Hamming It Up On The Radio - The Old Fashioned Way
by John H. Minners (WB2TQC)
Ham Radio; thatís that old manís hobby isnít it? You know; the one where the old fat guy sits at a table in the dark and listens to static and unintelligible beeps and other strange noises. Yup, thatís the one. At least thatís what Iíve heard described as my hobby for 27 years. Oh, and I am indeed the old fat guy of fame and glory. Ham Radio is indeed rapidly becoming the hobby of an older generation. Part of the reason is that many of the young people of today donít know what it is. The other, more compelling, reason is the Internet.
At one time a Ham Radio Operator could boast of being able to talk to people all over the world with just his radio and antenna. Back not too many years ago that really was a big deal. Along came the Internet and the world shrunk to the size of a peanut. Now everybody could, if they wanted to, talk to everybody else without getting up from the keyboard. Forums, Chat rooms, Blogs, etc. are all meeting places for people who want to chat. And itís so easy. Just flip the switch and click the mouse.
Yeah, if that was all Ham Radio was about then we might just as well sell our toys and hit the keyboards. Fortunately it is not. Ham Radio has gotten easier to get into and itís become easier to operate the equipment, but there is still a pioneering spirit in the Ham community. Today Hams have integrated the computer into their daily operations. They have added digital capabilities to the hobby. Hams talk over the air using keyboards in such modes as Packet Radio and PSK31. Using the computers and forming networks of like-interested Hams, they have begun tracking Satellites and Space launches. Hams continue to bounce signals off the moonís surface that other Hams pick up and answer right here on Earth. Did you know that many of the astronauts that man the space station from time to time are also Ham Radio Operators? They chat with school children using radios monitored by licensed Hams. Ham radio has many facets for those who become interested in the hobby.
Today the importance of Ham Radio as a civil service option has diminished considerably. The use of Cell Phones has all but replaced the use of radio in emergency situations. Many people have even discounted it all together. That is until a series of hurricanes blow in over Florida and much of the cell service was hampered due to over usage or the destruction of Cell Towers. Ham Radios were there, passing emergency traffic and getting help to those who needed it. When hikers and climbers get lost in the deep woods, Ham Radio operators can sometimes get through where Cell Phones wonít.
I belong to a service called Skywarn. Its object is to pass on, to the National Weather Service, first hand observations of serious weather conditions. Whenever serious weather threatens the region hams meet on a pre-arranged frequency to begin reporting conditions at their location. Lives have been saved due, in part, to this early warning system.
I have listened in on the rescue of a man and his wife, after their pleasure boat had been attacked by pirates, in the Caribbean Sea. YES, I said Pirates. They boarded the boat, robbed the couple, shot all the radios and the man and left him to die before they left the boat. What they didnít know was that the man had a radio in his cabin capable of sending and receiving on the Ham frequencies. His wife didnít know anything about Ham Radio, but she used it to contact Hams operating in Texas who immediately notified the Coast Guard. They then served as a relay between the Coast Guard and the woman until a neighboring countryís Coast Guard could rescue them. It was pretty exciting.
So, who becomes a ham radio operator today? I guess itís the same sort of people who have become hams through the generations; the kind of person who is curious about how things work; someone who likes to build and tinker with things. Like todayís cars, Radios are getting harder to work on and repair. There are people who do it though. My favorite thing to do is to experiment with wire antennas to see if I can make more contacts with one over another. I like collecting QSLs which are postcards sometimes sent between stations after an enjoyable chat. There are contests both domestic and international. There are individual awards given by various organizations to be strived for. There are many facets to this hobby. The person who becomes a ham today will find the same sense of enjoyment that hams have throughout our history.
I suppose I should tell you that you canít become a ham without taking a few tests. The tests are required so that you can obtain your license to operate. Sort of like getting a drivers license. Are the tests hard? No, not really (there are 8, 9, and 10 year old Hams, both boys and girls too). You will need to have a basic understanding of Electricity and Electronics to start. Passing this first test will allow you to obtain a Technician Class Amateur Radio License. With that you will, amongst other things, be allowed to operate on amateur radio frequencies with relatively small areas of coverage. To get down to the frequencies where most long distance communications are held you will need (presently) to pass a Morse code test. The code is generally sent from a tape device. Grading can be done in one or two ways; looking for one minute of error free translation or by answering 7 of 10 questions on a fill in the blank exam.
Practice exams for the different level of operations can be found in many places. http://www.qrz.com for example. If you go to this URL http://www.arrl.org/hamradio.html you will see almost the same thing I am telling you here with some pictures and even a few videos. Visit my home page at http://www.mhcable.com/~bminners/New_Page.htm and you will find additional links regarding the things I have talked about. Interested? Then get started. Iíll look for you on the bands and weíll have some fun.