The great majority of early amateur radio enthusiasts were male. And some of the females on the airwaves felt compelled to hide their identities, as was the case with this account of an anonymous amateur from the New York City area. Until the mid-1920s, most amateurs used Morse code, so you couldn't be identified by your voice. Also, from the beginning of government licencing of amateurs in late 1912 until 1933, it was the radio transmitters which were assigned callsigns, and everyone who transmitted from an individual station used that transmitter callsign. So there was no way to determine which persons were "at the key" if they didn't choose to identify themselves. Moreover, a station's callsign entry in the callbooks listed only the name of the person who had submitted the paperwork for the station licence, which in this case was the author's brother. Station operators had to hold valid operator licences, but these didn't have callsigns assigned to them. However, most amateur stations at this time had only one operator, so in most cases when you heard a station callsign, you could be reasonably sure that the person listed in the station callbook was the operator. Radio Amateur News, March, 1920, page 490:
(1910 photograph of United Wireless commercial radio operator Graynella Packer aboard the S.S. Mohawk is from the 1913 edition of Francis A. Collins' "The Wireless Man")
The Autobiography of a Girl Amateur
Being a True Account of the Trials and Tribulations of a Lady Member of that Honorable Body of "Hams."
I WAS taught in school to avoid starting a letter or manuscript with the personal pronoun "I," but in this case I do not see how I can get around it otherwise, so, boys, overlook it this once, won't you? I started my career in the telegraphic and radiographic fields at the tender age of 18 as a copy-girl in one of the main telegraph offices of a large company, and in a city noted for its many subways and tall buildings. When I was not busy keeping "bonus" operators well supplied with stacks of messages, I was worming my way into the good graces of the wire chief, who let me practise on a "slow" local wire, where eventually I learned to send and receive the American Morse code at a fair rate of speed. Two years later I was actually given a regular wire to handle, and the fascinating dots and dashes kept me busy and content until Miss A. G. Packer came along to interrupt my peace of mind.
Perhaps some of you do not know or recall Miss Packer, so I will refresh your memories. She was the bona-fide and undisputed first sea-going woman radio operator of the Atlantic Coast, and probably of the world, for that matter. Some of you old-timers may throw down your aerial switch on me and sputter out that Mrs. Eckles of the Pacific Coast was the first, but if you do I refuse to enter into a controversy with you. You will have to fight it out with Mr. Duffy of radio fame, who knows all about the records of every radio operator, male or female, from Bobalune, Argentine, to Niki, Greenland. To get back to Miss Packer, she sailed the seas as a genuine radio operator from November, 1910, to April, 1911 on the Clyde steamer Mohawk. Many of the newspapers ran feature articles about it, showing the lady operator at her post, etc., and the future began to look dark indeed for a great number of professional radio men who saw visions of dazzling blondes and brunettes smiling prettily at old sea-dog captains.
The result of all this was that I immediately decided I wanted to become another lady operator, and, if possible, a sea-going one. Accordingly, I visited the offices of the old United Wireless Telegraph Co. and asked as to the prospects. An anaemic young man, who boastingly remarked that he had traveled to all important ports of the world as a radio operator, informed me that altho I could probably pass a telegraph test I would have to qualify as a radio operator, which meant that I should have to learn all about motor-generators, transformers, helices, detectors, three-slide tuners, etc. I left the place rather discouraged. Had I been a boy I could easily have visited nearby amateurs and thus learned at first hand just what there was to the "game," but you will admit it would not have been quite the proper thing for me to call on strange young men and ask to see their sets. I therefore, had to learn some other way. I asked my brother's help to install a small outfit, but he laughed at my earnestness and put it down as a new whim of mine. I refused to "let it go at that," as he suggested, and one day, while looking over the wares of the newsstand at the corner I noticed a unique magazine called Modern Electrics, which seemed to specialize on radio subjects. In one copy I read where a boy fourteen years old had received messages 500 miles distant on a home-made amateur outfit employing an electrolytic detector, a tuning coil, two pairs of seventy-five ohm receivers and a seventy-five foot aerial. If a boy of fourteen could accomplish such a "feat," I reasoned, so could I, and I at once began work on a similar set. I showed the magazine to my brother, who refused to become enthusiastic, but nevertheless I "forced" him to assist me in erecting a small antenna on the roof and in due time I had secured the necessary instruments and could hear the old "NY" (New York) station calling "DU" (Wilmington, Del). In those early days of radio the American Morse code was used exclusively in the radio work of this country, so I had very little difficulty in learning to read the "buzzes" as compared to the "clicks" of the telegraph sounder. Shortly after this, I purchased a two-inch spark coil, increased the length of my antenna and soon had a first-class transmitting outfit with which I earned quite a "rep" talking back and forth with New York City and other surrounding amateurs, among whom were such pioneers as "DR," "VN," "C," "CH," "PK," "YN," "PX," "GE," etc. Of course, I had a call of my own, but I cannot give it to you, as otherwise that would give me away. I do not know whether you boys will agree with me or not, but I never considered it wise to give my address to other amateurs, so that even to-day many probably wonder who I was and what became of me and my two-inch squeaky spark. Of course, in those days there was no such thing as tuning, or station licenses, or assignment of calls, or government supervision--it was just one grand "etheric medley," as it were, and for that reason there was no need of my identity being known to anyone.
At last I thought I knew enough about the game to try my luck as a professional. I therefore secured an interview with the superintendent of the radio company previously mentioned. When I told him I was prepared to take an operator's test, this gentleman smiled indulgently, then changing his expression to one of studied seriousness and importance, asked me if I was prepared to perform the duties of a radio man in every detail, which included, among other things, the climbing of a ship's rigging every morning at daybreak in order to grease the aerial wires, so that messages could "shove off" more easily. I had never heard of this "stunt" before, but I thought that if Miss Packer could do it, I certainly could also. So I answered that I was fully prepared. He laughed uproariously at this--so much so in fact that it finally dawned on me that he was jesting at my expense. I did not hesitate to tell him so either. He finally told me that he would "take my name and bear me in mind" and inform me of the next lady-operator vacancy.
I went away and waited one month without a word from the radio company. I accordingly wrote the superintendent about his promise. His answer was to the effect that a recent government decision had decreed that it was unlawful for a woman to perform the duties of a radio operator on board a vessel. I thought this a polite way of "turning me down," so I wrote to the Department of Commerce, which was then beginning to issue the so-called "Certificate of Skill." I finally secured the certificate, but not the job. At the same time I was informed, to my dismay, that my friend, the radio superintendent was quite right. Lady radio operators were no longer fashionable.
I was heart-broken. My dreams of wearing a snappy blue uniform, as the pictures of Miss Packer had shown, with sparks on my sleeves and a regular cap, were thus at an end. I forthwith decided to go to some South American or European country, where I believed the novelty of a lady radio operator would appeal to marine officials, but the great war came along and curtailed my plans. Meanwhile, I was still telegraphing and of evenings digging into the mysteries of radio. I learned to recognize and understand the difference in meaning between the words "decrement" and "oscillation," as well as what constituted the characteristic of a broad and a sharp wave. I had previously secured station operating licenses under my brother's name and had been assigned the call letters of "2??," so when the war came along and I was forced to "close down" my station, I hoped the government would be so short of radio operators that it would draft all women operators as well and send them to sea.
This, unfortunately, never came to pass, so I had to content myself by enrolling in the naval reserve force as a first-class "yeomanette." My knowledge of radio came in good stead at last, but not exactly as I would have liked it. For the space of almost a year I did nothing more exciting than to check the daily "logs" of naval radio listening-in stations, which proved to be the reading of strenuous and war-like phrases, such as "loud 500 cycle note jamming," "43K calling 96E," "testing going on," "time signals from NAA," etc.
Now that the fuss is all over, I have hooked up my set once more, which has grown to considerable proportions and includes vacuum tube and honeycomb coil reception. I have been issued a temporary permit and call letters under my brother's name, who, by the way, has become a real "ham," and you boys may now hear me working my set most any evening; that is, when I am not copying "POZ" or "LCM" on my three-step amplifier. Many a naughty "ham" has been seriously "bawled out" by me, never knowing that a mere girl was doing the "b.o." at the other end of the ether space.
In conclusion, I want to tell you boys that I have always been a deep-dyed-in-the-wool amateur, the same as you have, and probably always will be, even after I am married--my husband simply will have to stand for it. I shall see, however, that my experimenting does not interfere with the regularity of his meals. As a matter of fact I would rather buy a new storage battery for my vacuum tubes than buy a new spring hat--that is how I feel about it.
Let us hear a little more from other girl amateurs. I feel certain there must be quite a number of them in the United States. Who knows, perhaps some future day will see radio being employed as a medium of communication for the proper and conventional exchange of billets doux, as they say in France, and possibly a few Cupid's arrows will be radioed back and forth.
P. S.--Do not bother the editor by writing him and asking him for my name and address, as he has given me his word that he positively will not disclose my identity.