As you read this, a dead language is flying through the air all around you -- at least, it’s dead for most official uses. It’s the Morse code, a binary digital system that dates back to the 1850s. Among its primary users today are amateur radio operators, better known as hams. I am one of these and am proud to say I’m fluent in Morse. I was texting way, way before it was cool.
Ham radio is a pastime dating back more than a century. Hobbyists built transmitting and receiving equipment long before radio stations, such as KALW, went on the air.
These days, several large manufacturers make most of the amateur radio equipment sold. It’s been computerized, digitized and miniaturized over the years, and while hams are numbered among the most advanced techno-geeks among us, many of the original attractions of this hobby have changed very little.
Ham operators are no longer required to demonstrate proficiency in Morse to obtain an FCC license. Still, code transmission, or CW, as hams call it, remains one of the most popular modes of communication. The majority of contacts are made by voice.
This method of communicating may seem quaint in the Internet age, yet the ranks of ham operators continue to grow, with more than 700,000 licensees in the U.S. alone.
One is Christopher McIntyre of Fremont, and another is his mother, Kristen. He’s an electrical engineering student at UC Berkeley, and she works for Apple. His amateur call sign is KG6SVI; hers is K6WX. I asked these tech-savvy individuals what drew them to ham radio.
“One nice thing that you can’t do with your phones and stuff is you can talk to people that you don’t know – you can talk to people in random countries all over the world. You just can’t do that with a cell phone,” said Christopher.
“For me, it’s magic, it’s absolute magic,” said Kristen. “When I listen on the radio, these signals get from here to who knows where, just by no infrastructure from here to there, just bouncing – or more accurately, refracting through the ionosphere. I also get to make this tenuous connection with someone on the other side of the planet. To me there’s nothing more special than that.”
I’ve done just what McIntyre described, talking to a fellow ham in Wellington, New Zealand from my home on the Peninsula. We each used radio equipment and an antenna. There were no wires connecting us -- we heard each others’ signals solely through ionospheric refraction -- basically radio waves traveling thousands of miles through the atmosphere.
While it’s a fun hobby, there’s a practical purpose, too. Every summer, there’s an event called Field Day, a contest in which thousands of radio clubs set up emergency stations at parks, beaches, and other locales around the country, including the Bay Area. One of this year’s stations was put together by the San Mateo Radio Club at the city’s Beresford Park. I talked with spokesman Jeff Martin, W6JMZ.
“What’s important is, we’re practicing setting up our equipment to successfully make contact with one another around the country," said Martin. “Regardless of access to electric power, or telephones or Internet or whatever.”
Martin notes that ham operators are often called into service for backup – and sometimes, primary -- communications, when conventional modern systems are disabled.
“Actually, it’s the motto of the American Radio Relay League, 'When all else fails,' and that’s the answer. The question is not if those other means of communicating will fail, but when,” says Martin.
Several years ago, Martin says critical fiber-optic lines were vandalized in San Carlos and the San Jose area, knocking out land-lines, cell phones, Internet and even 911 service. Ham operators trained in disaster response provided emergency links, especially between hospitals in the region. Hams have also been a vital resource following Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and the Japanese earthquake.
On Field Day this year, the Palo Alto Amateur Radio Association, or PAARA, set up its multimode site in just a few hours time at Bayfront Park in Menlo Park, stringing wires and raising tall antennaes, with radios powered by generators.
“These are our backups for security reasons, for catastrophes, disasters, anything that can happen in the Bay Area, these are the people we need to count on,” said Alicia Aguirre. mayor of Redwood City. “It’s awesome. It’s pretty amazing, quite a network of people that are passionate about, you know, radio.”
Amateur radio these days is primarily the domain of middle-aged men, who picked up the hobby when they were young, before wireless devices were ubiquitous. Now, though, more women are being licensed. Kristen McIntyre, for example, is president of PAARA. And kids are getting into the act too, like 11-year-old Matthew Meyers of Menlo Park, who operated one of PAARA’s Field Day demonstration stations under a licensed operator’s supervision.
For enthusiasts like Meyers, and for Kristen McIntyre, making wireless long-distance contact is a thrill, even in a communications era when most of us are more familiar with Skype and Twitter.
“To me, it’s the fickleness – it’s the part that may not work that makes it special," said McIntyre. “You know, I don’t know if I can talk to this person the next day, or any particular day, or ever again. I don’t know who I’m gonna talk to. That’s what’s exciting about it. I don’t know – it’s an adventure, every time I turn on the radio, I call CQ, I don’t know who I’m gonna speak to. It’s an incredible adventure each time.”