Sunday, September 21, 2008


Amateur Radio and Amateur Astronomy: A Cautionary Tale

I’m guessing most of y’all know at least a little bit about amateur (“ham”) radio, muchachos. There’s always been a lot of overlap between these two “scientific hobbies,” and I’d bet quite a few of y’all don’t just know about amateur radio, but are hams, maybe even active card-carrying members of the A-Double-R-L.

Yep, despite some differences, there’s a lot of crossover. And how is ham radio? If you’ve been keeping up with it, even casually, you know that it hasn't been rosy for the last coupld of decades. Changes have been made, and ham radio is growing again, but, I don’t think any OT (Old Timer) will disagree with me when I say it has been a rough twenty years. So what? I think amateur astronomy is in pretty fair shape, as I opined a few blogs back, but that don’t mean ever’thing is perfect, or that we can’t learn from the travails—the mistakes—of our sister obsession.

In addition to drawing audiences with some overlap (lotta nerds), ham radio and amateur astronomy share a similar heritage. Both are reasonably young pursuits, just under a century old in both cases. While many folks contributed to the start of both hobbies, two names stand out as being responsible, more than anybody else, for the shape of things that came: Hiram Percy Maxim and Russell W. Porter. Maxim, son of the inventor of the Maxim machine gun, was undoubtedly a genius. Like his daddy, he was inquisitive and mechanically inclined, and soon went from tinkering with the new-fangled internal combustion engines to playing around with the even more sci-fi – pie-in-the-sky radio stuff.

Good as he was at nuts and bolts—and later wires and “valves”—Maxim’s real genius was for organization. You can still see his original “rig” (radio), “Old Betsy,” on display at American Radio Relay League headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, but W1AW’s (Maxim’s call-sign, still active as the call of the ARRL’s “memorial” station) greatest creation, the ARRL, is his real legacy.

Hiram started his League as a means to relay messages across the country in the days when hams used long-wave frequencies and couldn’t dream of spanning the continent with one transmitter. This original purpose—transmitting emergency communications and other serious stuff—marked the ARRL's, and much of ham radio’s, public face in the ensuing decades. Sure, the League would distribute recruiting brochures proclaiming “amateur radio is fun” (and it was), but in the background there was always the Old Man with his serious mien looking on, even after he passed into the ether in 1936. Ham radio wasn’t just some hobby like stamp collecting; it was serious stuff. For many of us, very serious.

The history of amateur astronomy? The same, yet different. Some folks will maintain that the birth of amateur astronomy came on a lovely Tuscan spring evening in 1610, when Galileo first turned his little scope on the sky. Well, sorta. But, truth be told, the amateur astronomy we know, like ham radio, began in the early days of the twentieth century. At this time, public education had finally taken root and scientific curiosity was finally aborning in the good, ol’ U.S. of A.

Like Maxim, Russell Porter was possessed of a magnificent obsession: astronomy and, most of all, telescope making. This struck a chord with a surprising number of otherwise normal guys and even a few gals and purty soon this telescope bidness wasn’t just a fringe occupation, but, as Arlo Guthrie says, A MOVEMENT. While Porter was no doubt the driving force behind this movement, he did not, as Maxim did, organize amateur astronomers into a national group. That task was fostered by two other famous amateurs—icons, I reckon—from the early days, Leslie Peltier and Albert "Unk" Ingalls. The organization that resulted from their early work, the Astronomical League, didn’t get rolling until 1947.

I’ve been going on about the similarity of ham radio and amateur astronomy, but there are differences. As above, the Astronomical League was a long time coming, while the American Radio Relay league was there from almost the start. Why? Aside from none of our amateur astronomer forebears having quite the single-minded vision of ol’ Hiram, there are a couple of reasons.

Most importantly, Amateur Radio lives and dies by the actions of the federal gubmint. The Washington Goobers have come purty close to legislating ham radio out of existence a time or two, and most hams have recognized the need for a strong national organization to deal with threats from our government and foreign ones. This is probably not quite the concern it used to be, since the main threat to ham radio, governments and industries looking longingly at the shortwave spectrum inhabited by hams, is much diminished. These days I wouldn’t think industry much cares about 40 meters, for example. Amateur astronomy does face a similar threat, light pollution, but it is a more nebulous one, and one that’s recent enough that it wasn’t a motivation for the birth of the Astronomical League.

Ham radio is also different from amateur astronomy in that it’s a licensed activity, and that the federal government has long relied on hams themselves (in the form of the ARRL) to aid in enforcement and licensing issues. Hams have always striven to be self-policing and, to the extent possible, self-regulating. We amateur astronomers have nuttin’ comparable to any of that, thank goodness, and our national organization is less involved in and less important to our lives as amateurs.

Why else don’t amateur astronomers have an ARRL of our own? Maybe amateur astronomers are a wee bit less gregarious? After all, much of the time our pursuit is a solitary one. Even if you’re observing with a group you are mostly focused on your scope and the wonders in your eyepiece, not what Boudreaux is trying to get across to you through 75 meter QRM and QRN on the Saturday night Gulf Coast Swampers' Net. In part, in large part, amateur radio is about communicating with your fellow humans, while amateur astronomy is about trying to understand the non-human and maybe even inhuman.

Also, maybe because of our lone-wolf orientation, many of us U.S. of A. amateurs seem suspicious of powerful national organizations. We don’t want anybody telling us how to do amateur astronomy (we reserve that right for ourselves). We may be shooting ourselves in the foot that way; other countries—like our neighbor to the north—have strong and highly organized national groups that do a lot of good for the avocation. Not only do we not want an ARRL, we are, some of us, ambivalent about the organization we have. Don’t believe me? Sit in on the next bidness meeting of your local club when an AL dues increase comes up for discussion.

Despite the differences between these “legislated” and “non-legislated” hobbies, our histories are much the same, and a look at where amateur radio has been and gone over the last 40 years may indeed be instructive and cautionary. Yeah, ham radio began at the turn of the century (the previous turn, that is; I keep forgetting), but in some ways, it didn’t really start cookin’ till after WWII. Not long after the formation of the ARRL, amateur radio went off the air for the duration of WWI. Hams worked like hell to bring radio back after the Armistice, but just as things was going good the double whammy of the Depression and WWII hit.

The Depression was probably not all bad for the pursuit, since it encouraged creativity (How do you make a transmitter out of stone knives and bear skins?), and it was a fairly cheap way to enjoy yourself when nickels was hard to get. But folks had other things on their minds at the time (like eating), and nobody was buying much gear, so there wasn’t a huge amount of growth in the thirties. By 1940, restrictions were already being placed on ham radio as the clouds gathered, and even if ham radio wasn’t completely shut down legally for the duration, it might as well have been. With VJ day, though, ham radio came back with a vengeance, aided by a good postwar economy (after a couple of stumbles), and tons and tons of cool war surplus gear and parts (there was so much o’ that that we was still enjoyin’ the bounty in the 1960s).

The tenor of the times helped, too. Concerns about the (very real) threat of thermonuclear war, and the real need for alternate communications methods for Civil Defense assured that ham radio was both an exciting and valued (including by Washington) way for young men to get their kicks in the 50s and early 60s (there were a few “YLs,” women ops, back then, but NOT MANY). The space race helped almost as much as the arms race, as ham radio was looked on as not just a way to chat with your buds on the Friday night net, but as something EDUCATIONAL for kids. Scientific. There were probably more high school radio clubs then than ever before or surely since. Almost unbelievably, for a little while there, being a ham was not the badge of uber-geekdom, but genuinely cool.

There, in this Golden Age, hams remained till the sixties began to wind down. It almost seemed as if amateur radio were on the verge of gaining mass acceptance/popularity. Down here in Possum Swamp, there wasn’t just a radio club (no amateur astronomy club), there was a large and active ham radio club. A club filled not just with geezers—they were the minority—but thirty-somethings, YLs, and even, yes, us teenagers despite the other—ahem—“activities” that began to attract us younguns’ notice as the Summer of Love came and went. Unfortunately, change was Blowin’ in the Wind and a Hard Rain was A-gonna Fall. Ironically, the thing that began ham radio’s slow decline was begun by the very outfit who’d kept the avocation alive through postwar government interference and economic hard times, the ARRL.

The powers that had entrenched themselves at the organization had become concerned about “appliance operators.” Traditionally, hams had built their gear. Well, sort of, anyhow. Most hams didn’t attempt the rather arcane art of building radio receivers, sticking with transmitters—AM and CW (Morse code) transmitters—which were relatively easy to homebrew. As the 1960s dissolved in a Purple Haze, though, most hams, new and old, began to buy rather than build. Why? Mainly due to one thing: Single Sideband (SSB).

This was a new (to ham radio) voice communications method that was much more efficient than ol’ Amplitude Modulation. Unfortunately, an SSB rig, especially a transceiver (which combines the functions of transmitter and receiver), which was what most hams now wanted, was impossible for most hams to construct, even if they had access to plans and parts. My Old Man did it, but he was a broadcast engineer who could sketch a schematic and sling a soldering gun with the best of ‘em, and even for him this was not a trivial project. Another factor in the decline in homebrewing was that the flow of free or nearly free war surplus parts was beginning to dry up, and what remained was becoming less and less useful for making the new-fangled stuff.

The ARRL fathers didn’t seem to take any of the above into account, though. All they saw was CRISIS IN HAM RADIO. Hams were becoming just like the dreaded CBers—buying a radio to chat with the buddies (supposedly) being the sole focus of the Appliance Operators. Then the League made a mistake that almost proved fatal. Instead of doing something to gently encourage hams to become more involved in the technical side of the hobby—developing course materials/project kits for the clubs, for example--they decided on a more proactive and draconian approach. What was needed, they said, was harder licensing exams. Ham radio has always required a license, and, in modern times, an exam has been the price of that “ticket.”

Until the end of the sixties, that license required nothing more than a modest theory exam and a Morse code test that was slow enough that most anybody (though not everybody) could pass it. The ARRL decided the way to increase the proficiency of hams was to force them to undergo more difficult exams. Ham radio’s frequency space would be ghettoized. If you chose just to stick with your old license, you could still get on the air, but only in crowded and less desirable frequency “bands.”

How could the ARRL impose this system, which they (and the FCC) called “Incentive Licensing,” on hams? They’d long had the ear of the Federal Communications Commission, and in internal amateur radio matters the FCC almost always deferred to the ARRL. Whether it was the ARRL or the FCC who first came up with the idea of Incentive Licensing depends on whose history you read, but there is no doubt the A-Double-R-L was instrumental in seeing this scheme become a reality.

The result? Some hams just upgraded. If, like Unk, you were lucky, you had a facility for taking tests and copying Morse code. Having somebody like my Old Man who could make the most arcane radio technology understandable with a few pencil scrawls on one of Mama’s paper napkins didn’t hurt either. For me, the more difficult theory and the 20 words-per-minute of the new “Extra Class” license were duck soup. If you were not so good at tests and at deciphering dah-dih-dah-dih/dah-dah-dih-dah? Too bad…no soup for you.

Quite a few hams became discouraged by the situation and dropped out at this time. Why, they understandably wondered, wasn’t there a place for ham radio operators who just wanted to operate? Wasn’t being a good radio op just as important as answering questions about them consarned new transistors on a gubmint test and building stuff? Eventually, ham radio lost a lot of old timers who couldn’t or wouldn’t upgrade to the new Extra Class license, and who also couldn’t adjust to life in the 75-meter “General Class” band-segment zoo. Undoubtedly quite a few new hams dropped out as well. After struggling to learn the Morse code and theory so they could finally have some fun, they were informed there would be yet more code tests and electronics exams before they would be allowed to have the real fun.

The fault for ham radio’s decay was not the ARRL’s entirely. Quite a few of the Old Timers in the ranks shared the blame. While many of them were against the ARRL’s new Incentive Licensing, many, many of them supported something that probably did even more harm to the hobby’s growth, Morse code. As early as the 1970s, Morse code was dying as a valued mode for commercial and government communications. Modern technologies like SSB and, increasingly, advanced (digital) communications modes had been pushing CW out of the commercial sector for years. But ham radio still required the initiate not just be able to copy the code, but be proficient. And that ain’t easy for some boys and girls. Even passing the General Class 13wpm test was utterly impossible for some folks.

Not everybody’s brain is wired right for CW. Ain’t no shame in that. My brain ain’t wired right for hearing the difference between two musical notes. Some have a talent for it, some don’t. Ham radio Old Timers’ attitude? Beyond talk about CW being useful for emergency communications (not completely untrue), it supposedly being possible to copy the code when nothing else will get through the static of an H-bomb- disrupted ionosphere, there was a sub-text: “The code is good because it keeps the riff-raff out.”

That it did, but at what a cost. My OM was strongly in the OT ranks, but even he would sometimes admit that maybe 20wpm—or even 13—was too much. He’d had a buddy who had loved ham radio. Was very sharp technically, too. Unfortunately, this dude just could not learn the code, finally giving up after multiple attempts to pass the test (while easily passing the electronics theory part). Ham radio, the OM reluctantly admitted, lost a person who would have been a huge asset.

Incentive Licensing and the code didn’t have a huge initial impact (I’m not sure how many of those General Class hams who swore they’d tear up their “tickets” rather than try for the new Extra Class really did that). It was more like a potent but slow-acting poison. The effect was eventually felt in the expected way: Fewer and fewer new hams. Sure, as the 80s came, the ARRL tried to lure video-game crazy younguns with visions of computerized radios and digital transmission, but when the newbies showed interest they were told, “Cool, welcome, but first you’ll have to learn Morse code just like grandpa did.”

At the last hamfest I attended a while back there was not one single person who appeared to be younger than Old Uncle Rod. A small deep-south amateur radio gathering does not tell the entire tale, of course, but the outlook appeared grim. Then everything changed. The ARRL finally saw the light and Morse code  has become a thing of the past. The only question is “Is it too late?” I am happy to say the answer is "no." Amateur radio licenses are up, and if this continues, the avocation will eventually be back on an even keel.

Unfortunately, ham radio squandered three decades during which they should have been expanding. Now they are faced with the task of rebuilding, convincing young folks that expensive radios are More Better Gooder than chatting on a cell phone or typing on the Internet.

Ham radio, schmam radio, what does all this junk have to do with our passion, amateur astronomy? The parallels are clear. Come on, admit it, you’ve been one of the group of geezers at the local club meeting lamenting the fact that these gull-derned sprouts and newbies don’t know the sky, don’t want to learn the sky, and just want to—DAMMIT—have fun looking through their telescopes.

Sound familiar? Yep, go-to is our CW. We do have one advantage our ham radio brothers and sisters didn't; you don’t have to get a license to use a telescope on the sky. There is no way to force a novice to learn the constellations when she enters our ranks. Well, almost not. If said novice joins a club that is dominated by OTs (“I paid my dues, you’ll pay yours”), peer pressure may do it.

I recently ran across a young squirt at our local/regional star party cruising the sky with his brand new LX200GPS by means of finder and hand-paddle. A few questions soon revealed that this was not due to a self-motivated desire for self-improvement, but fear. He was genuinely afraid of what his fellow and senior club members would think of him if they caught him using go-to without knowing every consarned star’s name. I tried to suggest he consider just having fun with his new scope, but he wouldn’t take the bait. I haven’t seen that young man in a while, and would guess the wonderful new scope has taken up residence in a closet and that he hasn’t been to a club meeting in a while.

Club meetings? The average radio club meeting with its inpenetrable jargon and older and sometimes seemingly unwelcoming participants is as frightening for novices as induction into a 19th Century East London murder cult. And, sad to tell, we are much the same. Haysoos-Christmas, I know there are a lot of nerds and geeks among us (yours truly included), but could we at least TRY not to scare off every single normal young man and woman who wanders into a club meeting?

Could we at least try not to show off our Special Knowledge right away and try to refrain from locking Jane Novice in our steely gaze and asking, “Huh-huh, huh-huh, bet you can’t tell me NGC 6553’s Shapley-Sawyer type (giggle-snort)!” Ever think about inviting the (over 21) newbies out for a beer after the meeting and occasionally discussing the Saints’ prospects for this NFL football season instead of/in addition to the pluses and minuses of front/back illuminated CCD chips and the probable value of Lambda in the universe? No, I am not suggesting we change who we are, but if we want to go mainstream, we are gonna have to at least be a little more mainstream.

Why bother? What’s in it for us? Well, beyond just an innate desire to see the avocation begun by Russell Porter (or if you prefer, Unk Albert or maybe William Herschel), continue down the generations, there’s a selfish motive. More folks = more stuff. Would you like to see Astronomy Technology Today twice as fat as it is? Would you like there to be an honest-to-god telescope dealer in your Podunk town? Would you like star parties every month of the year—big star parties with lotsa vendors? Would you like a grass roots local movement that forces the pols to enact strong ordinances mandating sensible lighting?

The way to get these nice things is not by, like ham radio did, being exclusive, but being inclusive. In addition to making the face of amateur astronomy more welcoming, we’re gonna have to make it more diverse—if we care about the above good things. As I have preached before, maybe too many times, that face will need to be younger, of different colors, and of different gender before we get to where I think we should be given our inherent appeal. Inherent appeal? Yeah, you see it at every public star party: The look of wonder on a housewife’s face when she gets her first look at the Moon through a real telescope. The attraction is there; we just need to find a way to capitalize on that attraction.

Ham radio? It really ain’t the same as it was in 1969 when I was first licensed—and I don’t think it’s just me getting old and bitter, either. However, the ARRL and hams in general seem to be turning in a new and better direction, and given the uptick in new licenses it is obviously not impossible that ham radio will soon be thriving again.

The main lesson we can take from the hams' travails? Let us welcome all and sundry into our ranks to enjoy our glorious avocation as they see fit. And let's do that before the advent of the Microsoft Worldwide Telescope Virtual Reality Helmet means we have to struggle to explain to kids what a telescope is good for. Let us have kids on our side in our ranks and let us co-opt and use that kinda technology for our advancement and benefit when it comes instead of fighting and fearing it.

73s de AC4WY

Next Time:  Ethos Mania...

I know what you're talking about regarding old timers and ham radio. The local club in my area advertises on their web site that they are open to everyone and that they have a yahoo group. I was interested in joining the club and getting new license (now that code isn't required I could do better than my novice license that lapsed 20 years ago). I tried to join the yahoo group get a feel for the people before just showing up at a meeting. I was told that I had to be a dues paying member of the club before I could join the group (even though anyone can read messages on the web).

Hardly the welcoming attitude expected of an organization claiming to be interested in spreading the hobby.

Did I join? No, and still don't have a license.
Good article that hits close to home. I have personally witnessed several actions that young guns in the hobby would consider offensive and exclusive. It only took my teenager one trip to the oldtimer brigade convention to say that it was not the most open and inclusive group that she had been around. She would not go back. Our club also dropped the AL last time the dues went up. We must TRY to learn to be open with our knowledge base, and not be quite so arrogant with our expensive toys that we shun younger ones with zeal and pride of their 300 dollar DOB. Yes, learning to hop, building your own, and paying dues were the way in when I was a young man, but things are changing as you point out. If we do not learn to welcome young people with zeal for the science, our hobby will diminsh greatly. I know our clubs membership is way down as a reflection of the points you have made, and it is our attitudes that must change that tide. There can be great joy in teaching and passing along the old ways, but it will never be the only way. Good Article!
Petronius...don't feel bad. I once moved to a small town down here...thought I'd join the local club. The folks in question wouldn't even admit they had a club, much less let me join...MUSTA BEEN MY BREATH...LOL!

I got interested in amateur radio and amateur astronomy back while I was in high school (1964). Got my first telescope an Edmund 3" reflector (I'm sure you remember that one) by saving up my paper route money. Later got an RV-6, which I still have and use frequently. In 1966 got my Novice ham ticket and call WN1HFE. Later upgraded to General (WA1HFE) and years later got my Advanced & Extra ticket and my new call KW1V. Been going to Stellafane since 1972 and immediately noticed that alot of hams are amateur astronomers also, which blends together the two hobbies. I am in agreement with you that amateur radio isn't what it once was...sometimes I wonder if the hobby will last another 50 years. I hope it does because it is a great and fun hobby. Hope to hear you on the bands someday! 73 de KW1V (David)
AC4WY de WB9SYN...

Excellent and thought provoking as always, Rod!

For what it's worth, Sidewalk Astronomy has always struck me as a way to get folks into the doors. My built-in-John-Dobson's-class 10" Dob still has an unpainted tube that says "Quickrete" all over it. When folks step back in astonishment after looking through it, they often chuckle and say "Heck, even *I* could make one of these!" To which I reply, "That's exactly the point!"

Same with my little ol' 80f5 Celestron - again, folks are astonished at what they can see (as are their kids for whom its tripod is perfectly suited) and they're not intimidated by its size.

I enjoy Ham Radio - but I think the "hook" to catch someone's interest is still sharper at an open star party / sidewalk astronomy session than any Field Day or such.

Jim Horn (Also another 1960s teenaged Sam Brown fan / 6" grinder)
Hi Rod
I'm president of the local Ham Club as well as Astronomy Club, I enjoy getting together with others of similar interests. It's been hard to get the younger folks away from their computers, twitter, and face book. As for dues, they help keep the club alive, but not near as important as having the people who are interested in either hobby. Hell, I don't even care if someone Gawd Forbid Memorizes all the questions and answers to get his Tech license. Get in the hobby, you can learn more about it when you want to know more. I've forgotten the names of more stars than I can still remember, and I wouldn't part with my new EQ-G Goto Tripod. I started with a 3" Gilbert Telescope Back in 1961.
As you say it's time to examine both hobbies, us old timers can be the guides to the new generation, and get them interested in the things that brought us into the hobby. Not scare them off, but welcome their interests.
73 - and clear skies Dennis
Great article Rod. I've enjoyed both astronomy and ham radio since I was a kid and often ponder the similarities, good and bad. I even call my TV85 & Vixen Porta setup my "QRP Rig".

I just recently moved from the NYC area to Texas and I'm now living, like so many of us do these days, in a development that is unkind to both astronomy (light pollution) and ham radio (HOA restrictions on antennas and QRM) so for me to enjoy my hobbies I must either get in a car and drive somewhere, or suffer through the sub-optimal conditions. Most people couldn't be bothered.

The challenges we face to attract kids in this internet age are going to be hard to overcome. Talk around the world by radio? Big deal, they'll say, we can do that on Skype without having to worry about whether the bands are open. Look at M31 in an 8" SCT? It's just a fuzzy blob, nothing compared to the images on Google Sky. How do you compete with that? Our only hope is to somehow convey the wonder of both hobbies that attracted us when we were young, because the end results - what we see in the eyepiece, what DXCC entity we work - aren't all that impressive to those who don't feel the same magic.

Paul WW2PT
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