Thursday, December 21, 2006

Five things #2 

For the first half of my working life, I called myself an engineer. The second thing you may not know about me relates to where it all began.

Once upon a time, I was a Radio Ham - or an Amateur Radio Enthusiast as most of my fellow enthusiasts preferred to be called. The term 'Ha' was felt by many to be pejorative, although I was never unduly worried by it. To me it was just a convenient label; people can get over-precious about such things. G8GXG was my call-sign, heard over the airwaves of the 2 meter (144MHz) band around 30 years ago.

I’d been interested in things technical for as long as I can remember; always dismantling things to see how they worked, and usually succeeding in putting them back together again. Somewhere along the line, that interest started to focus on electronics, although I took as much pleasure in the aesthetics as in the functioning, building a succession of crystal sets, amplifiers, intercoms and the like, in enclosures fabricated from old tobacco tins, biscuit tins, offcuts of plywood, all elaborately hand painted, with controls labelled in Letraset.

I used to scour the jumble sales for old radio sets to strip down and use for parts - bringing them home tied onto my soap-box cart since we didn’t have a car - and that was where I found my first short-wave radio and thus began to listen to broadcasts from around the world on the short-wave bands. Before long I had a long-wire aerial strung from the chimney of the house to a pole erected at the end of the garden, and used to stay up far into the night - when long-distance reception was best - trying to pick out English words from far-off countries as the sounds faded up and down through the hiss and crackle. Many’s the time I’d fall asleep with the headphones clamped over my ears, only to wake in the early hours to the sound of static and have to drag myself wearily off to bed.

These were the days of the cold war; the short waves were an essential propaganda tool, and the highest power transmitters belonged to the superpowers and their allies. Easy reception, but very monotonous listening. I did however manage to get a copy of Mao’s "little red book" by writing to Peking Radio.

Amateur radio seemed like a logical next step, not least because five other Radio Hams - whose ages spanned at least four decades - lived within a couple of hundred yards, earning our road the nickname Kilowatt Alley. I passed the exam at 16 - not a bad achievement - and started out using mostly gear borrowed from one of those locals.

We had a large garden shed, divided in two - half for my father’s DIY workshop, half as my radio shack. I used to practically live in that shed. Dad and I built it, I wired it out for power and fitted it out with a custom-built workbench and 3-tier shelving for all the gear. Virtually all of it I built myself - the only item of commercial gear was the short-wave receiver, an ex-admiralty B40. Goodness only knows how many hundreds of hours I must have spent in that shed; sweltering in summer, shivering in the winter.

Doubtless some of my practical skills were honed there, but overall the hobby never went anywhere; I never completed my home-built transmitting rig. After I got married, my gear stayed in the shed for a while, but eventually my father wanted the space so I sorted the gear into two piles - useful stuff worth hanging on to, on the off-chance that I might get to use it one day, and the rest which was largely junk and was destined to go back whence it might once have come, to a local Scout jumble sale. Unfortunately the messages got muddled somewhere along the way, and the scouts took - and sold - the lot. There wasn’t a lot I could about it - there was no way to recover the gear - so I gave up at that point and didn’t look back. No use crying over spilt milk. I just hoped whoever bought it was careful if they ever they switched it on - the transmitter power supply had a transformer giving 600 volts AC across bare terminals!

To be honest, I’d never been all that interested in actually talking to other radio hams. The conditions of the license expressly prohibited potentially inflammatory subjects like politics and religion, so most of the ‘conversation’ was around their equipment (no, not that kind of equipment - that would definitely have been banned!), the weather (yawn), who they’d spoken to that day, the exciting news that their XYL (wife) had just brought in a cup of tea and a home-made cream cake. Riveting stuff. For a hobby all abut communication, remarkably little real communicating seemed to be going on. I got bored.

You might have thought I’d learned my lesson - hour upon unproductive hour without fulfilment - but no. A few years later I decided to resurrect the hobby, albeit for a tangential kind of reason. At that time, my stammer was still quite bad, and having to talk slowly and clearly without the hassle of interruption to break the flow was an excellent form of speech therapy. So once again, I embarked on the long design-and-build process of new kit. This was to be a portable, self-contained 2 metre SSB transceiver. Why didn’t I just buy a commercial rig? I did seriously consider it, but the cost - £300 25 years ago, which in terms of its effective value would be getting on for ten times that at today’s rates - was just too much to be able to be able to justify. And besides, I relished the challenge and the prospect of future pride in my creation.

Many more hours were spent designing and building, made slightly easier this time because by then I was employed in electronic engineering and had access to some seriously sophisticated test equipment, plus some experts to help with the design. But once again, I never finished it. I do still have the result, as far as it got. I’ll post some photos later if I get a chance to take some. It wasn’t all that far from completion; the hardest part of the circuitry (the phase-locked VFO, for any techies out there) worked a treat. Just as in those early years, the aesthetics and the physical design - how all the circuits boards and modules fitted together in a compact, robust case - were as important to me as the function.

Writing this, I realise just how much it illustrates some common themes running through my life. A powerful urge to create, purely for the sake of creation; delight in designs that combine fine aesthetic form with effective function; a need to achieve, to produce something of which I - and others - could be proud; a willingness to put in tremendous effort and man-hours to achieve a goal, sometimes verging on doggedness - yet ultimately failure to follow through to completion. This latter trait has more recently shown up amongst other ways in my abandonment of both receiving and giving counselling, and in developing writing skills here.

I feel I ought to be able to pull this essay to some meaningful conclusion, but once again I’ll just stop, run out of steam, almost-but-not-quite there.

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