Though its origins can be traced to at least the late 1800's, amateur radio, as practiced today, did not begin until the early 1900's.
The first listing of amateur radio stations is contained in the First Annual Official Wireless Blue Book of the Wireless Association of America in 1909. This first radio callbook lists wireless telegraph stations in Canada and the United States, including eighty-nine amateur radio stations. As with radio in general, the birth of amateur radio was strongly associated with various amateur experimenters and hobbyists. Throughout its history, amateur radio enthusiasts have made significant contributions to science, engineering, industry, and social services. Research by amateur radio operators has founded new industries, built economies, empowered nations, and saved lives in times of emergency. So, you've heard about Amateur Radio, sometimes called "ham" radio, and you're curious. Maybe you know something about it from a friend or relative, but you're really not sure what it's all about. This is hopefully a useful introduction to Amateur Radio that tells you not just what Amateur Radio operators do, but also tells you why they do it, and gives you some idea of the history behind this avocation.
From my perspective, there are three great traditions in Amateur Radio. Almost all Amateurs participate to some extent in all three of these traditional activities, and all three can provide enormous personal satisfaction and growth in the hobby. Each of these traditions goes back to the roots of Amateur Radio history, even as far back as Marconi himself.
The Experimenters Tradition
The very first Radio Amateurs had to build all of their own equipment. While that is no longer the case, quite a few delight in the ability to build hardware, write software, modify equipment, and otherwise experiment with radio equipment. The Amateur Radio Service is, in fact, the only personal communications service in the country where licensed operators are allowed (and even encouraged) to modify, build, and otherwise experiment with their own hardware!
Most Amateurs no longer face the need to build their own equipment, as many commercial companies sell equipment designed specifically for the Amateur bands. But that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of opportunity to design, build, and modify! It doesn't even need to be radios themselves. Many builders start out learning how to solder connectors on coaxial cable, or how to assemble a new antenna. Kits are available to build many station accessories, such as switch boxes, interface cable, electronic Morse code keyers, amplifiers, test equipment, and attenuators.
Building a radio or station accessory from a kit can be a very rewarding experience. Kits and designs range from the very simple to complete to much more complex projects. Most have been designed by fellow Radio Amateurs and many offer features not available from any other source. In addition to kits prepared with components and instructions, there is a wide variety of published plans for building all sorts of things. In fact, there are whole books on the subject! Many hams also modify existing radio equipment for use on the Amateur bands. This can be as simple as changing a crystal or adding an audio output connector or as complex as replacing whole sections of a radio with newer design components. Almost every Radio Amateur at some point has dabbled in building or modifying equipment.
Assembling an antenna for world-wide HF communications
One area where Amateur Radio operators are well known for experimenting and building is antenna design. It seems like almost every issue of the popular Amateur Radio magazines feature articles about new antenna designs or construction techniques. Many Amateur Radio operators have also experimented with modeling antennas using their computers. This involves complex software that predicts an antenna design's performance in the real world. Amateurs are constantly improving our understanding of both antenna design theory and practical computer modeling of antennas.
Digital communications are another area where extensive Amateur Radio experimentation is taking place. Digital communications over the air extends all the way back to the introduction of radio teletype (RTTY), but today includes a wide variety of protocols and encoding schemes. There are literally dozens of digital modes in daily use on the Amateur bands - many of which were pioneered by Amateur Radio operators who sought to improve the state of the art. Interested in Spread Spectrum? Interested in Digital Signal Processing? Want to build or join a wireless network of computers? One that includes stations around the globe? Many hams are experimenting with these and other digital techniques that can enhance communications.
The Amateur Radio experimenter is a builder who loves radio and loves to make things work. While "plug and play" may be fine for some activities, the radio experimenter really enjoys the challenge and excitement of building or modifying or trying out new ideas.
The DX Tradition
Since the invention of radio communications by Gugliemo Marconi in 1894, Radio Amateurs have always been interested in extending the envelope of the radio communications state of the art. From the very beginning, Amateurs have been interested in seeing how far away they could contact other stations. Marconi himself set numerous distance records in the early days of radio, constantly improving the transmit range and reception capabilities of his equipment. Today, Amateur Radio operators routinely use High Frequencies (HF) to communicate with stations around the globe. They even use Very High Frequencies (VHF) and Ultra High Frequencies (UHF) to establish contact with other stations by using the moon to reflect their signals!
Amateur Radio operators work hard to build great stations for working DX!
The term DX comes from an abbreviation for "distance" that has been used by Morse code operators for over a century. A DXer is someone who seeks out contact with stations in distant or exotic places. The original DXers, like all other Radio Amateurs, used the Morse code to communicate. They know that because the Morse code requires only a narrow bandwidth, it can maintain signal integrity over longer distances than any other mode of transmission. In many cases, the use of Morse code instead of voice or data transmissions can be the difference between being able to establish contact or not being able to at all! Many other factors can also contribute, including propagation conditions, antenna type and direction, radio design and much more. DXers are known for giving the extra effort to improve their chances of "working" that next DX station.
To the DXer, it is not the nature or content of the communications that is really important; it is the ability to establish two-way communications in the first place that is important. Many of these contacts are made under extreme difficulty or in adverse conditions that try the Amateur's ability and equipment to the utmost. Maybe it's a station 1,500 miles away that can be contacted on 432MHz only because a weather front is "ducting" the signals back to earth instead of out to space. Maybe it's a rare Caribbean station on 50MHz that can only be worked when sporadic clouds of ionization in the atmosphere develop in just the right place and time. Maybe it's a shortwave contact from Texas with a ~k5tr/vp8/"small expedition on an Antarctic island in the south Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it's working another station via "moonbounce" or knowing when the "long path" on the HF bands might be "open."
Even with the best antennas, distant stations can be weak.
In many ways, DXers help push the state of the art in understanding how radio signals propagate. Amateur Radio operators have studied the relationship between the sun and shortwave propagation for decades. Amateurs were among the first to attempt "moonbounce" and "meteor scatter" communications. Amateurs even discovered certain forms of "transequatorial" propagation of VHF frequencies that are still not very well understood. DXers have provided enormous contributions to the general body of knowledge on antennas, antenna modeling in software, receiver design, using digital signal processing, and many other aspects of radio communications necessary to effectively chase DX.
Many DXers especially like to collect QSL cards from other Amateurs. These cards are a way of extending written confirmation to another Amateur Radio operator about a particular radio contact. Ask a DXer to show you their QSL card collection sometime, and you may be pleasantly surprised to see cards from all over the world - from exotic islands, to remote desert lands, arctic regions, places you've read about and maybe imagined visiting some day. DXing is a fun and challenging way to experience the world.
The Traffic Handling Tradition
In 1953 licensed radio amateurs voluntarily provided communications to assist the Local Authorities and Emergency Services during the East Coast Floods. In 1954 the Radio Society of Great Britain formed the Radio Amateurs Emergency Network (RAEN).
In the following years, agreement was reached with the licensing authorities to enable Radio Amateurs to pass messages for third parties in emergency situations. This was qualified as messages passed for "User Services" which today includes the British Red Cross. St John Ambulance. St Andrews Ambulance Association, Chief Emergency Planning Officers, or any United Kingdom Police Force, Fire or Ambulance Service, Health Authority, Government Department or Public Utility.
As late as 1976, RAEN had become known as RAENET which was later changed to RAYNET, the general name by which the organization is known today. During the first two decades it grew into a nation-wide network, and its groups were used in numerous local authority exercises, by Emergency Planning Officers (EPO's). In emergencies when storms, floods, telephone equipment failures, search & rescue missions, etc. necessitate additional emergency communications, EPO's call on RAYNET.
Administration of RAYNET used to be carried out by the RSGB, who kept the membership records and produced identity cards for the registered groups and members. The RSGB also provided insurance cover for all RAYNET members, and appointed a Chairman to form a committee known as the National RAYNET'
In the early 1990's, the RSGB began to suffer some financial difficulties and it requested the NRC to organize RAYNET to stand alone as a self-funded body The RAYNET membership was then consulted and a separate democratic organization was formed at the members request The NRC then became the Committee of Management (CoM), formed a company in order to achieve charitable status and is now registered as The Radio Amateurs' Emergency 'Network Limited (known as the NETWORK). The word Limited was removed from the title in November 1993 by special resolution in similar fashion to that of the RSGB.
Funding is obtained by subscription from The Network registered members. It is hoped that the achievement of Charitable Status, in 1995, will enable external sponsorship to aid the operation of RAYNET At the request of the membership The Network is also now affiliated to the RSGB.
Some groups have preferred to remain "independent" of the NETWORK and others have become affiliated to the RSGB but overall, this has not affected the operation of RAYNET as a whole. The Committee of Management, however, look forward to the time that all RAYNET groups will eventually merge with the co-operation of the RSGB.
Floods have played an important part in RAYNET's development over the years. Since 1953, the East Coast area has suffered floods on several more occasions. Many other parts of the UK have also been flooded, including Towyn, Llandudno. North Yorkshire and Strathclyde in all of which RAYNET were involved.
Air disasters have also made use of RAYNET services. Kegworth, Coventry and the recent Harrogate air-accident have all tested RAYNET'S communications expertise, but Lockerbie involved members in its biggest ever operation in terms of numbers. RAYNET providing at least 80 operators during each of the first ten days, with 130 on duty on the busier ones.
The organization has also been involved in a fair share of maritime incidents, most recently Piper Alpha, Zeebrugge and the Shetland oil spill. Overseas work involves RAYNET providing disaster relief communications, usually for the Red Cross, the Mexico earthquake being one notable example. News of relatives in overseas areas hit by disaster can be passed on quickly to families in this country.
RAYNET members give freely of their own time, not only to provide communications when needed, but also for the essential training sessions and exercises. Generally, they use their own radios and equipment but, some User Services now provide and install some equipment for their local groups.
The sky's the limit in Amateur Radio!
As you can see, the Amateur Radio Service encourages a wide range of interests and activities. The above three traditions, which I believe represent the heritage of Amateur Radio over the years, are by no means mutually exclusive or even entirely representative. One activity that crosses the traditional boundaries is radiosport contesting. Radiosport contesting challenges participants to establish two-way contact with as many different stations in as many different locations as possible in a given time period, and reliably exchange certain information with them. Successful contesters draw from the traffic handling tradition that emphasizes reliable, efficient communications, and the DXing tradition that emphasizes the desire to contact many different places. Contesting can be quite competitive, quite fun, and certainly a challenge to the skills of the radio operator. Many other activities in Amateur Radio draw upon and help develop a mixed radio operations skill set.
Amateur Radio is a gateway into a new and exciting world. It is an avocation you can follow the rest of your life and continue to find something new and interesting to do. It doesn't take a large investment to get started, and just because some Amateurs talk with their friends in Singapore or Argentina on a regular basis, or spend their entire weekend contesting, or are always building things that never seem to work just right, doesn't mean that that has to be the kind of Amateur Radio you take an interest in. There's plenty of room for everyone, and plenty of activities to choose from. You may even find that your interests change as you explore new terrain in the world of radio. But that's just another part of what makes Amateur Radio so rewarding...
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