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The History of Amateur Radio

Roy Welch, W0SL, and ham friends listening to Sputnik-I on October 9, 1957 at the State Fair of Texas. Doc Dallas News.

Echoes from Moonbounce to Sputnik (XI)

In January 1953, Ross Bateman, W4AO, and Bill Smith, W3GKP were working on the 2-meter band when they heard their own echoes come back very weakly to their antenna after reflection on the Moon. Due to the distance (800,000 km to go) the signals transmitted with a power of a few kW had lost some 250 dB... but that worked ! So began what is still considered as the ultimate DX, the moonbounce communication between amateurs, EME was born.

Some years later, the Cold war began between the USA and USSR for some economical and political reasons about the Eastern totalitarism vs. the Western capitalism, joined to some spying problems. It reached its top on October 4, 1957 when the Soviets launched their first artificial satellite Sputnik I, a way to say "take care, boys, we can do it..." and demonstrate so their power to the world.

This is not so much its famous "bip-bip" transmitted on 20,007 Mc and that ringed out over the U.S.A. and its NATO allies (European) joined in the same fight against the Red star that were "disturbing" but rather the disproportional celebration of this event in respect to the Soviet propaganda. It made the effect of a "Pearl Harbor" on the American people who already imagined that there was a huge technological chasm between the two nations. It was partly right but far from the reality. Nuts tovarich !

To make rumors be quiet and regain the confidence of his population, a few months later, under the command of Wernher von Braun, the very young NASA space agency launched the first US satellite Explorer-I on January 31, 1958 that sent also some kind of sound.

Contrary to all expectation, its sensors and mainly the Geiger counter was affected by a strong radiation emitted at low altitude but much higher than the ionosphere. A second Explorer was launched to confirm these facts and scientists discovered at this occasion Van Allen radiation belts that circled the Earth around the equator.

At left, Sputnik 1, a small sphere 58 cm in diameter weighing 83 kg that revolutionized the astronautics ! A "bip-bip" charged with sense... At right, William Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun celebrating on February 1, 1958 the success of the first american satellite, Explorer-I launched on January 31, 1958 in response to the russian slap. As you can see it was a cylindrical satellite, 2.05 m long engine included, 16.5 cm in diametre weighing 13 kg (30 lbs). With Explorer-II it helped scientists to discover the Van Allen radiation belts. Documents NSSDC/GSFC/NASA and NASA.

ON4UB at the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1958

In 1958, Brussels (Heysel) received the most famous and largest Universal Exhibition of the time, starring amazing creations, often futuristic in their design, and sometimes oversized. Beside the three major pavilions from the U.S.A., URSS and France (as well as many smaller pavilions from Iran, Japan or Luxembourg, and even the one from Vatican-city), the general public could see the supermarkets of the future (it was then the year 2000 !),  the applications of aluminium, the inventions of Bell Telephone, Coca-Cola, IBM, Kodak, Philips or Solvay among hundreds of other exhibitors. Some major glass-blowers, chocolate makers, diamond dealers, and fashion houses displayed also their know-how, without to forget the famous Atomium still standing and renovated in 2004, brighter than ever.

One month after the exhibition operning, the Board of directors of the Belgian IARU society UBA met the RTT and discussed the possibility to get a small lodge close to the Telexpo pavilion.

To see : - ExpoMuseum

Some among the many attracting places of the Universal Exhibition of 1958 at Heysel, Belgium : the russian pavilion displaying a mockup of the famous Sputnik-3 launched some months earlier, the Atomium close to the Oil pavillion, and MBLE pavilion in shape of a vacuum tube. All these facilities were also open till late in the evening, buildings and monuments scintillating or flashing of thousand colors. At right Willy Acke, ON4AW special QSL celebrating the event. It was an outstanding and memorable exhibition, that stroke surely more the people imagination than any more recent international fair, to name the one of Tsukuba of 1985 that was also a huge success, mainly in the fields of computing and cybernetics.

On May 11, 1958, one month after the opening, ON4UB, the national station of the UBA emitted for the first time using a dipole antenna. During the exhibition that last until October 19, the amateur station worked 3,142 QSOs on 6 bands with 88 countries, on 6 continents. ON4UB received 12,500 visitors and 100 new members. The Universal Exhibition received about 700,000 visitors each day !

Faced with this success, amateurs involved in ON4UB asked for the creation of a national shack. Thanks to the co-operation of RTT that provided premises, first in Kraainem then in Brussels-city, ON4UB became the voice of amateur radio in Belgium. His mission was to broadcast traffic news, club activities, a Morse training course, the review of hardware and techniques and to make communications with Antarctica, where Belgium had a scientific team at that time (and soon again).

Meteor Scatter and Stacked Yagis on VHF

Encouraged to use the 2 and 6-meter band just after WW II, amateurs used intensively these bands to experiment various new modes of propagation and antenna designs. In 1955, Paul Wilson, W4HHK and Ralph Thomas, W2UK participated in Meteor Scatter at such a point that ARRL offered him the Merit Award for his successs with MS on 2 meters. From that moment, for all fans of VHF, Meteor Scatter became the most popular propagation mode behind ionospheric and tropospheric propagations.

The same year, the DX activity was also accelerated by the popular "five over five" stack of Yagi antennas. Big beams were also appearing on 144 and 220 MHz.

In 1958, for the first time the 6-meter band was as crowded as VHF bands, amateurs finding at this hybrid VHF frequencies an efficient way to communicate via the ionospheric layers. It displayed, and continue, many of the properties of HF for DXing while allowing to use the amazing VHF scattering mode like ionoscatter, meteor scatter, etc.

Birth of Citizen's Band

In 1958, in the U.S.A, FCC introduced lower-frequency channels on AM to encourage use. The 11-meter band was taken from the Amateur Radio service for the "Citizen's Band", the famous CB. The U.S.A was the first country to legalise CB radio. Everywhere else CB was illegal. This is only in the '70s, when technology was improved to reduce costs that the CB market exploded.

All began with US truckers that used CB to communicate over short distances between drivers as well as with their HQ. This is during this boom that CB clubs formed and that a special CB language was introduced, including the "10-code".We had to wait 1979 to see the explosion of CB in Europe and their legalisation by 1981. We will see that in the '60s CB had a negative effect on the growth of amateur radio.

From ARPANET to Internet, back to roots... Here is the BBN team, known as the "IMP guys", who deployed ARPANET in 1969. According to Dave Walden, from left to right are Truett Thatch, Bill Bartell (Honeywell), Dave Walden himself, Jim Geisman, Bob Kahn, Frank Heart, Ben Barker, Marty Thrope, Will Crowther, and Severo Ornstein. Bill and Jim were not longer members of the team. Heart, Kahn, Ornstein, Crowther, Barker, Bernie Cosell (not pictured) and Walden were team members essentially from the beginning. We owe them networks and the concept of Internet...


Out of the public eyes, the orbiting Sputnik launched other races by US scientists and engineers. The Office of Science Adviser was added to the White House, and, in 1958, president Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). One of ARPA’s priorities was to tackle the challenge of linking research centers with one another and with their important sponsor, the Department of Defense.

As this research evolved, the computer’s initial role as arithmetic calculator (ENIAC, IBM Mark I, UNIVAC, TRADIC, IBM 1401, DEC PDP-1, etc) expanded to include the computer as communications medium.

Remember that these mainframes and minis also participated in the U.S. space program and gave very soon to NASA the idea to install compact versions of these computers on board of space rockets (e.g. John Glenn fly in 1962).

Pioneers in the work of data networking and packet switching applied their talents to create a government-supported computer data network named ARPANET.

Directed by Larry Roberts, its main leaders were Bob Khan, John Postel, David Crocker and Vint Cerf.

In 1969, although Hippies already believed in the sharing of resources, developers of this very first computing network linked UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, University of California at Santa Barbara, and University of Utah under the NCP protocol.

Unfortunately if that architecture worked fine to communicate inside ARPANET, this protocol was not compatible with switched lines and packet communication that interested much the military.

So, thanks to efforts of Bob Khan and Vincent Cerf, the protocol TCP/IP able to split data in small packets or datagrams was deployed on ARPANET in 1976. At that time, this network linked 111 hosts, mainly large computers.

These precursor engineers didn't imagine that their work would spawn the global Internet of today.

Here is a logical map of ARPANET as it was interconnected in 1977 all through the U.S.A. You will find more maps on Cyberspace.

The '70s were the time of the famous DEC PDP-11 (here is an original handbook belonging to Mats, SM5SXL) and other IBM 360 and 370 series, all equipped with VT-100 and teletype terminals.

Personally I count among those OT programmers who worked on the last generation of IBM 370 and their famous punch cards, large tapes, oversized diskets, batch files, and their terminals in pray of regular "22 Line break" error.

At last, for the anecdote, the superb flashing and colorful IBM 370 control panel as well as the design of PDP-11 terminals (VT and teletype) often inspired science fiction films in the '70s and '80s. They looked so futuristic... Today, these are Cray's, IBM Blue Gene and others Connection Machine's that play the same role, remember "Jurassic Park" or "Contact" !

We will come back later on this revolutionary medium which is Internet as it had much influenced the way that radio amateurs work today with computers. But let's see first what changed in the meantime in ham licenses.

Birth of CEPT

The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (Conférence Européenne des administrations des Postes et des Télécommunications, CEPT) was instituted by an intergovernmental arrangement on June 26, 1959 at Montreux, Switzerland, aiming at founding an European co-operation in the field of posts and telecommunications.

The activities of CEPT then covered the co-operation in the fields of the marketing policy, the operating, the regulation and technical standardization of the telecommunications sector across Europe.

In 1981, the European Citizen Band Federation (FECB) requested the right to get the attention of CEPT for one of his representative. But it has never really seen at what Service could belong CB, being a leisure activity, and not a Service.

CEPT has for essential objectives to tighten the relations between its members - today 46 or almost all european countries -, to stimulate their co-operation and to contribute to the expansion of posts and pan-european electronic communications means. We will come back on its activities in the years '90s and 2000s.

Next chapter

The 1960s : Megahertz and small steps

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