Ham operators make something out of nothing

By Michelle Brokenbek, Staff writer

6/23/2004

Opening an Altoids tin may improve communication skills in a way never thought of by the makers of the “curiously strong peppermints.” Surely freshened breath often leads to heightened interface, but it’s not the Altoids candy that some folks use to help talk to others — it’s the packaging.

Picture of operatorsThe 2-by-6-inch container provides the perfect holder for a transceiver, a combined radio transmitter and receiver used by amateur radio buffs to send and get data.

Members of Skyview Radio Society hold classes in making the RockMite apparatus to show interested parties how a simple tool with about 0.5 watts of power can link them to people from all over.

Licensed amateur radio operators, called hams, use a device with even less power to reach people in all 50 states; a watt of strength reaches around the globe.

“Hams like making something out of nothing,” says Bob Bastone, president of the New Kensington club with many east suburban members.

Communicating is what the ham radio hobby is all about.

Bastone says most people have the misconception that the hobby still revolves around the dots and dashes of Morse Code. While code is still used, and a necessary skill for advanced licensure, many devotees now use computer laptops and sophisticated software in conjunction with their radios and antennas to reach out to others.

An upcoming international event, Field Day 2004, offers a venue for the public to see the direction the pastime has gone.

Oakmont resident Bob Boehmer, a four-year member of Skyview and a 28-year hobbyist, explains how amateur radio has moved into the new millennium and still has retained its usefulness as a communication medium.

People often start hamming for the same reasons as they have since spark gap transmission’s first success in 1901 by inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Wanting to reach out to others around the block, country and world or even on space missions still tops the list of motives.

Other people enjoy the independence from major telecommunication corporations that using just the atmosphere and their own equipment brings.

Once licensed, an FCC requirement to use the radio frequency bands set aside for amateur radio operators, hams often set goals of when and how to use their radios.

Several competitions, including Field Day, enable them to take a competitive direction by accumulating transmissions and making specific connections to earn points toward awards.

For some, the camaraderie between hams also attracts people to the hobby. Hamfests, yes specific flea markets just for amateur radio users, attract hobbyists from all over. Road trips to major radio shops in Ohio are always more fun when “turning knobs and flipping switches” with other hams, according to Bastone.

Both Bobs tell of foreign lands where their messages have been received. Every conceivable country has amateur operators listening and sending communications. Boehmer spent last week talking to Slovenia; Bastone spent half the night chatting to a man in Belgium.

Connecting to people in distant places is fun and educational, they say. It is akin to the Internet, but without the middleman.

Amateurs exchange QSL cards, which stands for “confirm,” to show to whom contact has been made. Each operator has QSL postcards printed with his or her call letters and location. After “talking,” whether in code, computer-translated message or voice, cards are exchanged to substantiate the link.

Novices shouldn’t be turned off by the technical lingo that is prevalent in the field, say the men. Talk of transmission, frequencies, solar cells and a regular alphabet soup of CW, QSO, MHz, SSTV, PSK31 and the like, all become clear when learning how to broadcast and receive wavelength signals while working for an amateur radio license.

The occurrences of Sept. 11, 2001, have heightened or initiated interest in the emergency aspect of the hobby. Amateur radio operators have long been appreciated for their ability to help emergency personnel communicate in disaster situations. But as Boehmer says, “Did you try to send e-mail or use a cell phone on September 11?” While many people were hearing busy signals and recordings, ham radio operators were able to communicate at will, he says.

Many area emergency response plans include local hams for support, as witnessed by Skyview’s participation in regional disaster drills. Natural disasters often knock out traditional communication modes like telephone and even satellite-bound cell phones. However, an operation using wavelengths can send and receive no matter what.

Operators can choose a specific way to get involved in community like SKYWARN that works along with the National Weather Service as storm spotters. Or choose a fun challenge like moon bounces, which, like it suggests, springs radio wave off the moon and back earthbound.

Skyview members, who stand out from most other local clubs because they have a stationary clubhouse and antenna farm, are eager to connect with organizations throughout the East Suburbs that can benefit from the hams’ knowledge.

Schools can take advantage of the operators’ experience by inviting them to link classrooms with astronauts aboard shuttle missions or in the International Space Station.

And if manned craft circling the planet isn’t enough of a challenge, Boehmer says a trophy has long ago been made that will go to the first ham operator to contact Mars — not to extraterrestrials, but to Americans who hopefully may one day travel where wavelengths have long gone.