What Are Hams?

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Origins of radio terms
Who Invented Radio?

What are hams and what do hams do?


Many hams (and other radio hobbyists) feel a certain "magic" as they tune around with their radios. It's a feeling of finding something which beforehand may have been unknown, exotic, faraway, or exciting...or a combination of any of these. It's being connected to your local surroundings, country, or world with no wires to bind you. It's a feeling of being united with those around you, no matter how close or how far, we're all the same. Radio can take you to distant locations and bring you closer all at once. We are connected by our antennas for our wireless art & hobby.

Hams are those people who enjoy using radio to make contacts and are then able to learn about other people, and tell about themselves. Hams make good ambassadors towards other hams in other countries through our friendship and mutual respect. We also provide the public a free service during times of need like disasters. Hams are some of the first to get communications out of affected disaster areas. This is one of the ways that we "pay back" our communities and nation for our frequency privileges. Hams learn about foreign languages, cultures, science, geography, electronics, and many other educational attributes.

Hams enjoy making friends, working toward achievements, experimenting with the radio art, and many other items too numerous to list.

Hams generally are educated, resourceful, well-mannered, thoughtful, and many other positive attributes. We may learn others through our hobby such as patience, diligence, or creativeness.

Hams in the early days were resourceful at taking many materials and adapting them to a certain purpose. We still do that. Hams learn about electronic theory through research and experimentation. In doing so, we further general overall electronic and radio frequency knowledge to progression of technology that may be used by others.

Hams in the early days of radio were relegated to using frequencies deemed by the U.S. Navy and U.S. government as being relatively worthless. Hams were very quick to find out that this was not so.

Origins of the term "ham"

Where did the term HAM come from? When did it come to popular use? The *real* explanation appears to be lost in the mists of time. There are a number of theories. Some more plausible than others. The one you'll likely hear the most is about "little station HAM". It goes like this. In the early days of radio, the government didn't assign call letters to amateurs. They just made up their own. Supposedly, three students at Harvard named Hyman, Almay, and Murray set up a station. They decided to use their initials as the call. Thus we have the little station HAM. 

When the Navy tried to grab control of all radio frequencies, these guys are supposed to have testified before Congress, and the story of little station HAM supposedly didn't leave a dry eye in the house. The press is supposed to have picked up this story of little station HAM, and amateurs have been known as hams ever since. Unfortunately for this story, none of it checks out. A past president of the ARRL did extensive research in an attempt to confirm this story. 

There is nothing in the Congressional record about little station HAM. There is nothing in contemporary press records. And there is no record of a Hyman, Almay, or Murray at Harvard at the time this supposedly happened. This story first surfaced in an amateur publication in 1948, and doesn't seem likely to die. But it appears to have no factual basis. 

Another story you may hear is that ham is the result of a Cockney pronunciation of (h)amateur. But that is unlikely for two reasons. First, the term was in use in America before there was substantial amateur activity in Britain. And second, voice transmission wasn't used by amateurs of the era, so how did a pronunciation get propagated by Morse? 

Another story you may hear is that it comes from a landline telegrapher's insult. Many operators of the day came from a landline background, and on the landlines a common insult was that someone was "ham fisted" in his sending. It is possible that commercial operators used this slang to refer to amateurs and it caught on. 

Certainly, the term LID came from landline telegrapher slang. (LID was a reference to use of a tobacco can lid on the sounder to aid a poor operator in copying Morse.) This one may be true. It wouldn't be the first time that a group adopted a term originally meant as an insult to serve as a slang term for themselves. 

But the one I like best goes like this. This era was filled with pulp magazines catering to the experimenter. (Everyone at the end of the Victorian age apparently viewed himself as a closet inventor or tinkerer.) One of these magazines was called Home Amateur Mechanic, and it featured many simple radio sets a person could build. It is likely that when asked what kind of radio an operator was using, he might send back RIG HR ES HAM, meaning that it was one of the circuits shown in Home Amateur Mechanic magazine. 

Since telegraphers tend to abbreviate everything, due to the low throughput of Morse, this is plausible, and Home Amateur Mechanic magazine certainly did exist in the correct era. So it was those HAM radios which started the use of ham in amateur radio. Gary Coffman KE4ZV 


Another Version Of Ham is from the telegraph days where a poor operator was said to be "Ham-Fisted". Then there is this one. It is a corruption of "AM", which was a truncation of the word "amateur".

And Still another version -- possible connection with the acting profession. The term "Hamming it up" is often used to describe amateur acting performances.


And Still another version. Electric Radio" magazine has been reprinting the columns that W. J. Halligan, the founder of Hallicrafters, wrote for the Boston Telegram in 1923 - 1924. In an item dated 4/16/23, Mr. Halligan wrote: We have been asked for a definition of the "ham". A ham is a code enthusiast. The word is probably a corrupted contraction of the word amateur and is used by all non-professional radio telegraphers in describing themselves. -- Electric Radio #181, June 2004, p 38




Non-ham radio

When you use some imagination, radio can "transport" you to many locations and times. It can bring you news, sports, music, and drama. Have you ever enjoyed listening to a baseball game? Have you ever heard historical events being broadcast? I would bet it would be safe to say that just about all people have enjoyed hearing music from a radio. I enjoy listening to old time radio programs such as, Suspense, Gunsmoke, or Fibber McGee & Molly, just to name a few. Have you ever heard the rebroadcast for some historical events such as the Hindenburg crash in New Jersey? News via shortwave from WWII events?? Cold War events?? Ever wonder what it was like for Marconi radio operators onboard a ship in the Titanic era listening to the radio?? I have more on this elsewhere on the website.

It is rather difficult to state exactly when radio came to be. It all depends on exactly what your term of radio is. Some people consider Guglielmo Marconi the "grandfather of radio"; others consider Nathan B. Stubblefield, Popov, and other inventors, to be the founder of radio. There were many technological advances made by many people to make radio electronics a coherent method. Some other people were: Heinrich Hertz, James Maxwell...... Each person performed work on various aspects of radio electronics, sometimes using work and achievements from a person before them, sometimes by releasing their findings before another. At times there were many legal battles over patents.

History of Marconi and other early innovators of the science of radio (Armstrong, DeForrest, David Sarnoff, Heinrich Hertz, Nathan B. Stubblefield, Reginald Fessenden, Alexander Popov, Tesla,

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