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 #6    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

The Radio Act of 1912 was hopelessly obsolete by the early 1920's. Conceived in an era of long and medium wave spark telegraphy, the Act was totally inadequate when it came to broadcasting and the shortwaves. The Department of Commerce gamely tried to stretch the Act to meet new requirements; the 1922 and 1924 "regulations" that banned broadcasting by amateurs, set up the broadcast band, and carved out the 160, 80, 40, 20, and 5 meter bands, were really nothing more than "gentlemen's agreements", valid as long as they weren't challenged.
For a time, they worked. Amateurs enthusiastically settled in on their new bands and began working the world, while the number of broadcasters in the new 550 to 1500 kc region jumped from 30 to almost 600 in just 3 years. Technical advances had not kept up with this growth, however, and there were problems. Crystal control of transmitters was still a couple of years away, and the unstable broadcasting stations drifted from their assigned frequencies, sometimes to the point of interfering with adjacent channels. Even stations off frequency by 400-600 cycles could cause ear splitting heterodynes. Most receivers of the 1920's were either regenerative or TRF (Tuned Radio Frequency), good on sensitivity, poor on selectivity. As a result, the 1920's broadcast band was saturated with only 600 stations. (Compare that to today's medium wave where tight frequency control of 20 hz, coupled with directional antennas and selective superheterodyne receivers, allows over 4000 stations to occupy the AM broadcast band without undue interference).

The Department of Commerce, therefore, issued regulations mandating such solutions as time sharing (where two or more stations occupied the same frequency at different times of the day), and daytime only operations. Stations were constantly moved to another frequency, or told to decrease power, in order to minimize interference. The Department also went after stations whose transmitters drifted onto adjacent channels. An interesting example of this was the Los Angeles station of "Sister" Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelist who was the leader of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Her station was notorious for drifting up and down the broadcast band. When the Federal Radio Inspectors tried to keep her on frequency, she imperiously wrote to Secretary Hoover, demanding that his "Minions of Satan" stay away from her transmitter. The Almighty would choose her Wavelength, she wrote, not the Department of Commerce.

Many of the stations that had been moved, told to reduce power, or share their frequency, did what any patriotic American would do--hire a lawyer. Once the legal bloodhounds began digging, certain things came to light.

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution allows the Federal Government to regulate INTERSTATE commerce. Furthermore, it is an accepted fact that a Federal Agency cannot issue any regulations, unless it was given the power to do so by Congress. Thus, the lawyers for the disgruntled stations challenged the Secretary's "regulations" on two fronts, first, that the Radio Act of 1912 gave the Department no authority to regulate broadcasting stations, and second, that since many stations could not be heard across state lines, there was no "interstate commerce" and therefore no Federal jurisdiction. (This is the argument used by "Radio Free Berkley" and other low power pirate stations).

The Day of Reckoning arrived in 1926 when an Illinois District Court held that there was no Federal Law to permit the Secretary of Commerce to assign broadcasting licenses or frequencies. The Attorney-General admitted that the Federal Government had no control over radio, except what was specifically authorized in the 1912 Act.

Pandemonium broke out. Stations, liberated from all Federal control, upped their power, jumped frequency, and/or began full time operations on daytime or time shared frequencies. Smaller stations were jammed off the air. Unlicensed transmitters appeared out of nowhere, dropped down on any convenient (or inconvenient) frequency, and began broadcasting. Anarchy was King.

Amateurs, of course, could have legally joined in this RF Orgy. There was nothing preventing them from going back to broadcasting, moving to new frequencies, exceeding the 1 kw limit, or anything else they desired. To their credit, they did nothing of the sort. One reason was the immense respect they felt for Secretary Hoover, a man who over and over publicly supported amateur radio in any way possible. They would abide by their "gentleman's agreement" with him. The other reason was common sense. They knew that Congress would soon rectify the problem by passing appropriate legislation. The broadcasters were "big boys" with a lot of money, powerful corporate backers, and 6 million listeners; they could afford to violate the spirit of the law and get away with it. Amateurs did not have this luxury. They realized that any violations of the 1922 and 1924 agreements, even if they were legally unenforceable, would cost them dearly in political support. So, while the 550 to 1500 kc segment was a free for all, the amateur bands were disciplined and orderly, as hams mastered the art of crystal control, and improved their operating skills.

Incidentally, one area in which those skills were honed was expeditions. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, from MacMillan to Byrd, amateurs provided the necessary communications of almost every major explorer. Also, in the area of emergencies, amateurs provided communications during snow and ice storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods.

The Federal Government quickly moved to end the chaotic mess on the broadcast band. On February 23, 1927, the Radio Act of 1927 was approved. This law defined "amateur radio" for the first time in a Federal statute, and created the Federal Radio Commission, which was given the power to classify and regulate all aspects of all radio stations for "the public interest, convenience or necessity". Criminal penalties were written into the 1927 Act for violations of the Act, or any regulation thereunder.

The Commission immediately went to work. "Minions of Satan" got Sister Aimee's station back on frequency, and shut down the transmitter of KFKB, the station of "Dr." John Brinkley, graduate of the Eclectic Medical School and proponent of prostate operations and (get this) goat gland transplants to cure all medical ills. Patients by the thousands listened to KFKB's broadcasts, and flocked to Kansas to have the operations, picking out their goat from the pens next to the hospital as they went in. (Do you think I could make this up?). Unfortunately, after the Commission shut him down, "Dr." Brinkley went to Mexico by the Texas border, set up a 150,000 watt station, and continued his fraudulent operations.

In regards to amateur radio, the Commission, in effect, kept the status quo for the 15,000 hams. All agreements and regulations enacted by the Department of Commerce were maintained and incorporated into current regulations. About the only change that hams noticed was the addition of a prefix on their calls, thus 1AW became W1AW, 1JS became W1JS etc..

However, the existence of a sympathetic Commission and friendly regulations wasn't enough. Radio was truly international, and, as a result, an International Radiotelegraph Conference was scheduled in Washington, D.C., for October 4, 1927. Word was filtering out of Europe and the Far East that many governments were anti amateur radio.

How would our hobby fare at this conference? Stay with us next month as the Wayback Machine shows us the answers.

............Bibliography and Suggested Reading.................

1. Empire of the Air, by Tom Lewis, 1991, HarperCollins Publishers. -- An OUTSTANDING book by Professor Lewis, of Skidmore College, which covers the early years of broadcast radio and television. In particular, the book concentrates on the three men who are the foundation of broadcasting; Lee de Forest, Edwin H. Armstrong, and David Sarnoff. Well written, compelling and absolutely fascinating, this book should be required reading for any amateur.

2. 200 Meters and Down, the Story of Amateur Radio, by Clinton B. DeSoto, 1936, the American Radio Relay League Publisher. A history of amateur radio from the first spark gap to 1936. Complete, detailed and easy to read, this book is an ideal companion to "Empire of the Air".

3. Titanic, End of a Dream, by Wyn Craig Wade, 1979, Rawson, Wade Publishers. -- Unlike "A Night To Remember", which focused minute by minute on the actual sinking, this book concentrates on the Senate hearings that were held in New York and Washington, D.C.. There is an excellent section on Marconi, the wireless monopoly, and the events that led up to the Radio Act of 1912.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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