The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe, SP3RN    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Saint Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymond Kolbe near Lodz, Poland, in 1894. As a young boy, he was very religious. He would spend many hours at the family’s little altar to Our Lady of Czestochowa. According to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him holding two crowns. One was white–representing purity. The other was red–representing martyrdom. Mary then asked him which he would choose. “I choose them both” he answered. The Blessed Virgin then smiled and disappeared.

In the early 20th century, young Raymond and his brothers were admitted to a seminary run by the Franciscans. He developed a brilliant aptitude for mathematics and physics. While still a teenager, he was designing rockets for interplanetary travel. He claimed that flights to the moon would be possible within his own lifetime. His space flight plans were so plausible and detailed, that one of his professors suggested that he patent them.

In 1910, Raymond took the religious name of Maximilian. He went to Krakow, Poland, to continue his studies and, from there to Rome, where he earned his Doctorates in philosophy and theology. In 1914 he took his solemn vows, and in 1918, at the age of 24, he was ordained to the priesthood.

While in Rome, Father Maximilian became outraged at the attacks on the Church by the communists and other anti-Catholic groups. To help the Catholic Church fight the battle against its enemies, Father Maximilian founded the Militia of the Immaculata. Its purpose was to convert sinners, heretics and the enemies of the Church, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

In 1919, Father Maximilian contracted tuberculosis. He returned to Poland and entered a sanatorium, where he remained for 2 years. While there, the bedridden priest wrote to the other members of the Militia Immaculata, suggesting a publication to counteract the communist and other antireligious activities happening worldwide.

In January, 1922, the Militia’s first monthly periodical, the “Knight of the Immaculate Mother” made its appearance. By 1927, with his own printing press, Father Maximilian increased the circulation to 70,000. Membership in the Militia was over 125,000.

Also, in 1927, Father Maximilian established his “Marytown”, on donated land near Warsaw. Eventually, over 650 Franciscan Friars lived there, making it the largest Catholic religious house in the world.

Father Maximilian’s publishing activities continued to increase. By the 1930's, the religious order had a daily newspaper with a circulation of 230,000, and a monthly magazine with over one million readers.

Technology was a key ingredient in “Marytown”. The printing presses were the most advanced ones available. The Order had facilities for manufacturing machinery and replacement parts. New technological designs were developed, many earned patents and awards at trade shows. Father Maximilian had plans to build his own paper mill and an airfield to expedite production and delivery. He even had plans to build a motion picture studio.

On December 8, 1938—the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—Father Maximilian opened radio station SP3RN. The exact nature of this station is unclear. Various websites describe it as a shortwave station, an amateur radio operation, or a broadcast station. There is evidence that SP3RN broadcast a sermon by Father Maximilian, as well as musical programs from the Friary’s own orchestra. Thus, the station was probably a shortwave broadcast station. However, we can reasonably assume two facts: 1) Father Maximilian, with his technical background, was instrumental in the design and operation of the station, and 2) there probably was one (or more) amateur radio stations at the Friary.

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and quickly overran the country. Father Maximilian had anticipated this, and sent most of the 700 Friars away to safety. He remained with a small group of priests. On September 19, he was arrested, along with 35 other members of the Order. They were released on December 8, 1939–exactly one year after SP3RN went on the air. He returned to Marytown, but was prohibited from any broadcast or publishing activities. For the next year, Marytown was used as a refuge for almost 4000 Poles and Jews. The Gestapo suspected that Father Maximilian was “aiding and abetting” the enemy, but they didn’t have proof. Father Maximilian made repeated requests to resume his broadcasting and publishing operations. To permit Father Maximilian to incriminate himself, in December, 1940, the Gestapo allowed him to print one more issue of the “Knight of the Immaculate Mother”. Father Maximilian quickly printed 120,000 copies. With this so called “evidence”, the Gestapo arrested him again on February 17, 1941 and accused him of aiding the Jews and the Poles. He was eventually sent to Auschwitz, and was tattooed with prisoner #16670.

At Auschwitz, Father Maximilian was singled out for especially harsh treatment, because he was Polish and a Catholic priest. He endured the barbaric treatment with heroic patience and courage. He took time to minister to fellow inmates and to hear confessions.

In late July, a roll call revealed that one of the prisoners was missing—a possible escape. The Commandant had a brutal policy in regards to escaped prisoners—if the missing prisoner was not found by dusk, 10 other prisoners would be chosen at random to die—by starvation.

Dusk arrived, and the escaped prisoner was still missing. The prisoners were assembled, and 10 were selected. One of the 10 cried out “My poor wife! My poor children! What will happen to my family!”. At this point, Father Maximilian stepped forward. The Commandant bellowed “What does this Polish pig want?”

The reply came: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

For a moment the Commandant was unable to speak. Then he pointed to Father Maximilian and said “Away!”. The priest was then led away to the starvation bunker.

Almost immediately, a great change came over the condemned men in the starvation bunker. Instead of the usual cries and screams of suffering, the guards now heard prayers and hymns. When the guards went in to remove the dead, they would find Father Maximilian in prayer—bright, radiant and fully conscious. For two weeks he was in this state–seemingly unchanged. The Nazis could wait no longer—the bunker was needed for more inmates. On August 14, 1941, the director of the infirmary came in with a syringe loaded with a lethal dose of carbolic acid. Father Maximilian cheerfully offered the executioner his arm, and was dead within minutes. His body was cremated the next day—August 15—the Feast of the Assumption.

Father Maximilian was Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. He is the patron saint of journalists, families, prisoners, the pro-life movement, amateur radio, and the internet.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe was partially right in his prediction. Had he lived, he would have been 75 years old in 1969, at the time of the first moon landing. Assuming that Saint Maximilian could have lived to his 90's, how would he have embraced the technological achievements in the 60's, 70's and 80's? Would he have built a worldwide broadcasting operation using shortwave, FM, TV and satellites? Would QSL cards from SP3RN be hanging on the walls of every active amateur? Would he have been one of the first amateurs to work moonbounce, the OSCAR satellites, and packet radio? Would he be an internet pioneer? We will never know, because his life was cut short, thanks to a policy of brutality, ignorance, intolerance, and hatred.

According to Glenn Hauser’s World of Radio, there is an amateur radio net dedicated to the memory of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. It meets at 2300 UTC on Sundays on 3840 kHz. 

The information used in the preparation of this article came from several websites, in particular from a website run by the Saint Benedict Center, and an essay by Brother John Neumann.

Copyright 2007 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.