Hacking When It Counts: The Great Depression

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

Bindlestiffs ambulating down the high iron. Source: Wikipedia

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.

Hobo stove in action. Source: Log Cabin Cooking

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.

CrystalRadio” by JA.Davidson

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.

VE7SL’s replica 1929 TNT transmitter, a close relative of the Hartley. Source: The VE7SL Radio Notebook

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.

Original Hackers’ New Satellite in Orbit

Ham radio put another satellite in orbit, the FOX-1A. Not many groups have the long-term hacking credentials of hams. Their tradition extends back to the first days of radio communications, which puts the group well over a century old. This newest satellite launched in the early hours of October 8th and, after deployment, was heard later the same day. Anyone with the ability to listen on the 2m band can hear FOX-1A. Tatlas-v-rocket-launches-nrol55-cubesatshose licensed as hams will be able to communicate using a 70cm transmitter while listening on 2m.

This satellite is using the cube-sat format and ‘ride sharing’ through a program offered by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Twelve other nano-satellites rode along with the FOX-1A. These 10 cm cubes are used for commercial, educational, and non-profit projects. The purpose of today’s satellites covered not only ham radio but educating students in satellite construction, land management by American Indian tribes, and space to ground laser communication. Yeah, what’s cooler than space lasers? Video about the FOX-1A after the break.

We’ve seen some interesting ideas for cube-sats. And if you want to think about the ground portion of a system like this, check out the SatNOGs story — winners of the 2014 Hackaday Prize.

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Party Balloon Crosses Atlantic, Tours Europe & Phones Home

For the past few months, [David VE3KCL] has been launching balloons from his Canadian home fitted with radio transmitters. Nothing unusual there: quite a few people do this, including schools, hackerspaces, and individuals. What is remarkable is how far he has gotten. His S-4 flight in August of this year crossed the Atlantic, reached France and took a tour of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway before finally landing in the Norwegian Sea. That’s over 10,000 kilometers (6200 miles): not bad for a couple of party balloons strung together.

The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.
The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.

Although the distance these balloons have travelled is quite remarkable, the interesting part is how [David] is tracking the balloons. Cell phones obviously won’t work over the Atlantic, and satellite transmitters are expensive, so he used a low-cost transmitter that was programmed to broadcast using a variety of Ham radio signals. The most effective seems to be WSPRnet (the Weak Signal Propagation Network), a system used by Hams to see how far low strength signals will go. This system relies on Hams leaving their receivers on and running software that uploads the received signals to a central server.

By cleverly encoding information such as height and position into this signal, he was able to turn this worldwide network into a tracking network that would report the balloon’s position pretty much anywhere on the globe. [David] is continuing to launch balloons: his latest went up on the 24th of September and travelled over 4300km (2600 miles) before the signal was lost over the Atlantic.

Reverse Engineering Traffic Lights with Software Defined Radio

Construction crews tearing up the street to lay new internet fiber optic cable created a unique opportunity for [Bastian Bloessl]. The workers brought two mobile traffic lights to help keep the road safe while they worked. [Bastian] had heard that these lights use the 2 meter band radios, so he grabbed his RTL-SDR USB stick and started hacking. Mobile traffic lights are becoming more common in Europe. They can be controlled by a clock, traffic volume via an on-board camera, wire or radio. They also transmit status data, which is what [Bastian] was hoping to receive.

A quick scan with GQRX revealed a strong signal on 170.760 MHz. Using baudline and audacity, [Bastian] was able to determine that Audio Frequency Shift Keying was used to modulate the data. He created a simple receiver chain in GNU radio, and was greeted with a solid data stream from the lights. By watching the lights and looking at the data frames, [Bastian] was able to determine which bits contained the current light status. A quickly knocked up web interface allowed him to display the traffic light status in real-time.

It’s a bit scary that the data was sent in plaintext, however this is just status data. We hope that any command data is sent encrypted through a more secure channel.

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Decoding Satellite-based Text Messages with RTL-SDR and Hacked GPS Antenna

[Carl] just found a yet another use for the RTL-SDR. He’s been decoding Inmarsat STD-C EGC messages with it. Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company. They provide communications all over the world to places that do not have a reliable terrestrial communications network. STD-C is a text message communications channel used mostly by maritime operators. This channel contains Enhanced Group Call (EGC) messages which include information such as search and rescue, coast guard, weather, and more.

Not much equipment is required for this, just the RTL-SDR dongle, an antenna, a computer, and the cables to hook them all up together. Once all of the gear was collected, [Carl] used an Android app called Satellite AR to locate his nearest Inmarsat satellite. Since these satellites are geostationary, he won’t have to move his antenna once it’s pointed in the right direction.

Hacked GPS antenna
Hacked GPS antenna

As far as antennas go, [Carl] recommends a dish or helix antenna. If you don’t want to fork over the money for something that fancy, he also explains how you can modify a $10 GPS antenna to work for this purpose. He admits that it’s not the best antenna for this, but it will get the job done. A typical GPS antenna will be tuned for 1575 MHz and will contain a band pass filter that prevents the antenna from picking up signals 1-2MHz away from that frequency.

To remove the filter, the plastic case must first be removed. Then a metal reflector needs to be removed from the bottom of the antenna using a soldering iron. The actual antenna circuit is hiding under the reflector. The filter is typically the largest component on the board. After desoldering, the IN and OUT pads are bridged together. The whole thing can then be put back together for use with this project.

Once everything was hooked up and the antenna was pointed in the right place, the audio output from the dongle was piped into the SDR# tuner software. After tuning to the correct frequency and setting all of the audio parameters, the audio was then decoded with another program called tdma-demo.exe. If everything is tuned just right, the software will be able to decode the audio signal and it will start to display messages. [Carl] posted some interesting examples including a couple of pirate warnings.

If you can’t get enough RTL-SDR hacks, be sure to check out some of the others we’ve featured in the past. And don’t forget to send in links to your own hacking!

Pico Space Balloon Circumnavigates the Globe, Twice

We’ve reported on “space” balloons before. Heck, some of us have even launched a few. Usually they go way up in the air, take some cool pictures, and land within driving (and retrieving) distance the same afternoon. You get often amazing photos and bragging rights that you took them for the low, low price of a really big helium balloon and a fill.

But what if you shrunk everything down? Over the last few years, [Andy, VK3YT] has been launching ever smaller and lighter balloons with very low power ham radio payloads. So no camera and no photos, but the payback is that he’s launching payloads that weigh around thirteen grams complete with GPS, radio, solar cell, and batteries. They can stay up for weeks and go really far. We’d love to see some construction details beyond the minimalistic “Solar powered party balloon, 25mW TX”. But that about sums it up.

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The Biggest Day At Hamvention

We capped off day-2 of the Hamvention with an unexpected rain shower, and some arcing back in the hotel room.  Historically, Saturday is the best attended day of the show.  As normally, we spent most of the day outside in the flea market.  One of our friends allowed us to use his AN/GRC-9 army surplus radio to check into one of the nets.  The radio was powered by hand-crank.  Later, we attended a forum on the construction of HF antennas for camping trips, and obtained parts for our project back in the room. More about that later?  Overall, a great day.

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