Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio Station K8QN

I have been an amateur (“ham”) radio operator since 1964. It is a fun hobby, has taught me a lot about electronics and radio in general and even serves a purpose by providing highly-organized and highly-functional short and long-range communications when all the normal communications infrastructure fails in a disaster. Herewith some of my favorite activities within the hobby.

CW (Morse Code)

If “digital” is a term for data communicated by a sequence of logic “1,s” and “0′s” which can be represented by a sequence of “ON” and “OFF” pulses, then Alfred Vail and his partner, Samuel Morse, have got to be the first people to engage in electronic digital communication.

The earliest transmission of Morse telegraphy over radio (mostly) used “spark gap” transmitters that generated signals not only on the desired wavelength, but on many others as well. Technological  advances eventually allowed these sparking behemoths to be replaced by “Continuous Wave” transmitters that used vacuum-tube circuitry to produce clean, single-frequency transmissions. Ever since, Morse telegraphy over radio has been known as “CW” and is still called that today.

Though now considered “outdated” by many, CW is still a ton of fun if you’re willing to invest the time it takes to develop the necessary skill to use it. Hey, you worked forever on perfecting your golf swing, didn’t you? Why is this any different? The fact that it’s fun, as well as useful, will keep it around for a very long time to come. After all, photography did not end painting, power boats did not eliminate sailing and cars have never eliminated bicycles. The “lower-tech” things have simply migrated to being primarily hobby pursuits.

May favorite way of working with CW is to do it the original way: use a hand-operated mechanical key, either a fully manual “pump” key or a semi-automatic “bug” as the mood suits. I’m not alone in this preference, either. Check out my radio soul mates at the SKCC.

There was a point in my life where I almost dropped out of college, capitalized on my knowledge of  CW, and became a maritime radio operator. Didn’t happen, but I’m still interested in those now-silent stations that served so many, so well, for so many years. Check out the Marine Radio Historical Society which keeps the tradition alive and operational from the San Francisco Bay area.

By the way (or “BTW” in text-message speak), don’t assume I’m some hot-shot high-speed CW operator who can copy three stations at once using speeds that would tax a champion typist while simultaneously making coffee, cooking a gourmet omelet and vacuuming the floor. I’ve known people that could do that, but I’m not one of them. I said I liked CW, I didn’t say I’m especially good at it. Big difference!

RTTY: Teleprinter over Radio

“RTTY” is common shorthand for “Radio Tele-TYpe.” Teleprinting (i.e. typing on a keyboard and having the results printed at some remote location) has been around for a remarkably long time. Even the 5-bit Baudot code used to encode the signals over the wires existed before 1900. No surprise, then, that this technology was mated to radio in the same spirit as the mating of radio and Morse telegraphy.

Unlike Morse telegraphy, however, RTTY uses “Frequency Shift Keying” (FSK) in which the logic “1′s” and “0′s” are represented by changes between two closely-spaced frequencies rather
than by simple ON/OFF transitions.

RTTY used to be the world of clunking and clanking mechanical teleprinters such as the (in)famous Teletype Corp. models 15, 19 and 28. Guess where the common name “teletype” comes from? Aw, you guessed on the first try!

Nowadays, one’s handy-dandy computer and sound card take the place of both the green-keyed mechanical monstrosities and the racks of electronics formerly needed for this mode.  I’m fairly new to RTTY, but using the MMTTY program is a great place to start.

Other Digital Modes

CW and RTTY are not the only game in town, however, there have been a number of other “digital modes” which use multiple-frequency (beyond two as in RTTY) which all rely on a computer and a high-quality sound card in the computer which is connected to the audio input (preferably a high-level input although the microphone input will work with some adjustment in the program. The most popular are called PSK-31 and MFSK-16 but there are many others as well. Many feature error correction resulting in perfect copy from signals barely above the noise floor and inaudible in the station speaker

Bill K8QN