You may have heard about amateur or “ham” radio from a friend or maybe one of the members in your Makerspace is a ham. What is ham radio and what does it offer you?
First, you’re a Maker, so you already have a lot in common with the ham radio community. Hams are tinkerers, builders, fixers, and inventors by nature. Opening the box (or building your own box) is not only allowed, it’s encouraged! Of the many radio services out there — from commercial broadcasting to CB to public safety — amateur radio is the only one in which equipment can be homemade and tuned to any frequency or channel that hams have access to. Flexibility, experimentation, and hacking are a way of life with hams.
Ham radio has many facets — it’s actually 1000 hobbies in one. You can dive deeply into electronics, antennas, digital communications, public service, competitive operating, solar and geophysics science, world-wide “DX-ing,” or just use ham radio as a personal communications tool. Some hams focus on just one or a few topics while others try to experience it all. As a Maker, you are probably most interested in the electronics, but once you start digging in, you never know where it might lead or where you can apply your skills.
But what is ham radio really? Hams have access to the radio equivalent of national parks in which commercial activity is banned and only non-commercial operators (the “amateurs”) get to visit. Some of the parks or bands (frequency ranges reserved for hams) are the traditional “short-wave” bands you might think of when you imagine ham radio. Those bands have lots of activity, with hams making thousands of contacts worldwide every single day, sometimes with nothing more than a few watts of power and antennas made of wire. Other bands are best suited for local and regional communication around town and performing public service. Our bands go all the way to microwaves.
While they are on the air, hams use dozens of different types of signals; some are regular voice signals in which we simply talk to each other. Yes, some hams use Morse code while others are designing their very own digital protocols to send data and messages around the world. Hams have their own email and data networks. There are even ham radio satellites that relay signals, including a ham station on the International Space Station that the astronauts use — they’re hams, too. Hams operate from their homes, their cars, and even from mountaintops and islands!
All that equipment sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Just like starting your own workshop, you can keep it simple, buy used gear, scrounge for parts and pieces, and work with other more experienced hams (we call the mentors Elmers) to get started. The simplest entry-level radios cost less than $100 and you can build your own antenna. Free software is widely available for you to use some of the different types of signals, even Morse code which hams refer to as “CW” for continuous wave. So, a basic radio, a couple of cables, and you’re in business to start as a beginner ham. Just get involved, look for funny-looking antennas, and ask around. You’ll be surprised how friendly and helpful some hams are!
Let’s say this sounds like something you’d like to investigate. What does it take to become a ham? While anyone can listen in, the real fun comes from transmitting your own signal and making contacts over the air directly with other hams. To transmit, you’ll need a license from the FCC that comes from passing a 35-question, multiple-choice test. The tests are given by other hams and they will probably offer licensing classes or you can study on your own. Do you have to know Morse code? Nope — that requirement was dropped years ago. Do you have to be an engineering whiz or a communications legal expert? Nope — just the basics will get you through the door.
A ham radio license is really a license to learn. Just like a driver’s or pilot’s license, you get better with practice. As you get more experience, you’ll want to upgrade your license and try out more interests. In the meantime, ask around in your Maker group because a ham may be closer than you think — they’ll help you find your way. Maybe your Maker group could invite a ham to demo ham radio for you. There are probably ham radio clubs in the neighborhood, too. Hams will help you get your license and get on the air — it’s what we do. Come join the fun!
The ARRL’s “What Is Amateur Radio” website has lots of information you’ll want to know. There are links to tutorials, resources, explanations, and ham radio events.
Ham Radio License Manual is the most comprehensive study guide for your first ham radio license (the Technician class), and is full of references you can use after you get a license and start making contacts.
Ham Radio for Dummies, 2nd Edition: this “desktop mentor” will help explain what ham radio is, lead you through the process of getting a U.S. license, and introduce the basics so you can use your license after you get started.
What’s going on in ham radio right now: DX Maps is a website that tracks reported ham radio activity on all bands. The contact is plotted on a map with each frequency band having a different color. This map shows that the 20 meter (green) and 15 meter (purple) bands are open world-wide!
Setting up a radio shack: this web page walks you through setting up a traditional HF or “short-wave” ham station capable of world-wide communication. In this article, Diana Eng, KC2UHB, shows how to use simple equipment to contact a ham radio satellite.
Sidebar – Common Ham Vocabulary or Jargon
Elmer – a mentor who helps others become hams and learn ham techniques
DX – refers to distant stations, DXing is trying to contact far away stations
Band – a range of frequencies reserved for a single radio service, like amateur radio, and identified by frequency (“14 MHz band”) or wavelength (“20 meter band”)
73 – an old telegraph abbreviation used by hams meaning “Best Regards”
HF – High Frequency, a designation for frequencies between 3 and 30 MHz
VHF – Very High Frequency, frequencies between 30 and 300 MHz
MHz – megahertz, one million (mega, M) cycles per second (hertz, Hz)
Homebrew – home-made or home-built equipment or antennas
CQ – an abbreviation meaning, “I am calling any station”
CW – Continuous Wave, refers to Morse code which turns a continuous signal on and off
ARRL – American Radio Relay League, the U.S. national organization for ham radio
Call Sign – the combination of letters and numbers identifying a specific station