From the ARRL page, Ham Radio History
Ham: a poor operator; a ‘plug’ (G. M. Dodge; The Telegraph Instructor)
The first wireless operators were landline telegraphers who left their offices to go to sea or to man the coastal stations. They brought with them their language and much of the tradition of their older profession. In those early days, every station occupied the whole spectrum with its broad spark signal. Government stations, ships, coastal stations and the increasingly numerous amateur operators all competed for time and signal supremacy in each other’s receivers. Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working each other across town, could effectively jam all the other operations in the area. Frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them “hams.” Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.
From RF Magazine Article
Why radio amateurs are called “HAMS”
(from Florida Skip Magazine – 1959)
Have you ever wondered why radio amateurs are called “HAMS?” Well, it goes like this: The word “HAM” as applied to 1908 was the station CALL of the first amateur wireless stations operated by some amateurs of the Harvard Radio Club. They were ALBERT S. HYMAN, BOB ALMY and POOGIE MURRAY.
At first they called their station “HYMAN-ALMY-MURRAY”. Tapping out such a long name in code soon became tiresome and called for a revision. They changed it to “HY-AL-MU,” using the first two letters of each of their names. Early in 1901 some confusion resulted between signals from amateur wireless station “HYALMU” and a Mexican ship named “HYALMO.” They then decided to use only the first letter of each name, and the station CALL became “HAM.”
In the early pioneer days of unregulated radio amateur operators picked their own frequency and call-letters. Then, as now, some amateurs had better signals than commercial stations. The resulting interference came to the attention of congressional committees in Washington and Congress gave much time to proposed legislation designed to critically limit amateur radio activity. In 1911 ALBERT HYMAN chose the controversial WIRELESS REGULATION BILL as the topic for his Thesis at Harvard. His instructor insisted that a copy be sent to Senator DAVID I. WALSH, a member of one of the committees hearing the Bill. The Senator was so impressed with the thesis is that he asked HYMAN to appear before the committee. ALBERT HYMAN took the stand and described how the little station was built and almost cried when he told the crowded committee room that if the BILL went through that they would have to close down the station because they could not afford the license fees and all the other requirements which the BILL imposed on amateur stations.
Congressional debate began on the WIRELESS REGULATION BILL and little station “HAM” became the symbol for all the little amateur stations in the country crying to be saved from the menace and greed of the big commercial stations who didn’t want them around. The BILL finally got to the floor of Congress and every speaker talked about the “…poor little station HAM.” That’s how it all started. You will find the whole story in the Congressional Record.
Nation-wide publicity associated station “”HAM” with amateur radio operators. From that day to this, and probably until the end of time in radio an amateur is a “HAM.”