The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #17    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Repeaters...It seems they are everywhere, and they are. Several thousand amateur repeaters operate on our bands from 29.5 MHZ all the way thru the microwave range. In fact, there are more amateur repeaters in the U.S. & Canada than there are AM Broadcast Stations. How and when did this evolve? Let's take a look at the development of repeaters in the Amateur Community.

If you had to guess when the first repeater came on the air, what would you say? 1970?, 1965?, 1955? Try 1932!!! It was in the early 30'S that the first "Duplex Phone Relay Stations", (as they were then called), came into existence. W1AWW & W1HMO set up a manned relay station in a 90 foot wooden lookout tower near Springfield Mass. They used a superregenerative receiver tuned to 60 MC (the top of the old 5 meter band), and a modulated oscillator transmitter on 56 MC, ( the bottom of the band). Stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Rhode Island could transmit on 60 MC, and have their signals manually rebroadcast on 56 MC. This relay station, of course, was in operation only when amateurs were on duty at the lookout tower. Fully automatic repeater operation was still over 30 years away.

In the 1950'S and early 60'S, there were a few AM repeaters on the air in California. But for the most part, VHF operations in the 1940'S thru the late 60'S were on AM phone in the simplex mode, with a handful of sideband stations thrown in. Using crystal controlled transmitters with about 10 watts, and single conversion superhets, the typical VHF operator had a range of 10-15 miles, not counting any band openings.

There were a handful of FM stations of course, but the development of FM as a mainstream amateur mode of communication had been pushed aside by sideband. As early as 1940, QST had construction projects for a complete 112 MC FM station, but FM took a back seat in 1947 when sideband appeared. Now, however, thanks to an FCC edict, it was about to make a comeback.

In 1960, the FCC issued new requirements for the users of VHF commercial frequencies. Over the period from 1960 to 1970, commercial users gradually phased in narrow band (5 KC deviation) equipment to replace the wide band (15 KC) transceivers they had been using. Rather than revamp the older equipment to meet the new standards, they simply purchased new radios. The old units made their way to the surplus market, where they were quickly snapped up by amateurs. Converting this equipment to ham frequencies was relatively easy, and soon hundreds of stations were operating on 52.525 MC and 146.940. Why those frequencies? Well, 52.525 was the lowest 6 meter frequency on which wide band FM was allowed, and 146.94 was chosen to accommodate Technicians who weren't allowed above 147 MC. Thus, these became the first "calling Channels".

It wasn't long before some surplus commercial equipment was revamped into repeaters. Unlike the 1932 setup, these were fully automatic devices, with no need for a control operator to be present. This, however, presented problems. Part 97 at that time contained no provision for repeater operation, and it was unclear as to whether it was legal to operate a repeater without a control operator present. Many proposals were presented to the FCC to clarify the rules in regards to repeaters. FM and repeaters received considerable publicity in 1969 when Hurricane Camille caused widespread destruction in the Gulf Coast and Virginia. This was the first time mobile rigs, FM and repeaters were used extensively in an emergency. FM activity increased in late 1969 and early 1970 with the ARRL's announcement that it no longer considered Technicians to be just experimenters, but rather full fledged Communicators. Also adding to the popularity of FM was the introduction of the first commercial rigs for the amateur market, from manufacturers such as Galaxy, Clegg, and Drake. By 1970, it was clear that coordinated, legal growth of FM and repeaters was necessary.

In early 1970, the FCC proposed its first repeater rules. They were as follows:

On 6 meters, repeater inputs would be from 52.5 TO 52.7, with the outputs at 53.0 to 53.2 MHZ.. For 2 meters, repeater inputs would be authorized from 146.3 to 146.6, and the corresponding outputs would be from 146.9 TO 147.2. On our 220 band, the input/output subbands were 223.1--223.3 and 224.1--224.3, while on 440 repeaters would be authorized on 447.7--448.9 for inputs and 449.1--449.3 for outputs. (By the way, it looks like the 1970 FCC proposal contained a typo in the 440 MHZ segments). "Whistle on" or other coded access would be required--carrier activated repeaters would NOT be allowed. No cross band, linked or chain repeaters or multiple outputs would be allowed. The maximum power permitted was 600 watts input (about 400 watts output). And, finally, the FCC declined to allow fully automatic repeater operation, the proposed rules required the licensee of a repeater station to be in attendance at the transmitter or at an authorized fixed control point and to monitor all transmissions of the station.

The proposed repeater rules appeared unduly restrictive to many hams. Except for 2 meters, each band had only a 200 KHZ wide input/output window. On 2 meters the input/output subbands were 300 KHZ wide--but 2/3 of the repeater output subband was above 147 MHZ--where Technicians weren't allowed!! The FCC had still not acted on the ARRL's 1969 proposal to open all VHF frequencies to Technicians. When the FCC was questioned on the legality of a Technician using a repeater whose input was within the 145-147 subband, but whose output was above 147, they said the Technician operator COULD NOT USE THE REPEATER. The FCC went on to say "the licensee of such a repeater should sit there with the latest Callbook showing license class and keep his finger on the NO-NO button". (Yes, this is an actual quote). So much for liberal repeater rules.

Despite the FCC's rather restricted proposed rules, repeater operations flourished throughout 1970 & 1971. Over 200 repeaters were on the air by 1971, almost all of them in the 146--147 MHZ range so they could be used by Technicians. But, with the uncertain status of future FCC rules, the lack of national frequency standards, and the inability of Technicians to operate the full 2 meter band, a dark cloud hung over the FM world.

In our next installment, we will review the ARRL's national plan for 2 meter FM, as well as the revised FCC rules on repeater operation. I hope you will join me.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.