I went on the air in 1954 and became known as KN2JOY — K, because I lived in the United States; N, because I was a novice; 2, because I lived in New York State; and JOY, because the FCC must have thought I was happy, and I was. I was awarded a license to transmit radio signals by the FCC. And “JOY” just happened to be the next set of letters on their list. The friend who did it with me got “JOZ”.
I was fourteen years old, and I was a ham radio operator. It hadn’t been too many years after our home phone number was simply 1220, four digits, that was all. There were no area codes then. You needed an operator to get long distance, and long distance was not all that long, but when KN2JOY went on the air, anything was possible…the whole world could hear me, and I could hear them, at least in theory, and that was exciting. As confirmation of my contacts I would send out what is called a QSL card. Here is the first one I ever received back.
I didn’t invent radio, but I felt like I had. I had built two Heathkits: an AT1 transmitter and an AR2 receiver. I had put up a long wire antenna that was about twelve feet above the ground. I had a simple telegraph key, and I was connected to the largest “grid” on planet Earth — RADIO. A year later I passed another test and became simply K2JOY, a ham with a General Class license.
I built another transmitter using money I made during the summers, a Johnson Viking Ranger, one beautiful, top of the line unit.
And then life began to happen. My mother became ill. My dad needed money because of it. I sold the Ranger and gave him the money. My mother died, and life changed. Ham radio fell out of my life, and several years later I was an officer in the USAF and a new husband.
A lot of years followed that, years without a license to transmit. And then in 2002, at the encouragement of a friend, I became known on air as K7WST with an Extra Class amateur radio license this time. I’m not obsessive about it, but even without an obsession, I have enjoyed contacts with other ham radio operators all around the globe, not just the East coast. My antennas now reach sixty feet above the ground, and my first signals as K7WST are now light years out into space and well behind those of that old K2JOY guy.
The first reaction among many people is, “Why bother? Today we have cell phones and the internet. You can contact anyone on the planet with no effort whatsoever.” It’s a fair question. And it represents the point where those of us in amateur radio say, “They just don’t get it, do they.” Well actually, millions of people do get it. There are literally millions of people around the world who are licensed amateurs. In the U.S. alone, one in every four hundred people are licensed hams. In my town of just a little over twenty thousand people, there are one hundred and seventy-one licensed amateur radio operators. Given that, there are at least one hundred and seventy-one different reasons for why they do it. Some because they like the gadgets, some because they like the challenge of making contacts around the globe, some because they want to help their community during times of disaster. Some of them are gregarious, extroverted people. Some are introverted. It doesn’t matter. You can be any type of person and enjoy amateur radio. You can be the most private person in the world and still like contacting other stations thousands of miles away. And come on, do you really know someone in Bora Bora who is willing to accept your phone call or email? You can bet there is a ham there who will listen to your morse code!
You can design and build your own equipment and antennas, or you can buy those same types of equipment and antennas from a myriad of companies in the amateur radio business. The ways you can lead your ham radio life are nearly endless.
Admittedly, amateur radio requires your learning about many technical issues, but you don’t have to be an engineer or scientist to do it. Plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds get licensed. There are numerous cases of children under ten years old who have licenses. And what do they receive in return? They learn about the sun, the atmosphere, even the ground and the oceans. They learn that you can bounce signals off just about anything: the moon, buildings, mountains, the Northern and Southern Lights. They learn about geography, time zones, sun up, and sun down.
And if you like competitive events, amateur radio has many, many contests for a wide ranging list of interests.
So, let’s look at amateur radio in more detail.
What Does a Station Look Like?
In its simplest form, all you need us a transmitter, a receiver, and an antenna. Nowadays, transmitters are usually built as one unit, a transceiver. Here is how I started back in 2002.
The transceiver is a used ICOM IC-737. At the time I had been awarded AC7VM for a call sign, but having an Extra Class license, I was allowed to pick a different unused call sign. I chose K7WST. Why that? Well, it had some advantages. First, it is rhythmic for the hand when sending it by Morse code. Second, WST are my wife’s maiden initials. I could have waited to get a call with just two letters after the seven, but that takes a lot of waiting.
The antenna was a GAP (a manufacturer) multi-band (meaning it worked for several different frequency ranges) vertical. Vertical antennas tend to pick up more noise, but they send your signal out at a low angle, which usually gets you longer distances. And in fact, my longest distance contact was made with that antenna. I still use it today.
My station today has picked up a few more transmitters, receivers, a new transceiver, and two long wire antennas. I won’t go into all the details, but here is what my station looks like now. It’s actually the QSL card I use at present.
What can you do with an amateur radio station?
We’ve touched on this subject, but there is a lot more to learn. I, for instance, pretty much only use Morse code. I could say that I do that because my wife is related to Samuel F. B. Morse, which she is, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I like sending code. It’s fun. It also tends to go longer distances and still be understandable. It doesn’t take as much power as voice transmission, and it doesn’t take as much bandwidth (the spread of frequencies that comprise your signal).
When I got my license, you had to know Morse code. Now you don’t. So you can just use your voice if you like. I made a contact with someone in Brazil by voice, with only five watts! And that brings up another issue. How much power can you use? There is a limit, a legal limit. It’s fifteen hundred watts. That’s plenty. I would guess that many, if not most hams use a hundred watts or less. Most transceivers are built for one hundred watts. If you limit yourself to a maximum of five watts, it is recognized in the ham world as “QRP”, meaning low power. Some contests and other awards require that you use the QRP mode.
One of the more interesting awards that is not a contest is set up by a British group, IOTA, Islands On The Air. The idea is to contact all of the saltwater surrounded islands on their list. Check them out at rsgbiota.org on the web.
Besides contests and awards programs, you can participate in disaster support, collect contacts with stations at a great distance from you (DX’ing), experiment with radio designs, or just find a good friend and talk.
How does your signal go around the world?
No doubt you have heard of the ionosphere. If you haven’t, I’ll give you a simplified explanation. It is a series of layers containing ionized (electrically charged) particles (electrons, atoms, and molecules). It is at a height of about 30 miles to 600 miles above sea level. It changes constantly, especially from day to night, but also as a result of the activities of the sun. At any rate, it was amateur radio operators that found they could bounce signals off the ionosphere, thus getting the signals to travel well beyond the horizon. The distance from a station to the place where it’s signal hits the earth again after bouncing off the ionosphere is typically around two thousand miles. And it can then bounce back up and continue bouncing around the globe. Under the right set of conditions, it will actually bounce all the way around and back to the originating station. Conclusion? You can potentially contact anyone anywhere on the face of the Earth!
OK, there are a few problems with this story. Storms interfere, the state of the sun determines the strength of the ionosphere, and of course, someone has to be listening and hear your transmission. If there were no challenge to doing it, if it were easy, why bother? Challenges in life are part of the fun. You will find, however, that it won’t take long before you have contacted any number of far off places.
At very high and ultra high frequencies, especially the latter, things don’t bounce off the ionosphere well. They go right on through, but you can still bounce your signal off the Moon. True, it takes specialized equipment, but many hams do it.
This is only a broad look at how radio waves propagate. As you get more into amateur radio, you’ll learn a lot more.
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Probably more than any other sport, hobby, or profession, except medicine, amateur radio has a long list of specialized terms, acronyms, and abbreviations. And there is a good reason for it all, brevity on air. In addition to all that, it carries with it the terminology of mechanical, electrical, and electronic engineering, and now, computing. Ham radio covers a wide range of technologies, anything from the mechanical aspects of putting up large towers capable of withstanding storms to the use of computers to operate transceivers and other devices.
Obviously, this booklet is too small to provide explanations for all the terminology you may encounter, and you shouldn’t be worried about it anyway. You’ll learn as you go, and you don’t have to know it all, just as much as you need. It’s always easy to look things up. The ARRL website and others can provide lists of abbreviations and acronyms that are particular to ham radio.
There are clubs galore. They are great places to find help. They are great places to find like minded hams. Probably the mother of them all is the Amateur Radio Relay League, the ARRL. You can find them at www.arrl.org. They publish a monthly magazine, “QST”. Yearly membership in the ARRL is not very expensive, and you get QST monthly as part of the deal, either as a paper magazine or an ezine, or both.
Without looking very hard, you will find local clubs in your area.
There seems to be no end of books and magazines about ham radio. The ARRL publishes a pretty long list, including a set of very helpful books on how to get ready to pass the needed tests. And then there is the internet. Go there and go crazy!
Money, it’s always money! OK, so it can be expensive or cheap. There is used equipment all over the place for good prices, including on the Internet. Just learn first. Get to know other hams. Their advice will be a great help. Virtually all hams are happy to be helpful. If you have only a little money to spend, you can always find what you need, even if it means fixing a transceiver that no longer works, building a kit, or waiting until you find the best deal. Antennas can be the cheapest part of the whole thing, or you can spend until you’re blue in the face. At any rate, cheap or expensive, the main ingredient is time and effort. All you really need is enthusiasm!
Go for it! It will change your life!
Here are are few websites that will come in handy: