Amateur Radio

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Given our familiarity with digitally tuned radios, we easily overlook the technical skills once required to enjoy radio. Through the 1920s, radio listening demanded technical skills for tuning, tinkering with, and constructing rudimentary receivers. The clear reception of a radio signal testified to the abilities of both radio operator and equipment. Enthusiastic listeners kept logs to document the conditions under which they received broadcasts. Into the late 1930s, radio stations sent "verified reception stamps" or postcards to listeners who wrote in reporting that they had heard a particular broadcast.

Many radio listeners chose to build their own receivers, either to save money or to control the design. Even those who bought ready-made radio receivers faced tasks such as wiring in a battery and assembling an antenna from parts sold separately before they could spend evenings searching the dial for new stations. Radio handbooks of the 1910s and 1920s commonly referred to listeners as one type of radio amateurs.

The other kind of radio amateurs listened to and additionally sent out their own radio signals. From the beginning of the twentieth century, "transmitting amateurs" or "hams" experimented with two-way radio. Hobbyists in home workshops made technical improvements to radio communication that rivaled those made by the U.S. military. Bickering over access to the radio spectrum strained the relationship between these groups of radio innovators. Hams eavesdropped on and sent false messages to sailors and also inadvertently interfered with naval communications. Antagonism between amateurs and the navy precipitated the first federal radio regulation, the Radio Act of 1912. In the process of playing tricks on the military, however, hobbyists showed off their skills and the capabilities of their equipment. The U.S. Navy put aside past grievances and turned to the self-trained amateurs to fill communications posts when World War I broke out. Targeted campaigns by the navy and the Army Signal Corps recruited amateur radio operators and asked hobbyists to donate homemade radio stations.

Much as the leisure tinkering of amateur radio operators contributed to military communications, so did it shape the broadcasting industry. Hams sent messages mostly from one person to another and often by Morse code, a system associating combinations of long and short electrical pulses to letters of the alphabet. In the 1910s, some amateurs shifted to talking over the airwaves using everyday speech. These personal conversations attracted an audience of eager listeners in the days before commercial radio stations. When amateurs acknowledged the wider audience by offering "concerts" of recorded music, they crossed the line into broadcasting. Development of broadcast radio as a business in the 1920s, including the greater commercial availability of receivers, split the general hobby of amateur radio into two forms of leisure. Since the 1930s, broadcast listening has required no skill and little effort; listeners can absorb radio entertainment passively. The sending and receiving of radio signals between individuals, on the other hand, demands the kind of activity and specialized knowledge typical of hobbies. Only the two-way hobby of radio communication retained the name "amateur radio" after the 1920s.

Hobby Participants and Activities

From the point at which the transmitting hams separated from broadcast listeners until the 1980s, the practice of amateur radio remained remarkably stable. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates amateur activities and licenses operators in the United States. To obtain a license, a hobbyist has to pass a written examination of radio theory and rules. A second component of the test (dropped in 1991) required demonstrating the ability to understand Morse code and send it using a telegraph key. In the early 1990s, the number of Americans with ham radio licenses exceeded half a million and continued to grow, but the hobby began to change subtly as many amateurs incorporated personal computers and the Internet into their radio pastime. Though there were fewer ham radio participants in the third quarter of the twentieth century—with around 100,000 amateur license holders in the United States in the early 1950s, twice that many by 1960, and 375,000 in 1979—that period is generally considered the heyday of amateur radio. Hams' global communications during the politically tense Cold War and the interference of ham radio operators' signals with neighbors' television reception contributed to the hobby's public prominence.

To communicate "on the air," an amateur needed specialized devices such as a transmitter, a receiver tunable over the frequency range reserved for hobbyists, and an array of accessories and tools. An active ham might pass several hours after work seemingly alone in his "shack," the space that held his radio gear. Typically the shack was located in a basement, attic, or garage, but amateurs prized this unrefined space because it was totally dedicated to the hobby. Postcards confirming individual radio contacts decorated the walls, along with awards from ham contests and the hobbyist's license. The amateur often set up his home station atop or around a desk; ideally he would have enough space nearby for a workbench, where he could complete construction and repair projects. Hams saved an assortment of manuals and magazines (such as CQ, Ham Radio Magazine, QST, The Radio Amateur's Handbook, and 73 Magazine) that composed their technical reference libraries. Depending on his personal style, the hobbyist left assorted spare parts strewn about or kept them stored neatly in bins. During periods of tinkering with equipment that could stretch on for weeks, the ham resembled the stereotypical lone inventor. Then the flip of a switch and the spin of a dial brought the many voices of amateur radio rushing into the shack.

Layers of conversations, in different languages, competed with staccato strings of Morse code across the ham frequencies. Only with precise tuning and some luck could a clear signal be isolated. When two amateurs successfully exchanged messages, the social side of this technical hobby began. During the rush of a contest or when conditions were poor, an "on-air" conversation might be limited to swapping data about station location and reception strength. Under other circumstances, two hams meeting for the first time might speak at length about their lives and hobby experiences. Random meetings over the airwaves occasionally grew into friendships that continued via letters and further wireless discussions. Hobbyists who lived near one another gathered in clubs and met informally for "eyeball contacts" with people they knew through radio only as disembodied voices. Drawn together by their technical interests and skills, hams referred to the group of hobbyists as a fraternity.

Members of the amateur radio community had far more than an unusual pastime in common. Though this brief profile should not be taken as invariable, it is helpful to have in mind a description of the typical radio hobbyist. An estimated 95 to 99 percent of the group were male. On average, the ham completed more years of schooling—and after World War II, his education usually included some college—than the nonhobbyist, and he was far more likely to hold a job in a technical field. These factors contributed to the fact that ham radio operators generally belonged to middle and upper socioeconomic classes. In a proportion probably equal to the gender disparity, hams were white and not inclined to identify ethnically. The hobby community discouraged all internal divisions except geographic ones, deriding religious and ethnic clubs as "political." Amateurs vehemently opposed the use of the airwaves or hobby publications for any political purpose not related to radio regulation, an attempt to avoid ideological battles with the FCC. Though the potential for international communication created a great deal of excitement and anxiety about ham radio, Americans dominated the hobby.

The Social Side of a Technical Hobby

The hobby culture of amateur radio produced a technical fraternity. That is, the amateur radio community existed as a separate, almost exclusively male social group with barriers to entry—radio know-how and equipment—that were grounded in technology. The social dimension of ham radio appeared equally important as the technical dimension after World War II. Before the war, a period sometimes called the "radio age," wireless communicators had stood at the forefront of technical developments. The FCC even banned hobby radio transmissions during the war for security reasons. Yet with the postwar emergence of a new technical culture, the "age of electronics," interest in amateur radio grew instead of turning to the latest cutting-edge technology. Hams continued to enjoy social benefits from identifying as radio hobbyists even when they no longer contributed to technical innovation.

In adopting a technology that their neighbors considered strange, amateurs cordoned off a community with distinct values. Hams passed judgments about outsiders' technical practices and skills in order to establish a technical hierarchy in which radio hobbyists were an elite minority. When defending airspace allocation, hams invoked their close interaction with technology. This characteristic, so went a typical claim, made amateurs more entitled to airwave access than were the "buttonpushing" citizens' band radio operators. Similarly, hobbyists who stood accused of interfering with television reception patronized viewers as not understanding the causes of electrical interference and dismissed television as a frivolous form of entertainment. Along with these social boundaries, amateur radio drew physical boundaries within the home. The noise and clutter of a station helped a ham gain isolated quarters for his shack, clarifying his personal identity apart from the family. In these private, masculine havens, hobbyists could temporarily escape job and household responsibilities and spend hours talking with like-minded men around the world.

See also: Hobbies and Crafts; Radio Listening, Car and Home; Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Leisure


Douglas, Susan J. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Haring, Kristen. "Technical Identity in the Age of Electronics." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2002.

Hilmes, Michele. Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

United States Federal Communications Commission. Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1935–present.

Kristen Haring