Late Sunday morning, Terry Bowman sat in a tent outside the Dolnick Learning Center at IPFW, carefully tuning his ham radio, trying to make contact with other ham radio operators around the country.
He'd just made his fifth contact using a battery that had been charged using solar power, he said.
Since 2 p.m. on Saturday, Bowman and other members of the Fort Wayne Radio Club had made contact with about 1,250 ham operators around the country. It was all part of what ham radio operators call their annual field day in which thousands of radio operators try to communicate with as many people in as many locations as possible.
“We have some die-hards that stay up all night” trying to make contacts all over the U.S., said club member Brian Jenks. Most, though, did eventually go to bed Saturday night or early Sunday, getting up early to start all over again.
The purpose of the field day is to show that relying on only emergency power from generators and batteries, radio operators can communicate with people almost anywhere, radio operators say. In disasters, if telephones, the Internet and other ways of communicating are knocked out, ham radio can stay on the air, they say.
They do it for fun, Bowman said, but the field day is also a challenge in which ham radio buffs can hone their skills and practice setting up emergency radio stations.
The hobby, though, has changed a lot in recent years.
The computer age, Jenks said, “Has been our friend.”
Ham radio started around 1900 with tinkerers, said Steve Nardin, president of the Fort Wayne Radio Club. The system was first used by ships. By 1912 it had become popular enough that the government started issuing licenses to ham radio operators.
As technology has improved, ham radio operators have gone from using just Morse code to voice communication to being able to send photographs over the air that can be downloaded on other computers, Nardin said.
“It's a hobby with a serious side,” said Nardin, who got into ham radio in 1967, when he was 15. Hobbyists learn to work with radios and all the technology that goes with it, and it's his involvement with ham that led him to a career in engineering, he said,
Getting into the hobby used to be expensive, Nardin said. Back in the 1960s equipment was very expensive. But the price of equipment hasn't changed since the 1960s, he said, making the hobby more affordable than ever.
It's possible to get into the hobby for as little as $40, Nardin said, using a small hand scanner like new club member Joseph Havens had. Havens is 13 and has been into ham for about a year.
Havens got started in an unusual way. He had a scanner, but members of the general public are not allowed to have a scanner in a car unless they have ham radio licenses. Havens got a license, and Sunday morning he was at the field day, wearing a T-shirt with his call letters on it.