On Being a Ham

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A QSL card from an operator in New Jersey, 1938

Sometime between the invention of the telegraph and the invention of the Internet came ham radio. Around the time that Radio Girl takes place ham, or amateur radios were one of the most popular hobbies, especially for teens.

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Teen in his ham shack.

Never before could just any random kid talk to people all over the world, unless they had pen pals. And that took weeks for a reply, whereas this was as good as immediate. If you were a ham operator (and there are lots of people who still use ham radios today) you would have your own call sign made up of letters and numbers, kind of like a screen name.

I found these cards for sale on a popular web auction site.

I found these cards for sale on a popular web auction site.

After connecting with someone through the airwaves, the two of you would exchange postcards called QSL cards through the mail, cards with the ham’s code and other information on it, plus sometimes some artwork. Most hams plastered the walls of their ham shack with cards they had received, just like T.K. does in the book.

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Some guy who doesn’t have a display of QSL cards for some reason.

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Photo of CarolCarol Brendler is the author of the young adult novel RADIO GIRL (Holiday House) September 5, 2013.
Coming 2014: A picture book, NOT VERY SCARY, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, from FSG.
Also by Carol Brendler: WINNIE FINN, WORM FARMER (FSG, 2009) a picture book illustrated by Ard Hoyt.

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Dots and Dashes: It’s Morse Code, of Course!

..  ..−. / -.−−   −−−   ..− / − .  .−.. .−.. / −  ….  . / −  .−.  ..−  −  …. / −.−−   −−−   ..− /−..   −−−   −.  − / ….  .−  …−  . / −   −−− / .−.  .   −−   .   −−   −…  .  .−. / .−  −.  −.−−  −  ….  ..  −.  −−.

Microphone

Ham Radio Microphone, circa 1938 (my collection)

That’s Morse code. I’ll let you decipher it.

Morse Code

Morse Code

Samuel Morse invented the code to use with the telegraph, which he and others invented in 1830s and 1840s.

A Telegraphy Instrument

A Telegraphy Instrument

It’s really pretty amazing how, way before they could send a voice across the world, people could communicate with only the sound of dots and dashes.

They call the dots “dits” and the dashes “dahs” — words that don’t seem to make any sense until you say them aloud. The dits are short, dahs are lo-o-o-ong, just like the code looks.

.. − / ..  … / ..−.  ..−  −. / −   −−− / −…   . / ..  −. / −  ….  . / …  .−  −−  . / −..   .   −.−.   .−   −..   . / .−−   ..   −   …. / −.−−   −−−   ..−

HamEquipment

My Collection of 1930s Ham Radio Equipment

In Radio Girl, T.K. Loomis is a ham radio and Morse code maniac. He’s like that kid you might know who is always on the computer or playing video games. The thing is, Teek has become so good at listening to Morse code messages that he doesn’t even need to write down the dots and dashes to translate what he hears. He just listens and understands.

Pretending (I still don't have a transmitter or receiver)

Pretending (I still don’t have a transmitter or receiver)

Where did I get that idea? Well, it started when I found out that this guy I know named Henry is a ham radio fan. When I asked him to help me with the ham parts of the book, he offered up the story of his grandfather, a ham radio operator who, like T.K., was recruited by the U.S. Army because he knew Morse code by ear.

A Ham Radio Straight Key, Used for Sending Morse Code

A Ham Radio Straight Key, Used for Sending Morse Code

Perfect! Of course! I knew the minute I heard that story that T.K. would be a Morse code expert. Great little stories like this are everywhere, you know? So I stole borrowed Henry’s grandfather’s story and made it T.K.’s.

How to signal for help — S.O.S. — in Morse code: . . . __ __ __ . . .

Anyway, the world doesn’t use Morse code much anymore. But we earthlings still like talking to people all over the planet. I’d like to think that the thrill T.K. feels when he meets someone new from very far away through the airwaves hasn’t changed for most people even now, 75 years later.

Samuel Morse, an illustration

Samuel Morse, an illustration

Isn’t it still pretty awesome that we can go online and converse with people half a planet away, people we haven’t met in person and may never meet face-to-face, all in a matter of seconds?

(Let me know if you need the answers to the coded sentences in this post. The sources of the quotes are Mark Twain and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively.)

The Morse Invention

The Morse Invention

To learn more about Morse code, see Wikipedia on Morse.

To translate your own words into Morse code, try this translator. (link fixed!)

Faster than texting, hands down. See what I mean in this article.

SublimeTelegraphy