A Very Brief History of Amateur Radio



The beginnings of amateur radio can be traced back to the earliest days of radio. The first person to use radio was Heinrich Hertz. He carried out a number of experiments. Later an Italian named Guglielmo Marconi repeated the experiments and started to increase the distances that could be achieved. He performed a number of tests, each time increasing the distances involved. He was even the first person to transmit over water. In view of the revolutionary nature of radio, there was a great deal of interest from the press.

Marconi also gave a large number of lectures. It was whilst he was at one of these lectures a man named Meade Dennis was inspired and started to repeat the experiments, and then set up his own experimental station at Woolwich Arsenal in 1898. This is the first recorded instance of a purely amateur radio station.

Meanwhile Marconi continued with his progress. He made the first cross channel link between England and France. Again the press were present, and they took a great interest in the first transatlantic transmissions which took place in 1901. With this came an interest from many individuals. Designs for wireless equipment appeared in a various magazines of the day, and anyone could build and use their own equipment. Fortunately the distances which could be achieved were small, and interference was not a real problem. However the British Government saw that transmissions needed to be regulated and introduced a licence in 1905. Then in 1910 they decided that stations needed to be identified using call letters.

Operation continued until the outbreak of the First World War with interest rising steadily. In the UK there were nearly 2000 licences in force just before the outbreak of hostilities. However all licences were revoked in the UK and all equipment including receiving equipment was impounded. After the war it took until 1920 before amateur operation was allowed again in the UK.

Amateur radio was popular in many other countries as well. In particular there was a high level of interest in the USA. With the number of interested people around the globe the distances which were being achieved soon started to rise. In the USA it was noted that long distance contacts were being made. With this came the possibility of the first transatlantic contacts on the short wave bands (Marconi's transmissions had taken place on the long wave bands and radio amateurs had been relegated to the short waves which were thought to be of little use). In 1923 the first contact was made between 1MO in the USA and 8AB in France. This was followed shortly afterwards by many others between the USA and the UK. Then in 1924 a contact was made between a station (2SZ) located in Mill Hill, North London, and another located at the other side of the globe in Dunedin New Zealand. This showed that the whole of the world could reached using the short wave bands. Radio amateurs had proved the value of the short wave bands.

The 1920s and 1930s was a time when a large number of improvements were being made. Radio amateurs were able to capitalise on these improvements. Valves (tubes) with far better levels of performance, improved receivers using the superhet principle and a host of other developments, coupled with a better understanding of radio propagation meant that long distance contacts could be made far more easily.

Development in amateur radio continued apace until it was again interrupted by War. In the UK in 1939 all amateur activity was suspended until 1946. A few German stations remained active throughout the war. In the USA contacts with stations in the war zone were forbidden, although after Pearl Harbour all operation was suspended.

After the war activity restarted slowly in the UK. The format of the licence was a changed allowing more flexibility and the first stations were heard on the air in 1946. Since then the licence has been changed a number of times allowing greater degrees of freedom. New modes have been introduced and more frequency spectrum has been allocated for amateur operation world wide reflecting the importance that is attached to it by the international community.

Amateur radio played a key part in the development of many areas. Propagation research has been a key area. Radio amateurs are uniquely placed to provide data for this research and have been instrumental in discovering unusual modes of propagation including transequatorial propagation (TEP). They have also been key in the development of new data modes, and in particular Packet Radio. Here the professional community has used many of the ideas pioneered by radio amateurs.

Amateur radio has also made use of satellites. There are a number of amateur satellites that can be used. It has even been taken on board many Shuttle Missions. This shows the degree of commitment by radio amateurs to exploit the latest techniques.

Now amateur radio is an activity that is enjoyed by more than a million people world-wide. It has developed from being an activity only for the scientifically minded to one which is an enjoyable pass-time which can be taken up by virtually anyone. Nevertheless it still provides for a wide variety of interests including those who want to investigate the technical aspects of the hobby.