Issue 76 June-August 2003 RSS

Calling cards


Ham radio graphics


If the Internet is the foul-mouthed and spewing bedlam of modern communication, then ham radio is its monastery - measured, honourable and composed. To be a ham is to be a member of a fraternity that requires much more than just owning the right equipment. Dense technical arcana must be absorbed, a new tongue learnt and, once on the air, strict rules followed. Such are its regulations that it often seems more of a calling than a hobby.

Using custom-made transmitters, hams send signals out across the globe, hoping to speak to one of their two and a half million brethren who may be listening. Contact between two hams may last only a few seconds, but for them that is quite enough. Like a prisoner banging out secret signals on the prison pipes, hams intone their staccato mantra ‘CQ CQ CQ’ (‘Calling all quarters’) seeking little but the knowledge that someone else is out there too.

Bouncing messages off the earth’s ionosphere, the ham lives by a strict code of courtesy - one that asks him (for ham’s practitioners are almost always male) for consideration, loyalty, friendliness and progressiveness. No commercial business may be transacted on the air, and foul language is right out. What’s more, in the case of an emergency, when normal communication lines are down (as happened in New York City on 11 September 2001), hams are expected to relay information between the emergency services. Thus what exists between hams is an affectionate camaraderie, rather like that shared between people who own Betamax video recorders, or who remember when the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn. It is a solidarity formed from limitation, for despite new equipment being ever available, ham radio is irredeemably and unashamedly an antiquated medium.

Amateur radio’s creation in the dawn of the technological age harks back to the idols of old science - the hum of transistors, the clack of relay switches and the purple glow of mercury rectifier tubes. Similarly its mindset continues to be that which suffused early science-fiction writing: an unquestioning faith in technology’s ability to help mankind. Not for them the facile inclusiveness of the Internet, or the racy argot of the CB radio. Indeed, much ham language is made up of bygone jargon from this distant, more patriarchal age. Hams refer to each other as ‘OM’ (‘Old Man’) and to their girlfriends as ‘YLs’ (‘Young Ladies’), all of whom are fond of ‘rag-chewing’, in other words having a chat that does more than just establish contact.

Yet nothing quite sums up the strange archaic quality of ham radio better than its devotion to QSL cards. A QSL card is sent between hams when contact has been made on the air for the first time. Part Victorian calling card, part ‘Wish-you-were-here’ postcard, a QSL acts as physical proof that a contact was made. Thus each card features a wealth of information, most noticeably the call sign of its sender. FO5GJ is Marlon Brando’s call sign, for instance, and HS1A that of Bhumipol Adulayadej, King of Thailand. Details about the call itself, the equipment on which it was made, and words and pictures tell more about the ham and his home.

Seven decades’ worth of QSL cards sent from across the world can be found in Danny Gregory and Paul Sahre’s Hello World: A Life in Ham Radio (2003), recently published by Princeton Architectural Press. Over 300 of these cards are reproduced: the older ones, dominated by the impersonality of the call sign, choose a stark typography similar to that of the Russian avant-garde Zaum movement; others prefer the smooth elegance of Art Deco fonts. There are always surprises - a card from the Ukraine Club Station of Coal Miners features an unexpectedly jaunty cartoon, while that from the Kuwaiti royal family bears a surprisingly restrained watercolour of a kestrel.

In recent years photographed cards have become more popular - many share the dampened colours and strange, distanced compositions of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards (1999). A card from the Pacific island of Banaba pictures an unwieldy teetering pier of impossibly Baroque construction. ZS1IS’s card from South Africa simply shows a ham antenna silhouetted against the sky, its many arms framing the night. Some prefer words to pictures -‘The only Ham on the Island’, reads VP2KJ’s card, full of melancholy pride in the Nevis Islands.

While each person’s QSL card is unique, the majority of the cards share one common feature: the exhortation to ‘Pse QSL’ (‘please send a QSL card’). Indeed there is something wonderfully perverse about this craving for the tangible. The world of ham radio, unlike the Internet, is not a virtual world. The QSL cards sent back and forth thus act as a paper echo, a manifestation of the mayfly-frail radio signal into the ‘real’ world. Hams, like Doubting Thomases, long not only for contact but also for physical proof of that contact.

Such a circumscribed yearning is by no means restricted to radio communication on the terrestrial level. Radio and television transmissions have already flooded space with signals many light years thick, expanding outwards from earth at the speed of light. We have been sending calls out into the galaxy for years now, although their content may not be as formal as a true ham would like. As if to negate this confusion, in 1972 the astronomer and author Carl Sagan proposed that the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, destined to be sent on a one-way journey out of the solar system, should carry on its side a gold-anodized aluminium plaque. A little bigger than your average postcard, the plaque, designed by Sagan and drawn by his wife Linda Salzman Sagan, depicted a man and a woman, a map of the earth’s solar system and the location of this solar system in relation to 14 pulsars. Sagan was well aware of ham radio protocol. When he wrote his novel Contact (1985), about the search for extraterrestrial life, he made his heroine a ham radio enthusiast. It is thus little surprise that the Pioneer plaque is immediately recognizable as a QSL card. Now some eight billion miles away from earth, its message is one that has been on cards since ham radio began: the sociable, if insistent, call of ‘Hw abt a crd om?’

George Pendle

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First published in
Issue 76, June-August 2003

by George Pendle

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