What is Ham Radio?

Why radio amateurs are called "HAMS"
(from Florida Skip Magazine - 1959)

Have you ever wondered why radio amateurs are called "HAMS?" Well, it goes like this: The word "HAM" as applied to 1908 was the station CALL of the first amateur wireless stations operated by some amateurs of the Harvard Radio Club. They were ALBERT S. HYMAN, BOB ALMY and POOGIE MURRAY.

At first they called their station "HYMAN-ALMY-MURRAY". Tapping out such a long name in code soon became tiresome and called for a revision. They changed it to "HY-AL-MU," using the first two letters of each of their names. Early in 1901 some confusion resulted between signals from amateur wireless station "HYALMU" and a Mexican ship named "HYALMO." They then decided to use only the first letter of each name, and the station CALL became "HAM."

In the early pioneer days of unregulated radio amateur operators picked their own frequency and call-letters. Then, as now, some amateurs had better signals than commercial stations. The resulting interference came to the attention of congressional committees in Washington and Congress gave much time to proposed legislation designed to critically limit Amateur Radio activity. In 1911 ALBERT HYMAN chose the controversial WIRELESS REGULATION BILL as the topic for his Thesis at Harvard. His instructor insisted that a copy be sent to Senator DAVID I. WALSH, a member of one of the committees hearing the Bill. The Senator was so impressed with the thesis is that he asked HYMAN to appear before the committee. ALBERT HYMAN took the stand and described how the little station was built and almost cried when he told the crowded committee room that if the BILL went through that they would have to close down the station because they could not afford the license fees and all the other requirements which the BILL imposed on amateur stations.

Congressional debate began on the WIRELESS REGULATION BILL and little station "HAM" became the symbol for all the little amateur stations in the country crying to be saved from the menace and greed of the big commercial stations who didn't want them around. The BILL finally got to the floor of Congress and every speaker talked about the "...poor little station HAM." That's how it all started. You will find the whole story in the Congressional Record.

Nation-wide publicity associated station "HAM" with Amateur Radio operators. From that day to this, and probably until the end of time in radio an amateur is a "HAM."

For a complete historical list click here

Why would I get into ham radio?

Ham radio is for anyone who likes to communicate with others via wireless technology. It is also for anyone who enjoys experimentation. Licensed Amateur Radio operators communicate with each other in nearby places, across the country, around the world or even with astronauts in outer space!

Often, younger hams get a chance to meet other hams of various ages and professions. For example, Kid's Day is an annual event that encourages young people to get on the air, perhaps with a family member or a neighbor who is a licensed Amateur Radio operator. The frequent networking often helps teens when they are making career or education choices and wish to get some advice (from professionals in many technical fields) that maybe mom, dad or the guidance counselor may not be able to give.

Today, there are over 700,000 Amateur Radio operators in the United States, and more around the world. There are several areas of interest within the hobby.

The Regulating Body

Although Amateur Radio is considered a "Hobby" it has its roots from the creation of the FCC. The FCC has rules and regulations ALL Amateurs follow.The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was created in 1914 by Hiram Percy Maxim to assist all hams with understanding the rules and to offer assistance to ALL Amateur Radio operators with the enjoyment with the "Hobby".

Public Service

Ham Radio is there to provide primary communications when all else fails!

During most major disasters, local police, fire, rescue, public, and other local radio and telephone systems usually are overloaded, down, or do not have the capabilities to provide the emergency communications needed to save lives and property. Cell phones become un-usable due to severe congestion or damage, electricity and emergency generators for local authorities can be out of service for days or their systems are not designed to communicate over wide areas or with different departments, phone lines are destroyed and in short, most emergency communications can come to a halt! Ham radio operators are called in to re-establish vital communication links using their own equipment, knowledge, skills and training to provide these most valuable services to the public and our government! Hams can put together a complete radio station far from the nearest power pole. They are capable of transmitting around the world with very modest equipment!

During most situations, hams are always some of the, if not the first people to respond in emergencies! Hams work closely with the National Weather Service as trained "Spotters"for severe storms from their vehicles transmitting vital weather information back to hams at the Weather Service offices. There's nothing in weather technology like many pairs of trained eyes that can determine and report all types of dangerous weather situations!

Amateur Radio Emergency Service (or ARES, pronounced like the god of war), a subset of the ARRL. There are branches all over the country, and ARES members are the hams that show up at the simulated disasters, ready to relay information wherever it needs to go. They assist during disasters like Hurricanes, Tornados, Floods ETC. They are the ones getting messages out when the major communication services are overloaded.

"Our primary mission is to work with local operations to assist with communications when normal means fail to function," says National Coordinator for ARES. They do this on three main levels: the local level, which would cover disasters like a nuclear meltdown; state level, which would cover more widespread menaces like hurricanes; and the national level, which might involve a mass evacuation in the event of a devastating hurricane or the loss of national communications services due to space weather events.

The advantages of ham radios in a disaster situation are twofold: They are free from large infrastructure, and they are incredibly flexible bits of technology. An emergency operation system might need a big generator to keep things going, but we can get by with batteries or solar power. If a natural or man-made disaster takes out power, Internet, or phone lines. Amateurs can do global communications with nothing between the two systems but ether.

Frequencies and Transmitting Modes

Hams use a transmitter for communications. Non-hams can "listen in" via their own receivers or radio scanners. Hams use many frequency bands across the radio spectrum -- these frequencies are allocated by the FCC for amateur use. Hams may operate from just above the AM broadcast band to the microwave region, in the gigahertz range. Many "ham bands" are found in the frequency range that goes from above the AM radio band (1.6 MHz) to just above the citizens band (27 MHz). During daylight, 15 to 27 MHz is a good band for long-distance communications. At night, the band from 1.6 to 15 MHz is good for long-distance communications. These bands are often referred to historically as short-wave bands (as in "short-wave radio"). Unlike frequencies used by FM radio stations and TV stations, which are line-of-sight and therefore limited to 40 or 50 miles, short-waves "bounce" off the ionosphere from the transmitter to the receiver's antenna. The higher the frequency is, the "shorter" the wavelength is.

Although a ham radio does broadcast in all directions, hams generally do not use their radios in a broadcast kind of way as a disk jockey would at a radio station. In normal AM or FM radio, one disk jockey transmits and thousands of people listen. Hams, on the other hand, conduct conversations, often with another ham or with a group of hams in an informal roundtable. The roundtable of hams may be in the same town, county, state, country or continent or may consist of a mix of countries, depending on the frequency and the time of the day. Hams also participate in networks, often called nets, at predetermined times and frequencies to exchange third-party messages. In the case of disasters, hams exchange health and welfare information with other hams.

Many hams get their start on VHF FM, using hand-held transceivers set to transmit on one frequency and receive on another frequency. They use FM repeaters, set up and supported by local radio clubs. These repeaters borrow antenna space from TV-station-tower owners on top of mountains and high buildings to receive and re-broadcast signals to extend the range.

The FM repeater receives one signal at a time and simultaneously rebroadcasts it on another frequency using many more watts of power than available from a small hand-held radio. This extends the range of the hand-held radio from a few miles to tens or hundreds of miles! The whole country has these repeaters! (Listen to one with a radio scanner to learn a lot about ham radio.) When a ham is traveling, they can find a repeater to use (great for tips on local restaurants), and carry on a nice, static-free, FM-radio-quality conversation via a radio that fits in the shirt pocket or purse. Linked repeaters allow fun wireless communications across an entire state with a hand-held radio.

Repeaters use common transmit and receive frequency pairs. The frequency pairs in use are informally assigned by groups of hams so that any frequency pair in use is far enough from another repeater so as not to cause unwanted interference.

Digital Mode- There are many forms of digital communications, they all boil down to an operator sitting in front of a computer and typing text into a program that connects the computer with a radio. The radio transmits your text messages and receives messages from others. There are also other types of digital messages that can be automatically sent. For instance, you can connect a Global Positioning Receiver (GPS) to a radio (via a specialized interface) and have it automatically transmit your location. Other operators using specialized software plot your location on maps automatically. They can watch you drive across the country. The system used to accomplish this is called Automatic Position Reporting System or APRS.

Amateur Radio satellites are a cutting-edge use of technology in Amateur Radio. Radio amateurs use their hand-held radios to communicate through an Amateur Radio satellite when the satellite is overhead.

On the International Space Station, each member of the crew usually has an Amateur Radio operator's license. During breaks, astronauts use a 1- to 5-watt VHF FM radio and chat with other hams for a few minutes, often at schools while the shuttle is in an orbit overhead! HF transmissions have a limit to line-of-sight communications and normally do not travel over the horizon, so a conversation is limited to the time when the shuttle is overhead.

Some ham radio operators still use the very reliable Morse code. Morse code signals (CW) often get through when voice transmissions cannot. This requirement was dropped and is no longer required for an Amateur Radio License. But many Hams learn it for History!

Experimentation and Building "Homebrew"

The Ham community has always been "tinkerers". Early radio pioneers could not run down to the local radio store and purchase the newest and greatest radio of the day. They built! Built from the technology of the day.

Building your own system: transmitter, receiver and antenna was the standard for many years until producers started building and selling systems and individual components. But today, you can build your own transmitter, receiver and antenna systems from scratch or kit form.

With amateurs "tinkering" we have technology such as TV, GPS, Cellular phones, Internet, Voice over Internet, Blue Tooth and digital modes for the Amateur Community. SSB, SSTV, ATV, RTTY, AMTOR, DMR, D-STAR, APRS, PSK31, FT-8.

Ham Radio Equipment

The ham radio can fit in your shirt pocket, take up half of an attic or garage, sit on a desk next to the computer or go into a car.

A typical ham radio is a transmitter and a receiver, usually purchased as one unit, called a transceiver. Newer transceiver models often have semi-complicated controls and menu systems that may take some reading of the manual. You may be able to find an older transceiver with controls that are easier to use as a beginner, having the usual analog controls.

Hand-held transceivers have their own antennas. Many hams choose Hand-Held (HT) transceivers to do most of their operating when in the field or at an event. They also use their HT in their automobile during commute times, using a magnetic mount antenna. Unless they have a dedicated mobile transceiver.

Hand-held transceivers have a power range of a few milliwatts to 10 watts. Desktop transceivers have a power range up to 100 watts. The maximum power output for an Amateur station is 1,500 watts (upper license classes).


Little whip antennas, wire antennas in trees, and antennas atop a tower are all used, depending on the frequency in use. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths. Longer wavelengths need larger antennas. The same antennas (used to transmit and receive) can be small, portable, put in trees or on the trunk of a car.

Collecting Cards?

Hams collect confirmations of contacts using QSL cards. Hams collect the QSL cards and receive awards for contacting so many countries on certain frequency bands.

Gathering of Hams

There are frequent gatherings called Hamfests, or ham radio flea markets. Hamfests are the best place to meet hams, buy equipment, and take your license test. It's a great way to find some terrific deals on used equipment. It is relatively inexpensive to get into Amateur Radio if you learn how to shop for used equipment with the aid of someone at a local radio club.

Each May, the world's largest ham radio convention is held in Dayton, Ohio.

Another Frequent gathering of Hams is with local clubs. Every area of the World has Clubs to be a part of. With a club, you will find members engaged in various aspects of Amateur Radio. Advice on Antenna Building, Transceivers, Fox Hunting, Kit building, Moon Bounce, Certificates, DXing, Digital Modes, Teaching and so much more!!

You Are Not Alone

Who knows, maybe someday your next ham radio contact may be music entertainers such as Ronnie Milsap, Patty Loveless, Joe Walsh, Art Bell and More!! -- they are all FCC-licensed Amateur Radio operators!

Wanna Be A Ham? Start your Quest Here!