Ham Radio

Ham Radio, more technically known as Amateur Radio, is an FCC licenced radio service available to the citizens of the United States and its possessions. Although Amateur Radio seems to be a small part of radio as we know it today, it was very instrumental in the development of early radio.

Amateur Radio operators all over the world, licensed by their home country, enjoy the very same hobby. Even the late Senator Berry Goldwater and the late Jimmie Stewart held Amateur Radio licenses. Well knowns Patty Loveless, Ronnie Milsap and Walter Cronkite also hold Amateur Radio licenses.

What is Amateur Radio?

Amateur Radio is a popular hobby in which an individual operates his or her own radio station. Amateur radio is often called ham radio, and the operators are frequently referred to as hams. Hams can send radio messages by voice or by International Morse Code to other radio amateurs throughout the world. About a million people participate in amateur radio. Boys and girls younger than 7 years old have operated their own amateur radio stations.

Amateur radio differs from a type of radio operation called citizens band, or CB, radio. Citizens band carries fewer channels than amateur radio and is more limited in the power and range of its signal.

Many hams enjoy talking with other radio amateurs in faraway places. When contacting hams in other countries, they have little difficulty with language barriers. Many hams around the world speak English. When communicating by means of International Morse Code, amateurs may use an internationally accepted set of three-letter signals. These signals are called Q signals because they all begin with the letter Q. For example, the signal QTH? means "What is your location?" Q signals enable amateur-radio operators without a common language to understand each other.

Uses of amateur radio.

Hams have a long history of providing communications assistance in times of emergency. Floods, fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes can interrupt telephone service and other common means of communication. Radio amateurs often have used their equipment during such disasters to reestablish vital communication links. This kind of voluntary work in emergencies has won hams the praise of governments around the world.

Some radio amateurs have developed special equipment for sending television pictures over radio waves. Other radio amateurs send messages all over the world by bouncing their signals off the moon. Hams even use their sets to transmit information from one computer to another.

One technically challenging activity involves building and using an amateur radio communications satellite. Many nations have allowed amateur radio communications satellites to "hitchhike" into orbit as part of the launch of other satellites. Most of these communications satellites have been called Oscars. The word Oscar comes from Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio. Many schools tune in Oscars to provide students with firsthand experience in space science.


Some amateurs design and build their own stations. Others assemble radios from do-it-yourself kits or buy assembled equipment. A complete amateur radio station includes an antenna, a transmitter, and a receiver. Many amateurs use a transceiver, which combines a transmitter and a receiver in a single unit. By purchasing used equipment, hams can assemble their own station for less than $100. Highly sophisticated stations may cost many thousands of dollars.


Unlike most other hobbies, amateur radio requires a license. Amateurs share short-wave radio frequencies (channels) with such users as airlines, armed forces, police, ships, and television broadcasters. It is thus important that everyone follow regulations aimed at avoiding interfering with other users. Amateurs must pass a licensing test to assure that they know these regulations and that they can operate their equipment properly. Countries license amateurs in accordance with an international treaty.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues amateur radio licenses. As of April 15, 2000 there are three classes of licenses: (1) technician, (2) general, and (3) extra class. Starting with the technician level, each license gives greater privileges and requires greater knowledge and abilities.

Many local ham radio clubs offer courses that prepare amateurs to take the technician license test. One of Colorado Springs' oldest and largest clubs is the Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Radio Association (PPRAA).

The technician license requires only a written examination, but restricts the frequencies available to the technician. All amateur licenses, are good for 10 years and may be renewed.

The general license requires greater technical knowledge and familiarity with FCC rules. The general license requires the ability to copy code at a rate of five words a minute. It provides the amateur with a wide variety of privileges, including the increased use of voice and code transmission.

The extra class licenses provides the entire range of frequency privileges and requires the highest level of detailed knowledge. The code speed requirement is 5 words a minute for the extra class license.

Amateur organization.

In addition to local ham radio clubs, radio amateurs also have their own national organization, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Its headquarters are in Newington, Connecticut. The League provides information for beginners and publishes QST, a monthly amateur radio magazine. The ARRL also sponsors contests and operating activities. In one contest, amateurs try to contact as many different stations as they can in a limited period of time. An annual Field Day is one of the most popular activities sponsored by the ARRL. Each June, groups of amateurs with portable equipment meet in remote areas and practice sending emergency messages to one another. This exercise helps them develop skills that would be useful during an actual emergency.


Amateur radio began during the early 1900's. In 1901, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Newfoundland. Marconi's feat encouraged many people to set up their own radio stations and begin communicating with each other over the airwaves. By 1912, there were so many radio stations on the air that a radio law became necessary to prevent interference. Amateur and other private stations were restricted to short-wave frequencies, which were considered of little value. But amateurs were soon sending messages from coast to coast, showing the value of short-wave radio for long-distance transmission.

Amateurs pioneered the development of radio in many other important ways. In 1919, a ham named Frank Conrad used his station in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, to transmit recorded music for the entertainment of people in the area, who listened on small crystal sets. This use of an amateur station helped lead to commercial radio broadcasting. In the late 1930's, a United States radio amateur named Grote Reber built the first radio telescope with a dish antenna and received radio noise from outer space. In 1961, the first amateur radio satellite, Oscar 1, was launched. This was also the first nongovernmental, noncommercial satellite. The first direct satellite communication between the Soviet Union and the United States took place via the Oscar 4 amateur radio satellite in 1965.

Contributor: William I. Dunkerley, Jr., Consultant; Former Assistant Secretary, Publications Manager, American Radio Relay League.

Additional resources:

ARRL Handbook for the Radio Amateur. Am. Radio Relay League, published annually.

Gibilisco, Stan. Amateur Radio Encyclopedia. TAB, 1994.

Laster, Clay. The Beginner's Handbook of Amateur Radio. 3rd ed. TAB, 1993.

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