A recent correspondent in the letters section of an amateur radio magazine admits to having “caught the bug” of amateur radio, agrees that there should be a proper licensing test of operating procedures and the use of appropriate instruments to prevent interference, but “cannot really see the point of everyone having to learn basic electrics and electronics and how the insides of transceivers work . . . it is possible to pass a driving test without having the slightest knowledge of what happens under the bonnet . . . I feel that the present examination system is inappropriate in this respect, given that sets no longer need to be constructed at home from bits and pieces.” The magazine editor added the comment: “Wow! I think we’re likely to need some fireproof paper to print the answers to this letter.”
Yet, if one puts oneself in the position of a newcomer, there is a perverse logic in these views, heretical though they may seem. Seen through a newcomer’s eyes, amateur radio today must seem, at least superficially, to consist almost entirely of blackbox operating in pursuit of awards, QSL cards, squares, prefixes, contests, social activities including conversation on air with known circles of friends. The “technical” interest must seem to be confined, except for a few professional engineers in our ranks, to little more than deciding whether Brand X offers more “goodies” than Brand Y. It is no good blaming cb, a disenchanted younger generation, or even the RSGB. The hobby today is what we have made of it. How can we expect newcomers to realise that awards, contests etc were introduced and promoted primarily to add a spice of competition and personal achievement to a hobby founded firmly on scientific and experimental interest in the technology of radio communication, both principles and practise. The fact that most of us today use factory-built equipment should not blind us to the need to have at least a reasonable understanding of the technology and some knowledge of those “bits and pieces” that go into the equipment if the hobby is to survive in a meaningful manner. And how can those interested only in operating be sure their black boxes really are working as their designers intended?
Sound familiar? That piece was written by Pat Hawker, G3VA in his Radio Communication Technical Topics column back in April 1988.
To an extent it seems that very little has changed since then. Nowadays however the driving test does include a simple recognition test of things under the bonnet and the amateur radio tests do include some practical work but apart from that, ones immediate perception is that little has changed. Superficially most radio amateurs still appear to fit the description above. But is that perception correct?
I myself partake in a number of the activities mentioned in that article, contesting, DXCC chasing, etc but I also believe that I have a more technical interest. I may well operate a blackbox transceiver but I also build and modify “things”. As an example, in the last week I’ve modified three QRSS transmitters and repaired a fourth one. I was able to follow the circuit diagram and work out where the fault was and repair that fault.
Both Pat Hawker and I used the word ‘superficlally’ above and I really believe that a lot of current radio amateurs play with more technical stuff in the background. As an example, a good friend of mine who I have always considered a pure blackbox operator with relatively limited electronics skills has recently decided to build himself an HF amplifier and has started work on that. He’s also had a modern radio apart to make repairs to it, taking the attitude that “it’s just like mechanics, taking things apart and putting them back together again”. Another friend is working on building an azimuth and elevation rotator from scratch so he can use his blackbox radio to work through amateur radio satellites.
Perhaps amateur radio was on a bit of a decline back in the late 1980s despite the increasing numbers of licences being issued. Looking back, I think it’s likely that although G3VA says the blame can’t be put on cb I feel that around that time there was a huge influx of new amateurs who had come from cb and had no interest in the technical side at all. It’s now twenty five years later and I’d imagine that any active radio amateurs who came in from cb probably do now have more of a technical interest than they did when they first took up the hobby and the new licensing structure does involve more practical work. By definition, radio amateurs now have to have a greater practical knowledge than they did back in the 1980s.
The bottom line – I think that if Pat Hawker were still writing his column today, he’d have nothing to worry about. The hobby is safer now than it was then.