HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Wireless Club Marks 90 Years on Airwaves
By Alvin Powell
A stream of beeps cut the air in the small radio room, or the "shack," as wireless radio operators call it. To the untrained ear, the beeps are a meaningless staccato blast, but to a ham, the beeps spell out the dashes and dots of Morse code.
With a practiced hand, Mike Manafo, trustee of the Harvard Wireless Club, taps a reply, sending out a machinelike, rapid-fire stream of beeps.
Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the Harvard Wireless Club is the nation's oldest amateur radio club. Its call sign, W1AF, is known by radio operators worldwide.
"You say your call sign and people recognize it," said club President Frank Wright, a junior, who said he was attracted by the club's history and tradition.
The club got its start in 1909 as the Radio Society of the Institute for Geographic Exploration at Harvard and changed to its current name a year later. The club received its call sign, W1AF, shortly after the government began issuing signs to amateurs in the early 1920s.
The radio Manafo is operating is one of a dozen or so black boxes fronted with dials and knobs that form three operating stations in the wood-paneled room. The boxes are arranged on tables pushed against two of the room's walls, forming an L-shape and leaving room for a couple of swivel chairs in the remaining floor space.
The Harvard Wireless Club's "shack," on the second floor of the former squash courts on Linden Street, is small, but not cramped. Carpeted and lit with table lamps, it is functional yet comfortable, providing space for its intended purpose -- talking on the radio.
"He was a Russian," said Manafo, ending the radio communication and swiveling from the box. Manafo holds a doctorate from the Graduate School of Education and is a 10-year club member.
The Russian contact was one of thousands made by Harvard Wireless Club members each year. Hams communicate by talking over the radio or by tapping out a conversation using Morse code. It's the thrill of communicating with someone from another country that brings many into the wireless radio world.
"I like speaking with other stations in the country and in other parts of the world," said club Vice President Nicholas Guydosh, a sophomore who received his radio license at age 12. "I like to learn how life is in other places."
Wright, both of whose parents are amateur radio operators, shares Manofo's and Guydosh's love of wireless radio. The club, Wright said, combines that love with the ability to socialize with others who share his passion.
"We're a lot about socializing and the history, the ritual, the tradition of wireless radio, enjoying it for what it is," Wright said.
The club is planning a special event, a kind of radio marathon, to mark its 90th anniversary. During the event, scheduled for Oct. 2 and 3, members will work their machines for about 30 hours and see how many radio contacts they can make. They're aiming to make 2,000 contacts, twice the 1,000 made during the 80th anniversary special event in 1989.
The club has survived nine decades, but is wrestling with changing times and a changing communications landscape. Club officers admit the rise of the Internet -- with chat rooms providing instant communication with people from across the world -- has created competition for amateur radio.
The beginning of the end of Morse code may also have come. Though still popular among ham radio operators, it is no longer required in order to get a beginner's radio license. Morse code ceased to be an official means of emergency communication for ships at sea in February, displaced by advanced satellite technology.
Ham radio operators also communicate by voice, though, providing an avenue of communication still uncommon on the Internet. There is also a measure of camaraderie available to club members who can socialize face-to-face with other members who share similar interests.
"As much as we hate to admit it, the Internet has cut into the ranks of ham radio," Manafo said. "But we don't do chat rooms. We get on the air and chat. We talk with our voices, we talk with our fingers."
The club is using the Internet itself, though, keeping in touch with members via e-mail and setting up a Web page (http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~w1af) for those seeking information about its operations and activities.
The Harvard Wireless Club focuses more on training than public service, but the opportunity to help others is something that attracts people to wireless radio.
Amateur radio operators form a voluntary emergency communications network that, in times of major disasters, help keep communications lines open. When Hurricane Mitch devastated the Caribbean last year, for example, wireless radio operators provided emergency communications, helping arrange relief supplies and notify loved ones about the safety of family members.
The club currently has about 20 members, about half of whom are undergraduates, and welcomes all Harvard affiliates. Though some, like Wright and Manafo, came to the club already licensed to operate a radio, the club is open to all, licensed or not. For those who are unlicensed, the club will provide study materials to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission.
"I've seen undergrads come in, grab a book, and a week later bang through for a license," Manafo said.
Over the years, the club has had many homes, including the top of the football stadium, 52 Dunster St., and its current digs, on the second floor of the former squash courts on Linden Street, which are being renovated to be used as exhibition and studio space. The main radio room has two high-frequency radios and one very- high-frequency setup that has satellite communications capabilities.
The club is mostly self-funded, though its facility is provided by the University. It raises money jointly with the radio club at M.I.T. by running an electronics flea market during the warm months and also raises money through equipment sales and donations by alumni.
The club meets weekly, on Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m., in their third-floor club room. Though they meet regularly, the organization is not a highly-structured group, Manafo said.
"We've classically been a loose and informal organization," Manafo said. "Put a bunch of hams in a room and they're not going to run out of things to say."
Manafo said he's seen the club go through many changes, shrinking and expanding in membership and in its level of activity, depending on the needs and dedication of members.
"We used to worry that the Harvard Wireless Club might fold due to lack of interest in the University community in ham radio. But the fact is, our club is the oldest in the country and we're picking up new members and launching new initiatives all the time," Manafo said. "I venture the Harvard Wireless Club will be around for a long, long time."
Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College