One of the best things about having your amateur radio license is that it allows you to legally build and operate transmitters. If you want to build a full-featured single-sideband rig with digital modes, have at it. But there’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot to learn from minimalist builds like this Michigan Mighty-Mite one-transistor 80-meter band transmitter.
If the MMM moniker sounds familiar, it may be because of this recent post. And in fact, [W2AEW]’s build was inspired by the same SolderSmoke blog posts that started [Paul Hodges] on the road to his breadboard and beer can build. [W2AEW]’s build is a bit sleeker, to be sure, but where the video really shines is in the exploration and improvement of the signal quality. The basic Mighty-Mite outputs a pretty dirty signal – [W2AEW]’s scope revealed 5 major harmonic spikes, and what was supposed to be a nice sine wave was full of divots and potholes. There’s only so much one transistor, a colorburst crystal and a couple of capacitors can do, so the video treats us to an explanation of the design of the low-pass filter needed to get rid of the harmonics and clean up the output into a nice solid sine wave.
If your Morse skills aren’t where they should be to take advantage of the Might-Mite’s CW-only mode, then you’ll need to look at other modulations. Maybe a tiny FM transmitter would suit your needs better?
“Hi! I’m Rud, Kilo Five Romeo Uniform Delta.” That’s me introducing myself at a ham meeting. Ham radio operators kid that we don’t have last names, we have call signs.
Becoming an Amateur Radio Operator (ARO), our more formal name, is not difficult and opens a world of interesting activities, including hacking. As with anything new, becoming actively involved with an existing club can be daunting. The other hams at a meeting are catching up with their buddies and often seem uninterested in the new guy standing nearby. Some groups will invite new members to stand and introduce themselves early in the meeting, which helps break the ice.
Regardless of how anyone else acts at the meeting there is one ham who is always looking for someone new – the ham who manages public service events, where amateur radio operators help establish communications for large public gatherings. These can be local bike rides, walks, or runs; I’ve even seen hams working an art show. In the nomenclature adopted since 9/11, these are “planned incidents” in contrast to “unplanned incidents” like hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, snow storms, and other natural or man made disasters. Working planned incidents is training for unplanned incidents when that need arises. The basic activities for AROs are the same.
Here in the Houston there are two very big events that enlist hundreds of hams. The big one in January is the Houston Marathon. The other large event is the Houston to Austin Multiple Sclerosis 150 (MS 150) mile bike ride in April. That event starts on Saturday morning, takes a break mid-way on Saturday evening, and finally wraps up late on Sunday evening. Starting in the fall there are warm-up events for the Marathon and in the late winter bike rides to prepare riders for the MS-150. There are also other marathons, Iron Man races, walks, runs, and races throughout the year. Wherever your are, there are probably events nearby and they can always make use of your radio capability.
In early December 1961, a United States Air Force rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying a special payload. The main payload was a Corona surveillance satellite, but tucked just aft of that spacecraft was a tiny package of homebrew electronics stuffed into something the looked like a slice of cake. What was in that package and how it came to tag along on a top-secret military mission is the story of OSCAR 1, the world’s first amateur radio satellite.
In the summer of 1929, it would probably have been hard for the average Joe to imagine the degree to which his life was about to change. In October of that year, the US stock market tumbled, which in concert with myriad economic factors kicked off the Great Depression, a worldwide economic disaster that would send ripples through history to this very day. At its heart, the Depression was about a loss of confidence, manifested in bank failures, foreclosures, unemployment, and extreme austerity. People were thrust into situations for which they were ill-prepared, and if they were going to survive, they needed to adapt and do what they could with what they had on hand. In short, they needed to hack their way out of the Depression.
Social Hacking: Welcome to the Jungle
One reaction to the change in the social contract in the 1930s was increased vagrancy. While homelessness was certainly thrust upon some people by circumstances – in the depth of the Depression in 1933, something like 25% of men were unemployed, after all – life on the road was clearly a choice for millions. A typical story was that of the bored teenage boy, facing no prospects for a job and wishing to relieve his large family of the burden of one more mouth to feed. Hitting the road with a few possessions in his “bindle,” he learned the craft of life on the road from more experienced vagrants. And thus another hobo was created.
The popular image of the hobos as unique to the Depression is a little awry. Economic upheaval certainly swelled their ranks, but in America, hobos had first appeared after the Civil War, with war-weary veterans riding the rails looking for work. By the time the Depression hit, there was an extensive hobo culture in the United States, complete with its own slang and a rough code of ethics.
Hobos were top of the heap in the vagrant hierarchy, the “knights of the road.” They were migrant workers, generally unskilled, willing to stay in one place for a paying job but unwilling to commit to settling down. When the job was done or he had made enough money, he moved on. Tramps were the next step down – wanderers who were willing to work but only when absolutely necessary. Lowest in the pecking order were the bums who stayed put and relied on the kindness of strangers for their survival. Regardless of rank, all the vagrants had one thing in common – the road. More or less constantly on the move, they had to quickly learn how to provide for themselves without the creature comforts, which before the Depression hit had begun to include many modern conveniences.
Cooking arrangements were one thing hobos excelled at, whether on the road or in one of the many hobo camps, or jungles, that sprung up at railroad crossings outside of towns. A campfire in a ring of rocks is the traditional view of outdoor cookery, but the hobos quickly learned that it’s not terribly fuel-efficient. One solution to this problem was the hobo stove, an ancestor of the rocket stove. Relying on convection to draw a huge volume of air into a combustion chamber, hobo stoves were easily fabricated from tin cans and other metal scraps that were easy to come by in a world before recycling and large municipal landfills. Most were assembled on the spot and served for a meal or two before being abandoned, but some actually had insulation between double walls and clever arrangements of the fuel shelf to feed automatically as the fuel burned away. Scraps of wood, pinecones, newspapers and cardboard – a hobo stove will eat almost anything, and burn hot enough that even damp fuel isn’t a problem.
Often finding himself with time on his hands, many a hobo kept himself busy with arts and crafts projects in camp. Making hobo nickels was a popular way to pass the time, and often resulted in a trade item far more valuable than the base value of the starting material. The Indian head figure on the US Buffalo nickels of the day were modified with tools fabricated from old nails and files; metal was pushed around the coin to create features on the figure, usually a bowler hat and facial hair. A ‘bo could trade the miniature bas-relief sculpture for a good meal; today genuine hobo nickels from the Depression era command high prices from collectors.
Radio: Razor Blades and Copper Pipe
Unless the hobo was flopping in town or at a really well-equipped jungle, chances are pretty good he wasn’t listening to the radio too much. From our 21st century outlook, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate how new and exciting radio was and the impact it had on everyday life in America during the Depression. Radio connected the nation in a way no other medium ever had. That the Depression did not kill this infant technology in its cradle is a testament to both its power as a medium – families would stop making payments on almost everything else so they could keep their radio sets – and to the tenacity of early electronics hobbyists, who learned to keep radios alive and even to fabricate them from almost nothing.
Although tube-type superheterodyne receivers were widely available all through the Depression, crystal sets were still a popular and sometimes necessary hacker project during the Depression. Relying on nothing more than a tuned circuit and a detector connected to an antenna and high-impedance headphones, a crystal set was able to pick up strong AM broadcasts and sometimes even shortwave stations. The earliest detectors were crystals of galena probed by a tiny “cat’s whisker” wire, but metal oxides could also form the necessary rectifying junction, leading to detectors built out of razor blades and safety pins. Crystal radio skills would serve many a Depression-era farm boy well during the next decade as they went off to war in Europe and the Pacific; there they created foxhole radios to listen in on broadcasts without the risk of a more sophisticated radio set, whose local oscillator could be detected by the enemy.
Receivers weren’t the only area in which Depression-era hackers made an impact. As commercial broadcasting took off, so did amateur radio, and few commercial transmitters were available to satisfy the burgeoning ham market. Depression-era hams had to home-brew almost everything and came up with some beautiful designs that modern glowbug hams recreate with loving attention to detail. A popular transmitter back in the day was based on the Hartley oscillator (PDF link). Using only a single triode tube and a tuned circuit with coils wound from 1/4″ copper tubing, Hartley transmitters could be built on a literal breadboard from scraps and widely available parts. Tuned to the 40- or 80-meter band, or even down to the 160-meter band, a Hartley or the closely related Tuned-Not-Tuned (TNT) or Tune-Plate-Tuned-Grid (TPTG) continuous-wave (CW) transmitters could put out enough power to work coast-to-coast contacts, or QSOs. Modern hams pay homage to the Depression-era pioneers of amateur radio with regular “QSO Parties” using replica Hartleys – most with bypass capacitors to keep the lethal voltages their forebears had to deal with off the coils.
The Great Depression lasted through the 1930s in America, finally dissipating just before the country mobilized for World War II. With factories suddenly working beyond capacity to supply the war effort, unemployment figures quickly plummeted, and the austere practices of the Depression were generally rolled back. Hobo culture declined and amateur radio was shut down by the federal government for the duration of the war, but neither the war effort nor full employment could kill the hobo spirit — modern hobos still ply the rails to this day. And the skills and mindsets developed by Depression-era social and electronics hackers paved the way for a lot of what was to come in the post-war years.
We run a lot of posts on amateur radio here at Hackaday, and a majority of our writers and editors* are licensed hams. Why? Because playing around with radio electronics is fun, and because having a license makes a lot more experimentation legal. (*We’re sure you have good reasons for slacking, Szczys.)
So let’s say that you want to get your “ticket” (and you live in the USA). It’s easy: just study for an exam or two, and take them. How to study? We’re glad you asked, because we just found this incredibly long video that’ll prep you for the exam.
At six and a half hours, we’ll admit that we haven’t watched the whole thing, but what we did see looks great. Admittedly, we were a little bit unnerved by [John (KD65CY)]’s overdone enthusiasm. But the content is fundamental, broad-ranging, and relevant. Heck, even a bit entertaining.
Even if you’re not interested in taking the exam, but are just interested in some radio basics, it’s worth looking. If you give it a shot, and like what you see, let us know in the comments what times stamps you found interesting.
In our experience, the Technician exam is easy enough that it’s probably worth your while to study up for the General exam as well. You have to take the former before the latter, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking them all in one sitting. (General gets you a lot more international shortwave frequencies, so it’s at least worth a shot.)
But don’t let that slow you down. Just getting the Tech license is easily worth studying up for a couple of hours or so. You have no excuses now. Go do it!
Want to set up your own television station? This hack might help: [Jan Panteltje] has worked out how to turn a Raspberry Pi into a DVB-S transmitter. DVB-S is a TV transmission standard originally created for satellite broadcasts, but Hams also use it to send video on the amateur bands. What [Jan] did was to use software on the Pi to encode the video into the transport stream, which is then fed out to the home-made transmitter that modulates the data into a DVB-S signal. [Jan] has successfully tested the system with a direct connection, feeding the output of the transmitter into a DVB-S decoder card that could read the data and decode the video signal. To create a real broadcast signal, the next step would be to feed the output of the signal into an amplifier and larger transmitter that broadcast the signal.
Imagine that you’re coordinating a large scale search-and-rescue mission in a cave. You need to know where all your groups are, and whether or not they’ve found anything. But how do they all communicate to the command center?
You’d guess radio, but you’d guess wrong. Radio doesn’t propagate well at all in a maze of twisty passages, all alike; rocks absorb radio waves, especially in the VHF/UHF range that’s best suited for most small radios. In the past, you’d run wire and transmit along it. This article runs through the options in detail. But adding miles of wire to your already heavy caving and climbing gear is a nuisance or worse.