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Amateur Radio Beginnings

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We feel that the greatest objection against this bill is that if it is passed it will stifle the ambition and great inventive genius of American boys.  We boys of today are the citizens of tomorrow.  We have, many of us, already chosen wireless as our line of work.  There are vast possibilities, great discoveries, and marvelous inventions yet to be revealed in the study of radio communications.  We boys want a try at the grave rewards that are to come to the successful experimenter and inventors and these lines.  Wireless is not mere play for us boys as some seem to think.  We love the work, hence the name and amateur; but it is always the amateur or lower of a line of work who produces results.”
–  1912 – Amateur Stokes regarding Senate Bill 6412

The Discovery

James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 speculated that “electromagnetic undulations permeated the Universe”.  Maxwell gave definition to this by the famous Maxwell’s equations.  Up until the point of Maxwell scientists always had some sort of physical model to explain the outcome of an experiment.  This is the case with Michael Faraday, a contemporary of Maxwell, who explained magnetic lines of force using the physical analogy of hydraulics.  The point being that science almost always presented a physical model to explain some experimental observable outcome.

The Aether

Not so with Maxwell.  There were Maxwell’s equations describing the propagation of electromagnetic radiation but no physical model of how this worked.  And so, in the paradigm of the day, folks gave it one.  Using the analogy of sound transmitted through air there must be a medium though which EM (Electromagnetic Radiation) travels through to get from point A to point B.  Such was born the aether.


In 1886-1889 Heinrich Rudolph Hertz came on the scene.  Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theories.  Hertz set up a simple experiment.  On one side of a room was a Leyden Jar (source of electricity) connected to a coil with a small gap.  On the other side of the room was a ring with a small gap.  When the Leyden Jar discharged through the coils gap a spark was created.  At nearly the same time  a smaller spark was generated in the ring across the room.  Reports and reproduction of Hertz’s experiment went far and wide.


In Italy, this experiment did not go unnoticed by a 13 year old boy – Guglielmo Marconi.  So what was the obvious extension of Hertz’s experiment?  Marconi reasoned that if one could send a spark across a room why couldn’t this spark send Morse code and create a wireless telegraph?

Move ahead about 10 years to a momentous point in history.  On December 12, 1901 Marconi sent the letter “s” (dit dit dit) from his station at Poldhu Cornwall (England) across the Atlantic to his station at St. Johns Newfoundland.  This made the front page of the New York Times in America.

Enter the Amateurs

The news of Marconi’s successful transmission of “dit dit dit” across Atlantic created a frenzy of experimenters.  The equipment to send and receive radio waves was within the reach of almost anyone who had an interest.  By 1906 it was discovered that galena crystals were able to detect radio waves.  A crystal reviver set could be had by just about anyone.  Easy availability ensured that everyone could at least listen to the new phenomenon of the century – wireless.

The first commercial use of wireless telegraphy was on ships.  These ships – passenger liners, yachts, freighters, tug boats – no longer had to rely on bell buoys, semaphore flags, foghorns, and the like to warn of danger.  They could now use wireless to communicate with other ships and with land.  Ships could communicate time of arrival; ships could warn each other of danger; and all could know the location of each other using wireless.  To mariners, wireless created nearly endless possibilities for improved navigation, safely and ship to shore communications.

Attracting the young pretty ladies

Ships wireless operators became heroes to young boy experimenters.  It also gave the young boy who could not throw a football more than a few feet a way to attract the pretty young girls.  Nothing says sexy more than an experiment with 6 Leyden Jars hooked together to produce an impressive 2 inch blue spark with the sound of a gunshot.  If Paris Hilton was around back then- she’d be at your house with you and your wireless transmitter.  “That’s Hot!”

“Boys will be boys”

By 1905 eighty British warships and thirty Italian warships were outfitted with wireless.  Germany, France, and Japan were actively working on installing wireless in their ships.  By 1912 the US Navy had forty wireless stations along the coast to communicate with ships.

Two boys (write these names down), Henry C. Heim 15 yrs old, and Alfred Wolf 14 years old were listening to orders to the fleet off of Alameda California.  These orders, considered confidential, copied by the two boys were given to the press.  But they were doing more than this, they were compiling a book of messages and giving information, sometimes embarrassing to the navy, to the Alameda newspaper.

Admiral “Fighting Bob” Evans

Henry and Alfred also had transmitters and decided “just for fun” to issue orders to the Navy ships.  Henry, taking the name Admiral “Fighting Bob” Evans contacted a warship that was about to set sail.  As Admiral “Fighting Bob” he gave orders to delay departure.  After some time, the folks on the warship caught on.

A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner wrote:

Something was evidently expected, for the cruiser sailed and Heims was deprived of experiencing how it felt to be an admiral… The technical proficiency of both boys at sending and intercepting wireless messages is second only to the ingenuity they have displayed in the manufacturing of the apparatus for this purpose”

Henry and Alfred were not alone.  Many other amateurs were doing the same or worse – sending false distress signals and interfering with maritime wireless communications.

Game Over

In January 1910 a popular journal of the time wrote:

“By… constructing apparatus out of all kinds of electrical junk, [the amateurs] have built wireless equipments that in some cases approach the naval stations in efficiency.”

The complaints from the navy and commercial companies about interference finally led to legislation.  Keep in mind that at the time the aether was as open as the clear blue sky to anyone and there was no regulation of any kind to any type of wireless transmission.  Knowing that regulation was imminent a young Amateur named Stokes defended the hobby with the quote we cited above.

Amateur Radio is regulated- 200 Meters and down; One Kilowatt

A part of the overall solution to interference of the many simultaneous uses of wireless by governments and commercial stakeholders was Amateur Licensing and restrictions.  When Congress convened in the year 1911 committees scheduled hearings.  Thirteen bills were introduced having to do with Radio.

Senate Bill 6412 was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Taft on August 17, 1912.  Amateurs were to be licensed and restricted to operating on 200 meters and  below with power limited to one Kilowatt.

At the time, opponents of Amateur radio though that would be the end of them since this wavelength at that power level would result in communications of five or ten miles.  That was not going to happen.


Radio Act of 1912

Working Vintage Kilowatt Spark Gap Tranmitter videos:
Video1 and Video2


Written by frrl

August 29, 2008 at 12:24 am

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