Regulations and Enforcement, Hard and Soft

Descriptions of the radio laws and anecdotes about their enforcement during the early years paints a picture of a regulatory environment that could be alternately strict or flexible.  A QST article in 1916 by “Little Willie” described his and his friends’ experience preparing for and taking an exam for the “first grade comm” (First Grade Commercial license) which consisted of a code test and a written test.1  Although the author’s identity is likely fictitious, the story probably relates an actual testing experience and illustrates this mixture of stringent requirements but flexible implementation.

They managed to pass the code test having practiced using an omnigraph, (or ‘graph) on advice that it would be the device the examiner would use, and sounded very different from what they were used to hearing on “the phones,” presumably listening to signals on the air.

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1916 QST ad for the Omnigraph

The first written exam question was to draw a diagram of a ship’s radio equipment, naming and explaining each component. A series of other questions requiring written answers followed, and the whole process took four-and-a-half hours.

Willie finished with a passing score of 86 out of 95. The examiner had decided on his own authority to scratch 5 points from the maximum possible score for amateurs because, after all, they had no shipboard experience! The First Class Commercial license he obtained was higher than a First Class Amateur license, and carried a superset of operating privileges. The examiner had changed the scoring just for them based on their amateur status, on a test for a license at a higher, non-amateur level. Willie and his pals went home with their certificates in hand, issued shortly after the test.

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Local authorities apparently had great leeway in handling individual cases of violations as well.

To operate legally under the law you needed to obtain a government license for both yourself and your station. But completely unlicensed operation continued to be a problem years after the law was passed. In one such case, W. T. Scofield of Stamford, Connecticut, a 42-year-old professional telegrapher, decided to set up a wireless station and began transmitting using a call sign he simply made up himself – which was what everybody did legally before the 1912 law.2 The initial reaction of the local Radio Inspector, however, was merely to warn him about the illegality of his operation, and grant his station a temporary license on the spot. The inspector also advised Scofield that he could get a Second Class Amateur license just for the asking (filling out a form) and could get a First Class after taking an exam.

Incredibly, Scofield continued to operate without applying! This was not a good choice, especially with his station being located near a sea coast, the area most protected by the law. He was indicted by a federal grand jury. The judge in federal court ruled that it was not necessary to prove actual interference, and that merely the unlicensed use of equipment capable of interfering was enough to violate the law. The jury agreed and Scofield was fined $5, but also ordered to pay the (unreported) costs of the proceedings, which were undoubtedly higher.

Considering it a test case, Maxim was called as an expert witness in the proceedings. He believed it was important to portray amateur radio as a self-policing body and so he appeared before the court without charging the fee normally due an expert witness. A QST article on the matter noted that this further enhanced the standing of the League as “the real thing” in the eyes of the government.3 The article concluded with a list of district inspectors and a plea for anyone not licensed to send in for an application and get authorized call letters.

Stories of enforcement like the Scofield case notwithstanding, in an enforcement environment that was uneven at best and completely absent at worse, the League constantly appealed to members to adhere to regulations and promote such behavior among their peers.

Local clubs also took it upon themselves to manage the behavior of their members. The Atlanta Radio Club, a particularly active organization, was described in a fully reprinted article originally published in the Government Radio Service Bulletin, written by one of its senior members who was also an amateur and one of the first on the air in the metropolitan area.4 Initially established to get everyone together to discuss how to cooperate in using the airwaves locally to avoid QRM, the Atlanta club had grown very rapidly along with the local popularity of wireless as a hobby.

The organization established a set of operating regulations above and beyond those prescribed by the government. A membership-elected radio inspector would periodically examine the members’ stations, suggest improvements, and “enforce” the regulations (although the article did not say how). To promote interest and knowledge in radio, the club held regular testing sessions, creating a competition among members for high scores.

The club was invited to participate in the Atlanta area’s “electrical prosperity week,” where they set up an operational station and were covered by the local press. The writer explained that their relatively late start in wireless was due there being no nearby government or commercial stations to hear in the early days, and that receiving the weaker signals required a more sophisticated station than most amateurs could afford.

Surprisingly, he admitted that their group routinely violated the wavelength limit but said they adhered to the spirit of the regulation in that they took great care not to cause interference; and anyway, that was not very likely since they were so far from the “zone of interference” (meaning the sea coast) and did not allow their members to use power high enough to reach it. They planned next to form a volunteer signal corps and practice operating under “as near actual war conditions as possible.”

Here was a government official who was also an amateur, writing an article for a government publication, explaining both the self-policing being practiced by a local club and the selective but judicious disregard for regulations by the same group. These were interesting times.

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Early radio was often compared with another budding technology – the automobile. This was understandable given Maxim’s early and sustained interest and involvement with internal combustion engines and their use in automobiles.5

A January 1916 QST editorial warned about not confusing the League, which was expressly a not-for-profit entity, with new wireless associations popping up selling magazines. The editor (probably Maxim) compared the appearance of such publications to the proliferation of automobile associations.6 In another automobile comparison, an editorial in the same issue noted that a “Volunteer Radio Corps” was being discussed (it did not say by whom, but presumably the ARRL) to offer the best stations to the military for their use in national defense, and compared this to how the automobile associations in Europe similarly offered their services to the government.7 Such a group, the editorial said, would probably be better organized by the government than the League, which nevertheless could help get it going by providing lists of stations and other information. Only the better stations would be selected and it would become a point of honor.8 To that end, everyone should prepare for the day when the government would be looking for good stations and make sure their own stations were in the best working order.9

That day would arrive in eighteen months or so. Working stations would not be what was needed.

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  1. Little Willie, “Taking an Examination,” QST, April 1916, 71.
  2. Unlicensed Amateurs, QRT QRT!,” QST, April 1916, 73.
  3. We are Coming on All Right,” QST, April 1916, 74.
  4. The Atlanta Radio Club,” QST, May 1916, 100.
  5. See, e.g., C. Schumacher, “Hiram Percy Maxim,” Electric Radio Press, Inc., 1998.
  6. A New Wireless Association While You Wait,” Editorial, QST, January 1916, 5.
  7. The Volunteer Radio Corps,” Editorial, QST, January 1916, 5.
  8. He uses a sentence that we might judge to be a bit condescending today: “As a means by which the government could get into touch with the better class of amateurs there probably is nothing better.” It may not have been meant the way it reads now but was intended to point out that the League was one way in which to quickly assess the abilities of a large group of established stations, since at this point it was a group in which you had to qualify for membership.
  9. Anonymous, “A Volunteer Radio Corps,” QST, January 1916, 16.

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