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Ham Radio's Demise

This ran in EDN in January, 1997.


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By Jack Ganssle

Kids these days.

I hear the complaints from my middle-aged electronics friends. New engineering graduates know nothing about electronics. They have no feel for what circuits should and shouldn't do. As designers they require years of apprenticeship before becoming productive.

This, of course, wasn't true when we were kids. Nah. From the moment we entered the work force we were the gurus of digital, delighting employers and amazing our colleagues.

Hogwash.

I remember making dramatic mistakes, some from sheer ignorance, others due to the lack of common sense that comes with bitter experience. My boss somehow tolerated these missteps and put up with the arrogance of youth, giving me a chance to mature and develop an understanding of the industry. Somehow the years, though, color those times so we're left with a subtle feeling of superiority to today's generation of new hires.

Times were very different, though, and I do think that many of us came into engineering with at least some grounding in basic electronics. We were immature and undisciplined, but perhaps had at least some feel for what electrons were likely to do.

Why? Ham radio. Like so many others of the time, I got my first ham license at age 16. Being a poor teenager, the latest shiny technology was financially out of reach, so I was forced to build my own equipment.

Other factors, including a national Apollo-era fascination with things technical, helped groom youngsters for an electronics career long before entering college.

Most of us novice hams had access to an infinite supply of cheap surplus electronics gear. Vacuum tubes were the state of the surplus art, which was not a bad thing, as high power RF transistors were simply too expensive for teenaged radio buffs.

My pals and I created a never-ending stream of 'hi fi' amplifiers, transmitters, and power supplies, some of which actually worked. Sometimes not terribly well, of course. In fact, the best radio contact of my high school career was acknowledged by an angry letter from the FCC - they picked up my signal on the second harmonic, clear across the USA. I was so proud of that 3000 mile transmission that the pink letter stayed prominently displayed on the wall for several years.

Our bible, The Radio Amateurs Handbook, contained plenty of schematics and construction tips. Even kids with no formal electronics training could quickly master a transmitter design that required no more than 5 tubes.

In the process we learned a lot about what worked and what didn't. No one needed expensive test equipment. Scopes were rare till we got older; a homemade voltmeter sufficed for most troubleshooting.

Anyone with a bit of creative acquisition ability and the will to learn could create useful gear. When problems arose you'd turn to the ham radio community, which was a huge support organization populated by folks who loved electronics, and who loved talking about it.

When money was available we could order electronics kits from Heathkit and others. Detailed step-by-step instructions more or less guaranteed success and increased our confidence. You could build a TV, stereo, ham radio, or practically any electronic device from these kits, and wind up with a device that equaled any commercial product.

Many of today's older engineers learned basic electronics via these hands-on projects, thence going to college to formalize their knowledge.

Things have changed over the last couple of decades. Ham radio, while still a popular hobby, is a victim of the electronics revolution. Most (not all, but most) hams buy their equipment now, as it's just too hard to build your own. Years ago we worked almost exclusively on trivially simple AM gear. Today, SSB and FM dominate; both require much more sophisticated receivers and transmitters, equipment far beyond the construction abilities of the average teenage wannabe.

The golden age of ham radio lasted many years, from the early part of this century till the 70s. During this time the only barrier to entry was one's lack of desire, as most hams found ways to build their equipment with little money. When radios became more complex, with the introduction of SSB and FM, the era of home made gear mostly ended. A decent radio is a significant financial commitment now; it's expensive enough to be a barrier to young folks, and the act of purchasing, rather than building, limits the educational experience.

The golden age of computers, though, lasted maybe a decade. Maybe less. In 1970 computers were big, expensive, and out of reach for nearly everyone. In the succeeding ten years, with the invention of the microprocessor, and most especially with Intel's introduction of the 8080, the entire history of ham radio repeated itself in a time-compressed form. Amateurs grew fascinated with the technology, acquired parts by hook or crook, and built their own very useful machines. An industry grew up to service these devoted homebrewers. Apple and IBM, though, finally provided machines that no one could duplicate in their basement in a reasonable amount of time. High integration and escalating complexity killed off computer experimenting.

Today, 'building a computer' means buying a motherboard, disks, and other modules, and then bolting them together. There's neither opportunity nor need to learn about the electronics.

Building a crystal radio at age 10 was fun. Not at 15. How much fun would a teenager today have working on a circuit as antique as a crystal radio? I think fun is the vital ingredient needed to entice youngsters into the field, yet fun is the thing we've made obsolete.

Youngsters enjoy learning by doing more than by studying. Besides, they already spend all day in school; few have the desire to extend that day into their hobbies. The 'doing' part is awfully difficult today, unless you'd care to build equipment that is so behind the state of the art that it's a joke.

How satisfying would it be to a kid to spend weeks building a computer kit that does nothing compared to the 100 MHz Pentium he's got on his desk? Yes, it's interesting to put things together, even simple things, and see them work. It's hard to get passionate, though, about a field where you can never approach the state of the art.

And this, I think, is one place where the advance of technology is hurting us. When I was young, I could build things that were useful. That's much more difficult today.

How would a 15 year old potential wiz work with SMT parts? Even the smallest computer or radio is all but impossible to debug without a scope (a decent one, at that), and maybe even a logic analyzer. Few have the resources to obtain these, and the need to be scope-literate as a condition of building things forms an educational barrier hard to surmount.

The insatiable curiosity of youth, when directed at electronics-like subjects, now turns to software. It's the last great area where you can make something that works, at your own pace, and in your own way. They can wrestle with the computer just as so many of us wrestled with a soldering iron, and produce something though their own creativity. This desire to learn is wonderfully encouraging. I'm concerned, though, that there are so few outlets for working with hardware.

Computer programming is a highly desirable skill. These computer wizards will become skilled and productive CS people - but possibly not EEs. Where will we get future the crop of electronics designers?

Even now it's getting harder to find good designers. Far too many embedded people have little knowledge of basic electronics. Now we manipulate parts with a million transistors as easily as we once worked with a single FET. Designing a big gate array or PLD is more a software exercise than an experience in electronics. Too few of us, who are so adept with the latest high-density devices, remember Ohms Law.

This article is a product of my frustration with the embedded industry, a frustration that came to a head recently while working with a group of embedded experts who had no idea what to do about their overheating 3 terminal voltage regulator. Too many digital folks forget that electronic circuits (not gates), with electronic properties, are what we work with.

We use mountains of decoupling capacitors, whose behavior is critical to our circuits yet which act not at all like TTL gates. As speeds increase we're dealing with Maxwell's dreaded Laws, not simple wires. Electronics. Not discrete ones and zeroes.

Is basic electronics obsolete? Has Boolean algebra has replaced Kirchoff's Law? Is digital engineering immune from pedantic electronics concerns? Perhaps the benign clock rates of embedded designs in the 70s and 80s insulated us from the underlying yet critical physics of circuits. I do think that the colleges pandered to this, in many ways, creating a generation of 'computer engineers' who are adept at software and high level design, but who are adrift when confronted with a component's transfer function.

Yet, in all fairness, there's just too much to learn in any four year university program. Basic electronics must compete with PLDs, ASICs, VHDL, and other digital courses.

The good news is that schools now focus more on projects. Few engineers graduate without doing a significant senior project. The bad news is that these are always computer systems; again, the electronics is neglected. And, I believe a 3 credit class is just too little time to get the feel for the circuits that a great engineer exhibits. Just as no one is becomes good at a programming language till cranking out 10,000 or more lines of code in that language, designers need to spend a lot of time making and fixing mistakes before becoming proficient at their art. These are experiential subjects one masters by lots of practice.

And so, I worry that our profession is drifting too far from its roots, that 'embedded design' seems to be a subject taught and practiced independent of the electronics it relies on. Increasing speeds and the decreasing margins of low voltage logic is already bringing basic electronics back to the forefront in importance; will we be knowledgeable enough to deal with this?

I do want to make it clear that Amateur Radio is alive and thriving. Perhaps one thing we can do is to encourage youngsters to get involved with this and other related hobbies. In fact, today it's easier than ever to get a ham license, as the Morse code requirements are somewhat relaxed. Check out www.arrl.org for more information.