Vintage radio is alive and well! Perhaps you recall that long forgotten mode of AM, Amplitude Modulation? Well AM is back, with a vengeance. Fortified by the bromide “Everything Old Becomes New Again.”, hams both new and old have begun to discover, or in some cases, rediscover the pleasure of Angel Music or Advanced Modulation (AM).
Perhaps it is nostalgia, maybe boredom with new “appliance” type of radios, or just the desire to be different, whatever the reason, the amateur community in general and Maine in particular, have experienced a resurgence in the resurrection, restoration and operation of vintage gear. Not all activity takes place on the air, for often the very act of finding and then restoring a radio, often built before its current owner was a gleam in his father’s eye, has become for many, half of the fun. Hams are discovering that far from being a drudge, it can be actually fun to “load” and “tune” the finals of a tube rig. Or to troubleshoot and replace the capacitors, resistors and tubes of a transmitter built 30, 50, or 70 years ago. Spending time on the bench, pouring over a schematic with the soldering iron in hand has, for many of us, offered as much fun as operating on air.
Of course the earliest practitioners of our fine hobby did not have access to Ham Radio Outlets or Amateur Electronics Supply of the world. There were no Icoms, Yasesus, or Kenwoods to be found. Instead the new ham built his gear from parts found around the house. The early ham found that an old Quaker Oats container served well as a coil form for a receiver, a discarded broadcast receiver yielded the tubes and a wooden breadboard became the chassis. Contacts of just a few hundred miles were “DX”. Despite those hardships, or as I contend because of them, the radio hobby thrived and exploded in the early part of the last century. Numerous publications and local Elmers soon supported the efforts of these “radio newcomers” who’s unsteady, chirpy signals beaconed their new presence on the band.
Slowly things progressed and commercial interests began to develop gear for the amateur market. Names like Collins, E.F. Johnson, National and numerous others, some still with us today, offered kits and then complete receivers and transmitters to the amateur. Little did these manufacturer’s suspect how cherished their creations would be 70 years later. It is surely a testament to the design and quality of these units that so many have survived today.
Yet, one by one these venerable radio firms began to go away, replaced by competitors now manufacturing radios no longer out of steel and glass, but out of plastic and silicone. The days of “hands-on” radio slowly melted away and with it much of the romance and intrigue that captured the imagination and spirit of the earliest operators. No longer were we looking at a warmly backlit slide rule dial or swapping crystals to select our frequency. Instead the cold harsh soulless LEDs of the digital VFO had taken over. With the advent of large towers, antenna arrays, kilowatt amps and the internet spotting stations one could make a radio contact with the relative ease of a cell phone.
Radios and computers are now quickly evolving into one and the same. 24 hour newscasts and our increasingly interconnected world have stolen much of radio’s magnetic draw. The days of huddling around a shortwave receiver in a darkened room listening to world events unfolding in far off countries have been largely replaced by turning on CNN. Prospective hams, frequently today’s youth, see little if any difference between the instant messaging of the internet and the current line of plastic radios. Indeed, the efforts involved for the same results make the internet seem like the clear choice. We have, in this ham’s opinion, sold the steak and forgotten the sizzle. The “Magic of Radio” is not something that can be bought, it must be learned. I recall my wonderment as a teenager hanging a piece of wire out the window, and listening to all of these far away places on my DX-160. Today, the new amateur is sadly often “sold” radio as two-way intercom with their buddies.
Yet there is a bright spot, a happy ending to this story. For it seems that the salvation of radio may be its past. You can still find a transmitter first sold in 1950, carry out some simple repairs, and operate as your fellow hams did 50 years ago. Selecting the mode – Fone or CW, using separate transmitters and receivers, balanced or “open wire” feed line, homebrewed wire antennas, carefully “zero beating” the other fellows signal, is for many of us akin to going back in time. The mystery and intrigue are still there and can be easily resurrected if given a chance. Darken the room, switch on the transmitter, watch the purple flicker of the 866 rectifier tubes, hear the whirl of the fan, feel and see the heat and the glow of the filaments, the hum of the high voltage transformers, the strange and wonderful smell of dust heating up on the old vacuum tubes, then the loud “chercunk” of the plate contactor and the wonderful silence and slight hum, a strong carrier quiets the static as the call is uttered once again, “CQ, CQ AM Phone” and the Magic lives on.
73 Bruce W1UJR