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Coming in Loud and Clear

Ham radio verification cards on exhibit at Harford Community College

BY MARISSA GALLO, mgallo@theaegis.com

10:56 AM EDT, August 10, 2011

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Before cell phones and Facebook, there was amateur — or ham — radio. These radio operators would connect with other people around the world and share what daily life was like on their side of the country — or sometimes globe — all from the comfort of their own homes.

One or several radios would take up space on kitchen tables or office desks where plates and papers would normally be and act as the base of these experimental radio stations, called "shacks," just waiting for another person's voice to come in through the airwaves.

Indeed, it's a hobby that persists in some circles, despite the emergence of other instant communication venues like the Internet.

After operators connected with one another over the radio, they would exchange QSL (query station location) verification cards through the mail. Sending QSL cards became so popular that bureaus would be placed in different towns, made specifically for collecting and distributing cards. These verification cards designed by the operators acted as a sort-of visual representation of the person who sent it (the computer age equivalent would be modern day avatars).

Between 1920 and 1980, the heydays of amateur radio, thousands upon thousands of these cards were mailed around the world, connecting operators everywhere. And one of these ham radio operators was the grandfather of Kenneth Jones.

"I was in my basement and I opened up a box, and it was an odor from the box that brought me back to my grandfather, who pretty much through the '70s was a ham radio operator. And there was small stack of cards he had in that box," Jones, an associate professor of art and design at Harford Community College, said.

Jones, 47, of Newark, Del., is the curator of a QSL ham radio verification card exhibit showing at HCC, 401 Thomas Run Road in Bel Air, in the Chesapeake Gallery through Sept. 15.

Jones, who isn't a ham radio operator but has "a little bit of interest" in it, was drawn in by the design element of the QSL cards. "I'm an artist and designer, so I collect a lot of stuff, especially odd things. So, I'm always looking for odd stuff that's always in the margins," he said. "My interest is in the way that the cards represent wireless connection before the Internet."

The cards featured in the exhibit, HPE 2 WRK U AGN SN, are visually striking, whether in its use of vivid color, drawings or starkness and simplicity. What they all have in common: each card is a piece of that operator's personality and home life.

"They would create these somewhat fictional accounts of themselves, a more Utopian or idealistic sense of the self, and that's one of the big interests I have in the culture of the cards," Jones said. What's most surprising to learn, especially when looking at the more elaborate cards, is that most operators didn't have design or art backgrounds. "There are some, though, that it's very apparent that there's a real attempt to utilize the [card] space as a design space artistically," Jones went on to say. "What I like is some of the cards look more finished and some of the cards look more primitive."

Designs of the more elaborate QSL cards range from renderings of famous cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse,Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny are all well represented throughout the exhibit), pin-up girls and realistic portraits of the operator himself. On the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous cards that show nothing other than a shack's call letters and a postage stamp.

All of the cards in the exhibit, roughly 600 in all, are from Jones' personal collection of about 10,000.

"I got really interested a few years ago in these and started to look for them and found they were really hard to locate. So, I started out through the Internet, which was helpful," he said. "I started to understand some of the systems of the way these cards were organized and delivered and started to understand the language." Jones then reached out to other ham operators and collectors to discuss QSL cards.

It was this passion and fascination with the postcard-size representations of ham radio operators that inspired the current exhibit. The oldest cards, Jones mentioned, come from the late 1910s and the post-World War II era, and are all organized by design or style.

"They're prized. They're really personal," he said. "These cards really represent the ways, through my eyes, [operators used] strategies of design to relate themselves to one another."

The most highly prized cards, however, show markings from the postal system and how they were handled.

Often times, these QSL cards would be the first and possibly last time the two operators would connect, a bittersweet fact they were very much aware of. Because it was never guaranteed two people would speak again, remarks written — mostly in shorthand — on the cards were personal and would often express how they enjoyed "chewing the rag" with each other and hoped they would talk again soon. This sentiment was the inspiration, Jones said, for the exhibit's name.

Despite this often-fleeting connection, "the community of ham radio operators has this really strong brotherhood and there's a really strong sense of unity and friendship," Jones said. While most of the senders and recipients of the QSL cards on exhibit are long gone, their friendship and love for ham radio communication still shows.