When my dad was a kid, he built a ham radio from a kit, and strung up an antenna to the telephone pole in front of his house. The screw eye he put into the telephone pole is still there. After starting college, he sold his kit radio so he could buy shoes.
While finishing his degree in mathematics, my dad purchased one of the first electronic calculators, a HP-45.
It cost $399 in the early 1970’s, which is about $1,800 today. It could do arithmetic, which was nice, but the real draw was that it could do trigonometry and logarithmic functions. This made it much faster and more powerful than the slide rule it replaced. After graduating, he spent the first half of his career as a computer programmer, or what today we would call a software engineer.
Father also liked to tinker with stuff. I remember making a killer rubber band rifle using a jig saw, a few clothes pins, and some surgical tubing. It was stout enough to break plastic toys, and left a big welt on my brother’s leg when I shot him with it. My dad gave me an electronics kit, which had various components soldered on to a big breadboard, with little spring posts attached to each component. An enterprising youth could use the fistful of colored wires to create any of the two hundred projects in the included booklet. A little experimentation led to many other projects, including a doorbell/alarm for our bedroom, various kinds of sound generators, and a light activated digital counter.
My dad showed me how to use the transformer from my electric train set to make an incredibly strong electromagnet. Using the same transformer to apply current to a glass of water (which seemed incredibly dangerous to me), we created hydrogen and oxygen gasses via electrolysis. He helped me build a battery powered robot that looked like a turtle with wheels. It could roll around the floor, and would stop and turn when it ran into things. I named him Bert.
Back then, it cost real money, or a long time, to talk to people far away. Long distance phone calls were reserved for Mother’s Day and were never long. A cousin my age, whose dad was a dentist in the Air Force, always seemed to live far away. For a while they were stationed in the Netherlands. We occasionally exchanged letters with drawings of our latest spaceships, but it was hard for me to get excited about and stay focused on anything with a several month cycle time.
We frequently tuned in to broadcast FM and AM stations, for music, news, and college football games. In fact, I had constructed my own AM radio using the electronics kit, but tuning it required a delicate hand. At some point we got a shortwave receiver. It seemed to have some sort of magic not found in broadcast radio. Using only the metal telescoping antenna that came in the box, we occasionally managed to hear far away conversations in languages we couldn’t understand. We found a Morse Code chart in the Encyclopedia Britannica on the living room bookshelf, and tried to decipher the sing song tones we heard over the airwaves, but it was always beyond our skill. I pored over the previously uninteresting section of the HeathKit catalog (yes, someone has an old HealthKit catalog online) which contained shortwave transceivers, and dreamed of converting the closet under the stairs into my own ham shack. My interest soon waned, and I moved on to the next fascination.
I now have children of my own, and a modern tinker’s workbench consists of a computer, Minecraft, a quad copter drone, and a 3D printer instead of resistors and a soldering iron. The Internet makes communication with people on the other side of the planet commonplace and instantaneous. Podcasts and Spotify have replaced broadcast radio for the rising generation. But my father still listens to NPR on an old shortwave radio, and I still find magic in amateur radio.
I finally decided to get a license. To my delight, the Morse Code proficiency requirements had been removed. After few days of studying and a couple of online practice tests and I headed off to take the Technician exam. The week I had to wait between passing the exam and receiving my call sign seemed like forever.
Now we have a different word for tinkerers; we call them makers. Whatever you call it, I love to play around with stuff. Amateur radio is an integral part of that tinkering for me.