When most people think of Amateur Radio, also known as “Ham Radio”, they think of a bunch of dusty old codgers sitting in front of a wall of wires and short circuiting old microphones, talking about the good old days and how they can’t stand the next door neighbor’s kid’s saggy pants.
Sure, those guys exist but Amateur Radio as a whole has taken quite a journey over the last 100 or so years.
Amateur Radio, as it exists today, was first noted in 1909 when a listing was published of all known wireless telegraph stations in the U.S. and Canada. This list included 89 amateur stations and so was born the Amateur Radio service.
Throughout history amateur radio has shown steady, nearly constant, growth with approximately 2 million licensed operators world-wide. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 700,000 of those are in the U.S., meaning that if you’re in America, 1 out of every 450 people you come in contact with is a licensed operator and worldwide it’s about 1 in 3000 or so (considering the number of high population countries who have no licensing requirements or don’t support the technology for amateur radio, though, the numbers will be much higher if you’re in a developed country).
Over the years, the technology behind amateur radio has changed and grown at the same pace as the hobby itself. If you ask the average person to describe what they see in their mind’s eye when they think of an amateur radio station, they’ll either say “huh?!” or they’ll describe something like this;
Talk of “Ham Radio” brings with it images of old metal boxes with analog controls, wires dangling out of throw switches, vacuum tubes and rigs that look like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Sure, back in the “olden days” long distance contacts required huge stacks of amplifiers, massive antennas and lots of “sophisticated” and complicated equipment. These days, however, a very viable amateur station looks a lot more like this;
That’s my personal radio, with which I have made contacts all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Russia, Germany and even a short chat with a guy in Sydney, Australia. I’ve also listened to other people talking in Japan, Korea, China, Africa and tons of other places.
Those contacts have all been radio-only. There’s also a lot of new technology which links amateur radio to the internet and allows instant contact all over the world with even hand-held radios, like this one;
Yep…my mouse is larger than that radio and I’ve used it to talk to people all over the world, through what’s called the “Internet Radio Linking Project” or IRLP.
Besides just talking to people, the amateur radio service is used for digital communications, using computer based clients, teletype services, facsimile and image transfers, internet communication and television broadcasts.
With current technology, amateur radio operators all over the world use the amateur radio service to broadcast television signals which can be picked up and decoded then played through a standard television. This is used for coverage of events like the Tournament of Roses Parade, and Amateur Radio events as well as providing “eyes on” coverage of natural disasters and major emergencies…
Which brings me to the most important facet of the service. Emergency response.
Amateur radio operators play a major role in responding to emergencies all over the world. Most operators are trained and skilled in improvising antennas and other communications equipment and have, on many occasions, helped coordinate relief efforts during disasters. Some recent examples are;
The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
The 2003 North American Blackout
Hurricane Francis in the Bahamas in 2004
The 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia (In this case, ALL local communications were wiped out and a Ham operator on an expedition coordinated relief efforts from the side of a mountain)
The 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China
Hurricane Ike (Haiti and the United States) in 2008
The largest response by Ham operators was during Hurricane Katrina, in Louisiana, in 2005. Over 1000 operators swarmed to the gulf coast and began coordinating relief efforts in the area. During the congressional investigation, the Amateur Radio service’s response was highlighted as one of the few things that went right during the disaster.
There are also services which are involved in civil defense and weather such as the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service and the National Weather Service’s “SkyWarn” service which uses ham operators to provide eyes-on severe weather information to the National Weather Service and is responsible for saving countless lives, each year, through the issuing of tornado warnings, severe storm warnings and hurricane warnings. There are equivalents to these groups in other countries, as well, such as Canwarn in Canada, the SkyWarn UK and the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) programs in the United Kingdom, Skywarn Europe for several European countries, RAYNET in the UK, The Wireless Institute Civil Emergency Network (WICEN) in Australia and many others.
It seems, at this point, that the amateur radio services of the world are going to continue growing as new generations get involved and the technology gets less expensive and more accessible. If you are interested in becoming a “HAM”, you can check out The Amateur Radio Relay League in the U.S., The Radio Society of Great Britain in the UK, The Wireless Institute of Australia in Australia, The New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters in New Zealand, or, for a full list of Amateur Radio organizations throughout the world, you can just look here. It’s a simple process of learning the ropes, taking a licensing exam and setting up your equipment and then you’re off and running.
If you’re already a HAM and would like to contact me, I can usually be found on 20, 40 and 80 meters as well as the 2 meter and 70 centimeter bands if you’re local. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and if I don’t think you’re going to try to track me down and eat me, I’ll shoot you my callsign and we can tell Nick to bite heiney.
73 and I’ll catch you on the air!