Category Archives: to 1912

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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Yet more about Marconi’s 1897 demonstration set

marconi 1897

Scientific American describes Marconi’s 1897 equipment like this.  The transmitter, really a design of Professor Righi, ‘consists mainly of a small Ruhmkorff induction coil excited by a couple of battery cells.  The secondary or high tension wires terminate each in a metallic ball.  Between the two balls is placed a cubical box containing oil.  In the opposite sides of the box are fixed two brass balls, [Vaseline-based] oiltight, so that one-half of each ball is in the oil in the box[.]  On sending a current through the induction coil, Hertzian vibrations are set up in the balls and communicated to the ether.  The oil has a peculiar effect, acting as a species of brake, the rapidity of the wave vibrations being only about one-half of that stated by Dr. Lodge.  These vibrations are then given off into space[.]’  His receiver ‘consists of a tube about ¼ of an inch in diameter and 3 inches long, in which are two silver plugs terminating in wires, the ends of which are soldered to the silver plugs.  The wires are fused into the glass.  The tube is exhausted to a near approach to absolute vacuum.  The faces of the two silver plugs are very close to each other, and the space between is filled up with an impalpable metallic dust.  … [T]here are in it three constituents, one of which is nickel.  Under ordinary conditions this powder will not conduct electricity, save feebly.  … If a Hertzian ray falls on the little tube, the dust is polarized like the filings in a Hughes test tube, and the powder becomes a conductor.  … [W]e have here a make and break which can be acted on from a distance, and [then] an ordinary Morse sounder does the rest.  … [A] tiny hammer is so arranged that, the moment a [dot or dash] passes through the tube, the hammer taps the side of the tube and depolarizes the powder ready for the next signal.’

Scientific American, June 19, 1897, p. 386.

Marconi’s 1897 equipment he patented singly as 19 improvements to existing arrangements.  (Patent no. 12,039, applied for June 2, 1896, was granted July 2 the following year, in time for Toynbee Hall demonstration with Preece.)  Abstracted, the important improvements in receiving were an automatic ‘trembler or tapper’ for the sensitive tube, adjustments to the content of the metal filings and refinements to the construction of the tube (no vacuum was actually necessary, save that which results from having heated the tube while sealing it), and using a copper parabolic reflector pointed at the transmitting station.  He also calms kickback at the activation of the tapper relay with condensors or else ‘water resistances.  And he introduces little ‘choking coils’ to ‘prevent the … oscillations … across the … receiver … from running round the local bettery wires.’  Improvements in transmitting involved adjustments to the geometry of the spark gap and the introduction of oil into the chamber that separates the charged spheres, also causing one of the contacts of the vibrating brake to spin, by a little electric motor and pulley, so as to keep the platinum contacts of the interrupter clean and non-sticking.  Notice, he still couldn’t tune this.

Who says:  The Electrician, September 17, 1897, pp. 683-86.


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What Marconi actually used in 1897

marconi 1897 What is that apparatus before the great man, exactly?  Here is an abstract from the New York Times, that describes it closely, the very equipment you see before you.

The new transmitter consists of an accumulator battery, an ordinary telegraph key, [and] an induction coil sending an eight-inch spark […]  The induction coil is wound, half with thick wire, the two ends of which are connected with the key and battery, and half with thin wire, whose ends are soldered to separate metal rods, each with a large brass sphere at its extremity.  … [C]urrent passes from the accumulators … through the thick wire of the coil, and induces a current in the thin one wound over it.  The induced current rushes to the brass spheres, and in the form of bluish-tinted sparks leaps the space that intervenes.  In this space is hung an ebonite vessel filled with oil and having a brass sphere in each side, opposite to and in a direct line with the two spheres previously mentioned.  … [I]t is not unlike a big drum, with a ball stuck half through each parchment side.  From this point the electrical waves are sent out … and actuate an instrument that is in electrical harmony with the transmitter.

The receiver is like a wire hoop broken at one point[.]  At each side of the break a copper strip stands out, and these form arms for collecting the electrical waves[.]  A local battery and a sounder are intervened in the wore hoop, but its current is not strong enough to leap the gap.  The waves sent by the transmitter arrive at the copper arms, flow down them, and … pass from one broken end to the other.  Each time the waves jump the gap the electrical circuit of the hoop is completed, and the battery current is enabled to cross the break and work the sounder.

Who says:

“Topics of the Times,” New York Times, May 26, 1897, p. 6.

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How the ether stood in 1897

marconi 1897

Here’s a photo of Marconi in 1897.  He wasn’t sure how Hertzian waves travel, or the waves he generated with this apparatus either, which he suspected were different from those manufactured by Hertz.  Nobody really understood them, not even with the benefit of Maxwell’s equations.  There was this ether business, a cypher, that people didn’t necessarily believe in but which explained things about invisible propagation that they could observe; ether was rather like dark matter now, vis-à-vis our galaxy’s not flying apart as it should do.

What was known about the ether, as of 1897?  Quite a lot.  First, it was understood to have a density expressible on the order of  10 to the minus 27th, calculated somehow ‘from the energy with which the light from the sun strikes the earth.’  It is a substance so fine that atoms sit like marinated cherries within it.  It perfuses all matter in the universe, so that all physical things are in continuity with all other physical things.  Yet things are not continuous with the ether.  Vibrate the ether, and the vibration will pass through distant objects – but the objects themselves will not vibrate.  The earth does not push through the ether, like a boat; the ether allows the earth to pass, as water allows a moving sieve to pass.  Rays, of light or electricity or Röntgen beams, move as vibrations of the ether.  For reasons not yet understood, the ether will conduct every kind of ray through every kind of substance.  Nor does it conduct rays at the same speed through every substance.  The ether in glass carries light at about 120,000 miles per second; through the air, closer to 192,000.  Glass alone, with no ether inside it, allows light to pass at a pokey 3 miles per second.

Who says:  H.J.W. Dam, “Telegraphing without Wires. A Possibility of Electrical Science,” McClure’s Magazine, March, 1897, pp. 383-92.

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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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Collegiate radio: Penn in 1910

This is the station of the Wireless Club of the University of Pennsylvania in January, 1910.  The Club had formed three months earlier, and already attracted more than 50 members.  City newspapers were following breathlessly, reporting night contact with the Hamptons, Cape Cod, the Philadelphia naval yard locally, and with numerous other collegiate stations.  In April the Club joined forces with friends at MIT and formed the Intercollegiate Wireless Association, attracting notes of interest from Cornell, Princeton, and seven other colleges.

You can see the Tesla ‘tank’ coil here, the spark gap in front, the condenser pile to the left, underneath what looks like a loose coupler.  To the right is the receiving apparatus, the nucleus of which is probably a ‘coherer’, on which I’ll do another post.

The Penn club still exists.  See its superb history page, with all its linked resources, here.

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