Brian Johnson loosened the strings of a plush bag that, in his former life, held a bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. Today he has the means to speak to anyone in the world, or maybe even outside.
Johnson is the club station manager of the Hughes Amateur Radio Club, which attracts members from across the South Bay. Amateur radio, commonly known as “amateur radio,” is a hobby that allows people to communicate at a distance without using the Internet or a telephone. Amateur radios can connect people in the same city, but they can also bounce signals on the moon and, in some cases, allow terrestrials to talk to those aboard the International Space Station.
Because the technology is portable and does not depend on large infrastructure, it is also seen as an important part of emergency response to disasters such as earthquakes, which could destroy cell phone towers and broadband data centers. Thousands of amateur radio enthusiasts prepare for such an emergency every year on Field Day, an annual event that takes place on the fourth weekend of June.
The Hughes Club typically participates in Field Day by setting up a communications station, complete with a truck-mounted antenna and solar power, in Redondo Beach Wilderness Park, which attracts around 40 members and guests. The coronavirus pandemic thwarted plans for a large rally this year, but that didn’t stop them from participating. Starting Saturday at 11 a.m. until the next day, members will set up their own radios and connect with fellow enthusiasts from around the world.
Howard Karse, the club’s next incoming vice-president, will set up a “one delta,” meaning a solo operator running a docking station. Although technically the delta classification allows it to use a traditional power grid, it will put in place external batteries. His goal for Field Day is “to use as many frequency bands as possible” and appreciates the engineering challenge that this presents.
“I’m still a bit like a little child. If I make contact very far, I have to turn down the microphone and do a little end-of-zone dance, ”Karse said in a Zoom interview.
Radio waves, first theorized by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, are the lowest frequency waves in the electromagnetic spectrum; in some cases, the distance between two ridges can reach thousands of kilometers. Guglielmo Marconic, an Italian engineer, developed the technology to use waves as a means of long-distance communication at the turn of the 20th century. As radio quickly became both a medium of information transmission and a booming business activity, governments recognized that without regulation it would be easy for signals to jam. They distinguished between commercial operators and amateur operators, who limited themselves to a slice of the spectrum. The American Radio Relay League, which sponsors Field Day across the country, has helped organize “relay stations” that allow amateur radio users to reach people farther away than they might otherwise be able to.
Hughes Club member Betty Barch, who on field day will have an antenna attached to the trailer hitch of her motorhome and another antenna attached to her balcony railing, remembers realizing the power of technology when ‘she was a child. A large earthquake hit Mexico, and reports said there had been extensive damage, including widespread power outages.
“I asked my dad, how do we get all this information? And my dad said, “Oh, ham radio operators do it,” Barch said.
Manhattan Beach residents Karen and Mike Vahey took to ham radio after their daughter, a member of the Placer County Mountain Rescue Team, gave them a book on how to get their permits . Their hobby has allowed them to talk with others deep in nature, where the cell phone signal cannot be reached.
“We could talk across the country on a very small radio when we were camping,” Karen said. “But the real goal is in the case of the big one.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines for community emergency response teams, citizen-led organizations established in the South Bay and across the country that help residents prepare for disasters, describe the amateur radio as “a very reliable method of communication used in an emergency response”. He also describes amateur radios as “complex devices with elaborate protocols” and notes that operators must pass a test and obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission.
There is a geek trend across amateur radio, and many of the Hughes Club members have been trained as scientists and engineers. (The club is named after Hughes Aircraft, the company founded by eccentric aviation entrepreneur Howard Hughes, himself an amateur radio enthusiast.) However, the club will help anyone who is interested in preparing for the exam needed to get a license. And, alongside their love of gadgets, amateur radio enthusiasts have an aversion to pretension, a DIY ethic that enjoys independence and communicating with as little as possible.
During a Zoom interview, Johnson pulled out the components for one of his Crown Royal bag setups: a battery, tuner, amplifier, and the radio itself. Each fits in a box of Altoids. (The tuner got some wintergreen, the spearmint amplifier.) Combined with a tightly coiled 40-meter cable that serves as an antenna, Johnson said he could take the package tidy with him anywhere. and set up a radio station.
“That’s the essence of Field Day: being able to take a radio that you own and spare parts, and be able to go on the air. “