A love affair of a different wavelength
He was barely 14 when a chance encounter with a legend radio operator in a science summer camp sowed the seeds of a passion that soon turned into an obsession for him. More than a couple of decades later, he is still madly in love with radio waves and equipment.
“Enter only when you are serious?”
This was not a stock question that a class eight student was rehearsed for. Even the tone was intimidating. Any other child of his age would have moved on to the next counter. But not Madhu*. He entered the enclosure that was part of the science exhibition organised by the Visveshwaraiah Industrial and Technological Museum (VITM) in Bengaluru. There has been no looking back since then.
The man who hurled the statement was none other than the famous radio operator, R.J. Marcus, teaching a bunch of young and old, the Morse Code aka the telegraph language. Oblivious to the stature of the radioman, Madhu was simply drawn to the room by the strange sound of the machine that was a song to his ears.
Looking back on that fateful day, Madhu recalls, “I was completely engrossed in the equipment that looked so inviting. The bulbs along with buttons, switches, cables and microphones looked fabulous. The entire operation appeared as a work of art to me. And, the aha moment came when I saw Marcus Sir talking to some strangers from other cities wirelessly. I told myself that I would even like to do the same.”
Slowly, but doggedly, Madhu started chasing his dream to be an amateur radio operator. The same year with the help of a circuit published in a science magazine he managed to build a single germanium valve transmitter and won prizes at the State, South India and the National Level Science Fests. In fact, so powerful was his transmission that the local police in one of the science fests came sniffing for where the transmission was coming from. Madhu had apparently used the frequency allotted to the local police. Much to his pleasant surprise the police appreciated his efforts and abilities. Later, Madhu even turned his home radio set into a transceiver.
One achievement led to another. His perseverance started paying off. At 19, he was a proud owner of a license to be an amateur radio operator. This required Madhu to appear and pass a mandatory examination conducted by the Wireless Planning Coordination (WPC) wing of the Government for his understanding of key concepts in electronics and the host country's radio regulations.
The term ‘amateur’ is used to specify a duly authorized person interested in radioelectric practice with a purely personal aim and without pecuniary interest. Particularly, the term differentiates the practitioners from commercial broadcasting or professional two-way radio services used for maritime, aviation, taxis and public safety such as police and fire. Before long, Madhu was part of the global network of amateur radio operators, also known as ham radio operators.
Madhu proudly refers to his fascinating community of radio operators as the first social network in the world. Referring to the possibility of exchanging pictures, texts, voice and videos through radio waves in his global network across the world, “We, the amateur radio operators experienced the internet much before the world discovered it.” He goes on to add, “One can connect with anyone anywhere in the world using radio waves. All one needs is a transmitter and a receiver.”
But most importantly, he takes justifiable pride in being a part of the group that is driven by the motto, “One World, One Language.” As Madhu explains, “We are country and language agnostic. All our communications take place either through voice or Morse Code which uses only dots and dashes to encrypt our messages.”
Understandably, the possibility of connecting with some interesting people by accident is what fascinates Madhu the most about radio waves. He declares, “I begin my day tuning into the radio set over a cup of tea.” And, he has his own share of luck. “Once I connected with the King of Thailand.”
On another day, he succeeded in establishing contact with soviet astronauts in the space station. But the one he cherishes the most is when he talked to a solo sea traveller, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. “Just imagine, the fun and thrill of connecting with people from across the globe in places where no one can reach, not even via mobile phones.”
Living his hobby, Madhu also keeps collecting different radio sets and antennae from the world over. He boasts of a radio set which was used in World War-II by Germans.
Madhu is also upbeat about the privileges the amateur radio operators enjoy. He reels off the list in one breath, “We have our own postal services, known as QSL Bureau, specific to each country. We are the only ones who are entitled to be the referees (timekeepers) in a professional car race. In fact, the pilot car in a car race is manned by us only. We are entitled to operate drone cameras and radio-controlled Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAVs). We are authorized to use weather balloons and track weather satellites. And, we are also permitted to interact with astronauts in international space stations.”
But with privileges also come the responsibilities. The skillsets of ham operators specially come handy at the time of natural calamities when all normal modes of communication like mobile phones stop working. Ham radio, however, continues to function even under those circumstances since it does not require much infrastructure. Reminisces Madhu, “When the Latur earthquake struck India in 1993, our group of amateur radio operators immediately contacted the collector of the region. We were not only granted the permission but also offered the government’s travellers’ bungalow to stay. All we needed was an antenna and our radio set. We were able to reach out to other similar radio operators in the affected areas and help the local administration and relief and rescue operation team reach out to the affected people.”
The group keeps visiting uninhabited islands occasionally to prepare itself for a possible disaster. These programmes are often organized with a prior notice and the other amateur groups from the world over start chasing them the moment they reach these remote places, which are cut off from the world. The rationale for such adventure trips is best summed up by Madhu, “We sincerely believe that each one of us should strive to make this world a better place for everyone.”
A hobby that started as an indulgence is his lifeline today. “I can’t imagine a life without radio”, says Madhu. He remains excited about the possibility of innovations. “I am excited about the possibility of interstellar communications that will enable us to communicate far beyond our solar system. But for now, he signs off on an optimistic note, “Even sky is not the limit for radio waves.”
*Madhu Prasad N is a National Manager, Public Affairs and Communications (PAC), Western Region, HCCB