Sunday, 31 July 2016

My dad the ham

For those of us who are so entranced with the modern means of communication, we should acknowledge that there are those who went before us with the same desire to reach out over great distances. While the hobby has been in decline in recent years, for decades amateur radio (a.k.a. "ham radio") was the Internet of its day. My dad was a ham operator, and so I guess I got the bug from him.
Our first family home was a small house in Pierrefonds, Quebec. My dad had a workroom with all kinds of electronic equipment and tools, with pride of place given to the amateur radio receiver and transmitter. I can still see him sitting in front of it saying "CQ, CQ", the code informing the world that there was a ham ready to talk. His call sign at the time was VE2CS (a.k.a. "Victor-Echo-Two-Charlie-Sierra"), and he would introduce himself as "Oscar-Whiskey-Echo-November" to anyone he contacted. Part of the amateur radio tradition is that operators would send each other QSL cards, and I remember stacks of these from all over the world filed in different nooks and crannies of his radio shack. Perhaps some ham operators out there will find one of his QSL cards in their archives...
My father would also tune in to radio stations all over the world on shortwave, and I distinctly remember listening to Voice of America, Radio Moscow, and even Radio Vaticana while sitting in his radio shack. So much for being stuck listening to a few local stations! I remember our listening sessions sparking all kinds of interesting discussions between us about how to exercise critical thinking in the face of "new media", and that was in the 1970's!
I later learned that my father had been a ham for a long, long time. Even to this day, an amateur radio operator needs to get a license to operate, and he was so proud of the fact that he had managed to pass his license exam when he was only 15, i.e. back in 1936! I remember thinking "Wow, even kids can do this."
One day, my father got out some components and, following a mysterious-looking diagram, built a small crystal radio. I didn't see how it could work, given it had no battery or external power, but wouldn't you know that when I put that earpiece in my ear I could hear the radio signal coming in from a station nearby. It was the radio waves themselves that were being converted to electricity to produce the sound. Amazing! So I was hooked. We started building electronics projects using the old Radio Shack electronic project kits, and later he taught me how to use a soldering iron and follow circuit diagrams (I remember being proud of knowing how to read the coloured bands on a resistor). Dad always had plenty of resistors, capacitors, diodes and whatnot in that workroom, so I never had to go far to find what I needed. I even remember hooking up light emitting diodes (LEDs) and wondering if they'd ever have enough power one day to serve as some sort of flashlight...who knew!
I remember one component in particular that caught my attention: the relay. This was a fascinating item, because (as my dad taught me) it could be used to create simple logic gates and implement Boolean algebra in a real system. (Sorry, did I geek out there?) Anyway, trust me, this is more interesting and important than you might think because these principles are still at the very root of modern digital electronics. Modern chips use transistors, not relays, but I remember reading a short story as a kid, in which Isaac Asimov described a massive supercomputer called Multivac working to the "clicking of relays".
This discovery of the principles of computing eventually led to my own interests diverging from those of my dad. Remember how I was building those electronic kits? Well, a new one caught my eye: the ZX81, which could be purchased in kit form and assembled at home. The only problem was that I didn't have the money to get one. So I started saving my pennies, which in the end I wound up using for something even better.
More to come!