Ham Radio’s Paper Trail

A new book from Standard Manual

Ham, or amateur, radio may quietly circumnavigate the ether but it has tangible components as well. There are the radios themselves. There are also QSL cards, which are sort of like business cards for individual ham operators — or more to the point, for their call signs. 

This is a QSL card from Italy
Pen Pal: Where better to begin than with a card from the home country of radio innovator Guglielmo Marconi?

A trove of more than 150 such QSL cards, formerly owned by an operator who went by the call sign W2RP, was obtained by designer Roger Bova. Bova then collaborated with the book imprint Standards Manual (full disclosure: I’ve done some work with the publisher’s parent company, the design firm Order) to collect them into a handsome volume. I’m reprinting some of the images here, with the publisher’s permission.

This is a Byelorussian QSL card, reproduced in the book.
Red Hot: A Byelorussian card reproduced in the book

W2RP, as it turns out, was no ordinary “amateur.” W2RP was the late Charles Hellman, who lived to the age of 106. The cards obtained by Bova are both a visual map and a physical manifestation of the numerous conversations he participated in over what is said to have likely been the longest continuously active ham license, more than 90 years. Hellman first obtained his license at the age of 15. Some historical context: he was born in 1910, one year after the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun for their pioneering work in radio. Hellman himself taught physics in Manhattan and the Bronx, and two of his students reportedly went on to win the Nobel in physics. (More on his remarkable life at qcwa.org.)

This shows a page from the book with a Ukrainian card, each bit of information highlighted to explain how the cards contain and express data.
Between the Lines: The book details how to interpret the standard information on QSL cards.

The letters QSL, as they relate to ham radio, don’t stand for anything, not in the sense that an acronym might. As I understand it, QSL is one of many three-letter Q-codes, all beginning with Q, used in radio to transmit information in a succinct fashion. “QAK” means “Is there any risk of collision?” while “QAU” means “Where may I jettison fuel?” Many involve urgent matters. “QSE” means “What is the estimated drift of the survival craft?” and “QTW” translates, ominously, as “What is the condition of survivors?” Others, given how old this form of communication is, are less currently useful. “QTC,” for example, means “How many telegrams have you to send?” 

A card from Poland in the book.

The more I read about Q-codes, the more I wondered about two things: 

First, why don’t people who make websites make cards for them?

Second, why haven’t any of these codes caught 🔥 in social media. I, for one, am going to try to make “QRI” (“How is the tone of my transmission?”) and “QRL” (“Are you busy?”) happen. I look forward to Bandcamp musicians adopting “QOI” (“Shall I send my tape?”). “QRH” and “QRN” are less likely to catch on; they mean, respectively, “What is your wavelength in meters?” and “Are the atmospherics strong?” (And to be clear, the codes aren’t just questions. They can also connote a response, depending on how they’re employed.)

A German card — with a little raccoon — from the book

As for QSL, the Q-code in question: it stands for “Can you acknowledge receipt?” A QSL is, it’s important to appreciate, more than a business card. You send it by mail to the person with whom you’ve communicated. It’s like a personalized receipt for a conversation. This time-honored convention explains the personal notes and markings on the many cards in Hellman’s collection. 

A card from, I believe, France

Now, I’m sure I’ve muddled some of the information I’ve shared here, so if you’re a ham operator, don’t hesitate to school me; I’m here to learn. And if you have some cool QSL cards yourself, please send me some pictures, and (with your permission) I’ll post them in a future edition of This Week in Sound. 

A card from England

More on the book, QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), at standardsmanual.com. (And it’s worth mentioning that a search for “qsl card” on eBay yields nearly 100,000 returns.)

2 thoughts on “Ham Radio’s Paper Trail

  1. I received this book as a Christams gift after first reading an article about it on my cell phone. My interest in this book was based on having previously worked a graphic artist and designer in the 1970’s and 80’s BC (before computers) and with my involvement in the radio hobby. I created QSL cards for the 11 meter crowd and ham operators that I met through the hobby back in the day. This book has a very nice collection of stunning, unique and colorful QSL cards likely to impress anyone whether a radio enthusiast or visual artist. It’s a hefty book worth the price and shipping weight. This should inspire anyone on the air to create unique QSL cards of their own.

    1. Most Q signs are used when you are using Morris code. They are abbreviations So you don’t have to send a whole lot of letters to get a message across. The police also use Q signals. The hams I think created them during the onset of morse code. I don’t know if the old time telegraph operators used them. My grandfather used them back in the days of spark gap transmitters. Along with my godfather. I’m a third generation ham. K8OF. Two of my sons are hams. I’m 78 years old and been a ham for many years. Look me up in QRZ on the internet. You can find every ham on there. QSL cards are a very important part of ham radio. I have many.

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