Ham Radio Users Seek Extraterrestrial Connections

Unnamed photo
Jessica E. Becker

Clayton M. Nall, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and station manager for the Harvard Wireless Club, sits in front of a ham radio in the clubhouse of W1AF.

CORRECTION APPENDED

“CQ, CQ, CQ. This is W1AF, Whiskey, One, Alpha, Foxtrot,” Clayton M. Nall calls into the microphone as he wiggles the dial on a large ham radio.

Nall, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, leans in toward the speaker and listens for hints of words among the crackling static. He adjusts the 20-foot antennae atop the clubhouse of W1AF, home of the Harvard Wireless Club.

After five minutes of intense focusing, Nall makes his first connection of the day with the faint calls of a radio operator in Bermuda.

In an age of cell phones, instant messaging, and video teleconferencing, there are still people like Nall who hammer away in Morse code on their ham radios, trying to see how many people they can connect with around the world—and beyond.

These two-way communication devices come in many sizes, ranging from small hand-held radios to stereo-sized machines with towering antennas.

Using nothing but dots and dashes and a few volts, members of the Harvard Wireless Club—America’s oldest amateur radio club—can reach out to over two million users around the world.

“When you power up your radio, you don’t know if you’re going to get Larry in Latvia or Bob over at the bio labs,” club member David Allred ’85 says.

HAM HEROICS

The Harvard Wireless Club got its start in 1909 under the leadership of Professor George Washington Pierce, a pioneer of radio communications. Today, about a dozen undergraduate, graduate, and alumni members regularly frequent the club’s 6 Linden Street station.

According Nall, who is also W1AF’s station manager, their towering antenna is akin to ones installed in many national embassies.

Nall says that ham radio operators can be incredibly helpful during disasters when other electronic forms of communication fall short.

Ham radio operators helped firefighters and police during 9/11 and relayed messages to families and friends of victims from hospitals.

In order to prepare for the real disasters, ham radio enthusiasts often organize “field days” that give them the opportunity to test their equipment and radio know-how under simulated emergency conditions.

In the past, W1AF and other Boston area ham radio clubs have set up battery or solar powered stations on islands in Boston Harbor and forests outside the city during their field days. Participants are charged with contacting certain base stations without the help of modern conveniences such as the power grid.

Many ham operators also compete in contests that challenge contenders to contact the most overseas operators during a given time period, according to Nall.

The radios have many perks, but also carry disadvantages.

Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering Paul D. Horowitz ’65—who can be reached on the call sign W1HFA—says that many hams receive negative feedback from neighbors concerning setting up antennas or causing interference to appliances.

While consumer electronics are supposed to shield against interference from ham radios, sometimes electronics makers will cut corners.

Horowitz says that he once received a complaint from a neighbor who said that his voice was coming out of her microwave and fax machine.

E.T. PHONE HOME

Horowitz currently works on using radio and optical telescopes in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), but his adventure on the airwaves began much earlier.

Horowitz received his ham license at age eight, earning him celebrity status as the youngest ham in the nation at the time.

“In those days, there wasn’t the Internet or computers to distract people, so if you were a nerd and wanted to play with something cool, ham radio was it,” he recalls.

Today, Horowitz says he tunes in on occasion and talks to people around the world about his work on the SETI project.

“When I tell someone [on the radio] that my research involves searching for E.T. with radio and optical telescopes...that brings in a large crowd,” Horowitz says. “It’s a thrill to turn on the radio and talk to someone 1,000 miles away just by wiggling some waves.”

Horowitz says that it is no coincidence that his childhood passion for ham radio is a precursor to his studies in the field of electrical engineering.

He claims that many radio astronomers are licensed hams and broke into the field through this hobby.

Tom Frenaye, director of the New England Division of the American Radio Relay League, says skills in ham radio and electronics are springboards for many people’s future careers.

“Knowledge of ham radio landed me a job working in Antarctica as a radio operator,” Frenaye says.

According to Horowitz, there are also some “closet hams” among the Harvard science faculty.

All ham radio operators must be licensed through the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), which offers exams that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The exam used to include both a multiple choice section and a Morse code test, but this December, the FCC scrubbed the dots and dashes from the exam. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

While some operators believe that Morse code will eventually become an obsolete mode of communication, Allred says that it “won’t go away because it does things that other modes can’t do, and it’s way fun.”

—Staff writer Raviv Murciano-Goroff can be reached at rgoroff@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: The May 8 news article “Ham Radio Users Seek Extraterrestrial Connections” incorrectly stated that ham radio operators must be licensed through the Amateur Radio Relay League. In fact, the league does not issue radio licenses—only the Federal Communications Commission has that authority.