HAM Radio and Understanding

Yesterday I took an amateur radio technician’s class test and passed it to receive my license. Getting that license has been something on my bucket list for quite some time. There are some less significant reasons I can give for wanting it: being able to use the license to communicate with my near space balloons, or using the radio in the backcountry while hiking with the Sierra Club, but the truth of the matter is that I saw getting a license like this as something of a Shibboleth. A rite of passage, a symbol that I appreciate where we came from, and a way of understanding a system that is vital to our everyday lives.

Amateur radio (HAM radio) is the Ur of modern making. Talk with any HAM radio operator, and you’ll recognize the same spirit, drive, and insatiable curiosity that you find in a maker who’s passionate about 3D printing, or building interconnected objects, or wearable electronics. The drive, I think, comes from the amateur who’s fallen in love with a hobby and brought their outside knowledge to bear on it. It comes from someone who’s taken a passion, and used it as another way to meaningfully connect themselves to the world around them.

Before makerspaces, there were HAM radio clubs in the early-to-mid 20th Century. Organizations that taught people the basics of electronics, Morse code, and radio transmissions. These amateur clubs are still around, and continue to spread the joy of tinkering with your own radio, building your own antenna, and practicing countless other hands-on activities within their communities.

It’s important to remember where we came from, whether that be as a maker, a crafter, an engineer, or anything else. Knowing where you came from helps you further clarify what your values are and map out what your trajectory might be based on past learnings. It connects you with a wealth of knowledge that, if you choose to ignore it and pursue your own interests without respecting the past, is lost forever. I just happen to think that this knowledge, in part, exists in HAM operators.

It exists in the stories they tell. In their sense of humor, the way they so effortlessly approach their craft, and the way an experienced operator reminisces about a world that was interconnected not by fiberoptic cables, but by radio waves traveling through the air. Uncontrollable, wild, and impossible to stop.

It’s the Wild West mixed with technology that, at its time, was well ahead of what anyone else was doing. It still is to some extent, and is certainly less understood and appreciated by the masses — even if the principles it functions on undergirds the technology we all rely on (much as RSS is disregarded as old technology, even though it forms the backbone of the internet).

And so, if we choose not to learn about it, it becomes lost. Another fundamental building block in our systems that becomes a mystery. Something that we build on top of without understanding. Another component in a system that becomes magic.

Or we can choose to study it.

Amateur radio is a part of our history, and if we learn to value the continued understanding of systems around us, part of our future as well.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

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