HAM Radio 101

Amateur Radio and Morse Code in Popular Culture…Some of Our Favorite Examples Part 2

Our first article on references to ham radio and Morse code in movies, television, and music received such a good response that we decided to go a second round. Here are a few more of our favorite examples.

Young Sheldon: This heartfelt and often hilarious prequel to The Big Bang Theory—the long-running sitcom about a group of brilliant, idiosyncratic friends navigating life, love, and the mere mortals in their orbit—tells the origin story of the show’s breakthrough character, theoretical particle physicist and eventual Nobel Prize winner Sheldon Cooper. Germophobic, Star Trek-worshipping young Sheldon is a fan of all things electronic. He often begs family members to take him to Radio Shack. The show is set in the late 80s. Gazing upon a Radio Shack storefront during one episode, Sheldon takes comfort in believing that in a world where so many things are impermanent, Radio Shack will always be there for him.

While not a ham, grownup Sheldon does coincidentally wear T-shirts that say “73.” As young Sheldon and later adult Sheldon, he reveals that this is his favorite prime number. His friend Leonard describes 73 as “the Chuck Norris of numbers.” To numerologists, 73 carries a heightened level of importance and spirituality. Some believe that seeing the number is a sign of good fortune sent from the angels. Of course, it simply means “best regards” to us hams.

In the finale of season two, young Sheldon invites everyone he knows in his east Texas town to come to his house to listen to a 5 a.m. Swedish broadcast of that year’s Nobel prize winners in physics via shortwave radio. No one shows up, but viewers are treated to Sheldon’s loop antenna (see if you spot the duct tape) that gets mounted on the roof. Watch the clip here.

In season three, young Sheldon flees the house to visit his mentor who is in a mental institution (too much plot to discuss here, but it’s definitely worth watching). He leaves his sister with a note divulging his intended destination written in Morse code. This sends the family to the library to decipher the message—a nostalgic throwback to those pre-internet days when access to instant information wasn’t in the palm of our hands. You can see the clip here.

The War of the Worlds: Broadcast on Halloween evening 1938, Orson Welles’ radio play based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic War of the Worlds became the stuff of legends when some listeners, believing that unfriendly Martians had landed in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, fled their homes in a panic. Research has revealed that the extent of nationwide hysteria caused by the broadcast and detailed in newspaper accounts was exaggerated, but there’s no question that many folks were convinced by the realistic breaking-news-style reports that something terrible was happening. It has been reported that a large portion of listeners who missed the show’s opening thought the crisis was an attack by the Germans or a natural disaster.

Those who hastily gathered their belongings and hit the road to escape the impending extraterrestrial onslaught likely missed this scripted plea from a ham radio operator, which comes at the end of the drama after the announcement that Martian cylinders have been dropped throughout the U.S.: “2X2L calling CQ, New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there… anyone?” Listen to the entire show here (the amateur radio operator comes on at 38:18).

The Spy: One of our alert readers reminded us of the extensive use of Morse code in The Spy, a 2019 miniseries starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen. The series is based on Cohen’s covert operations as an Israeli secret agent from 1961-65, which involved tapping out HF CW transmissions on a straight key. Watch the trailer and see if you can copy any words from his transmissions.

Joe Walsh: Is there a cooler ambassador for ham radio than guitarist extraordinaire Joe Walsh, WB6ACU? Short answer: No rocky mountain way.

Licensed in New York as a youth, the Eagles guitarist and inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a Life Member of the ARRL, collector of vintage amateur radio gear, and passionate advocate for the hobby.

In 2018, Walsh recorded several public service announcements at W1AW promoting amateur radio, noting at the time, “I want to give back to the hobby that has given me so much enjoyment.” Two of his songs feature Morse code messages. In 1972, Barnstorm’s “Giant Bohemoth” contains the message “Register to Vote.” Twenty years later on Songs for a Dying Planet’s “Certain Situations,” CW enthusiasts will note the message “Register and Vote for Me” buried underneath synthesizers at the end of the track.

In the mid-1960s, before Walsh would hit it big as a member of the Cleveland-based James Gang, he was playing in bar bands as a student at Kent State University, just a stone’s throw from DX Engineering headquarters in Tallmadge, Ohio. It is also significant to note that along with his amateur radio advocacy, Walsh is a strong supporter of military veterans and their families.

Speaking of Rocky Mountain Way, it was another ham radio legend, Bob Heil, K9EID, who created the first rock-friendly, high-powered talk box, which gave parts of the Walsh-penned tune its distinctive, other-worldly sound. In 1974, Heil gifted Peter Frampton with a talk box which was prominently featured on the eight-times platinum Frampton Comes Alive! double album, most notably on the hit singles “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do.” Read about Heil’s visit to DX Engineering and travels with the Grateful Dead in this OnAllBands article. And finally, if you need microphones, parametric receive audio systems, headsets, headset adapter cables, powered speakers, and more from Heil Sound, you’ll find them all at DXEngineering.com.

The Munsters: We conclude the second part of this series with a ham radio reference from one of the spookiest and kookiest shows from the 1960s. The Munsters ran only two seasons (September 1964 to May 1966), but that was long enough for Herman Munster, played by the great Fred Gwynne, to express his enthusiasm for EMCOMM and call CQ on his new ham radio set. You’ll find the clip here. We’ll forgive Herman for not giving his call sign during the transmission. It’s not unusual for novices to get nervous on the air. To own a piece of Munsters’ nostalgia, visit Summit Racing’s website to purchase a detailed replica of Dragula—the George Barris-created, coffin-bodied dragster featured on the show. Summit Racing is DX Engineering’s parent company.

Stay tuned! We’ll cover ham radio and The Addams Family in part 3.

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