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Monday, November 23, 2015

G3ZPF's Knack Story: Debunking Tech Fairy Tales, Surviving Nixie Tubes and Ferric Oxide


I'm finding the book very entertaining, and am currently about halfway
through it. Like you there were a few electronic 'fairy tales' that I
was suckered into and I was pleased to see your debunking of them. My
professional training was structural engineering so anything electronic
I picked up along the road, and was thus an easy mark for misdirection.

I still remember the first time I realized that teachers sometimes don't
understand what they're teaching, but just repeating what they were
told. At age 11 we were using a thin tube with a slug of mercury and was
told that at -273c the air under the mercury would have zero volume. I
knew it was BS, but was too young to know why. A decade later I worked
it out for myself, by accident really, and I still feel slightly
resentful about being misled. Turns out that -273c is a 'convenience'
(aka a fudge factor) which makes the combined gas law work :-p

The first electronic fairy tale I encountered was "the feed impedance of
a half-wave dipole is 72 ohms". Taught to me while studying for the UK
radio exam, and trotted out repeatedly in the RSGB magazine.

This magically mutated into 50 ohms when the Japanese rigs started to appear,
which made me a tad suspicious, and when my very young self finally
scraped enough cash together for the ARRL handbook I spotted the graph
showing variation of feed impedance with height.

I was devastated. I remember wondering why all the old guys at the club
(who I spent most Sunday mornings listening to on 160m AM as an SWL)
didn't know this.

In that instant I saw that all my hours of climbing up & down ladders;
cutting and pruning my very low dipoles to get 50ohms (bear in mind how
changeable and usually awful the UK weather is) had been utterly pointless.

From that point on I used doublets + open wire feeder. Up the ladders
just once and all tuning done in the shack in a comfy chair with a coffee
in one hand using a PROPER balanced ATU, not some shonky single ended
thing with a balun on the back.

Of course I found out about saturating balun cores the painful way (a
T200 core stays very hot for a very long time), and accidentally
discovered the current balun (which I called the idle-mans balun) at a
time when nobody distinguished between a voltage balun and a current one.

I took my inspiration from the 'coax round a ferrite ring' method of
stopping TV coax braid from conducting my RF into the TV. Fast forward
20 years and current baluns are the way to go. Its tough being a visionary.

I remember spending a weeks wages (back in the 70's) on a Fairchild
9H59DO prescaler chip for my TTL freq counter. Like you I hate chassis
bashing and the counter only went in a box after I'd had so many jolts
off the 150v rail to the nixie tubes I figured it was box-it or die :-)

The circuit of the counter was 'designed' by me lifting the simplest
version of each part of the circuit from dozens of peoples designs &
just hoping it worked. By the time I'd finished I had learned enough to
know I was lucky it did work....and what a mess spilled Ferric oxide
makes on a pale grey bedroom carpet.

When GQRP first started up a bunch of us locals used to have a 10m net.
Primarily for ragchews but also to give the newly licensed types at the
club their first ever CW QSO on air. We were all sufficiently enthused
to build a 2w xtal controlled 10m CW TX. Using a 2n3819 in the PA & 2w
meant the matching was easy to 50 ohms.

We were all within a few miles of each other so 599+, so one guy built a
half-watt version. Still 599.

I decided to go for it. Grabbed my sig genny off the shelf. It had a 50
ohm output. Lightbulb moment. Set it to 1microvolt outputans keyed the
aerial with it. 539 all round, albeit with some chirp and drift. Well, it
was a valve sig genny.

1uV across 50ohms is qrpppppp. Thats when I realised the million miles
per watt is no challenge at all when radiating extremely low powers over
short distances.

Might  be harder today though. Back then we could hear the receiver
noise floor on 10m. Not much chance of that now.

But I confess I was always far more interested in operating than
building. Never had the luxury of a workshop. Always tucked into the
corner of a bedroom. If I couldn't hold it in one hand and drill it with
the other it couldn't happen.

I remember hearing that Kennedy had been shot at the instant it
happened. I was on 20m listening to a pair of USA hams rag-chewing and
they both had the TV on. I rushed downstairs to tell my parents who told
me I was talking nonsense "or it would have been on the news". Took a
couple of hours for it to appear on our TV news.

I used to love chatting to the USA novices on 15m CW back in the late
70's. Some of those guys were real pros. You could hear them coming back
to your CQ while screwing the trimmers on their xtals to get co-channel.

I still treasure a letter I have from one youngster. It was his first
QSO outside the USA. He tells how his mom got so excited she ran into
the road telling all the neighbours her lad was talking to England.
.....yes the one in Europe :-)

Life seems a lot more cynical these days.

Even to this day I find the concept of my voice turning into electrons
which throw themselves into space and sometimes hit another piece of wire
in another country and reproduce my voice genuinely 'magical'. Sadly my
grandkids don't 'get it'. They're happy with Skype, facetime, and TXT.

The closest they came to interest was the eldest grandson (at age 10)
saying "grandad, can I have that telegraph key when you're dead?".
Sensing my surprise he added "I'm not interested in morse, but it looks
kinda cool". Now he's 20. Bought his first apartment, and his first BMW.
Making his way in the world and glued to his iPhone.

It would be kinda nice to get back onto 160m AM, but sadly the
electrical 'crud' levels in the UK are S9+ down there :-(

I spent 30 years in front of a TS930, which was able to produce proper
AM because where most rigs had one xtal filter it had pairs of them. You
slide the filters over one another to get narrower passbands for CW and
if you slide them past each other you can gget DSB or AM.

Thanks for taking the time to write your book. You've lived a very
varied and interesting life. I wrote a SciFi novel back in 1980 but at
that time there was only one scifi agent in the UK and she didnt like
it. Maybe I'll get it onto kindle one day.

I was expecting a lot of free time in retirement, but between the 3
grandkids and my 94 yr old mom I have less time than when I was working.
But despite the dodgy knees and eyesight its the best job ever :-)


David  G3ZPF

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