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Issue #38: The Boys of Radio

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

You've seen these photos hundreds of times as you look at the QRZ profiles of hams you've QSO'd with . . . Young boys or teenagers in front of old Hallicrafters radios, ears to the airwaves, or perhaps pounding code on an old brass key. No matter what country and QTH that ham is in, you'll find the photos similar to those on my QRZ profile or yours. That's because many of us came into the Amateur Radio Services during those years of the great ham radio buildup of the 1950's and 1960's. We're the "old timers" of ham radio today.

Let's face it  . . there was just something magical about the idea of putting a wire up into a tree and talking to people hundreds or thousands of miles away. Some of us also fell in love with the secret language (the code) that we'd use to make those contacts. Regardless of what it was that brought this hobby into your bedroom back then, you may not have realized that you were a part of a trend. You, or perhaps your Dad or your mentors, were one of these "young men in short trousers" who did so much for radio over the years. 

In this issue, I'll highlight the efforts of those young men, the "boys of radio" as they were so often called in the media at the time. [For the record, I've already written about the girls and women of radio in two earlier issues].

The Government Versus Amateur Radio Boys

In the early 1900's there was an explosion of interest in building and operating radios, learning the code, and generally enjoying the new science of wireless communications. Most of this came from young boys, although there were indeed girls and women who were captivated as well by radio. As Richard Bartlett states in his excellent book "The World of Ham Radio 1901-1950," parents were usually proud to see their children picking up radio as a hobby. After all, it couldn't get them into trouble, and they were learning a great deal assembling these receivers and transmitters out of surplus parts and scraps from around the yard. After a series of unfortunate events where these boys did get into trouble with their radios, Hiram Percy Maxim (ARRL founder) was asked by a Congressman how young "country boys" could so easily gain access to the airwaves with such a low outlay of cash. 

At first, Maxim described the aerial -- "generally made from baled hay wire" attached to the tallest tree near the house and then down to "what is often a hencoop" on ground level. "Then, the boy goes to town and purchases the exact amount of copper wire that he needs and winds cardboard cylinders, one inside the other, to make his receiving tuner. From a friend or a friend of a friend he acquires a piece of galena. From there he obtains a little piece of the finest wire to use as the cat's whisker to tap the galena for a station. But the one big purchase would be the headphones, where the cost begins at about $3.50. I understand these boys save up for that purchase ten cents at a time, and when they come in to buy the headphones they usually dump their dimes out of a little bag."

Of course, at the time there was also a complete send/receive outfit for sale in magazines like Scientific American, which may have appealed to a different, more affluent type of enthusiast. The "Telimco Complete Outfit" was discussed here in this issue. Hugu Gernsback, the developer, stated later that he had sold "tens of thousands of these radio stations to boys and young men" at $8.50. When combined with those young fellows building their own out of hay bale wire and hand-wound cardboard coils, this meant that there was a lot of potential "amateur interference" to what was (at the time) primarily wireless on ships and US Navy stations.

Unfortunately, bad operators began to show themselves in those days, where 14-year olds with radios pulled pranks such as imitating ships at sea or sending phony "orders" on to Naval traffic. Two characters out of San Francisco were identified as the source of confidential ship location information that the press delighted in printing for their audience. Episodes like these led to a long-lasting effort for the US Government to find a way to shut down amateur operators forever, or have them totally under the control of the US Navy. While that never moved ahead, it was clear that these anti-amateur forces thought they had scored a victory when the resulting legislation required amateurs to be licensed and to operate at less than one-kilowatt. Little did they know that the radio boys would soon find ways to use their limited frequencies and power in such a way as to reach all corners of the globe with those radios of theirs.

An Impassioned Plea from One Radio Boy

During the height of the anti-amateur legislation in around 1910, a young boy (W. Stokes) was asked to speak up and defend the radio boys. His short presentation was done well; it was eloquent and personal at the same time, filled with American exceptionalism and chords that would strike home to Congress:

"We feel that the greatest objection against the bill is that if it is passed it will stifle the ambition and great inventive genius of American boys. We boys of today are the citizens of tomorrow. We have, many of us, already chosen wireless as our future line of work. There are vast possibilities, great discoveries and marvelous inventions yet to be revealed in the study of radio communications. We boys want a try at the great rewards that are to come to the successful experimenter and inventors in these lines. Wireless is not mere play for us boys, as some seem to think. We love radio work - hence, the name amateur. But it is always the amateur or the lover of a line of work who produces results."

Young Mr. Stokes' eloquent presentation was the turning point in the lengthy negotiations which continued until President Taft signed the bill into law in 1912, giving both sides a bit of what they wanted and forever securing a place in the radio services for the Amateur operator.

Is there still magic in radio?

I mentioned at the top that there was (to me, and I am sure to others as well) a certain mystery or magic to the radio arts. I don't want to take a full left turn here and get into another topic entirely, but it would be nice if we could identify that "magic" which would appeal to today's "radio boys and girls." Putting up an antenna and speaking to someone on the other side of the world just doesn't appeal so much in an era of cell phones and the Internet.

Oddly enough, however, there's still a lot of romance and intrigue behind the concept of a secret language, and therefore I've teased my young relatives with the idea of learning CW. More so than anything else I've showed them in my shack, the idea of code still seems to resonate with a certain age group.

I'd like to hear more about your thoughts on this in the attached forum discussion. Also, use the forum discussion to post your own photo of you as a "radio boy" or "radio girl." I would just love to see the forum profilferate with photos like those we see on QRZ profiles. 

Thanks and 73 for now,

Dave W7DGJ

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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated May 2, 2024 23:10