Embrace the New, But Keep the Old, Too

I’ve recently jumped head first into the mysterious world of vacuum tubes. When I was a child, tubes were those little jewels my father pulled from the back of the old 1954-1000A_linear_RF_deck_build_by_K5LAD6 Zenith television–black and white, of course. I’d go with him to the dime store (remember those?) and he would test them on the cheap emission tester that was placed atop the steel cabinet that held new stock in their little elongated boxes. He’d put some back in his pocket, and some he would toss into the waste basket that the store owner hoped would be used more often than the tester.

Replacing them in the television and switching it on, there was that glow from the little curlicue on the top of some tubes, the bigger ones seemed to glow from down deep in their bowels. After ten seconds or so warm up, the picture emerged, this time no longer rolling from a faulty vertical-hold or whatever it was that was now fixed. And there was that smell–impossible to fully describe–a perfume mixture of warm phenolic, solder rosin, capacitor wax, coil and transformer dope, air ionized by high voltage, and dust.

Bigger tubes, 6L6’s of one subtype or another, made up the cityscape on the open-chassis monaural phono amp (a Heathkit I think) that was mounted on the wall inside the furnace closet. My grandfather had a similar setup, except his was homebrewed and it was distributed on three chassis inside a living-room cabinet. One chassis was for the power supply with its huge transformer and oil-filled capacitors, another was for the intermediate stages of the amplifier, and the third–the largest–mounted the final stage, its immense output transformer, and the also-huge chokes of the crossover network (he ran separate wires for the bass, mid-range, and tweeter to the speaker across the living room). He built a Heathkit tube preamp that I loved for it gold facade and knobs the size of silver dollars, but even his speaker (singular, since stereo was still rare)–the size of a small refrigerator–was home brewed.

The beginning of the end for vacuum tubes in our family came the day the preamp built into the turntable cabinet failed. I don’t know the specific reason, but I distinctly recall going with my father to a local parts store where he bought a kit for a transistorized preamp. The new whiz-bang. The wave of the future.

I guess it was as a kid, then, that electronics meant tubes to me, and the little TO-5 transistor can just didn’t have the same allure. At least it was metal. Now, plastic is the enclosure-of-choice, an army of TO-92s marching into the future. Not only were they tiny and featureless, but they didn’t glow, and they didn’t have the futuristic entrails that so fascinated me then (and now) with vacuum tubes. And without the heat and high voltage, the smell was gone.

Fast-forward more than half a century, and I’m rediscovering 307px-Williamson_home_constructed_amplifier,_c_1949._(9663806448)these little crystalline beauties, this time with some knowledge of how they work, and why. But aren’t they obsolete has-beens? Fragile, bulky, and prone to burn out? The twenty-pound power transformers, and filter caps the size of soda cans? Surely these are the dinosaurs of audio, video, and radio technology.

The thing is, they still work as well as they always did, and they have some characteristics that took a while for solid-state devices to emulate. According to electric-guitar players and hyper-sensitized audiophiles, nothing has yet replaced the sound of the vacuum tube, often described as warmer than modern transistorized and integrated audio circuits. They’re still necessary for high-power amplifiers, both radio and audio.

So why not at least keep a hand in the old tech? Why must new technology mean the total abandonment of the old? In some cases, of course, it doesn’t. Paper, pen, or pencil have not been obsoleted by the typewriter and now by the computer. Books have not gone away, and not likely to. Photography and now video did not mean the abandonment of oil or watercolor painting (or even photo-chemical photography), and I predict that 3D printers are not going to obsolete sculpture, either. I think there’s something healthy about maintaining (and passing on) competence in older ways. It means adding to the body of human knowledge rather than dumping some overboard to make room for the new. If the new truly represents progress, then it has to make the capacity for knowledge larger, and not just the same size with newer contents.

Naturally, this applies to modes of radio operation as well. Digital modes are really cool, but the simple straight key (for telegraph or radio) kept the world informed for a century and a half before it faded into a special skill some worry will eventually die. Using the hand and the trained ear to communicate in dits and dahs is pretty cool, too. Animals communicate with a few tones and clicks patterned in a recognizable manner, and they can do so in a way that can carry some distance and that cuts through the background noise. Surely anything a bird can do we can do better, right? Yes, we too can encode meaning in simple patterned sounds–the dit and the dah–and we can send those halfway around the world with no more energy than is given off by a struck match ( a few Watts).

If there are others of you who are hot on vacuum tubes, or CW for that matter, make yourself known. Share your latest exploits. We are fortunate there are still a large number of Hams who spent the better part of their lives with the old technology. We should beg them to teach us.


Todd K7TFC

Antenna Raising Weather is Here!

“The best and most expensive transmitter is but a useless toy if it is connected to a poor antenna.”                                                                               

Bill Orr, W6SAI, S-9 Signals (1959)


Green grass, mild days, and blue skies are sure signs it’s time to climb towers, string wire, and get up on rooftops in the never-satisfied quest for a few more dB of gain.

It’s also time for contest pallor and seasonal-affective disorder to give way to tanned skin and spring fever. IOTA, SOTA, and POTA (Islands, Summits, and Parks on the Air, respectively) activations seem alluring again. Two-meter radio direction finding and foxhunting offer fresh air and at least a little exercise.

It’s good weather to grab your QRP field bag and head to the local park or lake, toss a EFHW antenna up in a tree, and attract both QSOs and curious onlookers. You can boast how many hundreds of miles per watt you get from that little cigarette-pack sized rig.

Hunting for the source of that new and pesky S7 noise floor in your otherwise-quite neighborhood now takes on the grim-yet-determined character of a military campaign.

Marred only momentarily by the tax-filing deadline, Spring is always something of a happy surprise.


Around the su1873_A._and_C._Black_Map_or_Chart_of_the_Solar_System_-_Geographicus_-_SolarSystem-black-1873n, that is. One revolution a year. Once thought a mere satellite of Earth–the geocentric view–it turned out we’re the satellite ellipsing about in a heliocentric system. At some point in our egocentric lives-somewhere between eight and eighty–we each learn we’re not the center of the universe either.

This time of year, we’re fast approaching perihelion–closest to the sun in spite of the gathering cold. As Hams, we’re S-meter and Sun watchers. Greater activity of the latter leads to higher numbers on the former. Recent sun-spot and solar flux numbers have been some of the best this solar cycle. So far, every predicted (and lamented) downturn in solar activity this cycle has been followed by a flurry of good activity. It has to start declining sometime, so enjoy it while you can.



At our local club’s annual swap meet in September, the technology of all but the first few decades of amateur radio was on display. Vacuum tubes, transmitting coils, high-voltage variable capacitors, quartz crystals, and “boat-anchor” rigs from the 1950s were juxtaposed with software-defined radios, with everything in between in various hybrid combinations. But isn’t all that older stuff “obsolete”? Not on your grandfather’s spark gap!

Is the tuned LC “tank” circuit obsolete?

The thing is, all that earlier technology still works as well as it always has, except I suppose if you think that reducing VFO drift down to 1 ppm over 60 minutes is something you can’t live without. With good ol’ ovenized oscillators and other forms of thermal stabilization, I’m satisfied enough to get on the air without concern over some good, honest drift. If some Barney-Fife operator wants to complain my signal drifts 10Hz per hour, he can kiss my plate chokes, and he’d get what’s coming to him, too.

Not until the twentieth century did “obsolete” enter the everyday talk of ordinary people. Within the scope of what we all call “technology’—all dependent on electricity–change has come at a dizzying pace. In some cases, new developments result in real value added to the human condition, while others only serve to foster dissatisfaction and discontent. And always there’s something else to buy. I’m as fond of technology as the next radio amateur, but I’m more fond of contentment and peace of mind, especially when the proffered advances seem—to me at least—less than compelling.

In gaining some insight into this march into perpetual obsolescence, it’s worthwhile to look at other technologies that have survived the onslaught of the “new and improved.” Painting did not disappear upon the introduction of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century. It’s still alive and well in the art world, and materials for it are available, even at “big-box” superstores. Though typewriters have been mostly supplanted by desk- or laptop computers, pen, pencil, and paper have not. Synthetic textiles are superior (easier to maintain) in most respects to those made of cotton or wool, but natural fibers used before recorded history are still very-much in use. And so on.

Likewise, the technology of the codex (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex) was a true advance over the book scroll since a scroll can be accessed only in a fixed sequence, while any page of a codex can be accessed immediately. A synoptic skimming of a codex is no more difficult than flipping through its pages. Not so with a scroll. Well, though our tablets and notebook computers are right up to date, we’re now back to scrolling. Not everything new is unassailably better.

I admit this may be much ‘ado about nothing, and in fact it may be only slightly more meaningful than any other garden-variety navel-gazing and pseudo-intellectual self indulgence. But the old boat anchors and hollow-state gear is still around, the coils and capacitors are still used by some to create tuned circuits, and it can all live side-by-side in anyone’s radio shack. It does in mine. It’s one of the “cool” things about Ham Radio.



SineWaveA cultural critique one sometimes hears is that modern life is too “linear.” That is, too concerned with the one-way-only passage of time and effect. To my way of thinking, though, almost everything we experience comes in cycles, and they are not linear. They come, again and again.

Each calendar day is a cycle, as is a week, the month, the seasons. As of this writing, I’ve experienced those 20622, 2938, 678, and 226 times respectively.

As radio amateurs, the eleven-year solar sunspot cycles are always somewhere on our minds as they determine the coin of our realm: propagation. I was born during the solar minimum between Cycle 18 and 19. My life-insurance company is probably figuring I’ll ionize away sometime during Cycle 27.

As Hams, we have some special cycles of our own. The sweepstakes, QSO parties, and the hamfests come around every year, and so does Field Day. The latter is always held during the last full weekend of June. This year’s FD will be only my second of actual participation. We have club members who’ve been through almost seventy. The event began in 1933, the very bottom of the Great Depression (part of another cycle?). Some of our members were born before that, and some of them participate in Field Day every year.

For most of its history, the stated purpose of Field Day has been to practice setting up and operating under emergency conditions. It was clear from the beginning of Ham radio that amateur operators could play vital roles in establishing or supplementing communication during the myriad of natural disasters that come around every year (hey, more cycles!).

Since September 11th, 2001, though, responses to emergency situations have been organized at the national level under the Department of Homeland Security, and a uniform system of command, control, and resource deployment has changed the nature of Ham involvement in EmComm-emergency communication. It is now necessary for amateurs to receive prescribed training and certification, including a criminal-background check, to be deployed and used by local officials during emergencies.

The training is not difficult nor terribly time-consuming, but it does mean that non-certified Hams won’t be used by local emergency and public-safety officials. In fact, they may be asked to stay off the air–certainly the repeaters–to keep the bands free for EmComm.

This development has changed the stated purpose of Field Day, at least officially. But it continues also to be mostly the same as from the beginning: a great time for all Hams. Though not really a contest, it still has a friendly competitive edge that adds interest. It’s an opportunity for teamwork, problem solving, teaching new members, exercising technical skills, and just plain fun in the company of other Hams.

It’s also a public event to let people know about amateur radio. Public relations opportunities such as FD may seem oblique, but favorable public perceptions of ham radio will help to minimize complaints from neighbors, and therefore also to keep municipal authorities on our side in antenna-related disputes and policy. It could help to soften the hard line usually taken by homeowners associations and in deed covenants.

Is ham radio just a goofy, geeky, idiosyncratic obsession of techno-nerds, or is it educational and service-oriented? It might be both, of course, but Field Day and good public relations helps to accentuate the latter and render the former harmless . . . or even charming.

Good Public Relations

Without the long-standing presumption that the radio-amateur service (that’s what the FCC calls it) is vital to the safety and security interests of the American public, little would be left of the spectrum we Hams now enjoy. Pressure to privatize the bands now used for amateur radio is constant. Counter-pressure, in the form of ARRL lobbying efforts and individual Ham activism, is just as constantly required to protect what we have. Wouldn’t it be nice to have as many non-Ham members of the public as possible on our side?


In the ongoing antenna wars, the FCC’s PRB-1 ruling officially enjoins states and municipalities from unnecessarily restricting the erection of amateur antennas, but the burden of enforcement is on the individual Ham, often with the added weight of opposition from his neighbors whose taste for the beauty of a tri-bander on a fifty-foot tower is . . . underdeveloped.

Should H.R. 4969, the “Amateur Radio Parity Act,” pass during this Congressional session, it is far from certain its preemption of private-contractual prohibitions against outdoor antennas in deed covenants and HOA agreements can be made retroactive to such contracts already in force. For good reasons, federal courts are reluctant to set aside agreements and contracts voluntarily made by persons who knew what they were agreeing to in the first place. The law would unquestionably apply to new covenants and to new HOA agreements, but to existing ones?

The ambiguities and the burdens of both the PRB-1 and the proposed Amateur Radio Parity Act require that radio amateurs take public opinion and sentiment into careful consideration, and to bring awareness of the value of Ham-radio activities to their friends and neighbors as much as possible. Making friends is less burdensome than fighting enemies. Having the law or the FCC on your side may be comforting, but neither your neighbors nor your municipality will fall at your feet and beg for mercy. So, if you want to minimize hassles, get them on your side.