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Organization explores radio history

Alyssa Morones | Friday, October 10, 2008

In 1899 Notre Dame professor of Telegraphy Jerome Green sent the first “long distance” wireless signal in America with a self-built transmitter from atop a Notre Dame flagpole (which later would sit atop the Basilica of the Sacred Heart) to a receiver perched on Saint Mary’s clock tower a mile away.

Today, Notre Dame students continue the wireless radio tradition with the Amateur Radio Club – an organization that encompasses many different facets of radio, from Morse code to antenna design.

The Amateur Radio Club, which uses a system known as Ham radio, is one of Notre Dame’s oldest clubs. The University’s archives are riddled with newspaper clippings and photographs detailing Notre Dame”s history in radio. In 1933 in Washington Hall, University President Emeritus, Fr. John F. O’Hara, presented an honorary degree to Guglielmo Marconi, the first man to successfully transmit messages without the aid of wire.

Today, Ham radio continues to allow participants to contact each other using various types of radio communications equipment. The system is also useful in emergency or disaster situations. After Hurricane Katrina, when all corporate owned radio systems were down, Ham radio helped to organize volunteer services.

Notre Dame’s current chapter of the Amateur Radio Club was started four years ago. The club “allows people with similar interests to explore various radio communication systems,” club president Patrick Kane.

In contrast to what the title implies, Amateur Radio does not denote a lack of skill. The club’s faculty advisor, Finance Professor Barry Keating, said “the reason operators are called amateurs is because they don’t do it for money. In fact, these students are quite skilled.”

“Amateur Radio Club encourages worldwide communication,” Kane said. “The bond between the club members is good and we have a really supportive faculty.”

The club receives particular support from Notre Dame’s Engineering department as some members of the department are active radio operators. Interest in the club, though, is not confined to students and professors. One of the members of Notre Dame’s maintenance staff is a skilled Morse code operator.

Club members’ interest in radio stems from various places. “I’ve always been fascinated with radio,” Kane said. “A high school teacher got me into it. I’ve always wanted to make my own radio-controlled car.”

Club member and junior Electrical Engineering major Marcin Morys said he joined the Amateur Radio Club because of his interest in researching wireless communication.

Professor Keating’s interest can be traced back to his childhood, when one of his neighbors invited him to talk to someone halfway around the world using a radio he had set up in his garage.

As one of Notre Dame’s only technically oriented clubs, the Amateur Radio Club gives students the opportunity to explore their technical inclinations. “It’s not uncommon for students to actually wind up taking jobs similar to the extracurricular activities they participated in while in college,” Keating said.

“What’s great about Ham radio is that the possibilities are endless – you’re not confined to one aspect,” Kane said.

The club participates in a wide range of activities. In the past, Notre Dame students might have spotted the Amateur Radio Club’s members wandering in the quad with what looked like large TV antennae, trying to bounce signals off satellites. Also, last year the club bought a transceiver kit for each club member that they built together and allowed them to communicate with people around the world.

Later in the year, the club plans to hold their Amateur Radio licensing class, which gives students the opportunity to get their Amateur Radio license in a single day. The class consists of a cram session followed by an FCC administered test, which no longer includes Morse code. Notre Dame’s club has never had a student fail this test, Keating said.