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 #25    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Less than 24 hours later, the United States was officially at War, and the FCC had issued Order Number 87, which suspended all amateur radio operation in the U.S., and withdrew "our" frequencies from the amateur service. However, the FCC did recognize that limited amateur operation would be required in connection with domestic Civil Defense work.

Thus, in June, 1942, the FCC issued regulations which created the War Emergency Radio Service, or W.E.R.S. for short. This was not an amateur operation, even though the frequencies used were our former bands at 112-116, 224-230, and 400-401 Mc. Note that the 5 meter band, 56-60 Mc., was not included. The FCC apparently sought to limit operations to the "UHF" frequencies, where long distance skip was impossible. A W.E.R.S. License was not given to an individual, but rather to a municipality or other local government entity, to cover the operation of all such stations engaged in emergency civilian defense communications. Operations could only be conducted upon authorization of the local Civil Defense Corps.

Operators in W.E.R.S. had to be loyal U.S. citizens, with fingerprints and proof of U.S. Citizenship on file with the FCC. They also needed to have an FCC commercial or amateur license, or an FCC 3rd class operating certificate. Thus, although most operators were hams, many non-amateurs were active in this service also.

Authorized operations in the War Emergency Radio Service were limited to emergencies relating to enemy activity. There was no provision for operations in natural disasters. Practice and training sessions were allowed, and local governments may have used these "practice" activities to provide needed communications during natural disasters.

Technical standards were strict for 1942. The carrier frequency could not deviate more than 0.1% in the lower half of each band, and 0.3% in the upper half. In the 2 1/2 meter band, this meant that the signal could not vary more than 112 kc at the lower end, and 340 kc at the upper end. While this sounds incredibly wide today, remember that in the 30's and 40's, almost all "UHF" transmitters used the "modulated oscillator"--cheap to build, but not very stable. The only receiver useful with this type of signal was the superregenerative. Power was limited to 25 watts input, which is about 10-15 watts output.

By default, 2 1/2 meters became the band of choice for W.E.R.S. operations. In fact, it came to be known as "The Civil Defense Band". The most popular radio in W.E.R.S. operation was the TR-4, by Abbott Instruments of New York City. The unit measured only 9" x 8" x 4.5", ran on 6 volts DC or 110 volts AC, had a range up to 75 miles, and cost less than $40.

Although W.E.R.S. served a valuable purpose, it did not satisfy the needs of an active amateur suffering under the wartime radio silence. Fortunately, the WWII amateur had it far better than his WWI predecessor. For one thing, amateurs did not have to disassemble their stations and take down their antennas. Contrary to popular belief, the FCC did not ban shortwave listening. AM broadcasting was still allowed, W1AW was authorized to remain on the air. QST was still published. But, even with all this, the restless amateur wanted more. And, believe it or not, some hams legally got on the air and had QSO's. How?

"Wired Wireless". Have you ever heard of it? In summary, "wired wireless" was a Carrier Current type of operation. A transmitter, usually running 10-25 watts output, was inductively coupled to the AC power line. The signal would follow the power lines throughout the city, up to a maximum of about 5 miles. Anyone within 300 feet or so of the AC power line would be able to copy the signal. Even though the range was a 5 mile radius from the transmitter, the actual radiation distance was only 300 feet, thus it was legal. Amateurs found that carrier current operations worked best in the longwave spectrum, and set up hundreds of stations in the 160-200 kc range. Ironically, the 160-190 kc segment survives to this day as a legal, unlicensed low power band, with one watt and 50 foot antennas permitted.

Some amateurs experimented with Audio Frequency Induction Field Communications. This involved no RF--an audio oscillator was coupled to a large inductor. At distances of 2000-3000 feet away, an audio amp coupled to a similar inductor received the signal.

QST was active during the War years, running articles on secret communications and ciphers, the latest 112 Mc W.E.R.S. equipment, visual signaling (including the semaphore alphabet), a course in radio fundamentals, a multi part series in Cryptanalysis, and the Japanese Morse Telegraph Code, with notes on the Japanese language. Towards the end of the War, QST ran several articles on the postwar amateur allocations. Two columns focused on amateurs serving in the Armed Forces; "In the Services", and "Hams in Combat". And, as a grim reminder of the horrors of War, the column "Gold Stars" listed those amateurs who made the ultimate sacrifice.

In our next installment, we will look at amateur life in the postwar world.

As a postscript, the ARRL has asked that the 160-190 kHz band be reallocated to amateur use. Will the ghosts of the WWII operators be listening as we once again activate that band with CQ's? You decide.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

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