Saturday, June 14, 2008

Devoted Entirely to Amateur Radio


QST's slogan since its earliest days tells us that the magazine is 100% for ham radio. In the early years, there were many radio and electronics experimenters' magazines, and it may have been necessary for QST to make this special claim to set itself apart.

For newer hams, it may be hard to imagine what the “radio” world was like in those days. Radio was a new and very exciting development. Not only hams were involved in radio. There were many radio enthusiasts who built and tinkered, but only licensed hams were organized around two-way communications. I was recently reminded of the broad appeal of early radio when I was browsing a 1920's copy of a New Haven newspaper. I came across an article with a schematic of a vacuum tube receiver you could build yourself. Radio and electronics were so new and interesting that an ordinary newspaper would run an experimenter's column.

So ham operators, who were newly recognized by the Federal Government, needed a QST that was “devoted entirely” as the special place where technical developments for ham communications could be nurtured along with operating activities. It was important to set that boundary.

In the 21st century, what should QST's focus be? Conditions are very different, we hardly need to say. Electronics technology is vastly richer. (Think digital television, Internet, cell phones, and computers in general.) Amateur Radio technology has developed greatly, and we have many new operating specialties, too.

But despite the incredible possibilities for today's hams, maybe 90% of what we do now would be perfectly understandable to a ham operator of the 1930's. There is voice (now SSB and FM, mostly) and there is CW. There is DXing, ragchewing, and message handling. Our gear is much more capable and cheaper, but most of us are doing what our fathers and grandfathers in the hobby were doing.

Except...

Except that ham radio (as most of us practice it) is not so much a new and coming thing, as it was in the 1920's. New things are happening, of course, but for the most part we are applying technologies that are primarily aimed at consumer electronics. The largest impact is from digital technology, especially computers and signal processing, and there is also the Internet. Current rigs are fully solid state, but your cell phone, TV, or PC has much more advanced technology than we have on our radio desks.

Except that young technical wizards have a lot of options beyond ham radio. Our kids are captivated by the Internet, iPods, and all. They are immersed in gaming and computer social networking. Those who are especially talented in a do-it-yourself way often find their way into computer programming. Not many tinkerers are working with radios and antennas the way they might have 80 years ago.

Yet there are non-hams who do fiddle with technology in the way hams have always done. How about the folks who are breaking distance records with unlicensed technologies like WiFi and Bluetooth? How about the people who “hacked” the iPhone (a radio!) to allow exotic software to be installed? How about the developers of the Linux operating system and other major open source software efforts? Some of them are hams, but many are not. They share a common attitude with us toward technology work -- improvising, tinkering, and sharing ways to advance the state of the art.

So why are we “devoted entirely” these days? Yes, there are many things hams do that no one else does -- particularly in the operating sphere. But in technology (the newly discovered “fifth pillar” of ARRL!), we are not so unique. We shouldn't want to exclude non-ham content -- as a matter of fact, we should really want to draw in new potential hams. Why isn't there a journal (paper or online) that emphasizes Amateur Radio, but also includes interesting practical and theoretical articles for the experimenter -- whether about digital TV, cell phone hacking, programming languages, DSP, or a host of other technical areas. It would help bring non-hams into our hobby, and it would be an enjoyable and educational read for hams as well.

I admit I have the old Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics magazines in mind. They were very influential for me at a certain age, but they are long out of business. (Still, they are worth a Google search.) Currently, Nuts & Volts (www.nutsvolts.com) and Make Magazine (www.makezine.com) come close. Should the ARRL be in this space, too? It would be a recruiting tool, and it would be perfectly in line with our goals for technology development, education, and public service.

Martin Ewing AA6E

[This is the "before" copy of a letter that will appear in abbreviated form in a future issue of QST. Check back to see what survives the editing process. "All that fits, we print."]

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