HAM Radio: Past, Present, and does it have a future?

Jack GoblinStarred Page By Jack Goblin, 20th Nov 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/1s8jh4wh/
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

What is Amateur Radio, why does it exist, and - bluntly - what good is it, anyway? And what's this HAM business?

So Why Ham? A History Lesson.

Clearly the first question is, why are Amateur Radio users called HAMs, anyway? There is no obvious connection between electronics and pork products, after all.

The commonly accepted belief is that it was originally a derogatory term. Early radio communication was dots and dashes sent through the ether via electric sparks. Many of the first commercial radio operators had previously been professional land telegraph operators. These were practiced, skilled men who could tap out messages swiftly and had their own technical lingo and rules to facilitate transmission. They had been hired away from telegraph firms by the new ‘Wireless’ companies to run radio sets on ships, on-shore installations, and within and between cities.

Crowded Airwaves

They weren’t the only ones on the air, though. It is easy these days not to realize how amazing radio once seemed. Tap out a message (or later, speak into a microphone), and someone with a receiver in another building, another city, another nation could hear you, immediately and without wires. It was as close to magic as most people could imagine.

The technology minded flocked to this new marvel. Radio in those days was a wide open, unregulated field. Anyone regardless of skill or knowledge who could buy or build a radio set could join in. Including people who had no idea how to behave. The professionals were enraged at the antics of these amateurs. Especially when one with a powerful set would jam their signals and make it difficult for them to do their jobs. ‘Ham’ in those days had negative connotations. “Ham’ handed. ‘Ham’ actor. So naturally amateurs became ‘HAM’ radio operators. Like their technological descendants and the word ‘hacker’, though, amateurs seized the term and used it as a badge of pride.

The Government Steps In

It was the problems caused by those free wheeling times that led various world governments to intervene. Radio soon proved to be such a vital and profitable medium that the airwaves had to be protected and regulated. As radio technology advanced and it became possible to broadcast on specific frequencies, laws and rules came into existence. As a result, Amateur Radio users were relegated – banished – to the lower frequencies which at the time didn’t seem to have much use.

It was a surprise when experimentation and improving equipment revealed these ‘short wave’ frequencies had tremendous propagation abilities. They could bounce naturally from sky to ground and back again, covering hundreds of miles in a split second. As a result, when conditions were right HAMs could hold conversations over long distances. What had seemed like a worthless part of the radio spectrum turned out to be exactly what amateurs wanted.

Amateur Radio's Heydays

HAM radio has had ups and downs in popularity since its beginning. It was shut down entirely during the World Wars. And of course during the Depression few had the money for such things. However, during the 50′s and 60′s it took off. Surplus electronic and radio equipment from WWII made it easy to built sets or relay stations. These are automated facilities that would receive a transmission and immediately rebroadcast it. Set on hill tops and towers, relay stations extended the range of reliable communication greatly. Just as pumps can send water far beyond where it would normally flow.

Then too, the massive emphasis on science in the U.S. following the launch of the Sputniks swept amateur radio along. Many came to radio as a way to study electronics (including those new fangled transistors), communications, and wave propagation. Using their new knowledge to become first class HAMs.

There was an additional impetus during this time. Amateur Radio had demonstrated for years its usefulness in disaster. Catastrophes that knocked down telephone lines, cut power, and rendered most means of communication mute couldn’t stop HAM sets running on batteries.

Embroiled in the Cold War, the U.S. government took notice and advantage of this. The formation of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service was encouraged, as well as the expansion of previously existing groups like the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. The goal was, to assist the public and civil authorities should normal communication be… disrupted.

Understanding exactly what was meant, patriotic Amateur Radio users joined up. Organizations like these continue to exist and provide vital service in many disasters even today. As for instance during Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, when cell phones and most other media did not work.

Amateur Radio, Today

Today, the coming of the Internet and improved communications, and the falling off of the emphasis on science in the U.S., has reduced Amateur Radio’s popularity greatly. It is seen as outmoded technology, a relic of yesterday like the typewriter. Of limited use, in this day and age. Many people aren’t interested.

Many are also put off by the licensing requirements. The frequencies used by Amateur Radio are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and a license to transmit on them has to be secured first. Listening without a license is fine; speaking is illegal and will bring quick censure from the government and licensed HAMs.

In addition, radio sets capable of broadcasting on the frequencies reserved for Amateur Radio aren’t toys. There’s potential for radio interference, and even serious danger from frequency radiation or high voltage. To make sure people know what they’re doing and are aware of the rules on usage and behavior, those seeking to become HAMs have to pass tests to get their license and call sign.

These tests are not especially hard; a few dozen multiple choice questions. At one time proficiency in Morse code was a requirement. Now that has been supplanted by a focus on understanding the purpose of Amateur Radio, the responsibilities, and the rights, as well as the electronics involved. There are three levels of HAM licenses: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra, with Technician being the lowest. Each more advanced level giving legal access to more of the wavelengths available.

So What Good Is It?

But the question is, why bother? Why become a HAM these days, when so much can be done via the Internet or cell phone? There are several possible answers for that.

Amateur Radio is far more these days than just talking. There’s image and movie transmission, Internet access, scientific research and data gathering. Contests ranging from geo-caching to seeking to contact people in every country via radio are run by individuals and HAM organizations as the ARRL (American Radio Relay League).

There’s the technical challenge. Constructing antennas, tuning radio units, and arranging circuits and power supplies to produce a rig capable of contacting the Space Station or a guy on the other side of the world.

Not to mention emergency use. As noted, in the event of disaster, HAMs are the last line when it comes to communication. Being able to transmit messages to the outside world, or at least listen, may be of extraordinary value to your community or yourself.

And if you’re in the mood for conversation, finding someone to talk to is as easy as lifting a microphone and giving your call sign. HAMs are, almost by definition, talkers. They love to discuss, reminisce, report on what’s going on around them, and solve the world’s problems. All of these and more are reasons to consider getting an Amateur Radio license.

And of course, because it’s still magic.


The History of Amateur Radio

The ARRL Operating Manuel for Radio Amateurs, 9th Edition, ARRL Publishing, 2010

The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual, ARRL Publishing, 2009


Amateur Radio, Arrl, Fcc, Ham Radio, License, Morse Code, Radio, Science, Wireless

Meet the author

author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
21st Nov 2013 (#)

There is a HAM station in the science center we frequent when on vacation. We've never been able to try it out, because its always too crowded. But for those who love to talk, I bet it's a lot of fun!

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
21st Nov 2013 (#)

fascinating and so informative this...I remember vaguely when I was young people used them a lot..thanks so much Jack...glad you are still around...

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