One of the main challenges with the Internet is finding the good stuff. That's true with ham radio, just like anything else. First licensed in 1960, I mostly concentrated on HF and working DX. Around 1999 I moved back to Silicon Valley after living in the Los Angeles area since the mid 1970's. Soon after returning to Northern California, I discovered the Norcal QRP Club and soon after that I started contesting with low power, inspired by the activities of the Norcal QRP Club. QRP has been the niche in ham radio that interests me the most ever since then.
I found out about an excellent resource for QRP by attending the Norcal meetings after the flea markets in the East Bay once a month. It was a mailing list on the Internet called QRP-L. Everyone active in the QRP world was also on that mailing list. There have been some changes over the years with who is running the list and where the server is located for the list. During the height of the Norcal days, the list was very active and later tapered off some, as did QRP-L. But amazingly there is still an active QRP-L more than two decades after I first discovered it. Google QRP-L and you'll find it is now on a server at QTH.net which also hosts archives of the postings to the list, available only to members.
I want to point to a recent example of what an excellent resource QRP-L is for QRPers. But I can't do it in the normal way it would be done on the Internet, by simply linking to an example of an excellent posting. That's because only members of the list can read the archived postings! A non-member would not be able to see such an example, if I were to link to it. So I can only describe it to a non-member. It was posted to the list on Sat Oct 9 05:55:10 EDT 2021. The very first email to the list on that day was titled One Year with the IC-705 - and a 20 Foot Wire. It was from a QRPer who lives in a HOA environment that allows no antennas. This is not an uncommon situation a ham might find oneself in, especially more and more these days. He bought a new Icom 705 and proceeded to get on the air in spite of the restriction, using a 20 foot long wire with a rock tied on the end, thrown into a tree out my window. This end-fed antenna was essentially invisible to other members of the community, so he was able to use this to make contacts with other hams all over the world for the next year. On the one year anniversary of the start of this experiment, he was writing to the list with a report about his results using this stealth antenna during that year. He used a tuner to operate on all HF bands, 160 meters to 6 meters, using power levels of no more than five watts, mostly one-half watt out. He had made 3021 QSOs with 58 countries, mostly with cw, during a period of poor solar conditions. He said I love the challenge and rewards of operating QRP and encourage you all to give QRP a try!
Of course he was preaching to the choir, as the members of the list are all QRPers with their own similar results. But it is always gratifying to read what others have accomplished and the next seven emails posted to the list that day were congratulating him on what he had done. He had done it with super low power and a very modest wire antenna, to say the least, so folks really did appreciate what he had done. He had not been shooting fish in a barrel as a friend of mine in Norcal used to like to describe QRO operation with gigantic beam antennas and KW amplifiers. It was done in the original tradition of making contacts with the minimal power required to make the contact.
About seven hours later another member posted his results from running 3 watts and less to end fed wire antennas run through an antenna tuner, none up more than 15 feet. He is currently standing at 191 DXCC entities using that configuration. His rig is powered by a 9 volt battery, which is why he is limited to 3 watts out, rather than 5.
Two hours after the first posting of the day, Hans G0UPL of QRP Labs wrote in to announce their upcoming new QDX transceiver, a four band 5W digi modes transceiver for 80, 40, 30 and 20m. It will cost $80, plus an extra $20 for a handsome extruded aluminum enclosure, all easily held in the palm of one's hand. They will soon be taking orders for the first run of 450 kits. Because of the current global shortage of some semiconductor devices, he doesn't know how soon he will have another run of kits ready to be shipped. Several days later they started taking orders for the kit and the first run of 450 kits sold out within 15 mins.
The first time I ever got onto the Internet (via a BBS system) I found a mailing list for DXers. This was before the World Wide Web had been invented. The DXers mailing list was a bleeding edge improvement in the technology for exchanging information about DXing. After literally reading the mail there for a while, I had a brilliant idea about how it could be made better, so I sent an email to the list with my brilliant idea. I have no recollection of what that idea was, but I soon discovered the list had codified a bunch of rules and my suggestion violated one or more of those rules. This seemed arbitrary and I argued against such an idea. I then discovered there was someone called the moderator, who informed me that the rules were there to be followed and that if I wanted different rules, I could start my own list. But on this DXers list, I would have to stick to the rules. This was a huge surprise to me, but I got in line. Finding any mechanism for encouraging communication among hams on this new Internet was verrrry exciting.
DXers had always been on the leading edge of technology in their quest to work them all, that is, every rare DX station that ever appeared on the bands; anywhere, anytime. When I moved to Los Angeles in the 1970's I joined the Southern California DX Club and would never miss any of their monthly meetings at the Department of Water & Power downtown. At those meetings I was always in awe of the DX Legend, Don Wallace, W6AM. DXers returning from DXpeditions would always make a presentation at the SCDXC meetings to report on the results of their latest adventure. The club also had a 2 meter repeater that was dedicated to DX spots. If someone worked a good one, he/she would immediately announce the callsign and frequency of the station worked on the repeater and others would quickly go to that frequency to work the station as well. There was no Internet yet, so these were all live announcements over the air from the repeater. The DXers were always listening on the 2m frequency for these announcements.
There were also printed & mailed newsletters with news about up coming DXpeditions. From 1968 to 1979 Hugh Cassidy, WA6AUD, with the help of his wife Virginia, published the West Coast DX Bulletin. It was published and mailed to subscribers (48 US states only) weekly by second class mail. That's right, they mailed out a new paper newsletter every single week! Over the years it grew in the number of pages and even had display advertisements. Surely this was the mother of all side hustles. I was too cheap to subscribe, because I was just not all that fanatical about my DXing. I definitely didn't feel like I had to work them all.
These were not prepared with desktop publishing software on a personal computer. The hardware and the software for that sort of thing had not yet been invented! The Bulletins were typed on a typewriter and run off on a mimeo machine. They were happy when they had 800 subscribers, but it just kept growing and growing, hitting 3200 subscribers by the end. They had shipped 600 consecutive issues, every week without fail. Each issue required printing 30,000 pages in the end! Needless to say, this couple demonstrated amazing dedication to the publication they created and it was always just the two of them who produced every single issue. In the last paragraph of every issue, Cassidy would tell stories featuring various characters he had created. This was an extremely popular feature of the Bulletin, an equal to any popular column in the newspapers of those days, such as Herb Caen in the San Francisco paper. Hugh Cassidy was blogging long before that term had even been invented.
After the Bulletin was retired, the Northern California DX Club scanned all pages of Hugh Cassidy's archive of all issues and now they can all be read online. The news they contain is no longer current, but Hugh's writing in those last paragraphs is still a lot of fun to read. In January 1980 some DXers published a compilation of what they considered to be the best of those stories at the end of the Bulletins in a 188 page paperback book called DX IS! The Best of the West Coast DX Bulletin. I have a copy of the book, but it would probably be very hard to find now. Since we now have scans of the complete original text available, I'd say that's the best way to read them now. Paul Dunphy, VE1DX, a friend of Hugh Cassidy who safeguarded Hugh's archive of his original Bulletins before they were scanned for posting on the Internet also wrote an Introduction to the WCDXB Archive which perfectly captures the style of writing Cassidy used in his stories. Be sure to read it! At the bottom of that page that I just linked to is also a link to the very last Bulletin. Be sure to read that too, as Hugh Cassidy's last column contains a lot of specifics, not previously known about the Bulletin.
DX to us has always been an alive and continuing thing. But it was always a bit amazing to find
so many really old timers who have been DXing for thirty, forty or fifty years and are still
enthusiastic about the whole activity. They seldom miss a day when they are not checking the
bands and their level of interest has been sustained over the years.
If you have an interest in portable operating with your ham radio, there is one blogger who is essential to read, Thomas Witherspoon, K4SWL. He has many websites, but the two very active blogs that I read regularly are: The SWLing Post and QRPer.com. Like most of us, Thomas got started in radio by listening to the shortwave bands, originally encouraged by his father.
He once eloquently described shortwave radio as follows:[Shortwave radio] has little regard for distance, and no regard for political borders, nor for who and how many join you to listen. This apparent information dinosaur travels at the speed of light, streams information wirelessly on affordable handheld devices[...], is virtually immune to censorship, and leaves no tracks. Censorial attempts to jam it are largely unsuccessful and can usually be bypassed. Radio is, moreover, faster than the Internet. Radio is straightforward, effective – and in the developing world, still absolutely vital. It often functions as a form of life-support for rural and impoverished communities – for example, offering life-saving information when disaster strikes, like earthquakes or tsunamis.
That is by far the best description I've ever read about radio technology. The juxtaposition of apparent information dinosaur with travels at the speed of light is absolutely brilliant writing, as well as totally accurate. Radio does not need to take a back seat to computer technology. These are glorious, but not empty words. Thomas has arranged to donate a substantial number of shortwave radios to impoverished communities all over the world over the years! If you look at the faces of many children with their new radios, it may remind you of how you also felt when you first discovered the magic of shortwave radio.
On the About page for his QRP blog, Thomas wrote:
The goal of my site is to promote all things QRP–especially articles and sites which celebrate QRP in action. More specifically, my site will focus on portable operations.
There you have it; portable operation with QRP radios. The two go together so well. Because of their low power and transmitting by Morse Code, these radios are smaller and weigh less than usual HF equipment at a home station. Thomas is very hands on with his blog. He goes out into the field, often setting up his station in a park and making many contacts with other hams. Often he is demonstrating new equipment recently purchased or on loan from the manufacturers, discussing in great detail the pros and cons of all the equipment he is demonstrating. It is a great help in deciding what gear you'd like to get and how to use it.
In August and September 2021, Thomas featured an outstanding series called Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit, Part 1 and Part 2. These are classic articles, the best of the kind of writing that Thomas publishes. I encourage you to read both of them and then work out your own plan for getting out into the field with your own kit.
Back in 2015, Thomas published an outstanding review of available shortwave radios for those just getting started with listening on the shortwave bands. It is another example of the very helpful information you'll find on his blogs. Thomas also posts some articles written by his readers. For example in June 2021 he published a very extensive analysis of the Icom IC-705 in terms of whether this ham transceiver might qualify as a holy grail SWL/BCL receiver. That is, does it have such an excellent receiver that those who are not hams should buy it to use as their top notch receiver, ignoring its capabilities for hams on transmit? Hams are not the only ones who can get very serious about the technology they use!
It's time to get back to more regular blogging.
I'll start with a short one, a note about a half-price sale on four books about DXing. I've had the oldest of those four books for decades, but I'll buy it again as I don't have the latest edition. The Complete DX’er by W9KNI changed my ham radio life forever when I first read it. It was clear from the very beginning that this guy knew how to work DX. The writer grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as a family friend to Art Collins; yes, the founder of Collins Radio. Collins was the first mentor that Bob Locher, that writer, ever had in his life. Pretty good start, right? And Locher ended up writing the most popular book ever written on DXing, with over 26.000 copies in print. I am looking forward to reading the new third edition. I read the book the first time in 1983, not too long after I bought my Icom 751, the one and only commercial HF radio I ever bought brand new. I have no recollection of how I found out about the book, but I was always very glad I did.
This time I will buy all four of those books on sale, four for forty bucks is a great deal.
I got started in ham radio in my home town in Central Illinois. I got my Novice and Conditional licenses and was pretty active in ham radio during my early high school years. I should have learned about protecting my station from lightning, because we get a fair amount of it in the summer, but I didn't. One time my Viking Valiant AM transmitter got damaged from some lightning and my dad managed to get it repaired by way of his homeowner's insurance. We boxed up the rig and sent it off to the E. F. Johnson Co., the manufacturer, and sometime later it came back, as good as new. I should have learned a lesson from that, but I didn't. I remained largely oblivious about the dangers of lightning.
In the fall of 1963 I went off to college at Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio. I didn't take any ham gear with me, which was probably smart, as I had to spend most of my time with my studies. Once I finished college, I was off to California for grad school at UC, Berkeley in August 1967. I lived in California for the next fifty years and then returned to my home town in October 2017.
Most of my time in California I lived in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. Neither place got much rain and even less lightning. I've never had a tower or a beam antenna, always using wire and/or vertical antennas, up 30 feet or so max. In the 21st century I got very active in QRP, which often involved portable operation in good weather, never with rain. So for all of that operating, I never worried about lightning.
But now I'm back in the Midwest. Both my brother and I, as well as another friend who grew up in the Midwest, missed the excitement of the booms and cracks of lightning in the Midwest while we lived in California. Since returning home, I have been using a Norcal doublet antenna in our third floor attic with the antenna disconnected from the radio when I am not operating and never operating during thunderstorms. But I've been thinking about getting up some outdoor antennas, including some wire antennas suspended from our very tallest tree, up maybe 70 feet or more. I know I must learn how to protect my station from lightning activity.
Google recommended an article about the dangers of lightning strikes. I learned that lightning strikes are far more common & dreadful than I ever imagined!! It's a pretty long and graphic article. I found it difficult to read. I thought about the time in 1967 when I hiked up Mt. Whitney with my college roommate on the spur of the moment. Once we were above the tree line, we met a hiker who was coming down, having hiked over with his dog from the other side of the monster mountain. The only advice he gave us was to NOT be on the summit in mid to late afternoon, when lightning strikes can be very common. This possibility had not occurred to us even once! We thanked him and proceeded on our way up a long section of 99 (or so) switchback trails that very gradually took us up some pretty steep elevation gain. The temperature began to drop quite a bit. By the time we reached Trail Crest (at 13,600 ft elevation), which is the point when you can first see over to the other side of the mountain, we were getting cold and when we looked up we saw dark clouds gathering. The trail is not as steep from there, maybe another two miles or so to the summit. So we were already close to the elevation at the summit (14,505 feet). The air is thin there and we had already been breathing hard for a long time on the way up the switchback trail. We looked up again at those gathering clouds, it was mid afternoon and we began to get a light sprinkle of rain. We discussed what the hiker had told us about lightning, there was a long quiet pause and then we realized we had gotten cold feet too. The view was fantastic from there and it was not going to get much better in the remaining elevation gain we would have to the summit from there. We decided to turn back and I'm glad we did!
Many decades later I still look back on that as one of the most unique and memorable experiences in my lifetime. I plan to encourage young people I know to make that hike! I have now collected over thirty articles about the Mt. Whitney Trail and this article has the best collection of pictures of the trail, as well as a nice video at the end of the piece.
I almost bought another radio, which would have been a major upgrade for me as a QRP rig and as a Parks on the Air rig. But when I discussed it with the Budget Committee, we decided to keep concentrating on paying off credit card debt for now. Clearly I can get by with the many wonderful radios I already have. But, a lot like me, they are getting older & older.
So I got to thinking about where to go to get rigs repaired, upgraded and aligned. For decades Ten Tec was famous for repairing any rig they ever built. Needless to say, they developed a very loyal following because of this policy, especially considering that they've been producing rigs for over fifty years! This and their great QSK keying on CW were the two features that people would rave about the most with Ten Tec. But due to a change in ownership, their repair policy has now changed. This January a ham wanted to have some repair work done on an Argonaut V QRP rig. He got a message from Ten Tec that said:
"The Argonaut V is no longer in production and we
no longer take this unit in for service or repair as many repair parts are
no longer available and we are unable to make the repair."
The Argonaut V is just one generation older than the QRP rig which they are currently producing! At this time eHam has 88 mostly rave reviews of this rig from Oct 2002 until Jan 2021. Reviews for the successor Argonaut VI began in Dec 2012. This changed repair policy at Ten Tec was pretty shocking. I have at least eight wonderful Ten Tec rigs which the company now lists as obsolete. What would I do if any of them broke or needed servicing?
I started looking around and I ended up back on eHam which not only has tons of useful pages reviewing a huge variety of ham gear, but they also have a page full of reviews for Amateur Radio Equipment Repair. It's a very long list of options, nearly 150 different choices. Included are Howard Mills who did the great restoration of my classic Collins 51J-4 receiver and W3FPR, the expert Elecraft guy who may have recently retired. I also found a guy who is very familiar with Ten Tec gear and has accumulated 62 five star reviews over the last eight years, and NO reviews for anything less than five stars! I will certainly be contacting him in short order!!
And of course as hams, we also have the option of doing it ourselves. Last year I wrote about Hayseed Hamfest, LLC which is a great resource for capacitor replacement kits for many of the classic old radios. These are a great start for bringing an old prize back to life.
A bit over a month ago I wrote about Allied Radio & Heathkits. Around that same time I noticed that Radio Shack was beginning to show signs of life again, but I didn't mention it. Well now another blog has written about it, so maybe it will become a happening thing and indeed, their website says The Shack is Back. I always liked their solder and it is back. And I can certainly imagine buying some of their prototyping boards, as where else could you go for those when you need them? Poke around their site and you quickly see that they have batteries again, cell phone accessories (but no name brand phones) and even Radio Shack apparel of all things. But shouldn't they be giving away free tee shirts to anyone willing to visit their website?? I will use them when they have something I need, because a world without Radio Shack is really missing something. So let's give them some business and encourage them to prosper. Maybe it's an American thing to do.
For many years when I lived in Santa Clara, CA my favorite niche in ham radio was QRP, with its huge variety of kits. Some advantages of this niche are: (1) It is very affordable for buying a new rig (often under $100), (2) building kits is fun, (3) making CW contacts with minimal power really improves one's CW skills and (4) there is a large QRP community of skilled and helpful QRPers to help you along the way. I was fortunate to live in Silicon Valley during the height of the Golden Age of the Norcal QRP Club, which sold a great series of kits all over the world, had its own printed publication, as well as monthly meetings in a restaurant near the monthly flea market in the East Bay of the SF Bay Area. Norcal eventually ended, largely brought about by the death of one of its two founders, but Elecraft became a very successful commercial successor to Norcal and there are still many other active QRP clubs all over the world providing lots of great resources and fun activities.
I stumbled upon a compilation of QRP kits posted by Neil W2NDG in April 2012. It was pretty comprehensive at the time, but of course it is considerably out of date now. But I decided to link to it anyway, as it might still be useful to some just starting out and as a bit of nostalgia for the old timers. An updated version would be a very worthy project for someone wanting to contribute to the current QRP community.
Investing in amateur radio equipment is an extremely safe investment because there is such a large market of used radio gear available for buying, selling & trading. Before the virus pandemic hit, there were regular flea markets occurring all over the US with a huge variety of equipment for sale. Even during the pandemic, used equipment could be bought and sold on websites every day. The one I like to use is QTH.com, but there are many others as well.
There is a very long tradition of helping widows to sell the gear of their recently deceased husbands (silent keys or SKs) when they pass on. I think most hams value their own equipment a lot, perhaps because they have such fun using their equipment over many years. They become like good friends to us. None of us can bear the thought of our gear going into the trash when we are gone. And there is a long tradition of ham gear being used for emergency services after storms or other natural disasters in our communities. In fact this service is one of the main reasons we have been assigned the radio spectrum that we all share as hams.
Of course there are many hams who become collectors of ham equipment, with some becoming quite expert about specific equipment and ham radio brands. This is a very popular niche activity in ham radio. The annual Novice Rig Roundup is an event on the HF bands that runs for a full week and two weekends and features hams contacting each other with vintage rigs, often their Novice rigs, sometimes more than 50 years old. See my link to the 2021 announcement of that event for examples of the rigs commonly appearing in this event. These are simple CW rigs, usually separate transmitters and receivers, but lots of fun to operate. They are generally quite available on used equipment sites, like QTH.com mentioned above.
My favorite websites are those that feature the work of the masters of restoring this older equipment. My favorite example of this is the website of Dale Parfitt, W4OP, from North Carolina who does amazing work to restore unusual, sometimes unique, equipment to a very high standard of excellence. This site is a museum of a huge variety of radios, all restored to beauty, as well as brought to life again as fully working equipment. Some are very expensive rarities, but some others were originally quite affordable equipment, such as my first shortwave receiver, the Knight Ocean Hopper. Click on the image of each one to drill down to many other pictures of the restoration process for that equipment. I find his work very inspiring. I own my own examples of several of these radios from own lifetime in ham radio. I find his work in preserving fine examples of the history of ham technology to be very important for the preservation of our culture in ham radio over a very long time.
A huge variety of QRP projects can be found on the website of Monty, N5ESE. That's a vanity call he selected entirely based upon the sound of the ESE suffix on CW, "shave and a haircut." When I was a novice in 1960, some people would sometimes use that ESE as a sort of quick CQ call. There are some other hams in other call districts who have now adopted the ESE suffix with their own vanity callsigns. Anyway, poke around his website and I think you'll find a nice variety of homebrew projects. They don't approach the level of expertise of W4OP, but they all look to be a lot of fun.
I've decided to add a paragraph to this posting, even though I already published it last night. I had been looking for another blog I had been wanting to feature and I finally found it this morning. It is the blog of another master builder, Dave Richards, AA7EE. I am pointing to the article he wrote about his build of a 20m SST by Manhattan construction. This was a very popular design of Wayne Burdick, N6KR [manual] before he went on to start the super successful Elecraft amateur radio company. It was originally produced as a kit by the Norcal QRP Club and then as a kit for many years by Wilderness Radio. It was only after the kit went out of production that Dave decided he wanted to build one for 20m. As a result he had to build his from scratch using Manhattan construction, which is quite magnificant, an inspiring example of homebrew excellence, a functional work of art!
Of course the Internet is vast and I could go on and on, but this will at least get you started. Good luck and have some fun!
When I first discovered shortwave radio in 1959, Allied Radio in Chicago was my main source of information, like Amazon is today. We never drove up to Chicago, so I was never in their store, but they sent me one of their catalogs and I spent a lot of time looking through the huge variety of electronic stuff they had to offer. I bought my first ever kit from them in 1959, a Knight Ocean Hopper. I don't think I even knew about Heathkits at that time. I built the Ocean Hopper myself, my first soldering ever, and it worked great from the first time I ever turned it on. I spent hundreds of hours listening to shortwave broadcast stations from all over the world with it: Voice of America, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Radio Moscow, a station from Quito, Equador and many others. It opened up a new and magical world to me. Eventually I stumbled on to the ham bands and that opened up an entirely new world and a lifelong passion and hobby for me. The earliest version of the Ocean Hopper was advertised by Allied Radio in 1941. Heath didn't begin their kit business until 1947, but they eventually became the biggest kit business of all time.
There was a long interview of a long time Heath employee that was published recently. It is very interesting and well worth the read, as Heath was a very important company in the history of amateur radio. I recommend you read it. Key Point - "Probably the single greatest lesson is focus on customer service. Heath lived by “We will not let you fail.” Even before this slogan was formally introduced, it was the company mantra."
Chuck Penson, WA7ZZE, wrote three guides to Heathkit products, all very highly rated. You might also want to check out his guide to the Titan II Rocket, the most powerful ICBM America ever built.
Classic Heathkit Electronic Test Equipment  by Jeff Tranter.
The History of the Heath Companies and Heathkits: 1909 to 2019 [2019 PDF] by Erich E. Brueschke, KC9ACE and Michael Mack.
April 20, 1995 interview of Steve Jobs in which he discussed Heathkits in the first seven to eight minutes or so of the video. He also told a great story a bit after that about his fourth grade school teacher.
Reading QRP-L tonight, I discovered that the 2021 Novice Rig Roundup has begun. It runs for two weeks and from reading about the previous year roundups, ,  & , it sounds like a lot of fun. I submitted an application for my own NRR number, which may take up to two days to receive.
But the real question is whether I can find a working novice rig in my basement stash of gear. I would love to find my Heath DX-20 transmitter, but haven't seen it yet. But I do know where a box of old crystals is located, mostly for 40m. It would also be cool to find my Drake gear, especially my 2NT novice transmitter. I will post an update if I succeed in making it on the air this year. If not, I definitely will next year.
I would have started preparing much earlier if I had known, but better late than never! Hey, it's nice to have a new purpose in life.
I'm getting ready to add a second ham radio station in our house. My station for the last three years has been in a corner of the spare bedroom on the second floor. It has my favorite Icom HF rig (IC-775DSP), a terrific radio, especially on CW. It uses a Norcal Doublet antenna one floor up in the attic. I expect that it will stay there, although I might change some of the rigs that are there. I have a LOT of rigs!
But when spring arrives, I want to add a station that uses antennas that are outside, such as high up in our 85 ft tall tuliptree (the tallest variety of tree in North America, east of the Mississippi River). This tree is a variety in the magnolia family which blooms with large flowers that resemble tulips. This station will be in my office on the ground floor of our house, which has a large picture window looking out into our back yard. The operating position will be looking right out that window, allowing me to watch the bunnies, squirrels, Cardinals and other birds, and our fish pond in the back yard while I am on the air. Just to the right of the operating position and the picture window is a sash window which will provide the exit for the various antenna feedlines and the ground wire going to a ground rod just outside the picture window. The tuliptree is twenty two feet to the west of the sliding glass door on the right side of the room, near the center of the north-south border of our property, a perfect position for supporting wire antennas, the taller and longer the better. The tree has a diameter of about 34" (106" circumference) at its base.
I will have five feet of table top running along the bottom of the picture window, which will allow me to have many rigs set up and ready to go at all times. I'm expecting that this will become my main station with rigs for all the HF, VHF & UHF bands I use. I will be moving various boxes of client records and supplies out of the office and down into the basement, where I've had many sturdy wood shelves built, as well as wooden carts that will each be able to hold up to four banker boxes, moveable to various parts of the basement. A computer database will keep track of where to find any particular item in storage.
Originally I thought the basement might become my ham shack, but it is more suited to being my storage hideaway, with ham stations and radios located throughout the main house upstairs, among the living. And I don't doubt that I will also sometimes operate portable from outside in our yard and maybe from some of our nearby parks.
I'm really looking forward to getting this all set up!
I've seen amateur radio described as an "expensive hobby." It certainly can be, but when I started in 1959, that never occurred to me. My sources of income in those days were a paper route, mowing lawns ($3 each), a small weekly allowance from my father and cash bonuses for every A grade I got on my report cards (many). Money was never a problem for me.
I started as an SWL using a Knight Ocean Hopper I built from a kit from Allied Radio in Chicago, which cost only $19 including the case and all five coils. That was less than seven lawns mowed, so not that big a deal. It taught me how to solder & it worked the very first time I turned it on. I immediately discovered the magic of shortwave radio. I still have QSL cards I got from Radio Moscow, VOA, Quito Ecuador and others. But most importantly I discovered ham radio, which started me on my path to having my own ham ticket, KN9AGL, by 1960.
Of course then I bought another kit for my first transmitter, a Heathkit DX-20, which set me back $36, so maybe I had to save up for a while for that. And I also upgraded to a used National NC-109 receiver, which wasn't all that good, but it was fine for 40m CW using the $10 Heathkit Q-Multiplier kit I built. A top of the line Collins ham station in those days could easily cost as much as a new car, but I was already learning to live within my own means in those days.
There are still lots of ways to get started in ham radio without using a ton of money. What follows are some ideas from an Old Timer about how to get a good start in ham radio without spending a lot of money.
I decided to post a copy of the email I wrote to Doug Hendricks, one of the founders of the legendary Norcal QRP Club, as he had given me advice on how to build a Norcal Doublet Antenna. I used it for just under one year (2002-03) as my only antenna, up less than 14 feet from the ground in the attic of a duplex I rented in Santa Clara, CA.
From: Ron Chester
To: Doug Hendricks, KI6DS
Sent: Thursday, March 06, 2003 12:37 PM
Subject: NorCal Doublet
I hope you get this. I got your addresses from the QRP-L archives on messages you had posted to the list in February.
You may not recall, but ages ago I asked you for details on how to construct a NorCal Doublet. I had been using a full-size 80m dipole in the vacant lot next to my rented duplex with very good results. But then the owner of the lot started constructing two new homes in the lot, so the dipole had to come down. This left me with nothing but a front yard that is about 15 feet deep for my antenna farm.
I tried Vern's MP-1 inside my little house for a while. I made contacts, but it was rough at times, and I didn't like having to get up to retune the coil every time I changed bands, especially since I didn't have the motorized version of his tuning coil.
So I finally decided to give the NorCal doublet a try in my attic. I went to HSC, bought the ribbon cable and cut it as specified. I climbed up into the attic and secured the center point at the peak of the attic, which is just 13 feet 9 inches above ground, as this is a one-story duplex. Because of the slope of the roof and the overall size of the attic, it was only possible to keep the antenna wire at that height for about 8 feet on either side of the center, before the slope of the roof forced the wire lower, to a minimum height of 10 feet above ground at the ends. It was also necessary to bend the antenna into a zig-zag Z shape overall, as the attic is much too short for a full 44 foot run. At the ends I couldn't squeeze into the narrow space between the roof and the floor of the attic to secure the ends of the antenna, so I had to simply toss them onto the floor of the attic as far out as possible. Certainly not an ideal installation, but I was hopeful that it might net me some contacts. It is hard to imagine how dirty one can become while crawling around in an attic that has 40-50 years of accumulated dirt!
My first contact on the attic doublet was on 6 February 2002, just over one year ago. I've used a large variety of rigs with the antenna, including QRP rigs like the Elecraft K2, DSW-40, DSW-30, OHR-40, OHR-20, OHR-400, as well as my larger rigs, such as an Icom 751 and Ten Tec Century 21, Triton IV and Corsair. I have tuned it with an Icom AT-100 autotuner, but mostly I've manually tuned it with a Decca KW109 supermatch tuner. I'm old fashioned and like to turn the knobs on the old KW109. I'm able to get a very low SWR on all hf bands from 40m through 10m. I even used it one day on 6 meters, using the Yaesu FT-690RII rig at 10 watts into an MFJ 906 6m tuner. Best DX on 6 meters that day was 900 miles to Albuquerque and 700 miles to Arizona.
The performance isn't all that good on 40m, but it seems to work very well on the rest of the hf bands.
On March 15 I will be moving to a new home which is on 1/3 acre, where I will finally have room for more of a real antenna farm. So I decided to add up my results using the NorCal Doublet before I leave this duplex. I should make it clear that because of work and such I have not been able to spend a whole lot of time on the air, but I have been able to play around in some of the contests over the last year, such as the CQWW DX and ARRL DX contests. I have not had the time to avidly chase DX every day or even every month, but I tried to maximize the results in my limited time by operating in contests when I could.
I have limited most of my operating to QRP power levels, but not always. Especially on SSB I have sometimes raised the power to 50 to 75 watts output to make a contact.
My best miles per watt QSO's were on 2/17/02 when I worked Japan using the K2 with 373 milliwatts on 15 meters cw and 100 milliwatts on 20 meters cw.
Overall I worked 72 DXCC countries, with 45 of these being at QRP levels, mostly CW. I worked all continents QRP with CW and all but Asia with SSB. I worked China on SSB at 50 watts to complete the WAC SSB. I did WAC QRP on 10 meters alone, as well as on 20 meters. I worked 29 countries QRP on 15 meters, but never worked Africa QRP on that band, so I didn't do WAC QRP on 15.
I've worked all states on cw and 48 states on SSB, missing only Nevada and Utah on phone. The CW WAS is at QRP levels, but many of the SSB contacts were at higher power, no more than 75 watts.
The only antenna I had during this period was the NorCal zig-zag doublet in the attic. I'm sure with more time I would eventually work DXCC with the antenna. But when I get to the new QTH I will undoubtedly want to put up larger and higher antennas.
The final test of the antenna came in a cw competition sponsored by the Palo Alto ham club, PAARA. At the club meeting on Nov. 1, 2002 the club president proposed a game to see who could work all states first, using cw only. The idea was to encourage cw operation and the prize for the winner was to be the new NorCal 30 kit, once it comes out.
Well since the very next day was the ARRL Sweepstakes CW contest, I decided to give it a try. That weekend I worked 41 states, all at 5 watts. I then picked up Oregon at 5w in a Fox Hunt a few days later. Then in the ARRL 10 meter contest in December I picked up Maine, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Delaware at 5 watts, plus Mississippi and Nevada at 65 watts. The final state of Alabama was worked with 70 watts during the first hour of the North America QSO Party on January 11, 2003. So I completed the CW WAS in 71 days from the start of the game and was declared the winner!! Only three of the states in this game were worked with more than 5 watts. I had previously worked those states at QRP levels on the antenna.
For the WAS competition I only used the Ten Tec Corsair rig (which I picked up at the Livermore swap meet for $200), the KW109 tuner, a Logikey K3 keyer, Schurr Profi paddles and the NorCal zig-zag doublet in the attic.
Now I anxiously await the release of the NorCal 30, so I can build it and really exercise my bragging rights at the PAARA meetings.
Anyway, I thought you might like to know how I did with this antenna. It's not the best antenna I've ever used, but it might have been the best I could do under the space limitations I had, and it certainly made it possible for me to get on the air and make a lot of contacts, when I might not have otherwise. That's what really matters.
Thanks for your advice and help with the antenna!
On 20 Jan 2021, there was a thread on QRP-L about what to use for cleaning CW keys. Several remembered using Brasso, but the winner seemed to be NEVR-DULL, available at Ace Hardware, Pep Boys, True Value and Wal*Mart. One tin should last many years. It's a good thing I moved out of California after living there for fifty years, as that's the only state where you can't buy it. CA doesn't allow switchblades either. I think I'll take my chances and try out the magic in a tin.
The previous posting about the R3 vertical was just the background posting for this one. I had started looking at a lot of possible vertical antennas, but then I always had backoff because of the need for radials and that always seems like SO much work! So I have never in my life installed radials. But then I realized I had had very good results with a vertical in LA, so verticals can really have some advantages.
Being on a mini vertical binge in my reading lately, my Google Spy helped me out again with a helpful link, about verticals and radials, from an active general purpose ham radio club of about 100 members in Nashua, NH, the Nashua Area Radio Society. Google noticed that they had a 2019 article about verticals and radials. So I read it, another of many in my vertical binge reading.
The article does a great job of discussing ground conductivity, as related to half-wave verticals. As pointed out in the sole comment on this piece, this topic is the key to how AM broadcast stations work! We live in the heart of central Illinois, which has some of the most valuable farmland in the country; rich, black, loam that is great for growing corn and soybeans, a major source of income to our part of the country, which is in the heart of the Corn Belt, in 1956 declared by Vice President Henry A. Wallace to be the "most productive agricultural civilization the world has ever seen." Drive outside our city and you see farmland in all directions, very flat prairie as far as the eye can see, but dotted with tall towers, vertical antennas for broadcast radio stations. Our local ham clubs have VHF and UHF repeaters on some of these towers, often up 100 feet or more above the rich farmland below, no yagis or rhombics needed for these signals.
The article links to a map of the US, downloadable from the FCC, that shows the conductivity of the soil all over the country, but it also shows a small map in the article of the same thing. Conductivity is measured in mhos, which is ohms spelled backwards, as conductance is the reciprocal of resistance. Is that neat, or what? Looking at this map, to the north, south and east of us, nearly all the conductance readings are in the single digits. But we are located in a band of land with conductance of 15 millimhos per meter, far higher than the rest of the country to our north, south and east. Wow, all that flat land around us began to look much different to me. Looking to our west across the Great Plains, we see conductance similar to ours and some even higher at 30 millimhos per meter. Call it flyover country if you want, but I now prefer to think of it as the part of the country with the best ground conductance. As for RF, the higher the current in the soil, the stronger the signal radiated from the vertical antenna, which translates to better DX! Then again seawater has conductance of 5,000 millimhos per meter. In California my RF take-off to the west was across the Pacific Ocean, which is why it was so easy to work VK, ZL and other Pacific rim destinations from there.
The radial system taps in to that conductive soil for the half-wave verticals, completing the key second half of such antennas. All that hard work in building a good radial system could pay big dividends in harnessing the power of our rich conductive soil. Operating QRP should be far more successful from here if we take advantage of our Prairie Amplifier; that rich, conductive soil.
REF: All about loam and how to fine tune it to be more like you want it.
If you've been a ham for a long time, and especially some time after moving to a new QTH, one's mind begins to turn to antennas. There are a huge variety of antennas to consider. So one reads a lot about various choices, gets their dimensions and thinks about how and where they might fit in to whatever property one has.
I have never had a tower and a rotating yagi or quad antenna. I've used a lot of wire antennas, as well as some verticals, and it's always fun to plan, build and try out a new antenna. In the early 1980's I got back into ham radio after my college/grad school & early work years. I even had to retake the exams and got back my old callsign, K9AGL, and then bought my first ever brand new HF rig, an Icom 751 beauty. I was living in LA and bought my second house there, a nice place in a lovely neighborhood just south of Hollywood, but it was on a small city lot with no giant trees. But it DID have a room above the detached garage, perfect for a ham shack! A vertical seemed like the only choice for getting on HF and I installed a Cushcraft R3 vertical on the flat roof at the back of the house, a very unusual vertical for 10/15/20 meters with decent, not great, reviews on eham.net, but it was a breakthrough antenna at the time. It was a half-wave antenna covering the most active DX bands of the day and it did not require radials. None! It had two traps which shortened the length of the vertical radiator required and best of all, it had a motorized tuning coil at the bottom which was adjusted remotely for perfect resonance with a small box connected by a control cable at the operator position. Push the button on this box, the motor would tune the coil and one could watch the steep dip in the SWR when you got to exact resonance for the frequency where you wanted to operate. I only needed about 20 feet of control cable to reach the tuning coil from my operating position. It took a while for the motor to move the tuning capacitor on the coil enough to change bands, but frequency excursions within a band were pretty fast. In a CW DX contest one could stay on the same band for a long time, occasionally touching up the resonant frequency, as needed. Soon I had the cards for DXCC and with them in hand I was able to join the excellent Southern California DX Club! Those were happy times for K9AGL, using an excellent Icom rig and the perfect antenna selected to optimize the conditions I had for operating.
Eventually I sold that house and moved back north to Silicon Valley. The R3 did not move with me because it was too long for the Honda Civic I was driving in those days. Cushcraft went on to develop a series of other verticals with more traps to cover more bands and they dropped the motorized tuning coil. The R3 disappeared from their lineup. If they were still making it, I would buy one immediately!
Here's a very thorough update on the Arecibo Obervatory from Science Magazine. This article gives a detailed history of the observatory, its upgrades, drawings of the layout of the equipment, and the story of its eventual collapse. Designs for a new telescope have been proposed, costing $400 million, but nothing has yet been approved. The article points out that the cost of the proposed new telescope is about the same as the cost of producing one Hollywood blockbuster movie, but doesn't mention the return on that investment that Hollywood would normally be expecting.
The N3FJP logging software I use most often has added a speech to Morse Code feature.
Record Speech to be Able to Send CW Text
The software developer wrote:
One of our club members is no longer able to send CW manually (or type using a keyboard to send CW), so I added the ability to record text to send CW via speech to text. Press Ctrl K to record from your PC's mic input on the CW buffer form. This solution has all the limitations associated with text to speech, so it is by no means a perfect solution, but it at least provides an option to continue to engage in CW for those whose manual dexterity otherwise precludes it.
I hope I will never need to use this feature, but I'm pleased that Scott decided to add it. I think there is a long tradition of CW being used to help disabled people to be able to communicate with others.
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez has signed an executive order approving $8 million to help rebuild the radio telescope. Hmm, see my previous posting about the Arecibo Observatory. At one point Angel, WP3R, the director of the telescope operations, said that NSF was at least considering the possibility of rebuilding the telescope, but the number he threw out for what might be needed to do it was $300 million. So I'm thinking the offer of $8 million has probably not gotten the NSF too excited about proceeding, as confirmed by the statement the NSF released on the subject. The publication that reported on the executive order called it "a glimmer of hope," but I wonder whether the glimmer might be a bit optimistic. Perhaps its a very faint glimmer, like the light from an extremely distant star.
My friend Joel, KD6W, sent me a link to a podcast about the collapse of the giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which was featured in the 1997 movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster, based upon the 1985 Carl Sagan novel. They started building it in 1959, the same year I started studying for my Novice test, as well as learning Morse Code. It was put into service in 1963, the same year I went off to college. Joe Taylor, K1JT, used it to discover a binary pulsar system, research that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993. On 10 August 2020 one of the auxiliary support cables for the telescope (the cable weighed 20,000 pounds!) came down. Before they were able to work out a solution to this problem, there was a catastophic failure that brought the entire telescope down. This is all described in a podcast interview of Angel, WP3R, the director of the telescope operations, who has worked at the observatory for 43 years. They had some cameras in place to monitor the situation and then flew a drone into position at just the right time to watch it close up. They show two videos midway through the podcast that provide very close video of the horror of the final collapse on 1 December 2020.
They also discuss (at 28:50) how they once used the telescope to make a successful moonbounce QSO, using a ham radio HT to chunk the local repeater to send a signal to the moon. Normally the telescope used only one watt of power to drive a one megawatt transmitter. But they did the moonbounce QSO (August 2010 QST) the ham radio way, because the 430 MHz band is a shared band between the ham community and the scientific community. The telescope antenna obviously had a huge amount of gain (70 dB gain). Originally NSF was talking about decommissioning the telescope after the recent collapse, but now they're considering the possibility of rebuilding it. Anyone want to donate $300 million? I'm sure it would be tax deductible for US taxpayers.
Joel originally got this podcast link from the legendary Radio Club of America. They had done their own interview of Angel in October 2020 and they were the last organization to get a tour of Arecibo Observatory. It's interesting to note that Tim Duffy, K3LR, President Emeritus of RCA (President 2016-2018) actually conducted both interviews! They are fascinating and well worth the time to view them.
Angel mentioned Joe Taylor a lot, especially in the October interview. Besides winning the Nobel Prize, K1JT has been developing a lot of new digital modes for ham radio, beginning with WSJT, which is now open source software, and the JT stands for Joe Taylor. It was originally released in 2001 and there have been numerous variations of the software released over the years, including one released by Joe Taylor on 29 June 2017, called FT8. In the last link I provided, it says, FT8 stands for "Franke-Taylor design, 8-FSK modulation" and was created by Joe Taylor, K1JT and Steve Franke, K9AN. When I read this, the K9AN rang a bell as a callsign I had seen mentioned in my area. So I looked him up. Sure enough, he is shown as being in Urbana, about 60 miles from us here in Central Illinois. He is a recently retired Professor Emeritus in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept at the University of Illinois, where he also got his Ph.D. in 1984, the most famous university in our neighborhood. He taught Wireless Communication Systems there. So the F of FT8 is a ham just an hour away from me! I will keep my eyes out for him and perhaps I can work him on the air.
At 2:45 am it suddenly occurred to me that the time has come for a complete reorganization of all my ham gear! I need to make a thorough inventory of all the equipment I have, with what bands each one covers. Some of it can be sold on the Internet. Most of it is fully operational, but needs to be moved from the basement to my current station location upstairs, as well as to some new stations to be located elsewhere about the house. That would apply to my many QRP rigs, but I also have two Drake stations I want to put into service, and the same for one or more Ten Tec stations.
I also need to get my AM gear into service, including my gorgeous W0BP restored Viking Valiant transmitter (tune up procedure) and a Howard Mills restored Collins 51J-4 receiver. These receivers sold new in 1963 for $1,464, which is equivalent to about $12,450 in today's dollars! Howard upgraded it with a brand new 4:1 vernier drive, a $300 part that makes tuning the PTO an extremely smooth operation. He had the radio for about two months and when I got it back it basically looked like a brand new radio, inside and out, even though it was over 45 years old at the time. Howard just retired from the business of restoring radios in early 2020. He had been considered the master of restoring Collins equipment for many years.
I also have a pretty special WWII RCA AR-88 receiver that deserves an antenna. Those radios had a significant impact on winning the war, as banks of them were used to intercept encrypted German communications and were then converted to plain text by a huge staff at Bletchley Park in the UK. Mine is one of the special versions of the receiver, the AR-88LF, which is suitable for LF and MF, covering 70 to 550 kHz (continuously) as well as the usual 1.5 to 30 MHz (continuously).
Sunspot Cycle #24 recently ended, having peaked with a sunspot number of 116, not so hot for DXers. NASA and NOAA have already predicted that Cycle #25, just beginning, will likely be as weak as #24.
But WAIT, there is more. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is predicting that Cycle #25 could be one of the strongest since record-keeping began, peaking at 210 to 260 sunspots. That's a big difference of opinion!
Should we care? If we want to have tons of fun easily working DX all over the world in the new cycle, then yes, we're hoping that NCAR is right. I have been in ham radio during all of the previous five solar cycles. I was first licensed in 1960, which was during the cycle just before those, which had by far the most sunspots in my lifetime. If you look at the graphs of the last six sunspot cycles, the biggest one by far, peaked around 1958-59 with more than 350 sunspots! So I missed the best of that one by about two years. The five cycles since then all peaked far lower, with only two of them peaking at more than 250 sunspots. My Elmer (W0RJW) got started in ham radio a few years before me. So he had his general class ticket thoughout the peak of that monster cycle. He told me he would rush home from school so he could get on the air and work tons of DX in the mid to late afternoon. The conditions during those years are legendary among hams who were able to enjoy them.
Recently published is a dramatic image of one of these sunspots, photographed on 29 January 2020 by a new telescope on Maui in Hawaii. This is what we need. More of those!
I get the SFI, A index and K index from the Propagation Now section of DX Summit.
I've always wanted to do some radio restoration projects. But where to start? Well from what I've read, an old radio is likely to mostly need new capacitors, especially the electrolytic capacitors, which may have dried out. This would give you a receiver that just hums, for example. My novice receiver, a National NC-109, definitely has this problem. I would love to bring it back to life. But would I be able to find replacements caps with the right specs? I had visions of hours spent on the Mouser website looking for just the right electrolytic.
Somewhere I stumbled onto this website with a great name. They offer the answer to this whole problem! They sell capacitor kits specific to lots of the classic old radios; by Drake, Hallicrafters, Hammarlund, Heathkit, National, Swan, Zenith and even audio equipment like Fisher, Scott and McIntosh. I checked out their reviews on eham.net and found 22 reviews from 2009 to 2015, ALL of them being five star reviews! Wow.
And once I have the DX-20 back in service, I'll stock up on crystals for many spots on 40m for 89 cents each from KC9ON. Fun, fun, fun!
I was gonna make that last posting the end of my Morse Code series. But Google reminded me that there is one more topic I still need to address. Google did what? I'll explain. I was using the Internet before Google existed. But I started using their search engine soon after they created it. I had been using Alta Vista before that. And soon after they created Gmail, I started using that too. I was very happy using their tools for "free." I believed their motto about "Don't be evil." When I started reading blogs, I was using Google Reader, which I loved, like so many others. I was quite shocked when they pulled the plug on Reader and some doubts about Google began to creep in.
Gradually I learned about how Google was making a fortune selling ads on the Internet, thanks to all the data they were collecting about us through their search engine and through all the emails we were all exchanging using Gmail. Soon I was no longer convinced about their motto. And then I learned about the IndieWeb movement and how it was important to own your own domains to maintain control over your own writing on the Internet. I started doing that with my blogging about three years ago. That has all worked out well.
The next obvious evolution was to replace Google with other tools that wouldn't be spying on me so much. But when I looked for other tools for email, I didn't find anything that seemed as easy as Gmail. Plus I had started reading articles on the web that Google had suggested to me. Some of these suggested articles were really good. There was a turning point when Google suggested a podcast to me about Bob Dylan having won the Nobel Prize. It featured Christopher Ricks, a brilliant professor of English, the first person in academia to compare Dylan's life work to that of Shakespeare's. It was by far the best commentary I ever saw on Dylan's music. And there had been a million articles about Bob and his music. The podcast by Ricks about the prize was by far the best discussion of the event of them all. And to top it all off, my best friend in the Dylan community, a Sanskrit scholar at Cambridge University who runs the best Facebook group about Bob had not heard about that podcast! I'm sure he has one of the biggest collections of Dylan material in the world and he has a huge network of Dylan fans from all over the world. And yet he had not heard about that podcast from anyone! And yet Google had suggested it to me, because it has learned over the years that I am big into Dylan. And it had probably learned from my emails in Gmail that Ricks had become a friend of mine in 1989 when I had recommended that Stanford should have him give the keynote address at the 1989 International Conference on Bob Dylan held at Stanford. So Google put 2 & 2 together. I then had to accept that Google was providing me good value with their suggestions.
And now, the day after I posted Mastering the Code, Google suggested an article that reminded me I had left out an important topic on Morse Code: Head Copy. So here we go.
As you follow whatever routine you adopt for learning the code, your code speed will naturally increase & there will be times when you stop writing down all of what you're copying. This is what is called head copy. For me, this began to occur when I was having QSO's on 40m at 10-15 wpm. Those QSO's had a pretty common format with certain topics coming along in the same order: RST, name, QTH and so on. Eventually I found myself just noting down those key points, without bothering to write down all the connecting text. That is head copy, with notes taken for the logbook. It's a natural progression.
The article above suggests that you can specifically practice copying whole words, rather than individual letters. There are word practice videos that play the 100 most common or 500 most common English words at various CW speeds. Three years ago I was playing around with software that would convert plain text to Morse Code MP3 files. This allows you to roll your own practice files. I've linked to the one I was using, but Google can provide you with a ton of other programs for the same purpose. And here you can find lists of the most common words used in ham radio.
There is one danger here and that is that you might now get wound up in picking the absolute best text-to-CW converter, designing the perfect word lists and creating tons of practice MP3 files. Keep it simple. Remember, the purpose here is to learn CW. And remember Don Wallace originally suggested you could get your practice receiving Code by listening on the radio. So no practice files are even needed in that case.
If you find yourself getting distracted off the main purpose, I suggest you take a quick look over the nine articles I've written here on Morse Code. They're all together in order. The most important one is A New Sound System, which describes the system of learning the Code described by Don Wallace in his 1936 short wave manual, and probably in his 1933 first edition of the manual as well. Going back to that article is equivalent to going back to the basics of the subject. Focus on that system and keep it simple. You want to learn exclusively by sound and then practice, practice, practice. It should be simple, fun and effective!
There are a LOT of different ways to go about learning the code. But those who have succeeded in learning the code to a very high level of expertise all seem to agree with the basic ideas published by Don Wallace in 1936, especially the idea that it is the sound that one must learn and NOT to rely on any visual memorization techniques.
I'll give you a more recent example, Chuck Adams. K7QO, who is very well known in the QRP community. As a teenager in Texas, Chuck learned the code in two nights, took a CW test on the third day and passed at a speed of 12 wpm. He went on to compete in many code competitions, winning often at speeds of 40-45 wpm and even as high as 140 wpm. He can consistently carry on QSO's at 110-120 wpm. Clearly he had some natural talent for this skill.
Do we need to reach these levels to consider that we have mastered the code? I don't think so. Note that in the article I linked to above, Chuck said, "You hear/see words in your mind instantly that came from another human mind miles away without consciously hearing the sounds from the speaker. When we talk to people we don’t think about the sounds, but the ideas being given." I believe someone who uses the code in that way has certainly mastered the code. During World War II when the military trained Morse code operators, they trained for 16 weeks for about 8 hours a day. Is that what we need to plan on doing? Definitely not. We're learning the code to have some fun, to talk with other hams, not to win a war. I think it's best to learn the code to the point where one can consistently use it to have some fun. Of course to achieve that, one will need to practice a lot. But the practice should be fun along the way.
So at what speed do we need to learn to do CW? Well the answer to that is "It depends." When I started out, I had passed the CW test for my Novice license at 5 wpm. When that first license came to me in the mail, I started having CW QSO's on the air with other Novices at 5-8 wpm. By the end of the summer, I was doing it at 10-15 wpm. I was having great fun with the code at every step along the way! No kidding! To upgrade to General Class I had to pass a CW test at 13 wpm, which I did on my first try. But all the code requirements have now been dropped. You just need to master the code at a speed that you will need in whatever situation in which you want to use the code.
So just proceed on a gradient and enjoy the fun of the code at every step along the way. There are many clubs that promote the use of Morse Code on the air, such as FISTS, SKCC, NAQCC, and many others. My original Elmer is very active in SKCC and his description of their activities sounded to me like a great way for a new person to get started. They encourage hams to have CW QSO's with others at whatever speed is comfortable for them. Members are happy to slow down to any speed that is comfortable for the other operator.
There are also lots of CW contests that are a lot of fun. Many of these routinely operate at 20-35 wpm, but that doesn't mean you must have mastered the code at those speeds to be able to participate. Listen to the podcast from K8XT that I linked to in an earlier posting that discussed how to have a lot of fun with CW contesting, even as you are learning to operate on CW at slower speeds.
I bought my first ever SDR radio today. One of my favorite blogs to follow is The SWLing Post which is written by Thomas Witherspoon, K4SWL, who is a ham, but started off as an SWL and still loves SWLing, maybe even more than hamming. In June 2020 he republished an article he wrote for the Jan 2020 edition of The Spectrum Monitor magazine all about his portable SDR setup using The AirSpy HF+ Discovery SDR which plugs into his Windows laptop. Using a small loop antenna it gives him excellent HF and VHF radio reception from anywhere in the world. This SDR radio is tiny and costs only $169. I was intriqued and thought maybe I'd look into getting one of these one day.
Well today was the day. Airplay has a big sale every year and the 2020 sale has begun. The AirSpy HF+ Discovery is on sale for $118, 30% off, so I bought one! How could I pass up such a big sale? It covers 0.5 kHz to 31 MHz plus 60 to 260 MHz in one tiny 45 X 60 mm box. Practically free! For another $21 I also got the usually $40 HF loop antenna. Connect it to my Windows 10 laptop and I should be all set.
Then it occurred to me that in this digital age, someone just starting out could use this setup to practice receiving Morse Code being sent over the air on the HF ham bands. This would complete everything one would need to implement the full W6AM method of learning the Code. And of course you could also do another million or so cool things with this thing, as described in the article Thomas published. Fun, fun, fun with radio!
I started thinking about what Don Wallace had called "the practice set" in 1936.
The practice set is indispensible, but use it yourself. Send to yourself . . .
I really love this idea that you can learn the code on your own, and in fact that might be the very best way to do it.
Nobody need help you. In fact, you can actually do it better by yourself.
But does everyone who is now thinking of learning the code have access to a practice set? So I looked around and was pleased to discover that there are a LOT of code practice oscillators out there! The ARRL sells one, another by Ameco, an ancient name in ham radio, a nice one from the UK by Kent, a manufacturer of nice keys, a very affordable kit from Nightfire Electronics, or buy that same one already built from Walmart, of all places. They're all over the place!
I started to worry that this could send folks off in all directions considering a million choices. But then I discovered the best two choices for anyone getting started. First the Cadillac option, from the QRP Guys, for twenty bucks plus shipping. This is an easy kit (one hour to build) designed by a top radio designer in the QRP community and it does everything! You can practice sending with a straight key, a bug or paddles. You can use it to practice receiving by having it send you randomly generated code at 5 to 30 wpm. This guy designs great kits, so I can certainly recommend it. BUT what if you don't yet have a key, bug or paddles? Well then you can start learning to send code for ten bucks plus shipping by getting the easy kit from my friends at Pacific Antenna, as it has the key built right in to the kit! Please tell them I sent you. We have been friends for many years. If you have a ham band receiver, you can use it to practice receiving the code, just like Don Wallace suggested. Or you can listen to the code files from the ARRL, as mentioned in my previous posting.
Okay, get started. There's a lot to learn, but it will be fun!
On the last page of the June 1933 issue of Radio magazine, there is an ad for the 1933 edition of the Short Wave Manual by Don C. Wallace, W6AM. It is advertised as having 164 pgs. It was edited down to 128 pgs in my 1936 edition of the book. I sure would love to find a copy of that first edition. The ad does say it includes an article on how to learn the code. In this article, I will give you details about the corresponding article in the 1936 edition of The Manual. The article is titled How to Master the Radio-Telegraph Code, as I mentioned in my previous posting. But it also has an important sub-title, A NEW SOUND SYSTEM, as I have titled this posting. This is the key to mastering the code.
When Don wrote this article, one FCC requirement for getting licensed as a radio amateur was to prove you could copy the code at ten words per minute. When I got licensed in 1960, they had reduced the requirement to five words a minute. And some were still complaining that was too hard and were not getting licensed, instead of mastering the code.Don wrote,
But learning the code is slow work. "There is no royal road to knowledge" of it. Nothing but practice and persistence will win the prize. The task is not hard, but it does take time.
And then the key to it all . . .
Long experience has demonstrated that the quickest and most effective way is to memorize one letter at a time --- solely by its sound.
Which is why he called this a new sound system! But when I learned the code in 1959, I heard no mention of learning the code solely by its sound. Somehow that had gotten lost along the way in the intervening years. It was lost technology! Fortunately I found out about this in the early 1980's and I set about relearning the code the right way. Among hams, I think learning code by its sound has been the standard approach ever since, at least as taught by the best teachers.
There are only two sounds that need to be differentiated in learning the code. Surprisingly, Don described these as did and daw. I had never seen them described that way in my over sixty years of hamming. I was taught the two as dit and dah and that is how I've always seen it ever since. Does it matter which way they are spelled? No, because you're just going to be learning the sounds of the code, which does NOT include images of how these sounds are written or spelled. It's an interesting difference though. Next time you're with some of your ham friends, you should be able to amaze them or even win a bet with this obscure tidbit of history.
His system was to learn the sounds of the letters in alphabetical order. Start with A, then go on to B and on down the list to Z. But totally learn each letter, before going on to the next one. It is more common for people to teach the code in a different order these days, but I don't think that is a critical difference. But there are other differences, which I find more interesting. His advice is to learn the code on your own by sending each letter with a key to yourself over and over and over, hundreds of time, gradually getting faster, so that when you hear that sound, you instantly know it is the letter A. And then his recommendation was to turn on a short wave radio and listen to a telegraph station sending code over the air and just listen to pick out all the letter A's in their transmissions. I find this advice really interesting. Of course back then there were telegraph stations all over the bands, as it was the main way for messages to be delivered over long distances. These days there can be times when the bands can be pretty dead. But at those times, one could listen to pre-recorded tapes or the code practice files sent every day by the ARRL. And of course, once you have also learned the letter B, you would turn on the radio and practice picking out all the A's and B's being sent. And so on.
It is better, causing less confusion and safer to learn the code "from the air" than to have someone send to you on a practice set. Of course, the practice set is indispensible, but use it yourself. Send to yourself, listening to your own DIDS and DAWS and repeat the character as many times as necessary, until you know it like the first initial of your name. Go back to the receiving set, often, and select a station in the amateur band. . . Of course it takes time and practice. What's worth knowing is worth fighting for. . . If you practice for one hour a day for 30 days you should be able to "copy" at least five words per minute. Many amateurs have beat this record by 100%. . . Nobody need help you. In fact, you can actually do it better by yourself. . . Once you know the code, you never forget it, no matter how long you stay away from it.
Next, a way to get started!
There's been a bit of a delay on this blog. But I'm back and starting to work on my posting about Mastering the Code. Take a look at this page from the July 1933 issue of Radio magazine. Down the left side of the page are some classified ads. Right above the Ohmite ad is an ad for 1933 Wallace Short Wave Manuals. I own a 1936 printing of this manual and I'm going to tell you about mastering the code from an article in that book written by Don C. Wallace, W6AM. This book is one of the treasures in my ham radio library. I don't know anyone else who has a copy of this 128 page book. I have searched on the Internet and so far have not found another copy, though I did find a mention of the book. Don Wallace is my hero in ham radio. He was one of the most famous hams in the world for a very long time, and for good reason. When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1980's, I became a member of the Southern California DX Club. The biggest perk of joining that club was being able to meet the great Don Wallace, who was also a member of the club. Decades earlier in his Short Wave Manual he wrote a four page article on How to Master the Radio-Telegraph Code. I will tell you about that in detail in my Mastering the Code article.
I want to write some about techniques for learning Morse Code. I'm sure you've seen these charts that list all the letters of the alphabet & numbers, with their corresponding code equivalents shown in dots & dashes. At best these are like a technical dictionary that defines how each symbol is sent in Morse Code. But publishers & educators have misled people into thinking these charts are training tools. They are NOT! In fact, if you use them as training tools, you will be slowing down your ability to learn and use the code.
When I was a kid, I learned to send the code with a Western Union Radio Telegraph Signal Set. It allowed you to send code with a flashing light, or with a clicking sound, or with a buzzer. We always used the buzzer. When my father sent me code on our back porch at night, he used this same buzzer. You'll notice that this device listed the alphabet & code equivalents down the white section on the left side. Below that raised section were the batteries for the set. My father learned the code as a Boy Scout and still remembered it well decades later. I guess if he forgot a letter while sending me practice code, he could quickly check the letter in the white area on the left.
But the trouble with learning this way is that it was inevitable that your mind would form an image of each letter with the dots & dashes next to it. It's a look-up table. Once you had memorized it, you could look back at the mental image you had formed from the chart and you could then send the letter from the mental image you had formed. This works well enough for a history test in school, but we're learning the code to be able to communicate with people. Having to look up these memorized mental images and then count the dots & dashes and the order they are in all takes time. It was okay for passing the Novice CW test at 5 wpm. But to pass the General Class test at 13 wpm, this method was really pushing it. And for the Extra Class ticket at 20 wpm, well forget it. You'll never manage at that speed using all these mental images.
The right way to learn the code is by sound. I tell people just starting out to not even look at these charts as they are learning. Have someone send you a letter with the buzzer and then tell you it was the sound for the letter A, or whatever. Repeat this over & over and before long when you hear that sound, you will know it is an A. And please don't translate this sound into the dot & dash equivalent. That would just be re-introducing the slow mental image of learning. Don't do that, it slows you down! The way the Boy Scouts did it, maybe even my father, was to listen to the sound of the code on records. You see how he plays the sound of the letter and then names it, E. That's the proper way to learn the code. He doesn't say anything about dots & dashes or code charts. He just starts with the sounds and what they mean and then goes on to T, then A and so on. Nowhere on the record does he ever mention a dot or a dash or a code chart. He just sends the sounds and tells what they mean.
Okay, that's a good example of the way to do it. Now click here and see how the Bob Scouts changed to teaching code in 2015 with the "help" of Google, which developed "clever" pictographs on flash cards to represent each letter. For example the letter M is two dashes in the code, and that looks kinda like a moustache and moustache starts with the letter M. So you hear the sound, notice the sound has two parts, then remember the pictograph with two parts was the moustache, then recognize that the first letter in that word is M, so that sound means M. See how clever that is?!! Geesh, why not just drill that sound and teach the student it means M, eliminating numerous ridiculous steps in the process. I can't believe this is what the Boy Scouts had become.
It gets worse. Take a look at this Wikipedia page on Morse Code Mnemonics. With these, they translate the letters into clever images and remember that OR associate the dots & dashes of a letter with one of many possible phrases of words and remember that. To the credit of the Wikipedia editors in this case, they point out that you can't use these techniques to learn code at practical speeds, so if you really want to learn the code, you better find yourself an amateur radio club. Well, yeah!! But wait! Speaking of charts, take a look at this chart for Morse Code. Notice that someone thought this was so brilliant that he/she registered and pays for his/her own domain name to feature this chart. Apparently this is related to a computer science technique, which the Wikipedia page on Morse Code says is called a dichotomic search table.
Next time I'll give you the real lowdown on Mastering the Code. Don't miss it.
I want to write about my own experiences in using CW in DX contests, as a follow-up to what K8ZT talked about in the podcast I linked to in my previous posting. I have experienced fantastic moments with CW in contests. It is the best way I know of to get fully into the present, which I'm pretty sure is one of the major benefits that Buddhist monks are seeking to achieve with their meditations. At times it can get pretty fast and furious in making contacts with CW in a busy CW contest. One's attention gets very focused with listening for the next station and copying their callsign and exchange to be able to be the next station to work them. To succeed in this, especially if the code speed is on the high end of the speed you can copy, one cannot let one's mind wander. One must become laser focused on copying that CW and ignoring the QRM from other stations nearby in the contest. And many hours into a CW contest I've found that my ability to copy CW improves and I begin to relax, as my attention gets more focused. The effect of this can be quite dramatic, a major high from being in the moment. I've never seen this mentioned in discussions of the benefits of contesting, but it is something I have experienced myself many times. I have had a number of peak experiences in my life, life changing moments, stemming from various epiphanies, but it can be years between such experiences and you never know when you might have the good fortune of achieving one. But the perception of such an experience is much like what I have experienced through contesting. The moment in a contest may not be as dramatic and life changing as a great epiphany, but the quality of the experiences, how they feel, are similiar.
I have a good friend in Oregon who got licensed as a ham, which was a surprise to me. I was not his Elmer. He has helped me a huge amount in the blogging world with getting my favorite blogging software working on servers with my own domain name, such as this one! Then to my surprise again, I discovered he was dipping his toe into the vast (and my favorite) ocean of Morse Code, CW.
When I come across great resources about CW, I now immediately think of Andy. When I got started with ham radio in 1960, the first FCC license required demonstrated CW skill at 5 wpm. One could not be a licensed ham without having demonstrated some skill with CW. This was actually a major barrier for some people to get into ham radio. So on February 14, 1991 the FCC offered the first ham license, the Technician class, that did NOT have a CW requirement. Then after the ITU dropped any Morse Code requirements from the international ham radio licensing regulations, on February 23, 2007 the FCC removed CW as a requirement for all classes of ham licenses in the US.
Fortunately at the same time, the use of the Internet by hams had exploded. I first got onto the Internet via a dial-up connection to subscribe to a mailing list on DXing. That was before I discovered Usenet and the Bob Dylan newsgroup, rec.music.dylan. Hams, who have always been early adopters of technology began to develop lots of software & websites for learning Morse Code. In spite of no further FCC requirement to learn the Code, lots of hams discovered on their own what a great mode of operation it is. Now there are more ways to learn the Code than ever before! So where should a person begin to learn about using Morse Code?
The Ham Radio Resources from Anthony Luscre, K8ZT
This guy has built an impressive website for ham radio resources, including CW. There are two versions of his excellent compilation of CW resources, which includes pretty much any resource you'd ever need, to learn about this topic. Having Fun With Morse is one web page that lists all the CW resources he has compiled. This shows it all. But the same information is also gathered together in a Google slide show of 85 slides that come in the same order as the Having Fun web page. When you go to the slide show, move your cursor to the bottom left corner of your browser to navigate between all these slides. Once you get the hang of using this tool, it is very handy.
For example, slides 12-13 make the excellent point that you already have CW and HF privileges once you have a Technician class ham radio license. During world wide DX contests, you can easily work stations all over the world with these privileges! Do you need a megabuck rig to do this? NO! You can do it with an excellent rig built for 40 meters (see slides 67-68), the QRP Labs rig called QCX, which you can build yourself for $49 or buy it already built for $89. No kidding, this is not a toy. It is an amazing bargain that even automatically decodes the Morse Code, as you use it.
To get a quick overview of these possibilities, listen to the podcast that features K8ZT talking about a beginner's guide to contesting with CW. This podcast (slide 49) is excellent, only 31 minutes long, time well spent. K8ZT is an expert in this area, having won many DX contests with only five watts of CW power. It gives a great summary of the possibilities with CW and is an excellent place to start to get the motivation to learn the Code. You can thank me later.
Last night I stumbled onto the website of George Heron, N2APB. I met George through the Norcal QRP Club during a period when Norcal started an affiliation with some QRPers on the east coast, George included, to start the American QRP Club, which eventually dissolved. Sometime during or after that time, George started his ham hobby business, Midnight Design Solutions. This was the website I discovered & most particularly because it includes a page of useful links. In the old days, anyone starting a website would include a section or page of recommended links. But when Google became such a dominant search engine, they kind of fell out of use. Why bother, when you could find anything you wanted with a Google search?
Well, George has demonstrated why a links page can be super useful. The night I discovered it, I spent about four hours following a lot of the links there and discovering all kinds of cool stuff. I found stuff I didn't know to even search for in Google! And that is why links pages are still useful, especially one as jam packed as the one George has created. If your interests are anything like my own (QRP and Homebrewing), check it out. You might find yourself using it for four hours as well.
As I think about the pros & cons of retiring, I think how nice it would be to follow it up with a ham hobby business, as George did.
Back when I was reading the Ten Tec mailing list every day, there was a guy named Paul Valko, W8KC who had a great and exhaustive Ten Tec website. Search for that name in QRZ now and you get no result. Search for W8KC and you get a completely different person. Paul Valko, W8KC must be a silent key. :( Yes, he passed on 22 Apr 2006 at the very young age of 48.
What a surprise. Paul was someone I always very much enjoyed talking with and who visited the factory in Sevierville numerous times over the years. His endless search for the perfect oddball items that Ten-Tec had built in the 1960's and 1970's never ceased to amaze me. He would call up and say things like "you'll never believe this one! A Signalizer S-30 unopened in the original box! The holy grail!"
At Dayton in 2002 we nominated Paul as our "official non-employee show representative" and had a great time spinning yarns with him at our hotel Thursday night before the Hamvention started. I gave him an exhibitor pass with his callsign and Ten-Tec, Inc. stamped on it - he was one happy, happy guy that weekend. A few of us here at Ten-Tec saw the posts on the reflector this morning about Paul and were reminiscing some about that weekend.....not so long ago.
Quite a loss for the hobby. Our condolences to the Valko family.
Scott Robbins, W4PA
[As posted on the Ten Tec mailing list on 25 Apr 2006.]
W4PA was the Product Manager for amateur radio equipment at Ten Tec, 1997-2009. His comments show pretty well the high regard the Ten Tec community had for Paul Valko.
And Paul Valko's great website is likely gone too. Well not completely. I did stumble onto a 2006 wiki edition of his website, dedicated to the Founder of Ten Tec, Alfred Kahn, K4FW. Oddly, it was last updated on the date of Valko's passing. Before that, his Ten Tec website had been at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/w8kc/tentec.html, a link that is no longer working. I remember his website as being more extensive than the wiki edition that I linked to above. I checked the Wayback Machine in the Internet Archive & found the Valko site had been archived many times. The latest successful crawl of the site was on 5 May 2007. It looks complete, except for a broken link to an image of the Power Mite 3. In addition, the pages showing the various models of Ten Tec products on The Unofficial Ten Tec Pages look very familiar. I wonder whether they were originally part of Paul Valko's website or perhaps he just linked to them from his site. I have not carefully compared the 2006 wiki edition to the 5/05/2007 Wayback Machine edition, but the wiki edition does have the correct Power Mite 3 image, so perhaps it was the final version.
There is nothing permanent about the web, don't ever forget that. If you find an invaluable resource, back it up somehow!