Ham Radio At Yale, 85 Years And Going Strong


Before the Internet and social media, there was amateur radio. Hobbyists flocked to it, communicating with others from across the globe, or just down the street. And then came, well, the Internet and social media – and the whole ham radio craze quieted down a bit. But some technology doesn’t go away easily, and amateur radio is making a resurgence. 

Making its own comeback is Yale’s amateur radio organization, W1YU. Founded in the early 1930s, the Amateur Radio Club at Yale had a strong run for many decades, but activity started quieting down by the 1980s and ‘90s “as other technologies became shiny and new.” But in recent months, the crackle, hiss and chatter of amateur radio systems is springing back to life in the Yale community and around New Haven. And indeed, the club has been going full force in the last year or so: earlier this semester, it hosted a very well-attended demonstration for Yale students at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID), and it now holds regular meetings for members and prospective members in Dunham Lab. The club even recently received press in QST, the premier magazine for amateur radio in the U.S.

“In part, this is happening because it’s a good fit with the maker movement, and the CEID is bringing together people from all different disciplines,” said W1YU President Scott Matheson, an associate law librarian for Technical Services. “I think people are surprised at how much experimentation there is.” 

It’s important for newcomers to the hobby to understand that a special license is required to become an amateur radio operator.  There are three license classes issued through the Federal Communications Commission and W1YU members are available help those interested in obtaining a license understand the principles of radio and study for the required exam.  

W1YU, which is open to all in the Yale community, promotes education about ham radio (“ham” and “amateur” are used interchangeably within the community) and provides opportunities to take part in traditional amateur radio activities. Members are also hoping to take a more active role in public service through its affiliation with Yale’s Emergency Management Office.  

For the first time in a while, the club has undergraduate students among its ranks. One of them is Connor McCann ’18, a mechanical engineering major who received his ham radio operator’s license when he was in eighth grade. People his age don’t always see the relevance of ham radio, he said, but often come around when they learn more about it. For instance, he said, many don’t realize how reliable it is as a form of communication. McCann has first-hand experience in that area, having worked several years as support for the Boston Marathon, which enlists ham radio operators to bolster its communications. 

In 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing, McCann was stationed on the course with a group of emergency medical technicians. When the bomb went off, “all the cell towers just crashed and ham radio was, for a while, basically the only way that the EMT teams could contact their communication operators.” 

“It’s very decentralized, and there’s no infrastructure for it,” he said. “So if there’s a terror attack, it’s very reliable because everyone can get on their kit and get on the air immediately.” 

W1YU serves as a good platform to help either in an emergency or during regularly scheduled public events by offering a community of individual radio operators who can supplement existing communications and relay important messages.” 

The club was founded in 1931 at the invitation of the Engineering school, which was looking to open a communications lab. The club was pretty active on the air in the 1930s. Due partly to the war, enthusiasm waxed and waned in the 1940s, but held strong in the ‘50s. In 1957, the club made news when it monitored the transmissions of Russia’s satellite, Sputnik. And in 1961, Prof. James Douglas (then the president of W1YU) and his researchers were measuring emissions from Jupiter. W1YU members built antennae as part of the project. 

The DIY aspect of ham radio culture is also a big part of its recent surge in popularity, said James Surprenant, W1YU’s current First Vice President. 

“Ham radio is the only affiliated radio service in which users are encouraged to build radios,” said Surprenant, a laboratory medicine grants administrator. That, he said, aligns it nicely with the maker movement that’s emerged in recent years. 

Officials at ARRL, the go-to organization for amateur radio enthusiasts in the U.S., cited the recent success of W1YU’s forum at the CEID on college-related amateur radio, as one of the inspirations for a new initiative to promote ham radio at universities across the U.S. Its Collegiate Amateur Radio Initiative (CARI), which has a Facebook group to provide students and faculty involved with college ham radio clubs a way to interact, share projects, and connect with their peers.

Monty Shepardson, director of development for the Peabody Museum, has helped spearhead the club’s recent revival. The broad applications of ham radio have also contributed to its enduring popularity. For instance, she noted, amateur radio enthusiasts often engage in “storm spotting” – observing extreme weather patterns and relaying the information by radio to local authorities. 

“It’s almost like amateur radio is so old that it’s new again,” she said. “Undergraduates are beginning to realize that there are many applications to many disciplines, including astronomy, physics, math and engineering,” she said. “After a period of much lower interest, the state of student engagement is on the rise.”

For more information about W1YU, go to http://w1yu.sites.yale.edu or to Facebook at:  https://www.facebook.com/deW1YU/