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the story of a secret, after-hours life in electronics. Bill Meara started out as a normal kid, from a normal American
town. But around the age of 12 he got interested in electronics, and he
has never been the same.
To make matters worse, when he got older he became a diplomat. His work
has taken him to
Salvador, the Spanish Basque Country, the
Dominican Republic, the Azores islands of
and, most recently,
almost all of these places his addiction to electronics caused him to seek
out like-minded radio fiends, to stay up late into the night working on
strange projects, and to build embarrassingly large antennas above innocent
foreign neighborhoods. SolderSmoke takes you
into the basement workshops and electronics parts stores of these exotic
foreign places, and lets you experience the life of an expatriate geek.
If you are looking for restaurant or hotel recommendations, look elsewhere.
But if you need to know where to get an RF choke re-wound in
Domingo, SolderSmoke is the
book for you.
no ordinary memoir. It is a technical memoir. Each chapter
contains descriptions of Bill’s struggles to understand (really
understand) radio-electronic theory. Why does P=IE?
Do holes really flow through transistors? What is a
radio wave? How does a frequency mixer produce sum and
difference frequencies? If these are the kinds of questions that
keep you up at night, this book is for you.
Finally, SolderSmoke is about brotherhood.
International, cross-border brotherhood. Through the SolderSmoke
podcast we have discovered that all around the world, in countries as
different as Sudan and Switzerland, there are geeks just like us, guys with
essentially the same story, guys who got interested in radio and electronics
as teenagers, and who have stuck with it ever since. Our technical
addiction gives us something in common, something that transcends national
differences. And our electronics gives us the means to communicate.
United by a common interest in radio, and drawn closer together by means of
the internet, we form an “International Brotherhood of Electronic Wizards.”
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Reviews of “SolderSmoke –
Global Adventures in Wireless Electronics”
“A Wonderful Read”
It's not often that I've come
across a book that combines the fun of amateur radio along with understandable
explanations of difficult technical concepts as well as being a damn good read.
This book not only achieves this but does it perfectly.
It's described on the back cover as "... the story of a secret,
after-hours life in electronics." Why after hours? Well because the
author, Bill Meara, is a diplomat, a consul for the
United States of America, having been posted to
such diverse locations as
El Salvador, the
Dominican Republic and many other
During his career as a diplomat his hobby of ham radio and in particular QRP
and home-brewing has followed him around the world.
He admits that he did take time out for a while on meeting his future wife and
then marrying her. Then, as so many of us have done before, he began to be
drawn back into the hobby; the warmth of the shack, where on a cold night, he
could sit clutching a hot coffee, listening to the bands, talking to friends and
surrounded by the smell of solder smoke.
During his years as a diplomat-ham he has spent much of his free time trying to
understand some of the whys and wherefores of the circuits he was building,
attempting to build and attempting to fault find when they didn't work. And so
many of us have been right down that road!
And that explains what this book is; it's a form of diary of Bill's
Eureka moments combined with an insight into
his travels and life as a diplomat.
The technical range covered is quite large and despite all my years in
electronics I found many of his eureka moments clarified some of my ingrained
For example we all know how mixers work. Or do we? How many of us can actually
explain what goes on even in the simplest of two diode balanced mixers? Most of
us just accept that, by the black necromancy of radio in which we dabble,
fearing the release the magical smoke at the wrong moment, it just mixes and
But Bill took time to ask, query and eventually, by making notes to himself, come to understand what was going on. And his
explanations of mixers and other such subjects are indeed highly illuminating.
He explains semiconductor principles (Do you really understand hole flow versus
electron flow?). And how about resonant circuits for example?
Bill explains these and much more in a refreshing new way along with
capacitors, crystals, and a host of other often accepted but often not fully
understood truths that we, as amateurs just take for granted.
This is an ongoing life's trip through the hobby which we all share with Bill,
and remember that he is not a professional electronics engineer; he is a radio
ham who wants to be more than an "appliance operator".
He enjoys tinkering and has stuck with some pieces of equipment for more years
than I will mention but it hasn't stopped him working through the satellites
and bridging the oceans on less watts than a
And as well as his obvious love of his hobby, he introduces us to many of the
other amateurs he has met on his travels and at his various postings. He paints
a wonderful picture of the people that many of us may get to meet on the air
but he's been lucky enough to meet face to face.
And as well as doing all this he also ventured into the world of Pod-casting
and blogging, the outputs which has reached thousands world-wide on his SolderSmoke website.
I cannot recommend this book too highly and I found that it was one which I
couldn't put down until I'd finished.
“Soon to be a classic!”
This is a charming little
book about ham radio. I know, I know, who uses the word charming and ham radio
in the same sentence? Well, I did and I hope I never see the word used in this
context again. But, that's the truth of it. Bill Meara
is a charming guy and as might be expected, he wrote a charming book.
The book starts out by expressing the way many of us felt in our early years,
filled with excitement and anticipation of the new and wondrous world of radio.
And then, in the next breath, ponders how we, many of us mere children, ever
survived the ordeal. Those were high voltage dangerous days before transistors!
My favorite `early years' story is about the power supply and the gift of the
Many of the stories come from foreign countries where Bill has traveled as an
employee of the
States government. These adventures give
perspective to another important part of our hobby which is the camaraderie
among hams and the things that are unique about us, no matter what part of the
planet we come from. The stories from the
Dominican Republic stand out in my
mind. Particularly the Resistor Store and the Capacitor Store or if you wanted
anything that involved winding wire you looked up a guy who hung around on a
street corner. I think Bill was really impressed with the hams he met here. He
writes with great excitement when describing some of these characters.
Not having an engineering background, Bill expresses, on several occasions, of
being mystified by some popular explanations of electronic theory. Here I share
common ground. I also had a problem with semiconductor theory and the common
explanation of "hole flow". As the author
points out, it sometimes takes a library to understand these theories.
Sometimes just one book doesn't cut it. Bill's explanation of semiconductor
theory is as good as I've read anywhere. In fact, a lot of the technical asides
were really excellent. I guess I didn't expect them to be as in depth as they
Bill, the "Radio Fiend" also takes on a journey that requires him to
get on the air with homebrew gear. The journey starts out with a failed direct
conversion receiver and ends up years later with a DSB transceiver. I found
this very interesting as well as entertaining.
SolderSmoke: A Global Adventure in Radio Electronics.is about us. I don't think there is a ham alive that
is not going to see himself within the words of this
“A wonderful, amazing quest to unlock the magic of the
SolderSmoke: Global Adventures in Wireless Electronics, by Bill Meara, takes the reader on a journey into the magic of
radio and the essence of the amateur radio hobby. The book is both a personal
journal and a workbench notebook. Bill weaves together his exploration of radio
through both his experiences since joining the hobby as a boy and the continual
development of his conceptualization and resulting understanding of the basics
of electronics. With a liberal arts education, Bill's exploration of
electronics becomes a passionate pursuit driven by questions not easily
explained by standard text book answers. Anyone who has enjoyed listening to a SolderSmoke podcast knows that Bill is a wonderful
storyteller. His narrative traces his development in the hobby: early years as
a boy, an Army private at
experiencing the Signal Corps school, his reemergence
in the hobby upon the start of a State Department posting in the
Dominican Republic, followed by tours in the
Bill's interests in amateur radio covers many of its facets. He makes contact
with a Russian OSCAR satellite, talks to an astronaut aboard MIR, and catches
the homebrewing bug - building an AM rig, a dual
side-band rig that he uses on 17M and other completely homebrewed projects. His
job with the State Department allows him to enjoy the hobby from exotic
locations around the globe. The fellow hams he meets
(both on air and locals) adds to his adventures. Whether a fellow homebrewer is sending him a hard to get part or he works a
local ham in the
Republic via a satellite-based VHF repeater,
Bill brings to life the camaraderie of the amateur radio fellowship. His
journey takes him beyond the basic equations of electronic theory and explores
some of the fundamental questions behind the formulas. I would recommend this
book for anyone who views amateur radio gear as more than just a collection of
transistors, capacitors, diodes, and solder. SolderSmoke
(the book) is one man's journey into the soul of ham radio. It is a wonderful,
amazing quest to unlock the magic of the electron.
“An Understandable Radio Primer”
I learned much of what I know
(which isn't really very much) about radio and electronics in a military tech
school. As a result, I just assumed that a lot of what happens when electrical
energy passes through a wire or the atmosphere was just magic. Thanks to Mr. Meara's clear and understandable writing I now have an
understanding of how some of that magic really works.
this book when you need a burst of enthusiasm”
I am sure we have all come across someone whose enthusiasm for a subject was
so infectious it encouraged us to get more involved in that area. It
could have been a parent, friend, a club member or an elmer. Well, if you have regularly listened to
the SolderSmoke podcast you will found Bill Meara’s enthusiasm for homebrew amateur radio equipment
quite infectious. Whether its his discussion of
a double side band rig, a QRSS beacon or using LTSpice
to understand a circuit, after listening to Bill I often find I want to get to
the workbench and melt some solder. Well, there is now not only the
podcast and the blog, but there is also SolderSmoke –
The Book. I recently finished reading my copy and here is a brief review
of Bill’s book.
The book has the subtitle “A Global Adventure in Radio Electronics”, since
Bill’s occupation for a while has been as a US diplomat, with assignments in
the Dominican Republic, USA, the Azores, the UK and most recently Italy. So the
chapters naturally fall into describing the ‘radio adventures’ in each of these
countries. However, Bill uses the first few chapters to describe his
youth, his early steps into amateur radio and electronics. Followed by
his brief period of absence from radio, when he joined the military and went
through his basic training, eventually ending up in the special
His entry into amateur radio will resonate with many readers I am sure.
Although experiences will not be identical many readers will have similar
stages in their introduction to radio, learning CW, passing exams, reading the
magazines and dreaming of equipment, joining clubs and having an elmer. Besides the personal
history which is captivating, Bill adds to each chapter technical sections,
usually denoted in bold text. With these sections the reader is led
through a breadth of ideas, starting with with the fundamentals of
electricity and moving on to other deeper topics such as the coverage of
semiconductor principles, mixer operation, balanced modulators and amplifier
loads, for example. These are all dealt with in a conceptual manner with
minimal or no mathematics. It is with these descriptions Bill tries to
explain some principles to give an intuitive understanding of what is going on
in electronics. Indeed, this desire to understand and have a clear
intuitive understanding is something that Bill describes as a personal goal
that he had from an early age. He gets full credit here for wanting to
know the details on how everything works, even without having a formal
education in electrical engineering. These technical sections I did
enjoy, often checking how it matches my own understanding (I do have a
technical education which makes me admire his attempts even more).
For me, the book got very interesting at chapter three, where he talks
about his return to amateur radio after having been posted to the
and reading a copy of 73 magazine in a hotel lobby .
Here on in it became interesting in two ways for me. First was the
characters that he encounters (either face-to-face or through radio and the
internet). People who would help him with parts,
setting up antennas or working with him on the podcasts. It showed the
human side of amateur radio, the camaraderie or the ‘brotherhood’ as Bill calls
it, which you seldom read or hear about in the technical books or magazines on
amateur radio. Here it reminded me of the book “Hello World” which recounts the contacts that Jerry Powell, W2OJW
(SK), made through his QSL card collection. This friendship across the
world between individuals of different cultures and languages, whose common
interest in radio and electronics leads to almost automatic friendship is
enjoyable to read about. Indeed, Bill spends the last chapter discussing
this “brotherhood without borders”.
The second aspect that I personally found interesting was Bill’s description
of his homebrew projects. Reading how projects evolved and moved into new
projects was illuminating. People build things for different reasons; the technical challenge, perhaps a need for that
item of equipment, or just that it seems like fun project to build.
Whatever the reason, it is interesting to read an individuals account why
and how a project comes about, as well as the technical challenges. Bills seems to me to be a very economical homebrewer and radio operator. He does not buy lots of the
latest radio gear, he still happily runs a Heathkit
HW-8 and Drake 2B, but what he does have he uses with good effect. His
construction of a 17m DSB rig is an interesting story which is recounted in
chapter 5 (which describes his
adventures), mostly through the inclusion of a trail of
e-mails he sent at that time to the QRP-L mailing list. The
evolution of a project is something you do not usually read about in QST or QEX, but maybe see in a blog or two. It is
interesting to read from a technical perspective. What circuit elements worked
and failed and why were certain design choices made?
This is good information for other homebrewers.
The book is self published (HBR Press) through Lulu.com and I was pleased
with the quality of the printed book, which is paperback. Because it is
self published it lacks the polish that a publisher would have added; a little
more proofreading (there are some typos) and possibly some more editing. For
me an editor may have tightened up the transitions from the main narrative into
the bold technical sections and added figure captions. But these are
minor quibbles. Anyway, this is a ‘homebrewed’ book and so we can expect a
little ‘roughness around the edges’.
There is some nice dry humour in the book, similar
to what you hear in the podcasts. There are quotes throughout from
authors I have also read and respect, such a Steve Wozniak, Richard Feynman(a long time hero of mine) and Clifford Stoll.
If you enjoy the podcasts then check out the book. Pick up a copy, read it
and put it on your bookshelf alongside your technical books and consult it when
you need a burst of enthusiasm. I highly recommend the book. Price is
$19.99 at the time of writing this.