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 #22    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

On March 4, 1929, Herbert Hoover, the former Secretary of Commerce who had helped Amateur Radio during it's embryonic years, became President of the United States. Less than 8 months later, the Nation was thrown into the Great Depression. Stock prices fell 80%, the Gross National Product fell 50%, and unemployment was at 25%. It did not sound like a good time to waste money on a frivolous hobby such as amateur radio. And yet, the early 1930's was the period of the greatest growth in our history. From 1929's census of 16,829, amateur radio expanded 276% in 5 years, to a total of 46,390 in 1934. What was life like in our hobby 65 years ago?

QST was 25 cents per issue. One of the interesting columns in it was entitled "Calls Heard", which simply listed page after page of call signs heard by various stations reporting in. Each month hams would scan the hundreds of calls listed, to see if their signals had been noticed. One of the call signs listed was W2XAF, which was not an amateur station, but rather the shortwave relay of WGY, Schenectady. In fact, in the 1930's, there were so many broadcast stations with SW relays, that the Callbook listed them in addition to amateur call signs.

Most of the ads in QST at that time were for components to construct your own station. Tubes, resistors and condensers (not capacitors), were displayed in full page ads. RCA and deForest were the dominant entities in the tube field. If you needed "A", "B" and "C" batteries, the Burgess Battery Company in Madison, Wis. could supply them. As the 1930's progressed, more companies appeared with kits or even assembled units. Hammarlund, then known as Hammarlund-Roberts Inc, made it's debut with the "AC PRO", an 8 tube superhet receiver. National's new receiver was the SW-3. Radio Engineering Labs, known as REL, of Long Island City, supplied low cost transmitter and receiver kits. In 1931, one of these kits was at the center of a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. RCA, which held the deForest patents on the regenerative circuit, sued REL. Edwin Armstrong, who actually invented regeneration, but lost a controversial court battle with deForest, saw this as an opportunity to win back his patent. He purchased 51% of REL's stock, and proceeded to fight the grand battle once more. Unfortunately, in 1934, the Supreme Court ruled that deForest, not Armstrong, was the inventor of regeneration.

Armstrong could take some small consolation that another of his inventions was finally put to good use in the amateur world -- superregeneration. Invented in the early 1920's, superregeneration provides very high sensitivity on AM signals. However, it has almost no selectivity, a very high noise level in the absence of stations, and radiated a broad interfering signal to nearby receivers. It was useless on MW or SW, but was perfect for the 5 meter band at 56 mc. During the early 1930's, Ross Hull, QST's Associate Editor, wrote many articles about 5 meters and the surprising propagation there. Many 'phone stations appeared on 56 mc, almost all used "supergenny" receivers, and some even operated full duplex.

If "UHF" 'phone doesn't interest you, how about amateur television? In 1931 you ask??? Unbelievably, the answer is yes!. In 1931 an article appeared in QST describing the "spinning disc" mechanical television system that had been around since the 20's. It was clumsy and crude, but it worked. The Jenkins Television Corp of Passaic, NJ, offered a "spinning disc" kit in QST. Within 9 years however, the mechanical system was rendered obsolete by RCA's all electronic system.

The Madrid Conference was held in 1932. Unlike the 1927 Washington Conference, amateur radio was not in danger, and no frequencies were lost. 1932 also saw the expansion of the 'phone bands, but a special endorsement was needed to operate them.

The "Old Man" was still around, with his letters in QST about "rotten" operators, "rotten" band conditions, "rotten" stations, etc.. In fact, everything that didn't meet the Old Man's standards was "rotten". For the past 15 years he had been writing--no one knew who he was. Finally, when Hiram Percy Maxim died in 1936, the ARRL revealed that Maxim was indeed the Old Man. By the way, since H.P. Maxim, W1AW, was still alive in the early 30's, the ARRL Station Call was W1MK.

Dealers included "Uncle" Dave Marks, whose first store was located at 115 North Pearl St in Albany, NY. This address is significant to me because the building I now work in stands on that site.

By 1934, the Federal Radio Commission was superseded by the FCC, and a new license structure, with Class A, Class B, and Class C licenses, was in place. What goes around, comes around.

In our next installment, we will take a look at the late 1930's, particularly some events in 1938. I hope you can join me.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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