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From Whence Came Ham
November 1976 QST

November 1976 QST

November 1976 QST Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

The mystery of the origin of the term "ham" for amateur radio operators never has, after more than a century, been absolutely settled. Be thankful, though, for being this day referred to as a "ham" and not a "plug." Waaay back in 1976, the year I graduated from high school (wow), Mr. Bill Johnston wrote this article for QST magazine which presented his research into the etymology of "ham." According to his information, both "ham" and "plug" were terms applied to fledgling wireless operators on trains and ships. "Plug" is a term often applied to a worn out horse or defective item, so it was an appropriate enough derogatory word for a newbie. The author claims that as of 1976, some dictionaries list as an alternate definition of plug, "an inexperienced telegrapher." I just checked my c1976 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and it does not include that definition. None of the most prominent online dictionaries give that definition, either. Mr. Johnston also points out the origin of "73," meaning "best regards," coming from Western Unions "92 Code" list.

From Whence Came Ham

From Whence Came Ham, November 1976 QST - RF Cafe

Hams could well be Plugs, now. Both were popular terms applied by seasoned railroad telegraphers to green operators.

By Bill Johnston,* WB5CBC

Gather a few hams together and you're sure to hear some reminiscing about the past - what great fun the old days were with primitive, homebrewed equipment and friends made around the world. But one issue there's never been much agreement on is the origin of the word ham itself. You would think, though, that with so many old-timers around, someone would remember. On the other hand, perhaps that's the trouble. Countless tales have been woven over the years - romantic yarns having only in common that they have nothing in common. Perhaps it's because we all remember how it was, that none of us really are certain any longer. Most amateurs now are resigned to the belief that we will never know.

Now that we are in our bicentennial year, and amateur radio has been with us for three-quarters of a century, it seems fitting that we should put this puzzle into historical perspective. While I cannot trace the origin of the word, I can tell you the origin of its use in amateur radio.

On the American railroads during the 1800s, ham was a slang word for a new or inexperienced telegraph operator and was used interchangeably in this context with the word plug. Such jargon was used not only along the railroads, but in the commercial telegraph and cable companies as well. These terms continued among wireless telegraph operators as this new field began to open up about 1900, and amateur radio operators adopted the nickname for obvious reasons. Actually, the word plug was the more commonly used term of, the two. Why radio amateurs chose to be hams instead of plugs, or for that matter, why one name didn't survive is not clear, I have been unable to determine how the words came to be used on the railroads, but plug has several connotations which have the general meaning of "green" or "second best," as in a reference to a horse. So it is easy to see why experienced operators might refer to a beginner as a plug. To this day, many dictionaries include a definition for a plug as "an inexperienced telegrapher" (though I have seen some fairly recent ones which define it incorrectly as "an incompetent telegrapher").

"73," One of Many

Our nickname wasn't the only thing copied from nineteenth century railway telegraphy. The salutation 73 was just one of a long list of "Numerical Wire Signals" in use at the time, and meant then, as it does now, best regards.

The abbreviation "es" for the word "and" comes from the American Morse character for &. (American Morse was used on domestic telegraph lines. International Morse, also called continental Morse, has always been used for radio communication.) Some American Morse characters have spaces within the character itself. The ampersand (&) is one of these, but when viewing the separate elements as distinct characters themselves, it is equivalent to the letters "es."

Nineteenth century telegraphers spoke of duplex, quadruplex, bugs-in-the-wire, and knocking off - all of which had the same meaning as they do today. Traffic handlers and brass pounders will be interested to know of another expression, getting old, which referred to telegrams that were being delayed. A telegram was considered to be old if it was delayed for longer than fifteen minutes. Incidentally, standard time signals were received from various observatories and transmitted daily to all points on the line.

Almost all the special telegraphic signals commonly used today (AR, AS, SK, K, CQ, DE) were in use since the very earliest days of commercial wireless. I have seen no evidence that they were used by the railroads, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Libraries, a Good Source

Much interesting history stands behind our hobby, and its real beginning starts even before Marconi; a slow evolution which began on the singing wires of the American railroads. For historically oriented radio buffs, I recommend a visit to the local library in search of old books on telegraphy, railroad operations and wireless. The most informative ones, it seems, were published between 1880 and 1920.

One book you might enjoy is The Telegraph Instructor by G. M. Dodge. This charming volume delves into considerable detail on telegraph and railroad operations. First published in 1898, several editions followed later. From it, you can learn meanings of slang words then in vogue, how to set up and care for a gravity battery, and a host of other things. Incidentally, for many years Dodge ran a school in Valparaiso, Indiana, called Dodge's Telegraph and Railway Accounting Institute, starting about 1891. In later years a wireless department, complete with a 2-kW Marconi Marien set, was added, and the name of the school was modified to reflect this. Apparently, he was also president of the Northwestern Indiana Telegraph Company.

There may still exist in some obscure location, historical records of these and similar institutions. Perhaps somewhere out there lies the answer as to why, by some stroke of luck, we are called hams, rather than plug radio operators.



Posted September 3, 2020

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