Welcome to my blog for electronics and amateur radio.

Category: Commentary

What is SKCC?

The short answer is that SKCC is possibly the greatest ham radio organization since the ARRL. The Straight Key Century Club or SKCC was created in 2006. History of the organization is well documented here: https://www.skccgroup.com/member_services/club_history/

SKCC is composed of tens of thousands of hams who love doing “manual”(1) Morse Code (CW), who recognize that the early stages of learning CW are not easy, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to help others learn this skill. Nobody is born with CW skill and SKCC members have not forgotten the time when they too were struggling with code at 3 to 5 words per minute. The SKCC segments in each band are safe places where beginners are welcome.

SKCC provides a wonderfully designed environment that promotes the use of CW. CW skill is built up by one thing only and that’s doing it — sending and receiving in a conversation. Reading about it, thinking about it, or owning lots of keys doesn’t improve your code. Nor does spinning across the band looking for a suitable contact improve your code. A lot of time can be wasted on the latter, time that would be better spent sending receiving code in conversation with a real person. SKCC provides all the ingredients for solving this problem.

SKCC has a large membership and an excellent sked / chat facility on the web where SKCC members can announce their presence and connect with other members for QSOs. There are many levels to membership that are earned by making contacts with other SKCC members. There is an extensive awards program for WAS, DXCC, QRP, types of keys you’ve mastered, ragchewing, and much more, all driven by making contacts. The result is that SKCC is a very active group where all day long you can immediately find people to talk to, people who are highly motivated to make a contact with you because they are chasing one goal or another and need to make contact with you. I’ve never encountered a group / environment that is as well thought out as SKCC and it works really well.

My own story of coming to SKCC is perhaps a bit unusual yet SKCC is just what I needed. In the 1990s I built up my Morse Code ability solely for the purpose of contesting. I drilled myself on copying callsigns and exchanges at high speed using programs like RUFZ. Sending was all done by computer with automated exchanges or occasional typing. I never had a single ordinary conversational QSO with anyone. In 1996 I quit contesting and for next 26 years used only digital modes or voice.

In 2021 I resolved to finally learn Morse Code properly and learn to converse. I joined SKCC in July of 2021 but still didn’t get on the air. I had to relearn code. I practiced extensively “offline” and listening to code on the air. Finally on March 3 of 2022, I took the plunge, extremely nervous that I would make a fool out of myself. Whoever heard of an ex-contester who can’t have a normal conversation on CW? Can’t even happen, right? Well it can.

As it turned out, my concerns and cause for nervousness were completely unfounded. Nobody made fun of my early fumbling and mistakes. Now that I’ve been in the SKCC group for a while and have become comfortable with conversational CW, I realize that nobody even noticed my early stumblings(2). I look back on it all today and see that I was a fool for not doing this long, long ago.

If you are hesitating about getting into Morse Code, believing you can’t do it or believing that people will roll their eyes if you make a mistake, don’t. Neither is true. Don’t be like me, putting it off for one reason or another. The human mind is great at coming up with endless excuses to procrastinate. Today, I’m kicking myself for not doing it years sooner. Just in the short time I’ve been participating with SKCC, I’ve run into several people who, like me, are kicking themselves for not doing it sooner. Please don’t become another one like me.

If you have any interest in “someday” learning CW, do it now. Join SKCC and jump in: https://www.skccgroup.com/  Do it now.


(1) By manual CW I mean doing it by hand using mechanical keys without electronic assistance. To log an “official” SKCC contact one must use a mechanical key such as a straight key, sideswiper or Vibroplex type bug. No electronic keyer paddles or keyboards.

(2) I’ve learned quite a number of surprising (to me) things about Morse Code. One of them is that copying code that is malformed or that contains errors is not difficult. My experience with code in the 1990s was exclusively with perfect machine generated code with no errors and perfect timing. Earlier this year when I first tried to copy code that was less than perfectly formed, it was jarring and in some cases uncopyable for me. I had to spin the dial. This prevented me from calling CQ for a while.

When searching for contacts I can pick and choose. When calling CQ, anyone might answer. What if I can’t copy them? That would be awful. But I noticed that the errors didn’t seem to prevent conversation with others. What’s going on here? Obviously, the problem was me, but how to fix it? Turns out the problem fixed itself, and quickly.

The human brain is an amazing thing. I discovered that as my skill improved, copying code with poor timing and lots of errors quickly became effortless. Someone might send the letter “P” but with a delayed final dit. Out of context it sounds like “WE”. But the brain copies conversational code IN context and it sounds like a P with a delayed final dit, not WE. It’s not a head-scratcher, it’s hardly noticeable. So all my early concerns and nervousness about sending and receiving imperfect code were unfounded. Don’t let perfection stop you. Nobody sends perfect code and it’s fine.

Getting Back on the Air Soon

Hello everyone. So, what have I been up to for most of 2019? No posts here because I’ve not been doing much ham radio besides working on ideas and designs. The short story is I’ve been working at cleaning up the mess from a rather disastrous 2018. And, much of the mess still remains.

The good news is that for the past couple months I’ve been finding some time here and there to work on ham radio pursuits. I’m also doing one of the best things for getting back into the hobby, and that’s “Elmering”. I’ve become friends with a new ham, KE8NBP, Jason, who recently passed his General. Yay, Jason! Jason’s father was a ham, so he already had a pretty good idea of what the hobby is about. Besides teaching him some basic physics, electricity, and stuff about transmission lines, antennas, and so forth, we’ve been talking about Field Day. We’re working towards putting together a 2B operation in some remote spot here in West Virginia. That would be fun.

Unfortunately, I left my entire ham station in storage in Montana, so I have to rebuild from scratch. But that’s something I’ve done a half dozen times now, so I’m experienced at it.

Jason and I are also considering doing additional portable operations, not just on Field Day. I mean, if we build a 2B Field Day setup, why not use it as much as possible? The main reason for this thinking is that Clarksburg, WV is an old Rust Belt town, falling apart, including the electric power distribution system. The electrical noise is the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere. Cracked insulators, arcing connections, and kudzu growing up power poles and sizzling on the wires are common. The last time I operated HF here, power line noise was never less than +10 dB over S9. Digital modes like PSK can manage to some degree with noise like that so that’s what I used. Since then, it’s gotten worse. Jason lives about two miles from me and has a terrible situation because 375 kV marching giants cross directly over his home. He can’t hear anything on HF with a +30 over noise level.

The only solution is some portable operations where it’s quieter. Maybe we could activate some rare counties and so forth.

Anyway, that’s the news from KW2P. More to follow as progress is made.

Wednesday Night 40m Hellschreiber Net

40 meters was being ornery tonight at net time of 9 PM EST. Here in West Virginia I had no copy, no signal at all on net control or anyone else except I had about a 50 percent copy on WB2HTO. I saw the name Leslie go by, and I believe I saw a QTH in AL. At 9:35 PM EST I checked in again and the band had greatly improved. I had net control, about 90 percent copy on WB2HTO but work got in the way and I did not have time to check in.

I’ll be there next week unless work overrides my plans. Thanks to W8LEW for running the net.

Happy 60th Birthday to the Transistor

I wrote this article in 2008 to honor of the 60th birthday of the transistor, here are some photos:

The First Transistor

The First Transistor
The First Transistor

Replica of the First Transistor

Replica of the First Transistor.
Replica of the First Transistor.

Diagram of the First Transistor

Diagram of the First Transistor.
Diagram of the First Transistor.

The first transistors were developed in 1947 at Bell Labs by Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley. They were made from germanium not silicon. Germanium was used through the 50’s and into the 60’s before being completely replaced by silicon transistors the we use today.

Those of you who are old enough will remember the first transistor radios in the 50’s. I do. Before long there was a competition over the number of transistors in the radio. Seven transistor radios, nine transistor radios–a big advertising deal was made over the number of transistors and the consumer was led to believe that more is better. Around the time I got into electronics, around 1959, 1960, I disassembled a 14 transistor radio and discovered that several of the transistors were fake! (had only two leads, or had the leads twisted together) A good radio can be built with six to nine transistors but they added several fake ones to boost the count and fool the public into thinking it was a better radio. This was a interesting lesson.

Throughout the 50’s and into the 60’s, transistors were made and packaged one at a time, and then assembled into circuits that you could see without your glasses and work on with your hands and a soldering iron. Plenty of transistors are still used as individual devices today, especially in high-power or radio circuits, but in 1959 Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments patented the first integrated circuit, where more than one transistor was fabricated simultaneously on the same substrate, along with components like resistors and capacitors to form a complete circuit that performed a function. The photolithography techniques used to “print” these circuits soon made it just as easy to make a miniature 20 transistor circuit as it was to make a single transistor and this was the way to the future. In 1971, Intel introduced the first microprocessor, a slow little 4-bit micro containing about 2,500 transistors. By 1975, Popular Electronics published the famous article that launched the personal computer revolution. It was an article on how to build a computer using Intel’s 8080 microprocessor. The 8080 contained about 4,000 transistors. Today, the microprocessor in your average personal computer contains billions of transistors. The simple transistor has come a long way.