NEWINGTON — Hiram Percy Maxim, a Hartford businessman and early ham radio enthusiast, was frustrated.
In January 1914, Maxim tried unsuccessfully to transmit a radio message from Hartford to Springfield. So he sent the message to a radio operator in Windsor Locks, who relayed it north.
Maxim, an inventor who perfected the car muffler and gun silencer, had an idea. Why not create an organization of amateur radio operators who relayed each other's messages, increasing the reach of the fledgling technology?
He put the idea to fellow ham pioneers of the Radio Club of Hartford and in May 1914, the American Radio Relay League was born.
A century later, the organization is the world's largest amateur radio organization, with more than 160,000 members. To mark its centenary, the league, based in Newington since 1938, is holding a big bash the weekend of July 19th at the Hartford Convention Center.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 ham radio aficionados from all 50 states and 38 countries will gather for training, tech talk, equipment swaps and celebration, spokesman Sean Kutzko said. In addition, amateur radio groups from Great Britain, Germany and Japan are also expected to attend, he said.
"It's absolutely breathtaking," Kutzko said of the worldwide reaction to the league's 100th birthday. "We've been working on this for four years. A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work to make this happen."
Far from fading away, amateur radio is more popular than ever, Kutzko said. About 750,000 Americans and 3 million people worldwide hold amateur radio licenses, the most ever, he said.
"I think a lot of people are surprised that amateur radio is still around in the computer age," Kutzko said. "We're still extremely relevant today. We have a very, very important role to play when everything else goes down. We're not first responders, but we help give first responders the information they need."
Ham radio played a vital role in responding to disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Kutzko said. Operators provided vital communications after other systems were destroyed, he said. Hams also provide storm-spotting and weather reports to the National Weather Service, he said.
"The response to Katrina was unprecedented," Kutzko said. "They went to hospitals and police departments, anywhere and everywhere they were needed."
In recognition of the vital role the radio league plays in disaster relief, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate, a ham radio operator, will sign an updated protocol with the group at this month's convention, Kutzko said.
But ham radio operators, who are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, do much more than disaster relief, Kutzko said. They also have fun talking to fellow hams around the world, sending postcards to confirm contacts, listening in on traffic and participating in contests to see who can make the most contacts, he said.
In addition, ham radio is a powerful educational tool that teaches electronics, physics and many other disciplines, Kutzko said. It's also a brotherhood whose members are always ready to teach and volunteer, Fugate said.
"It's an extremely educational and interesting pastime," said Kutzko, who has had his ham license since he was 13.
The league, which is nonprofit and supported by member dues, provides education, support and training and advocates for ham radio operators at the FCC and in Congress, Kutzko said.
The league's original location at Brainard Field in Hartford flooded in 1936, Kutzko said. Needing to get away from the river, the group built a brick building on Main Street in Newington surrounded by lots of space for a huge antennae.
That building, today a museum, is a mecca for amateur radio operators. Hams worldwide come to visit the museum where they can transmit using its famous W1AW call letters, which were originally Maxim's, Kutzko said.
For more information on amateur radio, visit the league's website at arrl.org/Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun