Teardown of a quartz crystal oscillator and the tiny IC inside

Inside the oscillator package, showing the components mounted on the ceramic substrate.The quartz oscillator is an important electronic circuit, providing highly-accurate timing signals at a low cost. A quartz crystal has the special property of piezoelectricity, changing its electrical properties as it vibrates. Since a crystal can be cut to vibrate at a very precise frequency, quartz oscillators are useful for many applications. Quartz oscillators were introduced in the 1920s and provided accurate frequencies for radio stations. Wristwatches were revolutionized in the 1970s by the use of highly-accurate quartz oscillators. Computers use quartz oscillators to generate their clock signals, from ENIAC in the 1940s to modern computers.1

A quartz crystal requires additional circuitry to make it oscillate, and this analog circuitry can be tricky to design. In the 1970s, crystal oscillator modules became popular, combining the quartz crystal, an integrated circuit, and discrete components into a compact, easy-to-use module. Curious about the contents of these modules, I opened one up and reverse-engineered the chip inside. In this blog post, I discuss how the module works and examine the tiny CMOS integrated circuit that runs the oscillator. There’s more happening in the module than I expected, so I hope you find it interesting.

The oscillator module

I examined the oscillator module from an IBM PC card.2 The module is packaged in a rectangular 4-pin metal can that protects the circuitry from electrical noise. (It is the “Rasco Plus” rectangular can on the right, not the square IBM integrated circuit.) This module produced a 4.7174 MHz clock signal, as indicated by the text on the package.

The quartz oscillator module is in the lower right, labeled Rasco Plus. 4.7174 MHZ, © Motorola 1987. The square module is an IBM integrated circuit. Click this (or any other image) for a larger version.

The quartz oscillator module is in the lower right, labeled Rasco Plus. 4.7174 MHZ, © Motorola 1987. The square module is an IBM integrated circuit. Click this (or any other image) for a larger version.

 

I cut open the can to reveal the hybrid circuitry inside. I was expecting a gem-like quartz crystal inside, but found that oscillators use a very thin disk of quartz. (I damaged the crystal while opening the package, so the upper part is missing..) The quartz crystal is visible on the left, with metal electrodes attached to either side of the crystal. The electrodes are attached to small pegs, raising the crystal above the surface so it can oscillate freely.

Inside the oscillator package, showing the components mounted on the ceramic substrate.

Inside the oscillator package, showing the components mounted on the ceramic substrate.

 

On the right side of the module is a tiny CMOS integrated circuit die. It is mounted on the ceramic substrate and connected to the circuitry by tiny golden bond wires. A surface-mount capacitor (3 nF) and a film resistor (10Ω) on the substrate filter out noise from the power pin.

The IC’s circuitry

The photo below shows the tiny integrated circuit die under a microscope, with the pads and main functional blocks labeled. The brownish-green regions are the silicon that forms the integrated circuit. A metal layer (yellowish white) wires up the components of the IC. Below the metal, reddish polysilicon implements transistors, but it is mostly obscured by the metal layer. Around the outside of the chip, bond wires are connected to pads, wiring the chip to the rest of the oscillator module. Two pads (select and disable) are left unconnected. The chip was manufactured by Motorola, with a 1986 date. I couldn’t find any information on the part number SC380003.

The integrated circuit die with key blocks labeled. "FF" indicates flip-flops. "sel" indicates select pads. "cap" indicates pads connected to the internal capacitors.

The integrated circuit die with key blocks labeled. “FF” indicates flip-flops. “sel” indicates select pads. “cap” indicates pads connected to the internal capacitors.

 

The IC has two functions. First, its analog circuitry drives the quartz crystal to produce oscillations. Second, the IC’s digital circuitry divides the frequency by 1, 2, 4, or 8, and produces a high-current clock output signal. (The division factor is selected by the two select pins on the IC.)

The oscillator is implemented with a circuit (below) called a Colpitts oscillator, which is more complex than the usual quartz oscillator circuit.43 The basic idea is that the crystal and the two capacitors oscillate at the desired frequency. The oscillations would rapidly die out, however, except for the feedback boost from the drive transistor.

Simplified schematic of the oscillator.

Simplified schematic of the oscillator.

 

In more detail, as the voltage across the crystal increases, the transistor turns on, feeding current into the capacitors and boosting the voltage across the capacitors (and thus the crystal). But as the voltage across the crystal decreases, the transistor turns off and the current sink (circle with arrow) pulls current out of the capacitors, reducing the voltage across the crystal. Thus, the feedback from the drive transistor strengthens the crystal’s oscillations to keep them going.

The bias voltage and current circuits are an important part of this circuit. The bias voltage sets the drive transistor’s gate midway between “on” and “off”, so the voltage oscillations on the crystal will turn it on and off. The bias current is set midway between the drive transistor’s on and off currents so the current flowing in and out of the capacitors balances out.5 (I’m saying “on” and “off” for simplicity; the signal will be a sine wave.)

A large part of the integrated circuit is occupied by five capacitors. One is the upper capacitor in the schematic, three are paralleled to form the lower capacitor in the schematic, and one stabilizes the voltage bias circuit. The die photo below shows one of the capacitors after dissolving the metal layer on top. The red and green region is polysilicon, which forms the upper plate of the capacitor, along with the metal layer. Underneath the polysilicon, the pinkish region is probably silicon nitride, forming the insulating dielectric layer. The doped silicon (not visible underneath) forms the bottom plate of the capacitor.

A capacitor on the die. The large faint square to the left of the capacitor is a pad for connecting a bond wire to the IC.
The complex structures on the left are clamp diodes on the pins. The cloverleaf structures on the right are transistors, which will
be discussed later.

A capacitor on the die. The large faint square to the left of the capacitor is a pad for connecting a bond wire to the IC. The complex structures on the left are clamp diodes on the pins. The cloverleaf structures on the right are transistors, which will be discussed later.

 

Curiously, the capacitors aren’t connected together on the chip, but are connected to three pads that are wired together by bond wires. Perhaps this provides flexibility; the capacitance in the circuit can be modified by omitting the wire to a capacitor.

The digital circuitry

The right side of the chip contains digital circuitry to divide the crystal’s output frequency by 1, 2, 4, or 8. This lets the same crystal provide four different frequencies. The divider is implemented by three flip-flops in series. Each one divides its input pulses by 2. A 4-to-1 multiplexer selects between the original clock pulses, or the output from one of the flip-flops. The choice is made through the wiring to the two select pads on the right side of the die, fixing the ratio at manufacturing time. Four NAND gates (along with inverters) are used to decode these pins and generate four control signals to the multiplexer and flip-flops.

How CMOS logic is implemented

The chip is built with CMOS logic (complementary MOS), which uses two types of transistors, NMOS and PMOS, working together. The diagram below shows how an NMOS transistor is constructed. The transistor can be considered a switch between the source and drain, controlled by the gate. The source and drain (green) consist of regions of silicon doped with impurities to change its semiconductor properties and called N+ silicon. The gate consists of a special type of silicon called polysilicon, separated from the underlying silicon by a very thin insulating oxide layer. The NMOS transistor turns on when the gate is pulled high.

Structure of an NMOS transistor. A PMOS transistor has the same structure, but with N-type and P-type silicon reversed.

Structure of an NMOS transistor. A PMOS transistor has the same structure, but with N-type and P-type silicon reversed.

 

A PMOS transistor has the opposite construction from NMOS: the source and drain consist of P+ silicon embedded in N silicon. The operation of a PMOS transistor is also opposite from the NMOS transistor: it turns on when the gate is pulled low. Typically PMOS transistors pull the drain (output) high, while NMOS transistors pull the drain low. In CMOS, the transistors act in a complementary fashion, pulling the output high or low as needed.

The diagram below shows how a NAND gate is implemented in CMOS. If an input is 0, the corresponding PMOS transistor (top) will turn on and pull the output high. But if both inputs are 1, the NMOS transistors (bottom) will turn on and pull the output low. Thus, the circuit implements the NAND function.

A CMOS NAND gate is implemented with two PMOS transistors (top) and two NMOS transistors (bottom).

A CMOS NAND gate is implemented with two PMOS transistors (top) and two NMOS transistors (bottom).

 

The diagram below shows how a NAND gate appears on the die. The transistors have complex, meandering shapes, unlike the rectangular layouts that appear in textbooks. The left side holds the PMOS transistors, while the right side holds the NMOS transistors. The polysilicon that forms the gates is the slightly reddish wiring on top of the silicon. Most of the underlying silicon is doped, making it conductive and slightly darker than the non-conductive undoped silicon along the left and right edges and in the center. For this photo, the metal layer was removed with acid to reveal the silicon and polysilicon underneath; the yellow line illustrates where some of the metal wiring was. The circles are connections between the metal layer and the underlying silicon or polysilicon.

A NAND gate as it appears on the die.

A NAND gate as it appears on the die.

 

The transistors in the die photo can be matched up with the NAND-gate schematic; look at the transistor gates formed by polysilicon and what they separate. There is a path from the +5 region to the output through the large elongated PMOS transistor on the left, and a second path through the small PMOS transistor near the center, indicating the transistors are in parallel. Each gate is controlled by one of the inputs. On the right, a path from ground to the output connection must go through both of the concentric NMOS transistors, indicating they are in series.

This integrated circuit also uses many circle-gate transistors, an unusual layout technique that allows multiple transistors in parallel at high density. The photo below shows 16 circle-gate transistors. The copper-colored cloverleaf patterns are the transistor gates, implemented with polysilicon. The inside of each “leaf” is the transistor drain, while the outside is the source. The metal layer (removed) wires all the sources, gates, and drains together respectively; the parallel transistors act as one larger transistor. Paralleled transistors are used in the output pin drivers to provide high current for the output. In the bias circuitry, different numbers of transistors are wired together (e.g. 6, 16, or 40) to provide the desired current ratios.

Sixteen circle-gate transistors with four gate connections.

Sixteen circle-gate transistors with four gate connections.

 

Transmission gate

Another key circuit in the chip is the transmission gate. This acts as a switch, either passing a signal through or blocking it. The schematic below shows how a transmission gate is constructed from two transistors, an NMOS transistor and a PMOS transistor. If the enable line is high, both transistors turn on, passing the input signal to the output. If the enable line is low, both transistors turn off, blocking the input signal. The schematic symbol for a transmission gate is shown on the right.

A transmission gate is constructed from two transistors. The transistors and their gates are indicated. The schematic symbol is on the right.

A transmission gate is constructed from two transistors. The transistors and their gates are indicated. The schematic symbol is on the right.

 

Multiplexer

A multiplexer is used to select one of the four clock signals. The diagram below shows how the multiplexer is implemented from transmission gates. The multiplexer takes four inputs: A, B, C, and D. One of the inputs is selected by activating the corresponding select line and its complement. That input is connected through the transmission gate to the output, while the other inputs are blocked. Although a multiplexer can be built with standard logic gates, the implementation with transmission gates is more efficient.

The 4-to-1 multiplexer is implemented with transmission gates.

The 4-to-1 multiplexer is implemented with transmission gates.

 

The schematic below shows the transistors that make up the multiplexer. Note that inputs B and C have pairs of transistors. I believe the motivation is that a pair of transistors presents half the resistance to the signal. Since inputs B and C are the higher-frequency signals, the pair of transistors allows them to pass through with less distortion and delay.

Schematic of the multiplexer, matching the physical layout on the chip.

Schematic of the multiplexer, matching the physical layout on the chip.

 

The image below shows how the multiplexer is physically implemented on the die. The polysilicon gate wiring is most prominent. The metal layer has been removed; the metal lines ran vertically connecting corresponding transistors segments. Note that the sources and drains of neighboring transistors are merged into single regions between the gates. The top rectangle holds the NMOS transistors while the lower rectangle holds the PMOS transistors; because PMOS transistors are less efficient, the lower rectangle needs to be larger.

Die photo of the multiplexer.

Die photo of the multiplexer.

 

Flip-flop

The chip contains three-flip-flops to divide the clock frequency. The oscillator uses toggle flip-flops, that flip between 0 and 1 each time they receive an input pulse. Since two input pulses result in one output pulse (0→1→0), the flip-flop divides the frequency by 2.

A flip-flop is constructed from transmission gates, inverters, and a NAND gate, as shown in the schematic below. When the input clock is high, the output passes through the inverter and the first transmission gate to point A. When the input clock switches low, the first transmission gate opens, so point A holds its previous value. Meanwhile, the second transmission gate closes, so the signal passes through the second inverter and transmission gate to point B. The NAND gate inverts it again, causing the output to flip from its previous value. A second cycle of the input clock repeats the process, causing the output to return to its initial value. The result is that two cycles of the input clock result in one cycle of the output, so the flip-flop divides the frequency by 2.

Implementation of a toggle flip-flop.

Implementation of a toggle flip-flop.

 

Each flip-flop has an enable input. If a flip-flop is not needed for the selected output, it is disabled. For instance, if the “divide by 2” mode is selected, only the first flip-flop is used, and the other two are disabled. I assume this is done to reduce power consumption. Note that this is independent from the module’s disable pin, which blocks the module output entirely. This disable feature is optional; this particular module does not provide the disable feature and the disable pin is not wired to the IC.

The schematic above shows the inverters and transmission gates as separate structures. However, the flip-flop uses an interesting gate structure that combines the inverter and the transmission gate (left) into a single gate (right). The pair of transistors connected to data in function as an inverter. However, if the clock in is low, both power and ground are blocked so the gate will not affect the output and it will hold its previous voltage. This provides the transmission gate functionality.

Implementation of a combination inverter / transmission gate.

Implementation of a combination inverter / transmission gate.

 

The photo below shows how one of these gates appears on the die. This photo includes the metal layer on top; the reddish polysilicon gates are visible underneath. The two PMOS transistors are on the left, as concentric loops, while the NMOS transistors are on the right.

One of the combination inverter / transmission gates, as it appears on the die.

One of the combination inverter / transmission gates, as it appears on the die.

 

Conclusion

While the oscillator module looks simple from the outside, on the inside there’s a lot more complexity than you might expect.6 It contains not just a quartz crystal but also discrete components and a tiny integrated circuit. The integrated circuit combines capacitors, analog circuitry to drive the oscillations, and digital circuitry to choose a frequency. By changing the wiring to the integrated circuit during manufacturing, four different frequencies can be selected.

I’ll end with the die photo below showing the chip after removing the metal and oxide layers, showing the silicon and polysilicon underneath. The large pinkish capacitors are the most visible feature in this image, but the transistors can also be seen. (Click the image for a larger version.)

Die photo of the oscillator chip with metal removed to show the polysilicon and silicon underneath.

Die photo of the oscillator chip with metal removed to show the polysilicon and silicon underneath.

 

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Notes and references

  1. Modern PCs use quartz crystals, but with a more complex technique to get multi-gigahertz clock frequencies. A PC uses a crystal with a much lower frequency, and multiplies the frequency using a circuit called a phase-locked loop. Computers often used a 14.318 MHz crystal because that frequency was used in old television sets, so crystals with that frequency were common and cheap. 
  2. Why does the board use a 4.7174 MHz crystal, a somewhat unusual frequency? In the 1970s, the IBM 3270 was a very popular CRT terminal. These terminals were connected with coaxial cable and used the Interface Display System Standard protocol with a 2.3587 MHz bit rate. In the late 1980s, IBM produced interface cards to connect an IBM PC to a 3270 network. I obtained the crystal from one of these interface cards (type 56X4927), and the crystal frequency of 4.7174 MHz is exactly twice the 2.3587 MHz bit rate. 
  3. The terminology used for crystal oscillators is confusing with “Colpitts oscillator” and “Pierce oscillator” used in contradictory ways. I looked into the history of oscillators to try to sort out the naming, and I’ll discuss it in this footnote.

    In 1918, Edwin Colpitts, the head researcher at Western Electric, invented an inductor/capacitor oscillator, now known as the Colpitts Oscillator. The idea is that the inductor and capacitors form a “resonant tank”, which oscillates at a frequency set by the component values. (You can think of the electricity in the tank as sloshing back and forth between the inductor and the capacitors.) On their own, the oscillations would rapidly die out, so an amplifier is used to boost the oscillators. In the original Colpitts oscillator, the amplifier was a vacuum tube. Later circuits moved to transistors, but it can also be an op-amp or other type of amplifier. (Other circuits, such as the module I examined, ground an end and provide feedback to the middle. In that case, there is no inversion from the capacitors, so a non-inverting amplifier is used.)

    A simplified schematic of a Colpitts oscillator, showing the basic components.

    A simplified schematic of a Colpitts oscillator, showing the basic components.

     

    The key feature of the Colpitts oscillator is the two capacitors, which form a voltage divider. Since the capacitors are grounded in the middle, the two ends will have opposite voltages: when one end goes up, the other goes down. The amplifier takes the signal from one end, amplifies it, and feeds it into the other end. The amplifier inverts the signal and the capacitors provide a second inversion, so the feedback strengthens the original signal (i.e. it has a phase shift of 360°).

    In 1923, George Washington Pierce, a professor of physics at Harvard, replaced the inductor in the Colpitts oscillator with a crystal. The crystal made the oscillator much more accurate (higher Q factor), leading to its heavy use in radio transmission and other applications. Pierce patented his invention and made a lot of money off it from companies such as RCA and AT&T. The patents led to years of litigation, eventually reaching the Supreme Court. (For more information, see this thesis on crystal history.)

    For several decades, the common terminology was that a Pierce oscillator was a Colpitts oscillator that used a crystal. (See Air Force Manual, 1957 and Navy training, 1983 for instance.) The Pierce oscillator often omitted the characteristic voltage-divider capacitors, using the stray capacitance of the vacuum tube instead. But then terminology shifted, with “Colpitts oscillator” and “Pierce oscillator” indicating two different types of crystal oscillator: Colpitts with the capacitors and Pierce without the capacitors. (See, for example, the classic electronics text Horowitz and Hill.)

    Another change in terminology was to describe the Colpitts oscillator, Pierce oscillator, and Clapp oscillator as topologically identical crystal oscillators, just differing in what point in the circuit was considered AC ground (the collector, emitter, or base respectively). (See Frerking’s Crystal Oscillator Design and Temperature Compensation (1978, p56) or Maxim’s crystal oscillator tutorial.) Alternatively, these oscillators can all be called Colpitts, but common-collector, common-emitter, or common-base (details).

    The point of this history is that oscillator terminology is confusing, with different sources calling oscillators Colpitts or Pierce in contradictory ways. Getting back to the oscillator module I examined, it could be described as a common-drain Colpitts oscillator (analogous to common-collector). It would also be called a Colpitts oscillator using the terminology based on the ground position. Historically, it would be called a Pierce oscillator since it uses a crystal. It’s also called a single-pin crystal oscillator since only one pin of the crystal is connected to the circuitry (and the other is grounded). 

  4. The typical quartz oscillator is built using a simple circuit called the Pierce-gate oscillator, where the crystal forms a feedback loop with an inverter. (The two capacitors grounded in the middle make this very similar to the classical Colpitts oscillator.)

    The Pierce oscillator circuit commonly used as a computer clock. Diagram by Omegatron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

    The Pierce oscillator circuit commonly used as a computer clock. Diagram by Omegatron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

     

    I’m not sure why the module I disassembled uses a more complex oscillator circuit that requires tricky biasing. 

  5. The voltage bias and current bias circuits are moderately complex analog circuits built with a bunch of transistors and a few resistors. I won’t describe them in detail, but they use feedback loops to generate the desired fixed voltage and current. 
  6. If you want to learn more about quartz oscillators, there are interesting videos at EEVblog, electronupdate, and WizardTim. Colpitts oscillators are explained in videos at Hackaday.

The $50 Ham: Digital Modes With WSJT-X

As it is generally practiced, ham radio is a little like going to the grocery store and striking up a conversation with everyone you bump into as you ply the aisles. Except that the grocery store is the size of the planet, and everyone brings their own shopping cart, some of which are highly modified and really expensive. And pretty much every conversation is about said carts, or about the grocery store itself.

With that admittedly iffy analogy in mind, if you’re not the kind of person who would normally strike up a conversation with someone while shopping, you might think that you’d be a poor fit for amateur radio. But just because that’s the way that most people exercise their ham radio privileges doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Exploring a few of the more popular ways to leverage the high-frequency (HF) bands and see what can be done on a limited budget, in terms of both cost of equipment as well as the amount of power used, is the focus of this installment of The $50 Ham. Welcome to the world of microphone-optional ham radio: weak-signal digital modes.

 

Just a Regular Joe

First things first, let me make it clear that there are a ton of modes available to amateur radio service licensees that don’t require talking into a microphone, going right back to the beginning of radio with continuous wave (CW) modes. Banging out dits and dahs with a straight key is perhaps the original digital mode, if we stretch the meaning of the term just a wee bit from its current modern connotation of transmitting and receiving encoded messages using computers, either built into the radio or attached as a separate component. I’ll use that as my definition of “digital mode” for the purposes of this article.

But even with that stricter definition, there is still a huge ecosystem of digital modes that have cropped up over the history of ham radio;  the desire for communications without the need to be a conversationalist goes way back, it seems. But for this article, I’ll be focusing on a couple of modes within the “weak signals” family of modes, mainly because I find them fascinating and incredibly useful, and I get a real kick out of seeing what kinds of contacts are possible using less power than it takes to light up an LED light bulb.

When you get into the weak-signal space, one name keeps popping up: Joe Taylor (K1JT). Joe is a ham based in New Jersey, and when you first start hearing about him, you figure he’s just a, well, regular Joe, an old school ham who has come up with some clever software to make low-power signals easier to pull out of a high-noise environment. And while that’s certainly true, it quickly becomes apparent that Joe is a lot more than that. Joseph Hooton Taylor, Jr. earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard in 1968. He joined the physics faculty at Princeton in 1980, and has won pretty much every major prize in physics and mathematics, including the Draper Medal, the Wolf Prize, and in 1993, the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Magic of WSJT-X

For all these lofty achievements, in many ways Joe is very much a “ham’s ham”, and since his retirement in 2006 he has turned his considerable experience in digital signal processing toward an all-encompassing weak-signals package called “WSJT“, for “weak signals, Joe Taylor.” Actually first written in 2001, the program has undergone nearly constant revision and updating by Joe and a cadre of digital-modes enthusiasts, with the latest incarnation, WSJT-X, which implements ten different weak-signal digital modes.

Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. (K1JT), 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. Source: Nobel.org.

We’ll skip a deep dive into the DSP techniques underpinning WSJT-X — although it’s fascinating stuff and probably worthy of an article all by itself — and suffice it to say that the package implements various multiple frequency-shift keying (MFSK) modulation methods, each of which is optimized to work under different propagation conditions. The ten modes currently implemented cover everything from high-noise ionospheric propagation to tropospheric scatter, with modes that support bouncing signals off meteor ionization trails or even listening to your own signals bouncing off the Moon.

Even though WSJT-X modes are separated into broad “fast” and “slow” categories, by modern networking standards, they’re all pretty slow. Typical bit-rates range from a dozen characters per second to 400 baud or so. The low-throughput nature of these modes is entirely by design; by not attempting to achieve blazing speeds, WSJT-X makes very efficient use of the spectrum. Some modes only need a few hertz of bandwidth, with the tradeoff being that even very short messages can take multiple minutes to transmit.

The mode that I’ve been playing with most lately, FT8, is a relatively recent addition to the WSJT-X suite. FT8 was written by Joe Taylor and Steve Franke (K9AN), hence the “FT” in the moniker. The “8” refers to “8-FSK”, which means that the modulation scheme uses eight different tones spaced 6.25 Hz apart. Each FT8 signal therefore occupies 50 Hz, a huge chunk of bandwidth when compared to other weak-signal modes, but still pretty compact. All that extra bandwidth means that FT8 transmissions can be much shorter than, say, a 30-minute transmission on JT9. That makes FT8 suitable for quick QSOs and contesting, which is sort of the contact sport of amateur radio.

Speed Dating for Hams

While FT8 is fast, the tradeoff is message length. Each FT8 transmission encodes only 75 bits, with a 12-bit cyclic-redundancy check (CRC). That and the rapid turnaround time means that most operators rely on automation built into WSJT-X, as well as standardized messages, to make their FT8 contacts.

Setting up WSJT-X and getting a transceiver ready for FT8 is highly dependent on your computer and your radio. In my case, I built a dedicated Raspberry Pi 4 to run my ham radio operation, using the excellent Ham Pi image by Dave Slotter (W3DJS). I also attempted to use KM4ACK’s equally excellent Build-a-Pi image, but I had trouble getting my Icom IC-7200 transceiver talking to WSJT-X, and rather than devote a lot of time to troubleshooting I just tried the Ham Pi build. Both images have outstanding communities that will help you get spun up, as does WSJT-X, which has a forum where you’ll often see Joe Taylor pop in to answer questions. A community that has a Nobel laureate as a frequent contributor is a strong community indeed.

The video above shows why I call FT8 “the speed dating of ham radio.” The waterfall display at the top shows about 2,500 Hz of passband — the transceiver must be set up to allow as wide a possible band of frequencies through to WSJT-X (tip o’ the hat to Josh KI6NAZ for the help getting that right.) The FT8 algorithm decodes every 50-Hz wide FT8 signal in the passband at once; that along with the fact that each transmission is 15 seconds long followed by 15 seconds idle results in the characteristic checkerboard appearance on the waterfall display.

The characteristic FT8 checkerboard pattern develops on the WSJT-X waterfall. The 40-meter band was pretty good tonight, but I couldn’t make any QSOs.

Decoded messages are displayed in the left window of WSJT-X, with operators generally looking for stations calling CQ. Clicking on an entry in the Band Activity window starts a series of automatic messages, with WSJT-X keying up the transmitter and sending a minimal QSO — basically just the two call signs, a grid square locator, and the received signal strength. It’s important to note that the two sides of the conversation don’t have to be, and in fact shouldn’t be, on the same frequency — the other operator’s copy of WSJT-X will decode the entire passband if it can. Once the acknowledgment of the CQ is received by the other station, the exchange of messages is entirely automatic, until the final 73s are sent and WSJT-X gives both sides a chance to log the QSO.

Since I’ve set up my end-fed half-wave antenna for the HF bands and gotten WSJT-X installed, I’ve made quite a few contacts. Most of them have been in the continental US and Canada, but I did manage to bag Japan on 30 meters last week, which was a treat. The fact that I could do all of this without once picking up the microphone, struggling to think of something to say, is a godsend to me, and the fact that WSJT-X is able to decode signals that are so far down into the noise floor is an intoxicating technical feat.  It’s also really nice to sit down for a half-hour or so before dinner and bang out a couple of low-effort QSOs without having to invest too much in the process.

As mentioned, FT8 isn’t the only weak-signal mode that Joe Taylor and his collaborators built into WSJT-X. Next time on The $50 Ham, we’ll look at the equally addictive WSPR mode, and see how you can actually work HF bands for far less than $50, transmitter included.

P

3D Printer Makes Ham Antenna Portable

You don’t normally think of a 3D printer as a necessity for an antenna project. However, if you are interested in making a handy portable antenna, you might want to melt some plastic. [N2MXX] has an end fed antenna winder design that also contains the necessary matching toroid. This would be just the thing to throw in your backpack for portable operation.

The end-fed configuration is handy for portability too, because you can easily secure one end and feed the other end. Compare that to a dipole where you have to feed a high point and secure both ends.

 

Of course, you also need wire and some other components — we don’t know how to 3D print a usable ferrite toroid. Honestly, there is some controversy about how these antennas actually work, but people swear that they work well.

There are quite a few ways to operate a portable station, depending on your definition of convenient is. Verticals are popular, although laying out ground wires can be painful. A dipole isn’t that hard to erect, especially if you are staying in one place for a while. However, we really like how small this design is and it should be easy to clip one end and just play out the wire to operate. Our only concern is how plastics will fare in the elements over the long term. Then again, if it wears out, you can just print a new one.

Our own [Dan Maloney] has made these sort of antennas and had good luck. If you want to go really tiny, try surface mount.

P

Bouw je eigen big-ass powerbank voor velddagen!

Op velddagen is een 12V voeding natuurlijk noodzakelijk maar waar haal je die vandaan? Een kleine 7Ah accu is al redelijk snel uitgeput, zeker bij wat hoger vermogen. En de laptop? En de telefoon?

Thijs PE1RLN bedacht er het volgende op: een draagbaar accupack met een shitload aan features:

– 12V accu met 50Ah capaciteit (2 x 25Ah parallel)
– 2 stuks 20A outlets
– 1 aansteker-socket 10A
– dual USB socket
– 24V output voor surplus radio’s
– 230V @ 300W stopcontact

Door alles in te bouwen in een gereedschapskist, is het geheel draagbaar én veilig. Een ingebouwde lader zorgt ervoor dat je het accupakket na de velddag weer kunt opladen en de diverse zekeringen voorkomen dat er te grote stromen gaan lopen: 30A voor de interne bekabeling en 20A resettable fuses voor de 4mm aansluitblokjes. De 230V is schakelbaar zodat de inverter niet voortdurend stroom trekt terwijl deze niet wordt gebruikt en een ingebouwde ventilator zorgt voor afzuiging naar buiten zodra het te warm wordt.

De voorzijde is voorzien van een hoofdschakelaar die intern twee hoofdrelais bedient en een spanningsmeter.

Bovenop zitten de aansluitingen onder klepjes om ze tegen de regen te beschermen.

Het binnenste met de dikke bekabeling rondom de twee forse gel-accu’s.

Deze powerbank heeft al menig keer z’n diensten bewezen waarbij gewoon op vol vermogen kan worden gewerkt met de gangbare transceivers. Zelfs tijdens de recente stroomuitval in het Heuvelland zorgde de 230V inverter ervoor dat bij Thijs de CV-ketel bleef functioneren en kon Thijs via de 12V output de draagbare Nespressomachine gebruiken. Niks aan het handje dus.

Zelf bouwen? De koffer is van de Praxis, de accu’s van Nedis, de lader van de Action en de rest komt via de post uit China.

What Makes A Good Antenna?

It sometimes seems as though antennas and RF design are portrayed as something of a Black Art, the exclusive preserve of an initiated group of RF mystics and beyond the reach of mere mortals. In fact though they have their difficult moments it’s possible to gain an understanding of the topic, and making that start is the subject of a video from [Andreas Speiss]. Entitled “How To Build A Good Antenna”, it uses the design and set-up of a simple quarter-wave groundplane antenna as a handle to introduce the viewer to the key topics.

What makes this video a good one is its focus on the practical rather than the theoretical. We get advice on connectors and antenna materials, and we’re introduced to the maths through online calculators rather than extensive formulae. Of course the full calculations are there to be learned by those with an interest, but for many constructors they can be somewhat daunting. We’re shown a NanoVNA as a useful tool in the antenna builder’s arsenal, one which gives a revolutionary window on performance compared to the trial-and-error of previous times. Even the ground plane gets the treatment, with its effect on impedance and gain explored and the emergence of its angle as a crucial factor in performance. We think this approach does an effective job of breaking the mystique surrounding antennas, and we hope it will encourage viewers to experiment further.

If your appetite has been whetted, how about taking a look at a Nano VNA in action?

 

Vanaf 21 juni weer bijeenkomsten!

Vanaf maandag 21 juni gaat de VRZA weer open! Van 20 tot 22 uur zullen de deuren van het Gidsengebouw weer open zijn om QSL-kaarten op te halen of te brengen en om bij te praten.

Tijdens de bijeenkomsten dienen de corona-regels te worden nageleefd.

A One-Transistor Ham Transmitter Anyone Can Build

What attracts a lot of people to amateur radio is that it gives you the ability to make your own gear. Scratch-building hams usually start by making their own antennas, but eventually, the itch to build one’s own radio must be scratched. And building this one-transistor transmitter is just about the simplest way to dive into the world of DIY radio.

Of course, limiting yourself to eight components in total entails making some sacrifices, and [Kostas (SV3ORA)]’s transmitter is clearly a study in compromise. For starters, it’s only a transmitter, so you’ll need to make other arrangements to have a meaningful conversation. You’ll also have to learn Morse code because the minimalist build only supports continuous-wave (CW) mode, although it can be modified for amplitude modulation (AM) voice work.

The circuit is flexible enough that almost any part can be substituted and the transmitter will still work. Most of the parts are junk-bin items, although the main transformer is something you’ll have to wind by hand. As described, the transformer not only provides feedback to the transistor oscillator, but also has a winding that powers an incandescent pilot lamp, and provides taps for attaching antennas of different impedances — no external tuner needed. [SV3ORA] provides detailed transformer-winding instructions and shows the final build, which looks very professional and tidy. The video below shows the rig in action with a separate receiver providing sidetone; there’s also the option of using one of the WebSDR receivers sprinkled around the globe to verify you’re getting out.

This little transmitter looks like a ton of fun to build, and we may just try it for our $50 Ham series if we can find all the parts. Honestly, the hardest to come by might be the variable capacitor, but there are ways around that too.

 

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The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

 

Making a Match

There are plenty of hams out there for whom antenna building is the be-all and end-all of the hobby. I get that; there’s a non-zero amount of wizardry that goes into designing an antenna that will do what you want it to do electrically, and plenty of engineering involved in making sure it stands up to the elements. I think the latter aspect of antenna building is more attractive to me personally. Getting an antenna to survive wind, snow, sun, and rain is an interesting challenge, so I tend to spend more time thinking about the mechanical aspects of design that someone has already worked the RF bugs out of.

So I set out looking for an antenna that would work for my situation. Perhaps the easiest antenna to build is the classic half-wave dipole. These have two elements, each one-quarter of the design wavelength, radiating out from a central feed point, which is where the coaxial cable feedline attaches. There are elaborations and complications, of course, but the basic issue for me is the central feed point. My shack is located at the very back corner of my property, so it’s difficult to rig an antenna like that without a long feedline, which can introduce unacceptable signal losses. Plus, a dipole for the 80-meter band would be 40 meters end-to-end, and that would be hard to fit across my long, narrow suburban lot.

For my purposes, the end-fed half-wave (EFHW) antenna is a good choice. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a chunk of wire one-half of a wavelength long (in my case, 40 meters long so I can work the 80 meter band) that is fed from its end. But it’s not as simple as cutting a 40 meter long piece of wire and sticking it on your radio. The problem is that the impedance of an antenna varies as the feedpoint moves away from the center. The impedance increases all the way up to about 2,500 ohms when the feedpoint reaches the end of the wire, which would be a very bad match indeed for a transceiver expecting a 50 ohm load.

To fix this, EFHW antennas need a transformer to match impedances. When used to match impedance between a balanced antenna, like a dipole, and an unbalanced feedline, like coaxial cable, these are referred to as “baluns”. In this case, though, both the antenna and the coax feedline are unbalanced, so the transformer I built is technically an “unun”. Whatever you call it, it’s a pretty easy build.

My 49:1 matching transformer, mounted and ready to go outside. I considered potting the whole thing in epoxy, but decided against it.

I followed the excellent instructions provided by Steve Nichols (G0KYA) to wind my 49:1 autotransformer. It’s basically just big ferrite toroid core — I got mine from eBay, but there are plenty of options on Amazon — with a few windings of magnet wire. My core is an FT-240-61, which means its outside diameter is 2.4 inches and it’s made of type 61 material. I used 18 AWG magnet wire for the windings. While I was winding it, I noticed that the lacquer coating on the magnet wire was getting nicked by the edges of the ferrite core. I rewound it after covering the toroid with cloth friction tape to cushion the edges a bit — shorts would be no bueno in something designed to handle 100 Watts of transmitter output.

Like I said, a lot of the fussing I did with this transformer had to do with making it work mechanically. I mounted it into a sturdy plastic electrical enclosure and provided stainless steel fittings for connecting the antenna wire and the ground connection. I also installed an eye bolt to tether the antenna wire. A good-quality SO-239 socket for the feedline connection and a 100 pF high-voltage capacitor for better matching on the higher frequency bands completed the transformer. With luck, this antenna should cover 80 m to 10 m bands.

Pushing Rope

My method for placing a pulley up a tree from the ground. It would have work better on a tree with smoother bark.

As luck would have it, my lot is just about 150 feet deep, and I’m both blessed and cursed by a lot of very tall, very sturdy Ponderosa pines. The length of my lot and the location of the trees allows for a full 40-meter wire in a sort of “inverted-L” configuration. My plan was to slope the wire from the transformer up as far as possible in the first tree, then run it horizontally to an anchor point in a second tree.

This sounds far, far easier than it actually is. While many hams have had good luck suspending antennas from lines lofted over branches, my pine trees have all been pruned of their lower branches, with the first living branches more than 40′ (12 meters) above the ground. I opted for a “work smarter” approach and came up with an idea to basically push a loop of rope up the tree using PVC pipe as a push stick. Although the roughness of the Ponderosa bark constantly snagged the nylon rope and the PVC pipe flopped around as I added sections , it actually worked well enough to get the anchor point about 25′ (7.5 m) above the ground — not much higher than I could have gotten with my 24′ ladder, but with a whole lot less risk of falling to my death.

The anchor point was set in the other tree using a similar method, which drew a lot of attention from the neighbors. One should always seize such opportunities to do a little “ham goodwill” outreach, and I assured the neighbors that I wouldn’t be sterilizing their kids or interfering with their TV reception. In an example of karma, though, the tree I was working in decided to shed a dead branch the next day, which came down and damaged my neighbor’s Durango. It clearly came from much higher in the tree than I was working, but it still caused a little bit of the old stink eye.

Sway relief on the anchor end. Note the safety line that runs through the bore of the spring, just in case it breaks.

One of the most important parts of using trees as anchors for long-wire antennas is dealing with sway. Trees move around quite a bit, and if you anchor a wire tightly between two trees without allowing for them to move with the wind, sadness will ensue. And yet, you want your wire to stay more or less taut, since its shape affects its performance. There are a couple of ways to deal with this, and I chose to use clothesline pulleys at both my anchor points. At the midpoint, the wire runs through the pulley; at the end anchor, the wire is tied off to a length of strong nylon cord through a dogbone insulator. That cord runs through the pulley and down the trunk of the tree to an anchor point through a strong spring. When the trees sway, the antenna can extend or retract by several inches without sagging or snapping.

On the Air at Last

I have to admit that this installation isn’t actually complete yet. Antennas really should be properly grounded, and I’m keen to pound a ground rod in near the transformer. However, both the mains feeder for my house and the primary feeder for the entire neighborhood are buried directly under our back fence, making this a high-risk endeavor. As good as underground location services are, I’m not keen to test their precision with my precious self. So I’m going to wait for a decent ground.

Still, I couldn’t help but want to try this antenna out, so to keep RF out of the shack, I wound a 10-turn air-core choke on the feedline and hooked it up. I haven’t made any QSOs yet, but using WSPR, the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter system, I was able to reach four continents over a 24-hour period on the 80-, 40-, 30-, and 20-meter bands.

The world on one antenna: 24 hours of WSPR reports on 80, 40, 30, and 20 meters.

And speaking of WSPR, that and other digital modes are what we’ll be talking about in the next installment of the $50 Ham. Spoiler alert: despite my previous gripes, I think I’m falling in love with ham radio again.

P

Q Multiplier — Er… Multiplies Q

If you are below a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of a Q multiplier. This is a device that increases the “Q” of a radio receiver’s intermediate frequency and, thus, provide a higher selectivity. If you enjoy nostalgia, you can see inside a 1960s-era Heathkit QF-1 Q multiplier in [Jeff’s] informative video, below.

The Q multiplier was a regenerative amplifier that operated at just below the oscillation point. This provided very high amplification for the frequency of interest and less amplification for other frequencies. Some radios had a stage like this built-in, but the QF-1 was made to add into an external radio. For some Heathkit receivers, there was a direct plug to tap into the IF stage for this purpose. Othe radios would require some hacking to get it to work.

 

The QF-1 had several modes of operation where it could act as bandpass filter or a notch filter. You could also tune the frequency using the main knob. The circuit when revealed isn’t overly complex and there is no printed circuit board. The active device was a dual triode.

If you want a deeper discussion of the circuit, the Orange County Amateur Radio Club newletter a few years back had a great article on this device by [AF6C]. It explains how each mode works. It also mentions a few of the device’s offspring such as the HD-11 and GD-125, which was sold until 1971.

If you have plans of building a circuit like this, keep in mind that the intermediate frequency for most radios in those days was 455 kHz, which is what the QF-1 expects. Most communication receivers today use significantly higher IF for a variety of reasons (10.7 MHz, for example, is common).

We always enjoy [Jeff’s] videos of old receivers and gear. Not that he’s the only one doing things like that.

P

TV Detector Vans Once Prowled The Streets Of England

The United Kingdom is somewhat unique in the world for requiring those households which view broadcast television to purchase a licence for the privilege. Initially coming into being with the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1923, the licence was required for anyone receiving broadcast radio, before being expanded to cover television in 1946. The funds generated from this endeavour are used as the primary funding for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

A typical TV licence invoice. Separate licences for black and white and color sets still exist, with 6000 B&W licences issued in 2019.

Of course, it’s all well and good to require a licence, but without some manner of enforcement, the measure doesn’t have any teeth. Among other measures, the BBC have gone as far as employing special vans to hunt down illegally operating televisions and protect its precious income.

The Van Is Coming For You

To ensure a regular income, the BBC runs enforcement operations under the TV Licencing trade name, the entity which is responsible for administering the system. Records are kept of licences and their expiry dates, and investigations are made into households suspected of owning a television who have not paid the requisite fees. To encourage compliance, TV Licencing regularly sends sternly worded letters to those who have let their licence lapse or have not purchased one. In the event this fails, they may arrange a visit from enforcement officers. These officers aren’t empowered to forcibly enter homes, so in the event a homeowner declines to cooperate with an investigation, TV Licencing will apply for a search warrant. This may be on the basis of evidence such as a satellite dish or antenna spotted on the roof of a dwelling, or a remote spied on a couch cushion through a window.

Alternatively, a search warrant may be granted on the basis of evidence gleaned from a TV detector van. Outfitted with equipment to detect a TV set in use, the vans roam the streets of the United Kingdom, often dispatched to addresses with lapsed or absent TV licences. If the van detects that a set may be operating and receiving broadcast signals, TV Licencing can apply to the court for the requisite warrant to take the investigation further. The vans are almost solely used to support warrant applications; the detection van evidence is rarely if ever used in court to prosecute a licence evader. With a warrant in hand, officers will use direct evidence such as a television found plugged into an aerial to bring an evader to justice through the courts.

 

Detecting Television Usage

An example of the original detector van design, as deployed in 1952. Note the three loop antennas – one front, two rear.

The vans were first deployed in 1952, with equipment designed to pick up the magnetic field from the horizontal deflection scanning of the picture tube, at 10.125 KHz. Loop antennas were used to detect the second harmonic of this signal at 20.25 KHz, which was mixed with a local beat frequency oscillator at 19.25 KHz to create a 1 KHz tone to indicate to the operator when a signal was picked up. Three antennas were used, one on the front of the van and two on the rear on the left and right sides. When the van was next to an operating television in a house, the signal between the front and side antenna would be roughly the same. Signal from the right and left antennas could then be compared to determine which side of the street the television was on.

The VHF era brought with it a new detector van design, this time built on a car such as to avoid clearance issues with the tall antenna.

Once ITV started broadcasting in 1963, this method of detection became impractical. The two television stations did not synchronise their line-scan signals, so neighbouring houses watching different channels would create confusing interference for the detector. To get around this, the vans switched to detecting the local oscillator of the TV set’s superheterodyne VHF receiver instead. With stations broadcasting on bands spanning 47 to 240 MHz, it was impractical at the time to build a tuner and antenna to cover this entire range. Instead, the equipment was designed to work from 110-250MHz tuning in the fundamental frequencies of the higher bands, or the harmonics of the lower frequency oscillators. A highly directional antenna was used to hone in on a set, and a periscope was installed to allow the operator to view the house the antenna was pointing at. If operating in the dark, the periscope could instead be used to shine a small dot of light in the direction of the antenna’s facing, to identify the relevant target. Results were cross-referenced with a list of houses with lapsed or absent licences to help hunt down evaders.

A pair of antennas was used to search for televisions in the UHF era, with the twin setup helping to improve directionality.

The introduction of UHF transmissions led to further redesigns. Engineers again leaned on harmonics to allow a single system to cover the full range from low VHF to higher UHF frequencies. A pair of 6′ long log-periodic spiral antennas were used, mounted on top of the van, which could be varied in spacing to effectively tune different frequencies. In practice, the antennas would be pointed towards a row of houses, while the van was slowly driven along the street. The beam pattern of the antenna pair would show seven distinct lobes on a CRT inside the van when a TV was detected. An operator would press a button to mark house boundaries on the CRT as the van moved, and when the lobe pattern centered on a particular house, the TVs location was clear. The hardware was further refined over the years, with various antenna rigs and detection equipment used as technology marched on.

Seeking Television in Modern Times

In the UHF era, pinning down a detected television set took some finesse, with the operator having to interpret signals received on a CRT display.

Modern efforts to detect licence evasion are shrouded in mystery. Modern flatscreen displays receiving digital television signals do not emit as much radio frequency interference as older designs, and any such signals detected are less easily correlated with broadcast television. An LCD television in the home can just as easily be displaying output from a video game console or an online streaming service, with both being usage cases that do not require the owner to pay a licence fee. Based on an alleged BBC submission for a search warrant in recent years, there may be optical methods used in which reflected light from a television in a viewer’s home is compared to a live broadcast signal. The BBC declined to answer the Freedom of Information request with any details of their methods, other than to say they have employed vehicles and handheld devices in enforcement efforts. However, given the multitude of broadcast, cable and satellite channels now available, the comparison effort would necessarily be much harder, leading some to suspect the days of the detector van are largely over.

While the TV licence may have its days numbered with the increased dominance of streaming content, it remains a quirky piece of legislation that spawned the development of a technical curiosity. If you fancy yourself a television sleuth, sound off in the comments with your chosen approach to hunting for televisions watching broadcast content illegally in this modern era. And be sure to look over your shoulder – you never know when TV Licencing might be knocking on your door!

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