Picture the radio operator in a favorite old movie, tapping out an urgent message in Morse code to save the day after the usual means of communication had failed. It’s still a good premise, and it’s not entirely old. While today’s emergency messages may not go by code, they can still go by radio—ham radio, a hobby with a purpose beyond enjoyment.
Officially, ham radio is amateur radio. The title doesn’t describe a skill level—rather; it distinguishes ham operators from military or career professionals. Ham radio cannot be used to conduct any commercial or business activity.
Ham or amateur, the significance of the title is the identification with the constantly evolving technology that produced the first wireless communication system. Wireless radio transmission grew in stages from its test distance of two miles to thousands of miles, across the Atlantic and finally around the world, with initial assists from repeater towers and now including help from amateur radio’s own satellites.
Wireless messages were sent first by code, then by voice, then by radio teletype and television. Now, in conjunction with computer technology, a selection of digital modes can add email, chat capability, position reporting, and image transfer. Practically anything that can be put into digital format can be sent, bringing cyber skills to amateur radio and keeping tech-oriented hams occupied and happy.
Still the best part of amateur radio is the variety of ways hams can take advantage of all that a license offers:
Most hams are talkers by nature. A ham license lets the holder maintain regular contact with people across the country. Adding new friends from anywhere in
the world is a true bonus, all without concern for overseas or any other
charges. Calls can be made to and from virtually anywhere, and the technology travels well, with portable units for temporary use and mobile units for car, camper, or boat.
Kilmarnock ham Floyd Hollister describes his early interest in amateur radio. “I was 13, and I lived in the country. I wanted to talk with people who lived elsewhere. I’d collected stamps, so I already knew about distant places. My grandfather was a railroad telegrapher, and later a forest ranger. Finally, my dad owned a repair shop, and as a youngster I worked with him, learning how to fix many things.” That combination of factors proved a good beginning—licensed at 14, Floyd has been a ham for 64 years. Among his regular contacts today are twice-weekly calls to a ham in Canada.
When talking to people from other countries, much is learned about the place and the culture of its people. And hams are famous for experimenting with ways to improve their systems. They have always played a significant role in advancing the technology. How much to change is always a matter of choice—some hams still use code for contacts.
There’s no age requirement for a ham license. A 10-year-old boy recently got his license, and his teenage sister is organizing a radio club at her school. At the other end of the spectrum, a retired airline captain just got his license at age 73.
While the military was first to use wireless radio communication, civilians were quick to follow. With the Radio Act of 1912, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside specific radio frequencies (bands) for the exclusive use of amateur radio. This was done to ensure that a pool of qualified operators would be available to provide backup communication during emergency situations when other forms of communication were down. To that end, many hams served in World War I, World War II, Korea, and more recent conflicts. Roles have changed, but most served in communications or related fields.
Hollister was stationed in California in the mid-1960s,
when a major earthquake hit near Kodiak, Alaska: “It literally wiped out all major communication to Kodiak and the Aleutians, so the ham community handled communications there for a few days.”
It’s well known that hams provided the principal means of communication during and following the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.
At the local level, hams are involved in public service, coordinating with local authorities to handle communications at activities like bicycle rallies or running events, and to conduct emergency communication exercises.
Harold Weissler belongs to the Middle Peninsula Amateur Radio Club. “One of our public service projects is the annual Tour de Chesapeake bicycle event in Mathews County. Fortunately, we’ve had no major problems, but hams did get involved when one young woman was injured by a fall. A doctor (another ham) was called, and he eventually accompanied the woman to the hospital.”
There are 2000 amateur radio clubs in the country, each a source of education and entertainment. Kilmarnock’s club, Rappahannock Amateur Radio Association (RARA), meets weekly for lunch at Lee’s restaurant. Once a month, a tech talk may be scheduled. And Christmastime means a party at Lowery’s in Tappahannock.
Walt Keith and Mary Frazer got their ham licenses in preparation for a boat trip down the Intracoastal Waterway and on to the Bahamas. “While we were cruising,” says Mary, “we’d often see a ham burgee on another boat—a good way to make friends, including a number of women who were licensed hams. We also used a radio-sponsored position-reporting system, which friends could access to follow our route.”
Now home in Reedville, Walt adds, “We still enjoy all the social activities of the group as well as the club’s community support for events like Reedville’s July 4 ‘Firecracker 5K.’”
Contest or “Radiosport”
Many hams enjoy the contests arranged by different associations for various goals such as who can contact the most stations or countries or states within a given time frame. Collecting cards is also popular. The calling operator requests a postcard (called a QSL card) from each new contact, to confirm the number of contacts made. Today, the cards may be electronic.
If the radio bug bites, a license is required to use the amateur bands. The entry-level “Technician” is the first of three categories currently offered. The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) is probably the most complete resource for information, including license requirements, study materials, local clubs, and testing. (Code is no longer required.)
The license is issued by the FCC, but testing is done by a volunteer examiner at a local ham association. With the license, the new ham will get a call sign that identifies him or her.
Many hams like to put together their own systems. Others would rather buy equipment that’s ready to use. In both cases, the new ham can get assistance from the local club. New hams are advised to spend some time listening to calls to get accustomed to speech patterns, typical phrasing, whatever may help them feel confident enough to key the microphone and seek that first contact. Two reminders—no conducting business,
and no bad language.
Promoting ham radio is something hams do by example through ordinary membership activities, but the Middle
Peninsula club tried a more targeted promotion: “We set up a portable station on the high-school parking lot to generate interest in amateur radio,” said Weissler. “One young lady tried it, and her first contact was a ham in Scotland. They had a nice chat, and she was quite impressed!”
Happily, the number of licensed hams is increasing, good news not only for other hams, but for everyone who might one day benefit from their knowledge. Ham radio is a great hobby for so many reasons. Just ask a ham.
Rappahannock Amateur Radio Association:
Middle Peninsula Amateur Radio Club:
Amateur Radio Relay League: