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Ham Radio Today

Summary: Ham radio, and the ESC, are now both paths into this field.

I'm just back from ESC/Design West, which was last week in San Jose. The conference held a very low-key meet-and-greet with students in engineering programs. I had the chance to talk to a couple of Juniors from San Jose State. The meeting was too loosely organized, but I'm told they will tune the format for the next show in Boston in September.

One of the gateway drugs into electronics has traditionally been ham radio. In the past I've commented on its decline. But things have changed. The ARRL ( reports that as of late last year there are now 700,000 licensed hams in the United States, an all-time high. That's up from 285,000 in 1971.

I got my Novice license as a teenager; back then one had to pass a 5 word-per-minute (WPM) code test in addition to the written exam. Novices were limited to code on the HF bands, so that requirement made a lot of sense. And the limitation made sense as well, as a code transmitter is a very simple thing indeed which nearly anyone can build.

Some time later I upgraded to General, but was never able to get beyond the 13 WPM needed for that license. The highest grade is Amateur Extra, which required a blistering 20 WPM. One pal could copy at 40 WPM; he didn't hear the letters, instead copying entire words like listening to a second language. It was astonishing to watch him listen without taking notes, chuckling at the jokes, and keying out a high-speed reply.

There's been a lot of debate in the ham community about the relaxed standards, and plenty of hams feel they bring people into the hobby who really don't know much about electronics or the hobby. I'm sure plenty of new hams are weak in these subjects. And that's the reason to award them licenses. Bring them in, mentor them, let them experiment and learn and eventually become, as hams say, an Elmer.

Last month I had a little spare time so, since there's no longer a code requirement, took the Amateur Extra test. I boned up a bit; the electronics is easy for an EE but one does have to know some of the rules and customs (e.g., "Amateur stations may not transmit in which of the following frequency segments if they are located north of Line A?"). On test day one other person was also taking the Extra exam. We chatted and he complained that he just didn't understand reactance and resonance in series and parallel circuits, but was hoping for a miracle. It didn't appear, and, somewhat dejected, said he was going back to the books. That sure sounds like a success to me. His current, lower, license has him interested and active, and the allure of the higher ticket means he is determined to learn some electronics.

For me, ham radio's attraction was originally mostly in building radios. No longer; now I have a commercial transceiver that I only use when operating maritime mobile on our sailboat. But a lot of hams continue to make their own equipment and the magazines always have plenty of cool projects. It's possible to get on the air with very cheaply by building your own radio. And, that DIY approach is a fantastic way to learn electronics.

If you are an embedded Elmer, do consider attending that ESC event in September and chat up some of the younger crowd. Ham radio is one gateway drug into this compelling field; you can be another.

Published March 14, 2012