A teen in Florida makes friends over the airwaves with a ham in Germany. An aircraft engineer in Washington participates in an annual contest and exchanges call signs with hams in 100 countries during a single weekend. In North Carolina, volunteers pass health and welfare messages in the aftermath of a hurricane.


Norm Lauterette, WA4HYJ, is on the radio reporting a new flare up during the wildfires that broke out in several counties in Florida during June and July of 1998.

At the scene of a traffic accident on a rural highway, a ham calls for help using a pocket-sized hand-held radio, outside the range of any cell phone tower. An Ohio teenager uses her computer to send a chess move to an orbiting space satellite, where it's retrieved by a fellow chess enthusiast in Japan.

This mix of fun, public service, friendship and convenience is the main feature of amateur radio. The "ham" part of ham radio is really a shortcut way of saying just the first syllable of amateur radio. Hams start out in amateur radio for many reasons, but they all have in common a basic knowledge of radio technology, regulations and operating principles. They get this knowledge by studying for licensing exams -- hams have licenses (after passing an exam) from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and use frequency bands assigned by the FCC.

In September 1895, Guglielmo Marconi, a self-taught 21-year-old from Bologna, Italy, performed simple experiments that showed it was possible to send signals using electromagnetic waves to connect a transmitting and a receiving antenna. By 1901, he sent a wireless signal across the Atlantic. For the next seven years, many Americans experimented with wireless. The first radio clubs appeared in 1909, and the Titanic disaster of 1912 pointed out the need for regulation of wireless. Today, ham radio operators younger than Guglielmo Marconi regularly make radio contacts around the world, often using very inexpensive (and sometimes home-made!) equipment.

Ham radio can be very portable and affordable. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will look at ham radio and show you how to get started in this wireless world!