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The History of Amateur Radio

The 1980s : Computers, packet radio and space (XIV)

In 1964, ten years before the revolution of home computing and one generation before Internet, the famous David Sarnoff, who picked up in 1912 the signals of the "Olympic" ship about the Titanic disaster wrote : "The computer will become the hub of a vast network of remote data stations and information banks feeding into the machine at a transmission rate of a billion or more bits of information a second. Laser channels will vastly increase both data capacity and the speeds with which it will be transmitted. Eventually, a global communications network handling voice, data and facsimile will instantly link man to machine--or machine to machine--by land, air, underwater, and space circuits. [The computer] will affect man's ways of thinking, his means of education, his relationship to his physical and social environment, and it will alter his ways of living... [Before the end of this century, these forces] will coalesce into what unquestionably will become the greatest adventure of the human mind." Without the knowledge, his premonition will be confirmed a few decades later.

With the '80s, the way that radio amateurs work on the air goes gradually change, not their way to calling CQ but rather from a technical point of view. The slow but durable expansion of home computing and the widespread of Bulletin Board Systems (and later of Internet) all through the world as well as the distribution of new components, smaller, more powerful, faster and cheaper, are so many clues of an evolution that go gradually put in contact amateurs with new kind of wireless devices and new activities in which electronic, computing, and both wired and wireless networks are tightly connected.

1975 : birth of the first micro-computer

Long after the invention of the first transistor (1950), and the integrated circuit (1957), on January 1st, 1975 the US magazine "Popular Electronics" made publicity on its cover page for the very first micro-computer released by MITS, model Altair 8800. It was based on a processor 8080 made by Gordon E. Moore, cofounder of Intel company, and worked with only a 1 or 4 KB of RAM.

Immediately, Bill Gates, 19 old, sophomore at Harvard, and Paul Allen from Honeywell, imagine that it should be fine to add an operating system to this machine. They worked hard, and some time later they released the first version of MS-DOS. Allen, Gates and MITS signed a license agreement.

In November 1975, Southwest Scientific 6800, alias SWTPC-6800 computer was released. Associated to an external integrated keyboard-screen, it had a fantastic look. Rapidly the market exploded and it was the escalation : PET Commodore, Tandy Corp's TRS-80 Model 1 and other Apple I (1976) entered onto to scene.

On November 26, 1976, Paul Allen and Bill Gates registered the name of their new company at the Office of Secretary State of New Mexico : "Microsoft". A giant was born.

The first IBM personal computer, model 5150 released on August 12, 1981. Still in the shadow were Intel and Microsoft. Doc IBM.

In 1981, MS-DOS already ran on more than 150 million micro-computers ! Microsoft showed a revenue of $7.5 million, or 3 times more than the previous year, and had 40 employees, or 30% more than one year ago !

On August 12, 1981, IBM, the largest manufacturer of mini and mainframes released the first personal computer (PC), the famous IBM 5150 model. Here the advertising of this first PC XT. It was built in collaboration with two external contractors,... Gorden E. Moore, and Bill Gates (welcome back).

Thanks to its Intel 8088 processor and a smart operating system PC-DOS 1.0, the IBM computer ran at 4.77 MHz and was able to execute external commands like input data from a keyboard, display them on screen, reading or saving data on floppy disk or print data.

With a memory of only 16 KB then 64 KB extensible to 640 KB, and equiped with a low resolution graphic card (CGA), it was less powerful than a modern pocket calculator ! Its weight was 12 kg for a price equivalent to several months of salaries (1565$ or 3500$ actualised) !

During a few years it was only used by professionals but by 1983, thanks to the passion of its users (the spreadsheet "Visicalc" did a strong impression), amateurs began to interest in this new invention.

But IBM managers didn't believe in their invention and didn't take exclusivity rights about the work of their contractors. So Gordon Moore has continued to create and sell new Intel processors while Bill Gates developed his own business in creating new operating systems and office software. Microsoft released the first version of Windows in 1985 and next year his company entered in the Stock Exchange. Immediately Bill Gates became a billionaire. Today Microsoft is one of the largest company in the world and Bill Gates is the first fortune in the world... In this venture, IBM really lost one of the market of the century.

Following Moore' law stating that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months, the technology rapidly evolved in some decades. In 2006, so 25 years after the first PC, the fastest home-computer ran at 3.8 GHz (AMD Athlon 64 X2, 170$ or 190€) and executes 3.8 billion operations per second ! The cheapest computer able to run it costs about 1000€, or 3 to 4 times cheaper than one generation ago for performances over thousand times higher !

If we compare the evolution of computing since 1981, the 8088 processor took advantage of HMOS technology, used 29000 transistors, 3 microns N-channels, a 8-bit architecture and 40 pins fed in 5 V. By comparison, a Pentium IV processor running at 3.4 GHz sold 25 years later is five times larger, uses VLSI technology, holds 175 million transistors, has 423 pins, 0.18 micron channels, a 32-bit architecture and is fed in 1.75 V. The evolution is prodigious. Today one sells 230 million computers per year, a quarter of the production of the last 25 years !

At the end of the 1970s, at a time where most schools began to withdraw their IBM 370 mainframes and their noisy punched card readers, the widespread development of the first Local Area Networks (LAN) allowed in the 1980s to many amateurs, including your devoted, to buy their first Personal Computers (IBM PC, Apple II, etc) and companies to invest in their first servers, terminals and workstations.

In parallel, shyly a new way to communicate was developing since 1969, a small network of computers called arpanet that will give birth to Internet. Due to its importance, we will come back on this revolutionary media during the next decade.

Packet Radio

We explained in the previous page that packet transmission was invented in 1977 by the "Groupe de Montréal". In the next years members of the american Amateur Radio Research and Development Corporation (AMRAD) wanted to develop this invention.

On March 1980, AMRAD, in collaboration with AMSAT organized the first amateur radio computer networking conference. At the same time the Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) prepared the first terminal node controllers. It was followed by the development by the Vancouver Amateur Digital Communication Group (VADCG) of the first Terminal Node Controller (TNC), also known as the VADCG board, the future Pakratt and other Rigblaster interfaces.

Above, in 1986 the company Advanced Electronic & Applications, Inc. (AEA) introduced the venerable PAKRATT PK-232 packet interface or TNC. It does packet at 300 and 1200 bauds, RTTY, AMTOR/SITOR, PACTOR, and CW. This TNC includes a maildrop that works in Packet, PACTOR and AMTOR modes so that you can access to a personal mailbox from anywhere in the world. This model was withdrawed in 1996 and the patent sold to Timewave. This TNC can till be purchased on secondhand for about $50. Below, since 1998 Timewave provides a similar model, Pakratt PK-232 DSP supporting RTTY-Baudot, RTTY-ASCII, AMTOR/SITOR, PACTOR, Packet at 300 bps HF and 1200 bps VHF, FAX HF, GPS, NAVTEX, TDM, and CW. It includes a DSP filter to reduce QRM and a sound card to work in PSK31 or SSTV. Since 2011 it includes an USB connection too. It cost about $535 power supply included. A true Rolls !

The TNC allows any computer to use your radio to talk to another computer, thus combining two popular hobbies : computing and amateur radio. The first TNC included a low speed modem working at 300 or 1200 bauds (bits/sec or bps) associated to a CPU and a circuitry to convert computer signals to packed radio protocol (AX.25) via the serial RS-232 communication port. Since that time TNCs improved, their speed can reach 1 Mbits/sec and some are equipped with an USB port.

Why such an interest in packet radio ? First, this is a new mode that some qualify as "improving the radio art". Then it provides a lot of different operating opportunities. In the '80s, is was limited to a TNC linking a computer to a VHF transceiver, base or hand-held. Then it was interfaced to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) so that amateurs can send and receive personal message to and from their colleagues. Today packet radio is interfaced with many services including DX Clusters, chat bridges, networking, emergency communications, satellite operations, APRS, and much more.

The advantage of packet is to communicate error-free data as well as to support the exchange of binary data (e.g. images) between nodes. But packet has a drawback. If the signal is too weak, if there are multiple-paths propagation or too much QRM on one or another side of the link, the fading and other noise will drastically decrease the efficiency of this mode of transmission. If you want a efficient communication means able to break through the chaotic HF world, you need something more reliable. Yet packet is always alive since the '70s, and is still used for both DXing on HF and on most VHF networks, although most of its data are now traveling wia  the Internet.

Today, digital communications include not less than a ten of modes to name Packet, PSK31, PACTOR, Hellschreiber, etc, so many modes rather amazing that we will review in the course of the next decade, let's time to time...


In 1982, modifying the SITOR protocol, Peter Martinez, alias G3PLX developed AMTOR (SITOR-B), not the Edgar Rice Burroughs' Venusian planet, but rather the first HF digital mode using an error-free protocol as fantastic as the cartoon of the same name ! Gradually, most countries allowed amateurs to use digital modes on all frequencies.

At left, the original "AMTOR", in fact the name that Edgar Rice Burroughs given to his Venusian planet in 1931 ! At right a C.W. and an AMTOR modulations as recorded with a spectogram.

AMTOR means "Amateur Teleprinting Over Radio". During about 10 years its distinctive and sympathetic chirp-chirp signal sent at 100 bauds was familiar on HF bands until it was superseded by faster and more reliable modes. Better than RTTY, AMTOR incorporated a simple error detection  technique, and performed quite well even under poor traffic conditions. AMTOR worked in two modes : ARQ and FEC that we will see again in several other digital modes like PACTOR or MFSK16.

In a few words, ARQ stands for "Automatic Repeat Query". This mode, sometimes called Mode A, is the typical chirp-chirp sound of AMTOR. Data are sent in groups of 3 characters 5 bits long (same as for RTTY), completed with two additional control bits. Each character sent is represented by at set of  4 marks and three spaces. If more than 7 bits are sent, the system considers that there is an error and ask to resend the 3 character group again. This ARQ signal is transmitted continuously to maintain the link up

In FEC mode, that stands for "Forward Error Correcting", sometimes called Mode B, the transmitter sends each character twice. The receiving station does not acknowledge the data received as for ARQ. If a station receives both instances of a character, that character is printed, otherwise the system prints an error symbol. The missing character is not resent. Drawback, the two stations need to keep in phase with each other so each FEC transmission is started with several sets of "phasing pairs" and these are sent at regular intervals even while there is no data being transmitted. FEC mode works better than RTTY but its error detection is not as reliable as the one incorporated in the ARQ mode.

SAREX, ARISS and amateur satellites

At the begin of the '80s, AMSAT had launched over 20 ham satellites on orbit without to mention SAREX (Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment) and other participations as consulting for ESA. Today SAREX has been superceded by ARISS, Amateur Radio aboard the International Space Station.

ARISS new logo

Most AMATEUR OSCAR satellites, AO for short, are orbiting at high altitudes between 400 and 1500 km above ground (Phase III) and soon on the geostationary orbit (Phase IV). The very sophisticated AO-40 for example launched in 2000, is one of the rare amateur satellite to be placed on a Molniya-like elliptical, inclined orbit ranging between 810 and about 59000 km. It is also equipped with a color camera, offering us some fine pictures of Earth seen from orbit (see 2000s).

In 1980, the Russian ham community entered in the course in launching his first amateur satellite Phase-3A. It was the third-generation of a complex spacecraft, using higher radio frequencies, and flying on Molniya orbits. Unfortunately, the second Ariane and Phase-3A were destroyed on May 23, 1980, due to a  failure during liftoff from Kourou. Immediately AMSAT decided to replace it with a new Phase-3B satellite that requested about 3 years to build.

In the forecoming years, a ten other satellites were launched to name several UoSATs, Radio Sputniks and Iskra satellites. Some were launched in a join project with AMSAT like UoSAT-OSCAR 9 (UO-9) in 1981, Phase-3B renamed AMSAT-OSCAR 10  (AO-10) in 1983, UO-11 in 1984, AO-13 in 1988, etc. The Japanese ham community participated also in this adventure in launching Fuji-OSCAR 12 (FO-12) in 1986. 

The year 1981 was a record year. Not less than 8 amateur satellites were launched successfully. This record was only broken in the '90s. All these activities showed clearly the degree of commitment by radio amateurs to exploit the latest space technologies. But didn't limit their interest to this technology and, in parallel, the computer age was rising.

New EME test at Arecibo

After the success of the first EME transmissions of 1965, and the first message sent to any potentiel extraterrestrial intelligence in 1974, on October 1980, radioastronomers at Arecibo did a new EME test during 45 minutes with amateurs in North America in CW and phone modes. Reports were ranging between 55 and 59, while usually the voice of the contact is barely noticeable against the background noise. 

For this scarce experiment the transmitter of Arecibo was adjusted to only 40 W but, due to the huge gain of the parabolic dish, the radiation power was equivalent to... 40,000 kW ! Not surprising that in such conditions all amateurs received KP4I/KP4EOR loud and clear !

In 1989, on the microwave bands, Willy Bauer, LX1DB, completed the first 1296 MHz WAC. Also Dave Chase, KY7B, completed the first VUCC on 300 GHz by using lasers operating on 678 GHz.. The same year ARRL celebrated its 75th anniversary all year long through its magazine, QST.

Birth of TP2CE

The Council of Europe's Radio Club was launched on June 1, 1986 and its first programme was broadcast on June 26, 1986.

TP3CE QSL card.

The official call sign is TP2CE, however, during special events or commemorations of this European organisation, a special call sign can be used like TP3CE displayed at left. 

The Council of Europe was set up in 1949. This is a political intergovernmental organisation based in Strasbourg (F) which groups most European democratic states, including many of the eastern republics. It aims to open doors to every democratic country in Europe and to promote a joint effort to achieve greater social, political and cultural cohesion.

The European Convention on Human Rights is the most important amongst some 170 international treaties. It has established a sophisticated monitoring and protection system unique in the world.

The Council of Europe has released an European World Wide Award, EWWA. The DX entities members of EWWA are identical to the ARRL DXCC list at a few exceptions. See the next file for the complete list of EWWA members.

ARRL's petition

On the regulatory side, there were years, even decades (the '60s) that administrations of european countries had allowed their code-free licensees to work on the air on all bands above 30 MHz. It was for example the case for all "F1" in France or the "ON1" in Belgium. One more time the american FCC always denied this privilege to his nationals, even to Novices or Technicians. It was time that things change !

In July 1989, the ARRL Board of Directors voted unanimously a petition addressed to FCC in favor of a code-free ham license allowing the access to all bands and modes over 30 MHz. But FCC will not grant the permission until 1991.

At last, recall that the idea of the GSM is born in the late '80s. But as the technology required several years to develop, the first real and operational GSM network was only available in 1992. We will thus develop this story in the course of the next decade.

Next chapter

The 1990s : PSK31 and clusters

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