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.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

OK, I knew it would happen. When I started this column, I expected three questions would be asked: "When did ham radio start?"; "Who was the first ham?"; and "Where did the word 'ham' come from?". To answer these questions, let's set the Wayback Machine to Warp Factor 9, and head back 100 years.

Practical "wireless" had its start in 1896, when Marconi first sent a signal over a distance of two miles. By 1899, he succeeded in sending a wireless message across the English Channel, a distance of 32 miles. The year 1899 also marks the first construction project, which appeared in "American Electrician" magazine. In December, 1901, Marconi was able to bridge the Atlantic, a feat which caught the world's attention and fueled the imagination of thousands of potential amateurs, who took their first steps into wireless.

In the early days, everything was "spark". What exactly was spark? Well, sit down some summer night, listen to your AM or SW radio, and count the static crashes. Now turn on the vacuum cleaner, or an electric shaver, and listen to your radio again. Hear that noise? In short, spark wireless was merely a form of "controlled static". A high voltage inside a spark coil would jump across a gap, which was coupled to an antenna. The spark was keyed on and off to transmit the code. The signal generated was extremely broad. A "state of the art" 1906 spark transmitter operating on 400 meters (750 khz) would actually generate a signal from about 250 meters (1200 khz) to 550 meters (545 khz). Receivers were no better, before 1912 all systems were basically unamplified detectors. Tuners were primitive or nonexistent. As might be expected, by today's standards, the early wireless stations were terribly inefficient. Transmitting ranges varied from as little as 600 feet with a 1/2 inch coil to perhaps 100 miles from a kilowatt station and a 15 inch spark coil. Ships at sea with 5 kw transmitters might get as much as 500 miles maximum range.

It was into this world that the early amateurs ventured. Actually, if we were to concentrate on the years prior to 1908, it would be more appropriate to say "experimenters" rather than "amateurs". For in the first decade of wireless, there was little or no interest in personal communications with other stations; rather, the concentration was on technical development, either in the interest of pure science, or (more often than not) with an eye towards cashing in on this new medium. Experimenters were unorganized and, with the exception of those immediate stations with whom they ran tests, had no knowledge or interest in other pioneer stations. Any true "amateurs" prior to 1908 have been lost in pre-historic obscurity.

By 1908, however, the face of wireless began to change. Technical developments had reached their first plateau, and a number of major competitors had formed the first "wireless trust"--United Wireless. With a temporary truce in effect, equipment was now more readily available to the public. Along with this, new magazines, such as "Modern Electrics", were formed with wireless communication as the primary thrust. The circulation of "Modern Electrics" jumped from 2000 to over 30,000 in just two years. The year 1908 also saw the first "handbook", "Wireless Telegraph Construction for Amateurs". It is difficult to know exactly how many amateur stations were on the air in this completely unregulated, laissez-faire era, but reliable estimates put the number of "major" stations (i.e. those capable of communicating over 10 miles) at 600, while "minor" stations with a one or two mile range probably numbered 3000 or more. Thus, if a year had to be arbitrarily chosen as the start of amateur radio, it would probably be 1908.

As for the "first" amateur, that's a harder one. Without licensing, regulations, or a written record, there will never be a definitive answer to this question. However, the Wayback Machine has come up with the name W.E.D. Stokes, Jr.. He was a founding member and the first President of the first amateur radio club--the Junior Wireless Club, Limited, of New York City. This organization was formed on January 2, 1909. Other founding members who might lay claim to the title "first amateur" were George Eltz, Frank King and Fred Seymour. Later the same year, the Wireless Association of America, and the Radio Club of Salt Lake City were created.

By 1910, wireless clubs were springing up all over the country, and the first call book-"The Wireless Blue Book" was published. Since there were no regulations in this period, the call signs listed in the Blue Book were self assigned--which brings us to our third question--where did the word "ham" come from? Legend has it there was a phenomenal station on the air with a 5kw station, who could be heard at all hours of the day and night at distances of over 500 miles. The station operator used his initials for his callsign-H.A.M.. I don't know if this is the real story, but I've always liked this explanation best.

Amateur radio continued to grow. By 1911, Modern Electrics had a circulation of 52,000, and there were 10,000 amateurs in the country. With thousands of stations on the air, both amateur and commercial, interference was becoming a serious problem, especially in marine communication. Ships, because of their restricted antenna length, were limited to frequencies between 450 and 600 meters (666 to 500 khz). As we have seen, one spark station could take up this entire spectrum. Thus, it was imperative that all stations cooperate and stand by when the others were transmitting. Sadly, this often was not the case. In addition to interference between amateurs and commercial stations, there was more interference and sometimes deliberate jamming between commercial stations of different companies. Prodded by the Navy (which was using inefficient and outdated equipment and thus suffering from excessive interference), the U.S. Congress was starting to take a serious look at wireless regulation. However, before they could take up proposed legislation, an incident happened that would quickly and dramatically alter the structure of the wireless spectrum.

On April 15, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Thanks to wireless, and the first S.O.S. in history, 713 lives were saved. However, it has been argued that the number of survivors could have been doubled or even tripled, if there were stronger wireless regulations in effect. We are going to leave the Wayback Machine hovering over the year 1912, keeping a sharp eye on the Titanic, and on a 22 year old experimenter in Yonkers, N.Y., who would soon make some major contributions to radio.

So, until then, keep that spark gap adjusted and those raspy CQ's coming. We'll catch you next month on board the Wayback Machine.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.