Hamming Up the Airwaves

BY Tom Bearden  July 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM EST


A battery-powered, five-transmitter simulated emergency radio site at Prospect Park in Littleton, Colorado. Photo by Tom Bearden.

When a giant tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., earlier this year, it destroyed more than homes, schools, and businesses. It also destroyed a large part of the city’s communications infrastructure.

“Hospitals could not communicate, police could not communicate, and the only thing that was working was amateur radio,” said Rick Spiegel, a “ham,” or amateur radio operator.

I spoke with Spiegel and several of his colleagues on June 25 during the annual American Radio Relay League’s Field Day. His group had set up five two-way radio stations in a park in Littleton, Colo., where they operated them for 24 consecutive hours over the weekend, using only battery power. That’s how they stay on the air when cell phones and police and fire radio systems have been destroyed.

An estimated 30,000 hams across the country set up transmitters in public places this weekend to show off the emergency communications capabilities of their hobby, and to possibly attract new amateur radio enthusiasts.

Scott Brown, whose radio call sign is K0XTR, said there’s more to amateur radio than just helping out during emergencies.

“People do this to have fun,” he said. “We’re prepared for emergency communications, but it’s first and foremost a hobby. We enjoy talking to other people with similar interests.”

Glenn Valenta, K0BO, who is an electronics engineer by profession, said there are networks of people with similar interests who gather at specific times, on specific radio frequencies just to chew the fat. He says there are many such forums, “like ‘Collins net,’ where people with old Collins radios (a brand name) get together and exchange information about Collins. There are also political nets, electronics nets, and astronomy nets.”

In the past, there were significant hurdles to becoming a ham. The radios themselves were expensive. In addition, a license from the Federal Communications Commission required hams to know Morse code, a telegraphic system that evolved over the first half of the 19th century*. Morse code uses combinations of dots and dashes to represent individual letters of the alphabet, and is transmitted over the airwaves with a telegraph key.

Today a license is still required, but Morse code has been dropped from the exam. Even so, Brown still does most of his communicating via code.

“Morse code is still alive and well in ham radio,” he said. “It’s fun.”

The old code does offer one advantage over voice communication. Operators can send Morse messages over longer distances because the signal doesn’t have to be as strong as a voice transmission in order to be understandable.

Aspiring amateur radio operators today don’t have to be rich, either, Brown said. He said that on eBay, entry-level, hand-held ham radios range from $100 to $300.

Photo caption: Curt Yowell, 16, whose call sign is KD0HON, works a radio during the ARRL Field Day. Photo by Tom Bearden.

Correction: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly identified Rick Spiegel’s age and when Morse code was created.