Amateur radio: experiments and regulations

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"Technicians secure a solar panel to an Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) program satellite," 1987. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. 

The development of the radio has it roots in trial and error, in experimentation with transmitting sounds, extending ranges, and pushing the limits of what radio could do. This experimental attitude did not end with Marconi, however. Though the basics of how we use radio today were established in the early 1900s, amateur experimentation with the medium continued through the twentieth century.

Before the sinking of the Titanic, amateur radio broadcasters were often unregulated. Users picked their own call letters and worked without a license. After the Titanic sank, and was unable to reach another ship’s radio operator for help because the receiver had been turned off for the evening, new radio laws were put into place. Part of the Radio Act of 1912, beyond mandating that radios had to be constantly monitored, created new licensing regulations. The bill essentially kicked amateur radio broadcasters off the professionally used and mandated long radio waves. That brought them back to the experimental level again, working on shorter wavelengths.

By 1922, amateur radio operators, pushing for recognition amidst rumors that the big networks were trying to silence them, issued a definition for themselves. They determined an amateur radio operator as "one who operates a radio station, transmitting or receiving, without pay or personal gain, merely for personal interest." Their better-known title, "ham" radio operators (originally a derisive label taken from the equally pejorative "ham actor"), gained popularity in the 1950s, along with a new rise in amateur radio operators. In a move to formally stake a claim on the airwaves, the first amateur radio satellite OSCAR (Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio) was launched in 1961.