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The History and Science of Ham Radio

On May 18, the American Radio Relay Leaguecelebrated its 100th anniversary. It's the largest association of ham radio hobbyists in the United States, headquartered in Newington.

WNPR's Patrick Skahill has been covering the anniversary for NPR, and joined Where We Liveto talk a bit about Hartford's connection to ham radio history. Listen to the segment here: 

Skahill said that ham radio was one of the first widely-used wireless technologies. "Ham radios don't use transmission wires," he said. They use nature's built-in phone line, the ionosphere, reflecting speed-of-light signals from radios off the atmosphere -- which, these days, can carry those signals thousands of miles, even off the surface of the moon; even around the entire globe."

Hiram Percy, of ham radio and wonderful hair.
Credit Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Hiram Percy, of ham radio and wonderful hair.

What's the Hartford connection to ham radio? Sean Kutzko of the ARRL said it all goes back to a guy named Hiram Percy Maxim, one of the co-founders of the ARRL. Maxim was an inventor, and he came from a family of inventors. His dad invented something called a “Maxim machine gun,” and his uncle developed an explosive called “Maximite.”  

Percy also dabbled in amateur radio. As Kutzko explains, a meeting of the Radio Club of Hartford in 1914 would change ham radio history forever.

Maxim told the club he was trying to send a message from Hartford to Springfield. "He was having difficulty doing so," Kutzko said. "He knew an amateur operator about midway between Hartford and Springfield, Mass., which is only about 60 miles … so he gave his message to the station midway. That was what sparked the notion of having relay stations set up around the country, and was how the American Radio Relay League was born."

Learn more about spark gap transmitters, and how "ham radio" got its name, at Patrick Skahill's science blog The Beaker.

Catie Talarski is Senior Director of Storytelling and Radio Programming at Connecticut Public.
Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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