If the big one hits, and comms are taken out, these guys are ready to go. The internet's down, the cellular networks are down, the landlines, the whole lot's gone. In those moments, it will be an analogue world, and this unlikely crew of hobbyists have the equipment and knowhow to make it work.
They can drive to the top of the nearest hill, plug in their radios and start relaying information. They can save lives. Ir Video Inspection Camera
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They are, says Hamilton Amateur Radio Club member Colin McEwen, the silent few. “We don't make a song and dance about it. But we are those guys with this funny hobby that is doing all this sort of thing.”
“We hope we don't ever have the big emergencies,” says fellow club member Russell Richardson. “But we're all pretty good at being able to swing into action.”
Richardson, for example, has telescopic poles which can be extended to almost four metres. You attach your aerial, lash the pole to a fence and away you go. He also has a handheld case loaded up with gel cell battery and radio, weighing in at 6kg. It’s not just the gear, it’s also the considerable knowhow that can be used to support Civil Defence or search and rescue.
It’s been a while since Richardson was involved in a search and rescue, given the club is city-based. But he casts his mind back to a search for lost Boy Scouts in the Kauaeranga valley near Thames. The weather closed in, and the boys couldn’t cross the swollen streams. Richardson was the radio operator in a team of four that went in initially from the Kauaeranga side and then from the Coroglen side. Other teams were scouring the area as well in filthy weather. It took about four days, but the boys were rescued. He has also been involved in searches for planes that have gone down.
So these amateurs are ready to go, and sometimes they save lives. The Hamilton club has been doing that for a long time.
Wednesday, December 21, 1922, was a day of occasional showers in Hamilton. In the evening, the film Madame X ended its run at the New Strand Theatre.
And that night a group of Hamilton wireless enthusiasts decided to form the Hamilton Amateur Radio Club.
On April 13 the following year, 23 people attended the club’s first meeting, and by September 1923, the club had a licence to broadcast with the callsign ZL1XH and was preparing to start a regular series of concerts.
“The club feels that if it can provide a good service to town and country people it will be doing much towards arousing interest in the greatest marvel of the age,” reported the Waikato Independent.
That same month, a radio columnist, “Rheostat”, welcomed the impact of broadcast radio on rural areas. “Anything tending to destroy the isolation of life in the country is timely and welcome … country home life will be made the happier when high-class entertainments can be heard in every home where there is a receiving set, no matter how remote from settlement that home may be.”
Rheostat was also foretelling a new marvel using the airwaves. “How insignificant would seem the recent message from His Majesty the King, gramophoned to the school children, beside seeing the King himself delivering the message and hearing every word that came from his lips. Truly, Windsor Castle and Whakarewarewa would then be as one.”
By 1932, a photo of the Hamilton branch of the NZ Association of Radio Transmitters shows 16 men, many of them young, looking back at the camera. Some are given their identifying callsigns in the caption, including J L Sherson, who was ZL1AZ. Legend has it that he was offered ZL1AA but turned it down.
This month, the club marks 100 years since the decision made at that first meeting. The men gathered at its clubrooms on a Wednesday morning have more grey hairs, but they also have an ageless enthusiasm for a technology that has changed the world, perhaps not quite making Windsor Castle and Whakarewarewa one, but shrinking distance dramatically.
Today, the concrete-walled clubroom of the Hamilton Amateur Radio Club is strewn with valves, transistors, handheld transmitters, computer screens, cables, all the bits and bobs that make perfect sense to a radio enthusiast. Behind one door is the radio station itself, ZL1UX. The club is negotiating the arduous process of adding a rotator and beam aerial to its 18m mast.
Membership is about 20, including two or three women, says president Warwick Lloyd. But the city probably has more than 100 amateur operators, commonly known as hams, in total.
McEwen, a sparkie by trade, says the hobby doesn’t have to be expensive. The most he’s spent on a piece of equipment is $2400. Typically, though, he might spend $200 a year.
Ham radio, with all its camaraderie, means a lot to him, particularly when he was widowed twice in earlier years. “I can say that my contacts through ham radio had pulled me through the death of two wives,” he says.
McEwen got his start in radio messing about in the workshop of a family friend and passed his ham exams aged 15, the same year he failed School C. He’s not the only one of the half dozen hobbyists gathered here this morning who became entranced by the magic of radio as a youngster.
Russell Richardson started with the club as a schoolboy, and he’s intent on giving back. In the 50s, when he was at primary school, he would attend radio classes held in an army hut on Brookfield St. His interest came from his father, a car mechanic in Tauwhare, which in those days made him the go-to fixer of radios in the area. The classes were excellent, Richardson says. He would also attend club meetings in the smallbore rifle clubrooms on Dey St. A couple of Morrinsville enthusiasts would give him a lift.
It meant he flew through electrics classes at high school, and likewise flew through a radio apprenticeship. He is, he says, ever grateful to the Hamilton club. Richardson shifted around, including a stint at Waihi and then Otorohanga, where he got back into ham radio and helped establish a club around 1974. Eventually business interests took over, but in retirement he’s trying to give back to the club “that gave me so much”.
The Hamilton club stays up to speed by doing comms for the likes of the Bridge to Bridge Water Ski Classic from Cambridge to Taupiri. Safety marshals are accompanied by radio operators, communicating with the main base in Hamilton, using a repeater the club installed at a cowshed in the Peacocke area.
Lloyd says the club has also done the likes of cycle races, as well as the World Rally when it roars around Raglan.
Ham radio has a wider impact as well. Chats over the airways can lead to innovation, as amateurs swap notes and pick up ideas from each other. In Richardson’s case, collaboration led to an aerial design which was used by Civil Defence for a time.
A lot of development of new technologies comes from just that sort of amateur brainstorming, he says. Plus plenty of engineers in the bigger companies are radio hams themselves. “It’s in the blood.”
If search and rescue is the favourite part of the hobby for Richardson, fellow club member Sutton Burtenshaw has a different interest, fuelled by his experiences as a schoolkid listening to American radio stations. Dusk and just after was the best time to get a signal back then, thanks to a 100m wire he ran into nearby trees. The experience led him into ham radio, and his thing is DX – distance listening. The American Amateur Radio League, of which he is a member, recognises 340 radio countries. Burtenshaw says he’s already got 336 countries verified via QSL cards sent by operators to confirm contact. Kosovo is next on his list – he “worked” it in 2020 by sending a message. Burkina Faso also awaits.
Burtenshaw describes himself as a relative latecomer to radio, compared to others in the club, after getting his licence in 1980.
Ham radio operators have to sit an exam to get a licence. “In order to transmit, you have to show that you're qualified, you have the knowledge,” Richardson says. “Because you could cause trouble to important services like ambulance, fire, police, security services.
“You know, if you run amok,” he laughs.
What would running amok look like?
“If you didn't have something adjusted properly, you could cause interference to other services. And it could be at a crucial time when that interference happens.”
The exam is largely concerned with technical aspects of radio, says Burtenshaw. How to design and wire an oscillator, how to draw a circuit diagram. When he passed his ticket, it was expected that he could design and build a low-power transmitter.
These days, Richardson understands the exam is a series of multichoice questions. He sounds sceptical about the level of understanding that requires. “But I guess that helps to get more people in.”
There was a time when some communications companies would give employees a raise if they got their ham ticket, Burtenshaw says.
That was also an incentive for those taught by another club member, Robin Holdsworth. He switched to teaching, first at university, then at polytechnic, after a career in radio with the post office. In his day, there was no internet and no computers. “You had to change valves, you had to repair capacitors and things like that. So it was a mechanical time, really.”
His expertise saw him recruited to teach employees of organisations like the post office and railways. They got a ticket to say they’d passed the course, but they got more money too.
Unprompted, Holdsworth, who is club secretary-treasurer, discloses his callsign: ZL1IC. “That defines me in the radio world.”
You come across it again and again. Burtenshaw, for instance, has two callsigns: ZL4QJ and ZL4SDX, the latter mainly for overseas use.
Sometimes it can get outright bizarre to an outsider. Like a Hamilton branch report from some time ago to the national magazine, Break-In, that covered such mundane business as a change of meeting times, a junk sale that had contributed to branch funds and arrangement for an exhibition at the Waikato Winter Show. In a less businesslike tone, it also said the meeting had extended congratulations to Mr Peter Wily, the father of twin daughters.
And, seemingly without irony, it said those at the meeting had congratulated ZLiBF on his recent marriage to a ZL4 bride.
Gavin Petrie, another club member with a post office background, says any radio operator, whether commercial or amateur, has to have a callsign, and New Zealand has been allocated ZL and ZM.
Unlike Burtenshaw, Petrie tends to confine himself to local calls. He draws a diagram on the whiteboard to illustrate how repeaters can link operators through the country. Essentially, you get on the frequency the local repeater uses and you’re away. Then again, you can also use the internet to talk via your ham radio to someone in Vancouver, using a four digit number.
And in that situation, what do they chat about?
“Often, like a lot of situations, you start off by talking about the weather,” he laughs. “And, you know, what might be going on, and what your amateur radio interests are.”
So they're not just swapping technical notes?
“Not necessarily, no,” he says. “But maybe.”
The tech is ever-evolving. A lot of amateurs are into digital radio now, but not Petrie so much yet. He points to a digital handheld device. He’s got a similar sized one that’s FM and cost just $50.
In a room off the clubroom kitchen are two repeaters in cases ready to go. Case, battery, aerial, there’s the basis of a complete network right there. There are also smaller cases on tables in the room, some of them rusting, and all of them showing their age but, with a bit of attention, ready to kick into life again.
They’re all good. McEwen – mechanical man, as Robin Holdsworth describes him – likes getting older gear going again. He casts an expert eye over some of the equipment.
There’s a war surplus aircraft radio, there’s an early Yaesu commercial radio from Japan, there’s a receiver from the UK made in the 60s. “Beautiful dials on them, smooth as hell. They were big money, but they’re beautiful. And they still go.”
He points out another with its back off, mainly using valves but also a few transistors. “Weighs a tonne, but still capable of going.”
He lifts a radio valve, carbon shield, 125 watts of power, out of a tray. “You could put 3000 volts on the top of it.”
McEwen’s got his eye on an AWA transceiver that would probably have been used in Outback Australia. He plans to take that one home and get it going again.
Stereophonic Electronic Stethoscope These guys have the knowhow. One day, they could save your life.