Not so long ago, you could walk into practically any electronics shop in the world and pick up a decent shortwave radio kit. Now, they’re scarce as hen’s teeth. What happened?
Well, for one thing, virtually all electronic kits have disappeared, except from specialty online retailers. It’s tempting to speculate on why that might be, but it seems to me there are a few possible reasons:
- Technology has just gotten too complicated. A beginner won’t have the time, skills, or patience to solder surface-mount devices on a tiny board with the aid of a magnifying glass.
- People have more entertainment options vying for their attention. In the past, there were fewer things to do, meaning less competition and fewer distractions.
- A general decline in the do-it-yourself culture. I hesitate to say that we’ve gotten “lazy,” but it’s a lot easier to flop down on the couch with a video game, than it is to put together and then debug even a modestly complicated electronic circuit.
- We’ve gotten used to instant gratification, and whatever a kit offers, it isn’t instant.
- With the advent of totally-automated mass production, there is no longer a cost incentive to build your own electronics.
- We’ve gotten a little bit jaded; any DIY electronic device is going to have a hard time competing with an iPhone.
- Children are no longer encouraged to experiment, to tinker, and to build. Predictably, they grow into adults without those interests.
There’s a lot to be said for building your next electronic gizmo from a kit, or helping your child build a kit, even if it can’t hope to compete with the latest offerings out of Cupertino. For one thing, it can help spark a young person’s lifelong interest in how things work, which can ultimately lead to a satisfying and lucrative career in science or engineering. Many of the leading figures in computing, for instance, got their start in just this way. See, for example, this quote from Steve Jobs, which appeared in the April, 1995 issue of Computer World:
Heathkits were really great. Heathkits were these products that you would buy in kit form. You actually paid more money for them than if you just went and bought the finished product if it was available. These Heathkits would come with these detailed manuals about how to put this thing together and all the parts would be laid out in a certain way and color coded. You’d actually build this thing yourself. I would say that this gave one several things. It gave one a understanding of what was inside a finished product and how it worked because it would include a theory of operation but maybe even more importantly it gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean you looked at a television set you would think that “I haven’t built one of those but I could. There’s one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I’ve built two other Heathkits so I could build that.” Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation not these magical things that just appeared in one’s environment that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment. My childhood was very fortunate in that way.
It’s also just plain satisfying to use something you made yourself — and there are fewer and fewer chances to do that with each passing year, as technology accelerates and becomes increasingly inaccessible to the common person.
Fortunately, you can still find a few kits around. And there are few beginner’s kits that are so perennial, or so rewarding, as a shortwave radio kit. Think about it: with a few hours’ work, you can build a device that can become your own magic carpet. You will be able to hear voices, opinions, and programming from distant lands, news as it happens, and unique perspectives on the world. Sure, these days you can also get a lot of that on the Internet. But what happens when your Internet goes down? And besides, where’s the fun and challenge in opening your browser and typing in “news.bbc.co.uk”?
Your shortwave radio kit building experience needn’t break the bank or tax your skills too far. There are kits available at multiple skill levels (with increasing cost, complexity, and performance). Here, I’m going to present kits suitable for three different skill levels: absolute beginner, intermediately skilled, and moderately advanced.
For the Absolute Beginner
We all had to start somewhere, and this Elenco Shortwave Radio Kit is a great place to start. You can get one for about what it would for a fast-food dinner. Since it was created with absolute novices in mind, there’s not even any soldering required — everything is assembled with springs on a board — so it’s a great choice for younger kids. And yet, for all that, it’s still a real shortwave radio, and it will really receive distant stations. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment; this radio is no Grundig. Primarily, you’ll be able to hear the largest of the international broadcasters: outfits like Radio Havana Cuba, Deutsche Welle, Radio Canada International, in some cases the BBC, and so on. That’s plenty of opportunity for a bit of interesting listening, and all for very little commitment of either time or money.
An extra bit of fun — you get to wind your own coils, just like great grandpa had to! I remember building this very kit when I was 11 years old. It used to be available at the local Radio Shack, and I can assure you, I enjoyed it very much.
For the Intermediate Builder
If you’re comfortable with soldering, and don’t mind springing for a slightly higher priced item, then the Ramsey SR2C Shortwave Receiver Kit could be a great choice. Ramsey has been around for a long time, and is probably the largest remaining electronic kit manufacturer in the United States. They are well-known for their high-quality manuals, which take a great deal of time explaining what you’ll be doing, how to assemble and test the radio, operational theory, and so on. This kit would be a fine choice for a teenager, but would not be appropriate for younger children. Soldering and some manual dexterity will be required, as will patience. The reward is a much better-performing, more sensitive radio that will provide more practical listening opportunities than with the simpler Elenco kit.
Building your own shortwave radio from a kit is a rewarding, fun activity that you can also share with your kids. And for so little cost, why not give it a try?