Strays – Perspectives on Amateur Radio, 1930

As the decade of the 1920s drew to a close, amateur radio was an internationally recognized user of the public airwaves, although the view of individual countries around the globe varied from enthusiastic support to complete prohibition. The American government was solidly among the former.

Uncle Sam Loves His Hams

The 1927 law provided a process for appealing decisions of the Federal Radio Commission. In one such appeal by commercial concerns seeking additional allocations, the commission wrote a lengthy response to the DC Court of Appeals explaining their rationale behind the allocation process. Part of that response was a strong, lengthy (but worth reading) endorsement of amateur radio:1

Amateurs are persons engaged in radio communication for personal and altruistic reasons. They are precluded by the International Convention and the General Orders and Regulations of the Commission, from gaining any financial benefit from their transmissions. Prior to February 23, 1927, they were entitled to use the entire range of frequencies from 1500 kilocycles upwards. They were the first to make practical use of short waves and demonstrated their efficacy to the world by feats of the most dramatic character. Their contributions to the science of radio communication have only too often been the demonstration of the utility of frequency ranges only to arouse the desires of commercial interests to deprive them of the use thereof. At the various National Radio Conferences, speaking through their authorized representatives, they offered to relinquish most of their territory for commercial development. During the breakdown of the law they policed their own frequency bands and fulfilled their pledges.

It is only upon the North American Continent that they have been extensively encouraged, to which some are inclined to attribute much of America’s leadership in radio. European governments were inclined at the Washington Conference to impose the most drastic reductions upon amateur frequency bands. In spite of the great efforts in their behalf of the North American delegates, very serious reductions were made in the width of the bands. As a result, in the range now under consideration, over 17,000 amateur stations in the United States are crowded, for domestic communication, into the bands 1712 to 2000 kilocycles and 3500 to 3996 kilocycles and they suffer an even worse congestion in their international bands. Nevertheless, through cooperative effort, they have expended large sums of money and have exerted great effort and ingenuity toward the development of new types of apparatus and circuits to enable them to survive under these circumstances.

They communicate by radiotelegraph and radiotelephone and experiment in facsimile and television transmissions. They operate training communication nets for both the Army and the Navy. They afford communication service in times of emergency, flood, and tornado to railroads and the general public. For sixteen years they have offered a free message service to all who desired to use it as a means of providing the traffic for their tests, communications, and experiments and they have developed a world-wide relay organization for this purpose.

In recognition of their utility and in realization that from the amateur ranks came the radio operators who gave our Army and Navy their communications during the late war as well as most of the radio inventors, engineers, technicians, and operators, it is to be regretted that the provisions of the International Radiotelegraph Convention have afforded them so little in the way of frequency bands.

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Unknown Friends

A more personal perspective was offered by T. B. Norris, W2ATT in a letter to QST in December 1929.2 Amateur radio, as perceived by the public, is a highly technical hobby pursued by people interested in the radio art. But there is more to it, wrote Norris:

…the amateur gives a far call through the weird etherial spaces; his hand with utmost care of manipulating his telegraph ‘key’ spells out definite calls which his equipment hurls into the atmosphere. He listens for an answer; lo and behold! he hears another amateur calling him. ‘Contact,’ so to speak has been made. Conversation, signal reports, etc., friendly flow between the two ‘unknown friends.’ They do not know each other personally, yet with mutual understanding and sympathy, each has an ‘unknown friend.’

Does not this factor alone, make our ‘ham’ radio hobby a most worth-while pursuit?

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“Mrs. W8CNO” was credited with inventing the term “XYL” to describe a married woman.3 She explained that it “means just what it, says, i.e., ex-YL, which means that I am no longer exactly a YL operator, nor yet can I be classed as an OW.”

However, “Very few guesses as to [YL’s] meaning are correct,” she complained, “which may not indicate an over-abundant amount of intelligence on the part of the male of the species!” It was not simply a more polite version of OW, nor was it a synonym for “old maid.”

She credited arctic explorer Donald MacMillan for getting her into “the game,” mostly from being inspired by radio operations during his trips to the Arctic [add ref to previous chapters].

Discouraged at first by having to learn CW, her new neighbor, W8DED, tuned in and copied WNP for her. This made her determined to master it. She got her license the next summer in 1926. She enjoyed handling traffic and DXing but got a thrill mostly out of establishing new friendships, writing,

Only we, who have sat in a fast-chilling room, listening with queer, hypnotic fascination to a friend, a mile, a thousand—or even ten thousand miles away, saying “73” can understand. We snap on our transmitter and out through the clear air go thin, etheric fingers; out through the infinite goes a handclasp of friendship. So we, sitting alone by our set, become suddenly warm and happy, for the Angel of Friendship has entered and we know that across the miles we have found a friend. Outside, pale stars gleam down on our invisible bond, a bond stronger than the strongest steel. Of such stuff are amateur [radio] friendships made.

Nevertheless, she had taken note of three distinct types of male operators on the air. The first was the “budding Romeo.” They came in all age groups. Most hams, she believed, prefer a YL familiar with radio. The second type was extremely courteous, exaggerating signal reports and complimenting her on her fist. Aware of the phenomena, she usually divided such a signal report by a factor of two or three. Both types prized her QSL card, especially one with a picture that could be hung on the wall. The third type consisted of those who resented women being involved in radio at all. She first ran into one of those at her license testing session where a male examinee, upon seeing her, announced in a “disgusted” tone to the assembled group that “the good old days are gone forever.”

Although she sometimes has regrets, she’d gotten a lot of pleasure out of being a ham. “The ham game is a great old game, and the species ‘ham’ is a great old genus, and I say—‘Long may it, and they, flourish.’”

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HPM at Decade’s End

In tribute to Maxim turning 60, the Communications Department organized a mass relay of congratulatory messages to be delivered on his birthday.4 The trick was to keep it secret. So an announcement of the event was mailed to affiliated clubs and Communications Department appointees (such as Official Relay Stations) across the US and Canada, who then notified their friends about the event. Those who kept regular scheduled contacts with foreign stations passed the word along as well.

The relay itself began at 6:00 p.m. EST on Saturday 31 August 1929 and ran until the same time on Monday 2 September, Maxim’s birthday. Several Connecticut stations were on the air collecting the birthday greetings, and at W1MK, the ARRL HQ club station, three operators kept watch all weekend on 3,575 and 7,150 kHz. This alone produced what we’d call a pileup today with many stations sending tens of messages each and waiting to take their turns working W1MK. From around the world and across the country, the station received 356 messages, most of which were delivered in the evening on his birthday.

W1AOX received a special commendation letter from Maxim for handling the most messages (other than W1MK), with 151, one of which was his own. Awards also went to the ten stations outside Connecticut who had handled the most messages.

W4SI in Atlanta was particularly active in the preparations and personally phoned all the amateurs in the area to get them involved. As a result, Atlanta accounted for much more than its expected share of the delivered messages.

Besides Atlanta, the birthday greetings originated from 41 states, DC, and three US possessions, all but one Canadian province, and seven foreign countries. Thirty-nine radio clubs sent messages, too. In all, over 700 messages were delivered to Maxim, who was completely surprised.

“I hand it to you, gentlemen, and ask you to accept my sincere thanks,” he wrote. “It touched me more deeply than you may believe. To have my A.R.R.L. friends give me the greatest birthday celebration of my life means a very great deal, indeed.”5

Keeping the secret was particularly remarkable because the Board of Directors had originally begun planning the event a year earlier, getting Maxim’s age wrong, and then proceeded to keep it a secret for an additional year—better early than late.


Temporarily resuming his duties as QST editor while Warner traveled to The Hague for an international advisory conference, Maxim reminisced about the early days when he used to write all the editorials.6

At 14 years old, QST was now “the oldest all-radio magazine in the country,” he wrote, outliving many radio magazines that had come and gone during the initial stage of the broadcasting boom.

At the beginning, he and Tuska produced the magazine in a third-floor room of Tuska’s mother’s house. A high-school student at the time, Tuska would work on QST after school. The two would also consult during afternoons at Maxim’s business office and compose each month’s issue, which typically ran a dozen or so pages long. Maxim would pick up the finished issues from the printer in his Franklin touring car and bring them home where he, Mrs. Maxim, their children, Tuska, and “a neighbor or the house maid” would get them ready for mailing. He would then deliver them the next morning to the post office “in a single bag.”

At that time a 25-mile QSO “was a real achievement” and he vividly remembered trying without success to set one up with another ham only 12 miles away. Things had changed dramatically since those days.

With that in mind he wondered, if rhetorically, whether there were as many new surprises around the corner as had happened between the early days and 1929. He was certain there were—after all, everyone considered 425 meters to be the lower limit of usability back then.

Maxim believed that amateur radio was “one of the amazing products of this century”—an amateur group unlike any other—depended upon for emergencies, providing communications for expeditions of exploration, and led the way in a field of scientific research.7 He believed it had been amateurs themselves who made amateur radio what it had become rather than the other way around, by organizing and working as a “coordinated whole,” which, in turn, had brought opportunities. And the opportunities would continue; he predicted that amateurs would be involved in a continuing stream of advancements, mentioning the possibility of color television. “Let’s keep everlastingly at it, fellows.”

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Kenneth B. Warner, Ham I Am

By the 1930s, radio amateurs were undoubtedly hams, and had been for a very long time—no longer wireless bugs as in the early days. The last debate about it had died out shortly after the birth of the ARRL. Nevertheless, in December 1931 Warner felt compelled to write about the etymology of the term ham in response, he claimed, to correspondents who still, “approximately every so often,” complained about its use.8 Why, they ask, is it used when “everybody knows that a ham means a punk, a lid, a poor performer, a person not fully familiar with his vegetables.” In rebuttal, he assured them it was an honorable tag and, in fact, had some purported origins that actually related to the literal meaning of being an amateur.

He cited “somebody’s dictionary” as suggesting ham is derived from hamfatter, a word used in the late nineteenth century to mean an incompetent actor or musician, and in the early twentieth as a synonym for amateur9. This would also account for its general use in the performing arts.

Another possible origin was sports slang in England where ‘am was simply an abbreviated form of the word amateur, and “which the cockney foot-racers and pugilists of the [1870s] pronounced h’am.”

Either way, wrote Warner, a direct connection to amateur reinforces the idea that there is no derogatory meaning at all. Instead, according to Webster, a ham in this sense is a person “who is attached to or cultivates a particular pursuit, study, or science from taste, without pursuing it professionally.” Its prior, scornful use by wire telegraphers towards poor operators notwithstanding, radio amateurs now embrace it fully and “accept no such connotation,” he declared. “Hams we are, then, and proud of it!”

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de W2PA

  1. K. B. Warner, Editorial, QST, November 1929, 7.
  2. T. B. Norris, W2ATT, An Unknown Friend,” Correspondence, QST, December 1929, 56.
  3. E. M. Thomas, XYL,” QST, September 1929, 23.
  4. E. L. Battey, “The Hiram Percy Maxim Sixtieth Birthday Relay,” QST, November 1929, 19.
  5. H. P. Maxim, “The President’s Corner,” QST, November 1929, 8.
  6. H.P. Maxim, Editorial, QST, December 1929, 11.
  7. H. P. Maxim, “Opportunity,” QST, September 1928, 24.
  8. K. B. Warner, Editorial, QST, December 1931, 9.
  9. See, for example,

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