Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Old and new...right there on my desk!

I had occasion the last couple of days to participate in an activity that really brings together the distant history of our hobby and its modern state. It's an operating event, sponsored by ARRL, called "Straight Key Night." The object is for ham radio operators to get on the air using old straight keys, to use vintage gear, and to strive for leisurely conversations, not a mass of hurried contacts as we usually do in contests. First, let me admit that I had a blast despite very limited operating time and propagation conditions that were not the best.

I talked with eight other guys, each of whom had interesting things to say and sounded like fellows with whom I'd love to share a beer and get to know. One used an ancient Knight VFO driving a homebrew 6L6, running 10 watts to a dipole. His signal was quite readable and, though he had a pronounced chirp and drifted like an inebriated New Year celebrant, it was a real pleasure talking with him. Another used the Drake "twins," a separate receiver and transmitter that once, before the advent of the transceiver, was the dream of every ham, but nowadays they lack any of the "essential" gizmos--DSP, computer control, etc.--and also tend to drift a bit. But with the RIT in my modern "shack-in-a-box" radio, I was able to stay in one spot on the band and follow these guys around. Several others were using keys that belonged to their "Elmer," the ham operator who helped them get started in the hobby, or to their father, or had other interesting histories.

There, side by side on my own desk, were the perfect symbols of how much our hobby has developed. To the right was my brand new K8RA CW paddle (Santa brought it to me and it's a beaut!), plugged into the back of a radio that covers all ham bands from 160 meters to 440 mHz, including availability of most modes, and that interfaces with the computer that sits next to it. It does not drift a whit (whatever a "whit" is). The rig has CW memories built in, and it's possible to conduct complete DX QSOs and contest exchanges without ever touching the paddle, just by hitting the buttons on the front of the radio at the proper times. Or I could hook up the software and feed it all the chatter it needed, right from the keyboard or the hard drive of my Dell.

To the left of the new paddle was a classic J-38 straight key, manufactured during WWII by Lionel, the same people who make the model trains. It, too, plugged into the back of the Kenwood TS2000, and it could send the same combination of dits and dahs that comprise the Morse Code, a form of transmission that is approaching 160 years of age. But that key was special. It belonged to my dad (SK). When I was 13, we used it to send code practice to each other. Then, when I got my Novice ticket, it became my on-air key until several years later when I switched to a "bug," then eventually a tube-type keyer with a Vibro-Keyer paddle.

Yes, I had some great chats with that old straight key--in 1962 and again yesterday, the first day of the year 2008. It accomplished the same thing as that shiny, brass beauty that Santa brought me. I turned on and off the carrier emanating from my transmitter in the proper way so some interesting fellow hams understood the lies I told them. But I couldn't help thinking about how much the hobby has changed since that key was the preferred method of conducting such communication...and yet we still use the keys, the code, the radios--vintage or state-of-the-art--to indulge in that most ancient pursuit: human interface.

So, have things really changed all that much?

Don N4KC


iz8ftw said...

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N4KC said...

Thank you! I have just begun to spread word about this blog and initial reaction its primary topic has been very positive.


Don N4KC

WB8YYY said...


nice website and interesting observations on merging the old modulating device J38 with a modern rig and the same (but changing) ionosphere.

I did SKN with my restored HW16. Previous year i worked a ham in Ohio with a 1930's single tube rig. I think he had to adjust the rig every few CW characters with the wind blowing!

I am doing a presentation to our club on log-book-of-the-world (lotw), and this got me back to vintage QSLs from my novice years. One QSL admits to having FCC license number 10_ and being a spark gap operator. Interesting how time spans interconnect.

How I surfed in? Contemplating a better CW paddle than my vintage Nye, so trying to gather impressions on the K8RA. I have used the Kent paddle at field day the last couple years, and wonder if the K8RA has a similar 'heavy metal' feel to it ?

73, curt WB8YYY