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Autopatching may have been parent of cell phone system; at least it seems so

Having just returned from a trip to the market, where we placed a call home through a hands-free Bluetooth device, it struck us that even though Ham radio operators and manufacturers may have come up with a similar idea – if not the exact idea – but with a key difference, it was available for free to the public.

For example, roughly 20 years ago, Trio-Kenwood (known now by its first name Kenwood) came out with a very similar hands-free phone system that relied on a sensitive microphone that could be hung from the sun visor or light and with a speaker that could be placed wherever there was metal as it was on a rather powerful magnet.

Two ways to use it

Admittedly far more primitive than today's integrated Bluetooth systems that allow you to have up to a dozen devices available, each with its own interface code, it was still an effective way to use your VHF or UHF or VHF/UHF transceiver through your local repeater. It operated in two modes, VOX where you spoke and the system picked up your voice and, using old-fashioned analog audio, sent your voice to the transceiver where the microphone was keyed and you could talk to your heart's content or the whatever length of time the repeater gave you for yakking.

At the time of its introduction, the system was state-of-the-art. It wasn't a radio-based system as it was hard-wired to the transceiver which presented its own set of problems.

One had to find a way of running the lines of the push-to-talk microphone connector, as well as placing the microphone assembly where you could be heard clearly.

Keep the aisles clear”

Okay, so we are stretching this a bit but how many times when you were in school, on a field trip, for instance, did the bus driver or chaperone order you to “keep the aisles clear” of unnecessary items. Likewise, one could say that to the radio – if the radio talked back it would have helped but we realize it was inanimate and could have told us the best route for the the three wires:

  • Push-to-talk microphone switch

  • Microphone pickup head (usually mounted to the side of the visor or behind the rearview

  • Speaker wire

    No we had to figure it out and then run the wiring, trying to keep it at its standard length so we had to spool the wire at some point – usually under the seat – and then attach the various components.

Interestingly, when this Kenwood option was popular – it was sensitive and in demand – Kenwood's line of VHF and UHF had full phone-style keyboard available on the front face of the transceiver (TR-7930/50, for instance) and the mike system was intelligent enough to realize when you wanted to use the repeater's autopatch capability to make a phone call (yes, Hams were making cell-like calls well before the world even knew that things like calling home via radio were even possible and then people assumed only the rich could do it – not true).

Specialized features

Unless your repeater's controller head was very advanced for the time (due to the builder's use of an advanced CPU chip) that outlined how the repeater trustee and his assistants could assign a one- or two-digit number to give you repeater access, as well as autopatch access by keying the push-to-talk line.

In a sense, autopatches were the forerunners of today's cell system. An autopatch – a standard phone line with a phone number that served an entire club, instead of one user – was accessed by a ham with a two or three-digit code. With it the ham, could call home or the police or fire or other officials if needed, as well as friends. Or, if the club gave out this information, a Ham could call the autopatch and talk with anyone on the repeater. It was a two-way system. Many clubs linked their repeaters and patches and set up a very rudimentary cell-like system – although since most autopatches and repeaters were run by clubs – there was only one payment for it, our yearly dues.

Interestingly, if the coverage areas of the repeater was large enough or the linkage area was large, the Ham population has access to a huge low-cost phone system – which could only be used for Ham Radio purposes.

Still, by 1995, autopatching was becoming very secondary as many Hams not only maintained transceivers in their vehicles, but cellphones as well.

Idea shift

So, here you had an idea that had its roots in Ham Radio (the first theoretical stories on cell systems usually mentioned that Hams were at the core of the original providers) blossomed into something of an idea shift. It was an idea shift none of us in the Ham Radio world could have foreseen and it has changed the way we all communicate forever. Essentially, we are now all “on-the-air” all the time.


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