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Vintage amateur radio

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"Radio shack" of amateur radio operator K9OA featuring vintage gear.

Vintage amateur radio is a subset of amateur radio hobby where enthusiasts collect, restore, preserve, build, and operate amateur radio equipment from bygone years, such as those using vacuum tube technology. Popular modes of operation include speaking over amplitude modulation (AM), and communicating using Morse code through continuous wave (CW) radiotelegraphy. Some enthusiasts have interest in owning, restoring and operating vintage military and commercial radio equipment, much of it more than 40 years old. Some undertake to construct their own gear, known in ham slang as homebrewing, using vintage parts and designs. A number of amateur radio clubs and organizations sponsor contests, events, and swap meets that cater to this specialized aspect of the hobby.


Vintage radio enthusiasts contend that the precise digital frequency displays and state-of-the-art, microprocessor-based features of modern amateur equipment lacks the aesthetic appeal and "soul" of amateur electronic gear from the vacuum tube era.[1][2] Additionally, many find satisfaction in taking commercially-made amateur equipment from the 1930s-1970s, often characterized as boat anchors by US amateurs because of their large size and weight, and carefully restoring it.[3][4][2]

Audio recording of voice transmission by amateur station N3WWL using vacuum tube gear

The proliferation of integrated circuits in modern amateur radio equipment has made amateurs nostalgic for vacuum tube-based designs. Radios that contain solid state parts do not require frequent tinkering, whereas vacuum tube radio equipment is less predictable, lending routine radio contacts more excitiement, and giving vintage amateur radio devotees a more primitive experience.[3] Enthusiasts claim that boat anchors sound better than modern equipment, saying that the tube audio from vintage gear is "warmer" and more aesthetically pleasing.[5] Some hobbyists see vintage radio operation as a valuable asset to help preserve the history and heritage of radio for future generations, and may assist in the restoration and operation of vintage radio equipment for historical exhibits, museums, and museum ships or aircraft.[6][3] An example of this is a group of amateurs who restored, maintain, and operate the Musick Memorial Radio Station which is recognized as an engineering heritage site.[7]

AM activity[edit]

"AM'er" Joe Walsh WB6ACU on the air
Audio recording of Joe Walsh on the air

Amplitude modulation (AM) was once the main voice mode in amateur radio before being superseded by Single-sideband modulation (SSB). But AM has recently become a nostalgic specialty interest on the shortwave ham bands.[5] Rock star Joe Walsh is an advocate of amateur radio and a vintage gear collector.[8] A number of AMers operate vintage vacuum tube transmitters in conjunction with separate receivers. Some operators have even obtained old AM broadcast transmitters from radio stations that have upgraded their equipment. Others build their equipment from scratch (called homebrewing) using both modern and vintage-era components.[9]

In the United States, amateur radio AM activity can be found on mediumwave, MF and shortwave, HF frequencies (in MHz) which include 1.880-1.890, 3.885, 7.290, 14.286, 21.390, and 29.000-29.200, and feature swap nets that cater to interest in vintage AM equipment.[1][5]

AM operation has drawn interest people from outside the hobby, such as shortwave radio listeners using inexpensive receivers available to the public. While focused on simple technologies from the past, AMers may also mix state-of-the-art technology with their vintage interests, such as experimenting with synchronous detection to enable reception of AM signals free of static and fading.[1]

Conversations (QSO's in ham slang) are typically configured as "roundtables" consisting of several participants. Interested newcomers are usually encouraged to switch their modern transceivers to AM mode, introduce themselves, and join the conversation.[1]

Classic gear[edit]

EF Johnson Viking Ranger transmitter, circa 1958
Atlas 215X solid state transceiver circa 1977

Amateur radio equipment of past eras like the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that are separate vacuum tube transmitters and receivers unlike modern transceivers, are an object of nostalgia, and many see rehabilitation and on-air use by enthusiasts.[10]

Vintage operating activity is not limited to the AM mode. Many devotees use their "classic" amateur gear from vintage-era American manufacturers like Eico, EF Johnson, National, Heathkit, Hammarlund, Drake, Collins, WRL, Swan, Signal/One, Lafayette and Hallicrafters, to make radiotelegraphy (CW), SSB, FM and RTTY two-way contacts.[11][12]

Some enthusiasts define the age parameters of vintage or classic gear as “old enough to exhibit the glow of vacuum tubes”, but the designation may include some early solid state gear.[13][11][12]

Some even sub-specialize in military radio collecting and undertake to restore and operate surplus communications equipment, much of it dating back to World War II, from AN/ARC-5 command sets and US Signal Corps SCR-300 and SCR-536 walkie talkies to exotic gear like the British Paraset, a small espionage transceiver supplied to Resistance forces in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.[14][15][12][16]

Eddystone EC10 shortwave receiver circa 1967

There is considerable interest in vintage military and commercial radio equipment among EU amateur radio operators, especially gear from British manufacturers such as Marconi, Racal, Eddystone, Pye, and a variety of Russian, German, Canadian, British RAF and British Army equipment, such as the well known Wireless Set No. 19.[17][18][19]

Glowbug transmitter hand built by AI2Q

"Glowbugs" are a related aspect of vintage radio and harken back to the early days of amateur radio, when the majority of hams hand-crafted their own equipment. Smaller in size than "boat anchors", "glowbug" is a term used by US amateurs to describe a simple home-made tube-type radio set. The majority of glowbug transmitters are designed to be used in the CW radiotelegraphy mode.[12]

Glowbug transmitters having simple, tube-based designs were part of many beginner ham stations. According to author Richard H. Arland, interest in glowbugs has increased among QRP enthusiasts and others with a penchant for constructing their own equipment, and many hams are assembling simple HF CW transmitters. Amateur radio Glowbug enthusiasts can often be heard communicating on the shortwave bands via CW using Morse code.[12]

Clubs, events, and publications[edit]

Vintage gear at station W6OM

Many vintage radio clubs sponsor special events and contests, such as the "AM QSO Party" sponsored by the Antique Wireless Association, the "Heavy Metal Rally" sponsored by Electric Radio Magazine, and the "Classic Radio Exchange". Such operating events are not traditional ham radio contests inasmuch as they are a night of friendly QSO’s using home-built, restored commercial ham, broadcast or military equipment.[11]

The Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society and The AM Radio Network's[20] "Expedition to Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse" in Chesapeake Bay, MD commemorated the history of lighthouses with a vintage special event station using the call sign K3L.[21][22]

Britain's Vintage and Military Amateur Radio Society (affiliated with the Radio Society of Great Britain) coordinates regular on-air "nets" where enthusiasts gather as well as massive technical files for the benefit of members.[17] The Surplus Radio Society, a Dutch society of collectors of old ex-military radio equipment and other nostalgic receivers and transmitters holds weekly radio activity nets every Sunday on 3.575 MHz CW / 3.705 MHz AM and sponsors several flea markets and exchange fairs each year.[23]

The Wireless Set No. 19 Group, with members virtually worldwide, caters to those who collect, restore and/or operate vintage military communications equipment, with emphasis on the World War II Wireless Set No. 19 radio. Many members are Amateur Radio operators who use the equipment for on-air contacts with others.[24]

The ARRL published "Vintage Radio", a collection of articles from QST magazine describing vintage equipment, restoration, and operation.[22]

The Antique Wireless Association of Southern Africa is devoted to the "maintenance and preservation of our amateur heritage" for enthusiasts of older types of short wave radios and amateur equipment, and maintains a museum exhibit in Johannesburg.[25]


Collins S-Line, featuring separate transmitter, receiver and power supply
6146B transmitting tubes

Repair and restoration of vintage amateur radio equipment may involve replacing vacuum tubes, reforming electrolytic capacitors if needed, replacing any faulty resistors, replacing two-wire power cords with three-wire cords except on transformerless AC/DC radios, and receiver alignment as necessary. [26]

Since vacuum tube gear contains potentially lethal voltages, a number of safety measures, such as discharging power-supply capacitors and keeping one hand away from the chassis when working on powered-up gear, are commonly employed. Some older equipment has a direct connection to the metal chassis on one side of the incoming AC power line, which results in the entire unit becoming electrified if the power plug is inserted backwards. Many older radios, such as vintage receivers, are not safety-fused.[4][27] In addition, those who collect, restore or otherwise use vintage radio equipment may unknowingly encounter harmful radioactive substances, PCBs, and asbestos.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Courson, Paul (February 1993). "Classic Rigs and Amplitude Modulation: Friendly, Nostalgic Radio Partners" (PDF). QST Magazine. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  2. ^ a b "What is Ham Radio? 1.5.8 Vintage Radio". The ARRL Handbook For Radio Communications (91st ed.). American Radio Relay League. 2014. p. 1.17.
  3. ^ a b c Haring, Kristen (2007). Ham radio's technical culture. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-08355-3. Retrieved June 19, 2010.
  4. ^ a b Andrew Emmerson (28 September 1998). Electronic Classics: Collecting, Restoring and Repair. Newnes. pp. 326–. ISBN 978-0-7506-3788-6.
  5. ^ a b c Courson, Paul. "Introducing: The AM Radio Network. Fans of vintage gear recruit members for on-the-air nostalgia, complete with AM carriers" (December 1995 QST Volume 79, Number 12). American Radio Relay League. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  6. ^ Kato, Hiroki (April 2016). "The Radios that Started and Ended World War II in the Pacific" (PDF). QST. ARRL. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  7. ^ Astwood, Karen (5 October 2015). Musick Memorial Radio Station, Auckland (PDF) (Report). IPENZ Engineering Heritage Register Report. Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  8. ^ "Eagles Guitarist Joe Walsh, WB6ACU, Promotes Amateur Radio in Media Announcements". American Radio Relay League. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  9. ^ "Radio World Online". 2001-06-20. Archived from the original on 2010-09-01. Retrieved 2011-03-12.
  10. ^ Thurber, Karl T. (November 1999). "Classic Jurassic, Part 1". CQ Amateur Radio. 55 (11): 14.
  11. ^ a b c "Classic Exchange -- A Vintage Radio Contest". American Radio Relay League. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  12. ^ a b c d e Richard H. Arland (16 August 2007). ARRL's Low Power Communication: The Art and Science of Qrp. American Radio Relay League. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-0-87259-104-2.
  13. ^ Veras, Joe (January 2008). "Boatanchor Heresy". CQ Amateur Radio. 64 (1): 74.
  14. ^ Ingram, Dave (March 2005). "Covert Classics: A Spy Radio Special". CQ Amateur Radio. 61 (3): 36.
  15. ^ Kato, Hiroki. "Replicating the prison camp radio and the Paraset spy transceiver" (First published in Electric Radio Magazine, Nov. 2012). Palo Alto Amateur Radio Association. pp. 2–8. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  16. ^ "Military Radio Collectors Group". Midwest Military Radio Collectors Group. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  17. ^ a b "The Vintage & Military Amateur Radio Society". The Vintage & Military Amateur Radio Society. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  18. ^ Kelly, Sam (May 1969). "Converting The No. 19 Sets". CQ Amateur Radio. 25 (5): 25.
  19. ^ Kelly, Sam (May 1969). "Surplus British Electronics". CQ Amateur Radio. 25 (5): 25.
  20. ^ "AM Radio Network". Retrieved 2011-03-12.
  21. ^ "K3L information". Retrieved 2011-03-12.
  22. ^ a b "Antique/Vintage Radio". American Radio Relay League. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  23. ^ "The Surplus Radio Society: a Dutch society of collectors". The Surplus Radio Society. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  24. ^ "The Wireless-Set-No19 Group, Royal Signals". Royal Signals, Keith Watt RN (Rtd.). Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  25. ^ "Antique Wireless Association of Southern Africa". Z50AWA. AWASA. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  26. ^ "26.11 Repair and Restoration of Vintage Equipment". The ARRL Handbook For Radio Communications (91st ed.). American Radio Relay League. 2014. p. 26.36.
  27. ^ Joseph J. Carr (22 November 1990). Old Time Radios! Restoration and Repair. McGraw Hill Professional. ISBN 978-0-07-150766-0.
  28. ^ "Safety Hazards in Radio and TV Repair". British Vintage Wireless Society (BVWS). Retrieved 24 November 2019.

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