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.
“That was too fast for me,” Shepard says. Kingsbury grabs his log book and starts scribbling. “Yeah–that was very fast contact,” he says. “But he said he’s in Bosnia, and he gave his call sign. … He’s doing that really fast; he might make 300 contacts tonight, all over the world.”
Contacts are the currency for many in the ham scene. The number of verified, reciprocal contacts that a station completes varies tremendously, depending on conditions, time of day, and available operating equipment. Annual field days put hams to the test with a race to see how many reciprocal connections can be made within 24 hours.
Field Days in Boston Harbor
The radio society has been holding such field days for decades, but when Kingsbury became club president, he decided to step up the game. Rather than stage the event from the student-center lawn, Kingsbury rallied club members and shuttled them by chartered boat to Lovells Island, seven miles out in Boston Harbor.
Over the course of 24 hours in late June 2007, the club built and operated huge, skeletal antennas on the beach and used solar-powered generators to power them. Students took shifts sleeping and signaling, and Kingsbury–an avid outdoorsman who grew up camping in the mountains of Montana–played chef.
“It was sort of a mix between a camping trip and a radio contest with two main goals–public education and emergency preparedness,” Kingsbury says. “We educate the public by demonstrating the capabilities of ham radio and the ways it can serve the community, and we show our ability to prepare for emergencies by operating from a remote, off-the-grid site with few amenities.”
Club members still get a feeling of accomplishment by proving their ability to communicate with simple tools. “We can sit there at the end of the day and say, ‘Here are all these people all over the world who I just made contact with,’” Shepard says. “People do this because they love it–they have passion.”
Tune In to MIT’s FM Radio Station
If you don’t have a ham radio but want to hear MIT on the air, tune in to 88.1 FM WMBR Cambridge. The station, which launched 63 years ago, was originally broadcast from various basements and eventually was named WMBR, or Walker Memorial Basement Radio. In the early days, the station was entirely student run and available only to AM receivers on campus; it aired classical and some popular music three evenings a week.
Today, a combination of students, staff, and community members operate WMBR 365 days a year, 20 to 24 hours a day, programming more than 70 different shows. Want to hear music from prewar Japan? Early ’60s soul? Interviews with legendary activists? A cornucopia of contemporary music? WMBR has it all. Listen to live and archived shows worldwide at wmbr.mit.edu.