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Amateur (Ham) radio
How did this whole thing get started?

       This is maybe the oldest "high-tech" hobby in the world, dating from around the time of World War I. Actually this was merely the time at which it was recognized, and organized as a hobby. In truth, experimenters, and hobbyists had been playing around with radio equipment long before being licensed to do so by the government. Most, if not all of the pioneers, and inventors of radio had been what we today would call "amateurs", though this term would hardly do them justice.
        It is difficult for us today to realize the excitement that these early radio hobbyists must have felt while playing with their spark gaps, wire antennas, crystal sets, and other home made gear. In the very early days of ham radio, people still lit their houses with gas or oil lamps, rode horses or drove in carriages. Movies were silent, fledgling commercial radio stations were few and far between, and the rush towards the complete electrification of towns was the big high-tech boom of the times, much like today's massive effort to connect everyone to the Internet. It must have seemed like a natural combination, the new high tech electricity, and the new high tech radio. The train, and the steamship were the fastest, and newest ways to travel, women still did not have the vote, and the only dependable ways to communicate were by mail or telegraph. Imagine, in these surroundings, being able to communicate directly with someone in a different country, or even on a different continent.
        Much of the innovation, and advancement in radio communication came from the amateurs. The only other major user of radio in the very early days was the navy, which needed long range communications between ships and shore stations, and did not have the option of running telegraph wire. In the early days of radio, all communications was by Morse code, and when hams were organized, and the amateur radio service was chartered, code proficiency was mandatory, and a certain level of proficiency had to be demonstrated to prevent unskilled users from polluting the air waves. Since most equipment was home built, it was also considered mandatory to have a certain technical expertise; this too was tested. Certain frequencies were given over exclusively to hams under the justification that they had made a major contribution to the state of the art and it would be desirable to have them continue to do so. There was also the matter of having, and maintaining a pool of skilled, and motivated radio operators as a resource for the nation.
        After the war to end all wars staggered to an exhausted halt in 1919, there was a great expansion of commercial and military use of the air waves. A greater use was now made of voice communication, though Morse was still the preferred method for long range communication. This was the start of the age of the crystal set, and legions of hobbyists sat with their ears glued to their headsets, tweaking and testing to pull in signals from far away places. This also began the era of the "Golden Age of Radio"; for the next couple of decades, the family would gather around the radio to listen to commercial broadcasts of news, music, and entertainment, liberally peppered with the new commercial advertisements.
        The new commercial stations, along with vast improvements in the telephone system, and an increase in the subscriber base of phone users, took much of the novelty out of short range communication, and some of the bloom of f of the early excitement of radio. However, there were many places in the world where no phone line reached, and advances in radio made communications with these far flung places a bit more reliable, so that the early excitement of radio was displaced somewhat by a new sense of exploration and adventure. The new abundance of radio equipment and expertise opened up the world to people in a way in which it had never been open before. Along with the new airplane, and some advancements in ship propulsion, radio enabled people, and nations, to explore, record, chart, and interact with the world at large in a way never before possible. There were now military, religious, and commercial settlements in exotic places which had been previously unknown, or known only in legend or story. Most of these establishments had radio communications, and the hams, and short-wave listeners, strained to hear them. The hobby attracted a diverse body of people including armchair adventurers, high-tech enthusiasts, former military personnel, and first or second generation Americans who were curious about the "old country".
       The Second World War Significantly increased the number of trained radio operators, and technicians. These men were needed everywhere there was fighting, and there was fighting everywhere. The military made extensive use of Morse code, relying on it completely for long range communications. One of the advantages of Morse, besides the simplicity of the equipment required, is that it is very dependable; when voice might be garbled or intelligible, Morse code will get through. For ships, and bases located all over the world, and for men operating portable equipment in rugged and hostile terrain, this was an important consideration. After the war, many men who had received specialized training in skills valuable to the military, found great pleasure in pursuing these skills as hobbies or sports. There was a great increase in sport shooting, the formation of numbers of flying clubs and skydiving organizations, and a swelling within the ranks of amateur radio. All of these radio operators knew Morse code, and had a good understanding of radio theory; many had developed a fondness for the radio art, and were only too happy to be inducted into the ranks of the hams. Hams continued to be at the cutting edge. There were amateur television broadcasts in the fifties, and almost as soon as nations began to launch satellites into space, hams bounced radio signals off of them. In the early days of the personal computer, ham operators used them to broadcast data streams, and tty.
        Radio, television, cell phones, wireless internet, and even the regular internet are all based on radio technology. It's hard to believe that this is only about a hundred year old technology. Like the automobile, electronics, medical imaging equipment, and antibiotics, this is a relatively recent development that has become such an integral part of life that it is hard to imagine the world without them.

The Plateau
       Through the forties, fifties, sixties, and into the seventies, ham radio remained a popular hobby with a fairly large following, but the seeds of it's decline had been planted with loss of the old ham 11 meter band, and it's reassignment to the new Citizen's Band Radio. There were some fairly heavy restrictions on the use of CB when it was first structured, but over time, the strictures were relaxed. Many who might have become casual ham operators, found that CB filled their needs nicely with no test, no code requirement, and eventually no license. CB uses the upper end (27mhz) of the short-wave band, and is an AM or SSB mode of communications, which does have it's limits. More recently, the 900mhz, and then the new 450mhz family radio have permitted unlicensed FM quality communications for the casual user. With these public radio services, and the abundance of cellular phones, instant communications nearly anywhere in the world is no more of a novelty than instant electric light at the flip of a switch. The number of licensed hams has dropped to around 600,000. This is still a significant number of people, but is nowhere near the number that the hobby attracted at it's peak.
       There are several possible reasons for this decline, and I am well acquainted with one of them from personal experience. My own problem was a result of the Morse code requirement. Unlike the radio theory, which can be pretty interesting, code is deadly dull, being reminiscent of the math and spelling drills which terrorized us all back in school. There is no secret to code, no concept or mindset to learn; it is simple pure memorization, and repetition. There is also the fact that, unlike thirty, forty, and fifty years ago, there is no real need for code. It is rarely used to communicate these days, as a search of the worlds radio bands will reveal. I would consider learning code as about on a par with learning Latin; both are dead languages, only learned after endless, dull repetition. I consider the code requirement to be a sort of an initiation, like the hazing that used to occur on college campuses, before it was banned. There are, of course, international requirements for the use of the radio bands, and this is the actual reason for the code requirement. The hf bands set aside for hams are set by international agreement, because of the long range possible using these frequencies. These bands extend to approximately 30 mhz, and are traditionally known as the short-wave bands, even though modern communications commonly uses much shorter wavelengths. As these are considered to be world wide resources, their use and assignment is regulated by international agreement, part of this agreement includes the requirement for a familiarity with code. Higher frequencies do not have the capability of propagating world wide, and are thus considered to be local resources, controlled by local authorities. These include the public service bands, commercial radio bands, and most of the radio spectrum. These higher frequencies have no international treaty requirements regarding code, making the relatively new "no code" license possible. These no code licenses limit the users to the higher frequencies in order to conform to international law, and were intended to help counter the drop in licensed amateurs.
       One other factor which may contribute to the drop in numbers of ham operators, is the rise of other technologies, in particular computer technology. Many of the technophiles, who once would have become ham operators, have been seduced by the new digital technologies, and by the small, cheap, powerful computers they have spawned. The two technologies actually compliment each other quite well, but, for most people, radio gear does not have the same romance as computers. 
The Attraction
       Cell phones, and satellite communications aside, it is still pretty neat to be able to operate world wide, and have an international radio station right in your own home. The equipment available to hams is as sophisticated as any, and as powerful as most. The variety of frequencies and modes available to the ham give great flexibility, and like any technical hobby the fun is in the understanding of, and even the participation in, the development of new technology, and the refinement of the old. Since the Morse code requirement has been dropped, the numbers are up a bit, and it recently made the news that there are mroe licensed hams now than there ever have been. Yet, this does not take into consideration the larger population we have these days.