What is Amateur Radio?

  1. What is Amateur Radio?
  2. History of Amateur Radio
  3. Hobby with Far-reaching Possibilities
  4. Amateur Radio is Sport
  5. The Radio Amateur as a Bureaucrat
  6. There is Still a Lot More

What is Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio is a non-commercial radio service, operated by private persons for their own instruction and further training, with worldwide intercommunication between like-minded individuals and opportunities for technical studies. It provides the most extensive opportunities among the radio-service activities that are accessible to a private person, and its possibilities go far beyond those of CB (citizens’ band radio). However, in analogy to the participation in motor traffic with a vehicle, a licence is required, which is obtainable in various categories by way of taking a test successfully, in the course of which specialized knowledge as well as practical skills in the field of amateur radio have to be demonstrated.

On the global scale amateur radio is pursued by more than 1 million radio amateurs, who come from all social strata. Even though amateur radio has lost its pioneering role of the first half of the twentieth century, it has by no means become unimportant. In many cases going in for amateur radio is the starting point for dealing with radio-based transmission techniques, which is likely to influence the choice of occupation and to improve the opportunities for training and employment in engineering and technological professions.

Moreover amateur radio is a highly interesting leisure pursuit with a distinct prevalence of experiments and communication with like-minded enthusiasts.

History of Amateur Radio

In accordance with other radio services, the history of amateur radio actually began in the previous century, its development being particularly advanced by the ingeniousness and ambition of its enthusiasts.

The theoretical predictions of James Clerk Maxwell (about 1870) concerning the interconnection of temporally varying electric and magnetic fields and the possibility of their spatial propagation (electromagnetic waves) laid the scientific foundation for all practical applications in radio engineering. In 1888 this hypothesis could be proved experimentally by Heinrich Hertz by means of spark gaps. By the way, a number of German terms, such as “Funker” (wireless operator), “Funkdienst” (radio service) and “Amateurfunk” (amateur radio) originate from “Funke” (spark) in “Funkenstrecke” (spark gap). Stimulated by the experiments of Hertz and Branly (coherer, 1891) the possibility of receiving such electromagnetic waves by means of antennas was demonstrated by Alexander Stepanovitch Popov (since 1895) in experiments on atmospheric discharges. In the course of improved experiments Popov succeeded in demonstrating a wireless radio connection along a distance of 60 m on May 7, 1895, and in sending and receiving a wireless telegram along a distance of 250 m on March 24, 1896. Further pioneers of wireless telegraphy should be mentioned here: Guglielmo Marconi (May 17, 1896, covering a distance of 2400 m) and Ferdinand Schneider (March 24, 1895).

Shortly after Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian experimenter, had transmitted the Morse code for the letter “s” from England (Poldhu) to Newfoundland in 1901, amateurs all over the world tried to ascertain the possibilities and prospects of spark transmitters.

The power of spark gaps, however, did not suffice to increase the working distance of radio transmission decisively. In the sequel a great number of technical inventions contributed to the triumphant progress of wireless communication. In 1904 the crystal detector, a precursor of modern semiconductor diodes, came into use, which facilitated the construction of receiving sets. In 1906 Robert von Lieben (on March 4, 1906, German patent Nr. 179 807) and Lee de Forest (on October 25, 1906, US patent 841 387) patented their ideas on electronic valves. In 1910 R. von Lieben could drastically advance the developmental level of electronic valves (on December 10, 1910, German patent Nr. 249 141), by means of which — from 1913 on — electric oscillations could be generated in feedback circuits (Alexander Meissner). The development of radio services was to increase steeply after World War I.

The enthusiasts of that period were, at the same time, the first radio amateurs. Their inventive power seemed boundless. Even then quite a few possibilities of commercial applicability were found out and utilized, so that, within a short time, the radio amateurs were limited to wavelength ranges below 200 m (frequencies above 150 kHz) which seemed unsuitable for commercial purposes. And — as an irony of fate — the radio amateurs’ thirst for action soon resulted in further restrictions.

The attainable distances of transmission in the remaining wavelength ranges grew more and more: 800 km, 1500 km; and this became possible thanks to valved radio sets (transmitters and receivers). About 1920 American short-wave transmitting stations were repeatedly received, particularly by English amateurs, and this could be confirmed and reproduced with surprising certainty. On the wavelength of 110 m the first intercontinental radio communication (Europe – East Coast USA) was achieved in 1923 between the French amateur F8AB in Nice and the American amateurs 1MO and 1XAM. In 1924 the greatest intercontinental distance possible (Great Britain – New Zealand) could be bridged. Similar success was achieved on considerably shorter wavelengths. By way of these experiments ample experience could be gained concerning the propagation conditions — obviously one of the most important columns of radio service besides the electronic fundamentals.

In the sequel the radio amateurs would not remain alone in their realm of wavelengths.

In order to represent and enforce their interests they joined together in national and international associations. In 1914 the ARRL (American Radio Relay League, intended for setting up a system to relay messages from coast to coast) arose, which even then comprised 6000 amateurs. The origins of the German amateur radio movement date back to 1923/24. The start was made by “Deutscher Empfangsdienst” (German receiving service). Initially the government of the Weimar Republic did not grant amateur radio licences. Later on the “Deutscher Funktechnischer Verband” (DFTV, German society of radio engineering) with its weekly journal “Der Funkbastler” (The radio home-costructor) was brought into being in Berlin. In 1926 the “Deutscher Sendedienst” DSD (German transmitting service) was founded, which was later renamed “Deutscher Amateur-Sende und Empfangsdienst” DASD (German amateur transmitting and receiving service).

Since 1925, the amateurs’ interests have been protected at the international level by the international association IARU (International Amateur Radio Union), which initially comprised 25 and has meanwhile expanded up to 125 national associations. Since 1947 the rights of the radio amateurs — in connection with other radio services — have been regularized by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union).

In Germany amateur radio activities encountered certain difficulties and obstacles, caused by political circumstances. On September 1, 1939 all 529 amateur licences of German amateurs were withdrawn by the German Reichspostdirektion postal authority. Up to the end of World War II, only 39 transmitting licences were granted. After the end of World War II, the DASD was prohibited in May 1945. Actually, just the receiving of public radio stations remained permitted. In the Federal Republic of Germany, first the WBRC, and later in September 1950 the Deutscher Amateur-Radio-Club (DARC, German Amateur Radio Club) were founded. In the German Democratic Republic the first 16 amateur radio licences were granted on July 14, 1953. On January 1, 1991 the GDR’s Amateur Radio Club joined the DARC.

Due to increasing commercialization the pioneering role of amateur radio is more and more receding into the background. Today’s keeping up the possibilities and working conditions for amateur radio is mainly a reverence to the efforts and achievements of its pioneers.

In certain cases, however, amateur radio proves capable of pioneering feats now as before. On March 5, 1965 the first active satellite for amateur radio was put into operation. The first commercial satellite “Early Bird” was only to follow one month later.

Besides the private uses there are still activities for the purpose of worldwide observation projects as to the radio propagation, particularly concerning high-frequency wave ranges.

In spite of technological “arms race” mankind remains dependent on a highly humanitarian branch of activity of the radio amateurs: their services in cases of emergency and disaster, when other means and channels of communication are distroyed or unusable. This can be traced back to 1928. On June 2, 1928 the SOS-message from the unlucky Italian Nobile Expedition was received by the Russian radio amateur Nikolai Reinhold Schmidt.

Amateur Radio is Leisure Pursuit with Far-reaching Possibilities

Numerous frequency bands and operating modes are available to the radio amateurs for their communication:

Frequency Bands:

  • Short wave (160, 80, 40, 30, 20, 18, 15, 12 and 10 m)
  • VHF (54, 144 and 430 MHz)
  • UHF (1.2; 2.3, 5.6, 10, 24, 47, 75, 120, 142 and 241 GHz)

There are a good many possibilities of experimenting.

Modes of Operation

  • Radiotelephony
  • Telegraphy (Morsing, Radio teletype)
  • Radio facsimile (Fax, Small-scan television)
  • Amateur radio television
  • Digital, computer-supported communication (e.g. Packet Radio, FT8)

Coding the messages with intent of obfuscation is not permitted.

Transmitting Power

Depending on the frequency range, the transmitting power may vary between 100 W and about 1 kW (Germany 750 W).

In most countries amateur licences are granted by various categories (similar to the different classes of driving licences), so that even in case of lower knowledge it is possible to participate in amateur radio operating. Command of the Morse code is no necessary prerequisite. Depending on the consent of the individual countries to the CEPT-regulations, the national amateur licences are valid automatically in many countries. Even at the holiday resort one can indulge in one’s hobby, provided the partner is sufficiently cooperative, or at least tolerant, and does not give priority to quite different leisure activities.

Amateur Radio is Sport

Many radio amateurs are ambitious, and there are a good many aims, which, of course, must be achieved without artificial means:

  • Covering distances as great as possible. In the GHz range even an increase by 100 km pays off. On 241 GHz even a single connection scores.
  • Contacts with all continents. That has already been achieved in the ranges up to 70 cm (430 MHz). But when exceeding that, one still has a chance to be first. But without artificial aids! By the way, nature provides effective aids for reflexion: weather fronts, meteorites and the moon.
  • Contacts with as many countries and dependent regions as possible. There are about 320 of them. The number changes from time to time. Countries arise and pass away. And there is another difficulty: For geographic, technical and politial reasons radio amateurs are not to be found everywhere.

But you can have real sport, too. A great number of national and international contests are held with passionate competition for the prizes. Every amateur may participate in every contest, even if the chance of winning tends to zero. Try to get a similar opportunity in the Olympics!

Radio Amateurs (Not All of Them) are Petty Bureaucrats

They note down their connections or type them into data bases in order to evaluate them well and truly. To attest the radio contacts, confirmation cards are sent (amateurs call them QSL cards). Apart from the proof that the radio communication took place, the cards themselves can be a source of delight and artistic enjoyment. One can find a great variety of interesting and charming motives, and next to all is to be found between potato and multicolour print.

There is Still a Lot More

This text is just an outline. Further WWW pages to more detailed questions are available. And, of course, you may send inquiries and requests. Or simply pay us a visit.


We wish to thank Wolfgang Leineweber for the translation of this text from German.