curmudgeonIt’s not been the Curmudgeon’s intention to devote appreciable coverage to the Amateur Radio Service (ARS) in these blog postings. A majority (perhaps most) of today’s telecommunications professionals are no longer licensed hams, although in past decades they most likely would have been.  However, two recent personal events again brought the ARS into focus.  In the first, earlier this year the Curmudgeon (today an Amateur Extra Class licensee) celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of earning his first ARS license, which was the (former entry-level) Novice class ticket.  The second event was receipt of a gift of some computer CD-ROMS containing sets of page image files for the historic 1930 through 1959 issues of QST Magazine (the principal ham journal, published by the American Radio Relay League).

Prompted by these two events, the Curmudgeon took a nostalgic look back at the changes in the Service (within the United States) over the past half-century and more.  And the following three posts are the result.  This series is a thoughtful reflection from someone who has “lived it!” and who has been on the air continuously (though not necessarily daily) for all that time.  These very personal views will probably not reflect the thoughts of, and may not necessarily please, today’s recently-minted hams who don’t have this length of background.  YMMV!

The conclusions from this review can be summarized as:  “Today’s ARS is certainly not your Grandpa’s ARS.  But in comparison with today’s, Grandpa’s was arguably more interesting, more personally rewarding, and perhaps a better experience, overall!”

Predictably, five decades have brought an enormous amount of change to the ARS.  The communications technology in routine use today would have been barely recognizable in 1960.  But technology is neutral, and in the Curmudgeon’s opinion it’s within the sociology of the ARS that much has been lost.  Today’s disturbing negative trends affecting the Service lie within two general areas:  “The Dumbing-down and Consumerization of the ARS” and “The Ascendency of ARS Licensee Ego as a Principal Organizing Force.”  We’ll look at the first trend in this post, the second trend in the following piece, and conclude in the third post with a general look both backward and forward.

Antique Homebrew Ham Station – ca. 1920
Antique Homebrew Ham Station – ca. 1920

It’s arguably the case that today’s ARS, as reflected particularly by its licensing structure and secondarily by increasing “consumerization” (see below), has been “dumbed down” compared to yesteryear’s.  This deliberate change is probably intended to maintain the total number of licensed US operators at current levels or even to increase the number, as a forward-looking defense against possible future loss of allocated spectrum because of “low user numbers.”  And the results have been predictable: the Service now has a larger but a less knowledgeable and less motivated group of cohorts than it did in earlier times.

Two major licensing exam changes highlight this dumbing down.  First, fifty years ago every applicant for an ARS license had to demonstrate some proficiency in the Morse (more accurately, the International) Code and, second, as a standard practice in that earlier period the verbatim questions (and answers) for the written examinations were never published in advance.  Thus an applicant in those earlier days had to devote a sustained period of time to studying and learning, as there was no way of finessing the Morse Code exam.  And at least some basic understanding of radio fundamentals was necessary to correctly answer the unfamiliar exam questions. Failure of either part of the examination was a quite real possibility for the poorly-prepared, and weekend “exam-cram” classes didn’t exist then as they do today.

Today the Morse Code has been eliminated from the examination process, and those individuals with good memory retention and possession of openly-published copies of the verbatim exam question pools can obtain licenses without understanding much, if indeed anything, about the basic engineering, operating, and legal principles underlying the Service.  Licensing is now perfectly set-up for the casual, lightly-interested hobbyist.

This is NOT to assert that use of operator-generated Morse Code, with an information transmission rate for a moderately skilled operator equivalent to about 17 Baud, is the only or even the best means of wireless message transmission.  There are other, technologically superior character transmission methods in use now; neither is “CW” the Curmudgeon’s most favored operating mode.

Or to assert that being able to correctly calculate “how close in operating frequency just above the 7000 kc/sec Amateur band edge could a quartz crystal with a frequency tolerance of 0.005% be ordered with the expectation that it would operate within the band?” is a highly useful skill in today’s telecommunications industry!  No, rather the salient point here is that these earlier requirements did provide verification that the successful applicant had mastered new skills and might — just might — continue to do so after receiving a license!

Paralleling and complementing this devolutionary licensing change, the explosion of the market for commercially manufactured, made-for-purpose Amateur radio equipment has turned today’s Service into a hobbyist-consumer’s paradise!  To some extent this trend was inevitable, as circuit complexity in the era of integrated circuit electronics long ago moved past the point where most Amateurs could design, build, and test-and-align major radio systems at home.  And in truth, fifty years ago (and even earlier) most Amateurs used commercially-manufactured receivers, typically containing a minimum of eight vacuum tubes and often with significantly more.

But the QST magazines of the time demonstrated that there was lively activity in home-designed and/or -built transmitters, power supplies, antennas, and other necessary bits of Amateur stations.  A newly-minted Amateur might purchase (or even be given) his first Novice CW transmitter (often, a previously-owned one), but then he could move up to other possibilities. Transmitter kits were offered by such familiar (and long-gone) companies as Heath, EICO, E. F. Johnson, Knight, and others. Military and commercial surplus electronics was converted to Amateur operation by enterprising hams.  And “home brew” construction-from-scratch was much in evidence.  By these means the early licensees learned and increased their understanding and skills.

Today almost all this is gone.  It is not possible for most Amateurs (including the Curmudgeon) to home-build the equivalent of the sophisticated, manufactured solid-state transceivers (i.e., integrated transmitter-receiver packages) now in general use.  The “top end” of the ARS equipment market has been captured by the manufacturers, as it has in other areas of consumer electronics.  But the bottom end is still available for home construction and experimentation: small accessories, necessary and simple radio test systems, almost all antennas, antenna tuners, power supplies, etc.

Modern, consumerized amateur transmitter – receiver
Modern, consumerized amateur transmitter – receiver

However, many newly-minted Amateurs will not attempt even this much, preferring to purchase everything deemed necessary and to just “plug it in.”  It is likely that a significant number of today’s licensees, as part of our contemporary US “plug-in culture,” do not own soldering irons, and that some cannot even solder necessary RF connectors to antenna transmission lines!  [Of interest, the British explicitly test their Amateur Service applicants for this exact connector-soldering ability in their intermediate-level (equivalent to the U.S. General Class) licensing exams!  The same UK exam requires an applicant to home-construct and then to demonstrate a functional radio-electronics project.]

Thus over the last half-century Amateurs and their culture have moved from a Service comprised of a significant number of knowledgeable home experimenters who could, and did, make contributions to “the radio art,” to a Service wherein the idea of home experimentation and striving for personal improvement has essentially vanished for most licensees.  A thin veneer of professionally-qualified ham-engineers still carries on some very advanced ARS developmental work at home, but they are a minuscule minority.  Rather, for most of today’s ARS licensees “Bigger transmitters, bigger antennas” are the chief order of the day, these items are readily available for purchase in the manufactured-equipment market, and the cost be damned!  The “consumerization” of the Service has triumphed.

What do you think?

“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF!”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

About The Author

LBA Group, Inc. has 50 years of experience in providing RF asset solutions and risk management for industrial and telecommunications infrastructure assets. The company is comprised of LBA Technology, a leading manufacturer and integrator of radio frequency systems, lightning protection, and EMC equipment for broadcast, industrial, and government users worldwide; the professional engineering consultancy Lawrence Behr Associates, and LBA University, providing on-site and online professional training. The companies are based in Greenville, N.C., USA.

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