Want to bone up on wireless tech? Try ham radio

Abundant spectrum resources and an engaged research community are drawing wireless experimenters back into a hobby that many had forgotten.

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No formal training needed

As it has since its earliest days, the hobby also continues to attract experimenters without any formal electronics training. Many of these people "homebrew" their own radios and accessories, building equipment from components obtained commercially, collected through purchases or trades with fellow homebrewers or even painstakingly crafted by hand.

Bill Meara, a diplomat stationed at the U.S. embassy in Rome, experiments with bare-bones radio technologies. "I am tinkering with one of the simplest possible high-frequency radio transceivers -- it uses just one transistor," he says. The single sliver of silicon serves as both a transmitter and receiver. "In an age in which we use chips with millions of transistors inside, I kind of like the idea of going minimalist," he says.

Meara, who hosts SolderSmoke, a podcast targeted at electronics hobbyists, recently wrote a book on his life as a radio experimenter. He feels that ham radio gives amateur researchers like himself easy access to professional-level support resources, ranging from technical discussion groups to international meetings.

On the flip side, the hobby provides science and engineering professionals with an opportunity to test ideas in a low-key environment. "It offers [them] the chance to legally play with some of the most cutting-edge technologies available today... without any of the pressure that may come with professional, on-the-job experimentation," Meara says.

Looking ahead

Amateur radio isn't likely to ever recapture the grip it held on the technology industry from the 1950s through the 1970s, when it seemed that virtually everyone in electronics design and the technical end of radio held a ham license. For his part, Campbell feels that even a modest return to ham radio's experimental roots would be a good thing. "We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11; maybe the past isn't such a bad place to think about."

Ham circuit diagram

Meara believes that radio experimenters need to take a second look at ham radio and consider the changes it's undergoing. "Some of the most important discoveries in radio came from ham radio home laboratories," he says. "There is no reason this tradition can't be continued into our new age of wireless."

John Edwards, a freelance technology writer located near Phoenix, has been a ham since 1976. His call sign is W6JE.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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