I frequently find myself caught somewhere between the criticism of twitter as full of mindless blather and the praise of it as a new venue for communication and information sharing (see: protests in Iran as examples of the latter and just about anywhere else as examples of the former). But as someone trained as an historian, I’m less interested in historical ruptures and things being created ex-nihilo than I am in the strange ebb and flow of historical tides, especially where technology is concerned.
So, I found myself thinking about Ham Radio because the thing about Ham Radio was that people mostly tinkered in their basements and sent out signals trying to get in touch with as many people as they could. When you tuned in another Ham operator, you usually acknowledged receipt of the signal by sending them a postcard in the mail, noting the time and day of the signal you tuned in. The postcards themselves are sometimes really beautiful, but that’s a different story.
See where this is going? On Ham Radio, people were communicating over long distances, with one another, but the impetus and conventions here had less to do with saying something in particular; the impulse here was to say anything at all. The goal was not the proverbial “deep and meaningful” conversation, but just the act of communication.
So, and I went ahead and bought a bunch of ham radio postcards on ebay (mostly because I could, but also because, it turns out, they’re fascinating). I bought a lot of 264 cards from the early 1950s, collected by a man named Dale Wolters of Zeeland, Michigan. Call Letters: W8GEH. All of these cards were sent to him from people who heard his signal — and they are from all over the world: South Africa, Spain, Germany, the Caribbean, Mexico. Ham Radio was global long before all this talk of “globalization.”
People were connecting just to connect long before twitter breathed its first tweet.