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Cyber Flea: For 30 years, the Electronics Flea Market, which will be held Saturday at De Anza, has quietly charted the growth of Silicon Valley technology—and been a proving ground for a culture of hard-core techies.

Hardware Warriors

An unusual link to Silicon Valley's cultural and technological history, the Electronics Flea Market is practically a subculture in itself

By Russell Mahakian

IF ONE MAN'S JUNK is another man's treasure, then the trucks and vans arriving before daybreak at De Anza College's parking lot for the Electronics Flea Market are carrying either cabs full of garbage or mechanical wealth beyond a gearhead's wildest dreams.

A novice may be left dumfounded by the bins overflowing with metal machines, some with '50s sci-fi knobs that look more like props from Forbidden Planet than devices with any practical use.

Look closer, though, and you'll find a hands-on history of electronics and technology in Silicon Valley. Browsing through boxes of old gear and electronic cables provides a clear view into the innovative thinking and social scene that made this valley ripe for a tech explosion.

"This stuff was our Super Mario Bros. There is real history in this stuff," says one flea market regular, pointing to a Heathkit mulitmeter. Heathkit was a Michigan company that took surplus World War II electronics and packaged them into kits, allowing people access to affordable electronic equipment for the first time. Heathkit stopped selling the kits in the '80s, but Heathkit fans still fix, recycle and sell these kits at the electronics flea. "This flea market is full of things you wanted when you were a kid and your parents wouldn't let you have."

For 30 years, the flea has allowed people to buy and sell old electronics and computer parts, and in the process a community has formed, revealing a passionate side to an often stoic and linear community of tinkerers. The event is held only eight Saturdays a year, making the one on June 11 a rare and, in certain circles, celebrated event. Regulars plan their schedules around these dates and spend these Saturday mornings scrutinizing gadgets and discussing the history of electronics past in the small community college parking lot.

"The flea market is a subculture of sorts, and it is very social," says Gerry Tucker, a longtime ham radio operator and active supporter of the flea market. He points to Jerry Lawson, a fellow Electronics Flea Market regular. "I don't see this guy very often, but I do see him every month here."

"I come for the camaraderie," says Lawson, a retired electrical engineer with several gadgets stuffed into the basket of his Lark. These buyers and sellers have played a role preserving Silicon Valley's history, squirreling away historical electronics in their homes, offices, garages and storage units around the Bay Area instead of letting them rust away as junk in landfills.

"This is like a huge recycling center," says Tucker, a Silicon Valley consultant who first came to the Bay Area in the late '50s to study electrical engineering at Stanford.

On this particular afternoon, he's planning on renting a truck to haul loads of old gear.

"I am going at 2 o'clock to meet a guy who called me out of the blue from Tennessee and said he had an old friend back in San Jose that wants to leave PAARA [Palo Alto Amateur Radio Association] a part of his estate, his junk, and he wants me to meet him there. So I am going to size things up and take one load ... and then I will sell it off."

There are about 100 sellers who bring their stuff to any given electronics flea, and there are more people interested in buying what they've got than you might think.

"One year we were given one guy's estate of electronics and chipping away at it, selling things for 50 cents and 25 cents apiece," says Tucker. "We made three thousand dollars for my club."

Raised on the Radio

The flea market was first held May 31, 1975, the idea being to help support local amateur radio clubs and also to keep the history of electronics alive in a museum, a tradition started in Palo Alto by the late Douglas Perham. Perham was an engineer and avid collector, who worked with early radio pioneers such as Dr. Lee Deforest. (Deforest developed the first electronic amplifier, the triode, and named it the "Audion.")

Perham collected more than 20,000 items, including early radio and electronic equipment from companies like Ampex, Hewlett-Packard, Varian, Shockley, Elwell, and Dolby, along with thousands of pieces of ham radio ephemera. He lived in San Jose and in the '50s put together a small museum in his home. After his death, the Perham Foundation was formed to find a better place to showcase the collection. The foundation also supported the Electronics Flea Market by providing insurance coverage, but it folded after the History San Jose museum agreed to look after and display the collection. The Association of Silicon Valley Amateur Radio Organizations (ASVARO) formed in its place to support ham radio clubs by keeping the Electronics Flea Market alive, through its various incarnations at Foothill College, Lockheed Martin and now De Anza College.

Amateur or "ham" radio existed well before the telecommunication revolution—when talking on the phone between states was considered difficult, hams were able to talk to their cohorts all over the world. Today, hams still play an important role, providing back up communication for police and other public organizations during emergencies and natural disasters.

ASVARO is made up of seven ham clubs and the Red Cross radio club, and the clubs take turns running the flea market each month. The flea market provides a vital source of income for the clubs, allowing them to give trainings, buy equipment and throw dinners.

Where the Electronics Freaks Meet

Beyond ham radio devotees, the meet brings together an international group of mechanically inclined devotees: from electrical engineers, computer types, pirate radio operatives, indie-rock sound engineers and vintage electronics collectors all the way down to curious high school and college students. Many of these people can't contain their love of things most of the population wouldn't be able identify or use, picking up each gadget and asking the seller important and highly technical questions about its condition.

"I love looking at this old stuff; it is the history of my growing up," says ham radio enthusiast and flea market regular Dave Newman. "Stuff I saw in my grandfather's house—he was into radios—and then stuff my father had." Enter the Electronics Flea Market before dawn, and you will see euphoria in the eyes of the early birds.

But others have a different philosophy to the flea.

"You get here early and there are a lot of buys, but by 11 o'clock anybody with anything heavy will sell it for 10 cents," says Arnold Rucker, who says he often has to evaluate the lack of storage space in his garage by asking the painful question, "When is the last time—and when will be the next time—I will use this?" While questions like this plague tinkerers and hobbyists, many people use the flea market as a way to fund their ham addiction and pass the obsession onto a new generation. Many of the goods sold at the flea are from "silent keys"—the term for a ham radio enthusiast who has died and wants his equipment in the hands of someone who will use it.

Getting this vintage gear into the hands of someone who would use it would otherwise be extremely difficult—the size and weight alone makes most pieces cost-prohibitive to eBay. In the era of the iPod, this equipment looks archaic to a layperson. You can find some modern items, but it's the older electrical equipment that allows for the continual passing down and around of tech history. It has also become somewhat of a rite of passage in itself.

"It was so funny," says longtime electronics flea fan Andrew Mellows, who recently retired from a career designing television cameras, "because six months before I retired, we hired my replacement. And he seemed like a pretty good guy, but it was confirmed when I found him out here at the flea market. We knew he was legit."

Russell Mahakian wrote this piece in honor of his late uncle Robert De Souza, a sound engineer and a lifelong electronics enthusiast.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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