Radio Days

Tonight I gave a talk about the Raspberry Pi to the Cambridge and District Amateur Radio Club. I pointed out that I didn't really belong in the group, unless you stretch the word 'Amateur' almost to breaking point, for I know almost nothing about radio.

But I understand the appeal. I made little crystal sets as a child and discovered that the aluminium double-glazing frame in my bedroom was an astonishingly good aerial, provided you wanted to listen to BBC Radio 2. Any other station was likely to be disappointing, but this it received so well that I could almost just connect high-impedance headphones to the frame without any other components. I read, with great jealousy, American novels where the kids had adventures involving walkie-talkies. Many years later, the opening up of CB radio and other bands here in the UK made such things a possibility, but for me, radio was something you received, not transmitted.

On a couple of occasions, visiting a friend or distant family member, I was taken out to a 'shack' in the back garden and allowed to watch and even participate in the strange ritual of starting up shelves of valve–powered equipment, which existed to connect a little speaker and microphone, via an enormous roof-mounted antenna, to people in far-flung parts of the country or even, if atmospheric conditions were right, of the globe.

What I realise now, of course, is what these guys were doing. These were the ones who weren't the passive consumers of radio technology like the rest of us. They had gone to the trouble to amass the equipment and expertise to be allowed to transmit as well as receive. And what were they doing with it?

Late at night, decades before Mr Zuckerberg was even born, they were disappearing into their strange dens to engage in global social networking.


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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser