LIMERICK – Rex Harper is the kind of do-it-yourselfer who likes to tinker with things. A native of Cape Elizabeth, he taught himself computer programming, and made a good living for a while running the first retail computer store in Maine, back when Apple was just bursting onto the scene.
Through the years, Harper, 62, has also made a pretty decent living working on small startup companies, making everything from counterfeit-proof poker chips to water filtration systems to computer systems specially designed for the disabled. Many of the latter systems, he said, he designed himself.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “I’m a thinker-upper.”
These days, he lives in Limerick with his wife and daughter, and keeps himself busy running a side business out of a metal Quonset hut on his property – which he built himself – making and selling ham radio kits.
Yes, ham radio. Ham radio uses designated frequencies only for private, non-commercial use. For those unfamiliar with the hobby, the words might call to mind a metal box the size and weight of a large wall safe, full of confusing dials and knobs. For a time, that was what the hobby was all about. But that was when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and like all electronics, amateur radio sets have gotten smaller and cheaper.
In his workshop, Harper showed off one of his latest sets, what he calls “tuna can” radios. He gets the cans by the thousand from a manufacturer, uses an old manual pressing machine to put the tops on, but not before he fills them with all the electronics anyone needs to get on the air. They range from $10 to $50, not the most expensive of hobbies.
For Harper, the challenge is to come up with more and more compact versions of the radio sets. He laughed at the old-fashioned, boxy radios of the 1950s, noting that current ham radio buffs call those “boat anchors” because of how heavy they were, up to 300 pounds.
“You can get a hernia picking those things up,” he said.
Along with the tuna cans, Harper has another radio small enough to fit into an Altoids tin, and someday he plans to have one small enough to fit inside the case of a Zippo lighter, and just as easy to operate.
He even started up a radio club about a year ago, called the Limerick Amateur Radio Klatch, or LARK. As far from the mainstream as this sounds, Harper is not alone. He may have only a handful of members right now, but according to the National Association of Amateur Radio’s website, there are at least seven other clubs scattered between Portland and Portsmouth, N.H.
Allen Pitts, the association’s media and public relations manager, said when the radio industry was in its infancy, all radio was “amateur.” With the advent of the Internet, cell phones and other modern communications technology, interest in amateur radio has ebbed and flowed but never really gone away. Today, Pitts said, there are more than 700,000 amateur radio licensees in the U.S. alone, and an estimated 2.5 million worldwide.
Just last year, he said, there were 30,000 new licenses issued in America. Getting a license takes little more than reading a short book, and taking and passing a test that costs no more than $15, Pitts said.
“The idea is to get people in to get their toes in the water, and they learn from there,” Pitts said.
But why do it at all, with the Internet a few mouse clicks away or in the palm of one’s hand? Pitts said some people like the idea of having emergency communications available. Cell phones are nice, Pitts said, but most cell phone carriers do not expect all their subscribers to be using their phones at the same time, so most networks aren’t built to handle more than a small percentage of calls at a time.
That’s been a problem during a disaster, Pitts said, such as the recent earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. At that time, Pitts said, cell phone networks were either wiped out by damage or overloaded with too much traffic. The Japanese government, he said, actually suspended its rules about amateur radio licenses and started handing out ham radio sets to the public.
“They were screaming for hams, because it was the only thing left working,” he said.
Other people, Pitts said, are like Harper, and enjoy the idea of tinkering with what’s inside the box. Cell phones, Pitts noted, are little more than sophisticated radio transmitters and receivers, but no one can take the top off and modify what’s inside without violating a warranty, or worse.
“You can’t really take it apart, you can’t change it, you can’t modify it,” he said. “Amateur radio is the exact opposite of that.”
Finally, Pitts said, there is the “magic” aspect. He likened ham radio to “fishing in the ocean,” with all the randomness that entails, like the retired Japanese businessman Pitts found on the air one night. The man, Pitts said, had become so fed up with the rat race that he had moved away with his wife and family to an island with no electronics other than the radio set to communicate with the outside world. It was fascinating, Pitts said, to listen to a man who had given it all up for a little peace and quiet.
“Now, how many chances are you going to get to have a conversation with a guy like that?” he said.
Harper admitted he doesn’t actually broadcast much on the ham radios he sells, but, just like the computers he started his career with, the radios are something he can tinker with, and he couldn’t be happier.
“There’s a lot of sweat equity here,” he said.
To learn more about Harper and amateur radion, visit www.QRPMe.com.
Article source: http://bit.ly/JV2AlK