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Amateur (ham) radio turns 100...but is it a relevant hobby today?

Updated on September 19, 2012

Not your weird uncle's ham radio

All that singing and celebrating you hear is ham radio operators observing the 100th anniversary of the creation of the hobby by the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Okay, okay, there is no singing and shouting, but yes, amateur radio was born a century ago this fall. Does that make the hobby passe? No! The oft-held belief is that modern communications--Twitter, Facebook, texting, smart-phones--have made that old-fashioned ham radio an anachronism, as outdated as your weird uncle, playing with all that sparking and spitting radio gear in his basement.

Not true!

Like technology in general, this dynamic pastime has evolved tremendously, not simply keeping pace with the times but still often leading the way. After all, that is how it began, with radio experimenters (who began calling themselves "hams" for reasons we still can't determine) helped create over-the-air communications. Then, when things began to be regulated and commercial interests ran hams off the frequencies they had made viable, the government gave them "useless and impractical" spectrum in what were called "the shortwaves." Little did they know what these guys would do with that bit of wavelength as well!

Amateur radio operators use radios for a variety of exciting things

"Hams" operate a special event station near Historic Ship Nautilus at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the submarine's historic voyage to the North Pole in 1958.
"Hams" operate a special event station near Historic Ship Nautilus at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the submarine's historic voyage to the North Pole in 1958.

Makers and hackers welcome!

Rumors of the demise of amateur radio have been greatly exaggerated. With more than 700,000 licensees in the USA and well over a million worldwide, ham radio is bigger and more vibrant than ever. The hobby has actually experienced tremendous growth with the advent of all that modern technology that was supposed to leave it in the dust of bits and bytes.

Indeed, digital communications, software-defined and computer controlled radios, space technology and more were not only pioneered in part by hams, but each area of modern technology has become an integral part of what amateur radio operators do with the radio-frequency at their disposal. In my book, RIDING THE SHORTWAVES: EXPLORING THE MAGIC OF AMATEUR RADIO, I make the case that contrary to the opinions of some, the Internet, smart phones, and Facebook have made the hobby even more contemporary and attractive to those with a technical bent, and many of those attracted to the new communications technology find a satisfying home in the world of ham radio.

Like the booming "maker" and "hacker" movements, this hobby offers the opportunity to explore as deeply as and in as many directions as its aficionados want to go. If people enjoy making things with their hands, assembling kits, or designing and constructing things like antennas, emergency "go-kits," and more, the hobby offers them plenty of opportunities to do so

Similarly, amateur radio operators are able to combine the hobby with many other activities including RVing, scale-model building, astronomy, hiking and backpacking, sailing, weather spotting, emergency preparedness, and more. A visit to the web site of the hobby's primary membership organization , the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) gives myriad practical, real-world examples.

You can combine ham radio with any other activities you enjoy

Across the street or to the International Space Station

Many resist the hobby because they are afraid it is too technical or they are leery of having to learn the Morse code. Relax. Today's ham radio does not necessarily require a strong knowledge of electronics, although a deeper knowledge and understanding of electronics, digital communications, radio propagation, and more is certainly there if someone wants to develop it. It is also true that young people getting into the hobby can use what they learn to pursue a career in such areas as engineering, cellular communications, broadcasting, computers and more.

Also, being able to copy the Morse code is no longer a requirement for obtaining an amateur radio license. But guess what? Since Morse was dropped as a requirement, interest in the code and its use on the air has ballooned. More and more newcomers and old-timers alike find great satisfaction in using this old but very efficient mode of communication.

Whether your interest is designing electronic gear, meeting new people around the world (ranging from rock stars to astronauts aboard the International Space Station), helping with emergency communications, experimenting with antennas, digital modes, or satellites (yes, there are amateur radio satellites in orbit right now!), or other exhilarating aspects of ham radio, you can experience the magic of this amazing pastime in whatever way you prefer.

By the way, the license examination is not a big roadblock. Study materials and, in many cases, local classes, are available and many non-technically-inclined people have no trouble learning what they need to pass the exam and join the ranks of amateur radio operators. Age is no factor, either. Kids as young as five and senior citizens in their 90s have passed the exam, gotten their "ticket," and begun enjoying the magic of the hobby.

Again, no particular knowledge of electronics or computers is necessary to be licensed and to find tremendous enjoyment in the hobby.

I urge you to visit the ARRL web site and watch the videos. Or Google "amateur radio club" and your city's name to find a local group. Most of the clubs are welcoming and eager to help those interested to learn more about the hobby.

Good luck, and as we say in ham radio, "73!" ("Best regards!")

Don Keith (amateur radio call sign N4KC)


Talk to the world with amateur radio

Hub author Don Keith N4KC at his operating desk.
Hub author Don Keith N4KC at his operating desk.

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