The air around us is full of radio waves, bouncing off the ionosphere as people the world over contact one another. Virginia Purchon reports.
Ever since Marconi sent the first radio signals across the Atlantic in 1901, people have been drawn by the excitement of making long distance link-ups through the ether. Nearly a century later, radio communication is an international hobby for amateurs with followers of all ages.
School radio clubs are an ideal place for enthusiasts teachers and pupils alike to pick up signals from far afield and locate other like-minded "hams" abroad, as well as at home. There is the added thrill, too, of possibly hearing news of something, like an earthquake or hurricane, before the regular media. The educational spin-offs are no less impressive: learning why sunspots affect transmission, for example, the practical uses of theoretical physics, geography and information technology and even practising foreign languages.
At Harrogate Ladies' College a radio club was founded in 1978 by Richard Horton, head of physics and information technology. Richard has been a ham since his schooldays and holds an "A" licence (see box). It all began when Richard was demonstrating the radio station with David Andrews, director of music on the school's open day. They were approached by girls asking "can we do it too?" So began the Thursday evening exam class. Even staff, like Gill Hayes, head of classics, caught the bug and studied for her "B" licence.
Nine of the 17 pupil members now have B licences. Six of them spoke animatedly in the school's radio shack of the all night radio link-up with other clubs and how they kept awake ("by eating chocolate").
Starting when they were 14, radio training was part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award skills qualification. Lillian said she joined "to keep Rachel company" but, made curious by the school's link-up with British astronaut Helen Sharman, had carried on when her friend dropped out. For some girls an interest in radio led to science A-levels: for others, an interest in science led to radio.
So what did they talk about on the air? Well, not much it seems, for the object of the exercise is to make the contact and log it in the book. They say who they are, where they are operating from, and what the weather is like.
With few women on the air "sometimes there's a queue of about 15 people wanting to talk to you and you have to hand over to someone else," said Becky. But Penny pointed out that "sometimes the bands are really dead". Long distance communication can be a strain, however. "Making lots of different contacts, especially when it's hard to hear, can wear you out," said Katy. The voice may come through loud and clear or fade in the background hiss and crackle. Or, like talking at a party, the irrelevant noise of other people's conversations may make listening difficult.
Harrogate's network of computers is linked to amateur satellite packet radio, a computer-controlled system using special software and operating rather like the Internet. The girls can key in messages and send them to the system from wherever they are sitting. The advantage of using satellite packet in a school is that pupils do not need an A licence to transmit over long distances.
Three days earlier a satellite communication had come from a scientist in Antarctica. The message, accompanied by a picture of his colleague sitting in the snow (for images as well as text travel this way), said the temperature was -22C degrees and the next sunrise wouldn't be for another two months.
A return message was soon on its way, with a picture of the of the radio club taken by slow-scan television, frozen, digitised and sent via satellite. It would have taken about 45 minutes to reach Antarctica.
With his club already at the forefront of educational radio technology, and wanting to involve more schools in amateur radio as a science-based hobby, Richard Horton founded STELAR (Science Technology Through Educational Links with Amateur Radio). It was launched in 1993 and 130 UK schools are now affiliated.
In early 1994 he went cap in hand to Trio-Kenwood UK, the radio manufacturing company, and persuaded them to sponsor an annual, week-long, crash course for teachers in the Easter holidays to prepare them for their first exam. Most of this year's 19 teachers passed, and not all of them were scientists. Another route for instruction is to attend evening classes. Either way there is a frustrating wait between sitting the exam in May, getting the results in July and, if successful, a licence in August.
The Radio Society of Great Britain, which also supports the STELAR course, offers special junior and affiliated society membership rates and members can use its clearing house service for the QSL cards which operators send to each other to register their contacts. Identifying a contact is not a problem: English is the international language of radio. The skill comes in making the connection.
Radio frequency technology skills are something industry could make good use of, which is why the RA is encouraging young people into amateur radio through its special novice licences, launched in 1991. With no age bar, but limited wavebands, it is an easier route to follow because the qualification is based largely on 30 weeks of compulsory practical work.
As for the phenomenon itself, radio waves are criss-crossing in the air all the time, bouncing off the ionosphere, homing in on satellites and passing through you undetected. Marconi would have loved it.
Five steps to get air-borne.
Before starting a club you need to know certain things.
o Although anyone can use Citizen's Band for the price of a radio and a Pounds 15 licence, the range is limited to about five miles. Becoming a proper radio ham, with the ability to transmit around the world is regulated by the Government's Radiocommunications Agency (RA).
o Amateur radio has its own designated frequencies, allocated by the agency, and operators must each have a licence to transmit and an identifying call sign. Until then they can only listen to transmissions.
o The Agency only issues full licences to people who pass the City and Guilds radio amateurs exam, which covers electrical theory and regulations. Although the exam is open to all ages - and is between GCSE and A-level standard - no one under 14 can obtain a licence.
o The certificate qualifies you for a B licence, and a limited range of transmission frequencies. For an A licence which gives access to all amateur bands you must pass a 12-word-a-minute morse test administered by the Radio Society of Great Britain.
o Before applying for a club licence and call sign, you need to persuade two other radio amateurs to join in.
The amateur and citizen's band radio unit of the Radiocommunications Agency can be contacted at South Quay Three, 189 Marsh Wall, London E14 9SX. Tel: 0171 211 0160; STELAR, 7 Carlton Road, Harrogate, HG2 8DD or Fax: 01423 871027; RSGB, Lambda House, Cranbourne Road, Potters Bar, Herts EN6 3JE. Tel: 01707 659015.