Archive for March, 2012

The K0NR History of Electronic Communications

Humans have always had a desire to communicate. They started out just talking to each other but then found that it was really handy to be able to write things down. This caused the invention of the alphabet and the training of English teachers to explain overly-convoluted rules of grammar.

In 1831, Joseph Henry was playing around with electric circuits and came up with the idea of a telegraph. We can imagine a simple system where ON means “time for dinner” and OFF means “not yet”. This wasn’t good enough for Samuel Morse, who invented the Morse Code which could use ON and OFF to represent the entire alphabet. This was the first digital code and was used for important messages such as “Laughing Out Loud”, later abbreviated to LOL. This was basically the same as modern text messaging but you needed a trained telegrapher to do it.

In 1875, an inventor named Bell decided that it would be better if you could just talk over the wires instead of messing around with Morse Code. This will be a recurring theme — whether to talk to other people or just send digital codes. Bell invented this thing called the telephone, which is still used today. Basically, a person could talk into one end of a wire and have his voice pop out of the other end.

Later a guy named Marconi came along with the idea that communication should not depend on wires. For example, it was quite inconvenient to drag a telephone wire behind a ship as it moved across the sea. Unfortunately, Marconi didn’t know how to do voice over the wireless, so he dropped back to using Morse Code. ON and OFF is a much easier way to go. Although there is a persistent rumor that Marconi intentionally used Morse Code to torment future generations of FCC Licensed Amateur Radio Operators, I can find no evidence of this. Some people argue that Nikola Tesla invented wireless but I think he had to be disqualified for overloading and shutting down the Colorado Springs power grid on numerous occasions.

Again, not wanting to be limited by trained telegraphers, voice communication (originally called Amplitude Modulation, but now known as Ancient Modulation) was invented. We are not sure who first came up with Ancient Modulation, but there are a bunch of radio hams on 75 Meters still trying to perfect it.

Somewhere around 1973, Motorola figured out that what the world really wanted was a portable phone that everyone could carry around in their pocket. The first attempt at this was the Motorola DynaTAC, which required an enormous pocket to carry it in. Knowing that customers were not going to enlarge their pockets, various mobile phone manufacturers worked feverishly to reduce the size of these phones.

Unfortunately, the mobile phone manufacturers terribly miscalculated, thinking that people would want to actually talk on these phones. As text messaging was added to these phones, it was discovered that most people, especially those under the age of 30, preferred to send cryptic text messages rather than actually talk to anyone. It was also discovered that all forms of human thought can be captured as 140 character messages. Although it was tempting to apply Morse Code to digital text messaging, it was rejected in favor of the ASCII 8-bit code. Instead of using ON/OFF keying, text messages are normally sent with a tiny keyboard patterned after a full-size typewriter (now obsolete).

73, Bob K0NR

P.S. I made up some of this stuff.

2 Comments

Newsflash: Not Everyone Is Going to Be an Expert

You’ve probably run into this situation…some of the more experienced radio amateurs commenting about how so many of the newer hams are incompetent. “Yeah, they’ve dumbed down the FCC exam, so now anyone can get a license. Back when I got my license, I had to copy Morse Code in my head, design a triple-feedback-loop vacuum tube amplifier and recite the Gettysburg address backwards in front of an FCC examiner.”

A while back, I wrote about the time when a newbie on an email list asked a simple electronics question and got this reply: Not to pick on you, but is there any requirement these days to have a basic knowledge of electricity and/or radios to get a ham license?

Often this shows up as an elitist attitude of If you don’t pursue the hobby my way or at my level, then you are doing it wrong.

Since amateur radio consumes most, but not all, of my hobby time, it is easy to lose perspective on this. And, yes, I am sure I have complained about clueless newbies and LID operators from time to time.

It’s interesting to put the shoe on the other foot and think about activities that I pursue with much less time and intensity. In other words, think about activities where I am not that experienced and certainly not an expert.

For example, I enjoy fishing but I am really not that skilled at it. For me, fishing is just an excuse to sit next to a stream and enjoy the scenery. If I catch fish, that is a plus (but I always throw them back in anyway). When I encounter Real Fisherpersons, they are usually friendly and helpful, passing along a few tips on what they using for bait, etc. Sometimes I will encounter That Fly Fishing Guy that looks down his nose at any form of fishing that does not meet his high standard.

I also enjoy photography. I have a decent Canon DSLR camera with a few lenses and I manage to capture some reasonably good photos that way. (This probably has more to do with the quality of the camera than the photographer.) My interest is mostly to capture experiences and events in my life and create photos that I can use in my various writing activities. But I know a number of people that are infinitely more skilled than I am. They are generally very helpful and I usually manage to learn something from them. Come to think of it, I have not encountered very many condescending photographers — most of them have been very helpful. Maybe I have just been lucky.

Although it’s a cliche, Life is Too Short. There are so many things we can choose to do with our time and, really, so little time to do it. People must make choices about how deep they get into any activity, all while balancing family time and demands at work. It shouldn’t surprise us when some people choose to be part-time hams and don’t aspire to be the expert in all things radio.

And the final point is, if you think you have something to offer to the newbies, make sure you come across as helpful and make sure it looks like you are having fun. Being the Old School Grumpus will not attract people to your favorite activity. Having fun and inviting them in will!

73, Bob K0NR

7 Comments