According to the Amateur Radio Relay League’s booklet What is Ham Radio?, the definition of the word “ham” was first given in G. M. Dodge’s “The Telegraph Instructor” even before there was radio. Then, as now, the definition has meant “a poor operator; a ‘plug.’” The definition has never changed in wire telegraphy.
The first wireless operators were landline telegraphers who left their offices to go to sea or to man the coastal stations. They brought with them their language and much of the tradition of their older profession. In those early days, every station occupied the same wavelength-or, more accurately perhaps, every station occupied the whole spectrum with its broad spark signal. Government stations, ships, coastal stations and the increasingly numerous amateur operators all competed for time and signal supremacy in each other’s receivers.
Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working each other across town, could effectively jam all the other operations in the area. Frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them “hams.” Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves in true “Yankee Doodle” fashion and wore it with pride. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.
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