Unleash The Amateurs: Lessons From The Early Days Of Radio

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Unleash The Amateurs: Lessons From The Early Days Of Radio

Guglielmo Marconi’s early experiments in wireless communication, particularly his radio transmission during the 1899 America’s Cup yacht races, had sparked broad interest in the nascent technology. The press was closely covering these developments, which helped Marconi’s popularity but also tantalized others who longed to try and re-create his tests. They got their wish when American Electrician published detailed construction information. This initial wave of amateur experimenters were in luck, as Marconi’s design could be built with parts that were readily available. 

[Feature image above: Home-built radio station of amateur operator William “Bill” Vandermay W7DET, capable of AM, CW, and RTTY modes, 1957. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0]


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The first decade of radio, from Marconi’s trans-Atlantic feat onward, was a period of rugged experimentation and lawlessness. Inventors raced for technological advantage. There was hardly a delineation between amateur and professional as everyone was trying to build better equipment. Reginald Fessenden’s invention of the radio-frequency alternator was the first device to produce a continuous wave. Lee De Forest created the audion, or three-element vacuum tube, which amplified and improved the received signal. Competing inventions from Marconi, De Forest, Fessenden and others were all fuel for the development of the technology. But it was the discovery of the crystal detector, when used as a simple and inexpensive tuner for the receiver, that truly enabled the home experimenters.

Amateur “wireless clubs” formed across the United States at both the local and national level. The national organization, the Wireless Association of America, published Modern Electrics to document and disseminate information. The circulation of the publication shows how quickly the field of amateur radio operators was developing. Within a few months of launching in January 1909, they had more than 3,000 subscribers. By the end of 1910 that number had swelled to 10,000, then to more than 50,000 by March of 1911. In addition to Modern Electrics, resources like the Wireless Blue Book, which listed the member stations across the country, and A.P. Morgan’s book, Wireless Telegraph Construction for Amateurs, contributed to the knowledge base. 


The authorities were constantly trying to stamp out amateur radio operators. As early as 1904, the President had appointed a board to address the growing concern of wireless telegraphy. Both the Navy and the Army had set up radio stations, recognizing the potential for communication and military use. They wanted to utilize and control the technology. One of their biggest problems was interference, made worse by the growing legion of amateur operators across the country. The Navy determined to reign them in.

The issue grew into a series of legislative battles. From 1902 to 1912, dozens of bills dealing with radio regulation were introduced in Congress. Only one passed, which mandated radio communications on ocean steamers. The amateurs withstood the regulatory assault during this period mostly by luck. The Marconi Company was the chief opponent of most of this legislation, thinking that continued amateur interference would force the Navy to buy superior equipment (theirs, of course). The amateurs were also starting to recognize their own power, even without formal representation. The networks of clubs and their thousands of members were proving a strong enough collective to survive, however disorganized they may have been. 

It was enough to endure, but not enough to articulate a strong position. The legislators took a different strategy. Instead of trying to eliminate the amateur operators, they would box them in: give them the wavelengths below 200 meters. The working theory at the time — held by all, professional and amateur — was that shortwave radio was mostly useless. The longer the better, or so the popular thinking went. Ships were using wavelengths between 450 and 600 meters, for example. The bill passed the House and was signed into law in August of 1912. The Radio Act of 1912 had set the stage for the next wave of amateur innovation.

The amateurs mostly fell in line. More than 5,000 amateur and private stations — roughly half of what was thought to exist at the time — applied and received licenses to operate after the first full year under the new law. The growth of the hobby wasn’t deterred by these restrictions, mostly owing to the popularity of wireless clubs. 

Amateur innovation continued. A 22-year-old named Edwin H. Armstrong had built a radio laboratory in his attic. Using a De Forest audion, he got the idea to re-amplify the signal by arranging the tube to feed the output circuit back into the input. The result was a clearer signal and much stronger amplification. Armstrong’s invention would eventually lose out in a major court battle for priority with De Forest himself, but it showed the eagerness and ability of amateurs to improve the technology. The tools were getting better with use. 


The next major innovation was not technical, but organizational. Hiram Percy Maxim, an accomplished inventor who had recently taken up radio and set up the Radio Club of Hartford, had needed to send a message to Springfield, Massachusetts, to inquire about the purchase of a vacuum tube. Springfield was out of calling range for Maxim, so he devised a workaround: a fellow amateur in a midway location, Windsor Locks, Connecticut, would relay the message to the seller. The experience seeded an idea: create a network of amateur stations to serve as “relays” that would adhere to a common code for passing messages to far-flung destinations. Such a network, Maxim theorized, could help to bind the diversity of clubs and stations into a unified group. In May of 1914, the American Radio Relay League was born. 

Supported by dues-paying members, the League grew quickly, and the proficiency of relay transmission improved with operational practice. By the end of 1915, amateurs had regained the level of high performance they had enjoyed prior to the debilitating Radio Act of 1912. “With home-made equipment, often not exceeding a hundred dollars in total cost, and in the despised 200-meter region, they were frequently out-performing government and commercial plants representing investments of thousands of dollars,” wrote League historian Clinton DeSoto.

With the League, amateurs now had a layer of coordination at the national level. They were capable, numerous, and organized. And just in time. 


In April of 1917, the United States entered the Great War, now called World War I. Suddenly, the U.S. military was in dire need of a trained and capable radio corps. Lacking the time to train a large force, they turned to the amateur ranks.

The Navy called Maxim. They needed five hundred operators in less than two weeks. Moreover, they were lacking in equipment. They asked the amateurs not only to join, but to bring their tools and station apparatus along. The League sent out the call over the airwaves. Within 10 days, the Navy had the operators they needed.

The Army followed suit, commissioning League secretary Clarence Tuska to train operators. “I have turned out a whole lot of operators for the Air Service and have become pretty well acquainted with the type of humans it takes to make a first class radio operator,” Tuska wrote. “The first sort of a student we looked for is an ex-amateur. He seems to have had all the experience and all we have to do is acquaint him with a few special facts and he is ready for his Army job. … A man without previous experience is almost hopeless.” 

All told, it’s estimated that up to 4,000 amateur radio operators served in the military during WWI. They performed with the highest marks and helped win the war.


Once back home, the amateurs picked up the pieces of the organization they had paused. They also picked up the pace of exploration on the frontiers of radio technology. As it turned out, the “worthless territory” they were given below 200 meters wasn’t so worthless after all. And this time it wasn’t just the military taking advantage of the amateur experiments. The world was following their lead into the emerging era of broadcasting. 

Throughout the first decade of radio, Marconi, De Forest, and the inventors-turned-entrepreneurs were busy trying to grow their businesses. That meant finding customers who would pay for their services. The Navy was one. Marconi and others were also trying desperately to disrupt the existing communication business of the time: the telegraph. They thought their technology was replacing the telegraph and the telephone — a new form of one-to-one communication. While they were busy analyzing what the business was, they failed to imagine what the technology could become. 

The bureaucracies — corporate and military —
dismissed the amateur operators, even as their numbers swelled and the hobby boomed. But the amateurs were prototyping the cultural use of radio. The phenomenon was emergent. “Listening in” to broadcasts became a popular activity. People were curious about how other people were living and radio became a window into a new world. 

By 1922, companies and newspapers began to catch on. Broadcasting was here and it was going to be huge. It was an overnight success two decades in the making. Herbert Hoover, then U.S. Secretary of Commerce, organized a conference to promote and understand this “astounding” development in American society. The rest — the rise of broadcasting and its influence on our modern world — is now history, even as the role of the amateur is less well known. 


It always happens to amateur technology scenes; they become footnotes. Makers and coders remember Woz; the world remembers Jobs.

But for those of us who care about the next technological frontiers and their cultural implications, the lessons are as important today as they were a century ago. The development of personal computing and the web would have been impossible without the contributions and mutual skill-building undertaken by amateur developers. Today’s amateur scenes are breaking new ground in technologies of all kinds, from artificial intelligence to drone racing to 3D printing to autonomous vehicles.

The best (and fastest) method for understanding how a new technology will fit into society? Give it to the amateurs — the people gathered for the love and thrill of the tool itself — and let them show the way. 

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang


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