4 March 2006
Updated: 6 December 2006
The mailman delivered it, as there was no UPS, DHL or other home delivery services at the time. As I opened the box and starred into it, I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of components and the assembly instruction manual was 20 or more pages long. A Heathkit DX-20 amateur radio transmitter kit, tubes and all. I was 13 years old at the time, almost 47 years ago as of this date.
When the box arrived, I had already acquired a Hallicrafters S-100 all band radio receiver and had been stringing together various electric or radio devices since I was 8 years old. At 13, I had an amateur radio operator’s license of the novice class, limiting me to transmit only in Morse code.
With the box emptied onto a card table, soldering iron in hand, instruction manual open, I began the process of assembling the kit. Every moment that I was not in school or studying for school, I spent working on that kit. Finally, it was complete and with some anxiety, I plugged in the Morse code key, the antenna connection and finally the power cord. No one was at home when I flipped on the switch and watched exactly nothing happen at all. Nothing! My heart sank. What would I do now? I had bought the kit, as I could not afford to buy a manufactured transmitter or transceiver. I had no test equipment to speak of and my actual knowledge of the design of transmitter circuits was limited to theory.
Luckily for me, there was an amateur radio (ham) club in my hometown and at the next meeting, I took the DX-20 and ask around if anyone would be willing to look at it for me. One fellow in a wheelchair offered and I put the DX-20 into his car, hoping that I had not made a major mistake in the wiring and had destroyed many expensive components.
The week between the time I loaded the dead DX-20 into the wheelchair amateur radio operator’s car and the next radio club meeting was one of the longest in my short life at the time. At 7:30, Thursday night, my Dad drove me to the ham clubhouse and waited for me. The wheelchair ham was there and grinning from ear to ear, he said, “One bad solder joint, that was all it was!” I could not believe it! And so home I went, hauled he DX-20 upstairs to my bedroom, plugged in everything and turned it on.
Beginning that night, I used all 50 watts output of the DX-20 to make contacts with other amateur radio operators in over 30 countries and 40 of the 50 states, all in Morse code.
When I upgraded to a General class operator’s license at age 15, I built from scratch, a one-tube grid modulator and made the DX-20 into an AM voice transmitter. Now down to about 5 watts total output power, contacts were harder to make on the crowded amateur radio bands but in the dead of the night on the East coast, if I was lucky, now and again, I could reach across the Atlantic Ocean and work another ham in France or Germany, voice to voice.
The Heathkit Company is no longer in business or at least no longer makes or sells amateur radio kits but if you look around, you can still find an assembled Heathkit transmitter for sale at ham fests or on the Internet.
I have never figured out where confidence comes from but perhaps in my case, assembling that DX-20 kit was some part of my current confidence base.