In a year that has seen a global pandemic, widespread civil unrest, murder hornets and a decidedly odd presidential race, there are traces of normality breaking out. Your definition of “normal” and mine probably differ, but that’s okay.
For one thing, we are actually having a hot and humid summer for a change. We could do with a bit less cloud cover, but let’s just give thanks that there isn’t any snow in the forecast for the foreseeable future. Gardens are looking downright lush around the area as a result.
And it’s time for the American Radio Relay League’s annual field day. Ham radio might seem a little quaint in an age when Wifi, the Internet and smartphones are everyday necessities, but it is the grandfather of our communications technology.
If you send text messages from your phone, you can thank an early ham radio operator and experimenter. I can’t remember the gentleman’s name this morning, but he found a way to add capitalization and punctuation to the basic Morse code used in the early days of amateur radio. That’s why you have to press the shift key on your phone if you want to use commas, periods and capital letters in your messages.
So, if you use a cell phone today, you’re actually carrying a specialized ham radio in your pocket. You can’t talk to ham operators on it, but you’re sort of part of the club.
When I was a young girl, ham operators had a certain mystique. Many were World War II veterans who used their military experience as a civilian hobby. It was common to see tall towers on a few homes and everyone knew what they were.
In those days, the radios operated on vacuum tubes and tended to be huge desktop monstrosities that squealed and generated lots of heat. A badly set up antenna could zap an unwary operator in an unmistakable way.
You know how your microwave cooks food? Stray radio waves would do the same thing to a careless ham operator, albeit on a small scale such as a fingertip. For some reason, the old-timers still regard radio frequency burns as badges of honor.
While ham radio technology certainly advanced consumer electronics for us all, the blessings flowed both ways. Today’s radios range from walkie-talkie to small-book size. You can still buy intricate radio towers for your rooftop, but many operators prefer to make their own.
All this isn’t particularly difficult to do, but you do have to have some math skills to make everything work. In this day and age when so many people scoff at science, I can see why the hobby is struggling.
Wishes and opinions just won’t make a radio transmit and receive messages. All you’ll get is a RF burn for your troubles.
Back in the years before I returned to the Redbank Valley, I heard that amateur radio was a popular hobby for a while. Unfortunately, it faded away and there are only a few of us left in this area. The good news is, there are active clubs in nearby communities.
Fort Armstrong Wireless Association in the general Kittanning area remains very active and provides communications for outdoor events in places where you won’t find Wifi or cell service. Quad-County Amateur Radio Club in Clearfield County and the surrounding region does much the same thing. Both groups cooperate during events such as trail runs to help keep everyone in touch over miles of rugged terrain.
And they also stand ready to help during disasters. Emergency communications are often swamped during a large-scale event and hams help bridge the gap between responders and hospitals, for example.
In the early days of the present pandemic, ham operators recognized that they wouldn’t be needed during this particular global disaster. On the other hand, most clubs set up regular wellness checks for their members in addition to weekly radio networks and monthly virtual meetings.
That definitely gave me a turn, a ham club meeting conducted via Webex. On the other hand, video conferencing is a natural outgrowth of old technology.
If you have a need to get out of the house and learn something new, the ARRL’s annual field day is this weekend on June 27 and 28. You don’t need your own radio or a license to show up at this outdoor activity. Hams tend to be nice people and may even let you talk on their radios.
I’m probably a little biased, but I think this would make a great science and technology experience for young folks. Everyone is talking about how the pandemic will change society and the way that we make and do things. Here’s a way to jump-start future careers in the brave new world ahead.
Telecommunications and robotics are all based in some way on old-time amateur radio technology. The ARRL’s annual Field Day is a great way to get your toes wet before you dive into the radio hobby, too.
I hope to see you there.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]