more on amateur telegraph

young irving

I won’t say too much about this chap for now, for I’ve built a whole book chapter out of him, that I want to publish when I’ve really got it right.  But I’ll tell you that the best-documented case of amateur telegrapher at the dawn of amateur radio is Irving Vermilya, a teenager in Edwardian Mount Vernon, New York.  I’ve found tons on record about him and his connections, and I’m in touch with his family, and other people who remember him.  He was a brave, resourceful, and very likeable fellow.  His story involves a crusading Dutch Reform pastor and scientific mystic, a venture-capitalist father with gently corrupt cronies all the way to the mayor’s office, some on-air sabotaging of the Brooklyn naval fleet, lots of romance, some ships, a commercial radio scandal, the Massachusetts police, and a quite a lot of death.  (That nurse girl in the picture was there to look after Irving’s little brother, who was about to die.  More was to come.)

Master Vermilya followed Marconi in the magazines, and eventually got on the air himself.  While he was working out how, one day in April, 1903, he stretched a wire to his friend Fred Skinner’s house, at 122 Chester Street (the Vermilyas lived at number 28), stringing it across busy Westchester Avenue somehow, and he screwed in a pair of student telegraph sounders at each end of the wire.  It worked.  The boys practiced Morse code together for a few weeks.  They found the little learner sets hard to use, so, through the good offices of the boyfriend of that nurse girl, he was a professional telegraph operator, they upgraded to a proper set of mainline sounders.  These were available on the cheap from a supply shop in New York called Bunnell’s.  These worked so well that other kids wanted to join the little line too.  Irving had a lot of friends, and Morse code was no problem to learn if it meant making the teen scene.  So the line expanded, and it ran for the rest of the time that Irving lived at home.  By 1907 there were 42 people online, boys and girls, and the occasional grownup.  Improvised connections, of any kind of wire that could be scrounged, ran for 6 miles, about half of it through trees, along fences and phone poles, and, hazardously, over 500-volt trolley wires; the other half, amazingly, was underground.  Strictly speaking, this was illicit.  It was unsafe and was full of violations of property.  One particular grownup on the line, Walter Flandreau, may have been quietly responsible for keeping it all functioning.  He was the City Electrician.  He was technically responsible for every wire in town.  His house was at 466 South 6th Avenue—so his spur line had to run eleven blocks, and cross railroad tracks.  Being a professional, he made it happen.  Being also Irving’s cousin, he managed to see that the police never came knocking.  And the online chat ran 24 hours a day.  The custom was to say ‘GM’ to everyone when you woke up, and ‘GN’ when you went to bed.  Irving kept his sounder ‘cut in’ all the time, and went to sleep listening to boys and girls spooning after dates.  Friends like Milo White, the lawyer’s boy, down at 137 Chester, often didn’t say their good-nights until dawn.

More about all this — a lot more — when I publish on Edwardian radio.  You’ll see why Irving’s neighborhood was exploding with antennas by 1907, as were a lot of other neighborhoods in other cities.  I’ll introduce you to some of those other Irvings too.  Before amateur radio, as I say, there was amateur telegraph.  Was there ever.

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