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 #7    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Our Founding Fathers knew that the United States would have to enter into legal and binding agreements with foreign countries, thus in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, they gave the President the power to make treaties, with the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled that provisions of a treaty are constitutional and legally binding, even if the exact same provisions contained in a law not covered by a treaty would not pass the constitutional test.

Under the Radio Act of 1927, and the regulations issued by the Federal Radio Commission, amateurs were "in the catbird seat" (to use a popular phrase of the day). They had over 2700 kc of spectrum between 160 and 20 meters, plus another 15,000 kc at 5 meters. They had a Secretary of Commerce (Herbert Hoover) who was a strong proponent of amateur radio. Congress was supportive and sympathetic. Nothing could go wrong--or could it?

Yes it could. An International Radiotelegraph Conference was scheduled for Washington, D.C., on October 4, 1927. Here, participants from 74 nations would gather to hammer out an international treaty covering the entire known radio spectrum. Once this treaty was accepted by the Senate, it would become Law, and supersede anything contained in the 1927 Act. Although amateurs could count on the full support of the U.S. Delegation, we had only one vote, the same as any of the other 73 participants.

So how much support could we count on from the other countries? Sadly, not much. Democracy was still a foreign idea to most nations; many hovered in that gray area between Old World Monarchy and Fascism/Communism. Communications were a government monopoly.  Individual private stations were feared; they could compete with the Government Stations, or they could be used in anti-government activities. This attitude was even present in the representatives from England and France. As for the other countries, many were blatantly anti amateur radio. Germany, for example, stated that private stations could violate "the rights of the State".  Switzerland was on the record against amateur radio. Japan would tolerate amateurs, however they would have to use "phantom" (i.e. non radiating ) antennas. In other words, you could have a transmitter, you just couldn't radiate a signal!!!! One proposal would only give amateurs frequencies below 13 meters (above 23 Mc).

Fortunately, the ARRL and the International Amateur Radio Union (founded in 1925) were well aware of this hostility and had made detailed preparations. The IARU and the ARRL both had made presentations to the various delegations prior to the start of the conference. Support of the amateur community was also received from private radio interests and radio manufacturers. The ARRL and the IARU would both have delegates attending the conference.

And so, after the opening session, which was addressed by President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (who was also president of the Conference), the delegates divided themselves into subcommittees and began to work. 

England, the European country most favorable to amateur radio, made it's first proposal: Amateurs would be allowed the 150 to 200 meter band (1500 to 2000 kc) with a maximum power input of 10 watts. The ARRL/IARU delegates, K.B. Warner, H.P. Maxim and C.H. Stewart, as well as W.D. Terrell, who was Chief of the Radio Division in the Department of Commerce, indicated that this was unacceptable. The British then came up with a compromise position: amateurs would have the 150 meter band, as well as bands at 2.75, 3.66, 5.50, 11.00, 22.00, and 44 Mc. Except for the 1500-2000 kc segment, each band would be 100 kc wide. The total amateur allocations under the British proposal were 1100 kc, of which 900 kc was in the known usable spectrum below 15 Mc. This was a 60% reduction for American hams in the frequencies below 15 Mc, and a whopping 93% reduction when you counted our 4 to 5 meter band!

Nevertheless, many delegates urged the U.S. and ARRL/IARU representatives to accept this proposal. They pointed out that it was far more generous than many countries were willing to give on their own. With the use of cw and crystal control, it was argued, there would be enough room for all amateurs. Many were afraid that if the British compromise wasn't accepted, a more restrictive band plan for amateurs would take it's place.

The ARRL/IARU delegates had one thing in their corner, however; the strong support of Secretary Hoover and the American Delegation.  With that, they found the strength to (carefully) carry on.  They were diplomatic, but they were persistent. Maxim, Stewart and Warner proceeded step by step.

The 160 meter band was the first agreed on--1715 to 2000 kc. Next, it was decided that the remaining amateur bands would be at the 80-40-20 meter spots. How wide they would be was the next argument. On the 80 meter band, everyone was at a stalemate until it was suggested that the band could be 3500-4000 kc on a non-exclusive basis. This was accepted by all the delegates. Each country could decide for themselves how much of the 500 kc they would allocate to amateurs. Next on the agenda was 20 meters. The U.S. wanted 14,000 to 16,000 kc. There was no way any of the other delegates would agree. After much debate, the U.S. delegation realized that 400 kc was the maximum they were going to get, and acquiesced.

With 160, 80, and 20 out of the way (and the U.S. assured of at least adequate domestic and international allocations) the subcommittee turned to 40. The American delegation wanted 7000 to 8000 kc; the most any other country was willing to offer was 7000 to 7200. Germany, in fact, put a high power station on 7200 kc in order to thwart a larger amateur allocation on 40 meters. Back and forth the debate went, the other delegates finally offered 225 kc. Maxim and Stewart felt they had played their last hand and wanted to accept the proposal, Warner, however, still pushed for 400 kc. More debate followed. Finally, the other delegates agreed to 300 kc. Additional bands were set up at 10 and 5 meters.

When the dust had settled, the Conference had approved the following amateur bands: 1715--2000, 3500--4000, 7000--7300, 14,000--14,400, 28,000-30,000 and 56,000--60,000 kilocycles.  This was a 37.5% reduction in the frequencies amateurs had under the U.S. regulations, however, it was a vast increase for the amateurs of most other countries. Furthermore, the frequencies approved by the Conference established amateur radio under international law-something which had not existed before. Given the circumstances, this was a major victory for amateur radio.

Initially, there was some opposition by a minority of U.S. hams to the ratification of the Treaty. The ARRL and the vast majority of amateurs, however, supported it, knowing that a small loss in frequencies was insignificant in comparison to the international recognition now given to amateur radio. The Senate agreed and, on March 21, 1928, ratified the Treaty.

As a postscript, Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce who had always supported amateur radio 100%, was elected President of the United States in November 1928. Although most remember his administration as coinciding with the depths of the Great Depression, it was also the time of the greatest growth in amateur radio history. From the 1929 total of 16,289 to the 1933 count of 41,555, amateur radio grew 255% in 4 years. Before his death at the age of ninety on October 20, 1964, Hoover would live to see his son, Herbert Hoover Jr. W6ZH, elected President of the ARRL, and see an amateur running for President of the United States (Senator Barry Goldwater, K7UGA/K3UIG). Whatever historians may think of his administration, hams will always remember him as a Friend to Amateur Radio.

Next month, the Wayback Machine will begin to explore the battle over the VHF spectrum in the mid 40's. Did you ever wonder what happened to TV Channel 1? The Wayback Machine will have the answers.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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