Origins of Telecom: Ham Radio, the YouTube of the 1900s
Today, anyone with a Google account can set up their own YouTube channel and share their thoughts with the world at large. This wasn’t the case even 15 years ago.
However, mass communications have been readily available to amateurs around the world for more than a century in the form of ham radio — and it’s still popular in 2018. Here’s a quick look at how ham radio came about.
Ham radio started to appear in the early 1900s with instructions on how to build your own simple “Hertzian” telegraphy system starting to appear in magazines such as in the November 1901 issue of Amateur Works and the February 15, 1902 edition of Scientific American Supplement. Young amateurs began reading and building their own systems. By 1916, Popular Science Monthly had begun publishing its 8-part series on how to build your own tuned spark transmitter and crystal detector receiver.
Meanwhile, hobbyists who preferred an off-the-shelf solution could pick up a “Telimco Wireless Telegraph Outfit” system which was a complete radio system with both a transmitter and receiver. The company’s 1910 catalog proclaimed that ”every wide-awake American boy” should want such as system, suggesting that owning the wireless telegraph outfit could lead to a future as the head of a wireless telegraph company.
By 1908, wireless mania had struck, becoming popular among teenage boys. Just as today’s boys and girls tend to be skilled in computers and programming, those from the early 1900s were touted as “boy experts in wireless telephoning” by the New York Herald in October 1911.
As with many teenage antics, the ham radio craze meant there were some responsible and some irresponsible activities going on. The term “ham” was a derogatory term handed out by professional operators and telegraphers when everyone ranging from the government, ships and coastal operators to amateur radio operators competed for radio time and signal strength. Amateur operators, or hams as they were called, soon faced a potential ban in the form of pending legislation.
Rather than banning amateurs altogether, they were restricted. According to ARRL the National Association for Amateur Radio, which was founded in 1914 as American Radio Relay League, amateur radio operators were required by the Radio Act of 1912 to obtain a license and operate within the 200-meter wavelength. These restrictions were intended to curb interference. Today, a ham radio license is still required.
The hobby didn’t disappear after these restrictions were enforced. In fact, it organized and grew. It also found a niche for itself in the form of public service and emergency communications.
What’s the Appeal of Ham Radio Today?
In a world of YouTube, Facebook Live, and instant video chats, what’s the appeal of ham radio today? Ham radio still has its place and has made a huge difference in times of disaster. After 9/11, for example, the Amateur Radio Service was able to help New York City’s agencies communicate with one another despite having lost their command center in the disaster. Ham radios now interface with computers and even have the ability to communicate with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. While the numbers of ham radio operators pale in comparison to YouTube creators, there are over 600,000 of them in the United States alone — and over 2 million around the globe.
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“12. Pioneering Amateurs (1900-1917).” n.d. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://earlyradiohistory.us/sec012.htm.
“Boy Experts in Wireless Telephoning (1911).” n.d. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://earlyradiohistory.us/1911jun.htm.
“Ham Radio History.” n.d. Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-history.
“Ham_Radio_100_Years.Pdf.” n.d. Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.arrl.org/files/file/About%20ARRL/Ham_Radio_100_Years.pdf.