I’m happy that there’s been a recent resurgence of the build-it-yourself mentality in the tech crowd. For a while, there was a dearth of interest in how electronics and low-level software work. If you were lucky enough to have engineers as parents, you may have grown up with electronic kits and mathematics. But if grew up in a small town like I did, you may have learned from an amateur radio operator.
Radio was the most popular tech hobby before personal computers became common in the early 1980′s. In the 1950′s, my parents’ generation built crystal radios or worked with awesome explosive and radioactive chemistry kits. In the 1960′s, kids built transistor radios or simple relay-based logic to play tic-tac-toe. I have great memories of visiting my relatives and finding these projects from their childhood in the closet. With the advent of multi-frequency scanners and cheaper radios in the 1970′s, amateur radio became even more popular than it ever had been. CB radio was even mainstream.
There were several HAMs that were friends of our family. Hal was a dispatcher for an air-conditioning repair service. He had a spare bedroom that was full of equipment. It was pretty magical to hear the morse code beeping out a message from a repeater on some distant mountain. In the evening, the teletype would constantly bang out words from HAMs all over the region, sending callsigns and weather reports to each other. It was the predecessor to IRC, IM, and texting.
Amateur radio and computers fit very well together. Hal gave my dad our first computer, a VIC-20, after he upgraded to a C64. He had used it to generate and decode morse code (CW) as well as log the various contacts he made. It was obvious to me that one of the best uses for a computer was to interface with other things.
Jim was an electrician, installing wiring in new buildings. He was also a HAM, although he built more of his own equipment than Hal. He would review various circuits I had drawn and recommend improvements. One circuit I designed was a clone of the game Lazer Tag. I was excited about my efficient circuit for the IR transmitter and receiver. However, he told me that while the circuit was mostly correct, I would need a matched lens pair since the IR LED would disperse too much to be reliably read. Also, my design would falsely trigger due to background noise like the sun because it wasn’t a coded channel, just a simple detector. Still, it was really fun to come up with new designs with his help.
One time he took me up to a nearby mountain where all the radio stations had their towers. The local HAM club had a repeater there in a rack with other equipment. He pointed out each repeater, including the ones for the commercial FM stations. I thought about what would happen if I pulled the plug on the country station.
They also had an automatic phone patch. This allowed you to make local calls from any radio by sending DTMF to the repeater. That was pretty amazing in a time where there were no cellphones. While phone patches still exist today, they’ve become a lot more rare. Still, they can be useful in disasters when the cell networks are down or overloaded and the closest working phone is far away.
I’m not sure what tech hobby today is as widespread as amateur radio was back then. Even people with blue-collar backgrounds were interested in it. While building your Arduino kits, be sure to invite the neighborhood kids. They might be the next Steve Wozniak or Bunnie Huang. I’m thankful for the HAMs that helped me when I was first getting started.