Why Are Amateur Radio Operators
Called HAMS?

I have heard several stories over the years. These aren't the only ones floating around, click here for more of them.

HAM meant Poor Operator

One common story says that initially amateurs were not welcomed by the military and commercial stations who they shared the airwaves with, and were refered to by the derogatory term "ham", which meant someone who was a poor quality operator. This would be similar to saying that someone was "ham fisted" which meant that they could not send CW very well.

Railroad telegraphers used it as a serious insulting term for a poor operator. The term "lid" was also used.

This theory is well substantiated. A search in old articles in QST found the following in the July 1945 issue, page 78, a letter from Roy Wheadon, W6KTY. He was the son of a railroad telegraph operator and said he knew this from personal experience.

Most of the students were young farm boys, who served their apprenticeship as unpaid helpers for the overworked station agents, who in return taught them telegraphy. As I understood it in my younger days, the word ham had a bucolic reference to the farm origin of most of the student railroad telegraphers. I know it was a disgrace to be called a ham.

The letter was in response to the editorial in the May 1945 QST (pp 9-10) by Kenneth B. Warner, W1EH. He alludes to the term ham as defined in a book called Dictionary of American Tramp and Underworld Slang. According to that, it says ham meant:
A telegraph operator or radio amateur. Abbreviation for hammer because the key operates with an up and down motion similar to a hammer. Applied in a derogatory sense as an amateur does not have a light and gentle touch, but hammers the key.

The same editorial also related the story of how the word ham came from the Cockney English pronunciation of the word amateur, h'amateur. More on that elsewhere here.

Poor Little Station HAM

I have also heard the story that three guys used the initials of their names for their station callsign "HAM" and how their plight was brought to the attention of Congress when the big stations were trampling all over "poor station HAM." As a result, frequency allocations were first established and amateur stations officially recognized and licensed by the government. This one is supposedly substantiated by the Congressional Record but for some strange reason no one can name the exact volume. Hmmm.

I have now found yet another explanation. It comes from a newspaper article first published in 1948. The text of that article follows. (Emphasis is mine.)

Wheaton, Illinois DuPage County
February 18,1948.

Sixteen radio amateurs, all holding government licenses to transmit on the amateur bands, met recently to discuss the possibilities of an organization for Wheaton. The meeting was held at the DuPage county courthouse and the evening was spent in getting acquainted and in talking of plans for a future amateur radio club.

Known as hams, not from the connotation as used on the stage to denote strictly underate performances, but from the English attempt to pronounce the word amateur, these sixteen represented a range from freshmen in high school to old-timers whose early days included spark transmissions. Most of the group have known each other over the air for some time, but the meeting offered the first chance for them all to become personally acquainted.

Many Notable Amateurs

When the club perfects its organization, it will include some notable amateurs who are well known around the world. Frank Golder, K9AAM of Warrenville, has been in radio for many years, but only recently joined the amateur ranks. He has run up a total of 74 countries, contacted through his work on 20 meters, one of the allotted amateur frequencies.

Bill Newcomb, W9QES and his wife Alice, W9QMS, have friends all over the world through their work on 20 meter phone. Emerson Squires, W9BRX, has a call which dates back to his high school days at Wheaton Community High School. Emerson is presently most active on the amateur radio 20 meter phone band.

From QST, January 1999, Page 75
Hamletter - Wheaton Community Radio Amateurs, April/May 1998

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