John Kosmak, W3IK
(Formerly WN4OAA, 1969)
I was first licensed at age 15 in Orlando, Florida in the summer of 1969. Having been an avid shortwave listener from age 11 onward, I first heard of amateur radio by listening to 160 and 80 meter AM Phone. Soon, I had my scout master teaching me Morse code. My time beginning in ham radio was in the era of real radios: big, bulky, glow-in-the-dark, and the scent of ozone in the air. Transistors were rare, just making their debut. Like most things electronic back then, they were expensive. Even telephones were costly, and my family did not get a telephone until I was fifteen, the same year I earned my novice license. That was not that uncommon back then.
My most memorable experiences in ham radio have all involved the building of my own equipment. This is something all hams should experience, and was rather common back then, rather than the exception. My first transmitter was a one tube oscillator, scrounged from bike rides within the city, scrapping out old televisions and radios for their resistors, capacitors, rfc chokes, transformers, and what have you. You could build your whole transmitter from those parts, minus the transmitting crystal.
When I fired up that transmitter, I tuned it into a light bulb used as a dummy load. You tuned it for maximum brilliance, and hoped when you plugged the antenna in later, that it was similarly matched. I could not afford coax, so my antenna was literally an unmeasured random wire, snaking up through the inside wall of my bedroom, through the attic, then outside above the roof. I was too ashamed to tell my friends about that antenna, so I always called that random wire a dipole on the air. Fact was, many hams could not afford things like a SWR bridge, antenna tuners, or watt meter, and because of that we BUILT our gear. Best part was, innovation brings education, and we learned and we learned: something that appliance operators today will not understand.
Linked to the transmitter through a simple T/R (transmit/receive) switch, was an old 1949, SX-43 receiver (twenty years old at the time, five years more than my fifteen years of age). I prayed my home built transmitter worked, especially after having survived the several hundred plate volts that zapped me when I built the thing. So, I tapped out CQ at about 5 words per minute Morse. Then I called CQ again and again and again. I tuned the receiver up and down the band, hoping for a response, and finally my first contact was WN4NDV, of whom I wish I could find today. The contact was only several hundred miles away, but it might as well have been Saturn or Venus, because I was displaced out of this world with excitement. There is nothing to match those golden days of radio, where the room is lit by checkered lights leaking out of the glow from tubes shining through the punctured heat cover of a receiver. The glow of radio dial lights, and the fluctuating glow of the transmitter tube as it keyed on and off. In those days, if your imagination took you to being an old time operator, the fact was, you were little different than they, just another location. Add to this the fact, that your first contact is perhaps the most memorable, but it is even more so with a creation of wires and tubes from your own hands.
When I saw my first transistors, I was in awe. My dad was able to get a few from some friends. I set out to build a simple one transistor transmitter. We are talking minimalist here: a half dozen parts tops, not counting the battery and antenna. Imagine my surprise when with one tiny transistor running in the milliwatt range that I could talk easily 50-200 miles in the day on 40 meters, and a thousand miles at night. Once again, it was the home building of gear that made amateur radio fun. IF I could pass on just one secret to another ham it would be, "build it, and they will come". Your view and world of ham radio will turn topsy turvy for the better when you go beyond calling your homebrewed antennas, home-brewing. Home-brewing of a transmitter and receiver will cast upon you the fervor of old time ham radio. There are some wonderful and simple radio kits out there with instructions and directions where it is near impossible to fail unless you are tackling something enormous. Today, it is pretty tough to find parts, and I really see little difference between homebrewing and kit building, other than a kit provides you all the things you need without having to order stuff from fifty places. Sure, you may have a premade pc board and a few other niceties with a kit, but you still build it. May I encourage you, and prod you to enter the Twilight Zone of radio, and build something? You will never forget it, and this is something I feel that many of those who were Novices, learned and keep with them today.
73 from ex WN4OAA, originally Orlando, Florida 1969-1970.
I have also been known by the callsigns: WN4OAA, WB4OAA, KF9N, AD2L, DA1ON, HP1XJC, and now W3IK.