When you first glance at the title, Ham Radio USA – 100 Years and Counting, you can’t help but think out loud and ask yourself when ham radio had its real start. If ham radio in the USA really is to have its centennial celebration this year, that necessarily means that we’re assigning the year 1912 a great deal of significance. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the formative years of ham radio and leave the modern for another discussion at another time.
For now, let’s look at many of the events leading up to this special year for the ham operator. Certainly, a lot of things had to happen to lead to this momentous year. And whether or not this is a year that hams of other nations should choose to celebrate, well, that’s certainly a matter of choice and national pride. Nevertheless, none of us would have little to celebrate, were it not for the great sacrifices of so many great spirits from all over the globe. Work of the world’s brightest scholars and experimenters paved the way for studies in electromagnetic theory, like that of Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla who were able to present their groundbreaking theories, ultimately giving birth to ham radio and putting our hobby on the map.
No doubt there are many of us who have been asked regarding the origin of the word “ham,” a word which has come to define our hobby. Although you may not take this as the final word on the subject, you will find this particular interpretation interesting, as there would seem to be no reason to doubt its authenticity. The word ham actually appears in the publication “The Telegraphist” in September of 1884 when referring to a not so good telegrapher as a “duffer” or “ham.” The word “duffer” may be defined as an incompetent or clumsy person, one with little professional training or experience. Although today we take great pride in being called a ham in 2012, being called a ham, at least in the context mentioned here, was unflattering and derogatory at best, during the day of the land line telegrapher of 1884 per this particular citation.
Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla paved the way for early ham experimenters, after having successfully transmitted and received signals over distances of several kilometers. Tesla achieved this feat in 1895, as he was able to receive transmitted signals from his lab some 80 km away at West Point, New York. Marconi accomplished a similar feat actually using Morse Code in 1896 by transmitting signals over a distance up to six kilometers on Salisbury Plain, England.
Marconi reported sending signals across the English Channel in 1899. It wasn’t long after that Marconi made the announcement on 12 December 1901, using a 152 meter kite-supported antenna for reception, that he received a message of sorts at Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. The received signals were transmitted by the company’s new high power station located at Poldhu, Cornwall, Great Britain. The distance between the two points was about 3,500 kilometers (2,200 mi). Heralded as a great scientific advance, there was—and continues to be—some skepticism about this claim, partly because the signals had been heard faintly and sporadically. There was no independent confirmation of the reported reception, and the transmissions, consisting of the morse code letter S sent repeatedly, were difficult to distinguish from atmospheric noise.
The first true pioneers of ham radio began making their mark sometime after 1908 following Marconi’s experiments (1900-1908). Morse Code by use of spark gap became the transmitting mode du jour and remained as such until sufficient numbers of amateurs had home brewed their first AM transmitters. To the best of this author’s understanding, the earliest voice type transmission took place Christmas eve in 1906 and was made by Reginald Fessenden. This event is still disputed to have taken place. Charles Herrold began broadcasting actual audio programming in California in 1910 on a station he built which went on to become KCBS.
For the next decade, hams and experimenters alike continued to tinker with AM transmitters and receivers. Certainly, by 1918 and the development of the superheterodyne receiver, we were well on our way as technology continued to gain ground. PCGG in the Hague, Netherlands began broadcasting on November 6, 1919. In 1916 a man by the name of Frank Conrad began transmitting from his home in Wilkinsburg, PA as an employee of Westinghouse Electric with the call letters 8XK. This station relocated on November 2, 1920 to become KDKA, the world’s first commercially licensed broadcast station. It’s important to discuss the formative stages of commercial broadcast radio in conjunction with the history of ham radio, as early hams played a key role in the development of emerging RF technologies, associated with both commercial and non-commercial applications.
A lesser known fact is an act of congress which allowed amateur experimenters to take part in research and development of early technologies. In 1910, Senator Chauncey Depew (NY) introduced a bill before the United States Senate which would have prohibited experimentation by amateur radio operators, while fearing that these hams would cause communications interference to the US Navy. Fortunately, this bill was defeated.
The year 1912 is significant to the US and certainly to a degree to amateur radio worldwide. This was the year that ham radio achieved a true level of legitimacy. Considering that our group of noble experimenters and communicators had already come under attack in 1910 by an attempted legislative act to summarily snuff us out, the fact that ham radio operators as a group were recognized, the fact that laws and rules were put in place to regulate operation, designate frequencies and introduce licensing truly gave impetus to our fledgling hobby, while recognizing our contributions to the growth of radio technologies.
For this we can thank the Radio Act of 1912. During the period 1910-1913 the United Kingdom began issuing amateur radio licenses. In addition – Canada, Australia, France and Argentina developed government organizations responsible for the regulation of amateur licensing and the adoption of rules for amateur radio.
We owe the British government our thanks for creation of the original Q-Codes in 1906. These codes were initially developed to facilitate communication between maritime operators representing a multitude of countries and speaking a variety of languages. There were originally forty-five codes representing abbreviations of potential questions or responses included in a list used for radio communications. These were part of the Service Regulations which served as an attachment to the Third International Radiotelegraph Convention in London, signed on July 5, 1912. Interestingly enough, the Amateur Radio Relay League began their ham radio publication called QST only three years later. These codes have been modified over the years. When in use in 1913, QSW/QSX meant: “Shall I increase/decrease my spark frequency?” Spark Gap was banned as a mode in the United States in the 1920s.
The first international amateur prefixes were defined by convention in 1913 as part of the London International Radio Telegraphic Conference after signing at the International Bureau in Berne, Switzerland. That initial list was much shorter than the one in use today. As a point of interest, the initial prefixes A, D, Y and KAA-KCZ were allocated to Germany. The US was allocated W, N and KDA-KZZ. England was assigned B, G and M. France was assigned F and UAA-UMZ. New Zealand was the recipient of VLA-VLZ. Consider how different some of our QSL cards might look today if these prefix allocation conventions had remained the same.
By 1914 the ARRL had been organized and developed the beginnings of the National Traffic System. By this time the RSGB (Radio Society of Great Britain) was already in existence having taken root in 1913. Clubs had already been formed in France and New Zealand and there were already 6,000 hams worldwide.
By 1915 some of the first DX contacts had been logged. Between 1919 and 1926 another 55 countries were added to DX rosters, as the amateur radio hobby continued to grow. During World War I ham operators were forced to go QRT, as CW keys and microphones were silenced for the duration of the war. Such was also the case during World War II. This new RF technology found itself being used for the first time on the battlefronts, as the worlds greatest minds continued to research the properties of electromagnetism. The picture above is a quite famous one. Amongst others, it includes Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein at Somerset New Jersey Station, 1921.
1923 marked the first recorded transatlantic DX contact between licensed hams. American hams 1MO and 1XAM logged QSOs with 8AB of France on 110 meters. In case you’re curious, the first DXCC was awarded in 1937. The International Amateur Radio Union was formed in 1925 and began awarding its first WAC (Worked All Continents) awards in 1926. At that time ham radio already boasted some 30,000 loyal to the hobby. The year 1927 marked the creation of the Federal Radio Commission, when the Radio Act of 1912 was superseded by the Radio Act of 1927. It’s in 1927 that you began seeing the first references to amateur radio operators. By 1928 the IARU had organized itself into an association of national societies.
The year 1926 marked a great year for antenna research. The tops of most ham radio towers might look significantly different had it not been for the work of Japanese researchers Shintaro Uda and Hidetsugu Yagi. From the labors of their epic research was born today’s modern beam, the once so named Yagi-Uda Array. Although Hidetsugu Yagi played a lesser role in the antenna’s development, the name “Yagi” is the one that stuck and antenna manufacturers everywhere don’t seem to mind.
The year 1929 marked the end of the roaring twenties and the beginning of the structure of bands as we know them today, minus the WARC bands and other additional frequency allocations. In 1929 international “experimental” bands came into being, as amateurs worldwide welcomed 160, 80, 40, 20 and 10 meters. This was the result of the International Radio Conference of 1927. You’ll note that 15 meters is absent from these bands, which are all harmonically related wave lengths of one another. The 15 meter band was introduced in 1947 at the International Radio Conference of Atlantic City in New Jersey. This was done in part due to the loss of 160 meters to Loran during World War II. 15 meters actually became available to US hams, CW operation only, on May 1, 1952. The band became authorized for phone transmission on March 28, 1953 above 21.250 Mhz.
All US hams should be familiar with the year 1934, the year that the Federal Radio Commission was put to rest, leading to the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission or FCC . That same year the FCC came out with the now famous Communications Act of 1934. Most of part 97, as we know it today, traces its origin to this original draft. Although changes have been made since its initial creation, we owe a great deal of our ham spirit and vision today to the crafters of this document, defining the rules and framework in which we should operate.
There are so many things which have not been mentioned in this article and should have been. In celebrating 100 years of our hobby, we could write enough to fill volumes. As we’ve focused on the early days of our hobby only, it’s obvious to everybody that much has been omitted. Perhaps in the comments section of this website you’d like to draw particular attention to some of those things that are special to you or those ham radio moments which have made an indelible impact on your life.
For this author, a special QSO comes to mind. It was 1972. I was a high school student then on 20 meter CW, pounding away on an old Vibroplex Lightning bug purchased from another ham who had used it while a CW operator in the US Navy. I was in the middle of a good old-fashioned rag chew with an OM in California, from the city of Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco near the Golden State’s wine country. My grandfather, Eugene Ladd, lived there. He had wanted to be a ham operator, but in his final days with emphysema, he didn’t have the energy to learn the code. He had a mobile home full of radios of all kinds. His most prized was a Radio Shack DX-150A which he used as a short wave listener. He loved tuning into the ham bands. Well, after a good hour of rag chewing on CW with my new WB6 friend, I asked him if we could QSY to SSB for a phone patch with grandpa. He told me no, whereupon I was bold enough to ask him why, at least three times. My brass pounder friend told me he was blind, deaf and mute. I proceeded to ask him how he copied my CW. He explained, “I removed the cabinet to the speaker. I’ve got the volume up high so I can feel the pronounced vibrations of your code through my fingertips.” I wept humbly knowing that I was one of a select few who could converse with this dear OM near the California coast.
One of the founding tenets of DxCoffee is a belief in the founding principles of amateur radio. This article would truly be incomplete without quoting these principles found in FCC part 97 of the Communications Act of 1934. They are true principles for all hams, not just those of the United States of America:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary non-commercial communication service,
particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill
It’s this writer’s strong conviction that we should have these five principles framed and prominently displayed at our operating stations, as a permanent fixture in our shacks, reminding us of who and what we are. These great words should serve as constant reminders to us of our commitment as hams to the Amateur Service, to one another, to those yet to become future hams, to those new hams in need of an elmer, to those operators not as skillful or technically savvy as we are, to those still a little rough around the edges. Let these words remind us that we are to build international goodwill and tear down those walls that divide and separate. During the most intense of contests and the most fearsome of pileups, let us remember who we are, in gratitude for those great OMs and radio pioneers who went on before us.
With gratitude to the late AC6V and LY2YR whom I have used, in great part, as sources for this article.