No Ham Left Behind

Here’s the text of an article I recently sent in to the ARRL for publication in QST’s Op-Ed section…

No Ham Left Behind

Dan Romanchik, KB6NU
Michigan Section Affiliated Club Coordinator

A recent item on QRZ.Com reported that the number of licensed radio amateurs on April 3, 2005 was 667,318, a net loss of 20,542 from the peak in April 2003. There are 28,869 Novices; 318,221 Technicians; 137, 093 Generals; 76,706 Advanceds; and 106,238 Amateur Extras.

Some of those that replied to this post used the decline in the number of licensees to predict the imminent death of amateur radio. While I’m not quite so alarmist as these guys, I do think the numbers point to a problem. The problem is not, however, the number of amateur radio licensees, but the number of active amateur radio operators.

While there have not been any scientific surveys, some have estimated that the number of licensees who are inactive-however you define that term-at between 25% and 50%. For whatever reason, these folks lost interest and are amateur radio operators in name only.

This is a shame, if you ask me. I think it is more important to have active, engaged amateurs than to have a large number of licensees. Inactive hams don’t show up for public service events or work CW or experiment with circuits. I would even argue that having a large number of inactive hams does more harm than good.

The question then is how to encourage amateur radio operators to be more active. The rules changes over the last ten to fifteen years have enabled many to obtain licenses, and I think overall that’s a good thing. But getting that first license is only a start, not an end in itself.

Let’s face it. If all an amateur knows is what the Technician Class license manual covers, all that he or she is really prepared to do is to buy an HT and talk on a repeater. That’s fun for a while, but the novelty quickly wears off. I’d bet that a very large percentage of Technician class licensees have simply abandoned amateur radio. I’d also bet that the majority of Novices are no longer active as well.

Note that more than half of all licensed amateurs are either Novices or Technicians. This means that more than half are still on the first rung of the amateur radio license ladder. Unfortunately, we really don’t have any programs for getting these hams involved. In effect, we’re leaving these hams behind.

If we want these folks to become active amateur radio operators-and I am going to assume that a more active amateur radio community is a good thing-we’re going to have to give them more help. It’s no small task to set up an HF amateur radio station; many things can go wrong, and without experienced help, it’s easy for new hams to give up in frustration.

One thing that I think the amateur radio community can do to help new hams is to develop more classes. I’m not talking about classes to teach people what they need to know to pass a test, but what they need to know to be successful amateur radio operators.

I’m talking about basic topics, such as how to solder, how to make voltage and current measurements, and how to make a dipole antenna. I think another very popular course would be how to choose an HF radio. This course would describe the terms manufacturers use on their spec sheets and help new hams (and undoubtedly some old ones) evaluate what’s on the market.

Ham radio instructors also need more support. Better materials for instructors will enable instructors to more easily set up and conduct training courses. Some training on how to teach would also go a long way.

I also think that the amateur radio community must provide better support for clubs. Clubs are where the action is. Good clubs bring hams into the hobby and turn them into active amateur radio operators. Bad clubs turn people away from amateur radio and foster bad stereotypes about amateur radio and amateur radio operators.

One way that the ARRL could help support clubs is by providing club officers with leadership training. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) makes available leadership training for its section officers. Here in the Michigan Section, we hope to offer a program like this very shortly, and I think it will help our amateur radio club officers and strengthen their clubs.

We should take a page from George W. Bush and vow to “leave no ham behind.” Increasing the number of licensees does no good if they lose interest and abandon the service, and helping those currently licensed will do more for ham radio than simply making more hams.

The Vail Code??

Samuel F.B. Morse, for whom the Morse Code is named was born 214 years ago today. But we should perhaps be calling it the Vail Code instead, as Craig W3CRR recently pointed out on the ARRL’s PR Mailing List:

Curiously, Samuel F.B. Morse didn’t actually invent the “Morse” code. Alfred Vail did. Morse’s original idea was to assign discrete number codes to hundreds of commonly used words. Vail, after witnessing a telegraphy demonstration by Morse, befriended Samuel and worked out the far more practical code system whereby each letter of the alphabet is represented by a series of long and short closings of a switch (which became the famous Vail Correspondent telegraph key). The complexity of each letter’s code was determined in part by its frequency of use in written communications — which is why “e”, the most commonly used letter, is represented by a single “dit”.

So, actually, we should call our code the “Vail Code”.Vail, however, was generous and modest enough to allow Morse — who publicized his technology (greatly enhanced by Vail) and Vail’s Code — to take the credit. Vail did share in the considerable profits of their joint venture, though.

My source for this information is a wonderful book entitled “Signor Marconi’s Magic Box” by British journalist Gavin Weightman. It was published by Da Capo Press in 2003. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of wireless communications.

QRP Newsletter Now Available in CW Format

Recently, Ray Goff G4FON added MP3 generation to his brilliant Koch CW Trainer program. Now, Nigel Gunn G8IFF/KC8NHF is using that feature to make available the newsletter of the Flying Pigs QRP Club International–Bacon Bits Quarterly (BBQ)–in CW format. The files are a bit on the large side–part 1 of the April editorial was a bit over 20 Mbytes, but the code is beautiful. I’ve suggested to Nigel that he may want to zip the files as that makes them quite a bit smaller.

More kits than you can shake a soldering iron at

A couple of months ago, a group of us were talking on the repeater, and the talk got around to building stuff. One of the guys said, “You can’t really build anything anymore.” I almost fell out of my chair. There are all kinds of kits out there that hams can build.

So, yesterday, I gave a presentation to our club on kits and kit building. After the short presentation–whichi I’ve included below–we had a show-and-tell of kits that were brought in by the members and were in various stages of completion. (Pictures coming soon!)

So, what are you going to build next?


Beyond Heathkit: Ham radio kits are alive and well
  –and you can build them

Sources

Sources: QRP Clubs:

Tools (from Electronic Construction from A to Z)

  • Long nose (“needle nose”) pliers
  • Cutting pliers—”flush cutting” rather than "diagonal
    cutting pliers."
  • Screwdrivers
    • two large screwdrivers, one with a straight tip for slotted screws,
      the other with a Phillips head
    • Set of miniature screwdrivers, often called “jeweler’s screwdrivers.”
  • Hobby knife
  • Magnifier. I use magnifying glasses, but others prefer a light with a built-in
    magnifier
  • Clip leads
  • Sheet Metal Nibbling Tool
  • Reamer
  • Soldering tools:
    • Soldering iron.
    • Solder
    • Desoldering tool—solder sucker or solder wick
  • Multimeter

Other Links

New Rig at KB6NU

For the past several months I’ve been using an Icom IC-746PRO that was donated to ARROW. I’ve been feeling a little guilty about using it for so long, so when someone offered to sell me a unit he bought in February, I jumped at the chance. He sold it to me for $1250, about $300 less than what they’re going for these days.

I really like the rig, although to be honest, I don’t have much to compare it with. The last rig I used regularly was an old IC-735, which I also like a lot, but it doesn’t have the bells and whistles that the 746 has.

One feature I really like is the DSP filtering. When working CW, you can narrow the passband down to next to nothing and copy only the station you want to hear. The notch filter and noise blanker really work, too–something that couldn’t be said for the IC-735.

It also has transmit audio filtering. When I first set up the radio, I had it set to the narrow filter. Fortunately, one of the first guys I talked to had used a 746PRO and talked me through the setup. After setting it to the transmit audio filter to the MID setting, he said the audio sounded much better.

I love the built-in antenna tuner, too. For example, my 40m dipole is cut for the CW portion of the band, but tunes up beautifully on the phone portion as well. I also get a good match on 15m, which lets me work a little DX there when the band’s open.

Another feature I like is the delta-Tx function. This is similar to the RIT function, except that you’re shifting the transmit frequency away from the receive frequency. The display will show the receive frequency. This is useful in situations where there’s a DX station working a pileup and you’re expected to transmit a kHz or so up from the receive frequency. You leave the radio tuned to the DX station and vary the transmit frequency with the delta-Tx control. Both RIT and delta-Tx can be adjusted up to 10 kHz away from the displayed frequency.

One thing I’m not happy with is the built-in keyer. The speed adjustment is too touchy and the memories are a pain to program. I just stick with my old Heathkit MicroMatic keyer.

Also, as I mentioned, I wasn’t able to get the RTTY decoder to work. I think that’s due to operator error, though, as I’ve never worked RTTY, and just don’t know how to set it up. I think if I played with itmore I’d get it working.

I’ve also played around a little with the band scope feature. This feature does work, but the screen resolution is pretty coarse, so I didn’t find it all that useful.

I have used it on 2m FM, CW, and SSB, and all three modes seem to work fine. One disadvantage to using it as a VHF base station is that it doesn’t cover the 440 MHz band, so if you wanted to monitor those frequencies, you’d still need another radio.

There’s a mailing list for owners and users of the IC-74PRO. The discussion there lately has been a little contentious, but overall, it’s a good group.

Balun Test Method

Here’s another thread from the wonderful Elecraft mailling list:

Vic, K2VCO writes:

I made a simple 1:1 receive-only balun for 160 meters by winding 9 bifilar turns of no. 24 enameled wire on an FT37-77 toroid. I connected a 50-ohm resistor to the output and my MFJ antenna analyzer to the input. On 1.8 MHz it shows a resistance of 50 ohms, an inductive reactance of 1 ohm, and an SWR of 1.0:1.

My question is, did I make a ‘good’ balun? Are there other tests I should do?

Bob N6WG responded:

You can use your MFJ to measure the impedance of the balun. Connect one of of the balun (short both wires together) to the center of the MFJ coax connector and the other end, shorted together, to the shell of the connector. Use the MFJ to measure the impedance of the inductor formed at the frequency to be used, say 1850 kHz. If the impedance is 5 or more times the 50 ohm line impedance, you have a good balun for 160m. If that is the only band you expect to use it on, you are done.

If you expect to use it over more bands, say 80 and 40m as well, tune the MFJ to those bands also and make the same neasurement. With a good core, the impedance should hold through these bands as well, or even be higher.

Don W3FPR also replied:

If my calculations are correct, YES you should have a good balun. The reactance of the 9 turns is 809 ohms (AL value is 884 mH/1000 turns, inductance for 9 turns should be 71.6 uH) which is more than 16 times the impedance of an antenna feedline of 50 ohms. Greater than 10 times the line impedance is the value I usually use for an effective choking action.

I think this would also be a good test for any commercial balun that you might buy.

The Rhythm of CW

Try these to get a feel for how rhytmic CW can be:

I got all of these from the wonderful Elecraft mailing list. Just click on the list items to download a zipped mp3 file. I’m sorry about the zip, but it was the only way to make the file small enough to be easily downloadable. Zipped, these files are about 60 kbytes; unzipped, they’re over 2.5 Mbytes.