Tom Smith drove from Annapolis to attend the Amateur Radio and Computer Show held Saturday at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
"I've got probably a dozen projects going," Smith said as he poked among wires and other gadgets, looking for items he needs for his radios.
The show, put on every year by the Columbia Amateur Radio Association, typically attracts about 2,000 visitors and maybe a hundred vendors, according to John King, vice president of the Columbia organization, which has about 80 members.
Smith, who is building a ham radio station in his home, says he attends about 10 such shows a year. He was first licensed as a ham radio operator when he was in 11th grade, he said, and he credits his interest in radios with his career as an electrical engineer.
Ham radios may evoke Depression-era images of people building giant radios in their basements to fend off the boredom of life before television. Yet even in the era of cable television, cell phones and the Internet, amateur radio remains alive and well.
Amateur radios, in laymen's terms, operate at the high end of the AM dial, at frequencies higher than those of broadcast stations. Operators can build radios from scratch or modify existing equipment, as long as the power does not exceed 1,500 watts, said Dave Prestel, another member of the organization.
Operators must pass examinations to be licensed, he said. The exams, given at the show, cover proper use of equipment, as well as Federal Communications Commission rules.
Ham radio operators can use the radios only to contact someone or address a specific audience. "If I want to campaign for a certain candidate, I'm not allowed to do that," Prestel said. "I am also not permitted to use my radio privileges explicitly as part of conducting a business."
Two basic types
There are two basic kinds of amateur radios, King said, those that transmit short distances, and others that can connect with people all over the world. Both radios are smaller than a bread box, and can be created by technical-minded amateurs.
Most people believe the term "ham" radio stems from the word "amateur." Yet it is clear that most amateur radio operators are indeed hams. They love talking about radio, and they love communicating with people from all over the world, using simple technology.
Stamp collectors, for example, can compare stamps with philatelists from all over the world. Chess players can stage international matches in real time, using an international code so they do not have to speak the same language. Travelers can hear about the best activities and restaurants from people who live nearby instead of from guide books.
"I was talking to a fellow in Hawaii a few months ago," said Bernie Basel, president of the association. "And I used half a watt. That's less than a flashlight."
The equipment was battery-powered, he said, which means amateur radios can be incredibly valuable in cases of emergency. "Right now, the biggest thing for me personally is public service," he said.
In hurricanes such as the ones that recently struck Florida, for example, ham radio operators that are set up in shelters can deliver messages through other radio operators to loved ones in other states.
"On Sept. 11, amateur radio stepped up huge," Basel said. Because so much of New York City's communications had been knocked out, amateur radio operators provided much-needed communication. "I think 9/11 renewed interest in it," he said.
Amateur radio operators are considered part of the homeland security infrastructure, a way to communicate during emergencies, and one that does not cost the government a thing, noted King.
Part of the appeal of amateur radio is building the radio and then tinkering with it over time.
Few amateur radio stores still exist -- the one in Baltimore closed several years ago -- but it is possible to build radios with parts found on the Internet. Still, many radio enthusiasts love digging through the mounds of stuff for sale at shows.
Saturday's radio show started at 8 a.m., and by 1:30 p.m. many people had left. But there were still dozens of cars with tailgates open, items for sale spilling out the back.
`It's a social thing'
Joe Schaap of Clarksville was selling computer parts, a used telephone, magazines and other odds and ends, many of which he had purchased at other amateur radio shows. "It's a social thing more than to make money," he said, adding that he goes to four of five shows a year.
To the untrained eye, the items sold by many of the vendors looked like little more than piles of knobs and connectors. But to radio enthusiasts, they were treasures.
Many items cost less than $1, but there was plenty of room for good-natured bargaining. King was confident that the next day the radio waves would be filled with people bragging about the great deals they had managed to pull off.