Members Make Waves

Photo: Roy Williams

Like all dedicated hobbyists—perhaps especially those whose pursuits have geek appeal—ham radio operators revel in behavior that distinguishes them from everyone else. Ask them, for instance, about memorable moments they've shared, and you'll hear stories about banging out Morse code on their car horns when they've spotted other proud hams on the road. Such folk are easily recognized, apparently, because of the oversized antennas sprouting from their vehicles.

Given such a robust combination of fraternal fervor and techy culture, it's not surprising that Stanford has a thriving amateur radio club. What the uninitiated might not surmise is how deep the club's University roots go, and how influential its station has been. Consider just one sentence from Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, '34, Engr. '39, in his book The HP Way: "Back at Stanford, it was ham radio that helped set my future course."

What flourishes today at a "shack" in the same Foothills as the Dish is an eclectic group of student members, plus faculty and alumni mentors, whose operating experience sometimes goes back to childhood. Activities at the station (W6YX) include amateur radio's version of a sport—"contesting" to contact the most stations in the most places—and emergency preparedness that's coordinated with local public safety officials. Its humble headquarters also contain some vintage equipment, including items donated by the family of Herbert "Pete" Hoover III, '51, that have the cachet of collectibles and museum pieces.

Even without any understanding of radio science, the club's rich history is easy to appreciate. Still, at least two aspects of the pastime beg a little background information, starting with an explanation of "amateur." These are operators who obtain federal licenses and use legally allocated radio frequencies for mostly private and recreational purposes, as opposed to broadcasts by commercial stations, two-way business communications or police and fire transmissions. Then there's the obvious question of why they're routinely called hams. For that, there's no clear answer, only distinctly divergent theories.

Stanford's club began in the 1920s—an exact date or year is uncertain—and a Stanford student, Brandon Wentworth, '27, has been credited with the first award for contacting all continents. But if the club has a particular hero, it's Frederick Terman, '20, Engr. '22, a future engineering dean and University provost who was a well-known ham and technological visionary. As a professor in the electrical engineering department in the 1930s, Terman was a wellspring of support for the club.

David Leeson, PhD '62, chose Stanford for his doctoral work in part because of the presence of Oswald Garrison "Mike" Villard, Jr., a former student of Terman's and the license trustee for Stanford's station from the early 1950s to the early '80s. Leeson, a consulting professor of engineering, faculty adviser for the club and a noted ham, is the current license trustee. He describes the club as a valuable tool for Terman in influencing the direction of his field and Stanford.

A small shack out on a hill. Standing next to it is a large satellite dish pointed outwards.
SMALL SHACK, BIG IMPACT: Terman, Packard, Villard were all early enthusiasts. (Photo: Roy Williams)

"Terman in the '30s," says Leeson, "was pumping for communications science to replace power line science. . . . So he was on the alert for young radio amateurs who qualified to get into Stanford who would be interested in radio, because he wanted people to be working on communications problems. He was especially interested in antennas and the ionosphere, both of which during that period were unsolved mysteries. And that was the time when he attracted Mike Villard."

Among the accomplishments of Villard, Engr.'43, PhD '49, during a long research and teaching career at Stanford was the development of over-the-horizon radar, which bounced high-frequency signals off the ionosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere, and therefore overcame the limitations of line-of-sight radar.

To this day, when the clicks and tones of Morse code have become a language art instead of a necessity, students still discover a world of educational magic in radio. Ben Johnson, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering, began delving into ham radio after he needed to understand antenna design as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech. As someone "interested in electronics for about as long as I've been able to distinguish shapes," Johnson became enamored with the ingenuities of radio engineering.

"A friend of mine has a tracking device on his car," notes Johnson, "so that if his car gets stolen, it transmits over ham radio frequencies." That's a long-range signal, Johnson points out, that doesn't depend on cell phone service. A thief can drive it off to the middle of the woods, he says, and his friend will "be able to figure out where it is."

For Daniel Clark, club co-president and a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, the pragmatic side of ham radio has dominated his interest—even though he admits to some Morse code honking. Clark is a Michigan-licensed firefighter-medic whose interest in emergency preparedness was magnified by an experience in his mid-teens. "I was in a situation (in Michigan) where we had a forest fire and set up the radios to crossband between two different public service agencies," plugging a crucial communications gap. Clark has been part of readiness drills at Stanford, where W6YX is part of the campus emergency plan.

The club's annual student membership usually ranges from 10 to 20. The history of formal memberships is incomplete, but famous names, including Herbert Hoover Jr., '25, are associated with activities at the station. And the Packard testimonial, in the excerpt from his book that's cited on the station's web pages, could not be more epochal.

Associating with Terman at the station enabled Packard to take a graduate course in radio engineering as a senior. That was nothing less than the start, he wrote, "of events that resulted in the establishment of the Hewlett-Packard Company."


How many movies have you seen with pilots or soldiers shouting "Tango Foxtrot" this or "Delta Charlie Zulu" that into a radio? Those are words in the military/aviation phonetic alphabet that are assigned to represent letters, so that there's a clearer identification of who is talking to whom in case the transmission cuts out or there's interference from some garage door opener.

Stanford's amateur radio club operates as W6YX. Easy enough in text. But what would it be if you were straining to be sure you had contacted the hams at the Farm? Whiskey Six Yankee X-ray.