Hamvention: The Flea Market

Last weekend was Hamvention, the place you want to be on the third weekend in May. It is the world’s largest gathering of amateur radio enthusiasts, and an exceedingly large flea market containing all sorts of electronica.

The booths of Hamvention include a few notable Open Hardware folk, but for the most part, you’re looking a few big booths from Yaesu, an entire section dedicated to everything ARRL, and a few pop-ups from the usual suspects. Rigol was there, showing off their test equipment and selling the DS1052E oscilloscope for far more than it’s worth. The Rigol Zed is a much better buy, anyway.

As with any gathering of hams, antennas are everywhere. The largest by far was the tower at right. With a little more equipment, this antenna could do a moon bounce. It’s a shame the moon was full this weekend, and everyone went to bed early.

Giant antennas and an amateur radio trade show notwithstanding, the biggest draw is the flea market. You’re looking at about two football fields worth of parking spaces, filled with cars, tents, and collapsible tables and the strangest electronic devices you’ve ever seen. What was that like? Read on below.


Almost anything you could ever want can be found at Hamvention. The flea market, like the attendees, hasn’t really caught on to the digital age yet, so you won’t find bare ATmegas and PICs, or even a few random EPROMs. I couldn’t find a single tube of 74-series logic. If it’s old school you want, or just some interesting things enclosed in glass, Hamvention is for you.

By far the largest single stall at the flea market was Mendelsons. Mendelsons is a Dayton institution and gigantic store filled to the brim with surplus and liquidation inventory. You can get everything from a traffic signal to pallets of laundry detergent, and of course Mendlesons brought out the electronic goods to Hamvention. Just about everything you could want was there, and properly organized, to boot.


Test Equipment and Random Gear

If you need a scope that’s a bit better than what the $400 Rigol can handle, your best bet is Hamvention. Here, everything, from the 1970s Tektronix 465 to the 1980s Tek 2225, to some crazy late-80s, early-90s HP gear. There were a surprising number of spectrum analyzers, and more than enough analog meter to satiate any steampunk aficionado.

The prices? On Friday, they’re about what you would expect. On Saturday, the prices start dropping but with more attendees, competition is increased. Hamvention closes at 1PM on Sunday, and these guys don’t want to carry all this stuff home. That’s where the bargains are, if everything hasn’t been snatched up in the previous two days.

Radios and Paraphernalia

You didn’t think Hamvention would have a ton of radios, right? Everything was there, from beautiful 1920s receivers in cases made of endangered wood, to fantastic plastic 1940s receivers, to ham gear from the 70s.

The Hamvention Takeaway

Hamvention is the premier amateur radio meetup – the biggest in the world – and the people pulling their pickups into a parking space and unloading their shack are the most knowledgeable people on the planet. They have the best stuff, and they’re trying to get rid of it. Need a tube that’s not a 12AX7, 6L6, or EL34? It’s at Hamvention, probably for a fair price.

Hamvention was great, a perfect example of a great swap meet, and a lot of fun, too. If you’re around Dayton, you need to check it out. It’s more than worth driving hundreds of miles and getting a vastly overpriced hotel room. All the best stuff is here, and it’s all for sale.

26 thoughts on “Hamvention: The Flea Market

  1. I don’t know why you didn’t see much digital parts. Amateur radio hardly has to catch up.

    I think it was 1974, at the Rochester NY hamfest, I got all the ttl and 7segment LED readouts to build a frequency counter.

    I remember May 1978 when amateur packet radio was on display at the local ham club. A lot of hams were among the early builders and buyers of home computers. If nothing else, they had more of a technical background than the average person. I couldn’t afford a computer in 1975, but there was never a time since April of 1979 when I haven’t had at least one computer around.

    Let’s not forget that Byte magazine was started by the publisher of the ham magazine “73”, which for some years was chock full of digital projects.


    1. Still, I don’t see many packet radio operators left here in Belgium… Looks like they misteriously vanished in the turn of the year 2000. What happened?
      I know, there’s C4FM/DSTAR/DMR for digital V/UHF radio (and APRS, that many people consider as one-way GPS beacons and ignore all the other features of this system), but packet radio in itself…

      Manoel – ON6RF

        1. My old hackerspace used APRS on every high-altitude balloon launch, and we were quite happy to take advantage of very good ground coverage from hams with good (fixed) receiving antennas every second of the way.

          It may not make sense for hams to compete with the Internet or cellphones, but for niche applications like low-power telemetry, it’s still very very relevant. Ditto all the WSPR and WSPR-like modes. There’s cool stuff going on, but it’s a lot more M2M and less ragchewing.

      1. I gather packet radio has declined in North America too.

        Here in Canada, there was someone new at the DOC or whatever it was called in 1978. He thought amateur radio should “move into the future”. He had been involved (I think) with “Alohanet” in Hawaii (packet radio in 1971, I believe it was connected to arpanet), and decided that was good for amateur radio. So a “digital license” was created to bring in those computer types, no code needed but 220MHz and above, and some other changes to facilitate packet radio. So that seems to be the genesis, though I thought there was a group in the US with packet controller about the same time as in Canada.

        So packet radio was sort of a curiosity at a time when small computers were still new, and triggered by outside forces. Since much of it rode on existing radios, it was also slow, something that became obvious with time. So it was interesting, but considering RTTY was a niche, it’s not a surprise that hams didn’t stick with it.

        BBSs and later the internet probably was a comparison, but of course there were restrictions on traffic, so you had a slow system where people had to type, and none of the wonders of the internet.

        Once it was “perfected”, apparently there wasn’t that much to use it for.


    2. Michael – I didn’t know the connection between Byte and 73. I read Byte for several decades. My favorite mag of all times. Ahhh, fond memories. Thx for sharing.

  2. Couldnt make it this year, but visited for the first time last year (2015) as was already in the US (Philli area) for a work based training session. Myself and two other visitor hired a car and drove to Dayton. Not unplanned, as they had booked three rooms at a “cheap” (but clean and quiet) motel. A fantastic visit, did buy one or two small bits and bobbs, would have liked to have picked up a few other parts, but airline rules prevented that!

    The next day (Sunday) we went to Write Patterson Air Force museum. In all honesty, could have spent all weekend there! Well worth the side visit if you have the time.

    The two others flew on/back to NY, so I drove solo back to PA (through some massive storms!) For one more day in the factory, then a bus and plane ride home to the UK.

    Fredrichaffen (the second biggest ham gathering, in southern Germany) was going to be this year (2016) but other plans made now.


    1. But that’s been the ongoing news, hasn’t it? “Will the hamvention stay or move to a new venue?”. Even the Dayton news covers this, the hamfest is a big event for the city. Yet there doesn’t seem to be money to repair the arena.


  3. I was there last year looking for an adjustable power supply. I only found one vendor with a unit that would adjust below 12v. It was the guy selling the Lambda in the picture. He had 3 and I talked him down to $40 for his nicest one. Damn thing doesn’t work.

  4. That antenna in the picture isn’t for EME. It’s a multiband directional HF antenna. It likely covers 10M thru 20M. Its pretty big so it might cover down to 30M or even 40M.

    EME antennas have lots and lots of small elements for bands like 2M and shorter which will penetrate the ionosphere better. HF bands(10M and lower) bounce off the ionosphere which make them great for world wide communications but pretty poor for moon bounce.

    This is more typical of a EME antenna:

    Its actually an array of 8 antennas.

  5. Agree with Dale above … Nice post Brian! It was fun to see which photos you chose to post and realize I came across some of the same things. But you captured many more that I didn’t have a chance to see. Gotta spend more time in the flea market next year. I know that at 4PM Sat. at a large booth of some very cool hardware, the vendor started yelling out “everything is now half price!”. ????

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