How Morse Code, computers and hams came together

Computers have invaded all aspects of our lives. A weekend ago a friend and I participated in an amateur radio contest. The computer made this marathon almost a pleasure.

For those not familiar with amateur radio, there are over 300,000 of us, just in this country, that still use radios in our homes to talk to other amateur radio operators throughout the world. It is a hobby of ours. We are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and are able to communicate on channels set aside just for us. I have been a licensed amateur radio operator since 1948 though only recently have become active again.

On Saturday, June 23 at 11 a.m. local time my friend and I started in the contest. It was called Field Day and was made up of thousands of amateurs who took radio equipment out into field locations simulating emergency conditions. This could happen in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. In fact, in many places in the world, amateur radio operators offer the only means of communications in the event of such emergencies.

In our case, we located our equipment on the top of a mountain near Whitethorn, California. This is an hour into the woods west of Garberville, California, out in the middle of nowhere. To simulate emergency conditions, our equipment operated exclusively off of batteries, similar to those used in automobiles.

Since part of this exercise was the contest portion where all of the participants throughout the United States tried to contact as many of each other as possible, we connected a computer to our radios. The power for this small laptop computer came from a device called an inverter that changes battery voltage into the regular household voltage needed by the computer.

The computer was used to help us keep track of the number of other amateurs we contacted during the contest period, which was 24 hours straight, from 11 a.m. Saturday until 11 a.m. Sunday.

My friend and I both are Morse code operators, so all of our contacts were made using dots and dashes. Yes, there still are a few of us left who can listen to and understand Morse code.

At the end of the 24 hour period we had made contact with 626 other amateur Field Day operators. This number of contacts may place us in the top ten contestants in the country in our particular power class of station. Not bad for two of us operating 24 hours continuously.

The computer program was written by another amateur radio operator and is quite extensive and complete. It is similar to thousands of other specialized computer programs that are available to perform specific tasks. In our case, we used this program to keep track of our contacts and assure us that we didn't talk to the same radio station more than once. Without this program, like in the old days, we would have had to keep track of everything using pencil and paper, a difficult task when you talk to hundreds of others. The computer made our operation both possible and successful.

Incidentally, we operated continuously for the 24 hour period, relieving each other every hour on the hour. While this was guaranteed to keep us tired, being on a mountaintop in northern California has its compensations. In the middle of the night we were treated to a display of stars we don't see in Tustin. The Milky Way was clear and bright and the night was lit by the stars. Later we saw the sunrise.

So, computers and amateur radio came together. Like so many other things in our lives, the computer became a necessary tool for our enjoyment and successful completion or our task.

If you would like to hear more about our mountaintop adventure, or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center, 200 S. 'C' Street, this Friday, July 6, or any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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