Curiously enough, there is little wisdom available on the topic of why ham radio is called that. It is a commonplace term, but most often it is seen with the word "amateur" appended in parentheses. Perhaps, it is merely a shortening of "amateur" to "ham"; in British usage though, there is an alternative explanation in the tradition of the ham actor, someone who is typically somewhat flamboyant and usually male. That idea plays into another British trait, which is to use a façade of amateurism to conceal considerable expertise.
The term designates a specific application of radio technology, which in Britain as well as most of the world, is managed by a system of licenses. Ham radio operators are generally engaged in personal recreation and message exchange, emergency communication, and in some cases experimentation and professional training. To obtain a license, an operator must first pass a routine test. More intensive degrees of engagement and more elaborate types of equipment involve further testing. Buying a basic ham radio transceiver is the first step into a world of science and knowhow, and it goes hand in hand with a growing appreciation of the lifestyle that goes with amatuer radio.
Background of the Ham Radio
Wireless radio transmission emerged as an important technology during the First World War. In its aftermath, both in Britain and the United States, interest in the new technology permeated civilian life as men returned home. In those early days, test transmissions made for official purposes often used another new gadget, the gramophone, to save speaking for long periods of time, and some private citizens became enthusiastic about building transceivers capable of listening in to these broadcasts.
Ham Radios in the Past
In those days, the basic receiver could also act as a transmitter, notably when the volume was turned up, and for that reason the government introduced licensing. As commercial broadcasters began to emerge, so too did an enthusiasts’ culture supported by weekly magazines that explained, for example, how to make a crystal radio set, and shops where people could buy the components. The Radio Shack chain is perhaps the most familiar of these although their UK branches were bought in the late 1990s by Carphone Warehouse and subsequently rebranded.
Ham Radios in the Present
In the present day, although ham radio is not at the forefront of the hobby magazine market, it remains a pursuit that many people enjoy, and it retains some of that frontier spirit thanks to a permissive licensing regime that encourages individual users to experiment and innovate within the regulated radio transmission bandwidth. Nowadays, frequency modulation and transistorised or VLSI circuit boards have taken the place of amplitude modulation and valve sets, but the latter remain in use thanks to vintage ham radio enthusiasts.
The Ham Radio Lifestyle
In some respects, the ham radio lifestyle has something in common with the internet-based social media that have become commonplace in recent years. Where major world events are often mediated through services like Twitter, ham radio is often the more reliable fallback when events that cause significant damage to infrastructure take place, such as the 2004 tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. Most of the time though, enthusiasts are engaged in more mundane and diverse pursuits. Moreover, ham radio is similar but different from Citizens Band Radio, which is a short-distance technology familiar in the form of walkie-talkies. It has diminished in popularity since the advent of the mobile phone.
Ham Radio Clubs
There are several clubs around the UK, as there are in other parts of the world, through which ham radio operators get together to compare notes, give and get advice, participate in testing and contesting, and generally exchanging information. Among notable ham radio enthusiasts are the musicians Joe Walsh and Patty Loveless. Although the technical side of ham radio goes hand in hand with a generally "male" image, there are plenty of female operators on the airwaves too.
Before Making a Purchase
The Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) offers comprehensive advice about the steps a would-be ham radio operator should take in order to get started. There are three categories of license: the Foundation License; the Intermediate License; and the Full License. All of these are recognised by the national regulator OFCOM. The first is earned by taking a single multi-choice examination through a local club, which is evaluated on the spot so that the candidate knows immediately where they stand. Clubs are reasonably widespread. Although in more sparsely populated parts of the country, enthusiasts may need to travel. The RSGB website includes a locator utility. Once the examination is passed, users receive their unique call sign, which they then use whenever they make a transmission, for identification purposes.
Basic Ham Radio Transceiver Equipment
Equipped with a Foundation License, an operator can freely use a basic transceiver. The word conflates "transmitter" and "receiver", and these devices perform both functions. The simplest and cheapest starter units are hand-held models, normally Chinese in origin, which have all the necessary peripherals built in, meaning antenna, microphone, and loudspeaker or headphone socket. Their 5 watt power output is comfortably inside the maximum permitted by this type of license. For comparison, mobile phones are generally rated at 3 watts. The Voyager spacecraft is able to transmit from the edge of the solar system with a 23 watt power rating though getting a message back takes tens of thousands of watts.
Stepping up from the hand-held devices, basic desktop models are the next price point. Some caution is advisable when choosing these because CB radio equipment has a similar profile and may not be capable of transmitting and receiving in the required mode.
More Advanced Options
While there is no necessary connection between the Intermediate and Full Licenses and more advanced and expensive equipment, it stands to reason that more skilled and experienced users prefer more capable gear. With an Intermediate License, a user becomes entitled to step up from a 10-watt maximum transmission power to 50 watts. The examination involves a practical test as well as a 90-minute multiple choice written test.
Ham Radio Full License Holders
Holders of the Full License are permitted to transmit at up to 400 watts, and can carry that entitlement to most countries in the world. The examination lasts two hours, is marked centrally, and regarded as significantly more difficult in terms of the technical complexities a candidate should demonstrate competence in.
With accumulated technical expertise, often ham radio enthusiasts turn towards building their own equipment. This practical genre is commonly known by the term "home-brew", with the connotation not so much alcohol as it is alchemy. Even for those who do not take this route, more powerful transmitters beget more elaborate set-ups with multiple transceivers occupying dedicated bench space indoors, and external antennae mounted on the roof.
As well as operating transceivers, more advanced enthusiasts also run repeater stations, which are used to retransmit signals in order that they can travel longer distances without signal degradation; and data communications stations, which are used to transmit digital data. At this level of engagement, exchanging information, ideas, design proposals, and user experience, is all part of the culture, and this body of tacit knowledge supersedes resources that a general guide can provide.
Vintage Amateur Radio
Within the amateur radio community, there is a distinctive spectrum vintage radio buffs occupy. There is a phenomenology of craft-made technology that has a particular appeal. Perhaps, the parallel with steam railway enthusiasts illustrates the point. Indeed, "steam radio" is a term that crops up in the field. Vintage amateur radio operators not only run transceivers just like any other individual, but they also actively pursue the upkeep and maintenance of equipment for which components are either hard to find or for which they need to be fabricated. Vintage operators find virtue in the precarious imprecision of AM wavebands, kindling the magic that accompanies a human voice as it emerges from the crackle and drift.
Buying Ham Radio Transceiver Equipment on eBay
Transceiver equipment is easy to find in eBay’s listings. A good way to start is to type "ham radio" into the search box on the home page. The results will most likely be dominated by the low-cost hand-held type, along with various types of components, collectibles, and memorabilia. One thing to look out for in listings is information that is specific to the license under which the equipment will be operated. New equipment is usually marked as being appropriate to British regulations, but the finer details about power output still need to be considered.
When an initial search yields an unmanageable number of results, there are a number of ways that you can fine tune them. One way is to change the terms of the search. You might add transceiver to get "ham radio transceiver", or simply start with the term "transceiver". Beware of misspelling the key term because then you may not get any results at all. Alternatively, you can use the filters that appear with search results, which can guide you towards specific domains, such as radio communication equipment or collectables. When looking for specific parts, especially with the maintenance of vintage equipment in mind, collectables are often the place to look.
Ham radio is an absorbing and challenging pastime, one that engages a broad spectrum of social and technical skills. At one and the same time, ham radio operation is a personal hobby and a public service. It is a pursuit that over the years has contributed significantly to the emergence of the communications technologies that we rely on today. Operators can use frequency allocations across the RF spectrum to communicate across the short distances within a city, or range further afield to other national regions, other countries, or to even outer space.
One way of looking at the task of choosing equipment is to consider it part of an initiation ritual. The new user starts with simple equipment and gradually learns its strengths and weaknesses and chooses a path based on the direction that personal interest dictates. All along the way, the resources of the internet are there to facilitate information and equipment exchange. eBay, with its mixture of private sellers and shop fronts, is one of the best places around to carry on that dialogue.