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Bill Leonard
June 30, 1958
The star of CBS-TV's 'Eye on New York' reports on a hobby—amateur radio—that is distinguished by one of the most grueling international competitions in all sport
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June 30, 1958

The Battle Of The Hams

The star of CBS-TV's 'Eye on New York' reports on a hobby—amateur radio—that is distinguished by one of the most grueling international competitions in all sport

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On the night of February 7, 1958, a few moments before 2 a.m., Canadian Army Sergeant Elvin Veale of the U.N. Emergency Force stepped out of his quarters into the bitter night air of the Gaza Strip. He was tense, excited, braced for the job ahead. At the same moment, in a Tokyo suburb, Haruo Yoneda, a Japanese TV executive, pushed back a final cup of breakfast tea and disappeared into the tiny room from which he emerged 48 hours later, glassy with exhaustion, and utterly happy.

Sergeant Veale, Mr. Yoneda, Ludvik Kloucek of the Mongolian People's Republic, Empty in Johannesburg, Eva and Alex in Casablanca, Nose in Hawaii, this reporter and a multitude of others—from Pitcairn Island to Punxsutawney, Pa.—were about to begin play in the oddest, toughest and by any standards the most international of all sporting competitions. This was the start of the 24th annual DX contest for radio amateurs of the world, sponsored by the American Radio Relay League.

DX means distance in the abbreviated jargon of hams (amateur radio operators)—and the object of a DX contest is for one station to talk to as many other stations in as many other places as possible in a prescribed length of time. The Grand National of the many DX contests sponsored annually by clubs, organizations and magazines in dozens of countries (including Russia) is the ARRL's affair. There are more American hams (140,000) than in all the rest of the world combined (60,000), and in this biggest of electronic scrambles operators in the U.S. and Canada compete against each other and talk only to foreign stations. Overseas hams contact only Americans and Canadians.

It takes about six months before logs, sent from the six continents, can be tabulated and checked. So this year's winners won't be officially known until the results are published in an early autumn issue of QST, the official magazine of ham radio. But on the basis of claimed scores, still subject to cross-checking, George Morrow, W8BKP, of Washingtonville, Ohio, and Robert Cheek, W3LOE, of Catonsville, Md., may be the U.S. high scorers for voice and code respectively. Outside the U.S. Katashi Nose, KH6IJ, of Hawaii swept both the voice and code contests for the first time ever.

These, and the other winners in foreign countries and various sections of the United States and Canada, cart away no cash or golden wassail cups. Certificates (suitable for framing—but barely) are the only visible rewards of this tense and exhausting competition. The thrills are not in the prizes or the honors but in a kind of fish-and-hunt excitement, with a voice 6,000 miles away in Rarotonga or Rio de Oro as the quarry.

Depending on just how serious he is on the subject, the DX contest man will not only kill himself in a contest, but he will spend the better part of a year getting ready for the exquisite torture of 48 hours of almost continuous operating. He will plan, assemble and erect, usually at considerable cost and occasional risk of limb, an endless succession of antennas, designed to make his station sound just a little louder in Minsk than the fellow who beat him out last year. He will memorize (if he doesn't know them all to begin with) the names and call-letter prefixes of every "country" in the world (there are nearly 300 "countries," for hams count many islands and possessions as well as motherlands). He probably has written or talked previously on the air with a hundred hams half a world away arranging crucial schedules for the contest period. He has experimented with diet and sleep habits, stay-awake pills and coffee strengths and has literally gone into training for the contest ordeal.

He does all these things and, in addition, takes a lot of perfectly sensible abuse from what are laughingly referred to as loved ones, because ham radio in general, and a DX contest in particular, is more fun than beating Yale. It may indeed be true that while golf is a game, bridge a hobby and girls an avocation—ham radio is a passion. Like most passions, it is pretty much a mystery to those who are not in love.

Amateur radio, like the airplane, is no longer a crude Kitty Hawk baby. Once it did take a garage full of fairly frightening equipment to say almost nothing to almost nobody almost no distance away. And it took an odd breed of nose-in-the-formula duck to master the intricacies of the spark gaps, tickler coils and reflex audions, to say nothing of the dots and dashes. Today, a transmitter-receiver combination no bigger than a portable typewriter is on the market, easily capable of regular communication with all parts of the world. It is about as difficult to operate as a home hair-rinse kit.

A great deal has been written about the work of hams in national and local emergencies—floods, wrecks and hurricanes. Hams are proud of their public-service record. Perhaps just as important, and frequently overlooked, is the fact that hams are among the nation's best ambassadors abroad. An estimated 10,000 conversations between U.S. and foreign hams take place every day. The Voice of America considers ham radio of such vital international interest that one of its few programs in English, beamed to Europe and Asia, is a weekly ham show.

There are hams who are housewives (girls allowed) and bandleaders (Gene Krupa), politicians (Herbert Hoover Jr.) and comedians (Arthur Godfrey), kings (Prince Abdullah Feisal of Saudi Arabia) and writers (Ernest Sweet Smell of Success Lehman), ship captains (Kurt Carlsen of the ill-fated Flying Enterprise) and captains of industry (Hazard Reeves, president of Cinerama), guardians of the air (Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay) and of the seedy (New York Prison Warden Ed Dros). There are hams who are doctors, lawyers, and a sprinkling of Indian chiefs, in India.

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