Crystal Ham Part 1

It can often be quite interesting to look back at radio technology, and see where we came from. I am not merely talking about vacuum tubes, which were formerly called “valves”. No, I am looking at something slightly older. Specifically, I am talking about Crystal Radio.

Huh? Crystal Radio? What is that? 

Good question. At its absolute simplest, a crystal radio is a receiver with no actual power supply. Rather, it is the received signal that powers the high impedance ear bug, through which you can hear the incoming audio.

What? No power supply? As in no batteries? Absolutely. Not only that, but this is how many amateur radio operators and electronics technicians got started.

Over the course of the next few months, it is my intent to fully delve into this topic. This post is merely an icebreaker, a teaser if you will. In Part 2, we will go more in depth, discussing materials used, and how it works. In Part 3, we will begin the process of building two radically different radios based upon the same schematic diagram, starting with the coil and antenna. In Part 4, we will continue the build, with one radio having a germanium diode, and the other using an iron pryrite crystal with a “cat-whisker” detector. Part 5 is where we will compare the two radios, and discuss practical applications. 

This is going to get interesting. Please don’t let yourself miss out.


Interesting Interested Ham

Volunteering with the local club at the county fair can be an interesting experience. This has been the case for me over the last few years while helping at the Puyallup fair. Anyone that knows me knows well that I am not too fond of the Puyallup fair these days. Why? I simply feel that it has become way too commercialized. Think of it as being like the Dayton Hamfest, with a roller coaster, but not a radio in sight. I cringe at that thought.

As myself and another ham operator sat in the booth for the local club, I noticed something that seemed rather odd to me. I have long held that amateur radio is for anyone, and everyone. However, it is always very interesting to see who is willing to come up and ask about it.

I have noticed that the greatest amount of interest in amateur radio comes from males. Of that group, married males of retirement age are more likely to look into amateur radio than married males who are still raising children. Likewise, single males are more likely than married males to ask about amateur radio. Of the women, older women are more likely than young women to ask about radio. Women who grew up around amateur radio, regardless of age, are more likely to ask than those who have never been exposed to it. Teenagers tend to be the less likely than pre-teens to ask about radio.

I can’t really say why this trend, which is what I call it after years of observation, exists. I do have a thought about why teens are less likely than pre-teens to ask about radio. It is quite simple. Today’s teens are spoiled. They have mobile devices that tend to be reliable, are capable of nearly instant access to all forms of media, and there is no test to take, just pay your money and run.

However, don’t tell them that their devices aren’t reliable in a disaster. Depending upon where you live, you might encounter any manner of hostility. I happen to live along the Cascadian Subduction Zone. If you have read the September edition of QST magazine, you know full well that FEMA recently conducted an earthquake drill in the Pacific Northwest based upon the likely event of a rupture of this particular fault line, a rupture that is already better than 50 years overdue.

I find that very few people can acknowledge that mobile devices will fail during a disaster, and fewer still that are willing to discuss it and how to maintain communications during such disasters. Part of the problem is that, at least where I live, too many people have a mindset of “it will never happen here”, and have been lulled into a false sense of security. The sad fact is that for many in my region, disasters are something that happens somewhere else, all we get is that occasion snowstorm (which can also be a disaster, but denial is full effect there too).

Unfortunately, even discussing the potential for disasters can be a turn off for those who might otherwise be interested in ham radio. I suppose that when it comes down to it, knowing whom you are discussing amateur radio with helps, but it is not a reliable factor in determining interest. In fact, better than half the people we spoke with, regardless of age or gender, only wanted to know where the restrooms were, or where the giant pumpkins were. No interest at all.

I don’t know that there is any real way to spur more interest in amateur radio. The advent of mobile media devices, with their near instant connection to everything, has spoiled many. Even knowing the vulnerabilities of these devices, or how amateur radio played a part in their development doesn’t seem to help. Perhaps all we can do is wait, wait until an earthquake or volcanic eruption hits before people will be interested, and by then, it will already be too late.

Alien Ham

Exoplanets are trending currently. Why? Recently NASA discovered an exoplanet orbiting a star in the Proxima Centauri system. This planet orbits within the “habitable zone”, and is named (by us) as Proxima B. However, because of its rapid rotation around its star, roughly twelve days to complete an orbit, and the fact that while it is withing the “habitable zone”, it is believed to receive 400 times the X-ray energy from its “sun” than we receive from ours. To that end, it is likely that it is comparable to either Mercury or Venus, both of which are barren and devoid of life.

Why do I bring this up? Humanity has been looking for extraterrestrial life for decades. One would think that it is only a matter of time until we find something, right? Maybe not.

2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the W7DK/W7OS Radio Club of Tacoma. This is the single oldest, continuous, ARRL affiliated radio club in the whole of the United States. This is a big deal when you consider that  on 23 December 1900, Reginald A. Fessenden became the first person to send an audio single via wireless transmission , and that  he made the first commercial broadcast on Christmas Eve of 1906. This means that radio has been a known medium of communications for 116 years, and that there are some earlier experiments that predate these two events.

What does this have to do with aliens? Plenty, if you don’t mind some pretty extreme mathematics. It really has to do with how far radio waves really carry, and they really do carry quite some distance.

I’m going to go ahead and be generous. That is to say that I’m going to ignore the first 16 years of radio transmissions, at least for the moment. Those first sixteen years really are important, but I want to make things easy, at least to start with.

A radio wave travels at the speed of light, which is roughly 186,200 miles per second. This works out to 11,172,000 miles per minute. That, in turn, works out to 670,320,000 miles per hour. In the course of twenty four hours, a radio signal will travel 16,087,680,000 miles. This is nearly four times the distance between the Earth and Pluto. In a month, that signal will have traveled over 482,630,400,000 miles. That means a radio signal will travel, in one year, a distance of 5,876,025,120,000 miles. In a century, that distance is clearly seen as being 500,876,025,120,000 miles. This doesn’t account for those first sixteen years, which adds another 94,016,401,920,000 miles to the overall total.

All that looks impressive, but meaningless, until you start to look at a list of all the potential exoplanets that are thought to exist in the habitable zone. About a quarter of those planets are less than fifty light years from Earth, and some are even closer than that. To date, we have not received an authenticated signal back from any of these supposedly closer exoplanets. Let that sink in for a second.

Over the years, we’ve seen numerous UFO sightings, some going back as far as 1697, though the first fully credited sighting was in 1947 near Mount Rainier, in Washington state. Yet, despite these supposed sightings, we have no hard evidence that extraterrestrials exist, aside from various conspiracy theorist drivel, much of which is easily debunked. Even the “WOW signal” from 1977 has now been attributed to a passing comet, a theory that may very well be tested soon, which only further depletes the potential pool of evidence for extraterrestrial life, and only leaves the flimsiest of evidence, and that being the previously mentioned stuff that is easily debunked.

What does this mean? Ultimately, it means that in all of decades of searching for extraterrestrials, we have found nothing. Furthermore, with at least six exoplanets existing within 56 light years of earth, if they had a level of technological development equal or greater than that of our own (most people seem to seek extraterrestrials with a greater level of technological development for some reason), then we should have already heard something from them, something that would have already put our world into technological overdrive, as we rapidly built a deployed our first hyper-light drive systems. However, no such signal has been shown to exist, and most claimed signals have either been debunked, or have been relegated to suspected pranks by unscrupulous individuals with questionable motives.

Radio has been around for over a century. If there were an extraterrestrial race with a level of technology equal to or greater than our own, we would likely have heard back from them, and it would have been impossible for any government to block such a communication. I know some will believe that I am wrong, and I accept that, but I am firmly convinced that radio, and the lack of an authentic signal from an extraterrestrial race that off of the Earth has heard, is sufficient evidence to suggest we are alone in the universe. This is observational science, and radio is all about what we can observe. If I can be proven wrong, by a personal radio greeting by an extraterrestrial, and they can prove it, I will admit to it, before committing suicide.


Ham I.T.

Information Technology is one of the biggest buzzwords in business. However, the question that arises is “What does that mean?”. In all honesty that is a good question. 

When talking to people, or showing a chart or picture, we are sharing information. In other words, we are communicating. Even this blog site is sharing information. To that end, we might agree that information is what we share by communicating. 

What does that mean when applied to technology? Depends upon what you mean by technology. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that computers are a form of technology. However,  so is the telegraph and radio teletype (RTTY). To that end,  it is only fair to argue that ham radio is a form of Information Technology, and was so long before computers became mainstream.

Unfortunately, in our overly computerized world, ham radio get the short end of the stick. It doesn’t seem to matter that ham radio operators were sending information between computers via radio before there was an internet. It doesn’t seem to matter that ham radio operators were speaking on hand held transceivers long before the advent of mobile phones. The sad truth is that nobody seems to realize that ham radio was “information technology” before it became “cool”. Nor do people seem to understand that ham radio is the only form of information technology that will still be reliable in the event of a natural, or national, disaster.

Ham Radio is, was,and will always be a reliable means of Information Technology. It is only a matter of getting pass the prejudicial idea that only computers matter in the field of information technology. Maybe the ham radio operator is the one I.T. specialist that gets it. Maybe.