Webcast For The League

When the ARRL, the national ham radio organization located here in Connecticut, asked if I’d host a live video tour of their headquarters station I couldn’t say no.

I’ve been a ham operator since I was 16. Though not active at the moment it’s been a large part of my life. There’s something very spiritual about being in a darkened room, wearing headphones and pounding out Morse Code.

When the ARRL, the national ham radio organization located here in Connecticut, asked if I’d host a live video tour of their headquarters station I couldn’t say no.

We did the webcast this afternoon at 5:00 PM. Later it will appear on the League’s website.

For little nerdy me it was way cool. I even made a quick contact on Morse.

A Visit To Headquarters (Where The Nerdy Kids Play)

As it turns out the headquarters for ham radio’s largest organization, the American Radio Relay League, is here in Connecticut. Visiting the league is like visiting a shrine… well it is to me.

I became a ham radio operator while I was a teenager. As a high school junior I took a morning off from school and went to the FCC to take my Advanced Class license test. It was one of my most stress-filled days of my life! I was shaking so much I had trouble passing the Morse Code test.

As it turns out the headquarters for ham radio’s largest organization, the American Radio Relay League, is here in Connecticut. Visiting the league is like visiting a shrine… well it is to me. I was there earlier today.

The ARRL has asked me to host a video they’re producing. My pleasure.

Meanwhile while I was there I sat down in the league’s station, W1AW, and with their amazing array of equipment and spoke to Tony in Gent, Belgium… in Morse.

I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a certain sense of accomplishment to ‘work’ another station using paddles and a keyer.

I’m out of practice, but it was fun. Click below for a little video of my keyer technique.

[jwplayer mediaid=”9924″]

Letting My Geek Out At Harold’s

The operator was ending a conversation with another station. As soon as I heard the .— .- (JA) I knew he was in Japan.

I had dinner with my friend Harold tonight. We went for Italian food in Cheshire. Mmmmm, pizza!

Thank you if you were one of the folks who came by to say hello and wish me well. You were not disturbing me. I appreciate your concern and support more than you’ll ever know. As a bonus Harold now thinks I’m more important than I really am!

Harold and I are old ham radio buddies. He is the chief operating officer of the ARRL, the nation’s major ham radio organization. Both of us were licensed ham operators while we were teenagers.

On the way back from dinner I stopped at his house where we turned on his ‘rig.’ This is not your uncle’s ham radio!

Harold’s Icom transceiver is connected to his computer which in turn is connected to real time ham radio info on the Intenet. The radio’s front panel is loaded with dials and buttons. Its readouts are all digital. It’s all very sophisticated though I was interested in playing with ham radio at its simplest.

“Can I operate a little CW,” I asked?

CW means continuous wave. It’s just another way of saying Morse Code.

When I was active on the ham bands that’s what I enjoyed the most: Morse. In the pre-Internet days I’d sit wearing headphones in a darkened room through the night. The radio in use was one I built on my own. Three watts, less power than the bulb in your refrigerator, was enough to take my signal around the world. I spoke to well over 100 countries with that little rig running on D-cells.

Harold flipped a few switches and relays chattered as his antenna tuner looked for the optimum settings to transfer maximum power from his radio to a wire antenna above the house. I spun the dial and listened on the 18 mHz band. There wasn’t much action. We’re near the bottom of the sunspot cycle which doesn’t favor long distance communications.

I honed in on a weak signal transmitting dits and dahs around 17 or 18 words per minute. The operator was ending a conversation with another station. As soon as I heard the .- – – .- (JA) I knew he was in Japan.

Very little Morse is sent with the up-and-down “brass pounder” key you’ve seen in the movies. More sophisticated electronic keyers are used.

I put my left thumb and forefinger on the back-to-back horizontal paddles of a handcrafted Begali Pearl key on Harold’s desk and squeezed rhythmically sending my callsign twice.

I used to be good at this. Not now. My code’s sloppy. I sent K1GF twice then the letter “K.” He answered.

On the other end was Tom. We traded locations and signal reports, not much more. I’m not even sure Tom speaks English. Looking online later I saw Tom was short for a traditional sounding Japanese name.

Our conversation took just a minute to two. It didn’t make a difference. There is something very satisfying and elegant in operating via Morse Code. There’s a sense of accomplishment that’s tough to explain.

Morse is totally archaic! There are no longer any commercial applications which use it. CW has been relegated to hobbyists who keep it alive only because time and ease rate second to tradition and elegance.

My Presentation

I took my hurricane presentation up to the American Radio Relay League this afternoon. The ARRL is the ‘mothership’ for ham radio in America. It’s located into Newington, under an hour north of the house.

I don’t want to do it too often, but I enjoy the opportunity to present before a live audience. The response is totally different than what you get on TV (obviously).

I have certain expectations. There are times when I hope for laughs, other times when I’m looking for attentive silence. Much of what I do is similar each time. The reaction isn’t always the same.

I used to find that puzzling. What I’ve come to realize is, audiences are different. That’s especially true with school audiences. There is an institutional personality that can guide everyone in the room to conform. That’s bad much more often than it’s good.

Today’s audience was very attentive and kind in their response. A friend in the audience commented later that my presentation didn’t have a tidy conclusion and payoff.

Unfortunately, he’s right. My subject is hurricanes and New England. There’s no neat payoff because a major hurricane up here (ala 1938) would be catastrophic. We’re not prepared in any sense of the word.

My story asks lots of questions but offers few answers.

Ham Radio Article

My friend Harold asked if I’d like to write an article for QST, the ham radio magazine published by the American Radio Relay League. Being foolish, I said “yes.”

It’s a non-technical overview of antennas for Field Day, a yearly ham radio emergency preparedness exercise.

Truth is, if you’re not a ham, it will be deadly boring. If you are, it might still be boring, but it’s attached at the jump (below).

Continue reading “Ham Radio Article”

Writing For Print

My friend Harold is Chief Operating Officer of the American Radio Relay League – the national organization of ham radio operators. Recently, he asked if I’d write an article for QST, the League’s monthly magazine.

The article is a non-technical look at antennas for Field Day. From Wikipedia:

Field Day is an annual amateur radio exercise sponsored by the American Radio Relay League which encourages emergency communications preparedness.

I like to write. This will give me a chance to write against deadline. I have a week.

This afternoon, I sent a note to some possible interviewees. By tonight the ball should be rolling.

I’ve blogged about this because I know some of you reading this are hams and might have Field Day experience. If you’d like to participate, please drop me a note.

In the meantime, isn’t that writer’s block I see making a left onto my street?

Born To Be A Ham

I was surprised, and pleased, to see Stan Horzepa mentioned my blog in his weekly “Surfin'” feature on the American Radio Relay League’s website.

I’ve been a ham for nearly 40 years. Outside of family, it’s the longest running constant in my life.

My “Elmer,” as hams call their mentor or teacher, was Bob Semensohn. I have no idea where he is today. I remember little about him, other than he played piano and was helpful in my passing the exam.

Things have changed now, but you needed Morse Code proficiency to get a ham license back in the late 60’s. I started with a Novice license and then moved up to my Advanced.

The Novice exam was proctored by a fellow ham. The Advanced meant a trip to Lower Manhattan and the FCC office in the Customs Building, right near where the World Trade Center would later rise… and fall.

I thought it was cool to go, because I got to take the morning off from school.

I easily passed the written test and prepared for the Morse exam. I sat alone at a wooden school desks – one of a few arranged in a line.

A punch tape ran through some sort of mechanical reader to produce the code. It began – “dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah.” Three “V’s,” the universal letter group sent for testing and setting up equipment.

As the real text of the test began, I started to write. The Morse was being sent at 13 words per minute – basically, a character every second. And then, it happened.

From the Hudson River, a block or two away, a ship’s horn sounded. It was loud… and I was already nervous. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I missed 15-20 seconds. Just as important, it threw me off my rhythm.

To pass, you needed to copy one straight minute of the five in the test and I did… but barely. But the test didn’t end there.

The final step was sending Morse code. A simple key was bolted to the table. The examiner, a cigar chomping Mr. Finkleman, stepped up to listen.

I was so nervous, I couldn’t send cleanly. My hand was shaking… and it was the hand that was supposed to tap out letters.

Finkleman looked down and told me to head to the hallway and get a drink from the fountain. The hall was poorly lit, drably painted and had linoleum tiles. There was no confusion that government offices occupied this building.

When I walked back in, he asked me to send, “Federal Communication Commission.” I was still nervous, but I began to tap out, “dit dit dah dit, dit” and he stopped me. I had only sent “fe.”

“You pass,” he smiled.

It probably wasn’t a big day for Mr. Finkleman, but it sure was for me! Nearly 40 years later, I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

The Mecca Of Ham Radio

This is probably the nerdiest thing I can say about myself. I have been a ham radio operator for nearly 40 years. I was first licensed as a Novice class operator while in high school and then went on to my General, Advanced and Amateur Extra licenses.

I can still remember my first contact or QSO&#185. I didn’t have a radio of my own, so I went to my friend Ralph Press’ house. Using Morse Code, I was able to span the globe from Flushing, Queens all the way to Nassau County, a little farther out on Long Island.

His callsign was WN2RNG. I remember that, because in Morse it had a distinctive rhythm: di dah dit dah dit dah dah dit.

Growing up I lived in apartment 5E. It was a building where outdoor antennas were forbidden. From time-to-time early in my ham radio career I strung up ‘invisible’ antennas of extremely thin, and very flimsy, wire.

Neighbors who knew complained I was ruining their TV reception. They complained even after I moved out and went to college!

It was all for naught. Only as an adult did I being to understand what it took to have a proper antenna and how important that was.

My ham radio career has been through a number of stages. There would be a few years of activity followed by a period of inactivity. I’m in an inactive stage right now. You can blame that on the Internet, which is more efficient than ham radio doing many of the things I enjoyed.

In my last active stretch I became involved in contesting, trying to contact as many other hams as possible in a set period of time, usually exchanging specific bits of information to confirm the contact. I also started toying with QRP or low powered contacts.

I have made contacts to Europe and Asia and everywhere in between with a transceiver I built on my kitchen table, using less power than a flashlight bulb. Once, on vacation, I took it to the Dominican Republic and operated off of D cell batteries with an antenna draped between two palm trees on the beach.

Early on, I used voice for contacts, but I grew tired of that. It was too much like operating an appliance and there didn’t seem to be much skill involved.

In my last ham radio incarnation I was 100% Morse. Ham operators call that CW for continuous wave. It is the most simple form of radio communications.

I became pretty proficient, able to send and receive at nearly 30 words per minute. At that speed you stop listening to individual letters and begin trying to hear words or phrases.

Once you start sending faster than 10-15 words per minute you can’t use the classic Morse key – the ‘brass pounder.’ Instead I used a paddle, with the dit and dah on opposite sides and an electronic keyer to translate my little finger motions into properly spaced tones.

Recently, my friend Harold become the Chief Operating Officer for the American Radio Relay League – the ham radio organization in America. It is headquartered in Newington, CT, about 40 miles from my house.

League Headquarters is ham radio’s Mecca. I went and visited today. It’s been a while since I’d been there.

It’s a difficult time for the ARRL because computers have stolen many of the geeky kids, like me, who used to go into ham radio. Restrictive covenants in housing developments have also made it extremely difficult to put up a decent antenna. They still have plenty of members, but I assume they’re getting progressively older.

ARRL headquarters is an interesting place because it’s a publishing house, membership service center, laboratory where new equipment is evaluated (and those evaluations published) and home of W1AW.

W1AW is to ham radio stations as Yankee Stadium is to ballparks. It is the best known callsign, without a doubt. Today, before I left the league, I sat down and did a little operating at W1AW.

There is, to me, something very romantic and relaxing about operating Morse Code. In a darkened room, with headphones on, totally concentrating, you can pluck weak signals from the ether and have conversations with people from around the world.

Imagine if the simple act of conversing required skill? That’s what CW operating is all about.

Many of the people you speak to don’t understand English, and I certainly don’t speak any foreign languages fluently. That’s where the telegrapher’s abbreviations come in. It’s possible to have a rudimentary conversation without speaking a common language.

I sat down at the W1AW operating position. The transceiver was down on the low end of 20 meters (14.005 mHz to be exact), a wavelength suited for long distance conversations. The rig’s coaxial cable connected it to a large multi-element beam on a tall tower. I was loaded for bear with a very recognizable call.

I called CQ – the universal request to chat. Nothing. I called again and Tom in Cardiff, Wales came back. We talked for a few minutes and, as I signed off, Ludo in Slovakia called me. That was followed by Valentin somewhere in Russia.

Harold estimated my speed at about 18 words per minute, well below my old CW comfort zone. My sending wasn’t entirely flawless either. A number of times I hit dit when I should have hit dah and had to correct myself and resend.

It really felt good.

Maybe it’s time to throw a wire antenna up over the house again and give it another try? Or, maybe, ham radio’s time has come and gone for me. I’m not really sure. There’s certainly a lot more on my plate right now. Where would I fit it in?

Something to ponder. Who knows?

&#185 – Because amateur radio had its beginnings in telegraphy, many Morse Code abbreviations are used, sometimes even when speaking. QSO, QTH, QRZ, QRU – they’re all part of the arcane lexicon.