Amateur “Ham” Radio – Just Right for Summer

hamAmateur “ham” radio has been around since the dawn of the technology, but has stayed current into the 21st century. When radio was invented, the airwaves were the wild west and everyone was an amateur. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 – and the missed opportunities for rescue if other ships nearby heard its radio distress calls clearly understood in New York and London – convinced governments around the world that radio was no mere plaything. By 1915, anyone who wanted to transmit signals in the United States needed a federal license.

Now it is easier than ever to get such a license: Local exams are given by volunteers from three active groups in RI, so there is at least one examination session each month between Cranston, Middletown and North Smithfield. The website of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) – arrl.org/licensing-education-training – lists exam sessions along with other information about how to become a ham radio operator. The exams are entirely written multiple choice – the morse code test was eliminated years ago – and all of the questions and answers are published for study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There is no age requirement, and children as young as five or six have passed the exam and earned a license.

Officially, Congress and the FCC authorize amateur radio – no one knows how the slang term “ham” came to be used – to encourage people to be familiar with a technology that has repeatedly proven invaluable in time of disaster and national emergencies. As a practical matter, hams find it fun to talk to other hams using a wide variety of methods: plain old voice into a microphone and out of a speaker is still the most popular, but at the other extreme hams have launched their own earth-orbiting communications satellites.

The largest annual event for hams is ARRL Field Day weekend, coming up June 22 to 23, where individuals and groups set up portable stations, usually at camp sites, to practice operating without commercial electricity and demonstrate readiness for emergencies. The public is welcome to visit, with a list of locations – arrl.org/field-day-locator – on the ARRL website. Many groups set up a “Get on the Air” (GOTA) station specifically for newcomers. Bob Beaudet, callsign W1YRC, the elected RI Section Manager for the ARRL, said that two of the nine radio clubs in RI are particularly active and both will set up Field Day operations where the public is invited: Blackstone Valley Amateur Radio Club (BVARC), callsign W1DDD, behind the Scituate Senior Center, 1315 Chopmist Hill Rd, Scituate, and Newport County Radio Club (NCRC), callsign W1SYE, at Glen Park, off Gilbert Barker Lane, in Portsmouth. (Motif covered the BVARC event in 2015.)

Hundreds of thousands have been influenced in their careers and education by early involvement with ham radio, and often they return to it. Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr., professor emeritus of physics at Princeton University and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on pulsars, earned a ham radio license as a teenager – a fairly typical thing for young people with a scientific or technical inclination – and currently holds callsign K1JT. In his retirement, he maintains the open source freeware computer software WSJT (“Weak Signal by Joe Taylor”) that has revolutionized digital communication: Any ham using basic equipment can connect a computer and exchange messages below the noise threshold over shortwave radio, and the software recovers the data through a sophisticated sampling of the noise, essentially pulling messages out of “static.”

Of course, most hams are not Nobel Prize-winning physicists. Beaudet got his first job after college graduation with a degree in economics through a connection at a radio club: “I went to Providence College and, toward the end of my college time there, I was in the radio club. I also helped found the Blackstone Valley Amateur Radio Club, and one of the founding members at a meeting, one of the members actually who was the president at the time, recommended that when I graduated I should go up to Raytheon and apply because he worked there he said it’s a great place to work. I said, ‘Oh really? Okay.’ So long story short, I applied and I was hired … of course I’ve been retired now for … 19 years, you can do the math, but 42 years at Raytheon and I had a very nice career.” His last 30 years at the company, he said, were in recruiting where he hired several thousand new engineers, many of them with backgrounds in ham radio. “I’ve had many, many of those people. I can remember one fellow I was able to hire in the company, he ended up becoming a vice president of the company before he retired. And that really all started with ham radio: Where he would have gone if not for ham radio or Raytheon or me, heaven knows. I’ve had a very rewarding life myself, I have no complaints.”

Beaudet’s main personal interest in ham radio is “DXing” – “DX” is shorthand for “distance” – and he has confirmed direct communication with 371 “countries,” a complete set. A “country” for DX contesting purposes is a geographical entity with a separate political existence, even if not a country under international law, and due to political and other changes 31 of the ones he has worked are no longer on the list, leaving 340 active. He said only four other hams living in RI have reached the maximum 371.

Only 7 years old at the end of World War II, Beaudet remembered his youth in ham radio. “In 1945, there were no stores around where you could go buy ham equipment. There were no catalogs around you could go look up what you wanted to buy, everything you wanted you had to make. You could get parts. There was a lot of surplus, a lot of war surplus, on the market very cheap, too. People bought it left and right and they built their own. They built their own receivers. They built their own transmitters. They built their own antennas. They built their own power supplies. Today, it’s a matter of buying what you want to buy.” Of course, some hams still choose to “homebrew” equipment the old way, just as some still choose to use morse code.

In the modern era, it’s possible to buy a pretty good hand-held radio on the web for under $30 that covers two bands (2m and 70cm) capable of local communication through repeaters over about a 20-to-50 mile range, which is what would be used in most natural disasters such as storms. The respected impartial web site miklor.com posts reviews and recommendations of such inexpensive Chinese-made radios that bring the price of admission to ham radio so low as to be accessible to everyone.

The reporter, Michael Bilow, is licensed under personal callsign N1BEE.

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