NEIGHBORS OF THE AIR (Feb, 1935)

NEIGHBORS OF THE AIR

“C Q—C Q—W6HHU calling and standing by———.”

This was the call from Albert Hanson, radio amateur, which brought details of the disastrous Long Beach earthquake and started the rush of relief.

With telephone and telegraph lines crippled, radio “hams” restored communication and shattered the veil of si-lence into which the tragedy had plunged the stricken area.

Jamison Vaughter, W6FXS, set up a portable transmitter at Midwick Relief hospital where the injured were pouring in. Barnett Harper of W6DCF joined in. W6DBC and W6EXT hooked up in the web. More than a thousand messages were sent to all parts of the world in the thirty hours following. Albert Mutter went on the air with his W6BCK, and Eddie Miller, W6AZU, dug himself out of the damaged and brick-strewn control room of KFOX. He got the station on the air. Communication was restored—hysteria was silenced—the world moved on.

Volumes could be written of the tense drama of those first few hours, but this is the story of the radio amateur. Out of the north comes a flash from the commercial operator at Nome, Alaska:

“Nome is burning! The city is a mass of flames. People are screaming in the streets —fleeing the flames—” and the message stops! The power lines have burned down.

People leap to the task of succor. The mayor of Seattle offers the aid of his city. The Red Cross gets ready. The Coast Guard orders all available vessels to Nome waters. But the dilemma of silence is with them. The commercials are helpless, and once again the world pauses, hesitant. Up in Nome the faint pulse of the K7 amateurs is going out, the hams in Seattle are listening and the miles are bridged. Once again, in the clinches with disaster, the hams come through.

There are 60,000 radio amateurs in the world, 45,000 in the United States alone, and the other 15,000 scattered in every conceivable spot on the face of the globe. It is virtually impossible to be so isolated an amateur can’t find you.

In the endless seas to the south, a tiny sailboat loafed along below the Islands of Pago Pago. The captain was stricken with appendicitis. The speediest boat could not reach him in time. Death hovered over the tiny craft. A distress signal was flown and a tuna boat, equipped with a short-wave transmitter, sent out its feeble signal. A ham heard it and crashed into the air with his powerful wave. Another ham —another relay, and an ambulance seaplane was sent from the Panama Naval base.

Clyde De Vina, a Hollywood cameraman on location near Teller, Alaska, was talking over his set to an old friend in New Zealand. Suddenly De Vina’s signals stopped in the midst of a transmission—the ham in New Zealand wondered why and asked another ham in Teller to investigate. De Vina was rescued from his monoxide filled shack before the deadly generator fumes could finish their work. Twenty thousand miles of messages in less than twenty minutes —and another life was saved!

But this fascinating hobby is not all excitement. Tedious study of technical matters is necessary before even a license can be obtained.

The code must be mastered to the speed of ten words per minute or more. The paths of the elusive electron must be followed through wires and tubes before one can put them on the air.

Uncle Sam is fussy about this, and maintains a small army of radio inspectors and monitor stations that check every signal on the air at regular intervals. They must be within the limits assigned, and the hams have little left with which to work since commercials have taken over many of the ham-developed high frequencies.

They are an honorable bunch, these hams, but have learned ways and means also, since the days when a five-watt tube sold for a tidy sum, and the puzzled milkman could never quite understand the acute shortage of pint milk bottles until he wandered uninvited into a ham’s shack. He found all the stray milk bottles lined up like a battalion of soldiers, filled with a saturate solution of borax and doing duty as high-voltage rectifiers!

Now, as then, the amateur is confronted with the cost of equipment, and in the high-power sets this is no small matter. A single 1,000-watt, water cooled tube may sell for $350, and hams can expect no outside help in financing their stations. By law, they are not allowed to accept “gratuities for service.”

There are endless numbers of amateur radio associations scattered over the world, but in the United States they all consider Amateur Radio Relay League as the parent organization—the supreme power in radio amateur circles. Hiram Percy Maxim started the whole thing with his original Radio Club of Hartford in 1914. This club grew into the League and when war was declared the original twenty-three members had grown to 9,000. The navy department asked for 500 operators. They were furnished promptly, and in July, 1917, the official publication of the hams, QST, asked for 2,000 more. Then they suspended publication and locked up the office. The editor had gone to war. All antennas were lowered by presidential proclamation, and 3,000 hams trooped into the service out of 9,000 licensed amateurs.

Who are they, these ham fellows? The doctor, the preacher, the student, the prize fighter—all banded together in the common zeal to improve radio. They keep a written record of every message sent or received, they are sworn by the federal communication commission never to betray the text or meaning of any message sent, received or intercepted. They are never too busy to speed your message on its way to the far corners of the earth.

1 comment
  1. [...] This afternoon I ran across an interesting article from the Februrary 1935 edition of Popular Mechanics entitled Neighbors Of The Air. It’s an interesting read, and gives some insight to how radio operators were viewed in 1935: Highly regarded technical operators capable of communicating world-wide with a high emphasis on saving lives and restoring communications during disasters. There are even actual scans of the original pages that have some great shots of different stations and QSL cards from 1935. Not much has changed since then, apparently! Although the FCC seems a lot more relaxed now: Uncle Sam is fussy about this, and maintains a small army of radio inspectors and monitor stations that check every signal on the air at regular intervals. They must be within the limits assigned, and the hams have little left with which to work since commercials have taken over many of the ham-developed high frequencies. [...]

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