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What is a Ham Radio?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the days before instant messaging, email and the host of electronic communications we enjoy today, the ham radio was a means of communicating with people all over the world. Here is some background on ham radios, how they are used, and why they remain popular today.

Also known as amateur radio, ham radio has been around since the 1920s, almost as long as broadcast radio. With the success of radio in general, the concept of a small radio set that would allow some access to frequencies that were not used by broadcast radio began to pique the interest of many people.

Enterprising electronic entrepreneurs developed and marketed what were called wireless sets, which paved the way for the more sophisticated amateur radio sets. By the 1940s, it was possible to purchase ham radio sets that were powerful enough to use for one- and two-way communication with people all over the world.

Ham radio operators use several modes of transmission in order to communicate. Voice transmissions are what come to mind when most people think of ham radio. Most sets broadcast in FM mode, although there are still some that broadcast using a single sideband mode. Single sideband mode is mostly used in situations where there are restrictions on available bandwidth for one reason or another. Along with voice communications, it was popular for many years to use Morse code to share messages. This is still a great method for communicating when two people wish to exchange ideas but do not speak a common language.

Ham radio operators usually must apply for and be awarded a license before beginning to broadcast. Part of the licensing process in many countries requires the operator to understand local and national regulations that govern the use of ham radios, including the frequencies that are set aside for amateur radio broadcast, and which frequencies are set aside specifically for commercial, police and government use only. Just about all countries require the applicant to successfully complete a written exam before the license is granted.

The reference to amateur radio has never meant to reflect on the competency of the ham or amateur radio operator to handle the equipment. Rather, the status of being a radio amateur simply means that the broadcasting is limited to a portion of the frequency bands that are not to be used for any type of commercial or money making purposes. In reality, ham radio operators are often extremely competent when comes to the operation, maintenance, and repair of ham radios.

While the idea that the Internet would kill off ham radio was a concern, it has in fact helped keep ham radio operators going. The Internet has proven to be the ideal means of improving transmissions, by creating a means of using Voice over Internet Protocol to set up linking stations that allow for stronger signaling. Known as the Internet Radio Linking Project, this process connects radio repeaters around the world, greatly increasing the efficiency of ham radio operations. From this perspective, the Internet has been a great help to the more than six million ham radio operators in the world today.

Ham radio usage has not always been simply a means of communicating with people who live far away. In many cases, ham radio operators have become something of an emergency broadcast system in times when usual electronic media would fail for some reason. The low power operation of many ham radio sets made it possible to connect a battery resource and keep on broadcasting. Often, ham radios were the only way of getting word out to the wider community in the event of a flood, tornado, or some other natural disaster that has devastated an area and left it without links to the outside world. Even with the highly developed technology of today, ham radio operators proved to be a valuable resource during some of the hurricanes and other natural disasters experienced in recent years.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including EasyTechJunkie, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon52748 — On Nov 16, 2009

Some of us hams aren't old and smelly.

I earned my license this week and I'm 28 years old. It's an effective form of communication both with friends and in emergency situations.

It's a volunteer, non-commercial communication network that has been around for 100 years. Learn for yourself researching it.

By anon7270 — On Jan 22, 2008

The term "ham operator" used to mean "nuisance radio operator" or "poor operator".

This term dates back to the days of the Titanic and was created by the media in reference to the Titanic's distress call that was allegedly difficult to copy because of "radio hams" using the same frequency.

Nowadays ham radio is populated by mostly conservative elderly men with poor hygiene and no sense of humor.

They have adopted the motto, "Old hams never die, we just smell that way".

By ls48222 — On Oct 25, 2007

what does ham refer to in amateur radio operator ?

how did it get that name?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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