February 13, 1998

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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 less than a week. And, in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire in California, hams save lives and property as part of their involvement in an emergency communications net. 

This unique mix of fun, public service and convenience is the hallmark of the hobby called Amateur Radio today. Although Radio Amateurs get involved in the hobby for many reasons, they all have in common a basis 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." 

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 2 meter hand-held receiver or computer messages transmitted through satellites and packet networks, they all have an interest in what's happening in the world, and they use radio to reach out. 

Some hams are attracted by the ability to communicate across the country, around the globe, even with 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 or more than 2000 Amateur Radio clubs throughout the country. 

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. In 1927, the Federal Communications Commission was created by Congress and specific frequencies were assigned for various uses, including the ham bands. 

Although the main purpose of Amateur Radio is fun, it is call the "Amateur Radio Service" because it also has a serious face. The FCC created the "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. The ARS is much different from CB. 

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. 

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 to get the higher class license requires progressively more knowledge of the technology, rules and regulations, as well as higher Morse Code speeds. 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 a 55 question examination on radio theory, regulations and operations. The Technician class license gives access to millions of frequencies in the UHF and VHF 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 questions exam and basic Morse Code test of five words per minute. Technician licensees may also pass the Novice code test to earn additional privileges. 

The General class license requires passing a 25 questions 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 word 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. 

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 theory proposes that the name came from the "ham-fisted" way some Amateurs handled their code keys. The easiest opinion to accept is that "hams" is a Briticism of "Ams", as in Amateurs. And one of the most exotic holds that "hams" is an acronym, the call sign H.A.M. from the initials of three college students who were among the first Radio Amateurs. 

Look at the dial on an old AM radio and you'll see frequencies marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz. Imagine that band extended to the right, 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 communications, as well as the so-called "shortwave" stations, which are worldwide commercial and government broadcast stations from overseas. 

Amateurs are given nine "bands" (i.e. groups of frequencies) in the high frequency range between 1800 and 29,700 kilohertz, and another 6 bands in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) 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 communications. 

Right here!! You can send us a message below and we'll help get you in contact with someone in your area. You might also want to check out the American Radio Relay League, the ARRL, which is the national organization for hams. 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. 

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