Why are radioamateurs called hams?

A cut of meat consisting of a thigh, an actor performing in an exaggerated theatrical style, and finally, an operator of an amateur radio station – there are several suggestions why we are called hams.

HAM: a symbol of the struggle for amateur radio stations

In 1908, members of the Harvard University club created the world’s first amateur radio station. Their names were Albert S. Hyman, Bob Almy and Peggy Murray, and their first callsign was HYMAN-ALMY-MURRAY. Translating it into Morse code is hard, and it was shortened to HY-AL-MU. But a Mexican steamship used a similar callsign, HYALMO, and they began to mix on the air. Then the American pioneers abbreviated theirs to capital letters.

In those years, radio operators chose their callsigns, and the signal of amateur radio stations was often better and stronger than professional ones.

It got to the point that a special committee of Congress in Washington created a law project that severely limited the activities of radio amateurs.

In 1911, Albert Hyman proposed his version of the law on the telegraph without wires in his dissertation for Harvard University. The reviewer sent a copy to senator David Walsh, a member of the relevant congressional committee. The theses impressed the lawmaker so much that he invited the author to a commission meeting.

With tears in his eyes, Albert Hyman told the members of Congress how much effort and labor it took to build their small amateur radio station.

If the commission’s project is accepted, they will be forced to close their radio station, as they will not be able to pay for the license and meet other stringent requirements.

During the debate, HAM became the symbol of all the small amateur radio stations in the country, desperately resisting the pressure and threats of powerful professional radio stations.

During the discussions, all speakers came to the defense of hams. The project was rejected, and the abbreviation became the symbol of all amateur radio stations.

We found this beautiful story in the  “Radio Amateur magazine. HF and VHF” article by the Polish shortwaver K. Slomczynski (SP5HS) for 1983. Although the first interpretations, as it turned out, appeared much earlier.

In 2009, members of the Harvard Wireless Club started

investigating the veracity of the claim.

“We could find no record of Mr. Hyman appearing before congress… We could not find those three guys in our alumni directory either… We have to admit, though, it’s a very entertaining story!” – was their answer.


The “clumsy” version says that the naming of ham could have come from the shortened “ham-fisted.”

Indeed, early amateur radio stations transmitted in Morse code using a manual telegraph key. This manner is referred to as the “operator’s fist.” And one could call “ham-fisted” someone who did poorly.

However, in 1909, Robert A. Morton already mentioned the term, consisting of only one word, as a well-established definition of all radioamateurs in the “Electrician and Mechanic” magazine. Once, he overheard an amateur broadcast: “Say, do you know the fellow who is putting up a new station out your way? I think he is a ham.”

There is an explanation that HAM is the abbreviation for the name of the magazine “Home Amateur Mechanic.” Allegedly, a trendy magazine widely covered the topic of radio. However, there is no confirmation of the existence of such a publication.

The most spirited version of the radio says that HAM is formed by the capital letters of the last names of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Edwin Armstrong, and Guglielmo Marconi. Unfortunately, Armstrong was still an unknown student when the term originated. So, a beautiful guess cannot be true.

“Ham: bad operator. Fork” – perhaps the most realistic version

This definition of the word is given in J. M. Dodge’s “Telegraphy Instructor” before the advent of radio. The definition has never changed in wire telegraphy.

Fixed telegraphers were the first wireless operators. They left their offices to go to the sea or work at coastal stations. They also brought most of the traditions of their old profession.

Each station occupied the entire spectrum with its wide signal. Government stations, ships, and all amateur operators competed for time and signal superiority in each other’s receivers. Many amateur stations were powerful. Two amateurs working on the opposite side of the city could drown out the rest of the operators.

In this case, furious professional operators made phone calls to the serviced radiostation to report the situation, and the most polite word was “ham”.

But the brave radioamateurs of the time applied it to themselves in true “Yankee Doodle” style and wore it with pride. 

Over the years, the original offensive meaning has completely disappeared.