On a fall evening in a musty office in Walker Memorial, graduate student Ryan Kingsbury sits silently, his head cocked sharply to the left. From the thick haze of static rising from the radio in front of him, he hears a warbled voice shout “Whiskey! Eight! Charlie!” and then dissolve.
Kingsbury, who studies aeronautics/astronautics, is the president of the Institute’s Amateur Radio Society, or ham club, which is devoted to worldwide wireless communication for both public service and recreation. The society, known by the call letters W1MX (formerly 1XM), was founded in 1909 and is considered America’s oldest college amateur station. In its heyday in the 1960s, membership totaled more than 150 students, faculty, and community members.
Today, membership has diminished, but a core of students and alumni still love ham-radio life. During the first week of June, alumni club members will return to celebrate the society’s 100th birthday with a series of events that coincide with Tech Reunions. The events–a social, a Sunday brunch, and a week of open station hours–will be hosted by the 12 current station members. Visit w1mx.mit.edu for details on reunion plans and other activities.
Amateur Radio Defined
Ham-radio operators use a variety of radio equipment–often equipment they make themselves–to contact one another over the airwaves. The result is something like an off-the-grid eternal chat room. While the origin of the term “ham” is murky, “amateur” refers to the noncommercial, public-interest nature of the communications. Amateur radio runs on a set of government-allocated radio frequencies, which constitute an unpoliced, highly trafficked experimental environment. Enthusiasts from around the world use that spectrum to test homemade equipment and antennas by using walkie-talkie-like radios or desktop transmitting equipment, communicating by voice commands or Morse code.
Imagine, then, the dizzying excitement that pervaded ham clubs in the ’50s, when long-distance communication was costly and relatively rare. Being able to contact someone in Poland or London, which the early hams often did, was a huge thrill.
Sherwin Greenblatt ‘62, SM ‘64, interim executive vice president of the MIT Alumni Association, joined the club in 1958, when its operations were based in a single Quonset hut on the west side of campus.
“I remember in those days, the idea that you could just sit down and contact any place was a big deal,” he says. “It was so novel.”
But exotic contacts were only one part of MIT’s amateur-radio history. In 1927, stories in the New York Times attributed warnings about flooding in Vermont to the MIT ham station. This case was cited to justify requests to the federal government for frequency-spectrum use in the 1920s.
Space Weather Makes Trouble
Back in Walker, Kingsbury spins a fat dial on the radio’s dash. Club member Tim Shepard ‘86, SM ‘90, Eng ‘91, EE ‘91, PhD ‘95, says that the night’s weather in the ionic upper atmosphere is making it hard to send and receive transmissions.
“It’s not the weather you think of as rain and snow,” he says. “Up in the upper atmosphere there are reflective layers, so radio signals that we transmit here might bounce off an ionized layer 50 miles off in the atmosphere, and then come down over the Pacific and bounce off the ocean and go up again and, finally, come down in India.”
In addition to the bouncing signals, the operators, known as hams, also have to contend with noise from Boston. Every electricity-powered item–each refrigerator, computer, and light bulb–emits electronic noise that can create interference.
The unfavorable conditions make voice transmissions hard to decipher. Repeatedly, Kingsbury calls “Whiskey-One-Mike-X-Ray, CQ, CQ”–the audio call identifying them uniquely and inviting other stations to respond–but minutes pass before a rapid string of Morse code punctuates the static.