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A Century Later, Ham Radio Is Still Abuzz With Activity

By JIM BUTLER
Eagle Staff Writer

Has your mind ever gone blank when someone stuck a microphone in your face? This year is the 100th anniversary of such fright.

"How do you know that?" you may ask.

It began with Canadian Reginald Fessenden, who couldn't understand why wires were needed to transmit sound over a telephone, spent years working on wireless voice communication. And in 1906, Fessenden had everything in order, so he planned a surprise broadcast on Christmas Eve.

The first radio program opened with Handel's Largo played on an Edison wax-cylinder phonograph. Fessenden followed by playing O Holy Night on a violin.

Then, when it was time for Mrs. Fessenden to have her turn - reading a Bible verse - nothing happened. No sound. The woman was speechless.

A century later, there's plenty of sound. Microphones for wireless amateur radio buzz with communications, and wireless radio technology blends with contemporary advances such as satellites and e-mail. The Internet site www.winlink.org provides complete e-mail service, and several satellites enable hams in the middle of a jungle or an ocean to broadcast their positions.

"The history and tradition are what attracted me," said Kevin Phillips (call signal KE5C QJ) , president of the Bryan Amateur Radio Club.

One tradition is collecting QSL cards - the letters are shorthand for "Did you confirm receipt of my transmission?" or "I confirm receipt of your transmission." Amateur radio operators (hams) trade QSL cards to document communications. Some hams send personalized cards printed with various designs and their photo.

Phillips' collection includes cards from hams in England, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Slovak Republic and on the Battleship Missouri in Pearl Harbor.

A major reason amateur radio has not been buried by other communication technologies is the enjoyment of talking to other hams not only around the world but over it. Hams can even converse with astronauts on the International Space Station.

Famous people known to hang around the amateur radio band are New York Gov. George Pataki, former 'N Sync singer Lance Bass, country singer Patty Loveless, record-setting pilot Dick Rutan and CBS news legend Walter Cronkite. All are licensed amateur radio operators. So were the late Marlon Brando and guitarist Chet Atkins.

And there's no shortage of people to talk to.

According to Phillips, Brazos County has more than 350 hams while Texas has nearly 43,000 (second to California). The United States has 675,000, and the international total exceeds 2.5 million.

The Bryan Amateur Radio Club has been in existence for 50 years and has 60 members, Phillips said.

Getting a license is the first step in becoming a ham. The Web site of the Amateur Radio Relay League (www.hello-radio.org/becomeaham.html), the national organization for hams, has complete information. An entry-level license costs $100, and the required test is $14.

A good starter radio setup can be found for less than $200, Phillips said.

"There are many reasons for becoming a ham," Phillips said. "There are no age requirements, anyone can participate, and it's a good family hobby. Most physical impairments don't restrict someone from being a ham."

Robert Carter (call signal NC5R), who serves as Bryan Amateur Radio Club vice president, has been blind since birth.

"I've been interested in radio since I was a kid," said Carter, who is a psychologist at Texas A&M University. "I had an uncle who listened to shortwave radio and introduced me to it. I had a walkie-talkie, and a neighbor heard me and got me into CB radio. But I didn't get a ham license until I came to A&M about 10 years ago. I woke up one Saturday morning and decided I needed a hobby."

Carter has talked to people all over the world. "I particularly enjoy talking to people in England and Scotland. I just love those accents."

Recent disasters - the A&M bonfire collapse in 1999, the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 - have underscored the importance of amateur radio, Carter said.

"Either land lines were down or cell phones were jammed or both," Carter said. "Ham radio was all there was for communication between emergency personnel, such as law enforcement and the Red Cross."

Carter said he may be spending more time on his radio. "We're entering a new sunspot cycle, which means better reception," he said.

Every Tuesday at 8 p.m., Bryan's radio club holds the ham version of an Internet chat room.

Phillips turns on his radio and says, "Attention, all amateur radio operators."

On one recent Tuesday, 20 hams responded with their call signals. Various topics were discussed, including the health of one member and plans for events.

Ham radio operator Al Chisom sets up an antenna that was used for a national field day in June. Members of the Bryan Amateur Radio Club participated in the field day, communicating with other operators across the country.

Local ham radio operators Bob Henglein (left), Fred Fisher and Dick Danes scan a transceiver at Southwood Athletic Complex in College Station.