By Keith Ford
This past Saturday I attended the Collinsville Ham Fest: no it was not a pork jubilee. What a Ham Fest is: partly a show, a swap meet, and socializing for Amateur Radio enthusiasts.
I know there are a lot of preconceived ideas about hams (short for amateurs), some think they are geeks; that ham radio is a dying group – why would anyone need a two way radio with computers and cell phones? As far as being geeks, radio was probably the first geekdom, going back to the 1920’s. Radio was really the first mass media and the world fell in love with the technology. For a few decades, the purchase of a radio was quite prohibited. The average wage back in the day was 5 bucks a week, and a commercially built receiver could cost hundreds of dollars, so folks improvised and built their “rigs.” Later others experimented with building two way set ups. If you could get the active device, which in that time was a tube, you could shortly be listening to news broadcast or music, soon after talk radio was conceived. This was the norm till after WW2, when the surplus market was flooded with military gear and parts.
As far as it being an old mans hobby, even today that is rather misleading. While I was in the convention center, I closely watched the people milling through the sales area. While there were a substantial number of old men, there were also quite a few women, and an astonishing amount of young people.
There are many facets to the hobby. I’ve found that the younger members of the hobby enjoy using their laptops and even pi setups for digital communications. All of which is quite inexpensive, portable, and can be powered from an array of alternative power sources. Examples would be PSK 31, JT 9 and JT65. Some people collect old test gear, others like restore decades old equipment; myself I like to take those odd and end pieces and build working pieces to use on the air.
Many niche groups would find that having a two way radio or transceiver, or just a shortwave receiver beneficial. Those who are preppers, survivalists, or off-gridders could have an alternate means of communicating. Many people enjoy the DIY of building gear. Nothing is more exhilarating than making a contact to the other side of the world with something you’ve made with your own hands. At a larger event like this you will find something to interest you. A lot of other things are found on and under the tables in the “flea market” area, computers, models, and jewelry to name a few, not to mention raffles and door prizes!
But back to the point, a lot of people call me a prepper, well maybe in a sense I am. Although the last small receiver I built allowed me to listen to news broadcast and music from Europe, the cost to build? Pennies, and that was solder, some electricity, and a bit of time. Using home made, or the correct vernacular is homebrew gear, I can communicate with friends and family around the area. I have no long distance charges, don’t have to worry about going over data allowances, or anything other inconveniences from the phone companies.
The most common venue of low power commas is CW / also called Morse code. Morse has been around since the 1840’s and the time of the telegraphs. It is a protocol that is steeped in history. For example the distress calls of the Titanic were sent via Morse code.
You may wonder how to participate in this hobby? In the old days there were active clubs and groups in almost every community. Those are still around for the most part, however there are a staggering number of groups online. Often hams are willing to share knowledge, time, even parts and supplies.
The most common excuse I hear from people is “I don’t have time for that,” well I would suggest you pull your self away from the false idols of television reality shows and rip yourself from internet social media. Seriously, that crap will rot your mind. Most would be amazed how much time could be recovered.
Useful skills are learned from dabbling in the radio hobby; your math skills will improve, also electrical and mechanical knowledge will grow as you progress. Problem solving skills will be born and sharpened.
A couple of hours into the meet, I asked the lady at the door how many people had come in so far. Her reply was about a thousand! There were still a few hours to go. A few minutes later I found my favorite part of all hamfests, that is the free table, old gear, magazines, books, and drafting supplies; you’re liable to find anything there. I claimed a couple of old pieces of gear to rebuild into a receiver, and probably I’ll have enough left over to build a small transmitter.
This is the facet of the radio Bobbie I enjoy, building from scrapped out gear. I picked up an old vacuum tube CB and a Heath color bar generator from the free table. I will be content and happy for the next few weeks till the next hamfest occurs.
If anyone is interested in joining the local radio group, it is the Ozark Mountain Radio club, most every Saturday club members meet at The Pizza Express in Houston at lunch time. There are two or three members that build and repair gear. Visitors are always welcome!