends since; he’s a fellow techie, and also a writer (but not yet full time: c’mon, Dave!)
I did later move away from Boulder, but then, so did Dave: he still lives just a few miles from me (and we’re still good friends). Dave is not only a “volunteer examiner” (allowed to give tests to certify new hams), he teaches amateur radio to interested newcomers. There is of course a “standard” textbook to learn what you need to know to get licensed, but the book is a bit daunting to newcomers — which is why there are teachers around. Dave has recently gotten into doing videos for his web site, and his web site has a section on ham radio. So he has put the two together: he’s teaching ham radio by online video now — and it’s all free. He guides you through the lessons in “the” book and helps you make sense of it all. It’s here: online ham radio lessons.
So what brought this to mind this week? Dave’s latest video shows how easy it is to make a contact over ham radio, and he recruited me to help. It shows Dave in his “ham shack” waiting for a call from me.
The first chat is “direct” — radio to radio, and the second is through a “repeater,” a radio system that’s usually put in a high spot to extend range: if you can reach the repeater, it rebroadcasts your signal to others on that channel so you can talk to each other, even if you’re not in range of each other.
And repeaters can be tied together so you can talk to people over a very wide area. (I’m sure that’s a lesson in Dave’s series!)
If you’ve ever wanted to get into ham radio, it’s now easier than ever. There’s not only a book (Dave tells you how to get it), but Dave will walk you through it, section by section. You don’t have to learn Morse Code, either, as I had to back in The Olden Days.
End of excuses?
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife is a ham too: her call is K0KIT. See? Even girls can do it! 😛
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