CQ de KH6
The signals emanating from the islands of Hawai'i find a special place in the heart of many a ham located around the world. There is the lure of exotic beaches, the legendary charm and beauty of the wahine, the lilting music symbolized by the steel guitar, the promise of eternal summer. All of this certainly exists, but there is much more to be found in the fiftieth state of the U.S., surrounded, as it is, by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. And so we are not surprised to hear that the history of amateur radio in Hawai'i contains a number of interesting aspects as well.
When Captain James Cook landed at Waimea, the island of Kaua'i, on that epochal January 20, 1778, a process evolved which catapulted the indigenous Hawaiians, a people of Polynesian extraction, into the modern world and led to a massive immigration from the four corners of the world. The Hawaiians themselves manifested an extraordinary skill in adapting to the myriad of outside influences without completely sacrificing their own culture and traditions. And so we find a hundred years after Cook, mule-drawn streetcars and gas lanterns in Honolulu, which in 1850 had become the capital of the kingdom. In 1883 a telephone was installed in 'lolani Palace, the home of King Kalakaua, which had just been completed, and in 1886, a mere seven years after Thomas Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb, the palace shone forth in electric splendor. In 1891, when Kalakaua lay dying in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, he spoke a farewell to his people preserved on an Edisonian wax cylinder.
It is thus not very surprising that amateur radio began early in the islands, which in 1898 had been annexed by the United States.. In the registry of Radio Stations of the United States of July 1, 1915, compiled by the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation, Radio Service, we find only a number of stations run by the Marconi Company, the Hawaiian telephone service, and by the military, to be sure, but in the Citizens' Radio Call Book, of November 1923, the predecessor of today's Callbook, we discover no fewer then seventeen ham stations located in the then Territory. And among those seventeen we find several gentlemen with Chinese names. Two old-timers commented with a smile: "Well, the Chinese had much money whereas the Japanese and the Hawaiians had little."
Indeed, one of the earliest hams in the Islands was Wah Chan Chock, 6ASR, who resided on Beretania Street. Hawai'i, at that time, shared the numeral 6 with California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. In California there were some 360 stations in 1915 already, many sporting 1 KW. When prefixes denoting the country were initiated, Hawai'i was first given HU6 and then K6 in contrast to hams on the U.S. mainland who were identified by the prefix W. The prefix KH6 was created only after World War II.
Ham activities in Hawai'i began in 1923 with an experimental station, 6XAP, "The Electric Shop" in Honolulu. A few years later a radio club was installed in a building in Manoa Valley belonging to the Hume Ford Foundation for International Understanding. Another radio club opened its doors on the grounds of the Territorial Fair on the Alawai Canal. The call sign was HU6BUC. For a while, Hawai'i was also assigned the prefix OH6.
Nobody was any longer active than Francis Blatt, KH6KH, (1911-2005) who received his license in 1928, having run some experiments as early as 1926. Since the FCC had not been formed yet, Francis had to report to the top radioman of the U.S. Navy, in the radio station of the U.S. Fleet, Honolulu harbor, to take the required test. The interlocutor, however, was not particularly versed in the international Morse code ... Francis, in any case, was given the call sign K6ETF.
Just as did everyone else, Francis was at first mostly interested in competing with the official radio stations run by Honolulu's two dailies. In other words, he broadcast music on 75m employing Heising modulation and 500 watts. This, however, caused interference with the receiving station of the Mutual Telephone Company, located in Wai'alae Kahala, where the present golf course is now situated. The station facilitated telephone communication between O'ahu, Maui, Hawai'i and Kaua'i. And so Francis turned to dx-ing, and running a mere 7-1/2 watts he contacted VK, W, and JA. His final consisted of a UX210 made by RCA, the original Marconi company which in the meantime had acquired a more American name. QRP soon lost its fascination and Francis increased his power to 500 watts.
Other grey eminences in the Islands were Fred Mason, KH6OR, who went onto the air in the twenties aged only fourteen but was then located on the American continent and not in Hawai'i, and, of course, Katoshi Nose, KH6IJ, whose column on ham radio appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser for more than four decades, and whose call sign is still remembered around the world.
Of the approximately 1,700 hams licensed in Hawai'i only a handful work dx regularly. This is a phenomenon existing in many other places, of course, but in Hawai'i with its beautiful beaches, golf courses, fine weather all year long, it is particularly pronounced. There are just too many distractions. Old-timers are somewhat worried about a lack of interest among the young in amateur radio, what with the competition of the ubiquitous web and e-mail. And yet Hawai'i seems predestined for dx-ing. The nearest continent is some 2,400 miles away and Hawai'i's closest neighbors, the Republic of Kiribati (T32), formerly the Gilbert Islands, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (V73) are still relatively far away. The closest point, Fanning Island, in fact is at a distance of some 900 miles from Honolulu, and little competition emanates from there anyway.
Those who do not live among the high-rises of Honolulu or too close to the mountains thus are in a very favorable dx position. When the conditions are right, signals come in crystal-clear from Europe and other regions which to someone living in Hawai'i seem exotic. And such countries as VK, ZL, F08 can be worked easily with modest installations. This is important since fewer and fewer hams can afford the rather expensive one-family homes and have to manage with rental apartments and condominiums limiting the construction of sizeable antennas.
The heyday of the ham movement in Hawai'i was reached in the wake of World War II when at long last one could go on the air again and when it was possible to find for little money all kinds of surplus materials. After a while the general enthusiasm declined, however, and matters stabilized on a lower level. Until about 1980 many hams built their own stations while now practically all the equipment is produced commercially. Robust antenna towers were also widespread until the end of the 70s.
Aficionados of vhf can partake of a widespread net of repeaters. It allows them easy access to the six principal islands of the group.
For decades MARS radio played a significant role to overcome the immense distances of the Pacific, which after all accounts for 1/3 of the surface of the earth. In the age of the internet, e-mail, and cheap phone-calls the situation has changed markedly, but ham-radio is still important in medical emergencies and natural disasters, such as the hurricane Iniki which hit Kaua'i in 1992 and immediately knocked out all official communication. In a rapidly changing world, furthermore, communication on a private basis between people of different backgrounds serves as a much-needed means to strengthen international ties and further mutual tolerance and understanding.
The definitive history of amateur radio in Hawai'i has not been written yet, but the outlines are by now fairly clear. It certainly would be worthwhile to compile a comprehensive work which might include the histories of other Pacific archipelagoes such as Tahiti, Tonga, the two Samoas, the Cook Islands, Vanu Atu, the Solomons etc. Moana Pakipika, the Pacific, is a fascinating region, and the evolution of amateur radio in this largest of all the oceans is not devoid of romance and mystery.
Niklaus R. Schweizer, KH6/HB9VP
Honolulu, October 10, 2002
Revised November 15, 2005
(copyright 2005 Niklaus R. Schweizer)