A retired military officer in North Carolina makes friends over the radio with an amateur radio operator (known the world over as “hams”) in Lithuania. An Ohio teenager uses her computer to upload a chess move to an orbiting space satellite, where it’s retrieved by a fellow chess enthusiast in Japan. In California, volunteers save lives as part of their involvement in an emergency communications network. And at the scene of a traffic accident on a Chicago freeway, a ham calls for help by using a pocket-sized hand-held radio.
This unique mix of fun, public service, and convenience is the distinguishing characteristic of amateur radio. Some hams are attracted to the idea of communicating across the country, around the globe, and even with astronauts on space missions. Others enjoy building and experimenting with electronics. Although hams get involved in the hobby for many reasons, all have a basic knowledge of radio technology, regulations, and operating principles and must pass an examination for a license to operate on radio frequencies known as the amateur bands.
Amateur radio is as old as radio itself. Not long after Italian experimenter Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the Morse Code letter “s” from Wales to Newfoundland, Canada in 1901, amateur experimenters throughout the world were trying out the capabilities of the first “spark gap” transmitters. In 1912 Congress passed the first laws regulating radio transmissions in the United States. By 1914 amateur experimenters were communicating nationwide, and setting up a system to relay messages from coast to coast. In 1927 Congress created the precursor agency to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and specific frequencies were assigned for various uses, including ham bands.
If you were to look at the dial on an old AM radio you’d see frequencies marked from 535 to 1605 kilohertz (kHz). Imagine that band extended out many thousands of kilohertz, and you’ll have some idea of how much additional radio spectrum is available for amateur, government, and commercial radio bands. It is here you’ll find aircraft, ship, fire and police communication, as well as the so-called “shortwave” stations, which are worldwide commercial and government broadcast stations from the U.S and overseas. Amateurs are allocated nine basic “bands” (i.e,. groups of frequencies) in the High Frequency (HF) range between 1800 and 29,700 kHz, and another seven bands in the Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) ranges. There are nine more segments in the Super High Frequency (SHF) and Extremely High Frequency (EHF) microwave bands. Finally, hams can use any frequency above 300 gigahertz (GHz)!
Given the right frequency and propagation conditions, amateur radio conversations can take place across town and around the world. Those with a competitive streak enjoy amateur radio contests, where the object is to see how many hams they can contact in a certain time, often a weekend. Some like the convenience of a technology that gives them portable communication. Others use it to open the door to new friendships over the air or through participation in one of thousands of amateur radio clubs throughout the world.