Exploring The Early Days Of QRP Radio

Morse code might seem obsolete but for situations with extremely limited bandwidth it’s often still the best communications option available. The code requires a fair amount of training to use effectively, though, and even proficient radio operators tend to send only around 20 words per minute. As a result of the reduced throughput, a type of language evolved around Morse code which, like any language, has evolved and changed over time. QRP initially meant something akin to “you are overloading my receiver, please reduce transmitter power” but now means “operating radios at extremely low power levels”. [MIKROWAVE1] explores some of the earlier options for QRP radios in this video.

There’s been some debate in the amateur radio community over the years over what power level constitutes a QRP operation, but it’s almost certainly somewhere below 100 watts, and while the radios in this video have varying power levels, they tend to be far below this upper threshold, with some operating on 1 watt or less. There are a few commercial offerings demonstrated here, produced from the 70s to the mid-80s, but a few are made from kits as well. Kits tended to be both accessible and easily repairable, with Heathkit being the more recognizable option among this category. To operate Morse code (or “continuous wave” as hams would call it) only requires a single transistor which is why kits were so popular, but there are a few other examples in this video with quite a few more transistors than that. In fact, there are all kinds of radios featured here with plenty of features we might even consider modern by today’s standards; at least when Morse code is concerned.

QRP radios in general are attractive because they tend to be smaller, simpler, and more affordable. Making QRP contacts over great distances also increases one’s ham radio street cred, especially when using Morse, although this benefit is more intangible. There’s a large trend going on in the radio world right now surrounding operating from parks and mountain peaks, which means QRP is often the only way to get that done especially when operating on battery power. Modern QRP radios often support digital and voice modes as well and can have surprisingly high prices, but taking some cues from this video about radios built in decades past could get you on the radio for a minimum or parts and cost, provided you can put in the time.

23 thoughts on “Exploring The Early Days Of QRP Radio

  1. I thought most people consider QRP to be 5W or less.
    Learning to operate CW is tons of fun and I have to say, my $1000 rig is amazing with its ability to zero beat as well as built in decoder. Because CW is kinda inefficient even waaaay back with landline telegraphy many codes and abbreviations were developed and are still in common use. So not struggling with the technical aspect of the radio itself and just focusing on understanding not just “didit means S” but the language of CW communication itself is a joy. FWIW I also have a couple QRPlabs kit radios that are divine as well and an order of magnitude cheaper.

      1. True, but there’s a catch. Only a few hams can fluently talk in morse code, still. By that, I mean real QSOs, which are nowadays maybe known as “rag chewing”. You know, talking a bit about your hobbies, your family and so on. Making friends and learn about other places. Not just call sign/59/73 – that’s a contact at best, but no real QSO. The whole contest obsession nowadays is just depressing for some of us. Imagine, there are hams out there who give 599, but need to ask three times for the other guys’s call sign. *sign* And then, these annoying contests are always on the weekends, when some of us SWLs/hams have our small free time and just want to join a friendly talk on the bands. *sigh*. That’s why many of us have stopped using shortwave communication and become quite. Back in the 2000s, with the then-new PSK31, it was different: Since a long time, hams had started to perform small talk again, did chat via keyboard. Like in the old RTTY heydays. But this time in QRP, thanks to the modest requirements of PSK31 at the time.

        1. My goal is casual rag chewing. For fast and furious contest style stuff satellite repeaters are my preferred fix. I sometimes get on before work for 10-15min at 5:30am or so and have no problem getting my CW CQ answered. I attribute this to modern radios with spectrum display that makes it really easy (can be automated) to pick out calls over the entire band at once. It’s marvelous tech for such an “old” method of communication.
          Also I think rag chew is a bit easier than callsigns. Callsigns are (semi)random letters and numbers whereas plain text is a bit more predictable for better or worse.
          Oh and there are plenty of clubs (SKCC, FISTS…) with old retired dudes that love nothing more than a rag chew at any and all hours.
          Such an fun hobby.

        2. HEAR! HEAR!! Dude, you are reading my script, here! :) Seriously! I absolutely DESPISE those contests! I even posted a rant on my website about it! LOL! If I hear it, I just shut the radio off and do something else. 73 de N1NKM

        3. There’s a huge surge right now of new and younger hams learning CW. Much of it stems from the desire to do Parks on the Air and Summits on the Air Activations, which are definitely more contest style activations. However, in many cases that quickly evolves into a dedication to rag chewing. Hams quickly learn that rag chewing is one of the best ways to improve your overall proficiency. I agree that things like the CW Ops Test (CWT) and SOTA/POTA style contacts are much lower quality types of exchanges than rag chews, and might as well be FT-8. But there are a growing number of hams interested in making meaningful contacts with others, in addition to gaining the important ability to communicate meaningful information with CW. I am one of them, and there are more joining that trend every day.

        1. Not true for coherent CW. Members of the Case Amateur Radio Club of Case Western Reserve University W8EDU have been working on a modern implementation of CCW for a while; its decoding in noise is comparable to other narrow-band digital modes. The CCW literature began in 1975. –AD8Y

  2. “and even proficient radio operators tend to send only around 20 words per minute.”

    That’s ~100 characters per minute..
    An FM repeater on 2m/70cm band usually sends its call sign in morse code at 80 to 120 characters/minute.

    Learning morse at correct speed is helpful.
    That way, you get a feeling for the melody, the rhythm of the Q codes and letters.
    Playing an instrument, like a guitar, might be helpful, too.

  3. CW Morse is usual in small satellites beacons where power supply
    is a concern, impossible to overcome his information to power
    factor ratio
    And It Is human readable too

    1. You can generally access this advanced technology through careful antenna design. It reduces the rx sensitivity while also reducing tx effectiveness. I think they’re known as HOA stealth antennas.

  4. And you don’t need to be a licensed ham operator to try QRP radio: If QRP is understood to mean <~10 W, then license-free Citizen Band (CB) radio is also kind-of-QRP shortwave radio as well (depending on jurisdiction, you can use up to 12 W tx power under certain circumstances). Decent feature-rich CB radios can be bought for less than 200 €/$ and in many jurisdictions you can make your own antenna (using little more than coax cable and a knife).

    In years of high solar activity (like now) you can get global range if you are lucky, e.g. I recently had a contact from Germany to Australia (using the LONG path!) with digital mode "JS8", kind of a modern, computer driven alternative to CW Morse code. It's fun. Google "JS8Call" for the software supporting this digital mode.

  5. In the fifties, not many options. If you were running AM, no easy means of reducing power. So you’d tend to want a 100\W rig. If you wanted more power, then a full kilowatt.

    SSB was easier, just turn down the mic gain.

    But I think transistors pushed QRP. There was an article in QST in the late fifties or early sixties, on the cover, with mileage per microwatt. A transistor transmitter.

    It became a formal thing, I think because of Adrian Weisz’s writing.

    In 1968 Wes Hayward wrote about direct conversion receivers, which made tranaceivers easy.

    In 1969, Ten Tec started up, a new company with old money. They sold modules at first, then complete rigs. It wasn’t till about 1975 that they went to SSB. And further still before they broke the 5W barrier.

    Transistors were still a new thing in the seventies, QRP meant avoiding high power work.

    QST for July and August 1972 had a 5W transistor SSB transceiver. There were others, it wasn’t all CW.

    1. “In the fifties, not many options. If you were running AM, no easy means of reducing power. So you’d tend to want a 100\W rig. If you wanted more power, then a full kilowatt.”

      Interesting. That was before my time, I must admit. Though wasn’t it possible to by-pass the final tubes and transmit via the drive tube alone? In the Yaesu FT-101/Sommerkamp FT-277, the driver tube had about 10W (SSB/CW) output power, or so my father told me once. That would be 5 Watt (roughly) for AM, which was still common in the 70s. Or so I was told.

    2. Still have my old ten tec Omni-D. Great CW/SSB radio to date — for me. 10/30/40 CW mostly. Great rx even for modern standards. Even have original electronic keyer for it. Works great. I can pop along at 20-30 wpm, no problem at all.

  6. In the very early days of QRP it meant 100 Watts or Les, sometime in the 1970 5w became the standard. I remember running 12 watts to a single 6L6 Tube and it was considered qrp in the 1960’s. I then venture into the world of 5w and less rigs in about 1973 with a Heathkit HW-7 which I highly modified for better RX.
    Adrian Weiss W0RSP was the one who spurred me on in that endeavor. This link may be of intrest to some who want to know more about the early days of qrp. http://www.in3eci.it/bbb/file_content/fl543.pdf

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