What is Ham Radio?

Some people enjoy it for the technical challenges. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had by setting up and operating your own amateur radio station. Some go even further and design and build their own radio gear and antennas. And, as amateur radio communications becomes even more digital, some hams are developing the software that will drive the amateur radio digital communications systems of tomorrow.

Others enjoy the communications aspects. These include such diverse activities as emergency and public service communications, contacting other amateur radio operators in foreign countries, operating small portable stations from parks and mountain peaks, and competing against one another in a variety of amateur radio contests. And, yes, some of us still communicate with one another using Morse Code.

As you can see, amateur radio is a diverse hobby with a diverse array of participants pursuing a wide variety of activities.

The five “purposes” of amateur radio

This diversity is written into the rules that govern amateur radio. Part 97 of Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations, lists five purposes for ham radio. It reads:

97.1 Basis and purpose.

The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:

(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.

(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.

(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.

(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.

(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

In other words:

  1. The Amateur Radio Service is a public service because it is capable of providing emergency communications.
  2. Amateur radio operators make valuable contributions to developments in electronics technology.
  3. Amateur radio is a valuable hobby, enabling participants to improve their operating skills and technical knowledge.
  4. The Amateur Radio Service helps provide the nation with trained technical people that the country needs.
  5. Because radio knows no borders, amateur radio operators are in a unique position to enhance international goodwill.

Why is it called ham radio?

There are many theories about how amateur radio came to be known as “ham radio,” but the most popular theory comes from the early days of amateur radio. Back then, all radio communications was in Morse Code and many men (and women, too) made their livings as professional telegraphers. These telegraphers were proud of how well they could send Morse Code.

Many amateurs were not quite so proficient, and the professionals chided the amateur radio telegraphers as being “ham-fisted operators.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines ham-fisted as “Lacking skill in physical movement, especially with the hands.” Along the way, this got shortened to “ham operators” and the hobby became known as “ham radio.”

Whether or not this story is true, the ham in ham radio is definitely not an acronym, and should never be spelled HAM. Nor should the hobby be referred to as simply “ham” without the word radio. To speak accurately, it is “amateur radio”, and even that term doesn’t describe all that we do.

A short history of ham radio

Throughout its more than 100-year history, ham radio has lived up the lofty goals set forth in Part 97.1. It was around the turn of the century—from the 1800s to the 1900s—that amateur radio got its start. The 1890s and early 1900s were an exciting time for technologies of all types. Automobiles, for example, were invented around this time, and companies such as Daimler in Germany and Ford in the United States began manufacturing them in quantity.

Radio also got its start around this time. Guglielmo Marconi started his experiments with radio in 1894, and in 1901, he claimed to have transmitted the letter S in Morse code from Cornwall on the west coast of Great Britain to Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada, across the Atlantic Ocean.

This was exciting news for many technically-minded people around the world, who began to experiment with wireless telegraphy. Amateurs soon began to cobble together their own radio sets.

Over the years since then, amateur radio has proved its worth:

  • Amateur radio has provided emergency and public service communications throughout its history. Today, amateur radio operators stand ready to assist should hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters knock out communications.
  • Throughout its history amateur radio has played a part in advancing the art and science of radio and electronics. Amateurs were the first to experiment with radio at wavelengths above 200 m, and have continually pushed frequency limits. Today, amateur organizations, like Ham Radio Science Investigation (HamSCI) are still making contributions to radio science and technology.
  • Personal fulfillment. Amateur radio is a hobby enjoyed by nearly 800,000 people in the United States and over two million people worldwide.
  • Amateur radio has helped expand the pool of trained radio operators, technicians and electronics experts over the years. The valuable expertise has played a big part in enhancing our military and industrial strength, making the U.S. a safer and more prosperous place to live.
  • Amateur radio has also played its part in enhancing international good will. The camaraderie of amateur radio operators worldwide is a small, but unifying, force that helps bring people around the world together

What you can do with ham radio

An amateur radio license gives you the ability to do just about anything that one can do with radio and electronics. Some hams find providing local emergency communications personally satisfying, while others are more drawn to DXing, meaning that they are looking for contacts with amateur radio stations around the world. Some hams enjoy the technical challenges of amateur radio, while others are continually looking for new and interesting applications. Let’s take a look at some examples of what you can do with amateur radio.

Emergency communications

One of the first things that comes to mind when talking about amateur radio is emergency and public service communications. Since its inception, amateur radio operators have been providing communications for disaster relief organizations, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, civil defense communications for federal agencies, and connecting members of our armed services stationed abroad with their families here in the U.S. via the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS).

One of the best examples today of how amateur radio operators provide emergency and public service communications is the SKYWARN program. The SKYWARN spotter program is a nationwide network of volunteers trained by the National Weather Service (NWS) that provides the NWS with timely and accurate severe weather reports.

When hazardous weather occurs such as severe thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes, snow and ice storms, SKYWARN volunteers, including radio amateurs, report what is happening at their location. They are asked to report whenever certain criteria are met, such as when one inch of rain has fallen, six inches of snow are on the ground, a thunderstorm is producing hail, or trees have been blown down. Radio amateurs are particularly valuable to SKYWARN because mobile amateur radio stations can be deployed to exactly where they are needed and provide real-time reports of severe weather conditions via nets set up for exactly this purpose.

For more on emergency communications, read our full guide.

Experiment with electronics and antennas

Many amateur radio operators enjoy experimenting with electronics and antennas, and an amateur radio license gives them the freedom to do this. There are some hams who are referred to as “hard-core homebrewers.” They wouldn’t think of operating a radio that they didn’t build themselves.

Most hams are not quite so hard core, but do enjoy tinkering with projects that they will later use in their amateur radio stations. For example, they might decide to build an antenna tuner from plans that they found in a magazine or on the internet. By researching and building these devices instead of just buying them, they acquire an in-depth knowledge of how they work and how to use them.

Many hams also enjoy experimenting with antennas. Antennas are essential for transmitting effective signals, and by experimenting with them, radio amateurs are able to find the solution that works best for a particular frequency and application.

Experimentation in amateur radio is not limited to just electronics and antennas. In fact, some of the most exciting developments are taking place in the realm of software-defined radio. Using a software package called GNU Radio, which is a free and open-source software package that provides digital signal processing tools, hams are developing their own software-defined radios. In addition, hams are doing a lot of work developing new digital modes of communications.

Learn new skills

Radio amateurs are always learning new things. Quite often, these skills not only help them become better radio amateurs, but teach them about other areas of science. Satellite communications is one of these skills.

Ever since the first amateur radio satellite—OSCAR 1—was sent into space in 1961, radio amateurs have been fascinated with space. Today, there are dozens of satellites carrying amateur radio equipment orbiting the earth that earthbound hams can use to communicate with other hams. Doing so helps them learn about orbital dynamics and spacecraft technology.

Another skill that many amateurs learn is radio direction finding. This is a skill that enables them to find unintentional transmitters that may be causing interference on amateur radio frequencies. To learn this skill, hams make a game out of it. They intentionally hide transmitters, which normally operate at 3.5 MHz and 144 MHz, that mimic an interfering signal and then challenge others to find it.

This is trickier than it sounds at first. To quickly find the hidden transmitter, the contestants need a directional antenna, an attenuator, the ability to read maps, and knowledge of how different radio frequencies reflect off buildings or other structures. All of these are required to become an effective radio direction finder.

The person or team that finds the hidden transmitter first is the winner! But more than just winning a medal or a certificate, the participants in a radio direction finding contest learn a useful skill.

Talk to people around the world

Of course, hams still talk to other hams around the world. Hams who have a particular interest in making contacts with stations around the world are called DXers. These hams design their stations with long-distance communications in mind. This often includes using high-power amplifiers and directional antennas.

Some hams take this a step further and actually travel to remote places to set up an amateur radio station and operate from there. These trips are called “DXpeditions.” For example in 2019, a group of seven hams mounted a DXpedition to the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, set up four stations, and made thousands of contacts.

Contesting is also a popular amateur radio activity. During a DX contest, amateurs try to make as many contacts with stations in as many places around the world as they can. Winning one of these contests not only requires top-notch equipment, but also excellent operating skills and expert knowledge of radio propagation.

When not DXing or contesting, many hams like to just “chew the rag,” or in other words, talk to other hams on the radio. Many hams are accomplished and interesting people, and by engaging in conversations with them, you can learn an awful lot of interesting things. “Ragchewing” has certainly taught me a lot, and I’ve made many friends along the way.

Pursue a technical career

For many hams, amateur radio has been a stepping stone to a technical career. Many electronics engineers and software developers have gotten their start by first obtaining an amateur radio license. Amateur radio not only teaches you the technology, but also practical skills, such as soldering and other construction techniques.

Ham radio compared to other personal radio services

In addition to the Amateur Radio Service, there are three other personal radio services that you can use for personal communications. They are:

  • The Citizens Band Radio Service (CB) is a two-way, short-distance voice communications service for personal or business the operates on 40 channels between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz. No license is required, but transmitter power is limited to 4 W, and transmitters must be certified by the FCC.
  • The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is also a short-distance, two-way communication service that operates on 30 channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz. A license is required in the U.S., but the output power can be up to 50 W. To extend the range of GMRS radios, licensees may also operate GMRS repeaters.
  • The Family Radio Service (FRS) is a personal radio service that operates on 22 channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz, sharing some frequencies with GMRS. No license is required, but radios are are limited to 2W output power.

There’s really no comparison between these services and amateur radio. An amateur radio license lets you operate with up to 1,500 W of output power on bands ranging from 136 kHz to 250 GHz. CB, GMRS, and FRS were designed to allow short-range communications, while long-distance communications is a common thing on the amateur radio bands. Plus, we get to build our own equipment and experiment with all manner of signals to our heart’s content.

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