amateur radio gets regulated

Titanic's radio room

You’ll know, if you’ve browsed back-issues of QST, that teenager Irving Vermilya was probably the first licensed ham operator in the United States.  He sat the exam at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, a place full of government operators he had tormented for several years from the powerful spark station in Mount Vernon, New York.  He ran it from power stolen from the tram line that ran near his house.  He was an enterprising lad, one of my heroes, really, and I’ll have much to say about him another time.

Here is the New York Times article (Dec. 15, 1912) that Irving probably saw, announcing the coming of license requirements, and opining that it was about time.  Which it probably was.  Amateurs really were numerous, and we got underfoot sometimes.

But the problem of the noisy ham was not straightforward.  In 1910 Outlook magazine had suggested windily that there were too many of us, and we disrupted the work of the navy and those nice Marconi men.  The public didn’t really know much about us, though.  Putnam’s magazine shrilled about how exhilarating it must be to sit upon “untold ohms of power.”  People could only be pleased by our legitimately good efforts in restoring civic communications during disasters, as we did in Michigan the next year after the famous windstorm.  That’s why Popular Mechanics was so tickled when Hiram Maxim finally set up a relaying league, for getting free messages across the country.  Unlicensed we may have been, but weren’t we also a sort of public service?  Didn’t we do things that the professionals did, only for free?

But it is true that we were raucous.  We didn’t even get along very well with each other.  There were on-air tirades in the early days, like e-mail discussion group flamings.  They were known to end in vandalism and broken noses.

It’s not clear how many of us there were.  In 1911, Electrical World said that you can count scores of antennas in every village.  One Boston manufacturer was selling 30 complete sets a month.  The New York Times in 1912 thought there must be several hundred thousand active amateurs in the country.  One doubts this, but there were enough of us to cause real trouble for commercial wireless systems, whose frequencies we shared.  Hugo Gernsback’s Wireless Association had a Blue Book by 1910, that listed 90 member stations; its print run for the second year was 30,000.  Collisions were inevitable.  After licensing began, the government began publishing a ‘callbook’ directory.  By 1916 there were over 10,000 legal operators in the country; its editors guessed that unlicensed receiving stations could number 150,000.

We were so noisy in the evenings that we barely heard each other sometimes.  An operator in Hayward, California, declared that for two hours after supper each night the town radio community was completely shut down by all the chatter.  By the ‘teens the situation was genuinely serious, and there were discussions of quiet hours, and special frequencies for relay work.  Sober operators believed in simple proscription of conversation altogether: radio was for message-handling, and not for anything else.

Our neighbors on the air didn’t like us much at all.  Nor did we like them, friendly ship operators aside.  Marconi men were pretty unpopular around 1909 for breaking everybody, which they could do by virtue of having powerful stations and a commercial near-monopoly.  The littler for-profit stations had been gobbled up by Marconi, mostly, like jelly beans for five or six years by now, and few of them remained.  On the other hand, a large wireless club in Chicago did treat with local commerce to share the air peaceably, and it worked well enough for a time.

It’s best not to overstate the amateur-commercial divide, though.  Or at least we shouldn’t represent it as a simple feud between amateur operators and professional ones.  For one thing, amateurs and professionals were often the same people.  Their day jobs and evening hobbies weren’t dissimilar, as it were.  (There was a funny turn on this theme for a while early on, when amateurs who were also land telegraphers turned up their noses at all the hobbyists’ clumsy Morse Code.)  For another thing, and this is related, youthful amateurs often grew into commercial operators.  And for another, the definitions of “amateur” and “commercial” (or at least “professional”) weren’t ever clear, except that the one activity didn’t involve a paycheck and the other did.  On the other hand, paychecks, and accountability to investors, and all these fiscal things, did inevitably make for a clash of cultures.  The war wasn’t between early hams and early radiotelegraphers, in other words.  It was between two ways of thinking that hadn’t matured into their enduring selves yet.  We’d never think it was all right to interfere with commerce now, as an amateur population.  Nor does commerce generally want us off the air.  But this social contract was not settled yet in 1912.  In another decade, broadcasting would emerge—that second commercial culture—and another kind of protracted interaction would have to take place until amateur and entertainment interests would reach stasis.  But not yet.

The government, of course, would be expected to settle things.  Not that business or amateur interests relished the idea at first.  Regulation was a dour and threatening affair.  Governments generally, and not just ours, were all worried about chaos on the air.   The 1903 wireless congress worried at the same subject again in Berlin in 1906.  In the United States, the naval interest in particular drove the movement for making laws, which often pointed right at us amateurs.  The military had suffered much from us, to be fair.  There had been fake distress calls.  there had been wars of profanity.  There were editorial letters about it all in Scientific American.  We also had better stations than the navy did (which could tune, for one thing), and often more powerful ones too, and we made up at least 80% of the on-air population.  We were probably better operators than the navy’s, too, actually.  They trained for two months, a lot less than a lot of us had.  The wireless companies had long complained of naval incompetence, in fact.  The navy’s code speed was about 10 words a minute, roughly half of our average by 1912.

There had been a good 28 bills introduced by 1912, some of which could affect us directly.  Just one of them passed, a harmless bit in 1910 about seagoing wireless, along with an amendment in 1912.  But amateurs were in trouble often.  In 1909 there was the Roberts Bill, sponsored by the navy, designed specifically to abolish us.  It was defeated by Marconi’s argument, oddly, that the navy and non-Marconi commercial interests (like United Wireless, its principal competitor) simply needed modern equipment with good tuners, which Marconi had, by virtue of its patent holdings, and was willing to sell.  Framers of other bills made more trouble for us by intentionally forgetting to include amateur radio as a category, which could have made us illegal by simple default: the Burke Wireless Bill of March 8, 1910, and the Depew Wireless bill of May 6 of the same year.  The Depew Bill nearly passed, but failed probably because of huge club lobbying.  The mighty Hugo Gernsback, for one, organized his Wireless Association for a torrent of protest mailings.  Against the navy’s charge of civilian eavesdropping on military secrets the amateurs pointed out the easy solution of communicating in cipher.  Another attack, the Alexander Bill, introduced on December 11, 1911, and sponsored by the navy and United Wireless, was wrestled to the ground only after heroic opposition by influential bodies like Armstrong’s Radio Club of America and the Wireless Association of Pennsylvania, headed by the Philadelphia blueblood B. Frank Rittenhouse.  Campaign rhetoricians sometimes brayed that, fear not, amateur radio could never be shut down.  But in 1917 it was.  Bills like these were dire threats indeed.

This was the early pattern, then.  The stupefying history of amateur-relevant radio legislation before the coming of broadcasting in the 1920’s reduces to a ten-year series of these formulaic attacks-and-repulses; and then came the Radio Act of 1912, a descendant of the Alexander Bill, that passed undoubtedly because of public horror over the way wireless had not saved more passengers on the Titanic that year.  It involved amateurs because not everyone was sure that we were always above suspicion of compromising maritime safety.  The London Times, the Literary Digest, and even President Taft, thought we had probably sent false dispatches about this stricken vessel, in fact.  Ham operators, in other words, had killed people on the Titanic, if indirectly.

The Act, the one that drove Irving Vermilya to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, distils to this:  everyone (including us) needs a license from the secretary of commerce and labor, President Taft’s old bailiwick; different classes of station have to stick to particular bands; and everyone has to pipe down when there’s a distress call.  (Because frequencies still overlapped for a time, you actually heard broadcasts stop occasionally in the 1920’s when ships got into trouble; and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds script from 1939 has us listening to lonely amateur CQ’s on a now-silent broadcast frequency.)  More broadly, amateurs could no longer use spark, its bandwidth being far too wide to accomodate everyone.  And finally, we could only transmit on 200 meters or less.  (Marconi, who may have been a force behind this legislation, was rid of us for good.  The navy moved to 600-1,600 meters, and he’d by now bought out the bulk of his competition.)  We complained loudly about the 200-and-down restriction, not realizing yet that signals propagate much, much farther there.  600 meters has opened recently in the United Kingdom as a novel special-interest band.  But it’s a short-range, season-dependent band.  People like me gather to it, but only so we can hear things close to the way Marconi heard them.

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