WHAT IS AMATEUR RADIO?
A retired military officer in North Carolina makes friends over the radio
with a ham in Lithuania. An Ohio teenager uses her computer to upload a
chess move to an orbiting space satellite, where it's retrieved by a fellow
chess enthusiast in Japan. An aircraft engineer in Florida participating in
a "DX contest" swaps call signs with hams in 100 countries in a weekend. In
California, volunteers save lives as part of their involvement in an
emergency communications net. And at the scene of a traffic accident on a
Chicago freeway, a ham calls for help by using a pocket-sized hand-held
This unique mix of fun, public service and convenience is the
distinguishing characteristic of the hobby called Amateur Radio. Although
hams get involved in Amateur Radio for many reasons, they all have in
common a basic knowledge of radio technology, regulations and operating
principles, demonstrated by passing an examination for a license to operate
on radio frequencies known as the "Amateur Bands." These frequencies are
reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for use by hams at
intervals from just above the AM broadcast band all the way up into
extremely high microwave frequencies.
Who's The Typical Ham?
Amateur radio operators come from all walks of life -- movie stars,
missionaries, doctors, students, politicians, truck drivers and just plain
folks. They are all ages, sexes, income levels and nationalities. But
whether they prefer Morse Code on an old brass telegraph key through a low
power transmitter, voice communication on a hand-held radio or computer
messages transmitted through satellites, they all have an interest in
what's happening in the world, and they use radio to reach out.
What's The Appeal Of Ham Radio?
Some hams are attracted by the ability to communicate across the country,
around the globe, even with astronauts on space missions. Others build and
experiment with electronics. Computer hobbyists find packet radio to be a
low-cost way to expand their ability to communicate. Those with a
competitive streak enjoy DX contests, where the object is to see how many
distant locations they can contact. Some like the convenience of a
technology that gives them portable communication. Others use it to open
the door to new friendships over the air or through participation in one of
more than 2000 Amateur Radio clubs throughout the country.
A Noble History
Nobody knows when Amateur Radio operators were first called "hams," but we
do know that Amateur Radio is as old as the history of radio itself. Not
long after Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian experimenter, transmitted the
Morse Code letter "s" from Newfoundland to England in 1901, amateur
experimenters throughout the world were trying out the capabilities of the
first "spark gap" transmitters. In 1912 Congress passed the first laws
regulating radio transmissions in the U.S. By 1914, Amateur experimenters
were communicating nation- wide, and setting up a system to relay messages
from coast to coast (whence the name "American Radio Relay League"!). In
1927, the FCC was created by Congress and specific frequencies were
assigned for various uses, including ham bands.
Why A License?
Although the main purpose of Amateur Radio is fun, it is called the
"Amateur Radio Service" because it also has a serious face. The FCC created
this "Service" to fill the need for a pool of experts who could provide
backup emergency communications. In addition, the FCC acknowledged the
ability of the hobby to advance the communication and technical skills of
radio, and to enhance international goodwill. This philosophy has paid off.
Countless lives have been saved where skilled hobbyists act as emergency
communicators to render aid, whether it's an earthquake in Italy, a flood
in India or a hurricane in the U.S.
What's The Right License For Me?
Over the years, five basic license classes have evolved. The higher the
class license you have, the more privileges and modes of operation you get.
But each higher class license requires progressively more knowledge of
technology, rules and regulations, as well as higher Morse Code
proficiency. So, you can learn the basics or you can become an expert and
still enjoy the hobby.
Today, the "entry level" license for Radio Amateurs is the easy-to-learn
easy-to-earn "code free" or Technician Class license, which requires
passing examinations on radio theory, regulations and operations. The
Technician class license gives access to frequencies in the VHF and UHF
bands, all modes of operation, and access to Amateur Radio Orbiting
Satellites (OSCARS) which opens up communication world-wide and beyond. The
Novice class license requires passing a 30 question exam and a basic Morse
Code test of five words per minute. Technician licensees may also pass the
Novice code test to earn additional High Frequency privileges. The General
class license requires passing a 25 question exam and a 13 word per
minute code test. The Advanced class license adds another 50 question
examination, and the highest class license, the Amateur Extra, requires an
additional 40 question exam plus a 20 words per minute code test.
Radio amateurs carry their licenses with them so they can operate wherever
they go in the U.S. Typically, they also keep a copy of the license in
their radio shack at home.
Why Do They Call Themselves "Ham?"
Although the origin of the word "ham" is obscure, every ham has his or her
own pet theory. One holds that early Amateurs were called hams because they
liked to "perform" on the air, as in "hamming it up." Another proposes that
the name came from the "ham-fisted" way some early Amateurs handled their
code keys. The easiest to accept is that "ham" is a contraction of "Am," as
in Amateur. One of the most exotic holds that "ham" is an acronym from the
initials of three college students who were among the first Radio Amateurs.
What Are The Amateur Radio Bands?
Look at the dial on a old AM radio and you'll see frequencies marked from
535 to 1605 kilohertz. Imagine that band extended out many thousands of
kilohertz, and you'll have some idea of how much additional radio spectrum
is available for amateur, government and commercial radio bands. It is here
you'll find aircraft, ship, fire and police communication, as well as the
so-called "shortwave" stations, which are worldwide commercial and
government broadcast stations from the U.S. and overseas. Amateurs are
allocated nine basic "bands" (i.e. groups of frequencies) in the high
frequency range between 1800 and 29,700 kilohertz, and another seven bands
in the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) ranges.
Even though many Amateur Radio conversations may be heard around the world,
given the right frequency and propagation conditions, Amateur Radio is
basically two-way communication.
Where Do I Get More Information?
The three best ways to learn about Amateur Radio are to listen to hams on
the Amateur bands, read about Amateur Radio in the numerous books and
magazines devoted to the subject and, best of all, talk to hams face-to-
face. Hams take pride in their ability to "Elmer" (teach) newcomers the
ropes to get them started in the hobby. Most will welcome your interest.
To find out how to get started and who to contact in your area, call or
write The American Radio Relay League, 225 Main Street, Newington, CT
06111. Telephone 1-800-32NEW HAM.