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How the RELAY got into the ARRL

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Note: You might want to read the historical content in our posting Amateur Radio Beginnings before you read this posting.  This posting picks up where that article left off on Amateur Radios beginnings in the early 1900’s.

The perception and image of Amateur Radio in early 1900’s

The reputation of Amateur Radio up to the 1920’s was not good.  Companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Western Electric opposed Amateur Radio.  Private Citizens and commercial radio stations opposed Amateur Radio due to interference.  The Navy, at one time or another, campaigned against Amateur Radio.  Maritime companies lobbied against Amateur Radio being charged with interference with safe and consistent communication.  This is not to say that other groups and private citizens did not support Amateur Radio.

The point to be made is that significant powerful companies and parts of the government had no compelling positive image of Amateurs.  The Radio Act of 1912 restricted Amateur use of the RF spectrum and Amateurs were seen as hobbyists, experimenters, and folks that generally caused interference to other services.  There was no generally understood positive compelling image of Amateur Radio.

The need for a new Vision and access to legislation

What Amateur Radio needed was someone to champion the cause of Amateur Radio and create a better image of Amateurs.  What was also needed was a organization to bind all the Amateurs together.  Binding people together creates a synergy of collaboration and provides the possibility for a collective mission and purpose.

A national organization would have the power to lobby legislators in favor of Amateur Radio.  Legislation was needed to free the Amateurs of their restrictions to 200 meters and below and one Kilowatt of power if Amateurs wanted to communicate over long distances.

Enter Hiram Percy Maxim (HPM)

In 1886 HPM graduated from MIT at age 16.  By 1895 he was chief engineer at the Electrical Vehicle Company in Hartford Connecticut.  HPM was fascinated with the internal combustion engine and after six years at the company he had forty patents. The apple did not fall far from the tree.  HRM’s father, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, invented the Maxim machine gun and held 250 patents.

HPM was not only interested in automobiles.  In 1908 HPM patented a silencer for use with firearms and worked on various devices to silence ventilation systems, pipes, and engines.

HPM was also interested in women.  He married the daughter of a Maryland governor and had two children.  Nice pick.  Marrying the daughter of the governor gave HPM access to the world of politics.  This would later be of benefit to him.

Local Vision – The Radio Club of Hartford

In 1911 HPM got his Amateur radio license.  In 1914 Amateurs in the area formed the Radio Club of Hartford.  HPM chaired the first meeting of this club.  By March of 1914 the club had 39 members and a constitution and bylaws.  They were off and running.

In 1914 there were about 5,000 licensed Amateurs in the United States

The Radio Act of 1912 had restricted Amateurs to operate on 200 meters below and limited them to one kilowatt of power.  With the wavelength and power limit it was thought that this would contain the Amateurs to short range communication.  Typical distances would be about 300 miles.

So the question would be this – how would you communicate with an Amateur that is beyond the distance of one kilowatt on 200 meters?  Where there is a will; there is a way.

How to get an Audion tube in 2 steps (or more)

HPM was interested in obtaining an Audion tube.  The Audion tube was invented by Lee DeForest in 1905.  The Audion was the primitive predecessor of the Triode.  HPM knew an Amateur a few towns away that had an Audion.  His attempt to contact this Amateur directly using wireless were not successful due to the distance and conditions.

But HPM did know an Amateur at a distance between himself and the Amateur who had the tube.  He was able contact this Amateur who was nearby and ask this Amateur to contract the Amateur who had the tube.  HRM got the Audion tube he wanted.  HPM also got an up close and personal demonstration of the value of Amateurs collaborating for “message passing” from real experience.

National Vision – The compelling value of Amateur Radio

HPM got the idea of creating a cohesive group of Amateurs in various geographic locations across the United States who would be on the air during certain periods of time who would commit to pass messages one to another. This is the national concept of a “relay” which HPM demonstrated to himself that works locally – and got him the Audion tube that he wanted.

One can now see these elements coalesce in the Vision

  1. The sense of a cohesive group of Amateurs across the country with a specific purpose.
  2. The idea of “relays” from Amateur to Amateur that could mitigate the limitation of Amateur Radio communications across short distances given the restriction of the 200 meter band and 1 KW of power.
  3. Raising the image of Amateur Radio away from the perception of groups of people that caused interference to the image of a group of people that could collaborate to provide a valuable service of coordinated communication across the country.

The Beginnings of the American Radio RELAY League

So what to call this new cohesive group of Amateurs who could theoretically pass messages coast to coast across the United States?   How about the American Radio Relay League?

In February 1915 HPM incorporated the ARRL as a national organization under the laws of Connecticut. By the end of 1915 the ARRL had 600 members.  In December of 1915 the first issue of QST was published and distributed to all 600 ARRL members free of charge.

Off to Washington and Politics

With the establishment of the national organization of Amateurs – the ARRL – HRM now traveled to Washington to communicate the value of Amateurs to the Department of Commerce.  The Department of Commerce was responsible for regulating Amateur Radio and HPM’s goal was to relieve some of the restrictions on Amateur Radio in support of the Rely concept.  HPM explained the value of message passing over long distances and argued that for message passing to be more successful some Amateurs stations would require to operate on additional frequencies.

In this endeavor to get additional frequency spectrum for Amateurs he was successful.

The first transcontinental relay of a message by the ARRL

Central to the ARRL in 1915-1917 was this idea of relaying messages.  A few initial attempts by the ARRL at a transcontinental relay failed.

Finally, in February 1917 a relay was accomplished from New York to Los Angeles and then back to New York.  The relay took 1 hr and 20 minutes.  One of the positive values and contribution of Amateur Radio to the common good was demonstrated and reported by the press.

Below is a map of proposed “Trunk lines” for message passing across the United States.  This was published in QST February 1916.

So, what’s the take?

  1. If you are a member of the ARRL and you did not know how the “Relay” got into American Radio Relay League – now you do.  Good for you.
  2. It shows the significance of people with Vision.  HPM was able to not only assemble an organization – but a national organization with a specific purpose embodied in a constitution, mission, and bylaws.
  3. Related to this Vision was also the creation of a positive image of Amateur Radio.  It shifted the image of Amateur Radio in society from a group of people that caused interference to the image of Amateur Radio operators as a group of people that could provide a valuable service of long range communication – the transcontinental relay and special events using relays demonstrated that.
  4. HPM and the ARRL was a force to influence legislation as it related to Amateur Radio.


Practical Relaying by Hiram Percy Maxwell – from QST February 1916

Page01, Page02, Page03, Page04


Written by frrl

September 9, 2008 at 2:15 pm

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