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A Tapestry of Our Own “Making”


*Email: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

My original plan for this month’s column was to look at the state of the “maker” movement, both generally and within ham radio, as a result of the closing (and possible rebirth) of Make: magazine and the cancellation of this month’s scheduled World Maker Faire in New York City. (KH6WZ discusses this in his “Ham Notebook” column this month, as well.)

Then we got news of the passing of two major figures in ham radio technology over the past 50 years, along with the selection of the 2019 Newsline Young Ham of the Year (see separate items in “News Bytes”), and I thought that I needed to write about was what Newsline’s Bill Pasternak, WA6ITF (SK), used to refer to as the “changing of the guard.” Which direction should I go?

But then I realized that I didn’t really need to make a choice, because all of these people and events are interwoven elements of the same story, the human impulse to understand how things work, to “build it yourself,” and of ham radio’s central role in that story, at least when it comes to electronics. So let’s take a quick look at each element and then see how they all come together in a tapestry that, of course, we are weaving ourselves.

First, Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty announced that economics were forcing him to cease publication of Make: magazine and shut down the Make:-sponsored Maker Faires. It looked as though the first of those — the Bay Area Maker Faire in California — would also be the last. Then, Dougherty announced that he was going to try to reinvent the Maker Media enterprise as a membership “community,” with individual dues of $85 a year hopefully providing the base from which to restart publication of Make: and to resume sponsorship of Maker Faires around the world.

Moving back into ham radio, over the course of two weeks this summer, we lost HAL Communications co-founder Bill Henry, K9GWT, and Ham Radio magazine co-founder and publisher Skip Tenney, W1NLB. Bill and Skip were major forces in ham radio technology in the last quarter of the 20th century — HAL was a leader in digital communications hardware and software (before Joe Taylor turned his attention to reshaping our digital modes), and Ham Radio is still considered the finest amateur radio technical magazine ever published. Finally, the Newsline Young Ham of the Year Award for 2019 was announced as going to 15-year-old Dhruv Rebba, KC9ZJX. Dhruv was licensed at age 9 and is active in public service, satellite communication, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (he’s coordinated two ARISS contacts, one remotely), and is a member of AMSAT’s “Amateur Radio Exploration on the Moon” project. As noted here last month, lunarorbiting amateur satellites are now science-fact, not science-fiction.

So how do all of these disparate people and events tie together? Let’s take a look and start weaving our tapestry.

Throwaway Society

America’s post-World War II transition to a “throwaway society” is central to the story. Many “makers” have described hams as “the original makers,” as indeed we are. And our tradition of building our own gear or modifying equipment designed for other uses to meet our needs goes back to the earliest days of radio, when it was a necessity. Commercially-manufactured radios began to become available in the 1930s and came back strong after the war. But cheap military surplus gear also flooded the market and hams kept their building skills strong by modifying surplus radios to operate on the ham bands. The ham radio building ethic remained strong through the ’60s and ’70s, which included the first “golden age of kit-building” and the launch of Ham Radio magazine in 1968 by Skip Tenney and Jim Fisk, W1DTY (later W1HR, now SK). The magazine found a large and devoted readership of technically-oriented hams throughout the ’70s and into the 1980s. But the growing dominance of solid-state technology, integrated circuits, and the miniaturization that followed were foreign to hams who grew up on discrete components and point-to-point wiring. Plus, the growing complexity of ham gear made it easier and more economical to buy commercially-made radios than to build your own. The age of the “appliance operator” appeared to be overtaking ham radio’s building tradition and by the late 1980s, Ham Radio was losing the critical mass of readership and advertising that any magazine needs to survive. In 1990, Skip Tenney sold the Ham Radio Publishing Group to CQ, and the monthly Ham Radio magazine was reborn as Communications Quarterly, which thrived for another decade before being sold to ARRL and merged into QEX.

In the same timeframe, radioteletype (RTTY) came of age in the ’50s and ’60s, and Bill Henry, K9GWT, co-founded HAL Communications to build RTTY demodulators and associated devices. As personal computers came on the scene and RTTY gave birth to packet and a legion of other digital modes, HAL brought leading-edge hardware and software to the marketplace, with the military and commercial sectors as prime clients but always keeping the ham radio market as part of the mix.

“I Void Warranties”

As the 2000s rolled around and personal electronics became a greater part of everyday life for most Americans, many technically- oriented people who liked to tinker with the innards of electronic devices and try to “improve” them started getting frustrated with the growing number of sealed devices with labels that warned that there were “no user-serviceable parts inside” and that “opening case will void warranty.” The backlash to this was the birth of the maker movement, which released layers of creativity that resulted in entire new industries, such as 3D printing (just as amateur radio creativity has led to the creation of the cubesat industry). Dale Dougherty launched Make: to try to bring together diverse elements of the growing maker community, followed by the start of wildly successful Maker Faires and mini-Maker Faires around the world.

Hams were part of this phenomenon as well, with the resurgence of interest in kit-building, portable low-power operating and the marriage of amateur radio with microcontrollers, along with the popularity of columns on these topics in CQ and elsewhere.

“Ham Notebook” editor Wayne Yoshida, KH6WZ, who has been writing about “making” and exhibiting at Maker Faires for years now, asks in his column this month whether the apparent financial failure of Make: magazine and its associated Maker Faires suggests that “making” was just a fad that is now beginning to fade. I don’t think so. I do think that the Maker Faires had begun to lose their way and became too corporate, with a reduced focus on individual creativity and making technology accessible to people from all income levels. I hope that the re-imagined Maker Faires restore their original focus.

As for Make: magazine, these are difficult times for any niche magazine, brought on by a combination of factors, most of which have little, if anything, to do with underlying interest in the subject matter or the quality of the articles. Every publisher faces an ongoing challenge to find and maintain the equilibrium that keeps the readers on board and keeps the lights on as well. We wish Dale the best of luck in his relaunch of Make:.

Finally, we want to acknowledge the ascendance of a new generation of leadership in our hobby, as exemplified not only by the young man selected as Young Ham of the Year but by the other nominees as well. It is noteworthy that the 2018 Young Ham of the Year is now Alabama’s Assistant Section Manager for Youth, and that other YHOTY winners of the past have gone on to leadership positions in the ARRL and elsewhere. So, while we mourn the loss of past leaders in our hobby, we welcome the arrival of new ones who will add to our tapestry and carry amateur radio into yet unimagined future directions.

– 73, Rich W2VU

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