While those attending this weekend's St. Patrick's Day Hamfest may not all know each other by name, they likely will recognize each other's call signs.
Randy Karch, president of the Midland Amateur Radio Club, has been known for about 30 years by the sign N50VH. Others opt for "vanity call signs" that are made up of their initials or stand for their favorite team. Whatever the jumble of letters, Karch said the call sign is a signature for those who pride themselves on their status as a "ham" or amateur radio operator.
"We try to promote our own self-learning, self-study, self-participation," he said.
The group will share secrets of their trade with the public during Saturday's 57th annual St. Patrick's Day Hamfest and ARRL West Texas Section Convention. The event is planned for 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Downtown Lion's Club and will include informational booths, competitions and demonstrations.
Amateur radio communicators began as early as 1914, according to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for ham radio operators. They were first called ham operators because "ham" stood for "a poor operator," according to the ARRL.
It was a name that stuck even as the technology that allows for amateur radio operations continued to evolve.
"It continually changes with the technology," Karch said. "We started out years and years ago with getting our licenses with the Morse code. That sort of has gone by the wayside. We started out with five types of licenses, now we have three."
The skill of amateur radio operating can be used a number of ways, club members said.
Some volunteers from the Midland Amateur Radio Club use their radio communication abilities to assist the National Weather Service to spot and report weather events.
Because radar doesn't always show exactly what's happening, ham radio operators can take their devices into the field and report into the National Weather Service office near Midland International Airport.
Other amateur radio operators use radios to talk with fellow operators in various parts of the region, country and the world, Karch said.
Communication waves follow along with an about seven-year cycle of the sun, Karch said. So, in a year where sun spots are up, radio operators in Midland can communicate clearly with people in places as far as Australia or China.
In addition to radios, ham operators also can use digital airwaves and communicate via computer.
"Morse code was the basic start of it. (Now) there's other digital modes," Karch said. "We still do radio teletype. It's been around for years and years."
Karch said Midland's club has young children, teens and adults who've been operating radios for years.
A test will be offered at Saturday's event for people who want to earn an amateur radio license. There also will be a "cruise-in competition" where contestants will compete for the best overall looking/performing communication set-up.
For people who aren't operators, Karch said there will be plenty of activities to observe.
"We encourage the public to come and attend. It's not just ham-oriented stuff," he said.