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An Introduction to Ham Radios

Ham radio is a venture that is still clothed in mystery. Classified both as a hobby and a service, ham radio and its operators encompass the entire world, with over two million people licensed to operate. Don’t let the term “amateur” radio fool you however—these guys are highly educated and endure grueling licensing requirements. The term simply means that they operate outside of an official government or commercial capacity.

Although the origins of ham radio can be traced to the 19th century, the incarnation we have today has only been around for about 100 years. During World War I, ham radio operators were ordered by Congress to cease operation and to dismantle all equipment. These restrictions were lifted after World War I ended. Today, ham radio operators range from those who enjoy the hobby and like hooking up with other operators around the world, to those who see it as a serious calling.

Why hams?

There are countless theories as to why amateur radio ended up being called “ham radio.” One theory is that “ham” may simply be a shortcut of the first syllable of amateur radio. However, others point out that “ham” radio was actually intended to be an insult. In the beginning days of radio, every broadcaster was on the same wavelength. Two amateurs could jam the airwaves, and frustrated commercial operators called this interference “ham”. (In fact, after the RMS Titanic sank, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, restricting private operators to a wavelengths of 200 meters or shorter. This caused a precipitous drop in radio enthusiasts by over 80%.) Amateur operators picked up the phrase and happily applied it to themselves, probably unaware of the insult it connoted. Over the years, the original meaning has been lost.

Ham radio is so widespread nowadays that it has become a hobby for many young and old people alike, not only in the United States but in the world at large. In fact, ham radio attracts people from all walks of life. But what unites people in the ham radio universe is that they are able to offer assistance to the public in a unique way, develop friendships along the way, and serve the community at large.

Why would I get into ham radio?

The greatest benefit and advantage of having a ham radio is that you can communicate with others via wireless technology. In fact, this is the underlying reason why ham radios are the ultimate source for off-grid communication, especially during emergencies when all normal communication methods are unavailable. With ham radio, communication is made possible through a wide frequency spectrum that uses many different types of wireless transmitting modes.

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Today, there are about 675,000 ham radio operators in the United States alone, and over two and a half million around the world. If you are eager to start as an amateur radio operator, you may want to visit the American Radio Relay League, a non-profit organization that is responsible in helping those interested in becoming ham radio operators.

What are frequencies and transmitting modes?

All ham radio operators are able to communicate with each other by using a number of frequencies specially allocated for this purpose. The good thing is that other people can actually “listen in” through their own radio scanners or receivers. This ability of the non-hams to listen in is actually an advantage, particularly during emergency cases, as assistance can immediately be dispatched by the proper authority in charge through them. Amateur radio operators use select frequency bands in the radio spectrum which are assigned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just for amateur uses. Ham radio operators use a frequency range from the AM radio band (1.6 MHz) to above the citizens band (27 MHz). During daylight, the best band to use for long-distance communications is between 15 and 27 MHz; while at nighttime, the good band is between 1.6 and 15 MHz.

What makes ham radio so special?

Although ham radio can broadcast in all directions, what distinguishes it from say a disk jockey at a radio station is that hams conduct a two-way conversation (often with another ham or group of hams). On the other hand, the disk jockey at a radio station can transmit to thousands of people at the same time. Today, a majority of the hams use a radioteletype (RTTY) backed up with computer screens, thus replicating the noisy teletype machines of the past.

Another great innovation is the introduction of cutting-edge technology called “amateur radio satellites.” An amateur radio operator can use his hand-held radio to communicate with an amateur radio satellite when it is overhead. When natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes paralyze the normal telephone and cell phone communications line, ham radio operators enter into the picture to connect everyone back together. It is in this regard that ham radio remains the ultimate source of off-grid communications. Ham radio can connect us to one another when no other source is available.

The original Amateur’s Code was written by Paul M. Segal, W9EEA, in 1928. Although the code has been updated to reflect current realities, today ham radio operators take this code as seriously as their counterparts did in 1928.

The Amateur’s Code

The Radio Amateur is:

CONSIDERATE…never knowingly operates in such a way as to lessen the pleasure of others.

LOYAL…offers loyalty, encouragement and support to other amateurs, local clubs, and the American Radio Relay League, through which Amateur Radio in the United States is represented nationally and internationally.

PROGRESSIVE…with knowledge abreast of science, a well-built and efficient station and operation above reproach.

FRIENDLY…slow and patient operating when requested; friendly advice and counsel to the beginner; kindly assistance, cooperation and consideration for the interests of others. These are the hallmarks of the amateur spirit.

BALANCED…radio is an avocation, never interfering with duties owed to family, job, school or community.

PATRIOTIC…station and skill always ready for service to country and community.

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