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 #5    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

On November 2, 1920, Warren G. Harding was elected President of the United States. Millions read the election results in the newspapers the next day. In the Pittsburgh area, however, hundreds heard the election returns the moment they were wired in, thanks to Dr. Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse employee, who broadcast the results over 8XK, his amateur station. This station would evolve into KDKA, and the night of November 2, 1920 has been called the start of the multi billion dollar broadcast industry. But was it? This month the Wayback Machine looks at the evolution of broadcasting, and the amateur's role in it.
The idea of broadcasting was first considered by Lee deForest in May, 1902, when he wrote that "Ultimately, wireless telephony will be possible". He urged the financial backers of the deForest Wireless Telegraph Company to develop and patent the concept. The stockholders, however, were more interested in immediate profits (through massive stock sales) rather than genuine development, and refused to finance the necessary research. Undaunted, deForest in 1907 formed the deForest Radio Telephone Company. In a statement that for 1907 must have appeared radical and even bizarre, but was amazingly prophetic, he wrote "I look forward to the day when opera may be brought into every home. Some day the news and even advertising will be sent out over the wireless telephone".

Despite deForest's intense interest in this area, he was not the first to broadcast the human voice and music over the airwaves. That honor belongs to Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, a Canadian Professor. He was the first to recognize the inherent flaw in the concept of spark transmissions, and set out to find an alternative. His quest led him to Schenectady, N.Y. and the services of General Electric's most brilliant scientist, Charles Steinmetz. Fessenden explained his idea: an alternator capable of generating waves of 100,000 cycles per second (3000 meters). Steinmetz and his assistant, Ernst Alexanderson, worked for almost two years, and finally produced an alternator that met Fessenden's requirements. The Alexanderson Alternator, as it was now known, was delivered to Fessenden's station in the fall of 1906. On the evening of December 24, 1906, ship and amateur operators heard something in their headphones they had never heard before: someone speaking! A woman singing! Someone reading a poem! Fessenden himself played the violin. (The Alexanderson Alternator would play a prominent role in early high power stations and will be fully covered in a column exploring Schenectady's contribution to the development of radio and television).

Not to be outdone, deForest continued his radio telephone experiments in the period 1907-1910, broadcasting from the Eiffel Tower, and live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where Enrico Caruso was singing.

However, all of these transmissions had a major problem: without a pure, stable, direct current CW carrier to modulate, all the signals had a background whine and distortion. Real development in the area of modulated carriers would have to wait until Armstrong discovered the oscillating properties of a regenerative circuit.

By 1916, both Armstrong's circuit and the Audion were widely circulating in the radio world, and broadcasting surfaced again. Lee deForest resumed his transmissions, with programs of "good music, culture and lectures". deForest can be credited with two "firsts" in 1916; the first advertisements (for his Audion and other products), and the broadcast of the first Presidential election, between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes. (Unfortunately, deForest signed off before the California results were in, so he declared Hughes the winner over Wilson).

Also, in 1916, amateur station 2ZK broadcast one hour of music each night. David Sarnoff, who had manned his station during the Titanic disaster, also got into the act. He wrote a memo to his employers at American Marconi suggesting a "Radio Music Box", which would become a "household utility". He went on to describe his vision of radio broadcasting, and then turned to finances. He predicted an income of $75,000,000 or more each year from the sale of receivers. Marconi, still focusing on ship to shore telegraphy, took no action on the memo.

After amateurs had returned to the air in November 1919, hundreds of them began to explore the area of broadcasting. In May, 1920, amateur station 8XK joined many other hams in the transmission of music. Incidentally, it WAS LEGAL for amateurs to broadcast music, news, sports, lectures, advertisements or indeed just about anything else they wanted. The Radio Act of 1912, still in effect, did not mention "amateurs", rather, one paragraph made a general reference to individual private or commercial stations. The only real restriction was the 1 kw power limit and the 200 meter wavelength, after that, the government didn't care. Thus, those amateurs who had built equipment to modulate their CW transmitters eventually played a phonograph record or two, sang (or tried to sing), or broadcast some form of entertainment.

With all of the above documented evidence, why is November 2, 1920 considered the start of broadcasting? The answer lies not at the transmitter, but at the receiver. Prior to that night, all broadcasts had, in effect, been from one amateur to another, or to a commercial station. The November broadcast, though, was designed and promoted by Westinghouse as a transmission to the general public. Starting in September, stores were selling basic receivers for $10.00 to receive 8XK. Westinghouse, in effect, had seized deForest's and Sarnoff's idea, and was marketing it to the general public. Thus, it was the makeup of the listening audience that defined the start of broadcasting.

When the word of this successful transmission got out, more amateurs got into the act and set up their own little broadcast stations. By the end of 1921, it was estimated that about 1200 amateurs had made at least one broadcast. Some had a regular schedule of programs and would evolve into commercial stations, others did it just out of curiosity. But there were listeners. Over 400,000 people heard the Dempsey-Carpentier fight on July 2, 1921. Radio sales were approaching 100,000 per year, not counting crystal sets which were selling at the rate of 20,000 per month. However, with this explosive growth came two problems for the amateur.

The first was an identity crisis; what should the role of the amateur be in broadcasting? Some thought we should stay out of it and just stick to traffic handling on CW. Others envisioned the amateur as a jack of all trades, expert CW operator and relay station, as well as community broadcaster. In fact, a new name evolved to describe this amateur/broadcast hybrid, "Citizen" radio or wireless. Even QST was confused; for a period of time in 1921, the word "Citizen" replaced "Amateur" on the front cover.

The other problem was frequencies. Everyone, amateur, broadcaster and hybrid was on 200 meters. Tuning across the dial in 1921, one would mostly hear CW, a few spark holdouts and the new broadcasters. While the amateurs were used to the interference, the general listening public was not. They had purchased their radios to hear music, not CW. Complaints started to pour into the Secretary of Commerce. Legally he was powerless, as the Radio Act of 1912 offered no solutions. However, a conference was called for all interested parties, held in Washington in February 1922 to try to resolve the impending crisis.

Even though he was exceeding his authority under the Radio Act, Secretary Hoover was able to get the following proposals accepted at the conference: 1) Henceforth, special broadcast licenses would be issued. Two frequencies would be available for broadcasters immediately, 360 meters (833 khz) for regular transmissions, and 485 meters (619 khz) for crop reports and weather forecasts. 2) After the marine interests had abandoned the 220 to 545 meter range (1363 to 550 khz), it would be turned over to broadcasting. 3) Broadcasting was forbidden by amateurs, who were defined for the first time by name as stations operating "without pay or commercial gain, merely for personal interest". 4) "Quiet Hours" were imposed on all amateur stations effective from 8:00 to 10:30 PM daily, and on Sunday morning.

The fact that the number of broadcast stations dropped from 1200 to 30 immediately after these regulations went into effect shows just how many amateurs were, in fact, pioneer broadcasters.

This agreement, however, was built on a house of cards. Secretary Hoover has stretched his authority under the Radio Act of 1912 well past the breaking point. In 1926, the cards came tumbling down, and the "summer of anarchy" was ushered in. How would amateurs fare with no enforceable regulations in place? Stay with us next month as the Wayback Machine explores the events leading up to the creation of the Federal Radio Commission.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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