Amateur radio (or Ham radio) is basically about people -- people using technology (radio) to make contact with other people all over the World. But even if you already have some idea of what it's about, you may not have the "big picture." That's because ham radio is actually several different hobbies folded into one. There's the "put your computer on the air" hobby; the "public service and emergency communications" hobby; the television hobby, the satellite hobby and so on. One other basic: it's a LOT of fun!
Why Are Hams Called 'Hams'?
You'll hear lots of stories about why amateur radio operators are called "hams" (most interesting you'll find on this web site), but there is no proof for any of the competing claims, and the simple truth is that no one knows for sure. What I do know is this: regardless of its source, the "ham" label is worn with pride by radio amateurs around the world.
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 hams in 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 Poldhu, Wales, to St. John's, Newfoundland, 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 precursor agency to 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 during an earthquake in Italy 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 words-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 "Hams?"
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, or "ham it up" on the air. Another proposes that the name came from the "ham-fisted" way some early amateurs handled their code keys. 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. Perhaps the easiest to accept is that "ham" is derived from "Am," a contraction of "Amateur."
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 (HF) range between 1800 and 29,700 kilohertz, and another seven bands in the Very High Frequency (VHF) bands and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) ranges, as well as Super High Frequency (SHF) bands. 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. There is probably an Amateur Radio club near you that will welcome your interest.
How Many Hams Are There?
Worldwide, amateur radio operators number in the millions. There are over 685 000licensed amateurs in the United States, more 1 300 000 in Japan, over 80 000 in Germay. Each one has a unique "callsign" issued by his/her government. As you probably notice, my callsign is 4Z5MU. No two hams share the same callsign.
When Hams say "bye-bye" each other and wish all the best, they say - 73!