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Post details: Gearing Up at the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest!

Gearing Up at the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I have had a really wild weekend this weekend! While for most guys my age that would probably mean that I had a wild time at some bars getting plastered, for this man of mad science that is not the case. Yesterday I went to the big Chicagoland Fishing, Hunting, Travel and Outdoors Show that took place at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois, with one of my fishing buddies, and more relevantly today I went to the Wheaton Mid-Winter Hamfest that took place at the DuPage EXPO center in St. Charles, Illinois. For those of you who may not know what a "Hamfest" is, the term "ham" is a term given to people who are licensed amateur radio operators such as myself, and a "hamfest" is a huge amateur radio, computer, and electronics flea market where hams get together to talk face to face and to buy and swap equipment. Why is this important to my Foxee animatronic robot project? To put it simply, when it comes to building homebrew electronic devices ham radio operators are some of the most active homebrewers out there, building everything form transceivers to antennas to computer interfaces on their own. As a result, a hamfest is one of the greatest places around to get some of the fancy pieces of test equipment, tools, and parts that I need to build electronics projects like the internal components of my animatronic robot fox!

I have been to a hamfest once before, but that was 9-years ago after I first got my Technician-Class amateur radio license back in Junior High School. Because my last hamfest experience was so long ago and because the one hamfest that I did go to was a different one, I didn't quite know what to expect from the Wheaton Hamfest when I got there. They did have a lot of strange and interesting-looking equipment, tools, and parts there, with me not even having a clue about what most of the pieces of equipment were or what in the world they did, but sadly I found that 90% of everything that they had there fell way out of my limited budget. However, I did find plenty of good buys there, and I ended up spending literally every single dollar in my wallet that I had on me, and then digging through my pocket change just so that I could pick up a little more!

For my Foxee animatronic robot project, I pretty much only bought some desperately needed tools, supplies, and one piece of equipment. Upon the venerable Kitt Foxx's suggestion, to aid in my building my Foxee animatronic robot last month I purchased the book Critter Costuming: Making Mascots and Fabricating Fursuits by Adam Riggs. While the book is meant to teach you how to build your own fursuit animal mascot costumes, it covered the basics of metal wireframe construction that I needed to learn how to build Foxee's outer frame. The book recommended that I use steel chain-link fence tension wire to build the frame with, but to work with such heavy wire (the stuff that my local ACE Hardware sells is 9-gauge) you need to have some serious tools. While I was planning to go out to ACE Hardware and Home Depot this week to pick these tools up, luckily I found most of these tools at the hamfest for less than half the cost!

First of all, to cut the heavy steel wire I bought the biggest pair of diagonal cutters that I have ever seen-- this sucker is 10-inches long! If this monster of a tool doesn't cut through that wire, than I will probably need a hacksaw! Secondly, the critter costuming book recommended that you use heavy linesman pliers to bend your wire into shape. I saw two different pairs of linesman pliers available at the hamfest, with one pair being 8.75-inches long and the other being much heavier and 9.5-inches long. Since I have never worked with heavy steel wire before, I had know idea which of the two sizes of pliers would be better suited for my task, so I ended up buying both pairs. I also bought a small pair of needle-nosed pliers to help me with some of the more delicate work, some precision screwdrivers, and 1,000 nylon cable ties, which according to the Critter Costuming book are good for temporarily binding your wireframe joints together before you are ready to solder them.

I also bought one piece of equipment that will assist me in my holy quest to build my own talking and singing robot fox: a Batteries America 12-volt lead acid battery smart charger that charges batteries at 1 battery Amp-hour per hour. When I wrote my original Foxee animatronic robot proposal back in July, I had no idea how to power the thing. Many of the components, circuit boards, and motors required different voltage amounts to work properly, and many had battery clips for their preferred style of battery already physically attached to the circuit board. As a result, it looked like my robot was going to be an electronic mess with a dozen different nickel cadmium and alkaline batteries located throughout the robot. That would have been a logistics nightmare because it would have been nearly impossible to keep all of the batteries fresh and charged, and would dramatically increase the possibility of having a battery fail during a performance or a demonstration, which would be a very bad thing!!!

Since I learned how to build my own DC regulated power supplies last summer however, the possibility now exists for me to be able to run Foxee from a single 12-volt power source and use voltage regulator IC's to provide the appropriate voltages to the appropriate components. With that idea in mind I recently decided to go with a 12-Volt Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) battery for power. They are very inexpensive compared to Nickel Cadmium and Lithium Ion Batteries, are relatively easy to recharge, and provide a lot of Amp-hours of power compared to their cost. I found some extremely cheap Surplus 12-Volt 12-Amp-Hour batteries that were originally from power scooters, and I plan to buy two of them (the second battery will be a spare) to power Foxee with. While I don't have a clue at this time about how many Amps of current Foxee will end up drawing while she is performing in font of an audience on stage, I am guessing that a 12-Amp-hour battery will give me a few hours of power at least, and possibly a lot more than that. We'll just have to see, and if worst comes to worst I can always buy a more powerful battery later. In any case, thanks to today's hamfest, I now have an inexpensive lead acid battery smart charger!

I also bought several things having to do with my ham radio hobby at the hamfest today! Last week on eBay I was able to pick up a Radio Shack HTX-10 mobile 10-meter band transceiver for a good price, and while it came with a SWR/ Field Strength Meter and an external speaker, it did not come with an antenna. So one of the things that I picked up at the Ham Fest today was a magnetic mount 10-meter band mobile whip antenna. Also at the Hamfest I picked up a new 2-meter band mobile radio, a very used Azden PCM-2000. Since that needed a mobile whip antenna as well, I picked up a 5/8-wave stinger for it that could screw into the same magnetic mount base as the 10-meter antenna. Since it is unlikely that I will be operating both of these radios in the same location at the same time, for now the two antennas can share a magnetic base and I can swap between them. Naturally, I would prefer to have a separate magentic base for each antenna, but since the magnetic bases are expensive and this mad scientist is quite poor, this was the only way I could afford to purchase both antennas. Along with the 2-meter moble transceiver and the two antennas I also picked up a MFJ Versatuner II antenna tuner, some dipole antenna insulators, and some essential (yet unfortunately very expensive) cables and adaptors to power all of my new ham radio toys and make them work together so that they are not all just really expensive paper weights!

While I did have a very neat time at the hamfest today, unfortunately today wasn't all fun and games. My Heathkit OS-01 Oscilloscope, the one featured in my blog post "My Life in Stereo", started to malfunction today. The CRT beam focus now no longer works, leaving the signal line on the scope very wide, dim, and blurry. While this oscilloscope was only my backup scope and all I was doing was playing my stereo system through it, it was still one of my favorite toys and I would really love to get it working again. While I have learned quite a bit about solid state electronics over the past year from my building an Apple I microcomputer replica and working on this Foxee animatronic robot project, I am completely at a loss when it comes to working with vacuum tube-based electronics such as this ancient Heathkit oscilloscope. As a result, I decided to ask the members of the "Night Patrol" net on Argonne National Laboratory's W9ANL repeater if any of them knew what was wrong with my oscilloscope and what I could do to fix it, but no dice. None of them could tell me what was a matter with my oscilloscope off hand, and the best that they could reccommend was to check the unit for blown vacuum tubes, which was something that I already knew that I most likely would have to do. *Sigh* Now I need to find someone with a vacuum tube tester who will be able to check my tubes for me, and I don't even know where to start.

While having my first oscilloscope casualty today was a real bummer, overall today was a fantastic day and I got a real head start with buying a lot of the tools that I am going to need to power Foxee and to build her metal frame. While since last fall I have been unable to do much work on my Foxee animatronics project due to the extreme lack of funds caused to me by Midwest Furfest, I recently obtained some more funds that I could put towards my Foxee project from doing some Information Technology consulting work and from doing some electronics repair work for people on the side. Because of this I have once again started rolling forward on this project, and it is a very good thing to because I was starting to get cabin fever from not working on my Foxee animatronics project for so long! This week I plan to purchase everything that I need to start building Foxee's frame, including 10-pounds of 9-gauge steel fence tension wire, 22-gauge paddle wire, her SLA battery packs, and possibly some plywood and an electric jigsaw. The bottom line is that I have been inactive on this project long enough, and I would really like to try to start building her frame before the month of January is up! As always, any comments aout my project or this post are welcome!

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