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The MARC Special Stories Page

Welcome to the newest addition to the MARC website we call the Special Stories Page. This new section will be used to highlight Special Stories in Amateur Radio. Have an idea for a great story for this new page ? Let us know !

Our first edition for this new page will be a full series of articles by noted amateur author Bill Continelli - W2XOY called THE WAYBACK MACHINE. In this series Bill creates a superb timeline that covers the events and actions from the beginning of radio to the present day. The entire series covers 18 articles and for June we will begin with Issue 1 titled "The Beginning Of Ham Radio - Circa 1896" 

Grab a cup of coffee or soda, turn off the phone and radio and journey back to 1896 as we begin this series with the father of radio - Marconi.


 by Bill Continelli, W2XOY
reprinted with permission

     I start this column in an attempt to research three major questions that have been asked: "When did ham radio start?"; "Who was the first ham?"; and "Where did the word 'ham' come from?". To answer these questions, let's set "The Wayback Machine" to Warp Factor 9, and head back 100 years.

     Practical "wireless" had its start in 1896, when Marconi first sent a signal over a distance of two miles. By 1899, he succeeded in sending a wireless message across the English Channel, a distance of 32 miles. The year 1899 also marks the first construction project, which appeared in "American Electrician" magazine. In December, 1901, Marconi was able to bridge the Atlantic, a feat which caught the world's attention and fueled the imagination of thousands of potential amateurs, who took their first steps into wireless.

     In the early days, everything was "spark". What exactly was spark? Well, sit down some summer night, listen to your AM or SW radio, and count the static crashes. Now turn on the vacuum cleaner, or an electric shaver, and listen to your radio again. Hear that noise? In short, spark wireless was merely a form of "controlled static". A high voltage inside a spark coil would jump across a gap, which was coupled to an antenna. The spark was keyed on and off to transmit the code. The signal generated was extremely broad. A "state of the art" 1906 spark transmitter operating on 400 meters (750 kHz) would actually generate a signal from about 250 meters (1200 kHz) to 550 meters (545 kHz). Receivers were no better. Before 1912, all systems were basically unamplified detectors. Tuners were primitive or nonexistent. As might be expected, by today's standards, the early wireless stations were terribly inefficient. Transmitting ranges varied from as little as 600 feet with a 1/2 inch coil to perhaps 100 miles from a kilowatt station and a 15 inch spark coil. Ships at sea with 5 KW transmitters might get as much as 500 miles maximum range.

     It was into this world that the early amateurs ventured. Actually, if we were to concentrate on the years prior to 1908, it would be more appropriate to say "experimenters" rather than "amateurs". For in the first decade of wireless, there was little or no interest in personal communications with other stations; rather, the concentration was on technical development, either in the interest of pure science, or (more often than not) with an eye towards cashing in on this new medium. Experimenters were unorganized and, with the exception of those immediate stations with whom they ran tests, had no knowledge or interest in other pioneer stations. Any true "amateurs" prior to 1908 have been lost in pre-historic obscurity.

     By 1908, however, the face of wireless began to change. Technical developments had reached their first plateau, and a number of major competitors had formed the first "wireless trust"--United Wireless. With a temporary truce in effect, equipment was now more readily available to the public. Along with this, new magazines, such as "Modern Electrics," were formed with wireless communication as the primary thrust. The circulation of "Modern Electrics" jumped from 2,000 to over 30,000 in just two years. The year 1908 also saw the first "handbook", "Wireless Telegraph Construction for Amateurs." It is difficult to know exactly how many amateur stations were on the air in this completely unregulated, laissez-faire era, but reliable estimates put the number of "major" stations (i.e. those capable of communicating over 10 miles) at 600, while "minor" stations with a one or two mile range probably numbered 3000 or more. Thus, if a year had to be arbitrarily chosen as the start of amateur radio, it would probably be 1908.

     As for the "first" amateur, that's a harder one. Without licensing, regulations, or a written record, there will never be a definitive answer to this question. However, "The Wayback Machine" has come up with the name W.E.D. Stokes, Jr. He was a founding member and the first President of the first amateur radio club--the Junior Wireless Club, Limited, of New York City. This organization was formed on January 2, 1909. Other founding members who might lay claim to the title "first amateur" were George Eltz, Frank King, and Fred Seymour. Later the same year, the Wireless Association of America, and the Radio Club of Salt Lake City were created.

     By 1910, wireless clubs were springing up all over the country, and the first callbook -- "The Wireless Blue Book" --was published. Since there were no regulations in this period, the callsigns listed in the "Blue Book" were self assigned--which brings us to our third question--where did the word "ham" come from? Legend has it there was a phenomenal station on the air with a 5 KW transmitter, which could be heard at all hours of the day and night at distances of over 500 miles. The station operator used his initials for his callsign - H.A.M. I don't know if this is the real story, but I've always liked this explanation best.

     Amateur radio continued to grow. By 1911, "Modern Electrics" had a circulation of 52,000, and there were 10,000 amateurs in the country. With thousands of stations on the air, both amateur and commercial, interference was becoming a serious problem, especially in marine communication. Ships, because of their restricted antenna length, were limited to frequencies between 450 and 600 meters (666 to 500 kHz). As we have seen, one spark station could take up this entire spectrum. Thus, it was imperative that all stations cooperate and stand by when the others were transmitting. Sadly, this often was not the case. In addition to interference between amateurs and commercial stations, there was more interference and sometimes deliberate jamming between commercial stations of different companies. Prodded by the Navy (which was using inefficient and outdated equipment and thus suffering from excessive interference), Congress was starting to take a serious look at wireless regulation. However, before they could take up proposed legislation, an incident happened that would quickly and dramatically alter the structure of the wireless spectrum.

     On April 15, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. Thanks to wireless, and the first S.O.S. in history, 713 lives were saved. However, it has been argued that the number of survivors could have been doubled or even tripled, if there were stronger wireless regulations in effect. We are going to leave "The Wayback Machine" hovering over the year 1912, keeping a sharp eye on the Titanic, and on a 22 year old experimenter in Yonkers, NY, who would soon make some major contributions to radio.

     So, until then, keep that spark gap adjusted and those raspy CQs coming. We'll catch you next time on board "The Wayback Machine."

Have we captured your attention yet ? I hope so, this is just the tip of the iceberg (hint) in this great series.

In a few weeks we will bring you Issue 2 that puts the Wayback Machine aboard the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic for yet another page in the history of radio !

This series first appeared in the Scenectady Muesum Amateur Radio Association's Newsletter "RF MUSINGS" and reposted by HamRadio Showcase.

PS....  If you can't wait for the entire series to be posted, contact me and I will give you the link to the entire series but be prepared for a lot of reading !



 by Bill Continelli, W2XOY
reprinted with permission

     Monday, April 15, 1912, 12:30 AM. "The Wayback Machine" is over the North Atlantic, at 41 degrees 46' North, and 50 degrees 14' West. Down below is a majestic ship, the largest and most luxurious ship in the world, on its maiden voyage. In the wireless room is a 5 kW Marconi station, and before it sit two tired operators, who make $20 per month, not as employees of the shipping line, but rather as employees of the Marconi Company. The "in" basket is still full of messages, everything from personal telegrams to stock market quotations. They are so busy working Cape Race, Newfoundland, that they didn't even notice the slight grinding jar 30 minutes earlier. As the two wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, passed the routine traffic, the Captain came in, said the ship had struck an iceberg, and told them to send a distress call at once. The blue spark jumped across the gap as Phillips sent "CQD" (come quick danger). "Send S.O.S." Bride said, "It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it".

     Thus began the moment in history that changed radio. Two hours later, Jack Phillips and over 1500 others were dead, the "Titanic" lay at the bottom of the ocean, and 713 survivors huddled in half filled lifeboats waiting to be rescued. The tragic errors in the story of the "Titanic" pointed out the need for wireless regulation.

     The first ship to answer the distress call was the German Liner, the "Frankfurt". While the "Frankfurt" wireless operator was informing his captain, the "Carpathia" and Cape Race chimed in. When the "Frankfurt" operator came back to get more information, Phillips tapped back "SHUT UP, SHUT UP, YOU FOOL. STAND BY AND KEEP OUT". While this would seem bizarre by our standards, it made perfect sense to the operators of 1912. The "Titanic", "Carpathia", and Cape Race were equipped with Marconi operators and stations, while the "Frankfurt" utilized the services of Marconi's German competitor, Telefunken. This commercial war was extended down to the individual operators. No routine traffic would EVER pass from a Marconi station to a rival, and, even in an emergency, if Marconi stations were available, the others would be shut out.

     The wireless controversy would continue after the "Carpathia" picked up the survivors. A wireless message was received, allegedly from the "Carpathia", which said "ALL PASSENGERS OF LINER "TITANIC" SAFELY TRANSFERRED TO THIS SHIP AND "S.S. PARISIAN". SEA CALM. "TITANIC" BEING TOWED BY ALLEN LINER "VIRGINIAN" TO PORT". Other wireless messages appeared, also stating that ALL passengers were safe, and the ship was being towed in. There was just one problem--these messages were not coming from the "Carpathia". For one thing, her wireless had a maximum range of 150 miles. For another, the "Carpathia" wireless operator had made only a few transmissions to the "Olympic" (sister ship of the "Titanic" and another Marconi operation), in which he tapped out the list of survivors, some coded messages from Bruce Ismay, President of White Star Lines, then shut down his station. So complete was the radio silence from the "Carpathia", that they refused to answer the calls from Navy cruisers sent to the scene by President Taft.

     The White Star Line, owners of the "Titanic", were still insisting that everyone was safe and the ship had not sunk. But even as they made these claims, they had all the horrific details from the "Olympic". And so would the rest of the world, thanks to a 21 year old operator named David Sarnoff, who managed to detect the faint signals of the "Olympic", and broke the story. Faced with the truth, and hounded by thousands of reporters and outraged relatives of passengers, the White Star Liner officials finally broke down and revealed all.

     Meanwhile, the "Carpathia" steamed towards New York City. When she passed within range of shore stations, there were "frenzied attempts by amateur wireless operators which formed a hissing mixture from which scarcely a complete sentence was intelligible". It didn't matter, because the radio silence continued.

     At the Port of New York, the "Carpathia" was met by Senator William A. Smith of Michigan, a no-nonsense Populist who was the Chairman of the committee investigating the shipwreck. He immediately slapped subpoenas on everyone possible, including Harold Bride and Harold Cottam, wireless operator on the "Carpathia". Marconi himself, who was in the U.S. at the time, (and had planned on taking the "Titanic" back to England), was also summoned to appear.

     The hearings revealed the information given above, plus the disturbing fact that the "Californian" was just 10 miles from the "Titanic". Not only did the "Californian" not have a full time wireless operation, but the ship's captain ignored the eight distress rockets sent up by the "Titanic". As to the origin of the false messages concerning the saving of the ship and passengers, no answer was ever found. However, Senator Smith sarcastically noted that, in the interim, the "Titanic" was quickly reinsured, and stock in the Marconi Company jumped from $55 to $225 per share. The Senator DID find out the cause of the "Carpathia" radio silence--it was Marconi himself. He had sent wireless messages to Bride and Cottam stating "MARCONI COMPANY TAKING GOOD CARE OF YOU-KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT-HOLD YOUR STORY-YOU WILL GET BIG MONEY-NOW CLEAR". It turned out that Marconi had an agreement with the New York Times for an exclusive story. Thus, essential information for desperate relatives and official inquiries from the President took a back seat to Marconi's interest.

     When Marconi got on the stand, Senator Smith pounced on him with astonishing vehemence. Marconi had been lionized by the nation, and now the Senator was treating him like any other entrepreneur who put profit above the public. Senator Smith was warned that his attack on a man as popular as Marconi was political suicide, but he didn't care. In his obsession with his belief that the unregulated wireless spectrum was partly to blame in the "Titanic" disaster, he painted Marconi as a man willing to subordinate the public good to his goal of a complete wireless equipment AND spectrum monopoly. Senator Smith used the "Titanic" hearings to condemn the laissez-faire status of the wireless, and appeal for the international regulation of radio.

     On May 18, 1912, Senator Smith introduced a bill in the Senate. Among its provisions: 1) ships carrying 50 passengers or more must have a wireless set with a minimum range of 100 miles; 2) wireless sets must have an auxiliary power supply which can operate until the wireless room itself was under water or otherwise destroyed; and 3) two or more operators provide continuous service day and night. In response to the interference generated over the years, and especially when the "Carpathia" was within range, a provision was added that "private stations could not use wavelengths in excess of 200 meters, except by special permission". To avoid "ownership" of the spectrum by the Marconi Company, licenses would be required, issued by the Secretary of Commerce. Each Government, Marine, or Commercial station would be authorized a specific wavelength, power level, and hours of operation.

     The initial legislation had considered the elimination of all private, non-commercial (i.e., amateur) stations, but Congress realized that would be difficult and expensive to enforce. Therefore, since it was a "well known fact" that long wavelengths were the best, and anything below 250 meters was useless, except for local communication, it was decided to compromise and give the amateurs 200 meters, where they could work 25 miles maximum and would die out of their own accord in a few years.

     How the amateurs coped with 200 meters will be our focus next time. Hope you'll join us then for another trip on "The Wayback Machine."



 by Bill Continelli, W2XOY
reprinted with permission

     Amateurs entered the summer of 1912 with a new Radio Act in place. Thanks to the Titanic disaster and the fear that commercial interests would try to monopolize the radio spectrum, the government stepped in and set up a licensing structure administered by the Secretary of Commerce. In the new law, amateurs (actually "private stations") were limited to a wavelength of 200 meters and a maximum power of 1 kW. Since the known usable spectrum at that time ran from about 300 to 3000 meters (1000 kHz to 100 kHz), it was widely believed that amateur radio would fade away, without expensive government enforcement.

     At first, it appeared that the bureaucrats were correct. Before the Radio Act, there were an estimated 10,000 stations. Now, there were only 1200 licenses issued by the end of 1912. Amateurs were finding it difficult to get their spark stations going on 200 meters, and, when they did, they discovered their maximum range was 25-50 miles, instead of the 250-500 mile range they had on the longer wavelengths. Amateur radio was slowly heading for oblivion.

     The big stumbling block to effective communications on 200 meters (or indeed any wavelength) was the spark transmitter and unamplified detector, both of which were extremely inefficient. On the transmitting end, no method, other than spark, was known. As for the receiver, there had been two developments in the vacuum tube area. J.A. Fleming had developed the diode detector in 1904. It cost a lot of money, provided no amplification, and used expensive batteries. It was not practical at the time, but it was covered by a patent. In 1906, Lee de Forest took Fleming's valve, added a third element, called a grid, and named the result the Audion. In the right circuit, the Audion could amplify by a factor of 5x. Still, because of the cost, battery requirement, and the ever popular patent fights of the time, it went unnoticed and unused until 1912, when a 22 year old amateur made an important discovery.

     Edwin H. Armstrong was an experimenter and almost militant individualist. He had obtained an Audion for use in his station. Dissatisfied with the poor amplification, he tried different circuits. At one point, he "fed back" a portion of the output back to the input to be re-amplified. Instead of just a 5x amplification, the output was now 100x stronger than the input. He also discovered that if too much feedback was used, the tube began to oscillate. This regenerative circuit was the most important discovery in radio in years. One tube could amplify more than 100x, two tubes in series could give a gain of 2000+. In addition, an alternative to spark was now available. Instead of a raspy, broad, inefficient signal that took up hundreds of kHz, the Audion could be made to oscillate a stable, pure signal on one frequency. In fact, that's where the abbreviation "CW" comes from, (a Continuous Wave on one frequency rather than a broad, intermittent wave on many). Although it would take 10+ years to develop the stability in transmitters and receivers to fully utilize CW, King Spark was doomed.

     Realizing the importance of his regenerative design in both transmitting and receiving, but lacking the money to develop it, in January 1913 Armstrong had the diagrams of his circuit notarized. This was only the first of many spectacular inventions Armstrong would come up with. Within 10 years, he would also develop the superheterodyne (now used in ALL receivers), and the superregenerative (the basis of all VHF and UHF receivers from the 20's to the 50's, and still used today in children's walkie-talkies). Even his first design, the regenerative circuit, is used by Ten-Tec and MFJ in their receiver kits. The crowning achievement in Armstrong's career came in the 30's, when he developed Frequency Modulation. With all due respect for those who flock to Loomis, Tesla, or Marconi as the father of radio, my vote goes to Armstrong, for without him, wireless would be stuck at the 1912 level. Armstrong had a tempestuous life, full of public and private battles, advancements, setbacks, and lawsuits, before his tragic death in 1954. The final legal battles didn't end until 1967. ("The Wayback Machine" will devote an entire column to Armstrong in a future edition.)

     Meanwhile, back in 1913, word of the regenerative circuit spread quickly throughout the amateur world. Experimenters who added the Audion to their receivers discovered that distances of up to 350 miles were now possible on 200 meters. The Audion, already scarce and expensive, became even more so under the laws of supply and demand. The search for an Audion to the amateur was like the Quest for the Holy Grail. In fact, it was this search which led to the second pivotal event in amateur radio history.

     Hiram Percy Maxim was a 44 year old engineer and inventor who had a 1 kW amateur station in Hartford, Connecticut. He wanted an Audion for his receiver and was unable to locate one. Finally, he heard of an amateur in Springfield, MA, who had one for sale. Hartford was (and still is) only 30 miles from Springfield, yet Maxim's station could not cover the distance. He found a station midway between the two cities that was willing to relay his purchase offer. Maxim thought about this and eventually realized that a national organization was needed to coordinate and standardize message relay procedures, as well as act as a national lobby for amateur radio interests. On April 6, 1914, Maxim proposed the formation of the American Radio Relay League. With the backing of the Radio Club of Hartford, who appropriated $50, and some volunteers, Maxim developed an application form explaining the purpose of the ARRL and inviting membership. These were sent out to every known major station in the country.

     Maxim, like Armstrong, was a prolific inventor. Unlike Armstrong, however, Maxim was also an expert in publicity and public relations. By July, national magazines such as Popular Mechanics were writing favorable reports about the ARRL. Maxim also traveled to Washington, DC, to explain the ARRL to the Department of Commerce and the Commissioner of Navigation.

     The P.R. blitz paid off. By September, 1914, there were 237 relay stations appointed, and traffic routes were established from Maine to Minneapolis and Seattle to Idaho. Realizing that long distances on 200 meters were not possible at that time, even with a regenerative receiver, Maxim got the Department of Commerce to authorize special operations on 425 meters (706 kHz) for relay stations in remote areas.

     Boosted by the publicity, the number of amateur stations, as well as the relay stations in the ARRL, continued to grow. By 1916, there were 6000 amateur licenses, (of which 1000 were ARRL relay stations) and 150,000 receivers in use. The emphasis in the ARRL was on the word RELAY; ARRL stations were expected to handle traffic on the 6 Main Trunk Lines (3 North/South and 3 East/West) that served more than 150 cities. And there was traffic. The general population (to whom phones were a luxury, long distance an exotic concept, and telegrams expensive) flocked to the idea of coast to coast free messages. As a P.R. exercise to test the system nationwide, on Washington's Birthday, 1916, a test message was sent to the Governors of every State, and President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, DC. The message was delivered to 34 States and the President within 60 minutes. By 1917, the system was so refined that a message sent from New York to California took only 45 minutes. To deal with the increasing number of relay stations, the ARRL started a little magazine, which they called QST.

     Other amateur activities in this period brought favorable publicity to the hobby. In March 1913, a severe windstorm had knocked out power, telegraph and telephone lines in the midwest. Battery powered amateur stations handled routine and emergency traffic until regular service was restored. This was the first documented emergency communications in amateur radio history. In 1915, amateur station 2MN determined that the powerful Telefunken station (see August 1996 issue of "Popular Communications" magazine) at Sayville, Long Island, was sending information concerning Allied and neutral shipping to submarines at sea. Thanks to the work of this amateur, the government took over the station.

     However, the war in Europe was getting closer. In April, 1917, based on continued violations of our neutrality and unrestricted submarine activity, Congress declared war against Germany.

     With the US now in World War I, a message went out from the Secretary of Commerce to all private stations. By order of the Chief Radio Inspector, all transmitting AND RECEIVING stations were to be closed AND DISASSEMBLED, and all antennas taken down. Complete radio silence was to remain until the war ended and the order was revoked. Amateurs by the thousands packed away their stations and marched off to war. The 200 meter band was silent. In September 1917, with no radio activity permitted and 80% of the amateurs at war, QST ceased publication.

     Would amateur radio survive the war? Join us next time as "The Wayback Machine" waits for Johnny ham to come marching home again.

 by Bill Continelli, W2XOY
reprinted with permission

     By the time World War I ended in November,  1918, almost 5000 amateurs had served in uniform, with many giving their lives overseas. Amateurs had proven themselves to be invaluable to the war effort. The Army and Navy were faced with an absolute lack of trained radio officers, instructors, operators, and even state of the art equipment. Amateurs stepped in and provided the knowledge, men and sometimes even the equipment necessary to help win the war. An interesting example of this was the case of Alessandro Fabbri, a wealthy yachtsman and radio amateur, who had top notch stations on board his yacht and on Mount Desert Island, Maine. The Navy commandeered the stations (and the yacht), made Fabbri an ensign, and placed him in command. Largely with his own money, he expanded his operation and improved his equipment. Fabbri's station was used to pass most of the official communications between the battlefronts in Europe and Washington. The traffic often amounted to 20,000 words a day, most of them in cipher. Captain (later Major) Edwin Armstrong, whose regenerative receiver was being used worldwide, was in charge of the Signal Corps' Radio Laboratory in Paris, where he developed the superheterodyne receiver. Thousands of amateurs served as Navy radiomen and Signal Corps operators.

     It would seem from the information above that amateurs had conclusively proven their worth and that the Navy would return the amateurs' frequencies back to them once the war had ended. Sadly, this was not the case. A string of events conspired against the amateur and almost eliminated all privately owned stations.

     The villain in this play was the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, a puritanical landlubber and teetotaler, whose opinions often got him into trouble. He was the type of individual that H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis satirized as "one who is terrified that somewhere, someone is having fun". For years, he had demanded that the Navy have exclusive control of the radio spectrum. Now, it appeared, he had his chance.

     The effects of the first modern global war, along with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, had temporarily turned the country extremely conservative. It was in this mindset that the Espionage Act of 1918 and Prohibition were passed. Hundreds of suspected communists and anarchists were deported in the "Red Scare". Even the great Socialist Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for disagreeing with the government. Seizing the opportunity, Secretary Daniels urged the passage of legislation giving the Navy a monopoly on radio communications. As a result, the Poindexter Bill was introduced in the Senate, and the Alexander Bill in the House. Political observers gave both bills an excellent chance of passing.

     Back at the ARRL, things looked bleak. All memberships had lapsed (along with all amateur licenses), 80% of the amateurs were still overseas, "QST" had ceased publication, the unpaid printing bill was $4700, and there was $33 in the treasury. However, action was needed immediately to defeat these bills. Hiram Percy Maxim and the other board members dug into their own personal funds and sent out a "blue card appeal" to all known amateurs or their families asking them to write their Congressman and urge defeat of these bills. It worked. Thousands of letters poured into Washington from amateurs or (more often than not) their family members asking that amateur radio be saved. Congressmen who opposed a military monopoly of the airwaves also joined in, lending their support to amateur radio. Overwhelmed by this grassroots opposition to Naval control of the radio spectrum, Congress killed the bills in committee. This 1919 letter writing campaign had a profound historical impact on all of radio, for, had these bills passed, not only would amateur radio have disappeared forever, but all private communication activities (such as broadcasting, business radio, CB, GMRS, Cellular, etc.) either never would have evolved, or would have been delayed by years or even decades.

     With the bills defeated, Maxim and the ARRL Board of Directors issued $7500 worth of bonds to League members to get "QST" going again. At the same time, pressure was brought on Washington to lift the radio ban and allow amateurs back on the air. Partial success was achieved on April 12, 1919, when the Navy removed the ban on receiving, but not transmitting. Thousands of amateurs and other listeners removed the seals from their receivers (which had been placed there by Government Radio Inspectors), strung up their antennas and warmed their filaments with the sounds of the government stations. But they wanted more. Their fingers fondled their telegraph keys as they waited for the lifting of the transmitting ban. Finally, in November 1919, after a Joint Resolution had been introduced in Congress demanding that the Secretary of the Navy remove the restrictions on amateur radio, the transmitting ban was lifted, licenses were reissued, and amateurs were back on the air.

     Now began the "second war", Spark vs. CW. Remember that amateurs were allowed, in effect, just one frequency - 200 Meters. A spark station on 200 meters actually generated a signal from 150 to 250 meters. With the sensitive regenerative receivers now in use, the practical range was several hundred miles. Transcontinental relays now took less than five minutes. The number of licensed amateur operators stood at 5719 in 1920, 10,809 in 1921, and 14,179 in 1922. And all were operating on 200 meters! To quote Arthur Lyle Budlong in "The Story of the American Radio Relay League", it was "Interference, Lord, what interference! Bedlam!". Something had to be done.

     And it was. Various transatlantic tests were conducted from 1921 to 1923. The results overwhelmingly showed CW was far superior to spark. Postwar vacuum tube production was at its peak. In 1921, an RCA 5 watt tube cost $8, and, as a single tube CW transmitter, could outperform a 500 watt spark station. A 50 watt tube cost $30, and was five times more effective than the best 1 kW spark station. Since CW took only a fraction of the bandwidth that spark did, over 50 CW stations in the same area could occupy the 150 to 250 meter range, vs. one spark station.

     The transatlantic tests also revealed some other interesting facts. Due to the excessive interference on 200 meters, some stations had dropped down to 100 meters where, to their surprise, they found conditions much better. Throughout the 1922-24 period, hundreds of tests and casual contacts were made on the 100 meter wavelength which conclusively showed not only CW's superiority over spark, but increased range on the shorter wavelengths. Once again, the scientists came forward and said that long distances on 100 meters were mathematically impossible, and once again, the amateurs proved them wrong. During 1924, several CW contacts were made at distances exceeding 6000 miles. On October 19, 1924, a station in England worked New Zealand, a distance of almost 12,000 miles. Amateur communications had now reached halfway around the world. Although it would take a few years to discover the role that the ionosphere played in shortwave communications, there is no doubt that amateurs pioneered the practical uses of shortwave.

     The phenomenal success of CW convinced the vast majority of amateurs to buy that vacuum tube. A few still clung to their spark sets, screaming "spark forever", but by 1924, spark was almost extinct. The 150 to 250 meter region was now orderly, filled with thousands of CW stations living in peaceful coexistence with each other (and the occasional spark renegade). Legally, however, amateurs could not go below 150 meters. True, many were already on 100 meters without a problem, but amateurs wanted a slice of the shortwave spectrum allocated to them. After all, it was amateurs who discovered the short waves. Now, with world wide interest being shown here, they wanted protection. Negotiations were ongoing with the Department of Commerce to give the amateurs specific frequencies.

     On July 24, 1924, the Department of Commerce authorized new amateur frequency bands. They were 150 to 200 meters (1500 to 2000 kc), 75 to 80 meters (3500 to 4000 kc), 40 to 43 meters (7000 to 7500 kc), 20 to 22 meters (13,600 to 15,000 kc), and 4 to 5 meters (60,000 to 75,000 kc). Except for a portion of the 150 to 200 meter band, spark was prohibited. Spark would survive in the hands of a few rebels until 1927 when it was banned altogether. CW was here to stay. By January, 1925, the 80, 40, and 20 meter bands were filling up with amateurs, drawn by the promise of transcontinental, daylight DX.

     "The Wayback Machine" is going to hover over the 1920's for one more edition, checking out an amateur with the call 8XK, and his activities on the night of November 2, 1920. In the meantime, take a sip of that Prohibition bootleg gin, check out those new SW bands, and join us next time on board "The Wayback Machine."


To continue the exciting series from W2XOY, click on this link.



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