The magic of ham radio

About a week and a half ago, Wired magazine came out with an article on ham radio, entitled “Why Ham Radio Endures in a World of Tweets.” (It’s an excellent article; read it.) Reaction to that article, however, revealed what appears to be a deep split among hams. On one hand you have hams like G4ILO, who say, The more high-tech ham radio becomes, the less magic there is. On the other hand, hams like AB9RF counter that, “There is no magic in ham radio. Ham radio is nothing but technology. Without technology, ham radio is nothing.”

I have to say, though, that I find myself disagreeing, to some extent, with both of them.

I agree with AB9RF that transmitting something, getting it digitized, sent halfway across the world, then getting it decoded and retransmitted so it’s heard over a radio can be, in a way, just as fulfilling and just as worthy as sending that same transmission on HF on a day when the solar flux index is in triple digits. I’ve done both. There is a place for advanced technology in our hobby, and in fact, it really should be a breeding ground for this type of stuff.

But as for AB9RF’s comment that there is no magic to ham radio? That it’s all technology? OK, sure, ham radio is well grounded in Ohm’s law, RLC circuits, and the basic laws of electromagnetics. Anyone who has passed even the Technician exam has been exposed to it, and those of us who have gotten all the way to Extra have had more than enough. But even then, I believe Clarke’s Third Law applies in ham radio at any level. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I firmly believe ham radio, even at its most simplistic level, is sufficiently advanced from a technology standpoint to be quasi-magical under Clarke’s Law. It certainly seems so to outsiders, but occasionally things happen that make a ham say, “Hmmm.” Case in point: I have a double bazooka oriented east-west, and my first HF DX contact was with a station due south of Hawaii. Science tell me that a dipole transmits best perpendicular to the wire (assuming it’s in free space, mine is not); how the heck was I able to get a strong enough signal in a direction parallel to the wire? That’s where ham radio jumps off the foundation of science and becomes an art. On a given day, five watts from Hawaii on 20 meters can get you a 59 in South Africa. On another day, 100 watts barely gets you a 53 on the West Coast, if anyone comes back at all.

I willingly live in two technological worlds. On the one hand, I have an iPhone 4 – one of the most technologically advanced communication devices known to technology – it calls, it texts, it computes; using state of the art digital technology, it does everything but wash my car. But on the other hand, I have a Yaesu FT-60R, a solid, solid-state, if not state-of-the-art, handie-talkie that puts out five watts of signal using time-tested FM technology. And on the third hand, I have a Yaesu FT-857D, which can put out from 5 to 100 watts of SSB power that can, under the right conditions, reach halfway around the world, even to my QTH’s antipodal point, or close to it. Each has its uses. I enjoy using all of them. (Plus, some have pointed out G4ILO’s own use of high-tech.)

Finally, does using high-tech make a contact less valid? My friend Rich, KH6DAD, also an Extra like me, has a friend in South Africa who was his first international contact. He made the contact through IRLP, and he still talks to him using the local IRLP link on UHF. Within two days of making my first DX contact on HF, I made an HF contact to South Africa on 20 meters, talking to ZS3Y. Because Rich used so-called “advanced technology” to make his contact, and I used the time-tested HF bands to reach the same country, is he less of a ham than I am? Of course not. We made a contact, either way.

And that’s where the “magic” of ham radio lies. It’s not about using advanced technology or avoiding it. It’s not about embracing the latest modes, or railing against their proliferation. It’s all about the person-to-person contact. It’s about reaching out across the miles to touch another person with your voice. Or with digital messages generated by your hands on keys – be it a CW key, or keys on a computer keyboard. My primary Elmer likes to point out that ham radio is about making contacts. And if we lose sight of that, then ham radio has lost its reason for being, in my opinion.

Your turn: To what extent do you agree or disagree with G4ILO or AB9RF? In your opinion, does technology enhance or detract from ham radio?

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