Amateur Radio

This scene from Nancy Drew, Detective (1938) depicts Nancy Drew, played by Bonita Granville (1923 – 1988), charming boyfriend Ted Nickerson, played by Frankie Thomas (1921 – 2006), into helping her. Amateur radio equipment of the time is prominently displayed. The 8 in the call sign W8YZR indicates that the fictional location, River Heights, must be located in Michigan, Ohio or West Virginia. There appears to be a National NC-101X receiver, a variable frequency oscillator with a large National velvet vernier dial, and a large open rack mount transmitter. The most curious aspect of the photograph is the pigeon sitting on the open window, and one wonders if this too represents another communications vector of the time period.

This post is being published because I have passed my amateur radio licence exam, and been issued the Norwegian call sign: LB2XJ. I am not the first person in my immediate family to have such a licence. My son, Alasdair, aka LB6HI, earned his in 2019. Both of us also have previously taken VHF = very high frequency, maritime radio certificates (now called SRC = short range certificate). The primary reason for taking this earlier certificate was to be able to seek help in emergency situations while boating, although it allows other forms of communication between boat operators. The reasons for taking this amateur radio licence are more complex, and the subject of this weblog post.

I would like to thank four people for their assistance in gaining this certificate. These are Per-Dagfinn Green (LA1TNA), Peter Ebsworth (LA7ZMA/ LB0K), Jan Stewart Rambech (LA7VV) and Robert Eliassen (LA6GHA). The first two were instructors for the online Amateur Radio course given by the Bergen Group of the Norwegian Radio Relay League, which is the national organization for amateur radio enthusiasts in Norway. The course consisted of 17 course evenings from 2021-02-03 to 2021-05-11 with 22 participants completing the course, of which 19 have so far passed their exam. Jan organized an exam for me in Trondheim on 2021-06-19, which I managed to fail. Robert organized a second exam, held at Cliff Cottage, on 2021-09-25, which I managed to pass. I would also like to thank Lars Gjøsund (LA9EMA) for his encouragement to get my ticket, as North Americans would say.

My first encounter with amateur radio was through the wolf cubs/ boy scouts at Sixth Avenue United Church, New Westminster, where one of the leaders who lived nearby on McMartin Street, had radio equipment that we were invited to see (and hear) in use. If anyone knows the name of this person or other early New Westminster radio amateurs, I would appreciate the information. Yes, I have attempted to contact the New Westminster Amateur Radio Club (NWARC) to find out if they know, as well as to find out who else I know there. However, they don’t seem to accept unsolicited emails. How they will be able to function with this approach in any sort of emergency is beyond my comprehension. Ed Frazer of the British Columbia Amateur Radio Coordination Council was able to help me, and sent my email onwards. Thank you, Ed. My experience is that some amateur radio local groups are surprisingly bad at communicating, especially when it comes to the internet. Some don’t even provide an email contact address on their website. NWARC was formed in 1996 as a non-profit society to deliver emergency communication services. The club is part of BCWARN, a provincial network of emergency operations centers (EOCs) and radio clubs, which support emergency communications.

In the 1990s, I constructed a software Morse code trainer in Pascal that ran on a PC. It would read a written document stored on a file, then produce an audio version through a speaker at a speed determined by the user. In 2002, in Molde, I undertook amateur radio studies, but quickly realized that I would not succeed, and did not even attempt to take the exam. This was because, at that time, the certificate included a requirement to communicate in CW = continuous wave = Morse code, outside of radio circles. This requirement ended in 2003. Yes, I should have used the Morse code trainer more!

In the early years of the new millennium, I was in contact with another radio amateur with my very name, Brock A. McLellan (KC8KOD), with A in his case standing for Adam. However, this communication was about our common ancestry, not radio. Information obtained more recently from my sister-in-law, Aileen Adams, leads me to believe that he and I are more closely related than I was aware of at the time. He currently lives in Bad Axe, Michigan.

If one listens to amateur radio operators, there are any number of good reasons to become licensed, including the opportunity to connect with people around the world, and to participate in any number and type of competitions. There are many different radio bands (including 160, 80, 40, 20, 6, 4, 2 meter, and 70 cm nominal wave lengths) that use different types of equipment, especially antennas, and different modulation techniques (such as SSB = single side band, a form of AM = amplitude modulation; and, FM = frequency modulation) that are used for different purposes. These opportunities were not what has attracted me. If I want to talk to someone on the far side of the world, my preferred method is to use Signal software, with a headset attached to a laptop. In addition, I have a hand-held device aka cell/ mobile phone.

Yet, there is a use for real world radio transmissions by amateurs, it involves providing emergency communication in situations where broadband internet and cell phones no longer function satisfactorily. One scenario could be a power outage leaving a community without the ability to communicate with their outside world. Personal prejudice require me to state that voice radio wastes resources in such a situation, as data-communication is much more effective. Others could argue that CW is even more effective. Regardless, in such situations electrical power becomes a critical resource, typically requiring batteries and mechanisms to charge those batteries. While solar energy is often preferred, this is not particularly useful in the winter, above 60° latitude.

Many members of local search and rescue organizations express an interest in amateur radio, until it comes time to actually learn something about it. In part, this is because they generally prioritize hands-on activities in the outdoors, rather than spending time indoors learning tedious details about electronics and radio-frequency communication. However, both types of people may be needed in an emergency situation.

For example: On 2020-12-30, a quick clay landslide occurred in the early morning hours at Ask village, the administrative centre of Gjerdrum municipality, Norway. The flow off area spanned 300 by 700 metres, but the landslide caused an additional 9 hectares of debris flow. Several buildings were destroyed, most of them houses and apartment buildings. Initially, it was thought that 30 people were missing. In the end, thirteen people were rescued, while ten lives were lost. At first, one could only look for survivors from a helicopter due to safety concerns. Then it was decided to send search crews, including dogs, into the landslide area. Each searcher was equipped with a tracker, which is useful, because then the precise location of each is known at all times. Monitoring of the searchers was performed by radio amateurs.

I don’t ever expect my radio equipment inventory to include a conventional amateur radio transceiver = sender and receiver. In part this relates to my interest in computers and software, and my obsession with miniaturization, and power minimization. In amateur radio circles this codes as QRP operation. If 1 000 W of transmission power is allowed in Canada and Norway (1 500 W in USA), then 100 W is good, but 5 W is better, and is often regarded as the defined limit for QRP, although some might allow 10 W. Extreme minimalists, willing to restrict their power to 1 W or less, code as QRPP. I am not quite at that point. Note 1: There are power limits specified by the band, type of broadcast, certificate status, and country. Regardless, one may only use the amount of power needed to communicate, which could be considerably under these limits. Note 2: One of the earliest proponents of QRP was Karl E. Hassel (W9PXW, ex-8AKG and sometime user of 9ZN, 1896 – 1975), a co-founder of Zenith Electronics, the American radio/ television manufacturer, the company that invented the remote control!

My primary interest in radio relates to education as a mechanism to make a more equitable world. At one time, our family’s major charity was an educational program for girls in countries that restricted their opportunities, such as Haiti. Then, the charity itself made it technically too difficult to route funds from Norway to them. Despite this, supporting education is a primary interest. Thus, when I think of radio it is in a context of technology that can provide educational opportunities to everyone, but especially to those who have been denied it from before. Thus, my interest is broader than amateur radio, yet more selective. It should be further noted that my interest is related to technological solutions, rather than educational content or its dispersion in the real world.

In order to make the world a fairer place for everyone, I am an advocate of open-source hardware and software. However, I am also aware that much of this software on offer is second-class. Transforming this into world-class software is challenging. I am currently developing online lectures in Norwegian on topics related to open-source hardware and software along with other computer related topics, and their intersection with amateur radio. These will be presented as part of the Bergen Group’s lecture series, held every other Monday at 20:00 CET/CEST.

Not all radio activity requires a licence. Citizen’s band (CB), known as Private Radio in Norway and much of Europe, and renamed Citizen’s radio in USA, does not have this restriction. It is a land mobile radio system allowing short-distance person-to-person bidirectional voice communication using two way radios operating on 40 channels near 27 MHz (11 meter). Some countries require users to register and to use an assigned call sign. Since 2021-09, USA’s FCC approved the use of narrowband FM modulation for the CB Radio Service, analogous to the European CEPT standard. Readers who are uncertain as to whether they want to become involved in amateur radio, may find that they want to start with CB, which could give them a taste of opportunities, despite its many shortcomings. My CB handle is Marmot.

I would also like to thank my son, Alasdair, for providing me with my first transceiver, a TYT TH-UV88 hand-held analog two-way radio operating on VHF and UHF FM amateur bands. He has a matching unit. While some people advertise these units for US$ 40, that is without anything, including postage and taxes. Thus, one should expect to pay about US$ 100 for a radio equipped for operation in the field.

This radio will soon be supplemented with a Red Pitaya STEMlab 125-14 unit for SDR = software defined radio. Alasdair has one of these. As usual, I find it convenient to buy identical equipment to people I know, so that I can take advantage of their experience and insights. SDR is often used in mobile communication. Remote software updates are used to improve hardware, update standards and implement new protocols.

Antennas and radio masts are problematic, especially for MF = medium frequency, and HF = high frequency communication. This summer, our old flag pole was removed, and a new one has been purchased and installed at a different location on our property at Cliff Cottage that should allow it to function as a radio mast. The next step is to provide a suitable coax cable connection from my desk to the base of the flagpole.

Another of my interests in radio relates to audio circuitry. Admittedly, my main audio interest relates to synthesizers, but also music more generally, including audio production (with and without video). This interest stretches back in time. In my youth I soldered together a Heathkit receiver, that eventually worked. Later, I made active speakers equipped with their own power amplifiers. My interest in synthesizers also emerged at this period, but they were far too expensive to consider making at the time. New Westminster public library was my primary source of information. In addition to many other unrelated topics, I regular read their books and magazines about electronics. My favourite magazine was Elector, which came out in an English edition, starting in 1975. After discussing it for many years, I now have a green (digital version only) subscription to it, that includes access to all back issues. I find it equally fascinating to read both new and ancient articles about the same topics, while admitting that progress in electronics is almost overwhelming.

Much of my teaching after 2008 involved the use of Arduino Uno microprocessors. The Arduino project was started at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Ivrea, Italy. These used Atmel ATmega8 microcontrollers. The AVR architecture was developed by two students at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim, Alf-Egil Bogen (1967 – ) and Vegard Wollan (1967 – ). For students allergic to computer hardware, I have often developed projects using Processing, a graphical library and integrated development environment (IDE) built for teaching non-programmers the fundamentals of computer programming in a visual context. Processing was developed by Chris Rea (1972 – ) and Ben Fry (1975 – ).

Because of various issues of deception related to Arduino, I have abandoned it for Raspberry Pi boards, based on Broadcom processors. The Raspberry Pi project originally promoted the teaching of basic computer science in schools, especially in developing countries. The boards are inexpensive, modular, and have an open design. They are extensively used by radio, computer and other electronics hobbyists.

People simply wanting to be entertained with amateur radio may want to see one or more of the many movies about this topic. Personally, I am currently watching films (or at least scenes) about amateurs using radios, including: Nancy Drew, Detective (1938); Handle with Care (1977), originally released as Citizens Band; and, El Radioaficionado = The Radio Amateur (2021).

For those wondering, let me state explicitly that I have no intention of raising homing pigeons. Those with an interest in these birds are encouraged to read Arthur Ransome’s (1884 – 1967) Pigeon Post (1936), the only book in the Swallows and Amazons series that does not involve some form of sailing.

I would especially like to know if any readers of this weblog are themselves radio amateurs, or are engaged in radio transmission in other ways. Readers of this post wishing to discuss amateur radio, superficially or in depth, are asked to contact me privately.

This post was originally written on 2021-05-14 starting at 22:00. It was updated immediately prior to publication.

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