Old Post Amateur Radio Society sees interest growing in ham radio
By Natalie Reidford
More time at home lately has led many to pursue new interests, or perhaps pick up old ones.
The Old Post Amateur Radio Society, or OPARS, is one local group that is experiencing a resurgence in interest.
OPARS member Joe Calvert said the club had about 20 members at its August meeting, a number higher than it had seen in a while.
The meeting included “a lot of (old) members, and some new members that have come in,” Calvert said.
Amateur radio, or ham radio, has piqued the public’s interest for more than 100 years.
The patron saint
Ham radio even has its own patron saint. Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, was arrested by Germans during the occupation of Poland under the suspicion he was using his ham radio station for espionage. Kolbe was taken to Auschwitz and offered his life in place of a comdemned fellow prisoner who had a wife and children. Kolbe was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and is, among other titles, the patron saint of amateur radio operators.
Why are they hams?
From the beginning, amateur radio has enjoyed the attention of operators from all walks of life, from children to adults. But why are amateur radio operators called hams?
It’s a good question, with maybe as many answers as there are ham-radio operators. One popular theory is that “ham” is a derogatory term used to describe amateur operators who could, before regulation, use their more powerful signals to jam commercial operators. Another explanation claims that early radio operators were incompetent, or “ham-fisted.” Still other theories claim HAM is an acronym for the initials of various early radio inventors.
No matter where the term “ham” originated, it was quickly embraced by amateur radio operators, and it sticks to this day.
The demographics of OPARS certainly reflect amateur radio’s popularity among a variety of hobbyists.
“There are all sorts of people in ham radio. There’s doctors, lawyers, ditch diggers … “ said Calvert, trailing off to emphasize the list would go on for a long time.
While most OPARS members are older, members range in age from 19 to the late 70s. The club includes three women.
Outside of the club, members use their skills for the community’s benefit. Some are involved in emergency communications, others are weather spotters.
Calvert was a law enforcement dispatcher and used CB radio his whole life, he said. Ham radio is a “different experience.”
“Ham radio and CB radio are like hockey and golf,” he said. “The idea in both sports is to hit something in a hole. But the audience is different.”
Mac Campbell, vice president of OPARS, said the club formed in 1954.
Interest in the club waxed and waned through the years, and the club reorganized in 1976, Campbell said.
Despite the rise and fall of interest, though, OPARS has always been around since its inception.
“The club never really did go away—the numbers have just dwindled,” Calvert said.
Learning something new
After club business wraps up at a typical OPARS meeting, members learn something together. The plans and operations committee is in charge of setting up an activity for the group.
“(The activity is) kind of a tech class, to get more people involved in ham radio,” said Calvert.
At the August meeting, members built an antenna used in a fox hunt, a hide-and-seek activity for club members.
“We set a person with a transmitter and they use direction-finding equipment to find out where they’re at,” Calvert explained.
In-person activities have been limited due to the coronavirus. Calvert said the normal circuit of hamfests have been canceled this year.
“The hamfests are big swap meets,” Calvert said. “It’s a chance to meet face-to-face with (people) we talk to that we have never seen and put a face with a name.
“Usually during the summertime, there’s one going on about every weekend,” he said. “I look for them to probably start back up next year.”
Amateur radio, though, is an activity that lends itself well to social distancing. Members stay in touch wherever they are. Calvert was recently surprised to connect with a former club member who has relocated.
“On our last Field Day we had here at the end of June, one of the guys made contact with a former club member (who) was in Houston, Texas. He heard our call sign on Field Day and answered back. He’s actually a friend of my son’s, and he texted me and said he listens for our call sign every year on Field Day. And he actually heard it this year.”
Field Day, always during the last weekend of June, is “ham radio’s open house,” according to the Amateur Radio Relay League’s website. Operators set up transmitting stations in public places to demonstrate ham radio services to the public.
OPARS connects with ham radio enthusiasts online as well.
“We use a lot of social media,” Calvert said. “We have people from all over the country on our Facebook page.”
OPARS started up in Vincennes, but many club members hail from other places. Calvert is from Illinois. The next closest amateur radio club is in Daviess County.
While operators may employ the tools of the digital age, ham radio is far from obsolete. Much like the LP album, its analog technology has proved its worth over time. Ham radio can be used without electricity and, of course, without internet. It provides vital communication in the worst of circumstances. In a year like 2020 when emergencies seem to fly at us around every corner, ham radio might be more relevant than ever.
A short history of ham radio
Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell presented mathematical descriptions in the 19th Century of how electromagnetic induction and radiation occurred. In 1886, Heinrich Hertz brought those descriptions to reality by showing how a spark in a circuit (a transmitter) could induce a spark in another circuit (a receiver) from a distance. His publication tipped off new research in electromagnetic radiation.
In 1896, 22-year-old Guglielmo Marconi brought together several inventors’ creations to create a communications system. His first message traveled 2 miles over English countryside. Marconi demonstrated increasing distance over land and water; in 1901 the Morse code letter S crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The public took notice and the press was abuzz with talk of wireless communication.
Both the concept and the equipment used in wireless transmission were simple enough for an average hobbyist to try; thus, the first radio amateurs were born.
The armed services were reluctant to embrace the new technology deemed as radical, but eventually England’s Royal Navy adopted radio, and the U.S. Navy followed suit, replacing long-distance carrier pigeons with wireless communication. The equipment soon became essential — so much so that the onset of World War I put the hobby of amateur radio on hiatus.
In those early years, everyone — commercial and government operators and amateurs alike — shared the same radio spectrum. The cacophony of interference caused the government to assign frequencies through the Radio Act of 1912. The act required amateurs to become licensed and restricted them to a single wavelength of 200 meters.
Then in 1914, Hiram Percy Maxim formed the American Radio Relay League after discovering messages were transmitted more reliably if relay stations organized. Since Marconi’s first 2-mile transmission in England, ham radio has increased its reach and can now be used to talk to astronauts on the International Space Station.