Why call it ham radio?

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Why call it ham radio?

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The word "ham" is the informal name give to amateur operators. It was first used in 1909, but did not gain widespread use until the 1920's when the term spread from the USA to Europe.

Up to about 1916, the word was used slang for "poor operator" or "incompetent". The term was also used by professional radiotelegraph operators to suggest that amateur enthusiasts were unskilled. Even among amateur radio operators, the term was used pejoratively at first by serious experimenters. For example, in December 1916 QST magazine, an amateur operator working on long distance message passing describes one way to avoid interference was to send messages “...on Thursday nights, when the children and spark coil ‘hams’ are tucked up in bed” (a “spark coil” referred to an unsophisticated transmitter made from an automobile ignition coil that produced noisy interference).

But only a few months later, in an indication of the changing use of the term among amateurs, a QST writer uses it in a clearly complimentary manner, saying that a particular 16 year old amateur operator “...is the equal of a ham gaining five years of experience by hard luck.”

Use of “ham” as a slur by professionals continued, however. A letter from a Western Union Telegraph Company employee, printed in the December, 1919 edition QST, showed familiarity with the word's negative connotations, expressing concern that "Many unknowing land wire telegraphers, hearing the word 'amateur' applied to men connected with wireless, regard him as a 'ham' or 'lid'".

Ham is now widely used by radio amateurs to describe themselves and their hobby.

Other origins of the word "ham"

A few urban legends have arisen to explain the use of of the word including:


"ham" is a shortened version of "ham-fisted", meaning clumsy. This is based on the fact that all early amateur radio stations used hand-operated telegraph keys to transmit Morse code, and sending style is referred to as an operator's "fist", so someone who sends badly could be called ham-fisted.

A little station called HAM

This widely circulated but fanciful tale claims that, around 1911, an impassioned speech made by Harvard University student Albert Hyman to the United States Congress, in support of amateur radio operators, turned the tide and helped defeat a bill that would have ended amateur radio activity entirely, by assigning the entire radio spectrum over to the military. An amateur station that Hyman supposedly shared with two others (Bob Almy and Peggie Murray), which was said to be using the self-assigned call sign HAM (short for Hyman-Almy-Murray), thus came to represent all of amateur radio. However, this story seems to have first surfaced in 1948, and practically none of the facts in the account check out, including the existence of "a little station called HAM" in the first place.

"Home Amateur Mechanic" magazine

In this version, supposedly HAM was derived from the initials of a "very popular" magazine which covered radio extensively. But there is no evidence that there ever was a magazine by this name.


It is sometimes claimed that HAM came from the first letter from the last names of three radio pioneers: Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi. However, this cannot be the source of the term as Armstrong was an unknown college student when the term first appeared.

Hammarlund legend

Likely an example of corporate wishful thinking, Hammarlund products were supposedly so preeminent in the pioneering era of radio that they became a part of the language of radio. As the story goes, early radio enthusiasts affectionately referred to Hammarlund products as "Ham" products, and called themselves "Ham" operators. In truth, Hammarlund was a minor and barely known company at the time "ham" started to be used.