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Review of Soldersmoke, the book.

February 6, 2010

I am sure we have all come across someone whose enthusiasm for a subject was so infectious it encouraged us to get more involved in that area.  It could have been a parent, friend, a club member or an elmer.  Well, if you have regularly listened to the Soldersmoke podcast you will found Bill Meara’s enthusiasm for homebrew amateur radio equipment quite infectious.  Whether its his discussion of a double side band rig, a QRSS beacon or using LTSpice to understand a circuit, after listening to Bill I often find I want to get to the workbench and melt some solder.  Well, there is now not only the podcast and the blog, but there is also Soldersmoke the book.  I recently finished reading my copy and here is a brief review of Bill’s book.

The book has the subtitle “A Global Adventure in Radio Electronics”, since Bill’s occupation for a while has been as a US diplomat, with assignments in the Dominican Republic, USA, the Azores, the UK and most recently Italy. So the chapters naturally fall into describing the ‘radio adventures’ in each of these countries.  However, Bill uses the first few chapters to describe his youth, his early steps into amateur radio and electronics.  Followed by his brief period of absence from radio, when he joined the military and went through his basic training, eventually ending up in the special forces.

His entry into amateur radio will resonate with many readers I am sure.  Although experiences will not be identical many readers will have similar stages in their introduction to radio, learning CW, passing exams, reading the magazines and dreaming of equipment, joining clubs and having an elmer.  Besides the personal history which is captivating, Bill adds to each chapter technical sections, usually denoted in bold text.  With these sections the reader is led through a breadth of ideas, starting with with the fundamentals of electricity and moving on to other deeper topics such as the coverage of semiconductor principles, mixer operation, balanced modulators and amplifier loads, for example.  These are all dealt with in a conceptual manner with minimal or no mathematics.  It is with these descriptions Bill tries to explain some principles to give an intuitive understanding of what is going on in electronics.  Indeed, this desire to understand and have a clear intuitive understanding is something that Bill describes as a personal goal that he had from an early age.  He gets full credit here for wanting to know the details on how everything works, even without having a formal education in electrical engineering.  These technical sections I did enjoy, often checking how it matches my own understanding (I do have a technical education which makes me admire his attempts even more).

For me, the book got very interesting at chapter three, where he talks about his return to amateur radio after having been posted to the Dominican Republic and reading a copy of 73 magazine in a hotel lobby .  Here on in it became interesting in two ways for me.  First was the characters that he encounters (either face-to-face or through radio and the internet).  People who would help him with parts, setting up antennas or working with him on the podcasts. It showed the human side of amateur radio, the camaraderie or the ‘brotherhood’ as Bill calls it, which you seldom read or hear about in the technical books or magazines on amateur radio.  Here it reminded me of the book “Hello World” which recounts the contacts that Jerry Powell, W2OJW (SK), made through his QSL card collection.  This friendship across the world between individuals of different cultures and languages, whose common interest in radio and electronics leads to almost automatic friendship is enjoyable to read about.  Indeed, Bill spends the last chapter discussing this “brotherhood without borders”.

The second aspect that I personally found interesting was Bill’s description of his homebrew projects.  Reading how projects evolved and moved into new projects was illuminating.  People build things for different reasons;  the technical challenge, perhaps a need for that item of equipment, or just that it seems like fun project to build.  Whatever the reason, it is interesting to read an individuals account why and how a project comes about, as well as the technical challenges.  Bills seems to me to be a very economical homebrewer and radio operator. He does not buy lots of the latest radio gear, he still happily runs a Heathkit HW-8 and Drake 2B, but what he does have he uses with good effect.  His construction of a 17m DSB rig is an interesting story which is recounted in chapter 5 (which describes his Azores adventures), mostly through the inclusion of a trail of  e-mails he sent at that time to the QRP-L mailing list.  The evolution of a project is something you do not usually read about in QST or QEX,  but maybe see in a blog or two.  It is interesting to read from a technical perspective. What circuit elements worked and failed and why were certain design choices made?  This is good information for other homebrewers.

The book is self published (HBR Press) through Lulu.com and I was pleased with the quality of the printed book, which is paperback.  Because it is self published it lacks the polish that a publisher would have added; a little more proofreading (there are some typos) and possibly some more editing.  For me an editor may have tightened up the transitions from the main narrative into the bold technical sections and added figure captions.  But these are minor quibbles. Anyway, this is a ‘homebrewed’ book and so we can expect a little ‘roughness around the edges’.

There is some nice dry humour in the book, similar to what you hear in the podcasts.  There are quotes throughout from authors I have also read and respect, such a Steve Wozniak, Richard Feynman (a long time hero of mine) and Clifford Stoll.   If you enjoy the podcasts then check out the book. Pick up a copy , read it and put it on your bookshelf alongside your technical books and consult it when you need a burst of enthusiasm. I highly recommend the book. Price is $19.99 at the time of writing this.

Finally, here is a video of Bill himself talking about the book and reading an excerpt.

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