Steamed Ham

I have had a fascination with the genre of Steampunk for some time now. However, I was less than impressed with an episode of the competitive series “Steampunk’d”. Grammar issues aside, I didn’t like the episode in which a wardrobe closet was built. In the episode, there was a very painful misrepresentation of radio.

Let me explain. The two teams were required to build a wardrobe. This doesn’t both me. What bothered me was when they reach the part of the episode in which an explanation of the build is given. The team with only three people built a rather awkward room and costume. The costume had a globe valve on the front of it. The explanation given was that it was to tune to other radio channels to call for help. I should mention that the room was themed as “Royal Garrison”. Please excuse my disgust, but a water valve is NOT a VFO, or even a shoddy surrogate for one.

The simple truth of the matter is that radio may have been invented as early as 1895, and is credited to Guglielmo Marconi, the fact is that the distance for a radio signal was exceedingly short, and it was Morse Code only. In fact, the first trans-Atlantic Morse Code transmission would not be until 1901. Additionally, tuning would have been very limited, for though the variable capacitor was invented in 1893 by Dezső Korda, it’s full application wouldn’t be seen for several years after the first trans-Atlantic transmission. Add to that the first voice transmission wouldn’t be until 1906, which would be after the end of the antebellum age, and you find that voice over the radio is almost inappropriate for Steampunk.

Is there room for radio, and voice transmission, in Steampunk? Yes. However, it must be presented as an alt-history scenario, and it must not be misrepresented. When dealing with radio, even in a cosplay, it must be done responsibly. Simply put, if you don’t know and understand radio, don’t talk about it as if you do. The simple truth is, you are very likely to upset somebody who is knowledgeable, and actually has experience doing what you don’t really know or understand.

What does this mean? Realistically, it is just a rant. I really hate seeing radio misrepresented. This is precisely what happened in season 2, episode 4 of “Steampunk’d”. Additionally, not only did they misrepresent radio, they misrepresented the proper use of a globe valve. I will say that had the globe valve been used to “control the flow of plasma” to the costume’s “weapon”, I would not have taken issue with it. However, to say that it was used as a radio to call for help, I have no option but to take issue. However, I will let the reader decide for themselves.

Steampunk’d Season 1 Episode 4. The affront to radio begins at the 26 minute mark.


If it was up to me, I’d demand an apology from that particular team for how they misrepresented radio.

Note to critics: I have been a licensed amateur radio operator since 1998, and I have built several radios, both locked frequency and variable frequency. I have also studied the history of radio, and will be quite happy to argue that radio is more product of the diesel era than that of the steam era, as it is the diesel era in which voice transmissions and tuned circuits really belong.

It Varies

Radio technology is ever changing. Whether that is good or bad is really up to the individual. I like to think that change can be good if it serves a purpose. However, I am often opposed to change just for the sake of change. That includes unnecessary changes in technology.

Many old timers remember the days of the big dial on the VFO (Variable Frequency Oscillator). This dial, or knob, was connected to a genuine variable capacitor. As you turned the knob/dial, the capacitance within the capacitor would change. This change in capacitance corresponds to a subsequent change in the frequency the radio was tuned to, thus it would vary accordingly. This is why we called it a VFO. Today, many so-called “VFO’s” are really just optoisolator circuits, meaning that when you turn that know, it simply changes where light hits a photo-conductor.

Want to know whether or not your radio is using a real VFO or an optoisolator? Turn the dial while the radio is off, and then turn it on. If the frequency is unchanged, it is an optoisolator. If it changes, it is a real VFO.

What about volume control? Pretty much the same thing. However, in older radios, volume is handled by a potentiometer (basically a variable resistor). As the resistance is decreased, the volume in your speakers increase. Just like the VFO, many modern radios also use an optoisolator for volume control. Thus, it should be obvious that the same test would apply. To know if it is a real potentiometer, or an optoisolator, turn off the radio, spin the knob, and then turn it on. A change in volume should indicate that it is the real deal.

There is something I should say about optoisolators versus a genuine variable capacitor, or potentiometer, and how they work. Maybe it will be obvious to some of the older guys, but many young guys might not get it. There is a definitive difference in how an optoisolator feels versus either the VFO, or a potentiometer. With an optoisolator, you can feel something to the effect of clicking. With both the VFO and potentiometer, there is a certain level of positive resistance when turning the knob that controls them. Optoisolators don’t have that resistance. Thus, you should be able to tell, based entirely upon feel, if your radio has the real deal, or just a digital fake.

Maybe it is just me, but I prefer the real deal. Yes, it does take up more physical space, but it is less likely to fail. Perhaps that is the true beauty of older radios, they aren’t as likely to fail, as they are not reliant upon computer parts. Yes, I am being a bit of a curmudgeon, but sometimes I have to.

Changes in radio technology can be good. I don’t necessarily mind an HT using digital circuitry. However, for a good base station, I’d prefer a genuine VFO and potentiometer, as an optoisolator just won’t cut it. Digital does have a place in the ham shack, but does it really need to be part of the radio? I would like to think not. However, I leave that to the discernment of the reader.