Sunday, September 21, 2008


Amateur Radio and Amateur Astronomy: A Cautionary Tale

I’m guessing most of you know at least a little about amateur (ham) radio. There’s always been a lot of overlap between these two “scientific hobbies,” and I’d bet quite a few of y’all don’t just know about amateur radio, but are hams, maybe even active hams.

And how is ham radio? If you’ve been keeping up with it, even casually, you know that all hasn't been well in amateur radio for the last couple of decades. There were problems, big problems. Luckily, changes have been made.

Ham radio is growing again. The increase in new licensees, new hams, is frankly amazing now, but I don’t think any OT (Old Timer) will disagree with me when I say it was a rough twenty years or so. So what? I think amateur astronomy is in fair shape. But there's no denying it's got serious problems just as radio did. Largely due to the fact that it is now mostly a pursuit of aging baby boomers. Perhaps the travails—the mistakes—of our sister obsession might be instructive.

In addition to drawing audiences with some overlap (many nerds), ham radio and amateur astronomy share a similar heritage. Both are reasonably young pursuits, just under a century old in both cases. While many folks contributed to the start of both avocations, two names stand out as being responsible, more than anybody else, for the shape of things that came: Hiram Percy Maxim and Russell W. Porter.

Maxim, son of the inventor of the Maxim machine gun, was undoubtedly a genius. Like his daddy, he was inquisitive and mechanically inclined, but soon went from tinkering with the new-fangled internal combustion engine to playing around with the even more sci-fi – pie-in-the-sky radio stuff.

Good as he was at nuts and bolts—and later wires and “valves”—Maxim’s real genius was for organization. You can still see his original “rig” (radio), “Old Betsy,” on display at American Radio Relay League headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, but Maxim’s greatest creation, and his real legacy is the ARRL.

Hiram started his League as a means to relay messages across the country in the days when hams used long-wave frequencies and couldn’t dream of spanning the continent with one transmitter. This original purpose—relaying emergency communications traffic and other serious stuff—marked the ARRL's, and much of ham radio’s, public face in the ensuing decades. Sure, ham radio was fun, but in the background there was always the Old Man with his serious mien looking on. Even after he passed on into the ether in 1936 he continued to be a strong force in our hobby. Ham radio wasn’t just some hobby like stamp collecting; it was serious. For many of us, very serious.

The history of amateur astronomy? The same, yet different. Some folks will maintain that the birth of amateur astronomy came on a lovely Tuscan spring evening in 1610 when Galileo first turned his little telescope on the sky. Well, sorta. But, truth be told, the amateur astronomy we know, like ham radio, began in the early days of the twentieth century. At this time, public education had finally taken root (temporarily at least) and scientific curiosity was aborning in the good, ol’ U.S. of A.

Like Maxim, Russell Porter was possessed of a magnificent obsession: astronomy and, most of all, telescope making. This struck a chord with a surprising number of otherwise normal guys and even a few gals and soon this telescope business wasn’t just a fringe occupation, but, as Arlo Guthrie says, A MOVEMENT.

While Porter was no doubt the driving force behind this movement, he did not, as Maxim did, organize amateur astronomers into a national group. That task was fostered by two other famous amateurs—icons, really—from the early days, Leslie Peltier and Albert "Unk" Ingalls. The organization that resulted from their early work, the Astronomical League, didn’t get rolling until 1947.

I’ve been going on about the similarity of ham radio and amateur astronomy, but there are big differences. As above, the Astronomical League was a long time coming, while the American Radio Relay league was there from almost the beginning of amateur radio. Why? In addition to the fact that none of the amateur astronomer forebears had quite the single-minded vision of Hiram Percy Maxim, there are a couple of other reasons.

Most importantly, amateur radio lives and dies by the actions of the federal government. The Washington Goobers have come close to legislating ham radio out of existence a time or two, and most (though not all) hams have recognized the need for a strong national organization to deal with threats from our government and foreign ones. While there aren't many commercial interests looking longingly at hams' HF allocations today, there is still work for the ARRL. Industrialists have just switched from longing for more HF band space, to salivating over hams' VHF/UHF/EHF allocations.

Ham radio is also different from amateur astronomy in that it’s a licensed activity, and that the federal government has long relied on hams themselves to aid in enforcement and licensing issues. Hams have always striven to be self-policing and, to the extent possible, self-regulating. Amateur astronomy has nothing comparable to any of that, and our national organization is less involved in and less important to amateur astronomers.

While amateur astronomers do come into contact with government when it comes to issues concerning the threat to the hobby posed by light pollution, that threat is a more nebulous one than that of spectrum snatching high-tech companies. It is also a threat that’s recent enough that it wasn’t a motivation for the birth of the Astronomical League.

Why else don’t amateur astronomers have an ARRL of their own? Maybe amateur astronomers are a wee bit less gregarious? After all, much of the time astronomy is a solitary pursuit. Even if you’re observing with a group you are mostly focused on your scope and the wonders in your eyepiece, not what your buddy is trying to say to you through 75 meter QRM and QRN on the Saturday night net. In part, in large part, amateur radio is about communicating with your fellow humans, while amateur astronomy is about trying to understand the non-human and maybe even inhuman.

Also, maybe because of that lone-wolf orientation, many of us U.S. of A. amateurs seem suspicious of powerful national organizations. They don’t want anybody telling them how to do amateur astronomy (some reserving for themselves the right to tell fellow astronomers how to observe).

More than a few amateur astronomers also have valid concerns about what the national organization, the Astronomical League, does for them. At one recent astronomy club meeting, a member challenged me to tell him what the AL does that's worth the club's yearly dues as an affiliate astronomical society. About all I could come up with was "observing clubs" and "The Reflector" and couldn't help feeling I'd proved the questioner's point for him. 

Anyhow, despite the differences between these “legislated” and “non-legislated” hobbies, their histories are much the same, and a look at where amateur radio has been and gone over the last 40 years may indeed be instructive and cautionary.

Yeah, ham radio began at the turn of the century (the previous turn, that is; I keep forgetting), but in some ways, it didn’t really start cooking till after WWII. Not long after the formation of the ARRL, amateur radio went off the air for the duration of WWI. Hams worked like heck to bring radio back after the Armistice, but just as things were going good the double whammy of the Depression and WWII hit.

The Depression was probably not all bad for ham radio, since it encouraged creativity: how do you make a transmitter out of stone knives and bear skins? It was also a fairly cheap way to entertain yourself when nickels were hard to get. But folks had other things on their minds at the time (like eating).

By 1940, restrictions were already being placed on ham radio as the war clouds gathered, and ham radio was shut down for the duration for all practical purposes after Pearl Harbor. With VJ day, though, ham radio came back with a vengeance, aided by a good postwar economy and tons and tons of  war surplus radio gear and parts (there was so much of that that we were still enjoying the bounty through the 1960s).

The tenor of the times helped, too. Concerns about the (very real) threat of thermonuclear war, and the need for alternate communications methods for Civil Defense assured that ham radio was both an exciting and valued way for young men to get their kicks in the 50s and early 60s (there were a few “YLs,” women ops, back then, but not many).

The space race helped almost as much as the arms race, as ham radio was looked on as not just a way to chat with your buds on the Friday night net, but as something EDUCATIONAL for kids. Scientific. There were probably more high school radio clubs then than ever before or surely since. Almost unbelievably, for a little while there, being a ham was not the badge of uber-nerddom, but genuinely cool.

There, in this Golden Age, hams remained till the sixties began to wind down. It almost seemed as if amateur radio were on the verge of gaining mass acceptance/popularity. Down here, there wasn’t just a radio club (no amateur astronomy club), there was a large and active ham radio club. A club filled not just with geezers—they were the minority—but thirty-forty-somethings, YLs, and even, yes, us teenagers despite the other—ahem—“activities” that began to attract us younguns’ notice as the Summer of Love came and went. Unfortunately, change was coming and soon. 

The ARRL had become concerned about “appliance operators,” who some thought represented a decline in technical competency in ham radio. Traditionally, hams had built their gear. Well, sort of, anyhow. Most hams didn’t attempt the rather arcane art of building radio receivers, sticking with transmitters—AM and CW (Morse code) transmitters—which were relatively easy to homebrew. As the 1960s dissolved in a Purple Haze, though, most hams, new and old, began to buy rather than build. Why? Mainly due to one thing: Single Sideband (SSB).

This was a new (to the ham radio rank and file) voice communications method that was much more efficient than  Amplitude Modulation. Unfortunately, an SSB rig, especially a transceiver (which combines the functions of transmitter and receiver in one box, both sharing many of the radio's components), which was what most hams now wanted, was impossible for many hams to construct from scratch. My Old Man did it, but he was a broadcast engineer who could sketch a schematic and sling a soldering gun with the best of ‘em, and even for him this was not a trivial project. Another factor in the decline in homebrewing was that the flow of free or nearly free war surplus parts had begun to slow to a trickle (Vietnam produced little in the way of surplus radio gear).

The ARRL began to believe there was a CRISIS IN HAM RADIO. Hams were becoming just like the dreaded CBers—buying a radio to chat with Good Buddies being the sole focus of the Appliance Operators. Then the League made a mistake that was to slow our growth for a long while. Instead of doing something to gently encourage hams to become more involved in the technical side of the hobby—developing course materials/project kits for the clubs, for example—they decided on a more proactive and draconian approach. What was needed, they said, was harder licensing exams.

Except in the very early days, ham radio has always required a license, and an exam has been the price of that “ticket.” Until the end of the sixties, that license required nothing more than a modest theory exam and a Morse code test that was slow enough that most anybody (though not everybody) could pass it. The ARRL decided the way to increase the proficiency of hams was to force them to undergo more difficult exams. Ham radio’s frequency space would be ghettoized. If you chose just to stick with your old license, you could still get on the air, but only in crowded and less desirable segments of the amateur bands.

How could the ARRL impose this system, which they (and the FCC) called “Incentive Licensing,” on hams? They’d long had the ear of the Federal Communications Commission, and in internal amateur radio matters the FCC almost always deferred to the ARRL. Whether it was the ARRL or the FCC who first came up with the idea of Incentive Licensing depends on whose history you read, but there is no doubt the A-Double-R-L was instrumental in seeing this scheme become a reality.

The result? Some hams just upgraded. If you were lucky, you had a facility for taking tests and copying Morse code. Having somebody like my Old Man who could make the most arcane radio technology understandable with a few pencil scrawls on one of Mama’s paper napkins didn’t hurt either. For me, the theory and the 20 words-per-minute code test of the Extra Class license were doable (if not exactly a walk in the park). If you were not so good at tests and at deciphering dah-dih-dah-dih/dah-dah-dih-dah? Too bad…no soup for you.

Quite a few hams became discouraged by the situation and dropped out at this time. Why, they understandably wondered, wasn’t there a place for ham radio operators who just wanted to operate? Wasn’t being a good radio op just as important as answering questions on a government test?

Eventually, ham radio lost a lot of old timers who couldn’t or wouldn’t upgrade to the Extra Class license, and who also couldn’t adjust to life in the 75-meter “General Class” band-segment zoo. Undoubtedly quite a few new hams dropped out as well. After struggling to learn the Morse code and theory so they could finally have some fun, they were informed there would be yet more code tests and electronics exams before they would be allowed to have the real fun.

The fault for ham radio’s decay was not the ARRL’s entirely, not at all. Quite a few of the Old Timers in the ranks shared the blame. While many of them were against the ARRL’s new Incentive Licensing, many, many of them supported something that probably did even more harm to the hobby’s growth, Morse code.

As early as the 1970s, Morse code was dying as a valued mode for commercial and government communications. Modern technologies like SSB and, increasingly, advanced (digital) communications modes had been pushing CW out of the commercial sector for years. But ham radio as practiced in the USA still required the initiate not just be able to copy the code, but be proficient.

That proficiency wasn't easy for everybody to attain. Even passing the General Class 13 words per minute test was utterly impossible for some. While International communications treaties required ham radio licensees to demonstrate a knowledge of Morse code, that requirement did not mandate expert proficiency. 5 w.p.m. would satisfy it.

Unfortunately, not everybody’s brain is wired right for CW. Ain’t no shame in that. Some have a talent for it, some don’t. Ham radio Old Timers’ attitude? Beyond talk about CW being useful for emergency communications, it supposedly being possible to copy the code when nothing else will get through an H-bomb-disrupted ionosphere, there was a sub-text: “The code is good because it keeps the riff-raff out.

It certainly kept a lot of people out of ham radio—if not necessarily or always the riff-raff. My old man was strongly in the OT ranks, but even he would sometimes admit that maybe 20 w.p.m.—or even 13—was too much. He’d had a friend who dearly loved the idea of ham radio. He was sharp technically, too. Unfortunately, this prospective ham just could not learn the code, finally giving up after multiple attempts to pass the test. Ham radio, the OM reluctantly admitted, lost a person who would have been a huge asset.

Incentive Licensing and the code really didn’t have a huge initial impact (I’m not sure how many of those General Class hams who swore they’d tear up their tickets rather than try for the new Extra Class really did that). It was more like a potent but slow-acting poison. The effect was eventually felt in the expected way: Fewer and fewer new hams. Sure, as the 80s came, the ARRL tried to lure video-game crazy younguns with visions of computerized radios and digital communications modes, but when the newbies showed interest they were told, “Cool, welcome! But first you’ll have to learn Morse code just like grandpa did!”

At a hamfest I attended about ten years ago, I was struck by the fact there were few, very few, attendees who appeared to be younger than their mid-fifties. A relatively small deep-south amateur radio gathering does not tell the entire tale, of course, but the outlook appeared grim. Would ham radio fade away as the last of us Baby boomers checked out?

Then everything changed. The ARRL saw the light and thanks in no small part to their efforts with the FCC, the Morse code  tests became a thing of the past, dropping to 5 w.p.m., and then disappearing altogether.  The only question was “Is it too late?” I am happy to say the answer was "no." Amateur radio licenses are up, and if this continues, the avocation will soon be back on an even keel.

Unfortunately, ham radio squandered three decades during which we should have been expanding. Now we are faced with the task of rebuilding and convincing young folks that fancy transceivers are more fun than chatting on a cell phone or typing on the Internet or playing an Xbox.

Ham radio, schmam radio, what does all this junk have to do with amateur astronomy? The parallels are clear. Come on, admit it, you’ve been one of the group of geezers at the local club meeting lamenting the fact that these gull-derned sprouts and newbies don’t know the sky, don’t want to learn the sky, and just want to—darnit—have fun looking through their telescopes.

Yep, go-to is amateur astronomy's Morse code. We do have one advantage hams didn't; you don’t have to get a license to use a telescope on the sky. There is no way to force a novice to learn the constellations when she enters our ranks. Well, almost. If said novice joins a club that is dominated by OTs (“I paid my dues, you’ll pay yours”), peer pressure may do it.

I recently ran across a young squirt at our local/regional star party cruising the sky with his brand new LX200 GPS by means of finder and hand-paddle. A few questions soon revealed that this was not due to a self-motivated desire for self-improvement, but fear. He was genuinely afraid of what his fellow and senior club members would think of him if they caught him using go-to without knowing every darned star’s name. I tried to suggest he consider just having fun with his new scope, but he wouldn’t take the bait. I haven’t seen that young man in a while, and would guess the wonderful new scope has taken up residence in a closet and that he hasn’t been to a club meeting in long time.

Club meetings? Some radio club meetings with their impenetrable jargon and older and sometimes seemingly unwelcoming participants can be as frightening for novices as induction into a 19th Century East London murder cult. Sad to tell, astronomy clubs are much the same, and with radio clubs now attracting young folks again, many astronomy clubs are actually worse.  I know there are a lot of nerds and geeks among us (yours truly included), but could we at least TRY not to scare off every single young man and woman who wanders into a club meeting?

Could we at least try not to show off our Special Knowledge right away? Could we try to refrain from locking Jane Novice in our steely gaze and asking, “Huh-huh, huh-huh, bet you can’t tell me NGC 6553’s Shapley-Sawyer class (giggle-snort)!” Ever think about inviting the (over 21) newbies out for a beer after the meeting and occasionally discussing the Saints’ prospects for this NFL football season instead of/in addition to the pluses and minuses of front/back illuminated CCD chips and the probable value of Lambda in the universe? No, I am not suggesting we change who we are, but if we want to go mainstream, we are gonna have to be a little more mainstream.

Why bother? What’s in it for us? Well, beyond an innate desire to see the avocation begun by Russell Porter (or if you prefer, Unk Albert or maybe William Herschel), continue down the generations, there’s a selfish motive. More folks = more stuff. Would you like to see Astronomy Technology Today twice as fat as it is? Would you like there to be an honest-to-god telescope dealer in your Podunk town? Would you like star parties every month of the year—big star parties with lotsa vendors? Would you like a grass roots local movement that forces the politicians to enact strong ordinances mandating sensible lighting? The way to get these nice things is not by being exclusive, but being inclusive.

In addition to making the face of amateur astronomy more welcoming, we’re gonna have to make it more diverse—if we care about the above good things. As I have preached before,  that face will need to be younger, of different colors, and of different gender before we get to where I think we should be given our inherent appeal. Inherent appeal? Yeah, you see it at every public star party: The look of wonder on a housewife’s face when she gets her first look at the Moon through a real telescope. The attraction is there; we just need to find a way to capitalize on that attraction.

Ham radio? The ARRL and hams in general are turning in a new and better direction, and given the uptick in new licenses it is obviously not impossible that ham radio will soon be thriving again. The main lesson we can take from the hams' story? Let us welcome all and sundry into our ranks to enjoy our glorious avocation as they see fit.  Let us have kids on our side in our ranks and let us co-opt and use technology for our advancement and benefit when it comes instead of fighting and fearing it.

73 de W4NNF

Next Time:  Ethos Mania...

I know what you're talking about regarding old timers and ham radio. The local club in my area advertises on their web site that they are open to everyone and that they have a yahoo group. I was interested in joining the club and getting new license (now that code isn't required I could do better than my novice license that lapsed 20 years ago). I tried to join the yahoo group get a feel for the people before just showing up at a meeting. I was told that I had to be a dues paying member of the club before I could join the group (even though anyone can read messages on the web).

Hardly the welcoming attitude expected of an organization claiming to be interested in spreading the hobby.

Did I join? No, and still don't have a license.
Good article that hits close to home. I have personally witnessed several actions that young guns in the hobby would consider offensive and exclusive. It only took my teenager one trip to the oldtimer brigade convention to say that it was not the most open and inclusive group that she had been around. She would not go back. Our club also dropped the AL last time the dues went up. We must TRY to learn to be open with our knowledge base, and not be quite so arrogant with our expensive toys that we shun younger ones with zeal and pride of their 300 dollar DOB. Yes, learning to hop, building your own, and paying dues were the way in when I was a young man, but things are changing as you point out. If we do not learn to welcome young people with zeal for the science, our hobby will diminsh greatly. I know our clubs membership is way down as a reflection of the points you have made, and it is our attitudes that must change that tide. There can be great joy in teaching and passing along the old ways, but it will never be the only way. Good Article!
Petronius...don't feel bad. I once moved to a small town down here...thought I'd join the local club. The folks in question wouldn't even admit they had a club, much less let me join...MUSTA BEEN MY BREATH...LOL!

I got interested in amateur radio and amateur astronomy back while I was in high school (1964). Got my first telescope an Edmund 3" reflector (I'm sure you remember that one) by saving up my paper route money. Later got an RV-6, which I still have and use frequently. In 1966 got my Novice ham ticket and call WN1HFE. Later upgraded to General (WA1HFE) and years later got my Advanced & Extra ticket and my new call KW1V. Been going to Stellafane since 1972 and immediately noticed that alot of hams are amateur astronomers also, which blends together the two hobbies. I am in agreement with you that amateur radio isn't what it once was...sometimes I wonder if the hobby will last another 50 years. I hope it does because it is a great and fun hobby. Hope to hear you on the bands someday! 73 de KW1V (David)
AC4WY de WB9SYN...

Excellent and thought provoking as always, Rod!

For what it's worth, Sidewalk Astronomy has always struck me as a way to get folks into the doors. My built-in-John-Dobson's-class 10" Dob still has an unpainted tube that says "Quickrete" all over it. When folks step back in astonishment after looking through it, they often chuckle and say "Heck, even *I* could make one of these!" To which I reply, "That's exactly the point!"

Same with my little ol' 80f5 Celestron - again, folks are astonished at what they can see (as are their kids for whom its tripod is perfectly suited) and they're not intimidated by its size.

I enjoy Ham Radio - but I think the "hook" to catch someone's interest is still sharper at an open star party / sidewalk astronomy session than any Field Day or such.

Jim Horn (Also another 1960s teenaged Sam Brown fan / 6" grinder)
Hi Rod
I'm president of the local Ham Club as well as Astronomy Club, I enjoy getting together with others of similar interests. It's been hard to get the younger folks away from their computers, twitter, and face book. As for dues, they help keep the club alive, but not near as important as having the people who are interested in either hobby. Hell, I don't even care if someone Gawd Forbid Memorizes all the questions and answers to get his Tech license. Get in the hobby, you can learn more about it when you want to know more. I've forgotten the names of more stars than I can still remember, and I wouldn't part with my new EQ-G Goto Tripod. I started with a 3" Gilbert Telescope Back in 1961.
As you say it's time to examine both hobbies, us old timers can be the guides to the new generation, and get them interested in the things that brought us into the hobby. Not scare them off, but welcome their interests.
73 - and clear skies Dennis
Great article Rod. I've enjoyed both astronomy and ham radio since I was a kid and often ponder the similarities, good and bad. I even call my TV85 & Vixen Porta setup my "QRP Rig".

I just recently moved from the NYC area to Texas and I'm now living, like so many of us do these days, in a development that is unkind to both astronomy (light pollution) and ham radio (HOA restrictions on antennas and QRM) so for me to enjoy my hobbies I must either get in a car and drive somewhere, or suffer through the sub-optimal conditions. Most people couldn't be bothered.

The challenges we face to attract kids in this internet age are going to be hard to overcome. Talk around the world by radio? Big deal, they'll say, we can do that on Skype without having to worry about whether the bands are open. Look at M31 in an 8" SCT? It's just a fuzzy blob, nothing compared to the images on Google Sky. How do you compete with that? Our only hope is to somehow convey the wonder of both hobbies that attracted us when we were young, because the end results - what we see in the eyepiece, what DXCC entity we work - aren't all that impressive to those who don't feel the same magic.

Paul WW2PT
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