The Rochester Amateur Radio Association recently held its 90th Hamfest at the Hilton Exempt Club venue, drawing scores of ham aficionados.
Amateur radio’s history is about as old as the technology itself, dating back to the early 1900s, and is largely a hobby pertaining to the operation of radio sets by individual operators for non-commercial purposes like communication, technical education and emergency services. Often known affectionately as ham radio and its practitioners as “hams,” the hobby is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and is enjoyed by more than 700,000 licensed ham operators in the U.S. with upwards of 3 million hams worldwide. About 500 of them are members of the Rochester Amateur Radio Association.
“Our aim is education to promote ham radio in the community. We take part in public service events, providing radio communication with things like the Tour de Cure event,” says Tim Barrett, president of RARA. “We position a bunch of people around the circuit with handheld radios so they can communicate what’s going on so if somebody falls over and hurts themselves then we can get a message back to base.”
One part of the Hamfest meetup was the administering of FCC tests required to gain a license to operate an amateur radio set. As a part of receiving a license, a ham is issued a call sign of four to six letters and numbers on-air identification. It was common at the event to see a ham’s call sign displayed on badges, embroidered clothing or even car license plates offered by New York for amateur radio call signs.
The test covers both operating practice and radio theory, until recently, it also required familiarity with Morse code. These skills and licenses are necessary as the electromagnetic spectrum, which is used by technology like radios, Wi-Fi and cellular phones, has a finite amount of bandwidth.
“When radio first started in the beginning of the 20th century, originally people didn’t even tune their radio, it just went out on every single wave band. There was no regulation, so there were professional radio stations starting up, and there were amateurs, which just caused horrendous mess,” Barrett says. “So, governments all around the world said basically the same thing, (that) radio amateurs have to stick to the high-frequency short waves and we were stuck down there because they were useless, these frequencies didn’t go very far.”
This changed, Barrett says, in 1921 when amateur radio operators were able to send signals between Scotland and the United States, demonstrating the utility of ham radio for long-distance, potentially worldwide, communications.
Long-distance ham radio usage is possible through the way the electromagnetic spectrum behaves with Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic fields. The sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation is significantly shielded by the atmosphere, creating an ionized layer of the atmosphere that allows radio signals to travel much further, at least sometimes.
“It sort of acts as a mirror for radio waves, but it’s not nice and neat. The amount of ionization changes throughout the day because of the amount of sunlight. I might be able to contact someone on the West Coast, but I might not.” Barrett says. “The other thing is that the output from the sun in ultraviolet varies on an 11-year cycle and when it’s low, as it was a year or so ago, communication is very difficult worldwide. Now it’s on the increase.”
Barrett, originally from London, says the science of how ham radio waves interact with the atmosphere, called propagation, to create these long-distance connections is one thing he appreciates about the hobby.
Ham radio’s ability to reach distant receivers comes in handy during emergencies, where amateur operators represent a decentralized network of communications that can survive power outages or disruptions to the internet, cellular networks and telephone lines. There are several amateur radio organizations dedicated to emergency mobilization of ham radios during disasters and crises like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, winter storms and nuclear disasters.
Amateur radio operators were also helpful during wartime like in World War II, when they formed a skilled resource for military communications technicians or civilian wartime operators. After the war, many veterans used code skills learned in signal corps and naval signals to become hams.
Monroe County has its own Amateur Radio Emergency Services known as ARES and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services known as RACES. The same group operates under both the national RACES and the local ARES.
“What we do for Monroe County public safety is provide backup communications for them. If there were some type of event and they have to activate the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Emergency Operations Center out on Scottsville Road, we have a radio room that’s adjacent to that,” ARES Secretary Dave Timmons says. “While they’re using their wired telephones and cellphones, if the emergency is such that all that stuff goes down, we’re still going to be running because we’re totally independent–we can run on battery power, generator power, whatever so we can provide backup communications for them.”
Monroe County ARES also assists the Red Cross for emergencies like snow storms, where a ham radio operator is sent to each designated shelter for backup communications. At Hamfest, members of the local ARES group were on the air with an emergency radio set put together by Timmons. Housed in a yellow plastic briefcase with a gasket seal, the set was a functional amateur radio station operating on battery power and including a speaker, handset and connected to an external antenna. The set demonstrated at Hamfest was the second version Timmons made. He says a set like this could operate with swappable batteries potentially for days during an emergency.
Emergency communications like those done by ARES is through a radio repeater, or a dedicated antenna receiver that rebroadcasts a stronger signal of the transmissions it receives. These repeaters are often on tall buildings or hills where the signals can be strongest. Reports show there are 17 repeaters in Rochester while RARA lists over 100 stretching from Watertown to Buffalo with some in Ontario, Canada. At Hamfest in Hilton, the repeater used by ARES was placed at Cobb Hill. Timmons said emergency repeaters have backup power to operate during a crisis.
“The transmitter is on Cobbs Hill in the city, but there’s receivers all over the county so with a very low power we can clock to that repeater and it rebroadcasts our repeater at a higher power and a bigger range so we get much better coverage,” Timmons says. “Wired telephones go down, cell phones go down; we’re still running because we’re on batteries.”
Public service is a significant portion of ham radio as mandated by the Communications Act of 1934, the law that created the FCC and required that airwaves serve the public good, specifically including amateur radio operators.
“The very purpose of amateur radio, the reason that the government gives us these much-coveted frequencies to operate on, is because we provide a service,” says Ed Gable, the club historian at RARA. “We can buy used equipment like this and put it on the air ourselves and make it work. There’s no other service that can do that.”
Gable is a long-time member of Rochester DX Association, another ham club dedicated to long-distance contacts. The name DX comes from the telegraphic shorthand for “distant communications” as Morse code was familiar to early practitioners as well as many DXers today. The practice of DXing is using skills as a ham to contact faraway amateurs to log their unique call sign.
“I can communicate very effectively with any amateur anywhere in the world and not know their language because in ham radio we have what’s called Q signals,” Gable says.
Q signals are strings of three letters, usually through Morse code, representing a sizable list of standard questions and answers understood by both parties. There are also codes used for simple messages through telegraphic code. Largely, they resemble the shorthand used by early text messaging and instant messaging applications on the internet like “lol” and “omg” to save time and keystrokes.
“If I meet someone the first time, never talked with them before and they’re speaking Swahili or pick any language, I would say ‘G-M’ [Good Morning], U-R [Your] R-S-T 579,” Gable says, tapping the table as he spoke, like he was tapping out the code. “Just sending RST 579 told him everything he needs to know about how well his radio signal is propagating. R is readability, S is signal strength and T is tone.”
After that, Gable would use Q signals to communicate the locations of both operators and make a log of the contact. Hams used to send a small postcard called a QSL, he says, named again from older telegraphic holdovers for the simple question of “QSL?” meaning “do you confirm receipt of my transmission?” replied with “QSL” meaning “I confirm receipt of your transmission.” These small postcards would serve as proof and reminder of a contact; and due to the skill required and difficulty in making distant communications, these QSL cards are often a source of pride for DXers.
Ham operators can participate in DX contests, where during a set time like a week or weekend they try to contact as many other hams as possible or try for distant call signs. Another milestone is collecting a QSL from every U.S. state, every continent or every nation. Gable has been a ham for 63 years and through his DXing has collected a QSL from almost every country.
“After you’ve been a ham a while, worked all through Europe, Africa and Asia, you start looking at islands in the South China Sea,” says Dave Wright, a longtime member of the Rochester DX Association.
Wright has been a ham for about 30 years and enjoys distant radio contacts with far-off parts of the world, collecting areas where opportunities for contact are scarce due to distance or fewer receiving ham stations. One example of Wright’s DXing was when he contacted the Andaman Islands between the coasts of India and Thailand.
RDXA hosts a field day in Webster Park through the American Radio Relay League where DXers set up a field radio station on the fourth weekend in June and try to make as many contacts as possible from 6 p.m. on Saturday to 9 p.m. on Sunday. The purpose is not only contacting stations but to “learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions,” according to ARRL. Wright says the field day acts as something of a dress rehearsal for RDXA to operate an emergency station, as using power generators and other equipment in an outdoor environment allows the group to test their setup as if they were mobilized for an emergency like a flood or hurricane.
“The thing with ham radio is it’s a little bit of everything,” Wright says. “There’s enough niches, there’s something for everybody.”
While the hobby seems most popular among older men who enjoy the community and technical aspect, there are fruitful efforts to bring amateur radio to a broader audience. In particular, the Antique Wireless Association in Bloomfield operates a museum of antique radio devices and is bringing its school tech programming to local classrooms.
“The Rochester Amateur Radio Association, RARA, has a foundation for education and they gave us a grant and I added to that grant by getting a couple of other donations to start what we call EARS, Educational Amateur Radio Station,” says Bob Hobday, president of AWA, who presented EARS at Hamfest. “What we’ll be able to do with that is take to the schools an educational program and a demonstration on amateur radio.”
The AWA museum has often been a destination for school trips and offered a youth class teaching the science and technology of amateur radio to students. While Hobday said the class was popular, particularly for homeschool students, bringing the demonstration to schools would offer better convenience and allow more education for students than traveling to the museum.
“In this age when education is under a lot of pressure to get the educational part of it done, we can add to that process and it doesn’t impact on their time in class when they have to get everything done in a rush these days,” Hobday says. “For the schools, if they bring their students, say a school in Yates County. It’s an hour, an hour and a half to transport the kids to the museum, they get an hour in the museum and an hour back. That takes up a whole afternoon, but if we go to them it’s only 45 (minutes) or an hour.”
With the equipment packed in a trailer to travel to schools, Hobday says EARS would cover both radio waves and the atmosphere as well as demonstrations of radio sets. He found the “sweet spot” for teaching students about radios was between ages 8 and 13 where their ability to understand the concepts and their interest is highest.
Hobday’s favorite part of showing students and children around the museum is the excitement they have for the displays. It is an opportunity to learn about how wireless communications like mobile phones developed. For example, the AWA has the first mobile cell phone, far from pocket-sized and weighing over 35 pounds, used by Bell Labs in the mid-1970s to test the concept..
“We had a fourth grade girl looking at the first cell phone and she said, ‘Where’s the screen?’ Well, it didn’t have a screen. And her logic circuits moved a little further along and she said, ‘How did they do text messaging?’ and the simple answer is they didn’t do that when it first started, that came along much later,” Hobday says. “These kids assume this world of instantaneous communications has been there forever and the answer is it hasn’t been, not at all.”
Rochester has been a great area for amateur radio, Gable says, due to the high concentration of technical talent in the city. Scientists, engineers and technicians from Eastman Kodak and other major tech companies in the city as well as students at Rochester Institute of Technology meant growing a local community of ham radio operators was possible.
As for the origins for the term ham radio, Gable says the answer is not clear.
“The only right answer is, as a historian I can attest to this: nobody knows,” Gable says. “A lot of people think they know and there’s been a lot of (theories), but the one I believe is during the early days of wired telegraph on the railroad especially, the technology of telegraph was so low, if the headquarters had to communicate with all the stations along the path, they would start sending this one message. The fastest they could send would be (limited) to the ability of the slowest operator. Of course, the old-timers who could copy anything at any speed got a little upset about that, thinking, ‘Hey what am I doing here?’ Somehow they got the name being ham-fisted, the ability to send code is a ‘fist.”
Whatever the origin of the term, ham radio is a tight community in Rochester dedicated to educating and making contacts throughout the local area and around the world.
“It is true now that with cell phones, you can communicate around the world very easily, but only to people that you know. Ham radio is about meeting people,” Barrett says. “If I hear a call from somebody in another country or anywhere, I know I can answer him and we can have a chat.”
Colin Hawkins is a former Rochester Beacon intern. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.