The electromagnetic spectrum extends from arbitrarily long wavelengths to arbitrarily short ones. Amateur radio operators can, and do, experiment and communicate in HF (100-10 meters = 3-30 MHz), VHF (10-1 m = 30-300 MHz), UHF (1-0.1m = 300 MHz-3 GHz), and onward, to millimeter waves and beyond.

Radio technology began, however, at much lower frequencies. Today there's only one ham band left down there, a relic from the early 1900s, still in use by a pack of hard-core loyalists. It's at a wavelength of 160 meters, ~1.8 MHz, just beyond the end of the AM dial. Hams call it Top Band, a lovely crisp name steeped in a century of tradition.

Working Top Band is tough. Free electrons produced in the upper atmosphere by solar radiation soak up low-frequency energy, so to get any sort of distance you have to stay up late at night when atoms in the ionosphere recombine. Equipment is bulky (no mass-market handitalkies!) since the laws of Nature force resonators to be large. Antennas likewise are monstrously long, in proportion to the waves themselves. And there's heavy interference from long-range navigation beacons and other users of the spectrum. So the challenges of operating on 160 meters are nontrivial. So are the rewards.

I fell in love with Top Band in 1973. Rice University, my alma mater, had a well-endowed amateur radio station but a dearth of operators. With my license (WB5CMQ, later N6WX) I was welcomed aboard. Besides some powerful gear the club had a superb 160 meter antenna: a gigantic inverted-V of wire that slanted down from either side of The Campanile, an old bell tower and campus landmark.

Several Rice ham club members were enthusiastic contesters. They loved the hurly-burly race to make the most contacts with the most distant stations in the shortest possible time. I didn't care much for fighting through pile-ups and shouting into a microphone, so I volunteered to fill odd gaps in the schedule and to do CW (radiotelegraph code). It was fun and zero pressure. Any points that I racked up were pure gravy for the club's score. My kind of job.

Thus it was that 30 years ago I found myself the only human soul awake in the neighborhood of the electrical engineering building, pulling the coldest of graveyard shifts, a mid-winter all-nighter ... crouched over an antique receiver ... headphones pressed against ears ... tuning slowly up and down ... listening to every static crackle ... hunting for the whispy-faint Morse signal of another station — then pouncing on it, exchanging call signs, logging the contact, and moving on.

Midnight to dawn, alone, prowling Top Band ...

(see also CollegeCollage2 (3 Oct 2000), ... )

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicScience - 2003-12-20

(correlates: ZhurnalWiki, Only a Little Has To Go Wrong, CollegeCollage2, ...)