Category Archives: Amateur Radio

One in, one out, and the Yaesu FT-818

I’ve been QRT for the last several months due to a severe lung infection. Four hospital stays and one surgery later today is the first day in months that I feel like I’m getting better. So what is the first thing that I did? You guessed it, go down to my shack and turn on the radios!

In the stringed instrument world, especially guitars, there is a terrible disease known as GAS, Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Sometimes broadened to Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I may or may not have succumb to this disease over the years. I think the broader definition applies to Amateur Radio. Who doesn’t have a list of gear you’d like to have or really “need?” Within reason buying and selling gear, both new and old, is a fun part of the hobby. I try to keep it balanced, typically one out/one in. This time I did it in reverse.

I was overcome by GAS late last year and purchased an ICOM IC-7100. I’d looked at them for a very long time. I really wanted one but I didn’t really need one. I had almost overcome the GAS pressure when ICOM dared me to buy one by offering a really nice rebate ($200). The balance was tipped. Now I have a 7100.

IC-7100

I really love this little radio. It’s form factor is much the same as my TS-480SAT which is joy to operate. I like portable-ish radios. The 7100 is intended to be the camper radio. The one advantage that the 7100 has over the TS-480SAT is 144\440 MHz operation. The ability to receive NOAA weather radio is also very handy. So I have HF, 2m, 440, and weather radio all in one package. Perfect for a camper radio.

While there is some practical element of this acquisition, there is also an emotional component. I have one ICOM HF rig, the IC-718 that I bought years ago as the first step to re-assembling a station after a long hiatus. It’s a great little radio and will always be in my shack. However, I’ve had the opportunity to operate other ICOM HF radios, especially at JOTA events in years past. I really liked the IC-746Pro and came close to buying one a few times but just never did for various reasons. And now they don’t make them anymore. Same with the IC-706. I really liked operating those two radios but they are no longer available. I figured I’d better get a 7100 before I regret that one too! In some ways the 7100 reminds me of both of those older radios. It has the ICOM feel.

Now for the one out. I made an attempt to do this the right way, intending to sell my FT-817ND before purchasing the 7100. I didn’t get any bites and the market seemed to be swimming in used 817’s, so I thought I’d wait a bit and try again. Several months passed and I recently sold it on the second try. I may have a little buyers remorse but not much. I have a KX2, which I purchased after I had purchased the 817. The 817 is a very nice radio but for my operating needs the KX2 is a better fit. I should have just bought the KX2 the first time. Moral of the story, don’t buy two radios to get one.

In the midst of the 817 sale process Yaesu made the announcement for the FT-818. I panicked, thinking that an updated 817 would drive the price down for used 817’s. Thankfully Yaesu blew it. What we’re they thinking? Power increase of 1 (one) Watt? That’s a 20% increase if you’re in marketing. The TCO is nice but I don’t need it. Arguably the finals upgrade is the most important update. I can’t believe they didn’t even add NOAA weather radio receive. The price is odd as well. HRO sells the 818 for $850 while an 817 is $700 while they last. A KX2 is $770. The price advantage tips to Elecraft though you’re likely to add some things to the KX2 (at least the antenna tuner and key) so that will raise the overall cost. While the KX2 and 818 take different approaches, they are both full featured multi-band, multi-mode QRP radios. It seems like Yaesu missed an opportunity. On the other hand, there certainly is a loyal following of 817 users and a fair sized cottage industry of accessories for the radio. They know their market. Maybe Yaesu made the safe bet.

Camping season is upon us and while I’ll likely have a long recovery I look forward to operating portable with the 7100 at camp as the year progresses.

 

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Sterba Curtain

Recently I had a nice contact with Al, W0ERE down in The Ozarks, near Highlandville, Missouri and in the longstanding tradition, the customary exchange of QSL cards.

W0ERE

Al was running his Collins S- Line with 500W into his Sterba curtain for 40m. I was using my TS-590SG with 500W from my SB-200 into my Hustler 4BTV. W0ERE may well be one of the first stations I’ve worked that was using a Sterba curtain.

Sterba Curtain. A name that begs for a little Jean Shepherd echo chamber:

Imagine Jean Shepherd’s Echo Chamber

We had a nice chat about his antenna farm in general and the Sterba curtain in particular. The Sterba curtain has been around for a very long time. It was invented by Ernest Sterba, who received US Patent US1885151A Directive Antenna System for his work. The patent was filed in February 1929 and was granted in November 1932.

US1885151A – Fig. 4

Figure 4 of the patent illustrates the Sterba curtain. The primary purpose of the antenna was to provide a very directed, low angle of radiation for the “transmission of Hertzian waves of relatively high frequency.”

Obviously, Sterba curtains were very large antennas. There are some very nice pictures of VOA Sterba curtains that were located in Dixon, California here and some others here.

Sterba was a reasonably prolific inventor. Prior to the patent for the Sterba curtain, Sterba received US1792662A Antenna System for another large antenna system. He also invented an Antenna Sleet Melting Apparatus for which he received US2008266A, “This-invention relates to aerial systems and more particularly to such systems as are equipped with means for removing sleet therefrom.” From the patent specification:

In the operation and maintenance of both transmitting and receiving antenna systems located in sections of the country which are subject to sleet storms, considerable trouble is at present experienced because of the formation and the presence of sleet and ice on the radiating members of the system. The added weight of the ice tends to detune aerial systems as a result of the change in the dielectric constant of the medium surrounding the wires, the ice having a constant of 80. It also frequently causes an actual severance of the radiating elements which usually results in a complete interruption of the operation of the system.

US2008266 Antenna Sleet Melting Apparatus, Fig. 3

With all that wire in the air I’ll bet a lot of “severance of the radiating elements” occurred. His invention was to simultaneously energize the radiating system with direct or low frequency current for heating and high frequency current for radiation.

One last interesting patent was US2119607A Radio Communicating System which dynamically modified the characteristics of an antenna system. This patent was granted in June 1938.

US2119607A Radio communicating system, Fig. 3

I love reading old patents and I especially love the drawings. In those days there wasn’t any CAD, the drawings were done by a draftsmen sitting at a drawing table. Also, at the time of these filings the inventor or his agent\attorney were required to sign the drawings as part of the filed application. With most everything done electronically today we don’t sign drawings anymore and there aren’t any draftsmen with their power erasers. (Though I still have mine.)

Just for fun, and as an illustration of the fact that art lives on forever, I checked the last time that any of Sterba’s patents were cited in prosecution. The above patent,  US2119607A Radio Communicating System  was last cited by an examiner in the prosecution of US7286092B2 Radiocommunications antenna with misalignment of radiation lobe by variable phase shifter which was granted in October 2007.

Art is art forever. This was (and still is) the bargain described in the U.S. Constitution, Article I Section 8 Clause 8 – [The Congress shall have power] “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” You disclose your invention for the advancement of science and the useful arts and we’ll give you some rights for a period of time. Radio being part science and useful art has benefited from this bargain over many many years.

And no, there won’t be any Sterba curtains sprouting up at my antenna farm (garden?) any time soon.

 

BITX40 on the air

Several months ago I purchased a BITX40 in anticipation of time off for the holiday season. I like to have some projects in the queue for the time of rest and relaxation over Christmas and New Year’s where rest and relaxation means packing as much Amateur Radio into the time allotted. Building, operating, repairing, you name it. For the past number of years my log always indicates a dramatic spike in activity through November and December.

I’m a regular listener to the Solder Smoke podcast. Bill, N2CQR and Pete, N6QW talk about the BITX40 a lot and so I decided to purchase one. The BITX40 was developed and is built by Ashhar Farhan, VU2ESE in India. It is a very popular SSB QRP radio that has a good-sized following including numerous mods.

Despite the onset of a cold\flu just in time for vacation, the solder must melt. To be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of melting solder involved as building a BITX40 consists largely of final assembly, making all of the connections between the I\O components and the the two boards.

The BITX ships really quickly from India. Mine arrived packed in a cardboard box in a DHL shipping pack about a week after I placed the order.

BITX40

The components of the BITX40 are contained in a nice plastic box:

BITX40 container

The BITX40 consists of the following components:

BITX40 components

The primary components being the BITX40 and Raduino boards, already assembled. As I said, building a BITX40 consists of final assembly. Farhan, VU2ESE provides a good set of instructions for wiring up the BIT40 on his site here.

The BITX40 doesn’t come with an enclosure nor is one available from Farhan, VU2ESE. This has lead to a number of creative packaging solutions from standoffs on a wooden board to this very nicely crafted homemade enclosure built by Mike, AB1YK. I was sorely tempted by Mike’s approach but chose to purchase an enclosure. I waited too long to order the enclosure and it hasn’t arrived yet, so I decided to build this in benchtop spaghetti mode.

BITX40 benchtop spaghetti build

Assembly took maybe an hour, working to minimize any magic smoke releases. I chose to connect the audio output directly to a 3 inch, 8 ohm speaker for the initial test as opposed to using the supplied jack. Once assembly was complete I hooked it up to an old Clegg Model 011 power supply and my Hustler 4BTV. I used the supplied mic and PTT button, both of which are quite tiny:

BITX40 mic and PTT

Given the progress (regress?) of my cold\flu over the last few days, by late this morning I thought that I would be relegated to one of the laryngitis modes, CW or digital. for any radio operations. But by late in the afternoon I had enough voice to squeak out the BITX40’s inaugural contact. After an uneventful power-up I started to tune across the 40m band. It was late in the afternoon (1600 CST) and there were a number of strong signals and some weaker ones across the band. I was really amazed at how well the BITX40 sounded. It has very nice, very clear audio. Tuning is accomplished with a single-turn 10K linear pot. Initially I thought this would be the first thing to change, expecting to substitute a 10-turn pot, but it tunes really well with the single-turn unit. After reading the mail on a few QSO’s where both sides had strong, clear signals I came across a QSO between N0JQX in Salem, MO and W2HDI in Stowe, VT on 7.165. I could hear both stations very well. As W2DHI signed, I gave Al, N0JQX a call. His initial response was “KA9” station calling, but he didn’t have my suffix. After a couple more tries Al had my full call and we we’re able to have a short but nice QSO as the band shifted around us. N0JQX was 59 here (with no S-meter) and he gave me a 54-55. This with 7 watts and some patience on Al N0JQX’s part.

Band conditions at the time

The next step is to install this thing in the enclosure once it arrives. At that time I’ll tidy up the spaghetti and change to a proper hand mic. We’ll see where it goes from there. This thing is going to be a lot of fun.

The BITX40 would make a very nice intro radio. It’s not difficult to assemble and appears to perform well. With a host of mods and a community of support it should appeal to many new operators. Plus, Farhan, VU2ESE has recently released the µBITX which is multi-band (3 MHz to 30 MHz), and dual mode with 10 watts on SSB and CW. It’s entirely likely that I’ll have to add one of these to my station at some point.

UPDATE 12/29/17

The enclosure arrived today.

BITX40 enclosure

It’s very nice. Heavier gauge than I expected. About 22 gauge. I got it off eBay from a seller in Hong Kong. $22.99 with “free” shipping. It’s probably a smidgen larger than needed but it will leave some room for any future mods. Plus, I’ve never had an orange radio.

 

Merry Christmas

General productivity has been down a bit over the last couple of days as the cold\flu has descended on our home and so far has my older son and I. Just in time to affect our plans for today. We’ll see about tomorrow. Not much being done other than sitting on the sunporch watching the birds, err I mean the squirrels dine at the bird feeders, while reading or watching a few Christmas movies while Cat#3 loses his mind watching the show outside.

Squirrel feeders?

While the squirrels helped themselves at those feeders a number of different birds were busy at some others.

Christmas Eve birds

Including a couple of different species of woodpeckers (Downy and Red-Bellied), tons of Black-capped Chikadees and Dark-eyed Juncos. And a few Northern Cardinals.

Christmas Cardinal

Plus it has been lightly snowing all day so we’ll have a white Christmas.

The largest expenditure of energy thus far today was cooking a beef tenderloin. Actually, most of the work was done by my Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone grill. I recently purchased it to replace a 10 year old gas grill. It is a very nice grill. It actually represents the extent of my radio activities today as the PID controller has WiFi. How did we ever cook meat without being able to connect our grills to the Internet to monitor and control the cooking? <eye roll>  Even though our plans changed we decided to proceed with the meat portion of the meal. That was a very good plan.

Bon Appétit

Well it’s time to head outside and re-fill the feeders for another round of wildlife and then catch up on my napping.

I started on my BitX 40 this past week but haven’t made much progress. I’d like to get it on the air this week. We’ll see.

Merry Christmas to all. I’ve much to be thankful for including The Reason for the Season.

 

Shortwave Receiver Book

In the process of doing some research on shortwave receivers I ran across this book, Shortwave Receivers Past and Present by Fred Osterman.

Shortwave Receivers Past and Present

Unlike most books, the current edition (4th) is not available on Amazon. You order it from Universal Radio or the ARRL. I read a good review on The SWLing Post and decided to order one.

Within the week the book arrived and the first thing that you notice is that this book weighs about as much as some of the radios that it describes. Weighing in at 6.2 pounds it’s a boat anchor in the world of books.

Radio descriptions

The second thing that you notice is that the book is really well made. In a world swimming in Perfect Binding it’s really nice to see and feel a well bound hardcover\case bound book. The book is 800 pages and is filled with information on shortwave receivers from 1942 to 2013.

There are 370 radio manufacturers presented in alphabetical order from Aerostream to Zenith. Only communications receivers are included. There is a picture of each radio and a nicely formatted description. For example, the Hallicrafters S-20R:

Hallicrafters S-20R

This is a very good book that has been interesting to graze through. Now that winter has officially set in, it is a great book to sit in front of the fireplace and take walk along memory lane on a cold winter day. If you like old radios (and some new ones) there probably is still time to get one of these under your Christmas tree as it is much too heavy for your stocking.

 

Tecsun PL-880 memory machine

Even though it’s fairly common for most transceivers to include general coverage receive that wasn’t always the case. Not all that long ago if you wanted general coverage receive capability it meant that you had a separate receiver for that purpose. My first HF rig was a Swan 350 and at that time I also had a Hallicrafters S-20R that was my grandpa’s for many years. When he had it,  most all of the time it was tuned to WSM and The Grand Ole Opry. It was part of my first radio station. Somewhere over the years it was sold and yes, like most radios that you sell, I wish I still had it.

First station circa 1979 with Hallicrafters S-20R

Some years ago I wanted an SW receiver and purchased a nice new Sony ICF-SW7600GR. It was still a time when there were a lot more portable SW radios available than today. The Sony was appealing due to its portability and probably a fair amount of brand reputation. It has provided good service over the years and still sees a fair amount of use each week between my XYL and I. In fact, earlier this year I had to buy my XYL her own radio so that she’d leave mine alone. Since she used it solely for AM\FM reception I purchased her a Tecsun PL398MP. Now my Sony stays in the last place that I put it.

One of the things that I’ve never liked about the Sony is that it does not have a VFO knob. It uses a a set of +/- buttons to tune the radio. It’s just not the same as tuning a radio with a VFO knob and I’ve never grown used to it. It’s clearly a first world problem that really didn’t need to be solved but the longing for a VFO knob was lurking in my subconscious wondering if there was some manner in which to resolve this “problem.”

For some time now, one of my favorite blogs has been The SWLing Post. Little did I know that the seed to a “solution” to my aforementioned “problem” would be planted by what appeared at the time to be an innocuous blog post that I read back in the summer of 2014.  Among a bunch of things, Thomas (K4SWL / M0CYI), the proprietor of The SWLing Post, does a superb job of reviewing SW radios. He goes into great detail and provides very useful insight into the radios that he reviews. Several years ago I read a post that he wrote called “Mega Review: the Tecsun PL-880, PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, and Sony ICF-SW7600GR go head-to-head.” It was (and still is) a very comprehensive review of some of the best portable shortwave receivers available at that time. The review was also published in the June 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor.

I had the Sony and I wasn’t really in the market for another SW radio. I was probably vaguely aware of the Tecsun PL-880 prior to reading this review but not being in the market for another SW radio I really hadn’t paid any attention to it. Then I read the review. That review planted the seed that’s been growing for the past several years. Unfortunately, the PL-880 compared very favorably to the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and worst of all it had not one but two VFO knobs, a main tuning knob and a fine tuning knob. They reminded me of the Main Tuning and Bandspread of my old S-20R. Every time that I used the Sony after reading that review the thought of not one but two VFO knobs was refreshed. Like I said, first world problems.

For the last several years I’ve rationalized the purchase of this tandem VFO knobbed wonder but never could tip the balance until a couple of days ago. Amazon Primed it to me late this afternoon.

Tecsun PL-880

This thing is very very nice. It is really well built and works wonderfully. The package includes a very nice case, an external antenna, an 18650 battery, a USB cable, a set of earbuds and documentation.

What’s in the box

The left side panel includes the following I\O and settings:

Left side panel

The right looks like this:

Right side panel (from left: volume, fine tuning, main tuning)

Rear view

Front controls

I’ll defer to Thomas for the details.

As I was writing this tonight I had it tuned to 650 AM, WSM. WSM is located in Nashville, Tennessee, a bit over 500 miles south of my QTH. It’s a Clear Channel station with 50, 000 watts and it was coming in clean and clear on the telescoping whip antenna of the PL-880 as it sat on the desk in my shack in the basement of our home. It brings back a lot of memories of the old S-20R at my grandparent’s home and the music that it played. Unbeknownst to me, tonight’s show is celebrating Marty Stuart’s 25th anniversary as a member of The Grand Ole Opry. He’s one of my favorites, not only as a superb musician of anything with strings, but for his love and respect for the tradition of the music. He started traveling with Ralph Stanley when he was 13 years old and has been at it ever since. It was extra special to hear The Opry with that show on the first night with this new radio. Little did I know that in addition to being a fine radio, the Tecsun PL-880 is a memory machine.

The two knobs pale in light of those memories.

Grandpa with his DOBRO (1934)

KA9EAK with the handmade banjo that I built, an archtop like Ralph Stanley’s

A little box from Italy

Over the past few years I’ve been working toward the goal of improving the capabilities of my station. Previously I had an average station consisting of two HF radios (a TS-830S station and an IC-718) and one HF antenna (Cobra UltraLite Senior) with which I would make an average number of contacts each year, mostly SSB. I also had a few VHF\UHF radios (including a couple of old all-mode 2m transceivers, TR-9000 and TR-9130) that saw rare usage on 2m SSB and even rarer usage on 2m FM all used with my Elk Antenna.

I’ve since added a few more radios (including HF mobile and HF portable), a few more antennas, and an amplifier and with all this added equipment I have been operating a significant amount more than I had in the past. I also started to operate some digital with WSPR, PSK31, and FT8. But I’ve always operated more SSB than CW. That’s the next goal. With my station in good order, my next endeavor is to operate more CW than SSB or at least even the ratio.

There are a few reasons for this. One, I don’t have a super station with 4 over 4 over 4 on multiple bands. For some DX, the only way I’m going to make the contact is with CW. The little bit of boost that I get with my SB-200 for SSB is nice but it’s not enough in many cases. Two, given the first reason and adding in band conditions for the foreseeable future the need for CW grows and not just for DX. Three, a fair number of DX stations favor CW over SSB so if you want them you need to get them with their preferred mode. And finally, it’s the traditional mode for Amateur Radio. CW was where I started and it’s time to get back to that for these and a few other reasons.

In the world of music it is said that a good instrument will make you want to play. I’m sure that translates to a number of areas, which brings us to the little box that recently arrived from Italy.

What’s in the box

There are probably any number of interesting things that might arrive at your home in a box from Italy and I actually own some other fine Italian mechanical devices, but in the world of Amateur Radio, their is one thing in particular and that is a Begali key.

New Begali key

I’ve wanted a Begali key ever since I first learned of them a number of years ago. However, given my operations at the time they were too extravagant for my needs. Plus, I had other keys that already didn’t see enough usage. Some reasonably nice ones. Did I really need another key? Did I really need a Begali?  I don’t know whether or not I needed one, but I sure did want one. So with the combination of new operating interests, an early birthday present (55 in February). and a wee bit early Christmas present, the weight of justification tipped the balance and the order was placed.

The key arrived less than two weeks after I placed the order with the usual exceptional customer service and great communications from Bruna Begali. I elected to purchase a Simplex Mono Basic. I wanted to try a single lever key and I prefer the dark, textured base of the basic versions as opposed to the shiny finishes of the bases of most all of the other Begali keys. And yes, I paid extra for the red anodized aluminum finger pieces. Less wind resistance.

New in the boc

Begali Simplex Mono Basic

This key is wonderful! It is very nicely made. It looks and feels great. Even the bottom of the key is very nicely done with a pocket for the connections, lugs for the wires, and a nice strain relief for the cable.

Begali Simplex Mono bottom

With some time off for the coming holidays this new key will most certainly see a lot of use. It was easily worth the money and also worth the wait. It is far and away the nicest key that I own and a very nice addition to my station. Add it to the long list of things that I have to be thankful for, though that list pales in comparison to the very long list of non-material things.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ferrari vs. Shelby Cobra?