gmhTODAY Spring 2024 | Page 44

Historically Speaking Morgan Hill

The Cat ' s Whisker : A look at ham radio history

by Robin Shepherd

When 22-year-old Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and his team achieved the first trans-Atlantic wireless radio communication in 1901 , the entire world was watching . Skeptics had predicted that radio waves couldn ’ t possibly travel the more than 2,000 miles between Cornwall , England , and Newfoundland , Canada , due to the curvature of the Earth . Marconi proved them wrong .

Marconi had assembled a crude wireless receiver using a glass tube filled with iron filings and an antenna suspended from a large kite 500 feet in the air . After receiving the Morse code signals transmitted by his colleagues in England , he wrote :
“… I placed the single earphone to my ear and started listening … The answer came at 12:30 when I heard , faintly but distinctly , pip-pip-pip … I knew then that all my anticipations had been justified .”
Marconi had been inspired by Heinrich Hertz , who first discovered and produced radio waves in 1888 . Their historic achievements inspired many others to push the envelope in wireless radio communications . The sky was literally the limit on what was possible .
In the early 1900s , the term " ham " or " ham fisted " was associated with amateur radio operators who , in the opinion of frustrated U . S . government and military leaders , were lacking in skills and prone to interfering with official radio transmissions . Despite the pushback , “ the hobby ” grew in popularity . Even the government ’ s establishment of a licensing requirement for amateur radio operators in 1912 failed to dampen enthusiasm .
Before voice communications came into being , early hams memorized Morse Code , an alphabet of dots and dashes to be tapped out on a metal “ straight key ,” in order to send and receive messages . They built their own “ rigs '' before commercial products were available . Transmitters , receivers , and antennas were assembled from Army surplus parts , junk yard scraps , automobile ignition coils and even Quaker Oats cartons . To detect radio waves , the first “ crystal radios '' relied on a fine metallic wire , or “ cat ’ s whisker ,” making contact with the surface of a crystal such as silicon or galena and connected to an antenna attached to the roof or installed in the backyard .
While amateur radio was originally pursued by men , by 1904 , women had joined their ranks . Kathleen Parkin received her amateur license at the age of nine and constructed her own amateur station in San Rafael , California , as a high school student in 1916 . Like many of her contemporaries , she found ham radio more interesting than the telephone and telegraph work in which so many women were employed .
Increasingly , hams were sought out to support radio
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