Even though I owned a ham rig — a comparatively cheap amateur shortwave radio transceiver sold, back in the day, by Lafayette Electronics
— I never earned the requisite ham license. Among other things, I repeatedly failed to master Morse Code
, and was so embarrassed that I decided to fake it. That’s when my call sign HN2MIL was born — out of my devious imagination. In ham parlance I was considered a “bootlegger.”
Truth is, however, I didn’t use the rig all that much for fear the FCC would arrest me, but I did have QSL cards
printed up. Short for Quebec Sign Language, these cards employed the Q radio broadcasting language to confirm receiving a transmission. Like calling cards, they were the most cherished artifacts a ham operator could acquire, with the added incentive that awards could be won for acquiring a large collection. (The other cherished item was an “eyeball” card, to signify you actually met someone face to face.) Although my transmission range was limited, I would send QSLs to whomever I could, and received hundreds in return — albeit, since I am in a confessional mood, I cheated.
And how, precisely, did a junior ham operator cheat back in those days? Advertisements in the backs of most ham magazines offered something called “cards on approval” which allowed you to order twenty or thirty cards and either buy or send them back. It was the sissy’s way of accumulating a bunch immediately — the ham radio equivalent of planting sheets of sod instead of grass seed. Yet in both cases the ploy works. Sod makes for a full lawn, and approval cards filled my garden of shortwave delights. And delights they were. Seeing those call signs from all over the world — replete with foreign-sounding operators’ names — was an exotic pleasure before the days of cheap airline tickets.
The idea of the QSL missive started in 1916 when a shortwave operator in Buffalo, New York, sent a card to another one in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From that moment on, cards were acknowledged as the common confirmation practice, and collecting them was akin to pasting travel labels on your luggage (a practice favored in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but one which has sinced lapsed). And while there were some fairly generic stock QSL formats produced and marketed through ham enthusiast magazines (like CQ), many different styles prevailed elsewhere across the globe. In general, they weren’t so well designed in a formal sense, although some revealed more pictorial and typographic panache than others. But as a genre — and a critical mass — unto themselves, they could often be seen posted on the wall in a radio shack or slapped up on the corner of a teenager’s bedroom, and here, they were as cool as can be.
Of course, the most prized were from the farthest and most forbidden locales — UB5MED from the USSR, for example, or UB5AU from Kiev, Ukraine. They were not political, but often seemd to retain a sort of old, revolutionary print-shop patina that added to their flair. Others, of course, were designed by the operators themselves. DL6ZBF’s card sported a line drawing of an old mill in the town of Mühlheim am Main near Frankfurt, Germany, while Dl7AV’s, hailing from Berlin, suggests that the operator may have been a graphic designer — though not necessariily a good one. Some of the cards were just basic postcards with call numbers surprinted on top of them. While occasionally resulting in some fortuitous combinations of form and color, this was an unpredictable practice: depending on the card in question, the result could be lethal.
It bears saying that ham radio was not the Internet of its day: it was, however, a social medium before the term itself was coined. Shortwave brought people together in many distinct ways, not least as a means to speak to individuals in our political enemy’s nations free from the rhetoric. Since ham required a real investment, it wasn’t available to just anyone — much the way social media sites are today — but then, only the nerds could join. Much of the talk was technical — how to get more juice and range; how to hit the perfect “skip” frequency when the moon was out or the weather was inclement; what latest tube or filter would boost power, and so on. Some operators had regular conversations with the same people, while others were radio wave gadflies and toggled from band to band.
To today’s digitally sophisticated audiences, QSLing may sound quaint, even arcane — particularly in the age of Twitter, Skype and Instant Messaging. Nevertheless, ham operators still communicate this way and QSL cards are still being produced, albeit with inkjet printers, at online shops like QSLfactory
and QSL Print
, among them. Whoever said print is dead?