For this and other reasons, it is probably true that more hams than ever are "appliance operators", that is, they simply buy their gear off the shelf, plug it in, and start communicating. And frankly, in my opinion there's nothing wrong with that. Let's face it, if we are going to draw some imaginary line in the sand and say, "Ham radio as a hobby was ruined when [fill in arbitrary event here]", then there's really no reason why the line shouldn't be drawn at spark gap transmitters and crystal receivers.
But that is not what ham radio has ever been about. It is intrinsically a technical hobby. If somebody likes working with older radios and decades-old technology, fine. But the hobby itself has always been about technical innovation and advancement of the state-of-the-art. (Frankly, a lot of the technical innovation available to hams is on the software side of things and that's something I'd like to explore in a future posting.) And, as always, it's also about having fun. There is plenty of that to be had, even if one must needs fall short of homebrewing a complete modern transceiver. Those with a hardware bent can still build lots of interesting and useful devices. Any given edition of the The ARRL Handbook and most issues of QST magazine have projects of varying degrees of difficulty that are well within the reach of most hams.
Here's a simple one that I did, a rig control cable for my Icom IC-746. These things will set you back $15-25, depending on where you buy them, but they're dirt simple to build. I just cobbled mine together on a piece of perf board, using parts I scrounged from other bits of trashed electronics. My total cost was exactly $0.00. I used the G3VGR circuit found here:
Super simple, super cheap, works great. (There's an even simpler circuit in the 2008 ARRL Handbook.) I have a similar interface for my Yaesu FT-897D. I control both rigs simultaneously from Ham Radio Deluxe. Cool.
I've also built computer-rig interfaces for digital modes like PSK-31.
Here's a list of stuff I'd like to build in the future:
- Remote antenna switch (I'm actually working on one right now)
- Battery charge controller for solar operation (I'm working on that now too)
- Balanced antenna tuner
- Audio break-out box
- Keying circuit for my Heathkit amplifier
- Active attenuator for foxhunting
- QRP CW transmitter (or perhaps even a transceiver)
- QRP antenna tuner
I'll keep you posted.
73 DE W9HQ