At the time this article appeared, licencing of U.S. amateur radio stations had begun just three years earlier. But the amateurs were concerned that the government might someday eliminate their stations, so they made efforts to promote their public service activities. In spite of the suggestion made by this article about their potential as monitors, during World War One the government would ban all reception of radio signals by civilians.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 1916, Sunday Features:
20,000 American "Watchdogs"
Uncle Sam, Realizing How Easily a Hostile Force Could Approach Our Long, Badly Patrolled Coasts, Looks to Amateurs for Signal Duty in Detecting Its Approach, and for Quick Transmissions of Military Intelligence--Youths, in Joining the New Radio League, Pledge Themselves as Modern Paul Reveres in Periods of War, Riot and Disaster
THE wireless man seems to be omnipresent. He is found in every part of the country. The delicate antennae are strung above the skylines of every city, and there are few persons who are not acquainted with some enthusiastic amateur. Possibly he is a boy in short trousers, who operates his own wireless, and is one of 20,000 such amateurs scattered all over the United States.
Of what use to humanity are these non-professional operators? Not so very long ago those familiar with the wireless would have answered the question thusly: "None at all. They are a reckless lot--at times criminally mischievous. Many send out distress and alarm signals, and coastal stations receiving messages are more than likely to believe them the usual amateur hoaxes." In 1910 several bills were introduced in Washington which fairly promised to throttle the activities of every wireless enthusiast in the country. This, of course, brought the amateurs to their senses quickly, and thousands of letters were written to officials at the capital--letters in which the wireless amateurs promised to behave in future.
First Line of Defense.
Today, when the nation is aroused as never before by the propaganda of preparedness, the eyes of military leaders are on the wireless amateurs. They are recognised as constituting a resource for national defense which has been almost entirely overlooked. So enthusiastic are the majority of amateurs to show Uncle Sam that, instead of being a menace, they are a blessing, that they have formed an association known as the Radio League of America, one of whose aims, it is announced, is to aid the government should it ever be attacked.
An account of the formation of this league is given in the Electrical Experimenter, its official organ, and says in part:
"The advent of the great European war in 1914 found the United States in an unprepared condition as regards its defenses and vigorous steps were promptly taken to wake us up from our lethargy. President Wilson's recommendation to the country for a vast increase of our army and navy has been so much discussed of late that no further reference to his valuable advice is required here.
Wires Easy to Destroy.
"But there exists today a formidable defense weapon, which up to now has not been exploited by Uncle Sam. We refer to the thousands of amateur radio stations scattered broadcast through the entire length and breadth of this fair land. There is hardly a hamlet today which does not boast of several amateur wireless stations, as their number is increasing by many hundreds each day.
"As the European war has so thoroughly demonstrated, quick transmission of intelligence is of paramount importance. Telegraph and telephone lines are put out of order with ridiculously small effort by the enemy and whole sections of country are thereby isolated. Such sections are then helpless and no important messages can be safely transmitted in either direction. All this helps the enemy enormously, and the thus isolated section is then entirely at his mercy. If France or Belgium had possessed an effective amateur wireless scout service there might possibly be a different story to tell today. In these days of fast military movements, quick reporting of war intelligence is of incalculable importance, and if this is true of Europe it is even truer in the United States, the country of such vast and undefended coast lines.
Amateur Might Save Nation.
"One needs not be a dreamer in order to appreciate how easily a hostile fleet could approach our long, badly patrolled coasts and try a landing of an armed force. There might not be a telegraph or telephone line around for miles, or, if it did exist, it is certain that spies operating on land would have found little trouble in putting it out of commission beforehand.
"But there will be a lone amateur on the alert who has seen the approaching fleet, and within thirty seconds Washington will have the priceless intelligence. Vice versa, there might be a handful of poorly equipped United States militia holding the enemy at bay temporarily. It is conceivable that this small body of men might have neither sending nor receiving apparatus. Somewhere back of the hills the United States regulars are coming to the rescue of the sorely pressed militiamen. They want the latter to hold out for a few short hours and want to tell them of their coming. The radio message containing this intelligence is flashed over the hills, but is not received by the exhausted men. However, just as all hope is up, a lad of 17 years with streaming hair runs up to the major of small band and breathlessly conveys the cheering news to him. He caught the message over his pitiful thirty-foot aerial on top of his barn, but it saved the day. He did not even have a sending station. His outfit comprised only a cheap homemade receiving set. But it did the work just the same.
"Such occasions are almost certain to arise in the future, and it is thus of the utmost importance that every patriotic radio amateur should offer his station to his country.
"If Uncle Sam grants the amateur the free use of the ether it is certainly up to the amateur to give something in return for the privilege. It was with this thought uppermost in his mind that Mr. Gernsback (editor of the Electrical Experimenter) in July, 1915, first conceived the idea of organizing the Radio League of America.
300,000 Small Stations.
"By referring to the 1915 government book, Radio Stations of the United States, it will be seen that only 3,723 amateurs have been licensed since 1913. The reason for this surprisingly small registration is found in the fact that the law does not require receiving stations to be licensed nor small sending stations located in the interior large states, where the effect of a weak spark coil would not extend over the state borders. Such stations are exceedingly numerous and have been estimated to run about 300,000. Now, then, there appears no reason for doubt that sooner or later the government would pass a new law requiring the registration and licensing of such stations in order to have such stations available in case of national stress.
"No one can foretell what surprises such a new law will bring the amateurs, and for that reason it cannot be denied that it is far better and more patriotic to give this necessary information voluntarily to the government instead of waiting until a new law is passed which might perhaps be detrimental from the viewpoint of the amateur."
Only a few days ago the government sent out blanks to all wireless operators in the country with the object in view of listing their apparatus and station calls as part of the national preparedness program.
Pledge Themselves for War.
The charter of the Radio League of America states that one of its primary objects is to keep available for government use a complete list of such amateur radio stations as will agree to give assistance in time of national danger. There are no dues. Every member pledges himself to aid the government "in periods of war, riot and disaster," to assist in detecting and apprehending violators of the laws governing wireless communication; never to send a misleading call, but to transmit all distress calls to the nearest official. Manning our boundary stations alone would require most of our trained wireless operators if the United States was drawn into war. This would leave no provision for interior communication. That is where the amateurs would prove valuable. It is said that an important factor in the German success is the network of wireless stations which covers the entire nation--but these stations are manned by professionals.
Best Operators Mere Boys.
Amateur wireless stations have been restricted, if not prohibited, by the countries of Europe. Uncle Sam has been more liberal, allowing his children to acquire knowledge, letting them do as they please, so long as they do not interfere with what is best for the welfare of the public at large--and this, say those who favor the new scheme of defense, may prove the wiser course.
Most of the best operators are mere school boys, but they are active, alert and efficient, rating higher in examinations than experienced telegraph operators who would quality for wireless positions. They seem to master the code and develop speed and accuracy in transmitting messages much more quickly than those who are older; but it is the trained telegraph operator who would be depended on as supervisors of wireless stations in times of war, despite the effective service the boys would render as assisting operators.
Rich Youths Distinguished.
Many of those who have distinguished themselves by skill with wireless are the sons of wealthy parents. John Hays Hammond Jr., a member of the advisory board of our national defense commission, was one of these. Before acquiring his majority young Hammond had perfected a system of directing the movement of ocean vessels by wireless control which was pronounced valuable for the submarine work of the United States navy. Under his direction the navy is now experimenting in an endeavor to improve this discovery.
Safety at sea and military communications are regarded as the two most important services rendered by the wireless system. Its commercial value, however, is rapidly increasing.
No girls have as yet qualified as licenced operators, although it is stated unofficially that hundreds of girls are transmitting messages in stations controlled by their licensed brothers. Many French girls have qualified as wireless operators and are now in active service in the war zone.
[Copyright 1916, by J. Keeley.]