Youth@HamRadio.Fun: Amateur Radio, Before and After
By ARRL Youth Editor Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
Amateur Radio was born in candlelit labs and foggy fields by several renowned inventors and experimenters throughout the close of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The first wireless experimenters of the world -- Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, Reginald Fessenden and Guglielmo Marconi -- all contributed to the art and science of radio that we can see in our phones, computers and of course, ham radios. The early 1900s featured the biggest gain in the hobby, with constantly increasing actives and consistently improving electronics, along with the organization of the American Radio Relay League in 1914, whose main purpose was to, not surprisingly, relay messages, typically across distances of 25 miles. It quickly bloomed into the ARRL we know today.
In the decades preceding World War II, the Vietnam War and other times of strife, ham radio entered its glory days as the radio amateurs of the world began to challenge each other to see who can make the most contacts or have the longest distance conversation. Wartime veterans who risked their lives to provide communications brought their military assignment back home in the form of Amateur Radio and further boosted on-the-air activity.
The 1960s and 70s were undoubtedly Amateur Radio’s heyday, along with Citizens Band radio, as technology improved and long-distance communication was becoming a necessity, rather than a luxury. While car and truck owners around the nation enjoyed having CB radios in their cars, Amateur Radio operators took advantage in cheaper equipment and a strong solar maximum and thus began a new era of non-commercial two-way radio. The 1970s were also Missouri S&T’s (formerly University of Missouri-Rolla) ham radio heyday, with alumni Ward Silver, N0AX, at the mic.
Throughout the next few decades, the FCC made several administrative changes to the Amateur Radio Service, while the nation required more in wireless technology than ever before. The bands and license classes settled and the flow of new members -- and activity of present members -- was ever changing, following in harmony with the solar cycle. Fast forward to today. Ham radio is still ever changing, but always gaining new members. Just last month, the Amateur Radio population passed the 700,000 mark. In the past, the largest barrier to the hobby was technology, but now our biggest challenge is obtaining new hams as technology has taken hold through cell phones and the Internet. But here at Missouri S&T, nearly every week we have had several people walk up to me or to the shack, asking how to get involved, despite W0EEE not explicitly recruiting new members.
This brings us to the future. In terms of physics, Amateur Radio has always had increasing momentum throughout its history. Because of this, it also has a certain “inertia,” or resistance to change that I have noticed lately. This inertia is the barrier to rousing interest in youth. Many hams see Amateur Radio presented in its most fundamental form -- people who talk to other people over a radio after taking a test. To a ham’s eye, this is awesome, after understanding how it works and how much of a challenge it is that to do so, they must first pass a test. This confuses non-hams, even people with interest in electronics and technology.
So the question is “How do we get random people interested in ham radio?” The answer is simply you don’t, but experience does. I didn’t come to ham radio because someone knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to join. I got involved because ham radio was my idea, before I realized it was a real thing. A friend of mine joined because he thinks talking to foreign countries is the bees knees, while others I know joined because they needed the license to operate for a volunteer event. Some come to it because of the proliferating interest in being prepared for disaster, and others for the free pizza (we are planning to offer pizza and drinks at our meetings). As cell phones have taken away the day-to-day need for two-way radio, some Elmers can work too hard pressing information onto youths, while not making it interesting for them. What kid wants to play radio when they can play Xbox? That’s where I make it a game or a competition that so that kids can have the most fun possible. Radio direction finding seems to be one of the best ways to do this.
Ham Radio’s Future at S&T
Members of the Missouri S&T Amateur Radio Club realize that ham radio is a hobby for a specific group of people, but also that it can still reach out to the rest of the world in various ways. Like I mentioned in a previous article, the Missouri S&T IEEE chapter, along with W0EEE, will be hosting a direction finding event that reaches out to students and members of IEEE. It is our hope that this will expose participants to circuit building, receiver design, antenna design and radio direction finding, as well as Amateur Radio.
We are also planning on working with a group of people who will be playing “Humans verses Zombies,” a week-long campus-wide outdoor game of tag that’s all about survival, whether you’re a human or a zombie. In the game, everyone but one person starts as a human; you know who the humans are because they are wearing a bandanna around their arms. The one person begins his or her life as a zombie wearing a bandanna across the forehead, which must “feed,” or tag a human to stay alive. The tagged human then becomes a zombie. Throughout the week, surviving as a human becomes increasingly difficult, as zombies increase in numbers. Things such as route planning and banding with fellow humans becomes absolutely necessary to avoid being eaten! The moderators keep the game interesting by introducing missions and objectives such as locating intel or unlocking Nerf guns that allow humans to stun zombies to protect themselves.
Last semester, I pointed out to the moderators that it would be an interesting idea to incorporate ham radio as a part of one of the missions. For example, different bands of humans could roam around campus keeping in contact with observers via radio contact. Or perhaps, a mission for the humans to decode CW or some digital mode to acquire intel on the next task. This year, they listened and are going to host a mission based around those ideas.
For the most of us, ham radio is a fun way to communicate, but to the rest of us, it is a valuable service in times of emergency or for long distance endurance runs or rally races out in the Ozark Mountains, where cell service does not exist for miles.
A Thank You to Donors
The Missouri S&T Amateur Radio club would like to thank the ARRL and ARRL Membership and Volunteer Programs Assistant Manager Norm Fusaro, W3IZ, for donating some equipment to the club. The club is proud owners of two handheld transceivers and a homebrew 20 meter voice transceiver. We also want to thank Harold Atwell, W0PTE, for donating a box full of speakers, transceivers, receivers and an antenna tuner. We also thank the ARRL for donating licensing manuals and an awesome book, The Road Home by Andrew Baze, AB8L. Thanks to all who have given to the club and making our shack one to envy.
--Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers