History

Ham radio and the world of amateur radio operators

A dive into the fascinating evolution of radio, starting from the first received message at Signal Hill, Newfoundland
 

  • Published Aug 30, 2023
  • Updated Aug 31
  • 2,442 words
  • 10 minutes
Inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi using wireless transatlantic radio signal in 1901. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Expand Image

My hand is shaking as I press the button on the side of the radio mic. I’m nervous, scared of screwing something up the first time I try. “CQCQ, this is VD1M, QRZ?”

Through a rash of static, a voice responds with something I can’t quite make out, but Chris Hillier, at the time president of the Society of Newfoundland Radio Amateurs, guides me through what to say next: “This is Victor Alpha Three Echo Alpha Mike; you’re five by nine. My name is Lola; what’s my report?”

“Thank you for the five nine. You’re very weak here in Sarnia, Ontario. You’re about three by three, but thank you for the report,” the voice replies.

“Thank you, seven three, QRZ,” I read from the script Hillier scribbled down for me a few moments before I sat down in front of the radio at Signal Hill National Historic Site in St. John’s, just metres away from the spot where inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi received the first-ever wireless transatlantic radio signal in 1901.

Sitting in the old fortress, 120 years to the day that Marconi sent his transmission, is a trip. After extensive renovations, Signal Hill can now be used as a modern remote radio station for the first time. A special call sign, VD1M, has even been granted by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada to celebrate the anniversary — a rarity in the world of radio. So this is an exciting day for the “Marconi chasers,” a small but passionate group of amateur radio buffs seeking to replicate the original transmission methods. For them, to be able to call in and be recognized by someone broadcasting from Signal Hill is a big deal.

“You did good,” Hillier says, before requesting that his friend in Florida take over running the station remotely so that we can talk. I can hear the brief punctuated conversations between his friend and some of the thousands of people who will make contact with the Signal Hill station that day. At 47, the same age as me, Hillier is the youngest person I’ve met to hold a senior position in ham radio circles. The retired military firefighter welcomed me with the universally recognized friendliness of a Newfoundlander. One of Hillier’s goals while broadcasting at Signal Hill is to make as many contacts with other operators as possible. That is the station’s only function, to enable brief communication of information.

Amateur radio, or ham radio, has evolved a great deal from Marconi’s Atlantic transmissions, but it still is a deliciously retro form of communication. In a world of smart devices and 24/7 internet connectivity, ham radio enthusiasts are still holding on to the airwaves — and someday, we may all thank them for it.

Cabot Tower on Signal Hill where Guglielmo Marconi received the first-ever wireless transatlantic radio signal in 1901. (Photo: © Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism / Jason Hill)
Expand Image

In Canada, more 73,000 people are licensed to broadcast over the amateur radio airwaves. These operators are unpaid enthusiasts who set up radio stations in their homes. Some set-ups are as low-key as a receiver in a bedroom with an antenna on the roof. Others are as elaborate as a room full of expensive tech and gadgetry. Their radios don’t broadcast music or communicate with the masses; their only function is to make one-on-one contact with others.

Rob Noakes got his broadcast licence from the federal Department of Communications in the ’80s (today, these things are handled by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada). He grew up watching his ham-radio-enthusiast dad participate in field days, special events where groups of operators set up antennas in fields (or car parks, or anywhere) and tried to make as many contacts as possible in a 24-hour period. “These were emergency preparedness demonstrations, but also social events,” recalls Noakes.

Expand Image

Noakes was the first person I reached out to, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide into the world of ham radio. He eagerly introduced me to other hams and answered all my stupid questions with grace. Noakes has made it pretty much his life’s mission to get others, especially young people, interested in ham radio. An amiable man in his mid-60s, Noakes still works full-time as a manager in a millwright’s shop and spends most of his free time in his “shack” — a dedicated room in his house on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula set up with radio equipment. He also has an enclosed trailer with its own equipment ready to bring to scout meetings or wherever he can to help evangelize his message about ham radio.

Noakes says a lack of awareness is the biggest hurdle to getting people interested in ham radio again. “It used to be more mainstream,” he explains. “Back in the ’70s, a lot of people had CB radios in their cars. It was shown on TV shows and in movies like Smokey and the Bandit; everyone knew the lingo. And if you were a CB user, you were likely to be interested in ham radio, which was kinda CB’s big brother.”  

Along came cellphones, and interest waned. “Then smartphones killed [ham radio],” laments Hillier. “Now we’re a dying breed, no doubt about it.”

The demographics of ham radio users reflect that sentiment: Most of the licensees in Canada are in their 70s and older (and mostly male). And once these ham users become SKs or “silent keys” in ham speak — slang that goes back to the original days of radio when SK was code for a final transmission in a message — who will keep this vital hobby going?

“Most young people aren’t really interested in it, but I think it’s a good hobby to have,” says Justin Noakes, Rob’s 19-year-old son, who earned his licence when he was 14. Justin loves tinkering with electronics, and assembling the equipment is what interests him the most. “That and collecting contacts in places like Australia and Japan,” he says. “That’s something that brings a lot of good feelings.”

The ham radio set-up at Signal Hill the day the writer visited. (Photo: Lola Augustine Brown)
Expand Image
Chris Hillier, then president of the Society of Newfoundland Radio Amateurs, monitors the radio station at Signal Hill. (Photo: Lola Augustine Brown)
Expand Image
Expand Image

Enthusiastically, Justin tells me how radio signals can be bounced off the moon, and that they carry farthest when there are solar flares. Noakes has even made contact with radio operators on the International Space Station. “You have to time that right, just as they are passing overhead, but they always have an amateur radio operator onboard,” he says. With his dad, the young radio operator has also chatted with researchers at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica and the Eureka Weather Station in on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.

Many of the younger licence holders (and some older ones, too) have wholeheartedly embraced the technology that makes operating a radio easier. With radios connected to servers, you can operate them remotely from anywhere. Hillier, for example, has antennas set up in multiple locations and can connect via computer or a tablet to radio stations in the Cayman Islands, Maryland and the two in his home province of Newfoundland.

However, plenty of the old guard see no place in their hobby for remote stations and other advancements that make it easier for people to participate. In fact, this is why Hillier stepped down from his role as president of Society of Newfoundland Radio Amateurs in March 2023. And so, without anyone with the expertise to maintain the modern technology at the remote radio station, Signal Hill has gone silent once again.

“Prior to creating the remote station, SONRA was a locals-only club that was starting to die, as the membership was older. The addition of the remote station attracted an international membership with members in USA, throughout Canada and even Norway,” Hillier says. “All of these members have since left after the removal of the remote stations.”

Despite this friction, moves have been made on a national level to assist with recruiting more users. One solution has been to remove the requirement to learn Morse code as part of the exam to get your licence. Writing the exam is free, as is your first call sign. New technology, such as the ability to do most things via smartphone and tablet apps, has made it significantly less costly to get started too. “You can get a set-up with power supply, antenna and radio for around a thousand bucks,” says Hillier, “but you can talk locally through a handheld set-up for as little as $100.” Like all hobbies, things can get expensive, and another Newfoundland-based operator, Chris Vernon, told me that he’s spent between $40,000 and $50,000 on equipment over the 30 years he’s been operating ham radio.

Before I knew better, I suggested to Ottawa-based Glenn MacDonell, a past president of the Radio Amateurs of Canada, that ham folks use “vintage technology.” He scolded me. Ham radio operators use some of the latest tech, according to MacDonell. That said, there are many operators who love restoring and using old equipment. “I tend to think of amateur radio as in some ways similar to sailing,” says MacDonell. “Just because you can power a boat with a motor doesn’t mean that no one wants to sail.”

A recreation of Marconi's first transmitter, built in 1895, incorporating a monopole antenna to allow him to transmit longer distances. A telegraph key (right, on table) allowed the operator to switch the transmitter on and off rapidly, producing pulses of radio waves that spelled out text messages in Morse code. (Photo: Radio Broadcast magazine, 1926 issue/Wikipedia)
Expand Image
A 1928 postage stamp of Cabot Tower on Signal Hill commemorating Marconi's feat of communication. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Expand Image

People are into ham radio for many reasons. Some operators are trying to collect as many contacts as possible from far-flung locations, some operators are “rag-chewers” and like to have conversations with people they meet on the airwaves, and a large number are really into field days.

Rebecca Kimoto, an operator based in Delta, B.C., initially got her ham radio licence as a lifeline for when she would go off-roading with her husband in remote areas where cell service wasn’t available. But she ended up getting hooked on field days and now helps coordinate them. The contests are typically weekend-long ham radio marathons where an operator’s goal is to make as many contacts as possible with stations around the world. “I’ll tell you right off the bat: I am not a techie, and when people start talking about the internal workings of radios and antennas, my eyes glaze over,” says Kimoto. “But the contests are very fast-paced and fun.”

Typically, when competing, Kimoto makes four or five contacts a minute, and up to a thousand in a weekend, logging each call sign and location. “If conditions are good, my signal will reach into Europe or South America and Japan,” she says. “If conditions are bad and it’s hard to catch someone’s attention when my signal is just a whisper in the wind, and then you hear them, that’s also thrilling.” Off the airwaves, Kimoto describes herself as quiet and private, so this sparse form of communication is especially appealing and sparks her curiosity about the wider world.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague floats inside Europe's Columbus laboratory module during a ham radio session using the International Space Station's call sign NA1SS (Credit: NASA)
Expand Image

Kimoto, who’s just about to turn 60, has her radio set up in the home office she shares with her husband. She met her husband Koji — or as she spells it for me, “Kilo Oscar Juliet India” — on one of her many trips to Japan as a translator. Koji was already a ham radio user when the couple met. “Ham radio is much more popular in Japan, with young people and women too,” says Kimoto.

And while most operators now use ham radio as a form of entertainment and friendly competition, ham radio still serves the purpose Marconi intended when he sat at Signal Hill in 1901: emergency preparedness. In a world where so many of us rely on smartphones and available wifi, when disasters happen — from hurricanes to war to getting lost in remote areas — amateur radio is still the most reliable way to get communications up and running with the people on the ground.

Because radio communication relies on “what nature provides rather than wire or fibre optic cables or even systems of cell phone towers, radio amateurs are usually the most likely to be able to communicate when our modern commercial communications cannot,” says MacDonell. Essentially, radio communication works by sending sound over radio waves, electromagnetic waves that exist all around us. You need a transmitter, or antenna, that works off a power source to broadcast your information over the radio waves, as well as a receiver to pick up the signal and translate it to the sounds you hear.

Expand Image

With a small radio, some wire for an antenna and some battery power, such as a car battery, it is possible to get the word out when power systems are knocked out in natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. These days, says MacDonell, that can mean not only sending voice or text, but images too.

Less dramatic but still very important are the radio amateurs who set up in emergencies to help regular people communicate. “When the commercial systems are fully loaded with high priority traffic, amateur radio can carry lower priority but personally important information such as letting people in one country know that their relatives in an affected area are OK,” MacDonell explains.

Recently, ham radio has been used as a lifeline following the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in 2017 and to enable communication with news outlets in Ukraine after Russia attacked the country’s communication towers in 2022, to name a few critical examples. In an age of increasing climate change-fuelled natural disasters and political turmoil, the ability to mobilize a wide-reaching network of communication without relying on the internet is huge.

Immediately after my Signal Hill experience, I thought about getting my radio licence. And every so often — usually when I’m watching a movie where everyone is saved from a crisis thanks to ham radio — I still think about it. I haven’t, yet. Maybe when my kids are grown and I have more time and spare cash, but then I’ll be another person taking this up in retirement. Until then, we need to rely on people like Hillier, the Noakes and all the good folks I spoke to. When something bad happens and our smartphones stop working, they have the skills to save us.

Cabot Tower at sunset. (Photo: © Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism / Jason Hill)
Expand Image
Advertisement

Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content

Mapping

‘Absolutely catastrophic:’ Hit hard by pandemic, ecotourism needs help

Remote locations and international clientele make the industry particularly vulnerable

  • 1731 words
  • 7 minutes
radio garden map

Mapping

Interactive map lets you listen to live radio from anywhere in the world

Radio Garden can tune in to different stations, spanning history, geography and cultures

  • 207 words
  • 1 minutes

History

Frozen in time: The remarkable legacy of Mary Vaux, amateur glaciologist

Mary Vaux’s groundbreaking 19th-century study of B.C.’s Illecillewaet Glacier created an invaluable record of the glacier’s recession

  • 4293 words
  • 18 minutes

Travel

Is Canada on the cusp of a tourism enlightenment?

What tourism’s shift to sustainability, reconciliation and regeneration means for the rest of us

  • 1886 words
  • 8 minutes