March contesting

I had a great run in the March NAQCC sprint, a two hour QRP CW sprint that encourages the use of straight keys.  I am surprised (but pleased) to see that I took the top position in the W4 division for simple wire antennas. I think this speaks to good conditions where I was operating, luck in hitting so many multipliers, and the absence of other stations that typically score very well (K4ORD and others).  I know that several of the contestors, e.g., K4BAI, were already preparing for their CQ WW WPX runs,  so that might explain the absence of some of the regulars.

Speaking of CQ WW WPX…

S line station, tuner, swr meter, paper log
Upper book: antenna tuner settings; lower book: the contest log.

With a 100W station and a couple fixed antennas in my attic, I’m not much of a threat to the CQ WW WPX establishment, but I thought I’d give it an “old school” try this time.  Instead of working the contest with my workhorse Kenwood TS-450, I fired up the Collins S-line station. With the recently acquired Heathkit SA-2040 antenna tuner and the TenTec 1225 SWR meter to keep an eye on things, I had enough flexibility to work all the bands.

I had a number of other things to do over the weekend, so I put in about four hours in the contest. I went full manual — not even computer logging, just some sheets of graph paper. I worked 136 contacts, three of which were dupes (the paper-only method leaves something to be desired in terms of real time dupe checking).

According to my log, I worked the following DXCC entitites: Aland Island (Finland), Asiatic Russia, Belarus, Belgium, Bonaire, Curacao, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada,Canary Islands, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira Island, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the USA, Virgin Islands, and Wales.

The rigs worked flawlessly, and the warm sound was pleasant. I did a lot of repeating, and surely my signal was not very strong compared to most, but it got the job done.

Shopping in Brussels: Composants Electroniques et Jeux de Société

Overexposed picture showing conjunction of venus and jupiter above the grande place
Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter above the Grande Place

I had a couple hours on Friday to do a little shopping before meeting up with friends for dinner in Brussels. We had planned to eat near St. Catherine’s, so I took the metro there a bit early. My first goal was Elak’s electronics, which is one of the best hobby electronics stores on the planet, as far as I’m concerned. Part of the store is given over to computer components, but the rest of the store is discrete components: walls of switches, transformers, project boxes, batteries, etc. There is a center counter area where they maintain an impressive assortment of ICs as well. They carry the entire velleman kit line, plus related accessories.

The only drawback to the store is that it is in a corner of Brussels where the streets do not conform to any sort of rectilinear plan. I always get lost trying to find the store, and having a Google map in hand only makes things worse. It is like that part of Brussels does not obey the normal rules of time and space. Sometimes I try to get to it from the De Brokère metro, sometimes from Ste. Cathérine’s, but no matter what, I end up getting spun around and asking directions. When I get there and think about the path I took it all makes sense, but as soon as I leave, the store randomly pops up in some other universe.

External view of Elak ElectronicsAt least I can recognize the outside of the store when I do find it: the wall next to it has a mural with an elephant and a gorilla. The other place that has a reasonable selection of more common components is MB Tronics. When I last visited them, they had a storefront on Chausée de Louvain not far from the Meiser traffic circle, but I believe they’ve moved the store in the last year a couple blocks to the east. MB’s store hours are not quite as fixed as Elak’s, and the store does shut down during part of the summer for vacation, so Elak’s is always a safer bet.

I ended up buying a set of machine screws and a package of assorted ceramic disc capacitors. I’ve bought this screw set before, and had used them up making various projects. The screws are just the right size for most small projects, particularly the kind that you build in an altoids tin. The capacitor assortment is much better than you can find at Radio Shack. The Radio Shack bag-o-capacitors is full of unhelpfully small value components, whereas the Velleman-brand assortment has a full range (in searching the web, I note that they are also sold by Fry’s Electronics stateside). I am sure that these caps are not top-of-the-line low variance components, but they are great for prototyping.

External shot of Wonderland windowOn the way back to the restaurant, I stopped by a game shop, Wonderland, that is only a few minute walk from Elak’s. This store sells primarily  French language versions of “Euro” table top games: Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Carcassonne, etc.  I don’t think that I saw any Z-man or Rio Grande games, but that’s not a criticism as the store wouldn’t have had room for them. The games were predominantly board rather than card, and I wish I had had more time to look through their inventory. Next time I visit the store, I’ll make sure I have more time, and I will also be sure to have more room in my suitcase. They get extra credit for having zombie dice on the counter. While I’m certainly loyal to my local supplier (Area 42 Games), Wonderland may carry some games that haven’t made it over the Atlantic yet.

Winterfest 2012

SA-2040 tuner: two big capacitor knobs, one central roller inductor knob, a turn counter and a knob to select output

At the end of February, the Vienna Wireless Society held its annual hamfest, Winterfest, and this partially accounts for my absence of blog entries in recent months, as I was coordinator for the event. We had more than 100 vendors in our indoor area, another 40 in our tailgating space, and about 700 people were attracted to the event. I could go on at length about the event, and maybe I will at some point, but for now I’d like to post about the items that I picked up at the event. I’ve mentioned my acquisitions to a couple friends and want to show some pictures.

As soon as the event opened, my eyes landed on a Heathkit SA-2040 Tuner. I have an LDG AT100Pro automatic tuner and it does a great job, but for the Collins gear, I wanted a fully manual tuner. The automatic tuner makes excursions in and out of good match, and I just don’t want to subject the finals of the S-line equipment to variable and out-of-range vSWRs. I’d rather map out the setting for the band segments that I use and then manually adjust.

I had, in fact, been looking for a few months at several models of manual antenna tuner on ebay, eham, and the other usual places. The SA-2040 was high on my list. Typically they run over $100, plus shipping. When I found one at Winterfest, I was happy to see that it was less than $100, in good shape, and already had the modifications that I was considering — a knob with a thumb wheel on the roller inductor, a switch to select multiple coax outputs, and a switch that takes the input to ground. I had a lot of administrative work to do at Winterfest, so I bought it as soon as the event opened and stuck it in my car for the day.

An overhead shot of the internal workings of the SA-2040

When I got home, I took a look inside it. Truthfully, when I got home, I crashed on the couch for the day and didn’t get around to looking inside the tuner for a few days, but either way, I did look inside, and saw that it’s in fine shape. The roller inductor and capacitors are heavy duty and in pristine condition, with no evidence of arcing. The modifications look solid, and I couldn’t spot anything troubling. I screwed it back together and then started trying to figure out how I could possibly fit it on my bench.

The SA-2040 does not have an SWR meter, so I needed one. Luckily, I had ordered one several months ago from Ten-Tec as a kit: the 1225 SWR/Wattmeter. I had a good experience putting together the model 1320 QRP transceiver from Ten-Tec, and it has held up well as I’ve lugged it all over the world making contacts. The SWR kit was also a first-class affair — packed well, parts grouped meaningfully in several bags, all parts present with appropriate excess on wire, and a great manual. The wattmeter consists of a metal cabinet, a large cross-needle display, a range switch, and the option of average or peak-reading for both forward and reverse power.

Front view of the TenTec 1225 wattmeter, with meter illuminated in blue

The organization of the manual was excellent, with the usual check it and then check it again double column for checking off completed steps. There was no ambiguity in the instructions, all the landmarks were obvious, and I didn’t need to do any sort of clever interpretation or fall back on the internet to find exceptions, modifications, etc.

Calibration requires no equipment beyond a digital VOM. One trimmer pot controls internal reference voltage, and other pots are used to set the forward/reverse fudge factors for each power range. Having built the WM-2 QRP watt meter, I’d say that this one was slightly easier to calibrate. This SWR meter was a more complex build with more parts and more mechanical connections, but that is commensurate with its additional features (and I’m certainly keeping the WM-2 as well).

So, the 1225 Wattmeter was assembled over the last week and is now inserted inline between whatever rig I’m using (the first coax switch) and whatever antenna is selected (second coax switch). One fun feature of the 1225 is the RGB backlight, which can be adjusted to any color with trimmer pots. I’ve set mine to a dark blue.

TRS-80 model 100 and manualThe other item I bought was not radio equipment. Near the end of the hamfest, I walked by a table and saw a TRS80-Model 100 “laptop” computer. I’ve always thought this computer was way ahead of its time, and that it represented an important milestone in engineering, so when I saw one marked down to $50, I bought it.

This computer is powered either by wall wart or four AA batteries, has a full keyboard, boots instantly, and has a number of I/O ports including an RS-232 and the venerable S100 bus. I verified that this one is fully operational. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll do with it, but I think it was a good purchase.