The Daily Heller: The Art and Design of Ham (Radio)

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As a kid, I was fascinated by two-way (wireless) radio communications. I started with what you might call the gateway equipment, two walkie-talkies. They were battery-powered Citizen Band radios with a range of two or more city blocks. When that power no longer satisfied my bandwidth needs, I graduated to a stationary CB transceiver, known as a rig. I souped it up (or, rather, a radio freak in the neighborhood made the modifications) so that I could transmit and receive up to two or three miles. I convinced my father to install a rig in the family car, and place a six foot long antenna on the rear bumper. In the late ’50s and early ’60s it was common to see one of these flexible antennas on ordinary civilian vehicles. There was a huge community of mobile CB operators chatting to one another in cars and base stations.

There was novelty in talking to someone on a wireless unit—a huge party line, where in order to join a conversation one would say “break, break” and then recite their call numbers (mine was KBJ2055). Conversations ran the gamut from how to soup up a rig beyond the FCC guidelines to what was for dinner. It was a colossal yet wonderful waste of time.

But for the real transmitting fanatics, CB radio was never the ultimate thrill. Ham or amateur radio was the ultimate means to reach out and touch somebody, not just a mile or two away, but given the proper weather conditions, hundreds, even thousands of miles from one’s personal radio shack (which in my case was a corner of my bedroom).

CB did not require an exam or any experience to be an operator. Ham was regulated and required knowledge of communications technology. I was just competent enough to earn a novice “ticket,” or license to transmit within a limited range. But there was no reason I couldn’t listen in to broadcasts from all over the globe, given the right equipment and conditions.

Whether CB or Ham, one of the prizes was making contact and sharing addresses. In return, the operators mailed out and collected QSL cards. QSL means either “do you confirm receipt of my transmission?” or “I confirm receipt of your transmission.” It can also mean “please send me a QSL card.” These are usually about the same size as a postcard, often elaborately decorated to express individuality.

They routinely showed a call number, place of origin, time, date, frequency, reception quality. Some had illustrative elements, others just type. They are still used, often sent digitally. Although Ham is still practiced, the internet has pretty much taken over.

For Standards Manual, the graphics associated with this tech were a revelation, and in QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), the indie publisher presents a collection (on sale starting today) of over 150 QSL cards, showcasing the often overlooked visual history of amateur radio. Upon seeing an archive from the collection of designer Roger Bova, the Standards Manual team was amazed by the graphics, says Jesse Reed. “The cards reveal a rich typographic expression that is rare in their authenticity—each card a personal reflection of the station’s operator.”

The book is organized chronologically, starting in the late 1970s and continuing through 1989. Each card is shown at 1:1 scale without any modifications to its original design, including both front and back sides. Throughout the book, details are included alongside particular cards, enlarging various elements at 500–600% scale. This decision was something that Standards Manual’s creative team thought designers, archivists and radio enthusiasts would particularly appreciate.

QSL cards were like trophies tacked on the walls of an operator’s base station. I acquired quite a few (both CB and Ham), and bought others from printers and dealers found in the backs of radio magazines. Yet the cache disappeared long ago. This book brings back memories of the obsession and compulsion I experienced while majoring in Citizens Band (because the setup was so easy) and minoring in Ham (because I could never get my second-hand Hallicrafters rig to work right).