What is an Amateur?

As the number of phone broadcasts exploded in late 1921, radio amateurs and the ARRL were ambivalent about it. On one hand, the great increase in the number of people owning receivers was a good thing—radio technology was being embraced by the general public. On the other hand, the shared airwaves were getting even more crowded. There were now thousands of broadcast stations operating, both commercial and amateur. Furthermore, a fuzzy line separated amateur from non-amateur that had nothing to do with commercial interest.

The days when owning a wireless receiver made you a hobbyist were coming to an end as the people slowly began to appreciate radio for its message, not just its medium. Operating a transmitter, on the other hand, made you more than a mere listener. And if you transmitted not for two-way communication but to no one in particular, never listening for a reply, you were also a broadcaster.

In December, QST began a new department called With the Radiophone Folks to present on-air schedules of “the better class of broadcasting stations” for the growing group of those interested primarily in receiving them. ARRL secretary Kenneth Warner’s editorial asked whether phone was a “wonderful thing” or “infernal nuisance,” concluding that it was basically wonderful and “…we look forward to that day when every home will have its radio installation – when powerful central stations will broadcast news, concerts, lectures, entertainments, and everyone may get them without stirring from his living room.” Although there were some good quality amateur broadcasts, it was the “amateur concert fiends” who were a problem, he wrote.  They were determined to transmit in spite of “the awfulness of the modulation, the ungodly supply ripple, the travesty on music which his alleged phonograph grinds out.”

In an effort to bring some order to the environment, the Commerce Department amended its regulations in January to require a limited commercial license for all broadcasting stations, and forbid amateurs from broadcasting altogether.1 (Transmitting, of course, was still fine.) With broadcasters limited to 360 meters (485 meters for crop and weather information), there should not be an interference problem with amateurs down at 200. But it was not quite so simple. Some amateurs continued to stray above 200 meters. And many of the receivers being sold to the public were inefficient and unselective, yet quite expensive. When people who were not amateurs had their listening pleasure interrupted by interference from telegraphy stations, it was naturally the amateurs who they blamed and complained about, not their expensive new receivers. Much of the time it was not amateurs they were hearing at all, but commercial telegraph stations.

QST March 1922 p. 36

Self-referential cartoon from 8UX in March 1922 QST

Phone had proved unsuitable for relay work and would never really be useful for it, reasoned Warner, since the range was so much greater if a phone set were used on CW.  Still, it increasingly drew enthusiasts among the amateurs, for other technical and operational reasons. QST Technical Editor Robert S. Kruse, who in an article about QRM the previous summer had written that “the telephone is inherently broad tuning, and for that reason, to me an obnoxious perversion of the CW set,”2 now appealed for cooperation.3 Despite the success of the Chicago Plan and cooperative operating in general, a tension was developing between phone operators and code operators – similar to the tension between those involved in local and DX operation, and those using spark and CW. The phone enthusiast sometimes saw the code operator as an “ignorant brass-pounder” without technical ability, and the code expert viewed the fone operator as “a ‘ham,’ ‘punk,’ or ‘lid’” who “often violates the recognized courtesies of the ether,” reported Kruse.  He believed the two camps had much to learn from each other and they should talk, get a mutual understanding, and work together to establish reasonable “time division” on the air, as amateurs had always done in the past.

Kruse criticized the tone (meaning the quality of modulation) of the majority of phone transmitters and cited only two that he considered any good: KDKA (formerly 8XK) and 3NR. (There was not yet much of a distinction between commercial and amateur where broadcasting was concerned, despite the additional license requirement.) Amusingly, he also complained that phone stations would often continue to send out a signal even during periods when no talking was going on or music was being played “while the phonograph is being wound.”

On the positive side, a high percentage of a phone station’s “hearers are interested listeners,” he wrote. By this Kruse meant that while a code station’s transmissions were normally meant for one recipient, a phone broadcast was meant for many. But he also drew a distinction between what he called “a conversation fone” and “a broadcast fone” in this regard. He would not be surprised if “KDKA’s audiences are larger than those of NAA,” the Navy’s time and weather station. Westinghouse was probably not surprised either, selling receivers as fast as they could make them.

Crowded airwaves, broad tuning, wide signals, time sharing—all of it cried out for a different way of thinking about radio. Yet, almost everyone still considered up the only rational direction to go in wavelength (despite getting ever closer to zero in frequency). Amidst all the debate there were a few voices among the amateurs—the ones condemned to life in the “worthless” wasteland below 200 meters—who began to think in the other direction. Dakota Division Manager Boyd Phelps, 9ZT, reminded QST readers that an infinite number of wavelengths existed below 200 meters, largely ignored by amateurs, and offered some technical guidelines on how one might get there, including using antennas at their harmonic wavelengths.4 The tuning, as he correctly pointed out, was much sharper at lower wavelengths, offering a promise of greatly reduced QRM.

Until amateurs got down there, cooperation continued to be the only way to avoid on-air confrontation and the threat of further restrictive regulation. The ARRL created a publicity department to get information about amateur radio out to the public, an easy task in a day when radio itself was one of the biggest news stories. Listeners were also invited to attend affiliated club meetings both to learn and to complain about interference. In some areas of the country amateurs even adopted volunteer quiet periods in the evening during broadcast hours. While it all seemed to be working for the moment, it was increasingly clear that the 1912 radio law was in need of major revision.

The Secretary of Commerce was to appoint a committee to “devise a new code of radio laws particularly to take into account the new situation brought about by the advent of the phone,” according to QST.  ARRL fully expected to participate in this, and in a lengthy, five-page editorial, Warner solicited views and comments from individual amateurs and clubs.5 The two most prominent issues were “regulation of amateur broadcasts and the interference problem between amateur transmission and commercial broadcast reception,” he wrote.

Since the assigning of two wavelengths, 360 and 485 meters, to commercial broadcasts, all amateur phone broadcasts had been prohibited (temporarily, according to Warner) by the January amendment to the regulations. While corporations had an interest in regulating amateurs, the primary reason for the prohibition was to protect the radio telegraph operators “whom the department recognizes as the great national asset… being swamped by the amateur phones.” With the tremendous growth in broadcasting, there also was a need to regulate the quality of signals and types of broadcasts, taking into account the interests of the general public.

Local amateur phone conversation was not the problem; it was the broadcasts that interfered with the large number of telegraph stations on 200 meters. Nevertheless, the Commerce Department was “our friend,” wrote Warner, and hams must work to enable amateur broadcasts “where such service is desirable”—perhaps on some other wavelength such as 175 or 225 meters.

Another suggestion was a graded licensing system that would restrict, for example, first year stations to operating below 175 meters, phones on 200, spark on 225, and CW on 275 (edging upwards again, the natural direction for the most DX-worthy mode). In the various band segmentation proposals the common scheme was to have phone transmissions on shorter wavelengths and CW on the longer end – setting a pattern for many band plans yet to come.

Warner appealed for calm consideration of all possibilities. Everyone assumed amateur broadcasting would return.

QST March 1922 p. 66

RCA ad in March 1922 QST

Another difficulty was the accelerating development of commercial broadcasting. Corporations did it all:  they built large broadcasting stations, arranged for programming, advertised their service, and sold receivers. This had created a huge change during just the past year. Receiver manufacturers could not keep up with the demand and, in the biggest change from what had existed before, “the broadcasting companies are making ‘big business’ out of what was the game of us amateurs for so many years,” complained Warner, adding, “it’s Mr. Novice who is doing the buying,” referring to members of the listening public. These buyers did not really care about radio itself, he wrote, only about having something they could listen to. More than novices, however, many were also people in prominent roles in society—government officials, corporate officers, doctors, educators. When people like that heard signals that confused them and interfered with what they wanted to hear, it became a problem for amateurs because they were the ones who normally got blamed – even for static.

Believing that concerts, news and other broadcast content was all there was to radio, typical listeners had no knowledge of other services including amateur radio, and were completely unaware of the various constraints on spectrum use. Prominent people who were part of the radio boom could, as a result, end up causing or promoting overregulation.

Finally, there was the reality that amateur wavelengths were just too close to commercial broadcast wavelengths. One proposal, objected to by various interests, was to raise the broadcasters up to 1000 to 1800 meters which, it claimed, was largely unused space reserved by the Navy. There was no room for expansion lower with all the broadcasters on 360 meters.

Another, somewhat naïve, suggestion was to do what amateurs had always done—embrace newcomers, invite them to club meetings, show them what hams do. The fatal flaw in this suggestion lay in the fact, acknowledged earlier, that the newcomers really had no interest in radio itself, the way amateurs did. It was the difference between a practitioner and a user, the medium and the message.

In an example of the regulatory threat, the ARRL was asked (by whom was not identified) what hams would think of a proposal to ban amateur operation between 8:00 and 11:00 PM. The rationale was that since the ARRL was primarily interested in “distance work” which is not really possible until late at night anyway, this limitation should be acceptable. Moreover, some amateurs, who were also broadcast listeners, seemed ready to support such a measure.

Warner’s long editorial concluded that the preference of each local area majority should decide how to handle spectrum conflicts, again relying on all radio users to know each other and agree to cooperate—something that had worked well in the past. While appreciating the threat, the editors and the League did not yet seem to grasp the magnitude of the radio boom, having only witnessed the beginning thus far. Still, they feared that in an either/or fight, the broadcast listener might get everything.

Listeners were rapidly outnumbering amateurs and there was no end in sight. Ironically, amateurs now faced a similar problem with broadcast listeners that commercial and government stations had faced in the early days with amateurs, who had far outnumbered them.

The ARRL called on clubs to immediately organize local meetings that would include everyone—hams and listeners alike—to talk over the issues. Then they should try to come to an understanding. Whether it would be quiet hours or not, it should be decided by majority agreement.

“We must make up our minds that … the old days of free-for-all amateur radio have gone for good. The day will never return when we can make all the noise we want at any old time of the day or night,” he noted.

Even in the glow of the transatlantic test triumph, he did not yet see the new radio landscape yet to be discovered.

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Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover announced in January 1922 that a new Department of Commerce Cup (later to be referred to as the Hoover Cup) would be awarded annually (for work during a calendar year) under the auspices of the ARRL to “America’s Best All-Around Amateur Station, the major portion of which is home-made,” satisfying nine criteria, and adhering to a list of regulations. Entries for 1921 would be due by March 1.6

Besides the excitement over such an offer by the government, QST expressed pride that the award had been offered to ARRL for administration, and Warner noticed two things about it that he thought were especially “pleasant.” Hoover himself was an engineer and so were amateurs, in a sense—radio demands innovation. Secondly, the secretary had been in control of amateur radio, and under the department’s guidance it had grown, making possible its contributions to the nation and the war effort.7

On a unanimous vote of the ARRL board, the first Hoover Cup went to Louis Falconi, 5ZA, of Roswell, New Mexico. July QST carried a nearly six-page description of his home built station, written by the winner.8

Department of Commerce
Office of the Secretary
August 2, 19.22.

Mr. Louis Falconi
Roswell, New. Mexico,

Dear Mr. Falconi:

The Board of Directors of the American Radio Relay League by unanimous vote have decided that you are entitled to the Department of Commerce cup for 1921 in recognition of the notable efficiency of your radio station and your activity in amateur radio work.

It gives me very great pleasure, therefore, to present you with the cup herewith. I also desire to express my hearty congratulations on the success of your work.

Yours faithfully,
(signed) Herbert Hoover

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  1. Clinton B. DeSoto, “200 Meters and Down,” The American Radio Relay League, Inc., 1936, 75.
  2. Robert S. Kruse, “C.W. QRM,” Radio Communications by the Amateurs, QST, July 1921, 57.
  3. Robert S. Kruse, “The Radiophone and the Code Station – An Argument for Co-operation,” QST, March 1922, 21.
  4. Boyd Phelps, 9ZT, “Radio Below 200 Meters,” QST, March 1922, 24.
  5. “The ‘Phones and Amateur Radio,” Editorial, QST, March 1922, 29.
  6. “The Department of Commerce Cup,” QST, January 1922, 20.
  7. “The Herbert Hoover Cup,” Editorial, QST, January 1922, 25.
  8. “5ZA Gets Hoover Cup for 1921,” QST, July 1922, 19.

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