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September/October 2003
Vol. 35, no. 5
ISSN 1492-4676

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Library’s 50th Makes Waves…Radio Waves!

Trevor Clayton, Communications

Among the more idiosyncratic celebrations commemorating the National Library’s 50th anniversary was ham radio operators zoning into their frequencies with temporary special-event prefixes provided by Industry Canada.

Between May 24 and July 27, 2003, amateur radio (or ‘ham’ radio  -  the expression’s origins remain a mystery) operators in Canada used the following substitute prefixes: CK for all VEs, CJ for all VAs, CY for VOs, and CZ for all VYs. Each of the four prefixes beginning with ‘V’ is internationally recognized as Canadian.

Prefixes are codes that identify a ham radio station’s country or region, followed by numbers or letters that make up an individual call sign. A special-event prefix, issued only through government authority, draws more callers to your frequency due to its relative rarity. Once contact has been made, participants exchange QSL cards  -  or what could be described as an obscure postcard encoded with radio technicalities  -  and thus expand their worldwide contact range of countries or regions. Zoning in to frequencies from remote or restricted-access areas, like Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, is challenging; for this purpose the term ‘entity’ was introduced. Canada is one entity, while Sable Island and St. Paul Island (near Prince Edward Island), although part of Canada, are separate entities with unique prefixes. Once a ham has collected cards from 100 entities or more, he or she can apply for the prestigious DX Century Club (DXCC) award certificate, distributed by the American Radio Relay League.

In the world of amateur radio, hobbyists purchase or piece together their own equipment (called a homebrew), write exams, apply for and obtain government licences and pay fees for the pleasure of speaking to people around the world who have done the same thing. Others enjoy experimenting with antennas as a scientific hobby, while some simply enjoy collecting cards.

NASA launched the ham-built OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) in the early 1960s, and today there are more than 40 ham satellites in space. The list of current or former hams is one of the most unlikely ever assembled, gathering such diverse names as journalism icon Walter Cronkite, guitarist Chet Atkins, former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, Spain’s King Juan Carlos, the late King Hussein of Jordan, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, 1993 Nobel Prize co-winner Joseph H. Taylor and actor Marlon Brando.

Many American and Canadian astronauts are also amateurs. Three of the astronauts who died in the Columbia space shuttle were radio amateurs: David Brown, call sign KC5ZPG; Kalpana Chawla, call sign KD5EDI; and Laurel Clark, call sign KC5ZSU. There is even an amateur radio station on the International Space Station.

"It’s fun. I’m an electrical engineer and I’m still learning new things," said Jim Dean, Vice-President of Regulatory Affairs for Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC), an organization run entirely by volunteers. "We have everyone from truck drivers to Nobel Prize Laureates all trying their hand at amateur radio." Dean retired from engineering in 1992, and like the Library is celebrating a 50th anniversary  -  five decades of ham radio operation  -  a passion that bloomed with the technological and scientific advancements of World War II. Of the 334 entities currently acknowledged by hams, Dean has cards for 333. He is missing only the coveted card of the elusive Scarborough Reef, near China.

"There is a dispute as to who (what country) actually controls the Scarborough Reef, so radio access is very limited," explained Dean, who travelled to Geneva as the amateur radio member of the Canadian delegation for the World Radio Communication (WRC) conference on June 7, 2003.

Recently I had the pleasure of accompanying ham radio enthusiast and friend Ajmal Rahman to his cloistered, attic-sized radio room stacked with countless pieces of strange machinery just above the garage of his home in Oxford Mills for a short demonstration. This included the turning of dials, the pops and hisses from different boxes, skilled radio jargon and a 15-second conversation with someone from North Carolina. All of this depended on the temperament of the enormous, swaying radio antenna rising 110 feet in the air in Ajmal’s backyard.

A computer hardware technician, Rahman acquired his amateur’s license in 1969 and built his first antenna in his backyard. He has hundreds of cards from around the globe, including gems like the former German Democratic Republic, Albania, Zimbabwe, the North and South poles and the world’s most isolated inhabited island in the world, Easter Island. He has never applied for an award certificate.

During the infamous National Capital Region ice storm of 1997, Rahman used his equipment and expertise to assist in communications between the military, police and civil defence.

"In all major catastrophes over the world, including earthquakes, floods and fires, hams are obliged to pass information once regular communication is down," said Rahman, who’s call sign is VE2ZQ.

Rahman attests to the effectiveness of the special-event prefix, citing the 1976 Summer Olympics as an example. On that occasion, Industry Canada issued XJ as a substitute for VE, and upon using it his frequency became jammed with hams. "Without government regulation of frequencies, all amateur and commercial radio would be like a zoo," Rahman quipped.

Other upcoming special events in 2003 for which the government will provide alternate prefixes include the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Samuel de Champlain to Canada and the 100th anniversary of military communications in Canada. The latter is especially significant to Jim Dean, a 38-year Navy veteran.

"The world is going wireless, with higher and higher frequencies," remarked Dean. Yet "people are turning away from high tech and going into medicine. Canada needs radio engineers."

So, the future of amateur radio seems clear and unbounded, but only as long as people continue to become interested.

Fore more information on amateur radio, Industry Canada’s radio regulations or advice on how to build and license your own ham radio station, contact Radio Amateurs of Canada at 613-244-4367 or visit their Web site at www.rac.ca.