Microwave Society hones the art of communication

By: Gregg Patton

Published the San Bernardino Sun, June 24, 2001 in his column "Line Nowhere Else"

Reprinted with Permission

After several months building a two-way radio from scratch, Mel Swanberg was ready to try out his handiwork.

"This was a radio I designed myself with surplus parts," said the 41-year old Riverside man. "I took it up on a mountain, and with very low power, made contact with someone else over quite a respectable distance.

"I would say that was one of those ultimate moments."

If you're thinking a cell phone would have been so much easier, you're probably not a candidate for the San Bernardino Microwave Society.

But in a day and age when e-mail, fax machines and wireless telephones can put people instantly and easily in touch with each other around the world, Swanberg's anachronistic exercise still holds a fascination for some ham radio enthusiasts.

Not just any ham radio enthusiasts, though. The name "microwave society" may conjure up images of people zapping frozen burritos for a quick meal, but it dates back to 1955 when the club was founded in Ontario by ham operators who specialized in communicating over higher, microwave frequencies.

Their niche was innovation and pushing technology. After 46 years, society members still pride themselves on their ability to cannibalize non-radio equipment and turn it into communication devices.

From beer cans to automatic door sensors, radar detection devices and burglar alarms, microwavers have always taken what's available and put it to use.

The majority of "hams" still operating are those who enjoy sitting at their home station "rag chewing" with other hams in far-flung places. Microwavers tend to build, experiment and climb peaks to test their stuff.

"There's no off-the-shelf radio equipment for what we do," said society president Doug Millar of Long Beach. "Most microwave guys spend a lot of time building, not talking, then going out three or four times a year to the contests."

At the contests, operators test themselves and their devices, often trying to set long-distance records over specific high frequency bands. They are usually dealing in hundreds of miles, not international distances.

That said, one of the trendiest of current techniques of "moon bouncing" &endash; sending signals off the moon to be retrieved nearby.

The moon also holds a special place in the Microwave Society lore. During the Apollo moon missions, a coupe of club members piggy-backed on some of NASA's proudest moments to impress their peers. They retrieved signals from the spacecraft. On of them was Bill Burns a Colton native who was working who was working in communications for the Navy at the China Lake Naval Weapons Station near Ridgecrest. The other was Dick Kolbly of Barstow, who was a communications expert working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Goldstone space tracking station near Fort Irwin. Both are still active club members.

"We had access to the missions' schedules and frequencies," recalled Burns, who is retired and lives in Ridgecrest. "I had acquired an 8-foot parabolic dish, which I put on a trailer and hauled over to Dick's place."

It was early in 1971, and Apollo 14 was orbiting the moon. They set the dish up on Kolbly's rooftop, dialed in the frequency, aimed it at the craft and made contact.

That summer when the Apollo 15 mission was under way, Burns did it again from his back yard in Ridgecrest.

"We were using old tubes and things &endash; the only thing you could hear was a tone," he said. "We didn't have enough antenna to demodulate the signal into voices, but it was definitely them."

The society traces its roots to a coupe of innovators, Bill Baird of Ontario and Donovan "Tommy" Thompson of Corona. They called the first meeting to order at an Ontario school in April 1955. Then, as now, society members came from al over the Southland, mainly from military, aerospace and electronics fields. The club took its name simply from the location of that first meeting, in San Bernardino County.

Members now assemble the first Thursday of each month in Corona, coming from San Diego, beach cities, the High Desert and elsewhere. A few stay in touch from out of state.

Thompson, who died a few years ago, is credited with developing something he called the Pola-pexer, and antenna that could and receive signals at the same time.

Microwave communicators are all using a technology based on what Thompson did 50 years ago, said the club's historian, Dave Laag of Moreno Valley, even though technology and techniques have continued to evolve.

Innovation and experimentation are still what the club is about. Laag said society members are "more interested in talking a short distance on a high frequency approaching light than talking around the globe."

He described the hobby's appeal like this: "There are some very educated people in this world who can tell you why something works, but they can't put a screw in a piece of wood. We talke what we learn and put something together."

Then they test. Peak-to-peak and peak-to-home trials are favored. Microwavers know the Southland's mountain ranges and hilltops as well as recreational hikers. A typical outing, said Swanberg, would be his recent trek up to Butler's Peak near Big Bear Lake. He hoped to set a distance record over a certain frequency with friends located on Corey Peak in Nevada.

No luck, but there's always tomorrow.

Not surprisingly, most of the Microwave Society's 90-plus members work in the field of electronics and communications. Swanberg run the in-house, microwave communications shop for Riverside County.

There are exceptions, including president Millar, who is a teacher. But virtually all of them have had at least an amateur's interest in ham radio operations from childhood.

There was a time when ham radio operators were regarded as a communications safety network, everyday people who could spring heroically into action in case a disaster wiped out mainstream phone lines, radio stations and television stations.

New technology, like cell phones and improved emergency plans by public safety agencies would seem to have negated some of the romance of hams coming to the rescue. But it's still part of their essences, knowing that modern technology hasn't produced, yet, the perfect cell phone that never goes down.

"The basic rationale still exists," said Millar. "We are a pool of trained radio operators - each person in his own station - that would be ready to communicate in the case of an emergency."

You can take a station anywhere in the world, set it up and establish links in almost no time."

Although that might be a little bit too pedestrian for microwavers, the scavenger kings of the hobby. Burns, 59, laughed when it was suggested that the society's name might confuse today's average citizen who only knows microwaves as ovens.

"We've taken ovens apart, picked out the tube and piled circuitry around it," said Burns. "There's a lot of power in there. You don't want to get your body in the way of it."

That is, it's not something you want to try at home, even if they do.


Gregg Patton's 'Like Nowhere Else' appears Sundays. He also writes a column that runs Tuesdays and Thursdays. Readers may write him at The Sun, 399 N. D St., San Bernardino 92401, call him at (909) 386-3856 or fax him at (909) 885-8741.

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