Of course, every
American knows how radio works, just as he understands television,
refrigerators, reciprocating engines, women's minds and other everyday
miracles. But we shall risk a word about how amateur radio fits into the
Radio energy can
be pictured as waves, all traveling at the same speed, the speed of light
(light, incidentally, is just very, very short radio waves, and our eyes a
remarkable radio receiver that tunes in on light waves). Some radio waves are
long, only a few of them passing a given point each second. Others are short
waves, hardly any distance between crests, but many waves passing a given point
each second. The wave lengths used for regular broadcasting are quite long
(around a quarter mile from trough to trough). TV uses much, much shorter wave
lengths, its channels falling in the so-called VHF (very high frequency) and
UHF (ultra high frequency) range. Most of the bands assigned to hams fall in
the wave lengths in between, where almost all long-distance radio transmission
takes place, not only amateur but military, plane to plane, ship to shore,
commercial services, international broadcasting and overseas radio telephone.
In the range between 10 and 100 meters the radio waves exhibit the remarkable
property of bouncing off a vast electrified layer of the upper atmosphere,
called the ionosphere, and returning to earth thousands of miles away. It is a
tricky business predicting just how and when which waves will bounce how far,
for conditions change violently almost minute to minute, according to a dozen
factors, including the season of year, light, darkness and sunspot
Hams can operate
in seven narrow ranges, the so-called 10, 11, 15, 20, 40, 80 and 160 meter
bands where international DX is common. In addition other VHF and UHF bands are
set aside for more or less local work. Hams can use either voice or code, the
original and still popular dot-dash method of radio communications.
There is too
little space on the highways of the ether for the great number of stations
traveling on them. So the ham at his own station has to contend with the
problem of interference from other hams, as well as the never-ending job of
keeping his gear in workable shape. In the early TV days neither ham equipment
nor television sets were designed to keep the ham signals from interfering.
Now, ham techniques and equipment and TV receivers have improved to the point
where television interference from amateurs is a steadily diminishing
radio (ham is a 50-year-old corruption and contraction of amateur) is not
simply one activity but many. For the competitive, the rigorous contests are
available. But just as all motorists aren't race drivers, so most hams pursue
quieter aspects of the hobby. For the tinkerer and do-it-yourself addict there
is equipment to put together, tear apart and put together again, equipment
handsome enough and complicated enough to satisfy any hi-fi bug.
The gabber gets a
chance to talk endlessly on the airwaves, and the listener can eavesdrop to his
heart's content. It's not unusual for round-table Kaffeeklatsch QSOs to embrace
a dozen hams all on one wave length, but located on all six continents. English
is the international ham language. English, plus a set of pidgin abbreviations
like OM for old man, hangovers from the all-code days when contractions were
the natural result of attempts to speed up dot-dash conversations. Also hams
use some of the international "Q" signals, which translate, in any
language, into key phrases. A QTH is a location; QRN is static.
There is a little
of the collector in us all. Hams carry the stamp dodge one better. For many of
them it isn't enough just to have made contact with the remote Russian republic
of Uzbek. Who would believe there was such a place? So every ham has his own
QSL, or confirmation cards, proof that the QSO (communication) took place.
Cards from all 48 states earn a special Worked-All-States certificate. Even
tougher is a DX Century Club award, confirmations from 100 countries. A couple
of thousand hams have this one, and a handful have cards from 275 countries,
which are almost all there are. Another award (issued by the ham magazine CQ)
divides the world up into 40 artificial zones, and the trick is to get cards
from hams in all of them. Zone 23 is mostly tundra and Tibet, and hams there
are as rare as centerfielders. Robert Ford, an R.A.F. radio operator, put Zone
23 on the map, operating from a monastery for a few months eight years ago.
Then he was captured by the Communists and became famous as a man who survived
five years of attempted brainwashing and Red torture. When he was released in
Hong Kong three years ago, the first Westerner to greet him was a British
colonel. The officer was a ham first and an Englishman second. He threw his
arms around Ford and cried, "Thank God you're alive, Bob. I've been
sweating out your QSL card for six and a half years."
concentrate on message handling (two New Jersey high school boys have handled
over 1,500 telephone patches—relays—for our Antarctica base personnel), others
get their kicks out of Civil Defense work and still others use their sets only
to keep in touch with one or two friends who are also hams.
Just as strangers
almost always start to converse in generalities, often inanities, so do hams.
The wonder is—and this is the secret thrill of the game—that you can talk at
all, that the little black box you built yourself puts your voice and your
mind's eye into the home and the consciousness of a human being who may be a
missionary in the Congo, an undertaker in Sweden or a schoolboy in Uruguay.
Whoever he is you will call him by his first name, even if—and this has
happened countless times—you are an Air Force mechanic and the other ham is a
four-star general. You will probably not know, and if you do you won't care,
whether the lad with the outstanding signal on the high end of 20 meters is
tall or short, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Jew or Gentile. And any
ham can tell you something about the meaning—or lack of it—of national
boundaries. The chances are the fellows he likes to talk to most live a day's
flight and a visa away. Through radio they are in his "shack"
aficionado, who has been hamming for just a quarter century, and whose shacks
have included an airplane over Addis Ababa, a chicken coop in Vermont, a movie
house on Broadway and a hotel balcony in Haiti, the ham DX contest is the hobby
at its zestiest. The big one just concluded embraced four weekends in February
and March—two weekends of 48 hours each for voice operators, two for CW (code)
men. There is no law, except common sense, preventing a single operator from
working all 48 hours all four weekends. Indeed, the Hawaiian school teacher
named Katashi Nose, whose call is KH6IJ, who is this year's champion, regularly
does just that. Along with a Virginian (Vic Clark, W4KFC), Nose is just about
the best all-round contest man. He builds his own equipment, including a set of
huge antennas on towers he raised and climbs himself. He is equally adept at
key or microphone. His endurance seems endless. Favored with a location
comparatively close to the U.S., he regularly exchanges contest serial numbers
and reports with 3,000 U.S. hams in a single competition. He and Clark, year in
and year out, are among the top scorers in the world.