HAM radio operators, also known as amateur radio operators, currently number over two million people around the world. Unlike the name implies amateur radio operators or HAMs are anything but amateur. The term amateur is used only to designate that the hobby, pastime or passion is not intended to be used for generating profit.
These men and women routinely provide public service, assistance in emergency situations in addition to enjoying getting to know other amateur radio operators over the entire world. They are licensed in their respective country or even internationally to use specific bandwidths and frequencies to communicate worldwide. Each HAM radio operator has a unique call sign that identifies their country, license classification and their specific identification. With new changes in licensing exams more and more people are getting involved in the hobby of HAM radio operation.
There are several new types of specialized interests for HAM radio operators. Amateur television, amateur satellite communications, severe weather spotting, tracking information, high speed telegraphy, high speed multimedia and even low power operation known as QRP are relatively new additions to the specialized side of the hobby.
One popular combination of HAM radio operation and sports is a combination of orientation, racing and radio. Amateur radio direction finding (ARDF) or fox hunting is very popular in most of Europe and China. It is governed by the International Amateur Radio Union and includes a timed race with each competitor allowed a map, compass and radio to attempt to detect radio transmitters located along the route. The winner completes the course in the fastest time and also locates all or the most the radio transmitters on the course.
Within the United States and around the world there are over a hundred different internationally recognized HAM radio clubs and organizations. Countries as small as Belarus and Aruba have their own organization while larger countries such as the United States, Canada, China and the United Kingdom are home to several different clubs.
Surprisingly the cost of becoming a HAM radio operator is much lower than people imagine. The technology can be highly portable and perfect for communication in remote locations where other forms of communication such as cell phones or internet connections are not feasible or possible. Smaller more compact units and even hand held devices have changed the accessibility of HAM radio for a variety of applications, adding to the number of those that enjoy this fascinating hobby.
The history of HAM radio dates back over 200 years to the first studies of electromagnetic waves. It was based the early mathematical work of Michael Faraday and later James Clerk Maxwell that identified the relationship between electricity and magnetism and the understanding of "fields" that allowed the transmission of electromagnetic waves over great distances.
From this early beginning Samuel Morse, inventor of telegraphy and eventually Morse Code, created a way to harness and use this information to provide specific information with those same electromagnetic fields. The first result was a string of numbers on a strip of paper, similar to a ticker tape, with the numbers representing specific words transmitted through a wire. This was horribly tedious and required the operator and receiver to have a dictionary key to translate the string of numbers into language. In 1838 after traveling to Europe and seeing other systems in use, Morse actually developed a standardized series of dots and dashes that represented the same letters and numbers. This standardized the code and allowed it to be used by anyone, anywhere without the need for the cumbersome decoding and encoding manual.
From Morse code came other codes, designed to shorten the sequence required to transmit and receive information. The Q Code was very popular in marine types of transmissions and was used as the standard form of telegraphy. With the completion of the Atlantic cable in1866 between Europe and the United States, international communication using telegraphy was now possible. Wired telegraphy continue to flourish, but the seeds of wireless communication where also planted.
By 1887 Heinrich Hertz was able to actually measure the properties of the electromagnetic waves first identified by Maxwell. This then lead to the differentiation between light and radio waves. This information is then used by Guglielmo Marconi to develop a method to transmit information wirelessly using the technology that was over a hundred years in the making. The first wireless signals were sent between England and France in 1899. At the same time Tesla was working on transporting electricity through the air using coils, a technology that would continue to prove its importance. By 1901 the first trans-Atlantic transmission by wireless methods occurred, covering a distance of 2100 miles from Cornwall, England to St. John`s, Newfoundland. Within a few years ships and commercial stations for transmitting wireless messages were soon established internationally.
Perfecting vacuum tubes, Tesla coils and receivers and transmitters provided opportunities for those interested in electricity and radio to get involved in the field. At first largely unregulated, it was soon recognized that some type of oversight had to be provided as jamming or overriding frequencies was common, preventing information from getting through. Surprisingly it was Australia that actually had the first club, The Wireless Institute of Australia, which was founded in 1910. The following year Great Britain founded its first Amateur Radio club followed by the Amateur Radio Movement, started in the USA in 1912.
From this point on there was a rapid increase in the number of amateur radio operators. By 1911 it is estimated that there were 10,000 home use HAM radios in operation in the United States. From its early beginnings HAM radio really took off with people enthusiastic about communicating with others locally, nationally and internationally. Before the technology of the internet was available this was one of the only ways that a two way conversation with an unknown person in another country could be done. After all there were no forums, chat rooms or voice chat systems.
Ham radio operators with in the United States can choose to be licensed in one of three categories. The most basic is a technician license, followed by a general and extra license. Each successive level provides for more privileges and operating possibilities. In the United States and Canada as well as other countries it is illegal to operate a HAM radio without the proper license. Licensing in one country does not necessarily mean you can operate an amateur radio in another, and verifying required documentation or licensing with the country you are visiting is essential before transmitting or receiving.
HAM equipment is not as costly as most of the computer equipment used today. The great news is that belonging to a HAM radio club can allow you to try out a variety of different equipment models and styles and perhaps even purchase used equipment at a fraction of the cost of new.
In general the basics needed to get started include a HAM radio receiver for HF bands or a transceiver, which is a receiver and a transmitter that will cover the HF, VHF and UHF bands. Remember that the HF receiver will be essential for long distance radio, which is often the reason that people get involved in this hobby. The other bands are great for local and national types of communications.
The transceiver and receiver units can be portable, fixed or mobile. Fixed models are often known as base stations and are typically located in a quiet area of the home or even in a garage or separate building that allows for privacy when receiving and transmitting messages. In HAM radio talk any place that the radio is located is known as the "shack", even if it is located in a room in your home. Portable models allow a lot more options for those that need a high level of mobility with their systems.
An antenna is essential as well. These are not the small antenna that you use for your television or radio, these are tower style antenna, usually yagi type, which will be able to operate on different bands. A yagi antenna, more correctly known as a Yagi-Uda, is a directional antenna that can have either horizontal or vertically polarized for maximum effectiveness. It looks like three thin parallel metal tubes that are positioned horizontal to the ground on the top of the tower. For most amateur operators the same tower and antenna will be used for both receiving and transmitting but more advanced antenna systems with separate transmitting and receiving antennas are highly recommended once you get established.
Antenna towers must be properly secured and have the correctly number of guy-wires to prevent accidents and possible injury. Guy-wires are tensioned cable that attach at specific distances along the tower to secure anchors in the ground. These cables prevent the tower from breaking in high wind or severe weather conditions. In cities and residential areas the antenna must also conform to any city ordinances or bylaws with regards to towers and antennas.
Although many HAM radio operators build their own equipment, which is allowed without the need for government approval or certification provided it is within the amateur spectrum, there are also HAM radio kits. These kits provide you with each piece of the radio which is then assembled following very specific instructions. This option is both education and informative plus it also allows you to tune and customize your radio to suit your own HAM interests and areas of specialization.
Used HAM equipment may also be a great option, especially receivers, radios and antenna towers. The equipment, if properly protected from the elements and well maintained, has a very long life. Picking up used HAM equipment from a member of the local Amateur Radio Club is a good option to both get help and advice as well as ensure the equipment is in good working condition. A Hamfest, a gathering of HAM radio operators, is also an excellent spot to pick up equipment, tips and education.
Becoming a member of a club will allow you to learn under the tutelage of a licensed and experienced HAM operator. Clubs typically have base stations set up for this type of training, plus as mentioned above this also lets you try out different types of equipment to find which options you want in your own home or HAM radio space.
Online sites provide practice test questions as well as drill and rehearsal types of exercises. Typically HAM radio communities tend to be very supportive of these getting involved in the hobby and are more than happy to help with training those interested. In addition many clubs host classes that teach specific information that is covered on the exam as well as allow you to interact with highly experienced HAM radio operators that are typically licensed at the highest "extra" level. Attending a class is highly recommended for those new to HAM radio as it will explain a lot of the technical issues in simple, straightforward and easy to understand terms. Once you know the basics you can explore your own areas of interest and focus in on different training specializations within the amateur radio spectrum.
While HAM radio is a bit more involved than many other hobbies, it is really an exceptional opportunity to learn about communication technology, provide services and support as well as to meet people with similar interests from all around the world. HAM radio licenses can be an asset in many types of activities and even in some employment categories making this a very rewarding hobby. HAM radio operators also routinely get together for meetings, educational opportunities as well as host competitions to build skills and meet others with the same interests.