How to Talk to Non-Hams
1961 Popular Electronics
is a pretty funny story that, although it is fictional, it could
easily have really happened. I'm not much of a party-goer, but based
on what little experience I've had at social functions and the stereotypical
behavior often portrayed in movies, the author's scenario likely
actually did occur. Maybe he exaggerates just a bit, though. The
follow-up situation would be a great gag to play on someone if you
ever get the chance. It probably would not be hard to get people
to fall for it.
November 1961 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history
of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights
are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from
See all articles from
How to Talk to Non-Hams
By Fred Ebel, W9PXA
happened during one of those awkward conversational vacuums abhorred
by party hosts. My host, an up-and-coming insurance man, suddenly
turned to me and said, "I understand you're a radio ham."
I produced one of those it's-really-nothing type of smiles.
But secretly I was flattered. All eyes were on me, including those
of three beautiful young ladies. And then came the question that
must come to all hams at one time or another.
"What do hams
My interrogator was a platinum blonde.
When our eyes met, it was like an a.f.c. locking circuit. We
"Well," I began, "take that QSO - that means
talk - I had with a ham in India the other day. He--"
know, I know!" broke in a bearded chap who had just recited some
weird poetry while tapping a bongo rhythm on his knees. "This fellow
had just been bitten by a king cobra. Your message made it possible
to fly in antitoxin in the nick of time."
"No, this ham
lives in the Himalayan country-"
The blonde squealed. "The
home of the man-eating tiger. The tiger had attacked a native and
was roaming the village for its next victim. The ham wanted you
to send in professional hunters."
I winced. "No, no, no!
This ham was just" an ordinary postal clerk. He gave me an S9 report
and said my modulation was tremendous."
I had delivered
this information with considerable heat. But all I saw were blank
expressions. Perhaps they didn't understand. I cleared my throat.
"You see, this ham was on the other side of the world, yet he gave
me that wonderful S9 report. It meant I was really barreling in."
Another of those vacuums resulted.
My host smiled
through clenched teeth. His words would have made good battery acid.
"How very interesting. Please tell us more."
"Yes," a pretty
redhead said, "tell us, what do hams really talk about?"
I searched my brain for a typical example. I had it. A very
interesting QSO during which my DX contact had successfully made
two transmissions, though his antenna had fallen to the deck of
I managed a smile, then: "I once talked to a ham
who was the radio operator on a tramp schooner that was crossing
the South China Sea, and here's the interesting part-"
ship was caught in a typhoon. sinking fast. But thanks to your quick
action, port authorities were notified and a rescue ship got there
just in time," said the redhead, beaming like a quiz kid.
I wiped my brow, counted down from x minus nine to zero before
I answered. "No, the interesting part was that the antenna wasn't
in the air. It was lying on-" But I got no further.
blurted a shiny-eyed guest.
"Mutiny had broken out on the
ship. The captain already was bound to the mast and the crew of
cutthroats was trying to get to the radio operator!"
circuits in my brain shorted out.
I jumped to my feet and
ran out as I screamed: "Yes, that was it. Mutiny! The crew had gone
berserk. The typhoon had ripped open the cages of the wild-animal
cargo. Three gorillas, two tigers, an elephant, and five cobras
were loose. The boiler had just exploded, and-and-" But the rest
of my words were lost in the wind as I raced home, hat-and coat-less.
How long I stood behind the closed door of my apartment
having visions of two men in white coats coming to get me, I don't
know. But finally, letting out a huge sigh of relief, I sank into
an easy chair, after automatically switching on the TV set. It was
time to review the past events with analytic calm. What had happened?
What had caused me to blow my top?
into my thoughts came an excited voice ..."CQ emergency! CQ emergency."
I looked up. There on the television screen, parka-clad
and kneeling next to a dog sled, was a man speaking into the microphone
of an emergency transceiver.
Then a cut to the radio shack
of a young operator. "Read you loud and clear, old man. What is
Cut back to the frozen north. "Dogs broke
loose, partner broke legs in crevasse fall, wolves closing in. Need
immediate help! Our position is-"
I switched off the TV,
smiled. Of course, that was it. The public is conditioned to make-believe
hams who have exciting adventures. For them, no talk about weather
or technical stuff. These fictional hams are men of action, their
conversation laced with "Medical help on the way" ... "Stand by
for instructions on emergency appendix operation ... "
idea played around in the back of my head. Why not give my friends
a show? They wanted drama. I would give them drama. Hama-drama !
I immediately wrote a dramatic sketch of exciting, imaginative
ham adventures and put it on tape. Being a mimic, I had no trouble
taking off three different voices, representative of hams from three
different parts of the world. I even inserted sound effects, teletype
and fast code - who ever heard a re-broadcast of a short-wave transmission
without those dah-dit-dahs?
The big job in taping
the playlet was synchronizing the voices so that my live voice would
track with what my characters said. I arranged to have a relay in
the transmitter actuate the recorder hidden in a closet, and I used
my regular receiver speaker to heighten believability.
How does it work? Wonderfully! My public relations are the very
best. Guests in the ham shack no longer suppress yawns - they're
on tenterhooks waiting for the next thrilling installment.
Consider the demonstration I gave last Sunday to a new neighbor
and his family - including two kids. After seating my guests comfortably,
I put on the show - with a warm-up period first.
warm-up feature is actually an audio-visual aid as I fuss over ancient
ham gear - a spiral-wound oscillation transformer, rotary spark
gap, huge capacitors, and loose couplers. It's junk, but the effect
is terrific. My modern transmitter and receiver don't even get a
glance - how could anything so small, compact and silent be effective?
With my audience properly primed, I started the main
event by giving the globe a twirl, stroking my chin, and then muttering:
"Hmmm, suppose we contact this part of the earth."
gulped. "You can talk - anywhere ?"
My smile was indulgent,
as I nodded in the affirmative, my finger stopping the globe at
the Arctic Zone. "I haven't talked to the top of the world for some
time. I wonder what Professor Schloggenfloober's doing. He's the
scientist, you know, who's heading that project to determine what
lies at the bottom of the ice cap."
nodded as I grabbed the dead mike to intone: "CQ, CQ, CQ Schloggenfloober
After an appropriate time, I switched on the
tape recorder, and from the speaker came what I like to think of
as a pretty good imitation of a German scientist. .. "Dis iss Professor
Schloggenfloober shpeaking from de Nort Pole. Ve are haffing a heat
vave here - sixty degrees below zero."
"Thanks for coming
What's new in Santa Claus land?"
This was for the benefit of the children, who leaned forward to
catch every word.
Chuckling came through static -
I didn't forget to throw in some static on the sound track. "Tell
the sshildren that ve got a pet walrus. Ve call him Blubber Boy
unt ride him every day. Oh, unt annuder ding, ve found a mastodon
at the two-hundred foot level in a vunderful state of preservation.
Dose mastodon steaks go good vit canned mushrooms."
"Boy, a pet walrus. Wish I had one," said Junior.
I signed off with the professor, then purposely yawned as if I were
"I'll try to raise something more interesting,"
I said, noticing through the corner of an eye the amazement on the
faces of my guests. "Suppose we point the beam in the direction
of the South Pacific Ocean."
Again, after a suitable
pause, we heard a voice (mine, of course), this time the voice of
an excited British radio operator of a steamship ... "This is the
S. S. Glugkloop (I had put my hand in front of my mouth) ... Can
you take a message? Very urgent! Very urgent!"
poked his wife in the ribs.
"Did you hear that - very urgent!"
"Go ahead," I said, reaching for a pencil and pad
"Here's the message." The voice was almost
a scream, as though some awful thing were impending. "Just sighted
strange sea animal with huge serpent-like head. Body length estimated
one hundred feet with ten loops breaking water. Crossed bow some
fifty feet ahead, creating wave estimated six feet high. Position
- mid-Pacific near Ogre Island. Relay message to the Society for
the Investigation of Unusual Sea Life. The address is ... " Here
the voice rises to a blood-curdling scream, and a sound effect as
of wood splintering is heard.
Naturally I make a valiant
effort to learn what has happened. But only static comes through.
I turn to my white-faced guests, say: "I - I wonder what happened
But I know that, in their mind's eye, they know what
happened. They see the huge head of a sea serpent landing on the
ship's cabin, spike-like fangs ripping the wood asunder ....
Later that evening, I turned on the last installment, which
is a harrowing account of an explorer in a Burma jungle making an
urgent request for penicillin.
How do I feel about these
hama-dramas? Like a kindly Santa Claus who wouldn't tell the kids
for all the money in the world that the beard isn't real. My guests
get quite a kick out of these mythical adventures.
I. So much so that a strange and somewhat frightening thing is happening.
Instead of going on the air and having real QSO's with real hams,
I find myself writing and recording new adventures and talking to
Maybe those two men in the white coats will get