Is Ham Radio the only way into ‘tech’?


I basically grew up as a ‘ham’. I ‘hacked’ at a lot of electronics from vacuum tube shortwave radios to theatre lighting and sound and eventually professional two-way radio, what resulted in and many know today as “wireless” car and portable phones.  I ‘ace’d’ high school industrial arts and especially electronics class.  I did graduate high school.  At that point I had modified more surplus commercial radios to 2-meter FM use for the locals than anyone else in the state.  I was a charter member of two local repeater groups and a tower climber at 14.  Built my first 2m FM repeater with autopatch from raw radio guts and perf-board components at 16.  We’re not talking ‘yesterday’ – with DigiKey, Mouser, Frys, etc. on the web – but hard-core raw part scrounging.

As seems popular folklore, I am a dropout of one of THE premiere engineering schools – the Wisconsin School of Electronics – a whole $120/month my parents paid – but 6-months into the classes I realized I was already working full-time on equipment and systems far advanced from what WSE could have taught my by graduation.  I knew relay, TTL and microprocessor logic before most could afford HP-35 calculators.

Yes, shortwave and ham radio provided a huge view of the world, and amazing opportunities, but I also learned that there IS more to technology than 146.94.  What I knew, what others realized I could do lead next to working in medical instrumentation.  At 20 I was the youngest field tech servicing blood analyzers in hospitals and clinics.  My peers were military vets who had gone to the best tech schools – Navy ‘A’ school.  They came to me for help in service training classes.  Somehow I knew logic and ‘grocked’ computers before most understood binary.  At 22 I wrote the service manual for a new piece of medical equipment before engineering finished the prototype.

I moved on to mass spectrometers used for everything from forensics to defense explosives work.  Signals, data collection, data processing, presentation, delivering things that were important to life, seemed a pattern.  At 26 I became a volunteer firefighter if only to help my local community with radio communications.  Making technology work became immediately life-critical for myself and my friends.  You are “not allowed” to screw up life-safety communications. Period.  Ham radio is fun – making sure what you know about radios AND fire science when you run into burning buildings is ‘important.’

All this I position amid various different discussions of ham radio, ARES, RACES, NGOs, police, fire, EMS, as well as various commercial applications of technology – be they the E/R our ambulances took people to, or the clinics that treat cancer patients.  It’s really hard to take any position of what’s more important when you’ve dealt with technology at many/all levels of birth to war/defense to end-of-life.  Reality may or may not become logical/binary for some, more complex/analog for the rest of us.

That’s a core background/perspective.  From that I obviously (?) get to see and touch upon others’ exposure to technology, and myriad perspectives – real or assumed, borrowed, projected.  OK, so…

… at this particular junction/trail split I encounter all sorts of ‘importance’ of my core/basis/foundation/HOBBY exposure to technology – amateur/ham radio – and after 45 years of public service/safety volunteer work – believe I have a unique and want to think ‘important’ perspective on how/what the ‘ham’ community thinks about themselves and their place in the world… and their desire/demand/insistence they are ‘essential’… yes, and no.

Here goes…

1. Ham radio is not the only way people can or may become familiar with technology (any more that ‘devices’ or Maker things.)

2. Ham radio is not the only beneficial goal/aspect of getting involved with technology.

3. Ham radio does not always result in engaging technology per se at a deeper level (the social elements/benefits can be as significant as the potential technical acquisition/practice benefits.)

4. Not everyone who can/may/could/’should’ be involved in technology will know about or migrate to ham radio.

5. Ham radio operators are 0.2 % of the US population – NOT statistically significant. I’m going to venture that the ACTIVE ham population is 0.1% and the TECHNICAL ham population is 0.05%. Given these #s and the number of hams who make it into technology at a career level… the overall audience is much larger and th hoped for result of public engagement in technology is MUCH larger than ham radio alone can satisfy.

6. Indeed there are MANY opportunities, reasons and MUSTS for more hams to MUCH BETTER know science/technology vs some of the “tribal knowledge”, myth, legend, conjecture, assumption out there.

7. Ever since “Mike Rowe” and my own career, employer and customer exposure to technology, indeed, YES!!! any and all people we can expose technical opportunities to are indeed the future core life-blood, backbone of any/all things that touch all of our lives. Just as bridges and buildings will be challenged, ‘devices’ and ‘apps’ will be USELESS without a continuing supply of technical people in the foreground and background.

Yes, it IS important to be excited, passionate, supportive, encouraging, and offer many and various ways to attract and retain interest in ham radio, at least for the hobby itself, but as above, we’re a SMALL part of much larger audience result.

Still – Ohm’s Law, et al ARE ubiquitous, global, universal, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, gender/race/creed… agnostic. RF works pretty much the same way for AM broadcast as it does for ‘wireless’, WiFi, unlimited data, public safety and ham radio fun.

It’s THE SCIENCE of all this that provides for and allows all of this to work, not a 0.2% avocation or abbreviated coding languages or cheap CPUs.

“100 Year Old Technology”


FWIW – this alone is a cornerstone/basis for an emerging media discussion about “100 year old technology” some have spouted about ham radio, and the reality of how the basics of radio differ from the evolving technologies that use radio.

Have been developing this discussion as the some in the media have begun to explore local ham radio on OUR local UHF linked repeater network.


In this age of ‘devices’, Wi-Fi, ‘bars’, “unlimited data”, marketing, engineering, implementers, manufactuers, retailers, have been purposefully hiding some amazingly basic technology behind ‘apps’ and user-experience facades for over a decade.  For some of us this is the ‘consumerization’ of I.T.  For others of us this is pulling the “tin foil hat wool” over the eyes of investors, regulators, developers and manufacturers and ultimately consumers.

Consumers are intentionally distracted to NOT think of the core “100 year old technology” buried in their i- and droid-things.  The thousands of practitioners who make, install and maintain the core, essential pieces of “100 year old technology” cringe everytime some media pundit or politician yammers on about ‘new’ x-generation ‘technology’ that appears to make your point-and-click devices/apps be more/better/faster/cheaper.

Those practitioners are your basic device and antenna and tower and network design engineers, the “tower dogs” who traverse the country to install those ‘mere’ towers, the fiber-optic or microwave backbone components to feed those towers your data, and seem to catch most of the flack when power goes out, cellular networks are overloaded, etc.  Good or bad – consumers have no awareness, clue or care HOW their unlimited data gets to them – and in that have no idea how their device and service providers are deceiving them!  Worse than ignoring the core ‘technology’ and skills that deliver that data, are everyone in that supply chain that fail to recognize the world is running out of people who know HOW to deliver to the promises of your ‘unlimited’ contract.

A specific and amazing example follows, with background…

Zello, Facetime, Zoiper, iaxrpt, etc are no more or less than specialized/evolved application models on top of a layer or two of IP network technology traversing some pretty ‘trick’ “4G” digital radio protocols to do none other than to get the human voice from one human to another via one ‘appliance’ to another. Most/all domestic and long distance “landline” telephone implementation is now voice-over-IP – not much different from Skype, Google Voice, etc.

Evolved and evolving “digital two-way radio” – P25, NXDN, Fusion, Trbo/DMR, and older digital trunking are again voice (radio) over IP implementations providing for human voices to get from one mouth to another’s ear.

Underlying ALL of that is the “100 year old technology” of radio transmission. Actually 100 years is ambiguous. Marconi, et al discovered/proved that radio transmission is a thing over 100 years ago. The first radio transmission occured in 1896/1897 (121 years.) Voice transmission over radio first happened in Canada in 1900 (so 117 years.) First (AM) broadcast radio in 1920 (93 years.) First two-way police radio use – 1928 (most like a majority of public, commercial and amateur radio.) FM in 1933 (84 years.) First portable two-way radios – 1940. Common public safety and commercial voice radio implementations

So – one can ponder the actual vintage of which specific, practical “old technology” dates modern radio implementations? Radio itself is 121 years old. Practical evolved two-way radio use is 77 +/- years old. Paging then 2-way radio began in 1955 and ramped up through 1960 (57 years.) “Car phones” became a thing circa 1970 (47 years) – I had a car phone at 18 in 1973 – as the engineer for a mobile phone company. Digital two-way radio technology didn’t really become a practical reality until 1995 (22 years) about the time digital cellular phone services evolved.

Today’s radio – be it analog or digital – resembles nothing of the primitive 121 year old “RF noise” Marconi created and detected. It more resembles first the evolved FM methodology of 1940-1955 – where there is a constant controlled RF carrier transmission, modulated by any number of analog or digital methods.

One core point is, once we began to understand, were able to measure and characterize RF, then refine transmitting (radios and power amplifiers), emitting it (antennas) and detecting it (receivers) – pure ‘radio’ technology has not changed in 50-60 years. We make and broadcast RF energy (transmitters and antennas), apply information (audio or data) to it in various methods, detect it (antennas and receivers) and extract information from it. TV – analog or digital – all the ‘same.’ Radio is radio.

Huge differences because of the frequency of the radio waves, and the transmitted power, dictate the size and types of antennas and inter-coupling to get power from a transmitter into the ‘air’, understand how it ‘travels’ through the ‘air’ and, due to the characteristics of the ‘air’ – where it can be detected – and Mother Nature plays a HUGE part in that variable.

In MANY critical, essential, scientific ways, your iPhone is no more or less innovative that the first “walkie-talkies” developed for soldiers during WW2!!! What differentiates them is the “application layer” of how you interact with the device to achieve essentially the same effect – communications between two or more people.

It is that “application layer” that people are most emotional, romantic, compelled, purist, critical, concerned about. In many cases that application layer is life or death, or otherwise an overt risk depending on use and need. THIS we must be cognizant and considerate of – not just how pizzazz or nifty, profitable or convenient – but what parts you can rely on.

Once you get the ‘radio’ parts understood, then you have to be aware of the underlying application and other dependency parts. Analog/voice radio depends on VERY little other than two radios and their operators.

‘Apps’ depend on HUNDREDS of mostly but not always reliable middle-parts that can and DO fail at the most needed times – because of power loss, physical damage, cable/fiber damage, server, network, firewall, router, management computer or myriad other VERY complex systems in between the sender and the receiver.

Zello for example managed to survive ONLY through an amazing maze of easily fallible points of failure. Neither it nor any of the hundreds of variables between sender and receiver can be relied on in all locations at all times. These are NOT things you can hinge your life on. You can be appreciative IF they do help save lives, but NO ONE of the many service providers, etc. in the middle can or will provide ANY assurances they will be available and sustained in time of critical need or casual wants. It is simply NOT possible!

We simply must keep this discussion of awareness and reality open and sustained. The “100 year old technology” as we radio folks know it, and some few truly understand, as pure radio science, is under constant ‘threat’ by ‘application’ vendors looking more at “application advantage” and thus revenue than delivery of the prime motivator – two or more people communicating – preferably in REAL-TIME, NOT network/device processes time.

Stay tuned!