UNITED STATES EARLY RADIO HISTORY
THOMAS H. WHITE
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Pioneering Amateurs (1900-1917)
Radio captured the imagination of thousands of ordinary persons who wanted to experiment with this amazing new technology. Until late 1912 there was no licencing or regulation of radio transmitters in the United States, so amateurs -- known informally as "hams" -- were free to set up stations wherever they wished. But with the adoption of licencing, amateur operators faced a crisis, as most were now restricted to transmitting on a wavelength of 200 meters (1500 kilohertz), which had a limited sending range. They successfully organized to overcome this limitation, only to face a second hurdle in April, 1917, when the U.S. government shut down all amateur stations, as the country entered World War One.
Beginning in the late 1880s, Heinrich Hertz conducted a series of experiments in Germany which proved the existence of radio waves. Moreover, the devices used in early radio demonstrations could readily be constructed by self-trained individuals -- in the July 6, 1894 The Electrician (London), Oliver Lodge, reviewing "The Work of Hertz", noted that "Many of the experiments lend themselves to easy repetition, since they require nothing novel in the way of apparatus except what is easily constructed; many of them can be performed with the ordinary stock apparatus of an amateur's laboratory." A few months later, 21-year-old Guglielmo Marconi began his historic experiments on his father's Italian estate.
Prior to late 1912, there were no laws or regulations restricting amateur radio transmitters in the United States. The industrialized northeast quickly became congested with a mixture of competing amateur and commercial stations, and it was the amateur operators who sometimes dominated the airwaves, as recounted in Irving Vermilya's Amateur Number One, from the February and March, 1917 issues of QST magazine. (Vermilya came from the ranks of a group which provided a number of the earliest radio enthusiasts -- amateurs operating private telegraph lines, who wanted to expand their range without the bother of having to ask the "Mr. Taylors" of the world for permission to string their wires. Amateur Telegraphers, from the August 6, 1892 Electrical Review, reviewed a plan in Cranford, New Jersey to interconnect 30 locations by telegraph lines.) Although most amateur enthusiasts were male, in 1911 a young woman, who worked as a landline telegrapher but hoped to someday become a shipboard radio operator, joined the New York City-area airwaves. Her personal review of early radio, The Autobiography of a Girl Amateur, appeared anonymously in the March, 1920 Radio Amateur News. The Feminine Wireless Amateur, from the October, 1916 The Electrical Experimenter reviewed female amateur and professional radio operators.
It was difficult at first for amateur experimenters to find technical information about radio. In Hertzian Waves, the November, 1901 issue of a mechanical and electrical hobbyist magazine, Amateur Work, included construction information for a simple transmitter and receiver, similar to what Heinrich Hertz had used. Another early resource was How to Construct An Efficient Wireless Telegraph Apparatus at Small Cost, by A. Frederick Collins, from the February 15, 1902 Scientific American Supplement -- in 1917, Donald McNicol reported that within the United States "this article did more to introduce the art of amateur radio than anything else that had appeared". Many early amateurs were young, and most built their own spark-transmitters and receivers. In Amateur Work's June, 1904 issue, "Wireless" Telegraph Plant By Amateur Work Readers showcased the efforts of two Boston, Massachusetts 8th graders, who had built a set capable of covering eight miles (12.8 kilometers). And the September, 1906 Technical World Magazine included an article by M. W. Hall, Wireless Station in Henhouse, which featured the activities of two Rhode Island teenagers. Over time radio technology became more refined, and an eight-part series beginning in the September, 1916 Popular Science Monthly, How to Become a Wireless Operator by T. M. Lewis, provided detailed plans for constructing a tuned spark transmitter and crystal detector receiver.
One of the first companies to sell affordable radio equipment to experimenters and amateurs was the Electro Importing Company of New York City, set up in 1904 by Hugo Gernsback, an 18-year-old immigrant from Luxembourg. Beginning in 1905, this company sold what may have been the first complete radio system -- including both a simple transmitter and receiver -- offered to hobbyists on a national scale, under the name of Telimco Wireless Telegraph Outfits. The first national advertisement for Telimco outfits -- possibly the first-ever advertisement by a company offering an inexpensive complete radio system to non-professionals -- appeared in the November 25, 1905 issue of Scientific American. The Electro Importing offerings were later expanded, and in a 1910 catalog, which featured "Everything for the Experimenter", the company claimed it was "the largest makers of experimental Wireless Material in the world". The basic Telimco systems, plus other radio transmitting and receiving equipment, are included in a 1910 extract from Electro Importing Company: Catalogue No. 7.
Hugo Gernsback would continue to be one of amateur radio's strongest proponents during its first years. In addition to the radio equipment sold through his Electro Importing Company, Gernsback started three magazines with large amateur followings -- Modern Electrics in 1908, The Electrical Experimenter in 1913, and Radio Amateur News in 1919. He also claimed credit for coming up with the idea of assigning amateurs to 200 meters, dating to an Editorial which appeared in the February, 1912 issue of Modern Electrics. Gernsback's other accomplishments were recounted in a rousing review which closes with "Long live the Wireless! Long live the Amateur!!": Wireless and the Amateur: A Retrospect, from the February, 1913 Modern Electrics. And the 1914 Electro Importing catalog included A Sermon To Parents, written by Gernsback, which predicted that "Electricity and Wireless are the coming, undreamed of, world-moving forces" and were also the perfect hobby, because "It Keeps Your Boy At Home". (At least it did in most cases. Gernsback may have been unaware of "an up-to-date band of rogues" whose run-in with the law was recounted in Wireless Telegraphy Used by Boy Burglars, from the July 27, 1909 The Atlanta Constitution.)
The number of amateur radio enthusiasts started to expand, especially in the industrial northeast. The October, 1908 issue of Electrician and Mechanic reported on this growing "mania" in Wireless Telegraph Stations in Baltimore, meanwhile, Night Air Full of Wireless, from the April, 1909 Modern Electrics, noted that hundreds of amateur experimenters were now active in the New York City area. (Boy Experts in Wireless Telephoning, from the October 8, 1911 New York Herald, reviewed the activities of the Junior Wireless Club, formed in 1909, whose unwritten slogan was "Marconi was once an amateur".) In the Amateur Stations and Selective Tuning chapter of H. LaVerne Twining's 1909 Wireless Telegraphy and High Frequency Electricity, the author reviewed the emergence of amateur radio stations around Los Angeles, California, noting that "The solution of interference is not to be found by driving the amateurs out of the field" because "The amateur is then only bringing to the front, more forcibly, the necessity for selective tuning." The "Wireless" Devotees of Chicago, which appeared in the July 21, 1910 issue of Electrical World, reported that "There are estimated to be not less than 800 amateur stations in Chicago" who were practicing a form of self-regulation -- one rule being "Don't interfere with commercial stations, or one day you will miss your antennae." At this point national magazines began to help amateurs to organize. In mid-1908, Modern Electrics notified its readers that it was preparing a "Wireless Registry" of amateurs, and was planning to publish an annual national "Blue Book" listing -- its July, 1908 review of the Wireless Registry listed the first ten members. A few months later, the January, 1909 issue of Modern Electrics announced its formation of a free "Wireless Association of America" -- by January, 1910 the W.A.O.A., now claiming 3,000 members, was rallying its membership to fight the proposed Roberts bill, warning that "Congress threatens to pass a law licensing all amateurs". Meanwhile, in its September, 1908 issue, Electrician and Mechanic reviewed the 114 charter members of its own free organization in The Wireless Club, which promoted both national and local groups of amateurs. The magazine's first locally affiliated group, "Wireless Club 1", was formed in Chicago, Illinois, and beginning with its October, 1908 issue, a new monthly Wireless Club column featured news of interest to amateurs and experimenters.
Eventually, interference being caused by amateur antics, again especially in the northeast, began to get national attention. Regulation of Wireless, from the March 3, 1906 Electrical World, commented on the trouble being caused by local amateurs to the Navy's station at Newport, Rhode Island, and suggested that "the time has now come when in wireless telegraphy it is either regulation or chaos". A short report in the May 25, 1907 Electrical World, Wireless and Lawless, documented the inability of authorities to legally prevent an amateur from maliciously interfering with the operation of the government station at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. In response, a letter from Lee DeForest, Interference With Wireless Messages, published in the June 22nd issue, stated that this incident "brings up strikingly the necessity for early legal protection of legitimate workers from such vandals", declaring that "the ubiquitous amateur with his high-school Ruhmkorf coil, the operator of the 'brute force and ignorance' wireless school, must be eliminated", with the use of crude spark-transmitters replaced by more refined continuous-wave transmitters. On the West Coast, a headline in Karl H. von Wiegand's "Stop It, Kid!" Cries Congress to the American Boy, in the March 29, 1908 San Francisco Call, declared that "A drastic law must be passed because the wireless instruments of inventive youngsters are interfering with the official aerograms of the government." In its January, 1909 issue, Editorials in Electrician and Mechanic reported that the magazine would not be releasing an updated list of commercial stations, because the companies were upset about the disruption being caused by amateur stations trying to contact them. The magazine also cautioned its readers not to interfere with commercial and Navy operations, noting: "Don't get the idea that the ether is free, for Uncle Sam has police powers even over the ether, if he cares to exercise them". The U.S. Navy in particular had problems, partly due to the use of primitive and inefficient equipment. In the February 27, 1909 The Outlook, Wireless Interlopers commented on the amateur interference which had blocked the Navy's attempt to contact the "Great White Fleet" as it returned from an around-the-world voyage. Wireless Interference, by Robert A. Morton, which appeared in the April, 1909 Electrician and Mechanic, reported that although some amateur stations had helped out by handling Navy traffic when the naval stations were out of commission, others had responded to interference complaints from the Boston naval station with comments along the lines of "Who ever heard of the navy, anyway? Beat it, you, beat it". Morton later covered many of the same topics in a general circulation publication with The Amateur Wireless Operator, in the January 15, 1910 The Outlook. The most serious charges were that amateurs were hindering ocean rescue operations, reviewed in two short notices that appeared in early 1909 in the Christian Science Monitor: Captain Says Amateurs Interfere With Wireless and Wireless Amateurs Send Fake Messages of Wreck.
In the early days of radio, many U.S. amateurs operated with skill and efficiency, but a few others did not, and in this unregulated era they were a nuisance to both commercial stations and fellow amateurs. (The 1912 edition of the Electo Importing Company's "Wireless Course" cautioned that "many otherwise well grounded students of wireless, who think they can operate, succeed in charging the ether with a nondescript series of spasmodic signals intended for the code, which are enough to make good old S. F. B. Morse himself turn over in anguish".) An extract from Irving Vermilya's 1917 "Amateur Number One" recounts the adventures of one struggling New York City-area amateur, circa 1910, who proved so incompetent that an exasperated commercial operator eventually christened him the Queen of the Glue Factory.
By 1912 it was clear that some sort of national radio legislation was going to be enacted soon, if only to conform with the regulations from the upcoming London Radiotelegraph Convention. Navy to War on Wireless Novices, reprinted from the The Aerogram in the April, 1912 Electrician and Mechanic, reported that due to amateur interference which disrupted emergency communication with the torpedo boat destroyer Terry, the U.S. Navy, while it did "not wish to be represented as discouraging young men who are ambitious in carrying on experiments in wireless operation", did support "enactment of a federal law requiring all operators to obtain a license". In the March 29, 1912 New York Times, a letter from Hugo Gernsback, 400,000 Wireless Amateurs, promoted the rights of amateur operators against the threat of excessive restrictions. However, in a strong response printed two days later, Amateurs in Wireless from American Marconi employee Alfred Goldsmith compared the interference caused by amateurs using untuned spark transmitters to the racket made by careless children banging tin pans. The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 added momentum to the process, as reported by the New York Herald on April 17, 1912 in President Moves to Stop Mob Rule of Wireless.
A key question was what to do about the amateur radio operators. Some of the proposed bills were very restrictive, eliminating amateur transmitters altogether. But when "An Act to Regulate Radio Communication" was adopted August 13, 1912, instead of banning amateur stations, it merely limited most of them to using a wavelength of 200 meters. (The new law also provided that selected amateurs could receive special licences for better wavelengths.) The licencing requirements became effective December 13, 1912, and in its January, 1913 issue, Electrician and Mechanic reported that "Since the first of the month the office of the electrical school at the Brooklyn Navy Yard has daily been crowded with veteran, neophytic and embryonic wireless operators, all panting to write down what they know about radio communication, its uses and abuses, and so get a license from the Department of Commerce and Labor", from Wireless Operators Rush to Get Licenses. Stragglers -- especially those located near U.S. Navy stations -- were soon reminded that there were now Licenses Required, as the July 5, 1913 Newport Daily News noted that radio inspector R. C. Gawles had "inspected all the local plants and directed those who had sending stations to shut down until they had secured licenses". Beginning with its June, 1913 issue, Modern Electrics printed a series of lists of the newly Licensed Amateur Stations in the various Radio Inspection Districts. In the October, 1913 Popular Mechanics, George F. Worts provided additional information on How the New Wireless Law Works. And with the passage of the new law, many of Irving Vermilya's early adventures were now illegal for amateurs, and could result in fines and criminal prosecution, as the American Radio Relay League warned its membership with notices such as Arrest Radio Operator in San Antonio, which appeared in its December, 1916 issue of QST. Another individual inadvertently got the attention of legal officials because his test transmissions were being more widely heard than he thought, which resulted in his being Arrested for his SOS, according to the February 17, 1917 New York Times. But although the new regulations restricted amateur activities, it also forced them to become more disciplined and proficient.
By the early 1920s, it was widely believed that the 1912 restriction of most amateurs to 200 meters had been part of a plot to eliminate amateur transmissions altogether -- described in Jack Binns' 1922 foreword to The Radio Boys at the Sending Station as a "sardonic proposal" by Washington officials to "Put 'em down below 200 meters, and they'll soon die out". However, in light of the support for the 200 meter standard by such amateur advocates as Hugo Gernsback, this appears to be somewhat melodramatic. Amateur radio grew steadily after licencing began, and from the beginning selected amateurs received "Special Amateur" licences which allowed them to operate on wavelengths greater than 200 meters. Although government regulators at the Commerce Department did prosecute amateurs who caused interference by operating in violation of the rules, the department also actively promoted the hobby. In the April 1, 1916 issue of its Radio Service Bulletin, the Commerce Department published a letter from Francis F. Merriam, president of the Atlanta Radio Club, and applauded its "spirit of cooperation", even though the letter noted that many of the amateurs at this inland location were actually using wavelengths greater than 200 meters, in technical violation of the rules, although the amateurs took care to insure they weren't interfering with commercial or government operations. Meanwhile, amateurs participated in some of the precursors of broadcasting, as the January, 1917 issue of QST announced in Radio Lessons By Wireless that 9YA, the Technical and Training school station of the State University of Iowa, was transmitting short radio lessons and university news three nights a week. (These transmissions were most likely in Morse code.)
EARLY PUBLIC SERVICE
Because of the lingering concern that the government might someday eliminate their stations altogether, amateurs did make a conscious effort to improve their reputation with the general public. Setting up emergency communications became one of the most important amateur services -- The Wireless Amateur in Times of Disaster, from the April, 1913 issue of Modern Electrics, reported how amateurs provided assistance during a flood in the midwest. Two years later a second, smaller, flood affected the same area, and afterward The Ohio Flood from the Commerce Department's March, 1915 Radio Service Bulletin announced the government's plan to issue Special Amateur licences to prominent amateur stations in the region, in order to provide emergency communication. This plan was reviewed in Floods and Wireless by Hanby Carver from the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine, as the author proclaimed that "Thus has the 'ham' come into his own. At first ignored, he kept plugging away at simple experiments with his crude apparatus. Then as his feeble signals became perceptible to the powerful commercial stations he was made the butt of ridicule... Now he is a necessity--an auxiliary to the forces of national public welfare--and the Government feels the need." Other examples of public service were covered in articles such as News Out of the Air from the May, 1914 issue of Electrical Experimenter, which announced that the Central Kansas Radio Club was planning to "furnish the smaller papers of the state with the news from neighboring towns" for free, while in Iowa a farmer posted weather reports and other news for his neighbors, as reviewed in How Radio Brought the News to the Farm, from The Electrical Experimenter for July, 1917. In 1922, Charles William Taussig reported in The Story of Radio (Airplane extract) how amateurs once notified a local airport about a lost mail pilot, helping to bring him in safely.
RADIO LEAGUE OF AMERICA
In 1915, Hugo Gernsback chartered a new amateur organization affiliated with The Electrical Experimenter, its birth announced with great fanfare by The Radio League of America in the magazine's December, 1915 issue. As part of its efforts, the RLA began organizing "relays", in which Morse code messages were transmitted along chains of stations. A December 31, 1915 "rotary" message, originated by William H. Kirwan, operator of experimental station 9XE in Davenport, Iowa, was successfully distributed throughout much of the central United States. The RLA's next relay goal, scheduled for the Washington's Birthday holiday on February 22, 1916, was to distribute a message nationwide. And this first nationwide effort was a success -- starting in Iowa, the Washington's Birthday message was relayed from coast to coast, and eventually delivered to the President and 37 state governors, as reported by Kirwan in The Washington's Birthday Amateur Radio Relay in the May, 1916 The Electrical Experimenter.
AMERICAN RADIO RELAY LEAGUE
The RLA wasn't the only group that had expressed interest in setting up amateur relays. A letter, from a correspondent identified only by the initials "A.L.", appeared in the "Wireless Club" section of the January, 1909 Electrician and Mechanic, which suggested that amateur operators might organize within regional clubs, so that "a message might be relayed from one to another for a good distance". A short notice in the August, 1912 issue of Modern Electrics announced that the United Amateur Relay Club in Passaic, New Jersey, was looking for members from "all over [the] United States". However, neither of these efforts appear to have made much progress. But, in April, 1914 the Radio Club of Hartford, Connecticut accepted Hiram Percy Maxim's idea to develop a new organization, the American Radio Relay League, to promote national amateur cooperation. A letter from by Maxim, For a Chain of Amateur Wireless Stations, appearing in the May 9, 1914 Electrical World, announced the new organization, noting that although the current configuration only provided for a relaying between Maxim's home in Hartford, Connecticut and Buffalo, New York, there were plans to expand "throughout the country", and "It may be that we have in this idea a great organization in the making." In February, 1915 the ARRL became independent of the Hartford club, and in December of that year began publishing a magazine, QST. Although the RLA and ARRL initially cooperated, a bitter rivalry between the two organizations quickly broke out. (In the July, 1916 issue of QST, the ARRL published a series of letters in QST and the American Radio Relay League which reviewed the refusal by The Electrical Experimenter, because of its association with the RLA, to accept advertisements for the ARRL.) As the ARRL expanded from its northeast base, its relays covered larger areas, and by late 1916 it was planning a nationwide relay of its own. By now Hiram Percy Maxim appears to have "forgotten" the RLA's successful national relay of the previous February, as Maxim's report about the upcoming ARRL relay plans, The First Trans-continental Relay, which appeared in the December, 1916 QST, noted vaguely that "We have heard rumors that some one tried it last year, or intended to try it, or came near accomplishing it, but no positive evidence is at hand that it has yet been done"--an interesting assertion, given that Maxim had personally participated in the RLA's Washington's Birthday relay, and QST had printed a detailed review. In any event, on January 4th and 5th, 1917 the ARRL made a first try at a national relay, but this initial attempt, reported on in the February, 1917 QST--First Trans-continental Relay Fails -- proved unsuccessful. A second attempt was made on February 6, 1917, this one successful, as reported by The Trans-continental Record, from the April, 1917 QST.
Meanwhile, William H. Kirwan and the Radio League of America were preparing for the RLA's second Washington's Birthday nationwide relay, as reported in The Washington's Birthday Relay, February 24, 1917, from the March, 1917 Electrical Experimenter. And by now the rift between the RLA and the ARRL was becoming very visible. An article in the February, 1917 QST, THE DANGER SIGNAL UP, warned the ARRL membership about the supposed dangers of cooperating with other relay organizations, claiming this could lead to chaos and the eventual elimination of all amateur licences. Kirwan and the RLA were unfazed by the ARRL's dubious concerns, and continued to work toward the Washington's Birthday relay. Kirwan's article in the April, 1917 Electrical Experimenter, The Washington Birthday Relay and the Q.R.M. League of America, directed a few return salvos at the ARRL and QST, complaining that "A certain magazine in the East, which surely cannot have the real interests of the amateurs at heart claims that there is a danger signal up and that if you do not join its crowd, all of our licenses will be taken away" while threatening to teach these "struggling nonentities" a lesson by creating a competing amateur organization. The RLA's second Washington's Birthday relay was more ambitious than the first, but only partially successful -- Kirwan's review, The Washington Birthday Relay Prize Winners, appeared in the May, 1917 The Electrical Experimenter. And the increasingly contentious battle between the RLA and ARRL for amateur radio hegemony ended a few weeks later, dwarfed by a much bigger conflict, as all U.S. amateur stations were shut down by the government, because of the entry of the United States into the war with Germany. (The RLA briefly reappeared after World War One, then quietly disappeared when Hugo Gernsback became more interested in the huge consumer market created by the broadcasting boom of 1922. And William H. Kirwan eventually made peace with the ARRL -- his 1921 Washington Birthday relay effort was promoted by QST magazine as being conducted "with the co-operation of the A.R.R.L. operating department").
GOVERNMENT ACTIONS DURING WORLD WAR ONE
Following the start of World War One in Europe in August, 1914, U.S. radio amateurs had watched with special interest whether the United States would be drawn into the conflict, due to the fact that the 1912 Radio Act gave the President permission to shut down radio stations "in time of war". (Canada silenced its amateur stations from August, 1914 to May 1, 1919). During the first two-and-one-half years of the war the U.S. was officially neutral, and President Wilson assigned the U.S. Navy the task of insuring that U.S. radio stations respected this neutrality. Acting under this authority, for a few months the Navy banned all amateur sending and receiving in the west, as reported in Amateur Wireless Plants Closed By Government in the May, 1915 The Electrical Experimenter, although under the circumstances these restrictions appear to have been somewhat premature and excessive. (In his 1915 annual report, Victor Blue, Chief of the Navy's Bureau of Navigation, noted that "in one naval district all amateur stations were closed... for a time sufficient to impress upon their owners the necessity for keeping the transmission of messages to a minimum.") J. Keeley's 20,000 American "Watchdogs" in the January 30, 1916 San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the role of amateurs in protecting the nation, highlighting the efforts of the Radio League of America in promoting preparedness amongst the nation's amateurs. While Keeley's article declared that "our boy operators are forming a great army of defense", the June, 1917 Popular Science Monthly noted that "Preparedness" Includes Women Wireless Operators, as it reviewed training classes at Hunter College in New York City. In the March, 1917 QST, the ARRL suggested in WAR? that, if the United States formally entered the conflict, amateurs should at least be allowed to keep their receivers operational, acting as "a thousand pairs of listening ears", monitoring for illegal transmissions. However, on April 6, 1917, when a declaration of war against Germany was signed by President Wilson, an Executive Order was also issued closing most radio stations not needed by the U.S. Government. And the Navy further announced that all private radio listening was also banned, although there was some questioning whether the government really had the legal authority to do this. An article in the May, 1917 QST, WAR!, reviewed the suspension of amateur sending and receiving for the foreseeable future, and suggested that now was the time for all patriotic amateurs to join the military, where their radio skills were in great demand.
|"Wireless is a thrilling pastime. Fancy a boy sitting in his room at home with his fingers on a telegraph key and a telephone receiver to his ear listening-in to the news of the world as it is flashed out from the great coast stations or by ships far out at sea! It's a great experience. Yet thousands of boys are doing this wonderful thing every day and night of the year, and you, my young friend, can do it as easily as they, for any boy can own a real wireless station, if he really wants to."--A. Frederick Collins, The Book of Wireless, 1915.|