By Garrett C. Hill, X2nSat CEO
I’m often asked why, if we’re such an uber-modern satellite communications company, I make it such a priority for all of my employees to become HAM-radio certified – arranging coursework and tests, celebrating certifications, having fun with callsigns (I’m KK6GCU), and even paying out cash incentives.
What value could there be in learning an archaic system invented in the 1800s that can be enabled by a simple dipole antenna strung between two trees?
To digress a little – back to 1912 – April 15 marks the anniversary of the night a young man by the name of Artie Moore heard a faint distress call in Morse code – “CQD Titanic 41.44N 50.24W” – via a homemade amateur radio setup at his house in Wales; CQD means “come quickly distress,” and the messages were followed by more dire-sounding communications heard from 3,000 miles away by the youngster. Messages such as “Women and children in boats. Can not last much longer.”
The poor, helpless lad was hearing messages from the radio operators of the “unsinkable” Titanic, the British passenger liner that hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, causing the death of 1,514 of its 2,224 passengers in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history. When he reported what he was hearing to local police, they didn’t believe him. On the other end, Marconi men were involved in an unfortunate comedy of errors in radio communications that led to confusion and miscommunication regarding the severity of the situation and at the same time, eventually, the saving of those few remaining passengers who’d spent the night in lifeboats. The importance of 24-hour radio staffing and universally agreed-upon codes resulted from the Titanic tragedy. It’s considered the night that “wireless came of age.”
It became clear that this incredible invention wasn’t just useful for sending fluff messages from wealthy passengers back to their partying friends on shore (largely what the commercial forum was being used for the night Titanic sank), but was an essential device for maritime safety and, if used correctly, could save lives.
You can learn all about how HAM radio works and a succinct, fascinating history in this article by the American Radio Relay League.
If you want to experience what it may have been like to be in the wireless room aboard the Titanic, you can visit an incredible living museum aboard the Queen Mary, which is permanently docked in Long Beach. A unique floating hotel, the Queen Mary had its maiden voyage in 1936 and its last great cruise in 1967 before eventually becoming an icon of the Long Beach waterfront. It looks very much like the Titanic, and was built by the Cunard-White Star Line, a merger between Cunard and White Star Line – the latter of whom did build the Titanic. Anyway, the coolest thing about the Queen Mary is The Nate Brightman Wireless Room. Since 1979, volunteer radio amateurs have staffed this room, making HAM radio contact with others around the world and demonstrating to those touring the great ship. Many of them still use Morse code. If you make an appointment, they’ll let you even use the equipment.
There’s another opportunity for HAM enthusiasts in California – less than an hour from X2nSat’s headquarters in Petaluma – at KPH, the last commercial Morse code coast station in North America. It was restored a few decades ago by volunteers and is on the air. Learn more here.
Admittedly, I often toe the line between following my passions and advocating utilitarian pursuits that directly enhance X2nSat’s bottom line, and so my encouragement of HAM-radio certification could be attributed to an eccentric CEO’s nostalgia for the past. But that would only be partially true. There is an incredible amount of practical value in understanding amateur radio communications.
First of all, if “the grid” ever goes down, anything tied together by computers – water systems, mail, business systems, government entities, banks – could and would likely fail without proper backup. In a possible cyber-terror attack or other electronic infrastructure failing, amateur (aka HAM – aka Hertz, Armstrong & Marconi) radio just might very well be the final means of operable communication.
Secondly, satellite IS radio – the only difference between traditional radio you listen to in your car and satellite is the wavelength and frequency. I love that HAM radio is a fundamental skill anyone can utilize in order to learn how radio works and understand its basic principles. In 1983, the marriage was complete when Dr. Owen K. Garriott (callsign W5LFL), an amateur radio operator on Spacelab-1, was the first astronaut to take a HAM radio into space. HAM radios are now pretty standard in space, and currently aboard the International Space Station.
Many parallels can be drawn from the past of radio communications. More than 100 years before there was Facebook, before the Internet, amateur radio operators were reaching out into the world wirelessly on homemade devices in barns, garages, and basements to meet random, faceless people with mutual interests. It was even a precursor to podcasting, as recently as a few decades ago. And I won’t even begin to touch on the ramifications regarding free speech and democracy intrinsic in HAM radio. There’s a fantastic article on the A.V. Club website about 1990’s Christian Slater star-vehicle “Pump Up The Volume,” about a renegade kid who set up a pirate radio station via HAM radio in his parents’ basement and stirred things up. Call it pre-YouTube podcasting.
As a character using ham radio on the ABC-TV show “Last Man Standing” said recently, “It’s like Twitter, but more advanced, because you don’t even have to type!”
So whether you want to be renegade, a nerd, or supplement your incredibly cool satellite communications career, I highly recommend rigging up a dipole and jumping into the conversation. You can click here to visit the National Association for Amateur Radio to learn how.
73 (that means “best regards” in HAM radio speak) and signing off,