Dah-Dit Dah-Dit, Dah-Dah Di-Dah

Now and then I mention ham radio. I’ve been an “amateur radio operator” (the more formal title) for [gasp] a third of a century now; I’m K0RCC. You’d think, with the Internet creating instant, “free,” worldwide communications, that ham radio would be dwindling away, with just a few old-timers (heck: even older than me!) grasping at the straws of “No! Don’t change!”

I’m happy to say nothing’s further from the truth.

Amateur radio isn’t necessarily pounding out Morse Code (the title of this essay is Morse Code for “CQ” — which in international use means “calling any station [who wants to chat]”). In fact, that holds little interest for me.

Nor does it necessarily mean huge antenna arrays blocking your view! I’m interested in very high frequencies and above, and specifically voice use, particularly in local and regional communications. (“Voice”? Yeah: did you know you can send data with ham radio? Even TV signals. It’s definitely not just Morse Code! But hey: you can do that, too, if that’s your interest. There’s something for everyone here.)

Ham radio operators have been at the forefront of most communications innovations for generations. “Ah,” some of you might say, “but what about the innovations done in industry, universities, and government labs?”

Astronaut Tim Kopra talking on the International Space Station’s ham radio. (NASA)

Indeed, not all the innovations are coming from amateurs tinkering in their garage or ham shack. But those professionals working in industry, universities, and government labs? A lot of them are, in fact, hams. Virtually all of NASA’s astronauts are hams, too — they “have” to be, if they want to use the ham radio on the space station! Ham radio operators are, if I may say, cool. Some of the smartest, cutting edge, innovators in communications and science.

The proof: the number of U.S. ham radio license holders is at an all-time high, reports Fox News — at over 700,000 — with 40,000 new hams in the last five years alone.

Finding Friends

When I first moved to Colorado back in 1996 after leaving NASA, I was driving. As I rolled into Boulder, I picked up my radio to see if there were any friendly voices out there. I met Dave (KE0OG) on the air. I ended up living just a few miles from him, and we’ve been friends since; he’s a fellow techie, and also a writer (but not yet full time: c’mon, Dave!)

I did later move away from Boulder, but then, so did Dave: he still lives just a few miles from me (and we’re still good friends). Dave is not only a “volunteer examiner” (allowed to give tests to certify new hams), he teaches amateur radio to interested newcomers. There is of course a “standard” textbook to learn what you need to know to get licensed, but the book is a bit daunting to newcomers — which is why there are teachers around. Dave has recently gotten into doing videos for his web site, and his web site has a section on ham radio. So he has put the two together: he’s teaching ham radio by online video now — and it’s all free. He guides you through the lessons in “the” book and helps you make sense of it all. It’s here: online ham radio lessons.

So what brought this to mind this week? Dave’s latest video shows how easy it is to make a contact over ham radio, and he recruited me to help. It shows Dave in his “ham shack” waiting for a call from me.

The first chat is “direct” — radio to radio, and the second is through a “repeater,” a radio system that’s usually put in a high spot to extend range: if you can reach the repeater, it rebroadcasts your signal to others on that channel so you can talk to each other, even if you’re not in range of each other.

And repeaters can be tied together so you can talk to people over a very wide area. (I’m sure that’s a lesson in Dave’s series!)

If you’ve ever wanted to get into ham radio, it’s now easier than ever. There’s not only a book (Dave tells you how to get it), but Dave will walk you through it, section by section. You don’t have to learn Morse Code, either, as I had to back in The Olden Days.

End of excuses?

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife is a ham too: her call is K0KIT. See? Even girls can do it! 😛

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37 Comments on “Dah-Dit Dah-Dit, Dah-Dah Di-Dah

  1. This article FB by this harmonic. 73 OM.

    (And people say the youth of today invented shorthand with leet and text speak. Ha!!)

    Indeed! I got an email from a good buddy who was sighing over the lingo. Just remember: it’s an old, old hobby (more than 100 years). While no one really knows why the term “ham” stuck or where it came from (there are abundant theories, but none have proven conclusive), most can be traced back to something in the distant past. “73” (“best regards”) comes from the telegraph days. -rc

  2. Thanks! This may be just what I need to finally actually DO this. I’ve got the book but it often just doesn’t quite make sense to me. I’ll check out Dave’s videos and see if that helps!

    Ruth, if your dad can do it, you can! There are female hams, but more is merrier. -rc

  3. My grandfather, Oran (WB2ICE) was a Ham for unknown amounts of years before he passed in 2009.

    Grandpa had an old teletype machine in his attic. From the Vietnam era when he was part of the MARS network. I remember sitting in the attic with him as he would phone patch service members to their family’s here in the states. I was always amazed that he would be taking to people in Germany or California.

    Thanks for the memory.

    MARS is the Military Amateur Radio Service. Before satellite phones, it was often the only way soldiers could communicate with home in real time. -rc

  4. I left my HF radio at the cabin in Colorado when I moved to LA. It’s nice to have it there whenever I visit. But damn … I really need to tune the antenna!

    One of the interesting developments is Echonet, which allows repeaters to be connected over the internet. So using either my 2 meter radio or my computer, I can talk to people on repeaters in other parts of the U.S. or the world.

    “2 meters” is the wavelength of a signal in the 144 MHz band (part of VHF, mentioned above). It’s a common repeater band. -rc

  5. As you mentioned, Morse code is no longer a requirement. This probably had a tremendous positive impact on people becoming involved.

    There are times when signal quality is so poor that only CW will break through, so a few old-timers and some newbies being capable is a plus.

    I sat at an IL State Police station practicing on a ‘bug’ back in ’69. We had shortwave gear and an 80′ tower that I played with on graveyards at taxpayer expense. In those days, we have to have a ‘First Phone’ ticket to even touch the equipment.

    73s KB0OZO

    “CW” is “continuous wave” — the technical term for operation by Morse Code. A “bug” is a telegraph key, used to tap it out. “Shortwave” is the “high frequency” band, which allows signals to “skip” around the world for long-distance communications. -rc

  6. It’s good to read about ham radio. I’ve been married to K9JLK for more than 50 years. He is still chasing DX — still has a couple of countries to get on a couple of bands. It’s good we live on a farm. His CW occasionally gets into my phone conversations. Which is why we continue living here where our closest neighbor is a half mile away.

    DX is distant communications contacts. One goal is “Worked All States”. Another is DXCC (for “Century Club”) — making contacts with hams in 100 countries. -rc

  7. I became interested in ham radio after reading “Today, I’m a Ham!”, a great book for young people. However I could not master Morse Code well enough to pass the exam and went on to other activities. A couple of years ago, I found out that Morse code was no longer required, got my Tech license and eventually upgraded to Extra. Glad to see you promoting ham radio, Randy!

    73, AE5ZU

    One thing that strikes me right now: notice how people making comments include their callsigns. It’s an accomplishment to get one: they’re proud of them. -rc

  8. My Dad was a ham (K9IIN) in Michigan when I was a kid (I am now 68!) and on our way into Montreal, Canada in about 1962, he got on his radio to find another ham for help finding a motel. The one he found not only helped us find a motel but came over and took us a tour of Montreal! We decided on the spot that hams are friendly folks indeed.

  9. Will love sharing a link to this blog post! Hams are often under-appreciated for the key role they play in disasters. My nonprofit used to offer the “Ham & Cram” 1-day license class, until it became too much of a logistical issue. Thanks so much for posting this Randy. 🙂

  10. I sold a circuit design to Hallicrafters in 1946. They sent me a nice HF transceiver as payment. By the time I turned 8, in 1947, I had my HAM license. I lost interest after entering the Army in 1958 and haven’t gotten back into it. Maybe one day….

  11. I’m one of those recent converts to amateur radio, licensed in 2009 and now teaching a technician class on the Oregon coast. Dave’s videos will be a great additional resource.

    73, N7ONP

    Thanks for your work to spread the knowledge, Michael. -rc

  12. Randy, we miss having you, Kit and Dave back here in the Boulder ham radio community!

    When Morse Code first came into being back in the mid 1800’s, it probably had the same effect then in communications as the Internet has had today. That is why Morse Code is sometimes called “the Victorian Internet”.

    73,UR Friend,
    Jack, WMØG
    ARRL CO Section Manager

  13. Thanks for posting this information. Several years ago I started trying to study the book from Radio Shack for a technician license and did, even though I’d worked in comm for decades and understood frequencies vs wavelengths, find it daunting. Now that you’ve provided the link for your friend’s training videos, I’m going to go at it again, and this time not set it aside.

    Let me know when you get your ticket! -rc

  14. I’ve been an inactive ham for quite some time now. One of these years I’ll get back into it, and even upgrade my ticket. Heck, I may even learn Morse code too! Always enjoy reading about it though.

  15. It was a boyhood dream of mine to become licensed as a ham radio operator. I finally accomplished it in 1974 or ’75 in my mid 20’s. Although I haven’t been active lately I still have all my gear set up here in my den — just to my left as I sit at this keyboard! And strange to read your blog entry this week — the fact that I’m a ham also came up just Sunday at the meeting of the DeMolay Chapter for which I am Chapter Advisor. The young men were amazed that I had talked to other hams all over the world — one of them repeatedly asked “Even in Africa?” to which I was able to say yes — I have worked all Canadian provinces, all US states, all continents and well over 100 countries. I have even worked 48 of the 50 states (including Hawaii) on 75 meters — no mean feat from Nova Scotia!

    73 de VE1MO

  16. My neighbor is a hammer and he comes in over my computer speakers 10-4 and drowns out my music or anything else I’m trying to listen to. It’s pretty annoying, but he’s a really good neighbor so I just let it slide.

    Ask your neighbor if he can suggest how to stop the interference. A lot of hams are pretty good at helping clear up things like that, even though it’s not their fault, but rather the fault of the system allowing the interference in. He may be able to fix it easily. -rc

  17. @Jimmie – you might want to drop the PPRAA (Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association) a note to get help with interference issues. Also, maybe you might get interested in becoming a ham yourself?

    I was the PPRAA VE (Volunteer Examiner) Liaison for seven years and held our most recent exam session this past Saturday. We had eight candidates for new licenses and upgrades, and it resulted in three new Technicians and four Generals (1 or 2 from “zero to General”).

    A couple years ago, up in the Denver area, a young lady age 8 or 9 became a ham. She first got the Technician license, and then followed up with the General. She has been very active in ham radio and is trying to get her Extra “ticket”, but that can be somewhat elusive to a 10 or 11 year old, but I am sure she will make it soon! I like seeing more of the feminine persuasion involved in ham radio — it’s always been a traditionally male-dominated hobby for no good reason.

  18. What a great post. I’ve been a ‘brass pounder’ since 1959. Started with Novice, then jumped to General when I turned 11 years old.

    I’m very glad that the number of Hams is on the increase. It is a wonderful and exciting hobby.

    Your post heading certainly got my attention!

    73, K9ZTX

  19. About 1950, I sat with my uncle Earl Collins in Cape Cod while he performed an amazing service using ham radio. (He was Net Control for a large area in the Northeast, and I was very impressed–although I had no idea what that meant.) We talked for hours, and all the while, he had an earphone on one ear, and a typewriter under his fingers. CW (code) coming in to his ear went straight out his fingers, while he typed hundreds of “HamGrams,” slips of paper resembling telegrams. The slips were personal messages from GIs serving abroad, which he and other hams would type, slip into small yellow envelopes, and mail (at their expense, I suspect) to loved ones in the States.

    If I asked what an message had said, he had to stop and read it — his reception and typing was so automatic that he had no idea what he had just typed! They also served who only sat and forwarded messages!

    Joe KE5MKU

    You’re probably correct that the forwarding of the message was on his dime. He served for sure. -rc

  20. My Dad was a Ham for over 50 years. He was G3HTP but, following his death a couple of years ago, that has probably been re-issued to a new devotee. I never picked up the hobby, but always retain an interest in techy stuff. I currently listen to podcasts regarding the ‘Knack’ (as they call it) from Solder Smoke.

    Do all Americans pronounce ‘solder’ as ‘sodder’?

    I don’t know about “all” of us, but that’s the only pronunciation I’ve heard. -rc

  21. I got my first ticket (Novice) in 1958. That lapsed when I joined the Army but I renewed in 1975. Most of my communicating happens via the internet these days but rig is sitting here waiting for a new antenna (north Alabama tornados took out the Windom I had up).

  22. I guess you can tell from my address that my secret is out of the bag. I’ve been a ham for almost 15 years. My wife’s a ham. So is my daughter, brother, mom and dad. Being involved in the local emergency services gives me tons of opportunities to use my skills to serve others. I’m really happy to have found such a fun ‘hobby’.


    Actually, no one can see your email address but me, but signing with your call puts it out in public. -rc

  23. WOW. Imagine an internet/news publication bring breaking news about a 100+ year old obsession, because that is exactly what amateur radio is to the many. Although probably the larger numbers ar. involved on an as-time-permits basis, once it gets into the cardiopulmonary system, it is almost impossible to see it ever go away. Much like many of your readers have suggested in previous posts.

    I too at a younger age, was so very interested in the power of Amateur Radio, here in Ottawa Canada (in the early 60’s) that during High School every spare moment found me in the shack (VE3ML) at Ottawa Technical High., watching from the side as others used their favorite brass or bug, (I may be wrong here but I think the bug term referred to the sideways mounted key that you could use with your fore finger and thumb in alternating strokes, and it worked similar to a metronome, where it would, if held in position, continue to make dots on its own until released). In any case you HAD to reach a 10 word per minute, and it HAD to be on the brass, to get a license, an achievement I never accomplished. I bought some equipment along the way, built my own tiny “shack’ under the basement stairs and watched the spiders redecorate as I moved on with other achievable goals. No idea where my supply of 807s went or the other boxes of vacuum tube, and copper and gasp, germanium, the new electronic marvel, ended up.

    History was written in CW: The Titanic, every military ship and mobile command, from all sides, used their own version of dit dah (or dot to the really hard core) probably hundreds if not thousands of lives saved in natural and man-made disasters, probably even more than any medical efforts, and to this day you can spin the dial and still hear the familiar CQ CQ CQ.

    Am I going to check out your friends video? Bet your sweet dit-dot (OK, dot-dash to the white paper crowd) I am.

    Now where did I out those old power supply and amp drawings I used to know by heart, with real resistors and capacitors and diodes in them?

    Thanks Randy for the very best inspirational newsletter ever.

  24. It is indeed a small world. As you can see from my email address I am a ham as well. In fact both my wife and I are — both of us Extras (she’s aa6mr). We both belong to the Clark County Amateur Radio Club (that’s Clark County Washington). We are also members of our county’s ARES/RACES group.


  25. My husband and I are hams from way back when. I”m KE7BOF (yep, girls do it too), and he’s KN6FO. Your article reminds me to get active again.

    I got involved initially when square dancing with a bunch of computer science folks from Stanford. It was an interesting bunch of people who were involved with computers, music, square dancing, and ham radio (especially the emergency services end of things).

    My husband and I have taught classes, are volunteer examiners, and were certified in Emergency Communications with ARES/RACES when living in southern Oregon (where forest fires and floods are yearly events). Here in Pittsburgh, ham radio operators seem more involved with Skywarn, so I’m a bit rusty on my emergency communication skills. It has been my favorite part of ham radio.

    Many universities have ham radio clubs, and that is a great place to get new people involved with the hobby. We were connected with the Carnegie Mellon ham radio club before moving out of the country for a couple of years. Time to get back in touch.

    Thanks for posting Randy! You have reminded me to pull out my rig and find out who’s out there. 🙂

    ARES is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and the similar RACES is the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. Skywarn is a group of trained weather watchers who can report field conditions back to the National Weather Service, e.g., during tornado conditions. -rc

  26. Based on your years as tech plus, you should be eligible for an automatic general upgrade. If that program is still in place, all you need is to be able to prove when you were first licensed.

    Yep, I know. Just haven’t gotten around to it. -rc

  27. Nice post! I’ve been a amateur radio operator for more than 30 years now, and I have to tell people that *anyone* can obtain a license now, with just a little self-study. I’ve seen 4 year olds with a general-class callsign, and I’ve seen 95 year olds, happy to have their “ham ticket” (license) at last. Go search ARRL.ORG (the master site for amateur radio in the US) and you’ll see all kinds of links for how to study, and where to take your exam. Heck, even the questions and the correct answers can now be purchased in a book called the “question pool”. Your first exam? 15 questions, taken word for word from that book. And even if you fail, you can pay a small fee (Typically $6 to $10) and take the test again, immediately. Honest, it is so easy, if you spent just 20 minutes a day studying, you could take and pass the test in less than two weeks.

    Talk to everyone “on the air!”

  28. I got interested in ham radio 40-odd years ago in high school and even had the ARRL handbook back then; never got my license though. However, you are never too old; about 5-6 months ago both Leo LaPorte (“The Tech Guy”) and columnist John C. Dvorak (who are in their mid-to-late 50’s) mentioned on Leo’s show “This Week in Tech” that they are studying for their licenses. Also ham Bob Heil (of Heil Sound) hosts the show Ham Nation on Leo’s TWtT network.

    On another note, I believe that hams were active during the “Arab Spring” uprising in Egypt and made use of packet radio to help people connect to the Internet after the Mubarak government shut down the border gateway routers. And you mentioned that astronauts are hams; I remember when Owen Garriot took a ham set along on a shuttle flight so he could talk to other hams while on orbit. (Bit of trivia: Owen Garriot is the father of Richard Garriot a.k.a Lord British, the creater of the “Ultima” series of computer games.)

  29. I had this inking you just might be a ham. I too have been in Amateur Radio a long time, licensed in 1975. I love antenna building, HF, DXing, and contesting, and recently VHF/UHF Contesting.

    Thanks for posting this!

  30. I have never been (or had any desire to be) a ham operator.

    When my daughter was in the hospital a friend gave me a shortwave receiver thinking that I would be able to listen to BBC or Radio Free Europe after the local stations went off the air. The receiver didn’t have the range to pick up the commercial stations, but I was able to pick up ham operators, listening to those conversations helped me get through those sleepless nights in her hospital room.

    So — if you were one of those “voices in the night” thank you for helping me maintain my sanity during!

  31. Very nice essay. I’ve been a VE for many years, in the oldest VEC in the country (Alaska), and I saw an increase in licenses when Morse Code was dropped. CW is still a valuable skill, but now people add it as they get experience rather than up-front.

    We had ten people take tests last Saturday, including one person who passed Tech, General, and Extra in one sitting. Youngest person I’ve passed was an eight-year-old girl who is still involved years later (she passed the Morse Code too).

    Like you, I’ve been involved in emergency services (ACLS EMT, firefighter, etc.) for many years, and ham radio has been a valuable part of that. More than once, I’ve used ham radio for emergency communications when other channels couldn’t make it, including relaying for ambulances in very rural locations in Alaska. Many emergency responders have earned ham licenses to increase their capabilities and skill.

    Thanks for writing this.
    Ken KL7VE

  32. Just to expand on what Randy commented to Jimmie–Security, Co. Are you sure that your neighbor is a ham and not a CB affectionado? 10-4 is not a term used widely by hams. Although really big at one time, CB has fallen off significantly now.

    Since CB rigs could could be used for DX communication, sometimes without any modification at all, many CBers had mods done so that they could shoot international skip.

    There was no test for a CB license (when they were actually required) so there wasn’t a level of technical competence in the hobby. As a consequence, people who didn’t know what they were doing were modifying radios and erecting antennas. Unfortunately, this often lead to RFI and TVI in their neighbourhood.

    Since many people were unaware of the distinction, hams often caught the flack when interference happened to somebody’s radio or TV. It’s ironic. In fact, they are mandated by law, and by conscience, to run a clean station that doesn’t cause interference. If something does get out of whack, they are eager to work with the people affected to end the problem.

    Radio waves are a line of sight proposition; they don’t bend with the earth’s curvature. Beyond-the-horizon communications (ie: DX) requires that radio waves “skip” off the ionosphere and back to earth. The term “shooting skip” is sometimes used for DXing.

    I’ll save you some typing, Randy. TVI means TV Interference and RFI, Radio Frequency Interference. TVI is RFI that happens to a TV.

    Thanks, Bill! For the info and the key at the bottom. Modifying CBs in this way is fairly common — and illegal. -rc

  33. Very nice article! Thanks for encouraging others to join our ranks. I have been a member of our hobby/service for more than 53 years, first licensed as WN4DMG at the age of 8.

    I’ve waited to see if you or anyone else would mention the specific nature of you and your Bride’s callsigns, namely, that they are vanity callsigns. I believe yours incorporates your initials while your Bride’s incorporates her name (or is it her nickname?)

    73, KB4KZO

    A “vanity” callsign is a “custom” call that you can apply for once licensed. The digit corresponds to a region, and I originally had a “6” call, which I got when I was in California. When I moved to Colorado, I wanted a “0” call common to that region. I could have just asked for a “0” call and taken whatever was assigned, but while I was at it I paid a small fee and indeed got my initials. Kit liked the idea, and got hers with her name. -rc

  34. Every so often I’m tempted to get a vanity callsign but I probably won’t. The ink was scarcely dry on my Tech license (1993) when I went to the local club meeting and announced my new call.

    One wise guy took the suffix, “VKW,” and immediately blurted out “Vicious Killer Weasel,” which I still use for phonetics in casual QSOs. The return call usually has the sound of a grin in the voice.


  35. Thanks for all you do, Randy.

    As a long-time reader of This is True, it’s nice to find out you’re a Ham too.

    73, W5DAA

  36. @ John KD6VKW

    When I got my call sign (KB0VKG) I was trying out ‘Vicious Killer Gorilla’ when an OM in my area redubbed it as ‘Vicious Killer Gopher’. Sorta stuck that way, for better or worse.

    I guess I’m used ot it by now, and, like you, I’m not sure I want to change it.

    73, Dana

    Hams use phonetics to spell out their callsigns, especially on short wave frequencies, to make sure their contacts understand exactly what their call is. Sometimes they choose amusing phonetics. When I lived in California I had a “6 call” (the digit denotes the region of the country). My original call was KA6FDS; I said that meant “For Darn Sure”, but a ham friend — an OM — dubbed me “Fine and Dandy Suitor”. When I moved to Colorado I wanted a “0” call to match its region. I’ve said the phonetics for K0RCC are “Remote Control Car” and, when I worked wildfires for the American Red Cross, I used “Red Cross Communications”.

    “OM” = “old man” = old-timer in the hobby. Licensed as a kid in the late 70s, I’m probably now considered an OM. -rc


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