Tag Archives: ham radio history

Electronics History: The Digi-Key Corporation and Ham Radio

While stubling around Wikipedia the other day, I came to the entry about the Digi-Key Corporation.  Digi-Key is now the fifth largest electronics distributors in the country.  I have ordered from them many times for both personal and business purchases.  The following bit in the Wikipedia article caught my eye:

Ronald Stordahl founded the company in 1972 and its name is a reference to the “Digi-Keyer Kit”, a digital electronic keyer kit that he developed and marketed to amateur radio enthusiasts. He continues to privately own the company.[2]

To verify this I followed the footnote (link left intact in the quote above).  This took me to the Digi-Key history page on the Digi-Key website.  Sure enough:

It was Dr. Ronald A. Stordahl’s interest in ham radio that provided the springboard for what has become Digi-Key Corporation today.

While in college he assembled and began selling a digital electronic keyer kit for sending radiotelegraph code for ham radio operators. It was called the Digi-Key.

After obtaining his PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Stordahl returned to his hometown of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The keyer kit was discontinued and he began selling electronic components in 1972. The Digi-Key “Keyer” is long gone, but Digi-Key Corporation has become one of the fastest growing electronic component distributors in the world.

Further searching took me to an article about Digi-Key CEO Mark Larson on the Radio-Electronics.com Website:

Can you tell us a little of how Digi-Key started?
The real beginning of Digi-Key was about 1969. Ron Stordahl was a Ham Radio enthusiast and, while a graduate student at the university, developed an electronic keying device for sending Morse code which utilized integrated circuits and other electronic components. He decided to sell this device in the form of a kit to other Ham Radio hobbyists. The kit included the components and an etched circuit board on which one could solder the components. He advertised this kit as the “Digi-Keyer.” Although he sold a reasonable number of kits, he sold far less “Digi-Keyers” than he had planned. He decided to stop selling this kit, but was committed for many components for kits that were never sold. In an effort to recover his cost for these excess parts, he decided that he would try to sell them by advertising in magazines. This marked the beginning of Digi-Key Corporation in 1972 as a distributor of electronic components. With a modest inventory, Stordahl expanded his marketing plan to supplement magazine advertising with Digi-Key’s one-page, typewritten, and mimeographed “catalogue.”


(Published from DFW, Texas)

Newer (than below) Editor’s Note (12/5):
My friend Ron Kritzman pointed me toward an article in the 1968 QST on page 22 titled “An Integrated-Circuit Electronic Keyer” by Richard Halvorson WØZHN and Ronald Stordahl (then-KØUXQ).  Still no picture of the Digi-Keyer.


Editor’s Note:  I tried to find a picture of the original Digi-Keyer Kit.  All I found was a product from MicroHam, of which I am reasonably sure it wasn’t Stordahl’s design since it has USB.  If anybody has one of these original kits, or at least a photograph, let me know, I’d like to add a picture.

Crosstown Traffic: KB6NU explaines why the first hacker in history was an amateur radio operator

My friend Dan KB6NU posted this supporting evidence that he found on the Royal Institution website that a radio amateur was one of the first hackers to successfully hack a “secure” radio system:

I’ve often maintained that amateur radio operators were the first hackers. Now, I have some supporting evidence.

As reported in this post on the Royal Institution website, a public demonstration of Marconi’s wireless communication system, aka radio, was hacked by a British magician. Apparently, Marconi was touting his system as not only being able to send messages over long distances, but as also being secure. Well, now we know that radio transmissions are anything but secure, but they didn’t know that back in 1903.

So, when a public demonstration was set up at Great Britain’s Royal Institution, a British magician and inventor, Nevil Maskelyne, was hired to “hack” into the demo. Before Marconi could send his message from his Cornwall station to the receiving station set up at the Royal Institution, Maskelyne sent the message, “RATS RATS RATS from his transmitting station, presumably somewhere near the Royal Institution. This was picked up by the receiving station, thereby demonstrating that Marconi’s wireless system was anything but secure.

Thanks for that interesting post Dan!


(Published from 30,000 feet over the southeast corner of Oklahoma)

Crosstown Traffic: KC5HWB-Ham Radio’s Forgotten Bands: 220MHz and 900MHz

Great blog post and discussion from Jason KC5HWB over at the Grapevine Ham Radio blog about 220MHz and 900MHz, the “Forgotten Bands” of ham radio:

When I was first licensed in 1994, the most inexpensive radio I could buy was the Radio Shack HTX-202 mono-band, 2 meter only, 12 memory channel HT. This radio sold brand new in the store for $189. You could also buy the 70 centimeter version of this radio, which had the same memory channels and features, for the same amount of money. Back then, if you wanted a dual-band HT, you were going to spend $300 or more. Today, however, anyone can buy a Chinese dual band for under $50.  20 years ago, if you wanted a 220mhz radio, you’d have to pay several hundred dollars. I don’t remember anything about 900mhz back then, the frequency spectrum belonged to us, but to my recollection there were little to no radios at all.

Today, you can buy a mono-band 1.25 meter radio from Anytone or TYT for under $200. Also, there are many 900mhz radios on the market, most of which are used, but many are obtainable for $100 or less. A good example of this would be the Kenwood TK-981 radio. I constantly see these radios sell used on eBay for $100-$125.

So the question is, why are these two bands forgotten? Today you can get a radio in either of these bands for a decent amount of money, and some people are using them, but they are not nearly as popular as the 2M and 40 bands in amateur radio.  The 1.25 meter band is widely unused in the DFW area, and the band itself, being VHF, could be as reliable as 2 meters.  The 900mhz band is becoming more popular in DFW, but radios are mostly purchased from used markets and surplus of businesses of local government agencies.

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Ham Radio History: The Vibroplex Morse Code key and Carpal Tunnel syndrome in the late 1800s

Vibroplex “Original Bug” model (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

On Saturdays, I try to visit the weekly Hams and Eggs gathering in Carrollton (please come and join us every Saturday from about 8 AM to 10:30 AM at the Whataburger off the Prresident George Bush Turnpike at the Old Denton exit).  This morning my friend Kevin N5KRG brought in an antique Vibroplex Morse code key and was mentioning a book he had read about this key which has been in continuous production for over 100 years.   The key was developed to help telegraphers avoid “Telegrapher’s Paralysis” or “Glass Arm” syndrome – today we call it “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.” From a 1997 website titled the Telephraph Office: by Neal McEwen K5RW (from here in the DFW area-I wonder if I’ve met him).

Telegraphers, making the up and down motion on their keys all day, were often the victim of an occupational hazard related to the muscles of the wrist and forearm. Today we call this malady “carpal tunnel syndrome.” In the 19th century it was called “telegrapher’s paralysis” or “glass arm.” To alleviate some of the stress, the “semi-automatic” key was invented at the turn of the century. Today we are more familiar with the name “bug” to describe the semi-automatic key. The “bug” has a lever such that when pushed to one side, the operator can make a dash similar in manner to making a dash on the older style key. When the lever is pushed in the opposite direction, the “bug” makes dots in rapid succession until the operator releases the lever. This action, besides being in the horizontal plane rather than the vertical plan, has reduced significantly, the required manipulation to form the characters of the code.

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Ham Radio History: K3DSM, Roller rinks, and the Autopatch.

I found this website many years ago by accident when I was doing some research about the old AT&T Long Lines microwave system (My friend owns an old Long Lines concrete tower in Valparaiso, Indiana).  This is the story of Gene Mitchell K3DSM and the trouble he got into with the autopatch on his amateur repeater back in the 1960s.  It’s a good story that unfortunately ends with the loss of his job from AT&T Long Lines because of his “illicit” mobile telephone connection.

Hybrid phone patches were readily available because of this, so this was used to connect the repeater to the phone line. A mechanical phone lift was used to take the phone on and off hook. Soon after the project was working, I found some touchtone equipment at Greybar Electronics and changed over to a touchtone system.

From my house in Merion, I used the tone pulse system while refining the repeater system. The radio range was not great in Merion, but I was able to develop the system and refine it. I moved to Devon in 1967 where I had an excellent high location and converted to UHF (446 & 449 Mhz)

I had a range of 30 to 40 miles and sometimes more from there and the system was impressive. I even bought a used Motorola handie talkie and mounted a touchtone dial to the back of it. This made a very portable wireless system that worked 10 to 20 miles from my house. I could make and answer calls from almost anywhere I went.

I even demonstrated the system to over 300 ham radio operators at a meeting at the GE Space Center in 1970 where 2 ham radio groups (Las Voyagers and Main Line VHF Association) merged to form a larger group (the Philadelphia Area Repeater Association) to build their own autopatch system for all to use on the 2 meter ham band.

What I didn’t mention so far, is that in 1965, I started working for AT&T Long Lines after I graduated from Valpo Tech. Mention of the system at work drew lots of questions and skepticism. The system was simply not understood. Remember now, that connecting anything to your phone line during this period of time was considered taboo. I even went so far as to pay for what was called a coupler from Bell Telephone to try to stay on the up and up.

Everything was great for years until one day, my mobile phone rang while I was waiting for a roller rink to open. As I answered the call, the guy in the car next to me became curious and started asking questions. I explained what I had and how it worked. He then told me what he had. He said he had a device that could call anywhere in the world and that the calls would be free of charge. I listened carefully. The next day, I told my supervisor at work. I also told a ham friend who worked in the district office at AT&T. Both told me it was not possible for him to have such a device or he would be caught.

(Gene Mitchell, K3DSM, http://www.g-c-o.com/k3dsm/repeater.htm)


(published from DFW, Texas)