The Artificially Intelligent Antenna by Martin Huyett 2019-03-30
2019-03-30 For much of my adult life I have heard talk of artificial intelligence, the idea that machines, or devices, or "things" would one day be able to make decisions autonomously and perhaps even outsmart real, living, breathing human beings. And if my memory serves me correctly there are some pretty powerful examples of computers beating humans in chess, etc. But after the past six or eight months of working with lots of different antennas in my back yard, I'm beginning think antennas may get the last laugh yet for outsmarting humans. In fact, if you meet a ham operator who claims or even intentionally implies he or she "knows antennas," run the other way. At best they are mislead. At worst they are out to destroy the world. There isn't anyone who hasn't been outsmarted by an antenna. And if they are honest that has happened many times. Let me expand on that.
Of course, being a ham for sixty years I've had a lot of interaction with antennas. The first one I recall a name for when I was in high school was the "folded dipole." Just the name sounds intelligent. When I would mention it all my friends, who were already convinced I was crazy since I played with radios, would just sort of politely slink away. They knew I knew something sinister that they didn't know and probably couldn't know. My folded dipole was made entirely of 300 ohm TV twin lead. The feedline snaked down from the center of the horizontal part that was stretched between a tree in the front yard and a long metal pipe pole on the garage roof in the back yard. The feedline came into my upstairs bedroom through the window sill and went to a huge porcelain knife switch. One side of the switch went to my Hallicrafters S20R receiver and the other to my Millen 90800 transmitter. I had little idea what I was dealing with but a couple RF burns made me careful! Clearly something was afoot that I didn't understand. But it understood me, kind of like the rattle snakes on the farm a few years earlier! No matter, I filled page after page in my log (which unfortunately I have lost over the years) thanks to the intelligence of that folded dipole. I've never messed with one since but have great respect for them.
Over the intervening sixty years I've played with dipoles, beams, verticals, end fed wires, magnetic loops, mobile quarter waves, mobile screw drivers, "hamstick" short mobile antennas, G5RV's, horizontal loops and more. And every one of them has outsmarted me! More recently, with my preoccupation with portable antennas for crazy things like backpacking and canoeing, I've had another round of humiliation at the hand of antennas.
How do you know you've been outsmarted? Well, you carefully make your antenna and even more carefully tune it or trim it or whatever to get it just right. Inevitably, within minutes you make a contact and get a wonderful signal report! You think, "At last. I've found THE one that works!" You make several other contacts. Some are amazing. Some are just OK. The day ends with you feeling great and proud of your achievements. Being portable, you carefully take it down, wrap it up and weigh it, proud once again at how light and small it is. You are now an antenna expert so you tell your best ham friends, humbly of course, of your accomplishments, describing in detail the very easy-to-make thing that you spent days or weeks making! And you sleep well, fully satisfied, dreaming of skipping into the countryside or forest and wowing the ham world with your antenna.
Then next day, thankfully, you awake, grab a quick breakfast and acting nonchalantly, like an adult and not a kid, take your new wonder worker back outside and set it up, exactly as yesterday. With great anticipation you grab the mike or plug in your key and listen. Nothing! Perhaps everyone is just waiting for your big signal so they can stomp all over each other to log you, the antenna guru. So you call CQ. Nothing. Two hours later, you go to the bathroom and meditate on the fact that once again, you have been outsmarted, humiliated by YOUR antenna.
Days later, after repeating the experience with some other designs, just before you throw that first one in the trash or disassemble it to use the pieces to make some artwork for the wall of your shack you decide to string it up one more time. AND bingo. There they are jumping for your signal like hungry fish for your fly. You fill a lot of log sheets, maybe even get the longest distance DX contact you've ever had, at five watts SSB besides!
Now, what on earth can you do. You can't risk the humiliation of using it again, giving it another opportunity to laugh at you. You can't throw it away because its just gave you the greatest thrill of your ham career. Then it hits you. You've just found artificial intelligence, a humble piece of wire! But, sadly, no one will ever believe you.
How do I know all this. Well, today, a couple hours ago, I was victimized once again. For weeks last summer I built, played with and bragged about my 35ft end fed wire portable antenna. It gave me days worth of good contacts on nearly every band with my newly acquired Xiegu x5105 5 watt radio. I couldn't say enough about it. Light weight, easy to set up and take down and it worked well. Then winter came and I had to just look at it for several months. I went on to end fed half wave antennas. So the first day of late winter that I could stand to be outside I strung my new EFHW up and suddenly IT was the most wonderful antenna I'd ever had. Just to prove that I put up the 35 foot one. Didn't work worth a darn. But the EFHW kept shining.
Then today I decided to put the 35 footer up again. Within minutes, on the 30 meter band with no signals on the band at all, K5VSV suddenly began calling CQ. I answered. He came back running 100 watts and was a 559. To my amazement he gave me a 559 also. We talked for eleven minutes! Suddenly my dead and useless but once venerated 35 foot end fed was once again the best antenna I every had! How the heck do they do that!? And how did it know that TODAY, this very minute it had to work or it would die!? Artificial intelligence at a level of sophistication no computer will ever match.
That simple piece of wire....