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What is Ham Radio? & How Do Ham Radios Work?

If you’d like to break into the world of amateur broadcasting, you’ve almost certainly heard of ham radio–but what exactly is ham radio, and how does it work? 

Ham radio–also known as amateur radio–is a hobby that many radio enthusiasts share, wherein they communicate via radio frequencies that are distinct from commercial stations.  A ham radio setup can be used to communicate with people all around the world or friends and strangers who live nearby. 

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating hobby, we’ve got you covered. Below we’ll break down the history of ham radio, what it takes to operate a setup and the basics about how they work. So, if you want to know why so many people have found amateur radio to be an alluring hobby, keep on reading cause this is for you. You can also read our list of best Ham Radios.

The Origins of the Term “Ham Radio” 

Believe it or not the term “ham radio,” was originally meant to be a derogatory way of referring to amateur radio operators with underdeveloped skills. During the 19th-century professional radio operators would make fun of amateurs by calling their transmissions “ham fisted.” 

Over the years, however, hobbyists adopted the term as their own and it no longer carries negative connotations in most circles. In fact, a large number of people now falsely believe that ham is an acronym for a more technical term and don’t even realize it was ever meant to be negative, to begin with. 

A Brief History of Ham Radio

The history of amateur radio goes all the way back to some of the earliest transmissions during the 19th century. Below we’ve put together a brief timeline of the development and changes ham radio has seen over the centuries. 

  • First Transatlantic Transmission, 1901-1912: Marconi would go on to successfully pull off what is considered to be the first-ever amateur radio broadcast between 1901 and 1902. 

What separated this transmission from previous attempts is that it was a transatlantic transmission with far greater implications of its uses The effects of this accomplishment stretched all the way from other amateurs beginning to form clubs to the Titanic having the ability to get a transmission out for help before it sank.  

  • Suppression of Ham Radio in WWI and WWII: During both WWI and WWII ham radio operations were restricted. In WWI they were completely banned to prevent any kind of spying or national security issues. In WWII on the other hand, the government used War Emergency Radio Service to restrict ham radio operators to VHF (very high frequencies).   
  • Development of Modern Ham Radio: Ham radio has gone through a number of changes over the decades. Originally, ham radio operations were done via spark gap or telegraphy. During the 1930s however, the practice transitioned to mainly morse code and then finally vocal transmissions. Today transmissions can be sent all the way into outer space and can even be picked up on televisions and portable receivers. 
Ham Radios Working Principle

How Does Ham Radios Work?

Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of how ham radio has developed over the years, we should turn our attention to the most important issue–how they work. Due to popular culture, many people have the misconception that ham radios are all tapping into the same exact frequencies and doing the same thing.   

The truth, however, is that ham radios can work in a number of different ways depending on what they are being used for. That said, in general, they take advantage of various radio frequencies that have been set aside by the FCC for amateur use. With today’s technology, they can even tap into the digital sphere.  

What Radio Frequencies Do Ham Radios Use?

The variety of frequencies ham radios use start just above the AM spectrum at 1.6 MHz and go all the way to 1240 MHz. When it comes to long-distance communication, different frequencies are better or worse depending on whether it is day or night.  

There are also three basic bands of frequencies set aside by the FCC for communication. Which one you tap into largely depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. They include: 

  • Very High Frequency (VHF): Ham radio users are able to utilize the frequencies between 144 and 148MHz with VHF. These frequencies tend to be great if you’re trying to avoid any interference from external electrical sources and just want to communicate with other ham radio users. Still, they do not quite have the range of UHF in both quality and distance.
  • Ultra High Frequency (UHF): Ham radio users are able to utilize frequencies between  420 and 450MHz with UHF. As we suggested above, these have a much broader spectrum of quality and a wider range. Still, users are more likely to experience interference from 
  • Microwave Frequencies: Those who use microwave frequencies tap in between 1.8 to 250 GHz. Tapping into these frequencies is really kind of a niche area for ham radio enthusiasts. However, if one uses microwave frequencies they can actually bounce transmission off of the moon (referred to as “moon bouncing”). 

Do You Need a License to Operate a Ham Radio?

In order to legally operate a ham radio, you do need to become licensed by the FCC. This process involves a test that assesses your knowledge of everything from electronics to how amateur radio works. You can read our step by step guide to get a Ham Radio License in the USA.

Though there are three basic types of licenses you can get for amateur radio, the simplest and most common exam is only 35 questions long.  It is referred to as the Technicians license and really only tests whether or not you have a basic understanding of electronics and how ham radio works. 

The two higher forms of licenses–general and extra–give you access to more frequencies and sub frequencies. If you’re nervous about any of these exams you can receive study guides and help to prepare from the America Radio Relay League

What About Non-Hams?

If you spend enough time around ham radio hobbyists, you’re likely to hear the term non-ham. What exactly are these?

Non-hams are receivers that can pick up the various transmissions from ham radios, without actually being able to send out their own transmissions. The most commonly known non ham radio is probably the CB (citizens band) radio. 

Unlike ham radios, you generally do not need a license to operate a non-ham. This makes them great if you’re a beginner who is just trying to break into the ham radio world. 

So, What is Ham Radio and How Does it Really Work Anyway?

Ham radio is a colloquial term for amateur radio. Though the name was originally intended to be a pejorative towards non-professionals attempting radio communication, it has since been adopted and embraced by the community. Ham radios have been used to communicate via everything from morse code to voice and now even digital transmissions. 

Ham radios work by tapping into various radio frequencies just above the AM spectrum. The actual frequencies individuals use can be divided into three basic types of bands, VHF, UHF, and Microwave. If you would like to experiment with these frequencies yourself, you must first get a license from the FCC. Once you pass the test, you’ll be ready to send your first transmission!

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