There weren’t any radio amateurs in my family, but three of my neighbours were licensed, so it did not seem like an unusual hobby. One of them was a GM5 who occupied a house owned by the American electronics company he worked for. He had a triband yagi fitted through the roof of the house. I didn’t know any of these amateurs particularly well, but we did have a Co-op Defiant radio in the kitchen.
I always wanted to hear stations from Luxembourg and Hilversum, but I never managed to tune them in. Then at the age of ten, my dad had a heart attack. There was no hospital radio station so my mum bought him a two-band radio from Boots. When he got out of hospital I inherited the radio. I managed to hear what I thought was US radio on Medium Wave, but turned out to be American Forces Network transmitting from Germany. This sparked my serious interest in radio and I would spend my time hunting around for weak stations among the big broadcasters.
My Grandad had a Russian Convair 1 Short Wave broadcast band receiver that he gave to me. This was a very sensitive receiver, but the six D type batteries were out of my price range for regular use. I remember it had germanium transistors fitted into holders like valves.
A year later my dad’s cousin visited from Canada. He wasn’t a radio amateur, but he was an engineer and even built his own TV sets. He brought with him a crystal set kit and a pair of AM CB walkie talkies as presents. I built the kit very quickly and I could hear the BBC on it’s little crystal earphone. I could also hear a few people on the CB walkie talkies. What I didn’t know was that the super-regenerative receiver could pick up about ten channels at once, whilst I could only transmit on one. Yes, it was illegal too, but it was only 500mw. These definitely got me interested in transmitting. By the time I got to high school in 1979 I was rooting around the school library for books about amateur radio. We had an electronics club at the school and I built a few radio related projects. Buying equipment was out of the question. Apart from the cost, there were no amateur radio shops near me and no internet to buy things from in those days.
Then in 1981, I saw an advert in the local newspaper that a radio club was being set up in my home town of Stirling. I phoned up the secretary, Doug GM2BWF. He mentioned that RAE classes had started in a local school, taught by Ollie GM3OM. . So off I went to study for the RAE. I missed the inaugural meeting of the Stirling Club because it was in a pub and I was underage. My dad took me to the second meeting, so technically I am not a founder member of the club, but I like to think of myself as one.
The Stirling Club had a real mix of characters. Quite a number of old-timers with callsigns that were issued before WW2, plus a lot of newer amateurs who had come in through CB radio. It helped that my dad knew a few of them, including Doug GM6NX whose callsign became the club’s callsign after his death. I got a lot of help from club members. Eventually, I was able to return some of it as we got our own clubrooms in the town centre and then on an industrial estate.
My plan was to sit the RAE in nine months time, but as there was an exam three months away I paid the fee and sat it earlier. To my surprise, I passed. Due to the influx of new licensees from CB radio, it took months to get a licence issued. When it arrived I was on holiday and the recorded delivery letter returned to the post office. My first contact was on 2m from the post office counter with my new callsign GM6NRE. I had sold my bike to finance a second hand Yaesu FT207R handheld, which was quite a sophisticated piece of equipment for its time.
Equipment was very expensive in 1982. An Icom IC2E handheld was £159 which would be £573 today. Yet, today I could buy a Yaesu 2m handheld for under £100. You can see why commercial equipment was out of the question at such a young age. Some of my early experiments were converting ex PMR radios. Including a Pye Cambridge and a Dymar handheld that needed 18v to run it. I made a voltage multiplier from a 555 timer. Little knowledge meant I just had to try things and see if they worked. Around this time, the BBC transmitting station at Westerglen was being automated. The Aerial Radio Group (BBC radio club) was being disbanded. I went to their junk sale and bought a General Electric BRT400D receiver that had come from the BBC monitoring station at Caversham. Conditions were very good and that receiver had excellent selectivity. Someone gave me a Heathkit DX40 transmitter and a handful of big FT243 crystals that had been reground to amateur frequencies. I eventually found the matching VFO for the transmitter in a junk sale.
By the time I got my B licence I was already learning morse. So before my callsign even made it into the callbook I was off to the Marine Radio Surveyors office in Edinburgh to sit the morse test. I passed and got the callsign GM4SVM just before my 16th birthday.
Having saved up some money I managed to locate a cheap SSB transceiver. It was a Heathkit SB100 that had once belonged to GM3ITN. It was a great radio and I had many happy hours on 20m chatting to regular contacts in Spain, Germany, Poland and Russia, often early in the morning before going to school. My 20m dipole had been hauled over the house rope using a string propelled over the top with a tennis ball.
As time progressed I added an FT290R and this became my first mobile radio after getting my driving licence. After finishing at college and getting a job in 1988 I finally had more money. Radio equipment had started to become more affordable too and I bought an old TS520. This had a built-in inverter so naturally, I used it in my Mini. My antenna was a Larkspur army whip mounted on two ladder bars on the roof. A full size quarter wave for 20m, which someone noticed just bending enough to get under an overhead powerline that crossed a main road. Remove the bottom section and it tuned on 15m. On the inverter it gave me 50w out, but the antenna was so good I worked into New Zealand while driving through the town centre. We had also moved house and I had room for bigger antennas. Why not get a Yagi? I bought a kit for a 10m Yagi and put it on a TV antenna rotator. This was excellent for stateside contacts. I then added an extended double zepp for the new 12m band and was a regularly pile up for people needing GM confirmed on that band. As conditions started to decline I rebuilt the 10m Yagi as a 2 element for 15m, and finally replaced it with a rotary dipole for three bands. Tuning the 15m Yagi involved standing on the ridge of the roof to trim back the coaxial capacitor taped along the boom from the gamma match. Again, it was a case of doing what was necessary when there was insufficient cash to buy a solution.
I did quite a lot of HF mobile in my company car. We had several amateurs working for the company so the boss had given up trying to stop us. Travelling to odd places made me popular with WAB square collectors.
Living in a tourist town had its moments. Occasionally people I had spoken to on the radio would turn up at the door, including someone from East Germany. In the 80s it felt odd to be speaking to people behind the iron curtain. In one notable QSO with an SP station an American came on and asked him if he knew Lech Walesa. To which the Polish station said “I do not know who you are talking about”. The American wouldn’t leave it alone, and when the Pole got a knock on the door he was convinced it was the secret police. It turned out to be a plumber fixing a leak upstairs! I miss those sort of QSO’s. Although most of my operating has been on CW its tended to be of the ragchew variety.
It is hard to believe that I have been licensed for nearly 40 years. Now as I approach my 54th birthday I can say there hasn’t been a year of inactivity in the time since I got my amateur radio licence. Even periods of living in a flat have not put me off the air completely. There has always been a way around any problem that came up. One of my sons, Ross, is now licensed as 2M0GJG so it looks like it is running in the family. Although Ross is a properly qualified electronics engineer, not a bodger and fettler like his dad.
I think the biggest change during my time in amateur radio was the introduction of the DX cluster and the way that changed HF operation. Rather than tuning around the band looking for stations, or “safe cracking” (headphones on, narrow filter on, looking for weak CW stations) people got alerts and switched on the radio to make one contact with a country they needed for an award. When the Internet arrived this way of operating became entrenched. There are also fewer real conversations with people. We have lost a lot of community feeling along the way. Now that we have so many competing modes and 2m is not as popular I know very few radio amateurs local to where I live in Edinburgh. Equipment is cheaper and people tend to build stations by buying rather than having to buy a bit and build a bit and develop the station over time. There is also a tendency to do everything to the “Nth degree” rather than treating what we do as “best endeavours”.
I still don’t spend vast amounts on radios. I have an FT450D in the house and an old Alinco DX70 for the car. My next project is to replace all my antennas over the summer. Mostly home built, they are sitting on the floor of the shack waiting to go up, and I am looking forward to the next sunspot maximum. I still get a thrill when I hear a signal coming over the airwaves and I don’t think that will ever end.