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 #23    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Cairo, Egypt, 1938. In the pre war time of Colonial Empires, this conjures up an image of Europeans in white linen suits sitting on the veranda of a luxuriously decadent Colonial Hotel, oppressive ceiling fans, dark, mysterious strangers, Peter Lorie & Sidney Greenstreet. However, for amateurs, Cairo in 1938 meant a setback.

The first International Radiotelegraph Conference was held in Washington D.C. in 1927. Although amateurs lost almost 40% of their allocations, the concept of amateur radio as a legal, international hobby was established. The second Conference was held in Madrid in 1932, and produced no changes in ham radio. Now the third Conference was at hand, but times had changed. Italy, Germany, and Spain were under Fascist Dictatorships, Stalin was directing a ruthless purge in the Soviet Union, and Japan was at war with China. The shortwaves were filled with propaganda broadcasts and military communications. Under this cloud of uncertainty, delegates from 71 countries assembled in Cairo on February 1, 1938. How would amateur radio be treated under these circumstances?

Actually, American hams came out of the battle with no major losses. Despite the number of Dictatorships at the Conference, there was no attempt to destroy amateur radio, which, after all, allowed individual citizens access to receivers and transmitters. The most serious threat came from Japan, which proposed that amateurs be limited to 50 watts input. The Japanese Plan was easily defeated. The ARRL had pushed for expanded HF bands, but the American Delegation, mindful of the potential hostility at the Conference, did not propose it.

The headlines in the July 1938 issue of QST summed up Cairo: "American Amateurs retain all frequencies after a terrific fight", "USA puts up splendid defense", "European Hams short changed by Greedy Governments", and, "European Broadcasting to invade 7 mc Band in late 1939". In Europe, the 7200--7300 kc segment of the 40 meter band would be shared with Broadcasters, starting September 1, 1939. They also lost half of the 80 meter band to broadcasting and other services, and the European 5 meter band was scaled back to make way for television. However, it could have been a lot worse. The next International Conference was set for Rome in 1942. It never took place.

In other 1938 news, the amateur population was stabilized at 50,000, after years of growth. This was partly due to the increase in the code speed, from 10 to 13 wpm in 1937. With regenerative receivers and crystal controlled transmitters (which meant that two stations having a QSO would probably be on two separate frequencies), many hams felt that 50,000 was the saturation point for our bands.

On October 4, 1938, the FCC issued complete new amateur regulations. Included in the package were two new ham bands at 112 and 224 mc. What could hams do up there? Try amateur television. An all electronic form of television was replacing the mechanical "spinning disc", and QST carried several articles discussing the theory and construction of an amateur TV station. W6XAO was an experimental TV station in LA, which would soon be followed by other TV pioneers such as W2XBS. (Where have I heard that call before?).

On September 2, 1938, the new Maxim Memorial Station, W1AW, was dedicated at 225 Main Street in Newington, Ct.. The Station was in memory of Hiram Percy Maxim, the Founder and first President of the ARRL, who died in February 1936. Less than one month after Maxim's death, floods roared through the Connecticut River valley, and destroyed W1MK, which had been the League's Station. Later in 1936, the ARRL Board of Directors allocated $18,000 to build a Memorial Station to honor W1AW, as well as to replace W1MK. The station would stand alone on Main St., in Newington, until joined in 1963 by the ARRL/QST Offices, which moved from West Hartford.

On September 13, 1938, Ross Hull, Editor of QST, died after being electrocuted in his home. He had been working on a homebrew TV receiver. Ross was a native of Australia and held the call 3JU while living "down under". He did not hold a U.S. license because his citizenship application was not finalized. Despite his lack of American Amateur privileges, Ross Hull was instrumental in early VHF/UHF developments. He designed practical and inexpensive 5 meter stations, and greatly contributed to the knowledge of VHF/UHF propagation. His death dramatically pointed out the dangers of working on live circuits and, for months thereafter, QST ran articles on how to "switch to safety".

No discussion of 1938 would be complete without including the Great Hurricane. In the fourth week of September, New England and Long Island, already soaked by previous rainstorms, were pounded by the unnamed Hurricane, which was completely unexpected. Over 600 people died, and damage was $500 million in 1938 dollars. The new W1AW Memorial Station, just 3 weeks old, survived without any damage, although power was lost for 36 hours. Hundreds of amateurs grabbed whatever generators and batteries they could find, and set up emergency stations on 5 meters AM, and 160, 80 and 40 cw. Amateurs were the only source of communication for dozens of communities and handled everything from health and welfare traffic to police communications. It was a superb demonstration of public service at its best.

In our next installment, we will look at amateur radio in WWII. Yes, amateurs were off the air. But what did they do, if they weren't in uniform? What filled the pages of QST? And what was this "WERS"? Join me as the "Wayback Machine" seeks the truth.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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