Introduction to HAM Radio

  • Posted on: 13 March 2019
  • By: augjohnson

My first few posts will be cleaned up and updated versions of posts on David's first version of this site.

What is Ham Radio and how did it come to be?

Amateur (Ham) Radio came into being in the first decade of the 20th century. Wireless, the term Radio wouldn’t be used for several decades, had recently been “invented” in the latter decades of the 19th century and the airwaves or the Æther as it was known, was pretty much a free for all.

This will be a US centered version, somewhat similar events happened in Europe and the rest of the world, although greatly hampered by much stricter government controls, even in Western Europe. These controls and restrictions have been loosened greatly in recent decades.

There was no licensing or control of who did what. Of course government and industries were trying to figure out what to do with it and how to control it for themselves. Individuals were also experimenting to see what they could do. Big conflicts between government, the military, commercial entities, and the private experimenters were rampant.

There were no manufacturers of equipment for Wireless; everything was built by the user. Equipment was quite primitive, anybody who wanted to could scrape up the parts needed to build a transmitter and receiver, often just about out of scrap metal and wire. Spark coils were robbed from automobiles for transmitters. Bread-boards were taken from kitchens to build receivers on, that’s where the term bread-boarding came from to refer to building a prototype of an electronic circuit.

Early wireless used frequencies below 1,500 KHz (Kilohertz) or as then as it was specified, longer than 200 Meters in wavelength, and usually longer than 600 meters. It was thought that the shorter the wavelength, the less useful the signal. With the signal traveling at the speed of light, the wavelength is how long one cycle would be. One cycle per second is 1 Hz (Hertz) 1 Kilohertz (KHz) is 1,000 cycles per second. 1 Megahertz (MHz) is 1,000,000 cycles per second. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. The unit of frequency was cycles per second (CPS) until the 1970’s when the Hz (Hertz) was designated the unit of frequency to honor the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

There was such conflict between private stations and both government and industry stations, the government finally declared on August 17, 1912 that the amateur stations had to use wavelengths of less than 200 meters. The hope was that since such short wavelengths were useless, these users would vanish. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way! The amateurs kept experimenting and found that, contrary to current scientific thought; those shorter wavelengths actually worked far better for long-distance communication.

It didn’t take long for an amateur named Hiram Percy Maxim to form the American Radio Relay League in 1915 and start setting up networks of operators covering the entire continental US. The ARRL developed a set of procedures that operators followed to ensure that messages were relayed accurately and were forwarded to the proper destination in a timely manner. Soon Hams were carrying messages all over the US. (In the early days many amateurs built better equipment than that possessed by the government or industry stations.) These procedures continue to this day when messages are handled by the NTS (National Traffic System).

NTS traffic is now handled by Radio Relay International after the ARRL lost interest and NTS traffic handlers formed RRI to preserve the function. I understand that now the ARRL is becoming interested in NTS traffic handling again.

At the same time, the private experimentation into the properties of wireless continued. Amateurs kept pushing the limits and discovered that it wasn’t necessary to use 100’s of thousands of watts for reliable Trans-Atlantic communications; it could be done with far less on these shorter wavelengths.

From then on, Amateur Radio accompanied expeditions all over the world, providing communications from those such as the 1923-1924 Peary-MacMillan Arctic Expedition, the 1928-1930 Byrd Antarctic expedition, and so on. Yes, for JMG’s followers, this was all in the name of empire building.

Amateur Radio is used to describe those who use certain radio frequencies for hobby, exchange of non-commercial messages, experimentation, and emergency and public assistance communication. The term Amateur is used to refer to those interested in radio solely with a personal aim and without financial or similar compensation. This differentiates it from commercial or professional radio. The term Ham came into use in the early decades of the 20th century.

Early Amateur radio communications used Morse code, but in the 1920’s-1930’s voice became very possible and use steadily increased. Still, Morse code remains quite popular as it is requires simpler equipment and, until recently with the proliferation of various digital modes requiring a computer, was the more reliable mode under less than ideal conditions.

These days, Hams are involved with an incredible variety of communications types and technologies. They are still at the forefront of many communications technologies; the first Amateur Radio Satellite was launched on December 12, 1961 with well over 100 launched since then. Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio

Ham operators contribute to all sorts of emergency communications, helping with many public events such as marathons, bike races and so on. Any time there is a natural disaster in any country around the world; Hams are present providing communications when even the cell phones don’t work. Often a Ham operator is the first line of communication to arrive to an area cut off from communications. Many Hams have radios that work on all sorts of alternative sources of power during these disasters.

Today the National Traffic System is mainly used for Emergency traffic, but the procedures were developed for a wide variety of message types and could still work for that, post-Internet.

Further Reading:

Calling CQ, Clinton B. DeSoto


Two Hundred Meters & Down, Clinton B. DeSoto


The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950, Richard A. Bartlett