Enthusiasts were connecting the world long before the internet, and they say they will continue to long after.
My trip around the world took less than an hour.
Chris in Paris, France, sends his love. He tells us he lives in a small village outside of the city and compliments us on our signal.
Lauro in Italy is in a jolly mood. He’s also impressed with our signal and gives us a hearty five-nine.
Things are looking good in Croatia and in Moldova. In Oregon, a fellow named James tells us it’s 70 degrees and he’s thinking about going fishing. “Seven-three,” he says, before we move on to another part of the world.
“Kilo uniform, one uniform,” Cory Golob says into his radio, identifying himself to the inhabitants of the ether. A second later, another man acknowledges the greeting and a new conversation begins.
All is well in the ham radio universe.
Let me tell you something you might not know. Amateur radio operators are the coolest people in the world. It’s a statement that flies in the face of everything you THINK you know about ham, but there it is.
You think they spend all their time in mom’s basement hunched over equipment built in the 1950s.
You think they are introverted souls who shun sunlight and the company of other people.
You think ham operators are nerds.
You think they are direct cousins of CB operators and that they go around muttering things like “Breaker, breaker one-nine, there is a bear in the grass and smokey’s got a customer. Put the pedal to the metal, good buddy, I’m eastbound and truckin.”
Wrong. Wrong about everything. Ham has been around longer than the internet you so adore, and its advocates say it’s going to be around when all other forms of electronic communication have failed.
“Ham, or amateur radio, is a hobby that has been around since the late 19th century,” says Golob, of Sabattus, who for the past two weeks has served as my ham radio travel agent. “I consider it the original social media network, going strong since 1888. Unfortunately, the public holds many false stereotypes about this incredible hobby.”
Like the CB thing, for starters. Let’s get that one right out of the way so we can move on.
“First and foremost,” says Golob, “amateur radio operators are required to take a 35-question multiple-choice test to show their knowledge of radio principles, regulations, mathematics and electrical theory. When an individual successfully passes their test, they will be issued a call sign from the Federal Communications Commission. Now if this sounds difficult to you, I can assure you that it is not; I passed my amateur radio test when I was in 8th grade, and three years ago we had a 5-year-old pass his exam.”
The test isn’t all that hard, they say. But you have to study and pay a few bucks to take it, and that alone has proved enough to keep most yahoos off the airwaves.
And the lingo. The ham operators don’t talk like extras from “Smokey and the Bandit.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. On the amateur radio airwaves, you might get a “five-nine” to acknowledge a good signal, a “seven-three” as a farewell or even a “hi hi,” which is the ham equivalent of LOL.
“Another misconception is that ham radio is antiquated,” Golob says, who happens to be vice president of the Androscoggin Amateur Radio Club. “Well, yes, it can be that way. Some of us hams love to embrace the past with Morse code, but we are also looking toward the future. We have been experimenting with narrow-banded digital voice modes since the late 1990s, more than 10 years before the federal government mandated it for public safety agencies, and at less bandwidth. Back in the good ol’ days, the bandwidth of a signal was 25 kHz. The feds said all of public safety had to go to 12.5 kHz. The ham radio community has been operating digital voice at 6.25 kHz.”
If some of that confuses you, don’t sweat it. The point is that ham radio is moving into the future just like everything else. If you envision radios the size of small refrigerators crackling down in some nerd’s basement, you’re envisioning wrong. Radios these days come in all sizes, including hand-held models you can carry in your pocket.
The larger point is that amateur radio is less fragile than other means of communication. When the stuff hits the fan, be it the result of nuclear war, a solar flare or alien attack, satellites will go down. The people who spend a bulk of their time preparing for the end of the world believe those systems will go down at the very beginning of the catastrophic event. You won’t be able to call or text your loved ones. You won’t be able to hear what’s happening in the rest of the world. You won’t even be able to update your Facebook status!
“When all the cellphones crap out,” says ham operator and AARC member Richard James of Lewiston, “we’ll still be on the air. We don’t have all the infrastructure that they have. We’re a pretty straightforward technology.”
More on the stuff hitting the fan in a bit.
The cool factor
Marlon Brando, known by the call sign FO5GJ, was a ham operator, you know. So was Walter Cronkite (KB2GSD) and Jim Croce (WN30QW). Joe Walsh still is, and then there’s Priscilla Presley, Joe Rudi and Joe Cupo.
Which leads Golob – kilo uniform, one uniform – to slay the next misconception.
“The other kicker from the public is that ham radio is not cool,” Golob says. “Au-contraire-mon-frere. Wrong again. While most people are inundated with Google, sending emails, text messages, pictures on your cell phone, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, maybe we should show you that we can be Instaham.”
He’s on a roll.
“The amateur radio community has been able to send text messages, still pictures, email, data files, live video feeds and GPS coordinates for years. The beauty of how we send our information is that we don’t need the internet to do it. We are employing internet in some of our modes, but it isn’t necessarily dependent on it. When all means of normal communication fails, hams are there to pick up the pieces.”
Is his love of this communication medium not obvious?
Ham radio is cool. You don’t know it’s cool because the people who are skilled in their use don’t spend a lot of time demonstrating their hobby to others. But that’s about to change.
Locally, ham groups get out in the public plenty. Sometimes it’s to help coordinate movement at an area event – the Dempsey Challenge, the Tour de Cure and more rallies and marathons than I have time to list. By using what’s called the Automatic Position Reporting System, hammers at various stations along the route send GPS coordinates of the participants over the airwaves. Everyone is accounted for in real time.
“We also have a net control station who acts like a dispatcher on ham radio,” Golob explains. “They are the air-traffic controllers so to speak. They direct people where to help, what to track and what information to look for. The net control is acting in the interest of the race director to process communications quickly and effectively. If a rider is too tired, they send the nearest ham with the SAG vehicle to pick them up. If a biker is injured, they make sure an ambulance is sent to their location. They also track where the first and last bikers are located.”
But there are also big emergencies, where communication is what holds everything together.
Remember the Ice Storm of 1998? Remember the sight of all those power crews, from all over the country and Canada, rolling through the streets like an army? Those are the folks who turned your juice back on, and they couldn’t have done it without local ham operators.
“All those different crews came in to help, but they couldn’t talk to each other,” says Bill Woodhead, president of the AARC and one of the 300 ham operators in Androscoggin County. The problem was that each crew communicated on its own channel, which couldn’t be accessed by other crews. The Maine guys, for instance, had no way to talk truck-to-truck with the guys from Vermont.
“But with ham radio,” Woodhead says, “we’re not bound by channels.”
By getting everybody on the same frequency, ham operators enabled the relief workers to talk to one another.
It was the same after the nightmare of 9/11. With practically every government and relief agency in the country rushing to New York, each would have been deaf to the others without ham. Cell phones would have crumbled under the weight of all of that.
Ham radio: ‘Something for everyone’
So ham radio operators have bailed your butt out of the fire and you didn’t even know it. They’re also out there doing fun stuff, like in 2013 when they connected hundreds of Lewiston-Auburn middle school students with astronaut Chris Cassidy, who happened to be orbiting Earth at 17,000 mph at the time.
From a school auditorium last April, the local ham group was able to set up a link with the International Space Station, which isn’t as easy as, say, engaging in a chat with Lauro over in Italy. Operators had to know exactly when the station would be overhead. The weather had to cooperate, and there were niggling details, like audio levels.
“It’s a very complicated thing,” Woodhead said. “You have to have all of these logistics come together in just the right way.”
The first six tries resulted in nothing but static. On the seventh? Space Station astronaut Cassidy answered the call. He said: “Yes?”
In mid-June, it gets even better. That’s when the local group gets together for the yearly Ham Field Day, what Golob calls “The Super Bowl of ham radio,” at Poland Spring Inn and Resort. (See related story for the details.)
“This is going to be an opportunity for a lot of good exposure to the public,” says Tim Bubier, deputy director of the Androscoggin Unified Emergency Management Agency and an AARC member. “This is a good way to get ourselves known as a group and known as a good asset in the community in case of an emergency.”
Field Day may also serve as a recruitment period – the ham groups DO want new members, after all. They want to reach out to the next generation, something they haven’t always been good at.
And why wouldn’t the younger crowd gravitate to ham? “In my opinion, it’s the original social networking,” Bubier says.
Ham operators have the capability to text, to chat, to send photographs around the world. All that stuff the young folks dig so much.
“Ham radio does all that,” Bubier says. “There really is something for everyone. We need to really get in touch with the younger generation.”
Something for everyone has become a kind of mantra for the ham set.
“Think of ham radio like high school,” Golob says. “Everyone has their own clique. You have the athletes, the pep band, the valedictorian, the wannabe-valedictorian who thinks they know it all, Mr. Popularity and the loner who wants to defy society. We are a unique bunch with something to offer, we just have to find our calling. There is plenty of opportunity in this hobby for everyone.”
Including wedded bliss, apparently. When he was in college, Golob introduced his then-girlfriend, Beckie, to ham radio. The pair got together to make their own radio out of an Altoids mints tin, using the gadget — just a quarter of a watt and roughly the size of a deck of cards — to chat up another hammer in New Jersey.
With that kind of history, how can you not fall in love? They ended up married. Beckie, KB1IRZ, is also a licensed ham operator.
Someday, horrible things may happen and the world as we know it may come crashing down. You may not believe that, but plenty do, including myself. And when it happens, amateur radio may be the last means of communicating with the outside world as it struggles up from the ashes. When we reach that point, few things will be as important.
“I feel the need for alternate forms of communication to be of utmost importance, lagging only slightly behind other basic needs such as water, food, fire and shelter,” says a prepper named Chad, one of thousands of members of the Facebook group Maine Preppers/Homesteaders. “This applies to communication both within your immediate group (family, neighbors, etc.) and communication with the outside world, both in your area and across the country. Ham radio is a great way of accomplishing each of these needs effectively and efficiently.”
I know what you’re thinking: You don’t have enough time or money to prepare in such a way.
Wrong again, my friend.
“There are Baofeng duel band ham radios available online for as little as $35 each,” says my new friend Chad, “and a basic license can be obtained through a class and/or a few weeks of studying before taking the test. Whether it will be necessary or not, there is no logical reason not to add these tools/skills to your repertoire.”
On a recent afternoon, Golob took me on my virgin tour of the planet through ham radio. He’s able to understand messages in Morse code (which is no longer a requirement on the license quiz, by the way) and he can recognize an operator’s location through the call sign alone. Clearly I may never catch up with Golob when it comes to the grasp of all things ham. But at the same time, less than an hour of instruction and I understand how it works.
I found a hand-held radio on Amazon for under $40 and soon I will begin pursuing my license to satisfy the FCC. Why? I think the more pressing question is, why not? Ham is more durable than the internet we have come to rely on. Ham has the same capabilities, but it lacks the nuisances: the spammers, the loud mouths, the forum tough guys and the general yahoos that inhabit the Web. The licensing process weeds out the troublemakers, for the most part.
So why isn’t everyone doing it? It’s a poser.
“Hams are often forgotten because normal communications are used so regularly,” Golob says. “When the you-know-what starts to hit the fan, it becomes a shuffle to find the hams, because they know what to do in these situations. . . . At the end of the day, hams know how to get a message from Point A to Point B, whether it is direct, through a repeater, computer-to-computer, text message, video, pictures or Morse code. We have many ways to communicate effectively, we are the best at Yankee ingenuity. If it is broken, we don’t just fix it, we fix it with our own tools on site and problem solve like no other.”
The joy of QSL
Renee St. Jean of Topsham recently inherited a large metal box from her late grandfather. Inside the box were hundreds – perhaps thousands – of simple index cards that would look like pure gibberish to most of us.
“Greetings from the Union of Burma!” is written upon one of them, and that is the only coherent part of the message. The rest is all a mash of numbers and cryptic phrases – Greenwich mean time, frequencies, signal strength, notes on propagation. Most if it looks like something that might have been scrawled by a spy in an old Ian Fleming film.
“When I was a little girl, I loved going through the cards,” says St. Jean. “To me, they’re just like baseball cards.”
Baseball cards from a league the size of the planet, that is. These are her grandfather’s QSL cards: notes, observations and data from a lifetime of conversations through ham radio.
There is a card signifying a conversation he had with a doctor in Cuba not long before the ’60s Cuban missile crisis. There’s one following a chat with a fellow in Cape Town, South Africa, in August of 1959. There are others from Iceland, Yugoslavia, Denmark, Russia, Finland, and on and on. Name a country and chances are real good that Raymond Denham had conversations with people there. He chatted with folks in several countries that no longer exist.
And for every one of those conversations, the former Bowdoin man kept a QSL card to document everything about it.
“Obviously he was very meticulous,” St. Jean says. “I still go through them once in a while. I wish I knew more about it. It’s all very interesting to me.”
The QSL card – the name derives from the Q codes; in amateur radio, QS and L together means a confirmation of transmission – is not something that is required by the FCC.
QSL cards are a hobby unto itself, according to Cory Golob, vice president of the Androscoggin Amateur Radio Club. Ham operators collect them and also use them as proof of certain milestones, such as having made contact in every state in the country.
“QSL cards are sent to each other with valuable information on them,” Golob says. “They contain the call signs of both stations, date, time, frequency and mode, and perhaps a name, location and description of their equipment. Some people make their own QSL cards and others have them professionally printed.”
St. Jean doesn’t know how long it took her grandfather to compile all those QSL cards. It was believed he got into the hobby in the 1940s and continued until his death in 1966. For a time, he served as a MARS – Military Affiliate Radio System – operator, providing supplemental communications for the U.S. Army.
Decades before anyone even thought of instant messaging, email or texts, Raymond Denham was having involved conversations with complete strangers in far-flung places. It’s hard to believe, but Jean’s got the QSL cards to prove it.
22 things you can do with amateur radio
Expand your world
1. Talk around the world without the internet or cellphones. Use your own “internet” when the “other one” is down.
2. Send your voice, text and pictures to unusual places, both near and far.
3. Create your own network of ham radio friends and send instant text messages without cell phones.
4. Meet awesome people from all over the U.S. and around the world, on the air and in person at ham radio events.
Explore amateur radio
5. Talk through satellites or with astronauts on board the International Space Station.
6. Send messages in code — learn Morse code.
7. Be a signal sleuth: Fox hunt for hidden radio signals, and with GPS, GeoFox.
8. Investigate the many new combined radio-internet communication techniques.
9. Try a new challenge: Radiosport — compete on the air for awards and fun.
10. Send a message around the world using less electricity than a nightlight.
Put radio to work
11. Become a weather spotter and help your community prepare for weather events.
12. Use amateur radio to control models, robots or even drones.
13. Support recovery efforts in emergencies.
14. Earn badges and patches through Scouting programs and participate in worldwide radio events.
15. Use your radio for community service! Provide communications for a bike race or a marathon.
16. Track your friends, pets or wildlife using your ham radio.
17. Take ham radio along when you go hiking or camping. You’ll never be out of contact with ham radio.
18. Collect weather and flight data by releasing and tracking a high-altitude balloon.
19. Learn how radio is used to explore space.
Go beyond the menu: Create technology
20. Do it yourself: Build and test your own gear.
21. Experiment with new software applications for radio or create your own.
22. Learn the radio science that powers cellphones, Bluetooth and all of the hottest wireless technologies.
What’s ham got to do with it?
Of course you’re wondering: Where did the term “ham” come from? Does it stand for something? Does it have deep, historical meaning?
Sorry, my inquisitive friend. Nobody knows for sure where the term comes from, although it is widely believed that it was originally meant as an insult.
Land-line telegraphers in the late 1800s and early 1900s directed the term “ham operator” at other operators with poor or “ham fisted” skills. Early radio included many former wire telegraph operators, and it reportedly wasn’t long before amateur radio users were given the name ham operators.
That’s one theory. Another is that HAM is an acronym for Hyman-Almy-Murray, the name of an early amateur radio station. There’s absolutely no proof of this.
A third theory has it that the term came from the first letter from the last names of radio pioneers: Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi. Unfortunately, the term itself predates the radio career of at least one of those men.
The radio people I spoke to for this story don’t tend to sweat it much. They are ham operators and they are proud of the title, no matter how it came to be. They have better things to do.
A little science with your ham
Today, there are approximately 675,000 amateur radio operators in the United States, and more than 2.5 million around the world. In Maine, 4,851 people are licensed ham operators. How does it work?
Hams use a variety of frequencies for communications. Non-hams can listen in via their own receivers or radio scanners. Hams are able to use many frequency bands across the radio spectrum – these frequencies are allocated by the FCC for amateur use.
Hams may operate from just above the AM broadcast band to the microwave region, in the gigahertz range. Many ham bands are found in the frequency range that goes from above the AM radio band (1.6 MHz) to just above the citizens band (27 MHz). During daylight, 15 to 27 MHz is a good band for long-distance communications. At night, the band from 1.6 to 15 MHz is good for long-distance communications. These bands are often referred to as short-wave bands (as in “short-wave radio”).
Unlike frequencies used by FM radio stations and TV stations, which are line-of-sight and therefore limited to 40 or 50 miles, short-wave frequencies bounce off the ionosphere from the transmitter to the receiver’s antenna. The higher the frequency is, the shorter the wavelength is.
Some ham radio operators use the very reliable Morse code, while others use voice. Morse code signals (beeps) often get through when voice transmissions cannot. There are also very many digital modes as well, and hams use radio modems to communicate in various networks.
Come to Ham Field Day in June
In mid-June, the Androscoggin Amateur Radio Club will hold its annual Ham Field Day at the Poland Spring Inn and Resort. This year, it will coincide with the Poland Spring Preservation Societies’ Heritage Day celebration at the same location.
Instead of fighting over space and timing, the two events will intermingle, resulting in larger crowds and plenty of crossover interests. Several other groups are also joining in, including the radio club out of Oxford and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.
For those with any interest in ham radio, the Field Day is a prime opportunity to get up close and personal with the technology.
For more information on the AARC go to http://www.w1npp.org/