You’d be forgiven if you thought software defined radio (SDR) was a relatively recent discovery. After all, few outside of the hardcore amateur radio circles were even familiar with the concept until it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners could be used as fairly decent receivers from a few hundred MHz all the way up into the GHz range. The advent of the RTL-SDR project in 2012 brought the cost of entry level SDR hardware from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars effectively overnight. Today there’s more hackers cruising the airwaves via software trickery than there’s ever been before.
Quick, name someone influential in the history of radio. Who do did you think of? Marconi? Tesla? Armstrong? Hertz? Perhaps Sarnoff? We bet only a handful would have said Reginald Fessenden. That’s a shame because he was the first to do something that most of us do every day.
Few know this Canadian inventor’s name even though he developed quite a few innovations. Unlike Colpitts and Hartley we don’t have anything named after him. However, Fessenden was the first man to make a two-way transatlantic radio contact (Marconi’s was one way) and he was a pioneer in using voice over the radio.
He did even more than that. He patented transmitting with a continuous wave instead of a spark, which made modern radio practical. This was unpopular at the time because most thought the spark was necessary to generate enough energy. In 1906, John Fleming (who gave us tubes that are sometimes still called Fleming valves) wrote that “a simple sine-curve would not be likely to produce the required effect.” That was in 1906, five years after Fessenden’s patent.
We can say one thing for [bitluni]: the BOMs for his projects, like this ESP32 AM radio transmitter, are always on the low side. That’s because he leverages software to do jobs traditionally accomplished with hardware, always with instructive results.
If you’re looking for a little more range for your low power transmitter and you’re a licensed amateur operator, you might want to explore the world of QRP radio.
AM, or amplitude modulation, was the earliest way of sending voice over radio waves. That makes sense because it is easy to modulate a signal and easy to demodulate it, as well. A carbon microphone is sufficient to crudely modulate an AM signal and diode — even a piece of natural crystal — will suffice to demodulate it. Outside of broadcast radio, most AM users migrated to single side band or SSB. On an AM receiver that sounds like Donald Duck, but with a little work, it will sound almost as good as AM, and in many cases better. If you want a better understanding of how SSB carries audio, have a look at [Radio Physics and Electronics] video on the subject.
The video covers the math of what you probably already know: AM has a carrier and two identical side bands. SSB suppresses the carrier and one redundant side band. But the math behind it is elegant, although you probably ought to know some trigonometry. Don’t worry though. At the end of the video, there’s a practical demonstration that will help even if you are math challenged.
A standard early electronics project or kit has for many years been the construction of a small broadcast transmitter with enough power to reach the immediate area, but no further. These days that will almost certainly mean an FM broadcast band transmitter, but in earlier decades it might also have been for the AM broadcast band instead.
The construction of a small AM transmitter presents some interesting problems for an electronic designer. It is extremely easy to make an AM transmitter with a single transistor or tube, but it is rather more difficult to make a good one. The modulation has to be linear across the whole amplitude range, and its effect must not pull the frequency of the oscillator and cause FM distortion.
It’s a task [Joe Sousa] has tackled, with his one tube AM transmitter in a Campbell’s soup can. His write-up of the transmitter contains a full description of the problems he faced, and how his design overcomes them. His oscillator is a cathode follower, with the tube biased in class A mode to ensure as undistorted a sine wave oscillation as possible. Modulation is provided through the suppressor grid of the pentode tube he’s using.
The completed transmitter is mounted inside the iconic soup can, with the mains transformer mounted on a removable bottom plate. There is a provision for both loop and wire antennas to be connected.
It is probable that this transmitter falls under the so-called “Part 15” rules for unlicenced low-power broadcasting in the USA, however it should be borne in mind that not every territory has this provision. If you build this transmitter, make sure you’re not going to attract the interest of your local equivalent of the FCC.
This article should have whetted your appetite for tiny broadcast transmitters. How about comparing the one here with a full-sized model?
Thanks [2ftg] for the tip.
[Mr. Carlson] likes electronics gear. Mostly old gear. The grayer the case, the greener the phosphors, and the more hammertone, the better. That’s why we’re not surprised to see him with a mammoth AM radio station transmitter in his shop. That it’s a transmitter that you can walk into while it’s energized was a bit of a surprise, though.
As radio station transmitters go, [Mr. Carlson]’s Gates BC-250-GY broadcast transmitter is actually pretty small, especially for 1940s-vintage gear. It has a 250 watt output and was used as a nighttime transmitter; AM stations are typically required to operate at reduced power when the ionosphere is favorable for skip on the medium frequency bands. Stations often use separate day and night transmitters rather than just dialing back the daytime flamethrower; this allows plenty of time for maintenance with no interruptions to programming.
If you enjoy old broadcast gear, the tour of this transmitter, which has been rebuilt for use in the ham bands, will be a real treat. Feast your eyes on those lovely old bakelite knobs and the Simpson and Westinghouse meters, and picture a broadcast engineer in white short sleeves and skinny tie making notations on a clipboard. The transmitter is just as lovely on the inside — once the plate power supply is shut down, of course, lest [Mr. Carlson] quickly become [the
former late Mr. Carlson] upon stepping inside. Honestly, there aren’t that many components inside, but what’s there is big – huge transformer, giant potato slicer variable caps, wirewound resistors the size of paper towel tubes, and five enormous, glowing vacuum tubes.
It’s a pretty neat bit of broadcasting history, and it’s a treat to see it so lovingly restored. [Mr. Carlson] teases us with other, yet larger daytime transmitters he has yet to restore, and we can’t wait for that tour. Until then, perhaps we can just review [Mr. Crosley]’s giant Cincinnati transmitter from the 1920s and wait patiently.
Here’s a question: when did you last listen to an AM radio station? If your answer is “recently”, chances are you are in the minority.
You might ask: why should you listen to AM? And you’d have a point, after all FM, digital, online, and satellite stations offer much higher quality audio, stereo, and meta information, and can now be received almost anywhere. Even digital receivers are pretty cheap now, and it’s by no means uncommon for them to not even feature the AM broadcast band at all. Certainly this has driven an exodus of listeners to the extent that AM radio has been in slow decline for decades, indeed it’s disappearing completely in some European countries.