Makers and Hams Online Event
Please join us next Wednesday March 23 at 7pm ET / 4pm PT for an online conversation about “Makers and Hams.” We will talk about the joys of making and amateur radio, how both attract enthusiasts and the commonalities of their communities. Whether you’re new to Ham Radio, like me, or you are curious about Ham Radio, or even a grizzled veteran, join us to explore this topic with a panel of folks, most of whom enjoy making and amateur radio. We’ll also talk about SDR (software-defined radio) dongles and how to get started.
The following is my Welcome column from Volume 84 of Make: magazine about getting into Ham Radio.
The Amateur Enthusiast
I recently deleted my Twitter account and I got a call sign.
To become a licensed ham radio operator, you have to pass a test. To prepare you, local amateur radio clubs offer courses like the two-and-a-half day one I took. One of my instructors told me he was a ham because his friends went to Maker Faire Bay Area and came back enthused about becoming hams and he joined them. The lead instructor had been a ham for 48 years, which says something about how endlessly fascinating some people find the art of amateur radio.
What came across in the class was not just the technical information you needed to pass the test but the lore of the ham radio community, its norms and enthusiasm for the practice:
How lucky we are that the U.S. government 100 years ago decided to allocate portions of the radio spectrum for amateurs, explicitly to encourage experimentation. You can imagine what that spectrum’s worth today, but we get to use it for free. Look at all the things we can do with it, especially in emergencies. We can’t believe there are fewer than 800,000 who accept this responsibility and get these amazing privileges as ham radio operators.
Then the way they talk about radio waves and antennas — it’s science that explains how it works, but it’s magic that it does. It reminds me of the way I talked about the internet in the early 1990s: Through your computer, you can make a connection to somewhere far away instantly!
David Lang’s article “Unleash the Amateurs” on page 14 of this issue illuminates the early days of radio and how experimentation by amateurs led to technological innovations. In the early 1900s, he writes, “There was hardly a delineation between amateur and professional as everyone was trying to build better equipment.” Amateurs also formed clubs to train people, which had particular value as the U.S. entered World War I and suddenly needed trained radio operators.
Today much of what ham radio equipment does can be done in software, which is called Software Defined Radio (SDR). On page 116, Tim Deagan writes about how to use the inexpensive RTL-SDR USB dongle to create a powerful radio listening station at home. These devices — developed by amateurs in the 2010s — convert analog radio waves into digital signals that can be processed in software like CubicSDR to tune in an enormous range of frequencies. All of this can done on a Raspberry Pi. The limit of RTL-SDR is that you can receive but not transmit. Transmission requires a ham radio license.
We can also see what amateur makers brought to 3D printing, from early homebrew efforts like RepRap and MakerBot, to today’s new “speed demon” 3D printers featured on page 25. “Way more powerful firmware that computes acceleration/deceleration, smarter extrusion, and the machine’s own vibration/resonance much better than before, to achieve 200mm/sec speeds instead of being satisfied with 60mm/sec,” Make: editor Keith Hammond told me. “It’s all coming from the amateur community.” Klipper is the open source RasPi firmware, and Voron is the leading open source machine that deploys it.
Also in this issue, Forrest Mims, perhaps the world’s foremost amateur scientist, explains how you can measure the aerosol clouds from the January 2022 Hunga Tonga volcano eruption — the world’s highest — that are still visible at sunset today.
Makers, hams, and citizen scientists share the combination of a technical culture and community. The amateur community is where the real magic is and no one can quite explain why they do what they do. Twitter doesn’t have that kind of community and that’s why I’m not on Twitter anymore. If you’re a ham, I’d love to hear from you.