A tale about Obsolete Knowledge today – a very instructive tale, especially if you’re over 40 and particularly if you think about the En d of the World..

Since my friend of 65-years (‘the major‘) is down visiting, part of my preps for his visit included downloading some Ham Radio Extra Class test prep questions.  You see, although he and I got our General Class ham radio tickets around the same time (1964, was it?) he never got around to the “top ticket.”  He was too busy with top grades in college and grad school. Now, with a little more time he’s thinking getting to the FCC’s top ham license..

So, there I was last Sunday morning going through 300+ questions in the test pool and honestly, I missed a disappointing number.  High have passed in an actual test, but the hobby has continued to evolve and my knowledge hasn’t.  That’s because I too got involved in top grads in college, moving, sailing, serial marriages and such.  Had the license, alright, but not the time to stay “tip of the spear” on the technical side.

Two questions from the test question pool illustrate the “obsolescence of knowledge” point.  Remember:  I took ALL the ham radio tests – including Morse code (at 20 words per minute) in a single sitting in 1977 after I’d let my original ham call sign expire.

Turns out, some of the questions were pretty much the same because the laws of physics haven’t changed.  Here’s that sample question:

E6D02 (A)   What is the equivalent circuit of a quartz crystal?

  1. Motional capacitance, motional inductance, and loss resistance in series, all in parallel with a shunt capacitor representing electrode and stray capacitance
  2. Motional capacitance, motional inductance, loss resistance, and a capacitor representing electrode and stray capacitance all in parallel
  3. Motional capacitance, motional inductance, loss resistance, and a capacitor representing electrode and stray capacitance all in series
  4. Motional inductance and loss resistance in series, paralleled with motional capacitance and a capacitor representing electrode and stray capacitance

OK…simple one, right?  Physics is still physics,  But, then I came on this little gem that sums up so much of how ham radio has changed over the years:

E2D01 (B)  Which of the following digital modes is especially designed for use for meteor scatter signals?

  1. WSPR
  2. FSK441
  3. Hellschreiber
  4. APRS

Remember, I took my license test in 1977, let’s see what has changed in the field:

  • First, in 1977 the “digital” modes were simple frequency-shift keying. Morse or predominately narrow-shift 60 baud teletype!
  • Second, there were no widespread uses of transistors…they’d just started coming into new equipment and here, most of it was through-hole parts. A few DIP packages…maybe.  A trivia point: “The dual-inline (package) format was invented by Don Forbes, Rex Rice and Bryant Rogers at Fairchild R&D in 1964″ says Wikipedia.
  • No computers to speak of, either.  The TRS-80 (which we oldsters called the Trash-80 during our Halt & Catch Fire days was released in ’77.
  • No satellites….Well, sort of.  OSCAR-1 (*orbiting satellite carrying amateur radio, right?) went up in 1961.  But OSCAR-10 didn’t go up until 1983….

So when you get to meteor scatter and some of the more exotic modes of communicating (earth-moon-earth (EME) is hopelessly simple today, but once upon a time it wasn’t…) the effect of time-passing on the technical landscape becomes pretty impressive.

So back to the test question (which I got right, purely by luck!):   WSPR, the “weak signal propagation reporter” wasn’t even released until 2008.

FSK441 (a kind of frequency shift keying) wasn’t invented until 2001.

Hellschreiber  is an “oldie” dating back to the 1920’s as a way of sending a fax and it was part of how Germany sent out Enigma codes in WWII.  It became popular as a weak signals mode from 1980 and beyond.  Yes, computers make it work better.

Last, there’s APRS – the Automatic Packet Reporting System:

“Bob Bruninga, a senior research engineer at the United States Naval Academy, implemented the earliest ancestor of APRS on an Apple II computer in 1982. This early version was used to map high frequency Navy position reports. The first use of APRS was in 1984, when Bruninga developed a more advanced version on a Commodore VIC-20 for reporting the position and status of horses in a 100-mile (160 km) endurance run…”

The first bottom line?  (And yes, this eventually relates to prepping, just hang in there…)

You can be at the top of your game and wake up 41-years later and find out that about HALF YOUR INFORMATION IS USELESS.  Tube?  Gone.  Crazy paper-based capacitors? Gone.  Filament transformers?  Gone (mostly)….

Not totally.  I still love keeping my arcane collection of tube-type radio gear in top-notch shape.  But, the point is Time Marches On!  I hadn’t been marching.

A second example from was experienced when I got back into flying aft5er a 15-year hiatus:

When I started flying in 1973, the area around a big airport like Seattle was simply the TCA – terminal control area.  Today, that is all broken up into Class A, Class B, Class C…and so forth…airspace.

Also, the variable omni-range radios we used for radio-navigation (VORs) have been made all but obsolete by the GPS system.

Get to the Point!!!

Right, then.

Suppose the world takes a hit.  Financial blow-down or pandemic disease or…(gulp_) nukes fly over some worthless piece of sand in the Middle East…

Ask yourself, as you are prepping – and if you were back in 1977 trying to figure out what “radio technical information” to compress and save for transport into the future (max knowledge, minimum bookery) or what “flying information” to maintain (again, compressed for future use) what would it consist of?

You see what happens?  We have entered an age of Layering Systems.

Take satellites.  In order for them to work, what do you need?

First you need a rocket.  Then you need a launch plan and orbital position.  Then you need a tariffing system.  Because as simple as the concept of a satellite with a really good repeater system may sound, it requires a toll booth in order to come to pass.

Or, in the case of GPS, you need an earthly map with LAT-LONs on it, because without the MAP, all that satellite telling you where you are down to 3-centimeters (assuming selective availability is off) or you have WAAS or better resolution, is absolutely pointless.

You may be able to know what time it is down to a gnat’s ass, but will that really help?

The point here is simple:  As you are prepping, the really important questions are not whether we can bring a Sat-Phone through the end of the world.  Because, clearly we won’t be able to.  The reasons is not that the satellite won’t function.  And, it’s not that the phone itself will fail…hell, you might be lucky enough to find a charger.

But, in that example, the REAL single point of failure is what?


And you see?  That’s one of the reasons that mid-century technology from the 1940’s through 1970, or so, is such useful stuff to study.

That was a period before we arrived in layered failure modes that people don’t even think about.

If something goes down with a satellite, it’s up almost before you know it because there’s an economic incentive (keep cranking out billable time, right?).  But, if the crap is going to hit the fan, and the people who run power stations decide they need to be home with their families, what will the line voltage fluctuations be where you live?  Will there be brownouts and such?

How long will those big coal or diesel or natural-gas-fired generating stations be on line?

And if your GPS doesn’t have topographical maps, how much use will it be if you’re on foot?  I can’t think of a riskier place to be In terms of personal exposure, than walking along a freeway in a Mad Max world.

Which is why we collect mid-century data from the middle 1900’s because that will be the fall-back world.  We will be back to “antiquated technologies” like producer gas-powered equipment and we will – of necessity – be weaned off our high-consumption lifestyle.

How to hedge against this “layering complexity failure?”  Some thoughts on that in our next update…

Write when you get rich,


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