A field strength meter is perhaps the simplest piece of RF test equipment that can be built. Used for checking transmitters, antenna experimentation, and testing RF oscillators, field strength meters provide an indication of the presence of RF energy. They are not frequency sensitive and are useful where indication of a change in level is more important than the actual strength of the signal indicated.
Figure One shows a schematic of an RF field strength meter. Like a crystal set, it requires no power source. However, unlike a crystal set, the meter has no tuned circuit. It responds to signals of any frequency.
The meter works by converting any RF signal present at the antenna to a DC voltage. This voltage drives a meter movement to give an indication of relative RF. The meter includes a control to reduce its sensitivity where required.
Because it uses few parts, a printed circuit board is not necessary; components can simply be soldered to one another. However, a box is desirable for operating convenience. The case and aerial from a discarded toy walkie-talkie was used in the prototype (see photograph), though any small plastic case will suffice. The meter movement need not be large; we are only detecting the presence of RF, and not making precise measurements.
A meter from an old radio or tape recorder should work fine. The diodes can be any germanium type; the actual part number is not important. Germanium diodes can be recognised by their 6mm-long clear glass case with two coloured bands towards the cathode end. None of the component values shown are critical; a 50 percent variation would have little effect on circuit operation.
To test the operation of the meter, a transmitter is required to provide a source of RF. Placing the field strength meter's extended antenna near a handheld VHF rig should produce an indication on the meter, assuming that the sensitivity control has been set to maximum. No indication means that the meter is not working. Common construction errors include connecting the diodes or the meter wrongly and using silicon diodes in place of the germanium diodes specified. In this case, the meter will still work, but with reduced sensitivity. The earth wire is optional; when working with low-powered oscillators, it is useful to clip it to ground (of the circuit under test) to ensure a better indication on the meter.
Those without a transmitter can use an RF signal generator or crystal oscillator (such as that described later) for testing purposes. In this case, place the meter's antenna directly on the output terminal to verify operation. However, only attempt this with transistorised circuitry; component ratings and safety considerations make the meter described here unsuitable for poking around valve equipment.
The field strength meter is a useful instrument in its own right, but it can be made more versatile. Modifications include adding an amplifier (for greater sensitivity), including a tuned circuit (so it only detects signals in a particular band), or converting it into an RF wattmeter and dummy load. Circuits for such instruments are found in the standard handbooks.