October 7th, 2006 by Benj Edwards
Those of you who have been reading VC&G for some time have probably encountered the occasional mention of "hamfests" in accounts of my collecting adventures. Contrary to what you might think, hamfests have little to do with pork (we here in NC call that a pig pickin'), but a lot to do with amateur radio. For almost a century, amateur radio operators have been called "hams." The exact origin of this term is lost to history; there literally dozens of stories that speculate on the reasons behind its genesis. So if you take "ham" and combine it with "fest," as in festival, then you get "hamfest," which is, essentially, a flea market or swap meet for items that hams find interesting.
Hams were the first electronics hackers, having to make do with whatever parts they could find to build their own rigs long before commercial products for their hobby were available. So when the first personal computers came along — usually in kit form or requiring lots of work on the user's part to get them running — it was a perfectly logical extension to their hobby. Thanks to their experience with amateur radio, the tinkering required for properly utilizing early, primitive home computers was like second nature to them. In no time, amateur radio enthusiasts had adapted personal computers for tasks like encoding and decoding typed text into CW (Morse code), or using them for RTTY or packet radio communications. Their hacker ethos extended through the decades all the way to the present, naturally making hams interested in all manner of technical devices and knick-knacks, and making hamfests a great place to find such items.
Thanks to my father's long-standing interest (and profession) in both electronics and amateur radio, I have been attending hamfests since I was a child. The local hamfest that I have frequented most, and that you are about to witness, is an annual event run by the Raleigh Amateur Radio Society (RARS), and is thus properly known as "RARSFest." This particular RARSFest occurred on April 23rd, 2006, and due to reasons such as getting married and moving shortly afterward, I haven't had the time to show you these pictures until now. So here we go…
Almost every one of my hamfest adventures in the last few years has started with a similar ritual: first, waking up way too early for my sleep schedule (7, 8, or 9 AM depending on how determined we are), then getting picked up by my father in his car, and of course, making the obligatory stop at McDonald's for a few sausage and egg biscuits to cram down while in a sleep deprived haze on the way to the show. This year was no exception — I might have even bought an orange juice.
I should probably explain that it's traditional to wake up early for hamfests and flea markets in my family because the earlier you get there (closer to when it opens, which is always early for some reason), the better chance you have to get all the cool stuff before it walks out the door in someone else's hands. And God forbid that happens. Due to the unavoidable sleep deprivation that results from this practice, I have likely never experienced a hamfest while fully conscious. In fact, I'm not even sure they really exist.
It's at this point that my father takes me to an undisclosed location (often referred to the "Jim Graham Building") where all the RARSFests I have ever attended were held.
Actually, the site is on the N.C. State Fairgrounds, and unless you're really early, the parking situation usually sucks. What at first might not seem like a long walk from the car later turns into a fifty-mile trek uphill when you're later forced to lug multiple pieces of 100 pound equipment back to your vehicle. So your choices are to either park close to the building, buy light stuff, or go home exhausted. This year we got a pretty decent spot, but we were still exhausted.
At this point, in years past, the inevitable smell of cigarette smoke would waft through the doors, thus signaling the start of an authentic hamfest experience. But ever since they banned smoking in the building, the 'fest has never been quite the same.
And so the excitement grows as we near the lobby, where, having usually pre-ordered our tickets, we confidently flash them to the ushers like a couple of big-shot detectives. In the past, if you left the building during the show they would ink your hand with a stamp that you would show them to get back in. I'm weird in that I usually don't like ink on my skin, but I always made an exception in this case: that was one stamp I was proud to wear as a kid.
Upon entering the building, the first thing we usually notice is that there are less and less exhibitors every year. The place usually seems more empty and a little more sad. Thanks to the Internet, ham radio has become somewhat of a dying art form as old hams pass on and fewer young people get into it.
The ham radio vendors (companies exhibiting or selling their commercial amateur radio products) are always closest to the entrance, as you can see on the left where all the blue curtains are. On the right is the raffle table and announcer booth. The announcer's familiar voice frequently interjects thunderous notices through the overhead loudspeakers, usually reciting sponsored messages, announcing raffle prizes, and alerting attendees about "how fast can you key CW with your knees"-type contests taking place at the raffle booth.
Here's a picture looking straight toward the back of the building, with a vendor selling some sort of antenna at the foreground.
Apologies for the blurry photography — the lighting was low and I had never used this particular camera before.
I know you're excited, because it's another overview shot!
As I mentioned before, in previous years, the place would be bustling with people, nearly packed to Fire Marshal-sanctioned capacity. This year, the place felt a little empty, but it was still early in the day when this picture was taken and the place hadn't filled up yet.
That table straight ahead is where we're going first — let's take a closer look.
I took this picture to show you an example of some of the radio-related stuff on sale at the fest. Sitting on the table are some vintage HF receivers, big 'ole capacitors, a meter of some kind, and some other stuff whose purpose is unknown to me. The man on the left is my father; he's holding a tiny CRT (similar to a picture tube in a TV set), likely from an old oscilloscope. Another mini-CRT lies on the table nearby. Those things are awesome.
My father actually bought a nice vintage receiver from this seller, as he collects them. Like father, like son; except he's into radios and I'm into computers. There's plenty for both of us at the hamfest.
I'll use this generally non-exciting blurry picture as an opportunity to tell you about the spirit of the hamfest. The ham community is a tight-nit one. Like many early computer/BBS/Internet enthusiasts, many hams were drawn to the hobby because they didn't quite fit in with the mainstream world around them. Many probably felt a little alienated and outcast, if not simply overwhelmed, by the typical social practices they encountered. Consequently, these folks were probably more comfortable talking to people at a distance than interacting in person. As you can imagine, this sort of common thread shared amongst a group of people creates pretty strong community bonds, and you can feel it palpably at a hamfest.
Being among hams feels like being admitted, even if temporarily, with open arms into a glorious club for nerds and techies. Most of the hams I've ever met were genuinely nice people who wouldn't hesitate to unselfishly share their knowledge or spread their love of technology with others. That's the main reason why there's some really good vibes in the place, and why hams truly were the first hackers.
Oh, and the people who aren't so nice? They're generally not hams. Seriously. At any hamfest there are always a few just trying to make a buck off of total crap they picked up for $1 at a university surplus sale.
Ah; here we go. Our first catch of the day! It's a Lear-Siegler ADM5 serial terminal — a truly classic "retro" design among video terminals. I picked it up for $10 and a song. The man selling it asked me what I'd use it for. "Oh, I just collect old computer stuff. I'll take good care of it, I promise," is the typical reply. These people love
their equipment, and they want to know it will go to a good home. As long as they know it's in good hands, they don't mind letting it go for next to nothing, and I'm always happy to take care of their equipment for them. I'm like a retirement home for old computers.
I honestly have a deep reverence for the history of each computer I acquire. Each machine tells a story, and I typically like to preserve them in the state they were originally used for that very reason. In this particular case, I believe I asked the seller what he used the ADM 5 for, and he said "packet radio."
I did make an exception to my preservation rule in this case, as I later cleaned off a butt-nasty 3″ layer of oily attic dust-gunk from the unit's case.
That's all for Part I, and we're only beginning! With the introduction out of the way, in Part II (which will be up on Tuesday, October 10th), you'll get to see me make a lot more great finds at the 'fest.
- Read Part II Now -
- Read Part III Now -