Strays—The Twenties Begin

If you’ve been following along you know that strays is a word hams used in the early years to mean static or other noises caused mostly by nature that would interfere with reception of signals. QST adopted the word as a heading for a collection of unrelated short topics of interest. In the first issues they were all grouped together and sometimes would take up a full page or more. Today, Strays lives on in QST, but distributed around the magazine in smaller numbers.  I will adopt the concept for this Ham Radio History blog as a good way to similarly collect unrelated but interesting topics from the period, particularly ones that are too short for their own posting, which don’t fit logically within another nearby posting.

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Diamond Sine

As 1920 began, Warner asked ARRL members to send their ideas for a symbol to represent the organization.1  After many submitted designs were considered, an official ARRL emblem was adopted by the board of directors and announced in July – the well known diamond framing an elemental radio circuit, still in use today.2 “We all know that our Emblem must be chaste in design and color, distinctive and symbolic of our work. These qualities, we feel, are well represented in this insignia,” wrote Warner. It would be used for all manner of League business, but its immediate purpose was as a lapel pin to be worn at gatherings. “Now we will know each other. As quickly as we can get these distributed they will become the sign of a Hail-Fellow-Well-Met in amateur radio—a Brother A.R.R.L. man,” he added. Later in the issue, an ad appeared for “The ‘Sine’ of the Fraternity,” an emblem in “extra-heavy rolled gold and black enamel” on a pin or lapel mount, for $1.50 postpaid.

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Maxim, Mentor

Not quite one year after the reopening, ham radio was fully revived and bracing for growth. QST grew to reach 100 pages in September 1920, a size not seen for almost three and a half years. The Calls Heard section expanded to two and a half pages.

As the postwar influx of new hams accelerated, Maxim wrote about embracing beginners.3 Maxim’s appreciation for mentoring is probably one of the reasons for QST beginning a new column, “The Junior Operator,” conducted by Guy Entwhistle, meant to help newcomers get started in amateur radio.

A late starter himself, he had only begun learning about radio ten years earlier, already in his forties, and it was the help of more experienced operators who got him going. Most amateurs were beginners back then and amateur radio was much simpler too—an aerial, water pipe ground, loose coupler, and crystal for a receiver; and spark coil, fixed gap, and photographic plate condenser for a transmitter. Maxim was becoming concerned that because the average station had become so much more complex there was a growing gap between the experienced hams and the beginners. “A sort of aristocracy is built up, and this is not a healthy condition,” he wrote.  And he believed it was also in the best interest of the established, experienced operators to encourage beginners to get involved. As a practical matter, “there is only one air and we must all use it in common,” he noted. “The experienced amateur cannot work if the inexperienced amateur is not willing to co-operate, just as the inexperienced cannot function without the co-operation of the experienced.”

From the start, Maxim’s constant interest had been in traffic handling. He still believed that it was the main draw in amateur radio, and without it interest would wane. If all activity were just conversation, conditions on the air would be “intolerable” because of interference. Traffic handling “possesses a charm and a pull which is never ending,” he wrote. Although a visionary, he failed at this point to envision the rich variety of amateur radio activities yet to come.

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Two Firsts in the Sixth

Maxim traveled to California in late summer to attend the 1920 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.4 While there he also addressed a meeting of the San Francisco Radio Club, never before having visited an amateur radio organization on the West Coast. “For the first time in our history the Atlantic sat down at the same table with the Pacific and each was able to see the kind of man the other was,” wrote Warner. “For years we have read of each other but had never seen what the other fellow looked and acted like. We understand Mr. Maxim listened in at Brother McGown’s5 station. We envy him the privilege of hearing a “six” call. It and the seven have never entered these ears of ours thus far.”

One difference Maxim noted from East Coast clubs was that the West Coasters charged dues, paid to rent meeting space and generally “do things properly,” in his view. He encouraged adopting their practices more widely. Maxim’s trip was viewed as contributing to nationwide bonds between amateurs, as were visits by Traffic Manager J. O. Smith to the South, Southwest, and Midwest.

While in California, Maxim also addressed the “wireless world of the western United States” on the air via Lee De Forest’s one-kilowatt station in San Francisco on 3 July.6 Lieutenant Ellery W. Stone, USNRF, had given a lecture on vacuum tubes via the same transmitter a couple of weeks earlier on 23 June. It was thought to be the first technical lecture ever delivered by radiotelephone.

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Another Navy Skirmish

The US Navy was pressing for control of the airwaves again in late 1920. Their attempt at radio legislation was an inactive bill in the Senate’s Radio Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs,7 which QST condemned as “un-American to the core” in many provisions and one that did not assure amateurs of continued permission to operate.8 Thought to be obsolete because of a pending international convention,9 there was nonetheless renewed fear that it might be revived and rushed through the short congressional session starting on 6 December. The bill proposed establishing a “National Radio Commission” with authority to regulate the operation of all eight classes of stations, including several kinds of amateur stations. But it made “no provisions for hearing the claims of interested classes of stations, and throughout is amazingly autocratic and contrary to the principles of American government,” according to the editorial.

QST—presumably Warner as editor—speculated that naval officers who had drafted most of the bill had, “acquired the ‘imperialistic’ views of Europe on matters affecting communication.” The proposed commission would have representatives from the Departments of the Navy, War, Commerce and Post Office, but its secretary would be a naval officer appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, thus essentially giving the Navy complete control of radio. The commission would have the power to deny a license to any applicant for only vaguely defined reasons. It could, for example, “announce that the amateur wave length should be two meters, the power one watt, the decrement .0001,” and be within the law. “The un-American qualities of this bill reach a state of absolutely unqualified despotism,” decried Warner, and urged members to implore their representatives to oppose to it.

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Call Confusion

Operating procedures were in flux in the early 1920s. For example, there were as yet no national prefixes. This naturally caused confusion between Canadian and US call signs – duplicates were unavoidable. So for a while the ARRL adopted a different prosign or signal to be used between various combinations of call signs.10 US working US would use DE as usual. US working Canada would use AA, Canada working US will use V and Canada working Canada would use OE. We can imagine what this must have sounded like. With only two countries to contend with, it was just the beginning.

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T.O.M. meets Maxim?

The Old Man defined SOL as “sure out of luck,” which is what you were if you missed the ARRL Midwest Convention in St. Louis in December, where he met many well known hams for the first time.11 “That’s the funny thing about these Radio Conventions,” he wrote, adding that “You get to know folks intimately in five minutes time.” He described seeing HPM by surprise when,

… the crazy elevator behind me exploded again, and another bunch was disgorged into the room. I gasped for air when I realized that the gray-haired middle-aged man who came out first was no other than our President, Mr. Hiram Percy Maxim. By the Great Horn Spoon! Right here in the same room! Had known him for years and years, it seemed like. I had written him no end. The Old Chief, himself! Say boys, it was just the greatest feeling that came over me that I have had in many a long year. It just grips you.12

At one point, somebody wheeled in a big crate supposedly containing a “static eliminator.” As HPM uncovered it, out burst a “young lady dressed for anything but winter weather.”

The roaring twenties had begun.

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de W2PA

  1. “The A.R.R.L. Emblem,” Editorial, QST, January 1920, 16.
  2. “The A.R.R.L. Emblem,” Editorial, QST, July 1920, 23.
  3. Hiram Percy Maxim, “Our Less Experienced Brothers,” QST, September 1920, 19.
  4. “East Meets West,” Editorial, QST, September 1920, 24.
  5. D. B. McGown, 6MC, vice president of the San Francisco Radio Club.
  6. “Mr. Maxim Delivers an Address by Radiophone,” QST, September 1920, 44.
  7. S-4038 from Senator Poindexter of Washington.
  8. “Dangerous Legislation Confronts Us,” QST, December 1920, 5.
  9. The convention would not actually occur for seven more years.
  10. F. H. Schnell, “Canadian-US Calls,” The Operating Department, QST, January 1921, 33.
  11. “The Old Man,” Rotten S.O.L., QST, February 1921, 9.
  12. It now seems strange for Maxim, who was also T.O.M., to have written about himself in this way.

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