The early years, Scotland 1975 – 1981
In the good old days, we used to listen to the top 40 chart show from 5 to 7 on a Sunday night. I remember one night after listening to the number one at 7pm, turning the dial on FM to see what other stations I could hear apart from the mythical Radio 1. To my surprise, I managed to pick up the police, somewhere in the FM range, they must have been on the motorway on the other side of the valley.
The second memory is of my eldest brother’s 49 MHz walkie-talkies. These were pretty big old things that ran off 9v batteries and must have put out 50mW or so. We tried them out and fairly soon discovered that if we were out in the clear, we could get a lot further than if we had buildings between us. Living on a farm, it wasn’t like this was a big problem. However one day we decided in any case to go out to the big field in front of the house to see just how far we could get on a line of sight. We managed to get I would guess about 1km before signals were too weak to copy. That evening, I was kicking around the yard, and I saw, lying in a corner, lots of wire. This was the wire that had been uprooted and changed by the telephone company in an effort to stop the cows constantly chewing the line and cutting off the phone. So I wondered, if I were to hang some of that wire off a pine tree in the forest at the corner of the front field, would that improve the signal at the other end? Next day, I went down to the tree, and one of my brothers to the spot where reception had been getting marginal. First I transmitted with the telescopic whip, then, I tried tying the copper at the end of the wire to the whip. Did it make a difference? Not really, but that was my introduction to trial and error in antenna farming!
I was 12 years old when I was first introduced to CB radio. That year, my eldest brother started agricultural college, and there he was introduced to the then-illegal AM CB radios. In November of that year, the UK government came out with a new system which used different channels and FM instead of AM, but to all intents and purposes, was just the same. After reading the specialized press, of which there were a few in those days, Christopher decided on a 40 channel 4 watt Lowe rig. It went with him to college.
College finished and the rig came home with the mobile K40 antenna and a 3 amp power supply and an SWR meter. I still laugh when I think about the day we tried to set it up. Christopher put the antenna on a small metal mount on the side of the house and told me that he would adjust the length of the antenna. I had to check the meter and find a value between 1 and 1.5, adjusting the set point each time on the meter. After a lot of futile adjusting, I told Christopher that the value always stuck somewhere between 2 and 4. It was when he came down from the ladder to check for himself that he realized that I was reading the wattmeter, not the swr meter! In any case it was difficult to find a good swr with that tiny metal mount and no ground plane or radials. And even when we did, when we went to try it out, it was difficult to get a contact even across the valley to the truckers plying the main road.
Realising pretty soon that the fault lay in the antenna system, Christopher went out and bought something that had caught his eye in a magazine: the Blue Lazer. The name conjures up all kinds of ideas, but in reality this was a half wave vertical, made out of blue anodized aluminium. We installed this on the chimney of an outbuilding and all of a sudden things were looking up. Being high up on the valley side, we had a good line of sight shot down to much of central Scotland, and even with the statutory 4 watts, managed to do pretty well.
Not long after, my brother went back to college and took his radio with him. So bitten by the bug was I that I managed to persuade my mother to let me have the money in my post office savings account to buy myself a brand new radio, on offer at Comet superstore for the grand total of 20 pounds. A lot of money for a twelve year old in 1982! My good old Dad, bless his heart, bought me a base microphone to go with it and I was a happy camper.
It wasn’t long before I got my introduction to DX (long distance) contacts. On the strange FM channels, different from the rest of europe, we were oblivious to what was going on around us. From time to time, there would be a lot of interference which would make contacts difficult, those in the know said this was a thing called “skip” and it came and went without apparent reason. One fine day, all of a sudden I heard a strong signal from a station saying he was in the Netherlands. I answered him without hesitation, and made my first ever DX contact. He was one of the smart guys who knew where us strange brits were, and adjusted frequency and mode in order to contact us. Not long after that, we got another taste of “skip”, this time from south England, where of course everyone was operated on the same system and for a while, chaos and euphoria reigned.
In the meantime, brother Christopher continued to make inroads and bought himself an illegal radio which had a thing called “sideband” on it. One weekend he came back with this rig, a Ham International Multimode 2, and we switched on to see how it worked. This had a lot more buttons than my simple 40 channel FM radio and it took us a while to figure out how it worked. We tried to get it to work on our odd offset frequencies, and once we did so, heard that there was “skip” coming in again, interfering with the signals. And that is when we switched the mode button to USB (upper sideband) and lo and behold, the skip was transformed into people talking, and they were all foreigners! This was the moment when I knew that DX was going to be my passion.
After listening around a bit and figuring out how people made contacts, I invented a callsign for myself and shot off a general call. I got a reply back from a Swedish station, and made my second ever DX contact. This person asked me to send him a “QSL” card to confirm the contact, so after some more consultation with the locals “in the know”, I posted off a postcard to the address he gave me and a couple of weeks later, got a return card from him. This was the first of many, and as I kept on making more contacts, my limited budget was having problems buying enough postcards and stamps. It was suggested that I make myself some QSL cards, and the best way to do that was to join a DX group, who did that kind of thing for very reasonable prices. And so I joined “ALFA TANGO” an Italian group who indeed knew all about DX and QSLs, and got my cards. It was also through Alfa Tango that I met my first like-minded locals. First of all Brian Waddell (now GM4XQJ) who helped me by letting me use his P.O. Box until I sorted myself out with the club in Crieff. Then, my local AT director Steve Keay (now GM1DSK), and lastly Bruce Steel (now ZL1AAO), all of whom gave me lots of practical help and advice. I am still friends with them all, 27 years later.
From there on in I went from strength to strength. I bought my own sideband rig and shorted the PLL chip to get more channels out of it. I bought a linear amplifier and frightened myself to death with the arcing that went on inside the case. I bought a 5 element beam for 10 pounds and brought it home in my Dad’s van, to convert it into a wide space 4 element as described in “The big dummys guide to CB radio”. Unfortunately, the guide neglected to advise that the antenna needed to be at a decent height, and it wasn’t until I first started visiting Paul (now GM0OPK) at his high and sloping house in the south of Glasgow, just how badly my beam worked!
And who knows what would have happened if I hadn't received what every illegal CBer dreaded: the knock on the door from the DTI.