By RICHARD WALKER, T&D Staff Writer The Times and Democrat | Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010
On Jan. 6, 1838, the message, "A patient waiter is no loser," went out across a telegraph line set up in Morristown, N.J. It was the first successful attempt to send a telegram, and it traveled an unheard of distance — two miles.
Six years later, another telegram was sent, this time from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, setting in motion an industry that has been the precursor of cell phones and the Internet.
Call it the grandfather of modern texting, instant messaging and cell phones, the world became a smaller place when connected first through the telegraph wire and later by amateur radio, better known as ham radio.
"I've found that the hams I have known are above average," J.T. "Buggy" Green said from his St. George home while listening to a long-distance call, of sorts.
A charter member of CARS — Charleston Amateur Radio Society — Green tweaks the dial to accommodate the frequency and pitch of the signal changes. "I was actually picking up a signal (bounced) off the moon," he said.
Amateur only because they're not paid, private radio operators cropped up as soon as the invention of radio came about in the late 1890s.
The most oft-told story has it that after 10 years of radio, professional operators referred to amateurs as "hams."
That name stuck, and like thousands of woodpeckers, ham radio operators on spark-gap transmitters tapped out everything from weather to mom's recipe for apple pie until the technology improved to carry actual voice.
"It's a family thing," says Bamberg's Carl Kilgus, a member of EARS — Edisto Amateur Radio Society. "I got a daughter, (she's) got a license. I've got another daughter that's got her license, too."
In the early 1920s, the obstacle of the Atlantic Ocean was overcome with the first two-way transatlantic communication.
A brand new company sprang up in 1921 to cater to these ham operators through mail service at their one store in Boston. They called this new store Radio Shack.
During the Golden Age of Radio in the mid-20th century, names like Benny Goodman, Amos and Andy, and the Lone Ranger became household names.
But many household names today are ham radio operators, including Patty Loveless, Gary Shandling, Joe Walsh of the Eagles, the King of Spain Juan Carlos (call letters "EA0JC") and the late Walter Cronkite.
"Most of the astronauts are hams," Green said.
Calhoun County Emergency Medical Services Director Bill Minikiewicz got his start back in high school in 1968 when a teacher started up a radio club.
Minikiewicz said initially, the idea registered somewhere between cutting grass and washing dishes on his fun meter. Then he was shown an actual ham radio setup.
"And all of those meters, and knobs, and gadgets — whew!" the 56-year-old said. "Then he turned the stuff on, and you're hearing all those radio stations. Hook, line and sinker — I was hooked!"
Minikiewicz said through the years, his interest in the hobby has been centered on the keen sense of accomplishment one gets out of building a radio from the tubes up that allows the builder to travel — through radio — to distant places.
"That's that whole other element," he said. "You're accomplishing something on your own. You're not just plugging it up."
But hams take pride in being more than just an above-average do-it-yourselfer who can talk to another ham in China or England. The system is not just another pretty box full of knobs and meters.
"Ham radio has evolved into much of the emergency systems," says longtime radio repairman Keitt Brandenburg. "But that isn't what it was."
What radio was in the early days was a means for official communication. Indeed, wealthy passengers on an ocean liner would have had access to the novelty and sent messages to loved ones at home.
On April 14, 1912, the first message of its kind was sent out via radio from an ocean liner. The message was from the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic. It was the first time an SOS had been used.
But ham operators say that like the many frequencies themselves, radio went in several different directions, including the entertainment industry, military use and, of course, the private amateur radio operator.
Minikiewicz said hams aren't just a bunch of techno-gurus who know the difference between a vacuum tube and a Hoover vacuum. Even in a high-tech world of cell towers and the Internet, there is a practical use for what they do.
Hurricane Hugo's visit in 1989, for all purposes, put the usual communication lines hors de combat.
Most communication attempts with the coast at that time were met with only white noise or static, Minikiewicz said.
But the EMS director recalls gathering a generator and a car antennae and a few more parts to build an on-the-spot radio.
"And it was the only system that worked," he said. "They had lost communication with Charleston. The ham radio operation was the only system working."
Although more than 700,000 are licensed in the United States, most local operators lament because the number of radio operators below 30mHz, the frequencies hams use, is declining, and that science is being lost to a different kind of youth than the do-it-yourselfers of the '50s and '60s.
Back then, the test for obtaining a Federal Communications Commission license for operating a radio was similar to, well, rocket science. It's not so hard these days, most say. But a basic setup in equipment can cost much more than a Blackberry.
"The average two-meter radio is around $600," Kilgus said. "You need your radio, power supply, antennae. Some of these (systems) can cost thousands of dollars."
Today, it's Nokia and Samsung and instant texting, as opposed to a 1960s Hallicrafters radio Minikiewicz restored after spending more than a year looking for obsolete parts.
In the world of hamfest, you can buy a complete ultra modern radio. But it's a matter of pride when that first test flight with a hand-made radio lands you in Brazil or the backwoods of Belgium, hams say.
And while wireless providers today duke it out as to who has more bars, wireless ham radio operators reach around the world for less, on average, than a cell phone call.
"They say I can get on their social networks and I can talk to anybody," Minikiewicz said. "But I don't have to spend $70 a month and I can still talk to anyone."
The bottom line for hams is it's a genuine fascination with tubes and transistors and a working knowledge of radio that while perhaps old school still serves as a means to simply bring the world closer.
"You learn people are just people," Minikiewicz said. "A ham radio operator in Russia is just as proud of his equipment and accomplishments as anyone else."