Nostalgia: Gopal Madhavan on how people bonded over amateur radio and the role of hams during an emergency and in motor sports
In the early 1960s, hams from Bangalore played a supportive role in events organised by the Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC). They made communication possible among stewards during a race or a rally. Strangers to motor sports, these hams had to be told what was going on before they could pass on any information. It was cumbersome; therefore, MMSC encouraged its members to get ham licences. It was a long time before any of us actually did!
It happened in the 1970s, when it was impossible to be ignorant of amateur radio, if you lived in Madras. People began to get involved in the hobby because of its communication potential. Amateur radio was a handy tool in sourcing life-saving drugs. A Madras ham broadcasting a need for such medicine on HF (high frequency) was common. Responding to a plea, someone would send the medicine on a flight to India. Madras hams were co-partners in crime control. A car parked at the Central railway station was traced at the Madras airport within hours of it getting stolen, because the owner had made an announcement on VHF (very high frequency).
When the new MMSC race track was being laid at Irungattukottai in the early 1980s, I met with an accident, on the way to the facility. Stuck in my car, I announced my situation on VHF. People at the AVM Studios sent a tow vehicle and a team to bail me out.
Amateur radio also fostered social interaction. During a Net (meeting at a pre-determined time), a ham on VHF may suggest meeting up for a dosa at the Woodlands Drive-In. A huge number of hams would actually land up at the hotel!
Amateur radio helped link people with common interests; and except for religion and politics, anything could be discussed. Well-attended Nets included those dwelling on the technical know-how of amateur radio.
A majority of Madras hams took the trouble of building VHF and HF sets and antennas. This passion often took them beyond Madras, and led to friendships with hams elsewhere.
In the early 1970s, I returned from Australia with a Dick Smith electronics kit for making a VHF set. I did not possess the special instruments to make the assembling perfect. Pratap (call sign: VU2POP) from Bangalore gave me an oscilloscope (for measuring frequency) and a grid dip meter (to run a fitness check on the coil) that completed the job.
Making antennas was an absorbing pastime for most hams, and also a great bonding factor. With its aluminium tube market, Lingi Chetty Street was a place where we bumped into fellow hams purchasing tubes for antennas. And, members of the Madras Amateur Radio Society met frequently. The zeal to promote amatuer radio was palpable. Contributions came in small and big measures. Started 22 years ago, the Madras Radio Repeater Club mobilised funds and installed repeaters in Madras. In May, 1989, Madras' first repeater VU2MRR 145.775 Mhz (-600) was installed on the Kesari Kuteeram building in Royapettah. It was later moved to LIC building, and finally to Residency Towers in T. Nagar. The second repeater came up on a building next to AVM Studios. After that, the focus shifted to creating repeater stations in places much farther from Madras. Sustained by selfless service and the desire to connect, Madras' ham movement kept scaling new heights.
While installing an antenna, I was stuck on the terrace along with my eldest son Prakash. As the two ladders providing access to the terrace had fallen down, we were waving at passers-by a little far away for help. Unfortunately, they mistook it for a friendly gesture and waved back.
Born in 1936, Gopal Madhavan is among the chief architects of the ham movement in India. A mechanical engineer from Battersea College of Technology, he is one of the most tech-savvy hams in the city. Despite a demanding career, involving key positions at Parry & Co and Union Motors, he found time for motor sports and amateur radio. He played a pivotal role in the building of the MMSC race track at Irungattukottai. He is now the president of the Amateur Radio Society of India (ARSI) and runs a radio-based service that enables people at sea to connect with others.