50 years of hitting the airwaves – I almost can’t believe it. Yet it is true. I will turn 58 this month, and my first Medium Wave AM transmitter was constructed at the age of 8. It wasn’t much of a transmitter, but for me it was as important as the first man on the moon.
The feeling I had when I could actually do the same as all those well known radio stations made me feel in heaven! Radio waves, you know, were magical.
The AM/MW Period
Years later I learned that I was not the only one at that age who discovered that a simple transistor radio could transmit too. The system was simple: tune the radio 455KHz lower than the place on the dial you wanted to be heard. At first the range was pathetic, maybe one meter or so. I also had no clue how the modulate the thing. I didn’t have a clue about anything, for that matter.
What I did to improve the range was taking a long piece of wire and touch all the solder islands on the PCB until I noticed a sudden improvement of signal strength. That worked, my range became somewhat reasonable (± 10 meters), and I started to think about a way to talk through the radio. I had absolutely no idea where to start, but the fact that I needed a microphone was clear.
I stole one. I stole the carbon microphone from my parent’s telephone. I was a thief.
From this point on my memory fails. I got it to work, but can’t really remember how. Let’s keep it on a combination of instinct, a total lack of knowledge and a lot of luck. Anyway, the neighbors could listen in, my father couldn’t believe his eyes and ears, my mother shook her head, and I was hooked.
I Need More Power!
You guessed it: I wasn’t satisfied with the range and started to look around for someone who could help me out. I found an Elmer. He started to explain the basics to me, and helped me to construct my first decent Medium Wave transmitter, based on the EL84 tube and the Amroh 402 coil. This was famous stuff at the time, and Amroh was the biggest name in electronic parts here.
Together with my friend Joop (now PA1KC) we salvaged defective tube radios which had been dumped by their former owners. The frames were extremely valuable to us, and the amount of still usable tubes, transformers and capacitors was staggering. Remember, we didn’t have a cent to spend!
The schematics of the 5 Watt transmitter we built looked something like this:
Now this was fun; under the right circumstances my signal could be heard in the UK. Actually, one of my friends was caught because of complaints from UK authorities! He played music for many hours in a row, which made locating him fairly easy. I didn’t play music, I only made QSO’s. I never liked to play radio station.
The CB Period
I also became interested in CB. There weren’t any mobile radios available at that time, only 1 or 2 channel 100mW (input!) Walkie Talkies. Range only became somewhat reasonable when you took the thing apart, removed the 9 Volt battery, connected a 12 Volt power supply, removed the antenna and connected the radio to a ¼ λ ground plane.
Later the first 6-channel CB radio entered my shack, a Sharp. I had a lot of fun with that radio, but it wasn’t very reliable. One of the IF transistors was very sensitive to statics and failed numerous times, even a thunderstorm 10 miles away was enough to kill it. In the end I dumped the radio, because the PCB was completely messed up after all the repairs.
The Sharp was eventually replaced by the 23-channel Cuna 1, better known as Tenko H21/4. I loved that radio. Much later I replaced it with a Superstar 2000.
While CB was a great place to be at that time, I also started to focus on ham radio bands. I built a few 2 meter transmitters, combined with a Cuna SR-9 receiver. I still had no license, but never ran into trouble. Most ham radio operators never noticed that I was a pirate, and the few who knew argued it was acceptable because I was building stuff and behaved like everyone else. Two of them, Leo PA0LEZ and Roef PA0RLV (†) had a great influence on the rest of my ham life.
The FM Period
The FM band was a great band too at that time. There were only a limited number of official stations, above 100MHz the band was virtually empty. The designs varied, as did the power output. From just one Watt to about 50 Watts, stereo or mono, and verticals to 5-element Yagis. I earned quite a bit of money building and repairing FM transmitters for other people. There’s a Dutch website documenting all FM pirates of that time. Eventually these guys tracked me down too, including a picture of my old QSL card.
The HF Period
I also added HF to my bag of tricks when I was able to get my hands on a Sommerkamp SOKA 747. Years of unlicensed operating on every frequency imaginable went by without incidents, but at some point in time it became clear that the authorities were right on my tail. I sold everything and tried to be invisible for a while.
Eventually I got my license in 1979 and started all over again. Is this story complete and 100% accurate? Not exactly. This story is littered with gaps and overlaps. I played with way more transceivers and frequencies than would fit in one blog post. I left them out because they are minor dots plotted on the time line.