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Ham Radio Makers in the 21st Century

Ham radio makers are doing well and having fun.

Radio hams have always been makers. In the early years, a ham built all of his own equipment. Specialized ham radio “kits” became available in the 1930’s and remained popular for decades. A kit was a proven design together with all the parts to build it yourself. Following World War II, hams began to use much military surplus gear which became available at a low price. Also, many companies that had ramped up during the war began to make special-purpose radio equipment for hams. During the 1960’s most hams shifted to buying rather than making gear. And during the 1980’s, Japanese manufacturers displaced American and European firms as the dominant makers of ham radios.

Over the past fifty years, the term “home brew” came to describe ham radio makers. Most home brew enthusiasts focus on building low power and test equipment, as well as antennas. Today, very few hams have completely home made stations, but most do some home brew activities.

Most hams do not have any formal education in electronics. They all have a basic understanding of radio theory, which includes some electronics, as a condition of passing their license exam. But, until recently, most ham publications focused on practice rather then theory. In general, hams learn by doing. And this is where “making” comes in.

The modern “maker movement” features two things. First, building and using modern computer controlled tools, such as a 3D printer or CNC machine. Second, inter-connecting and using electronic modules to create useful projects. These modules include micro-controllers (such as Arduino), miniature communications devices (such as ESP8266 WiFi), sensors (such as digital thermometers, switches) and motion control (such as stepper or servo motors). Working with modules is much easier than building something with parts from scratch. And suppliers like Adafruit, Sparkfun and Tindie let you buy awesome devices and modules at a low price. Not to mention the tons of stuff you can get from China on eBay.

Ham Radio Makers Demonstration Projects

This web site has featured many projects for ham radio makers, most using an Arduino, and included a low cost signal generator. The latest project, the Mostly Printed and Motorized Magnetic Loop Antenna (featured in this video) tries to bring it all together. It’s a demonstration of what you can do with the tools, modules and a bit of software. It features a small, usable antenna with wireless remote control. All the parts are cheap and readily available on eBay or the local hardware store.

The video is basically a presentation I made to the Calgary Amateur Radio Association in September 2016.

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