Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science/tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is Peter Coffee (call sign AC6EN), VP for Strategic Research at salesforce.com inc. With an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, and as an author and journalist, no surprise his passion is communication in a unique medium. He has won a McGan "Silver Antenna" Award for service to amateur radio and the various photos show Peter with students and family members practicing and teaching this ancient trade (by today's ubiquitious smartphone standards) over the years.
It's been 45 years since I became fascinated, at the age of 12, by amateur radio -- "ham radio" as it's widely known, with only the weakest explanations of how that nickname arose. I've taught aspiring teenagers to prepare for the license exam, I've administered both written (theory and regulations) and Morse Code exams, and I've promoted the emergency preparedness and public service aspects of what many call a hobby -- but what's properly and officially termed the Amateur Radio Service. The photo above is me in 2005 with my daughter-in-law, then my oldest son's girlfriend, who just this year got her Ph.D. at MIT. We're re-raising a vertical antenna after it had been blown down by a severe windstorm.
I still believe Amateur Radio has a lot to offer, but I can tell you precisely when I've seen dramatic punctuations in its timeline that seriously challenge its future role.
Punctuation 1 was the rewrite of a classic ham radio story, Walker Tompkins's "SOS at Midnight," which was the book (found in my elementary-school library) that first drew me in to the ham community of skills and practices. In a pivotal moment of that story, someone is able to contact law enforcement because -- wait for it -- a typewriter-sized two-way radio rig was in the trunk of his car, where the bad guys had never thought to look when they were smashing the radio gear in the passenger compartment. Fortunately, a regularly scheduled on-the-air chat session was in progress, and one of the people in that group had the necessary gear to "phone patch" to the sheriff's office.
Well. When that 1957 book was reprinted in 1971, they decided to update the anachronisms. In the rewrite, the overlooked radio was a handheld in the glove compartment -- but today, of course, everyone involved would be carrying a smartphone. I don't know why they bothered to make the 1971 change at all: the drama was seriously weakened even then, and today it's nonexistent. Punctuation 1 is that today, everyone is connected with a global network all the time. The photo below is from 2002: an elementary school class that I was teaching basic Morse Code and radio concepts. My youngest son, at right wearing glasses and pointing to the worksheet in the middle of the table, was then ten years old: he's now an aerospace engineer.
Punctuation 2 was in 1995, when the Coast Guard stopped listening for SOS signals entirely. "We've just found more rapid and secure ways of communicating," said a Master Chief in a New York Times report of the change in practice. After decades of utter conviction that the most adverse conditions demanded knowledge of that most primitive but robust protocol, Morse Code skills were also dropped from ham radio licensing in 2007. The photo below is from 2000 with a fifth-grade student at a local elementary school, letting them figure out how radio waves can be aimed with a parasitic reflective/directive antenna
I often use my own Morse Code proficiency (26 words per minute, thank you) as an example of a laboriously acquired skill that offers essentially zero prospect of future return on the effort it represents. I often need to suggest, sometimes not gently, that a room full of veterans in some other field of technology must likewise acknowledge that skills can be a depreciating asset over time. (As for mastery of the Log Log Duplex Decitrig slide rule, that's a similar subject for another time.)
The final punctuation is in the small matter of hardware. Yes, there's the medium of radio, with its interesting atmospheric physics, and the protocols of Morse Code or more elaborate schemes -- but none of that is useful without a mechanism that turns volts and amps into radio waves. The tradition of ham radio is the builder: if not necessarily from scratch ("homebrew" equipment), then at least the occasional Heathkit -- and certainly the impulse and ability to make routine adjustments and repairs, perhaps with oscilloscope and probe or perhaps just with "cut and try" heuristics guided by experience and fundamental knowledge. The photo below shows hardware circa 1997 with me giving a tour of my ham station to a visiting exchange student from Japan.
Despite Heathkit's 2013 announcement of yet another comeback attempt, it's been clear since the company's first capitulation (in 1992) that the economics of packing parts and an assembly manual simply could not stand up against modern integrated-circuit designs and robotic assembly. This is a real loss. In 2008, Leander Kahney quoted from an oral history recording by Steve Jobs in saying that "The kits taught Steve Jobs that products were manifestations of human ingenuity, not magical objects dropped from the sky." I know that when I think about the basic challenges of electronics and communications, I'm helped by having held components in my hand and being forced to think about signal paths, interference, and distortion. When I say, as I often do, "bits are a lie: at some point, they're an abstraction of actual electricity," the fact of having built pieces of gear that exchanged signals halfway around the world is part of that perspective.
By some measures, ham radio is as healthy as ever. It still finds a home in classrooms, and it's still an important part of communications in disasters and in remote locations. What's been lost, I fear, is its role as the entry path to technology, based on building things and using them in a challenging and decidedly imperfect environment -- compared to the entry path today, through programming and packet-network communications, that starts with the assumptions of abstraction rather than the baptism of often-annoying reality.