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Early Government Regulation (1903-1941)
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Compared to most other nations, the United States was slow to regulate radio communication. International issues were dealt with by conferences held in Berlin, Germany in 1903 and 1906, followed by a London convention in 1912. The U.S. issued limited shipboard regulations in 1910, but did not implement comprehensive regulations and station licencing until 1912. The development of broadcasting in the early 1920s would bring significant challenges and changes, which resulted in passage of the Radio Act of 1927, and the formation of the Federal Radio Commission.
1903 Berlin Conference -- 1904 "Roosevelt Board" -- 1906 Berlin Convention -- 1910 Ship Act (Amended in 1912) -- 1912 London Convention and 1912 Radio Act -- Selected Radio Service Bulletin Announcements (1915-1923) -- Early Government Radio Station Lists -- Radio Regulation by the Department of Commerce (1911-1925) -- Radio Act of 1927 -- Report on Chain Broadcasting (1941)


In 1903, Germany sponsored a "preliminary conference concerning wireless telegraphy", held in Berlin, which reviewed some of the outstanding international issues related to the developing technology. Although the conference found some areas of agreement, there were still unresolved disputes, especially about intercommunication between stations owned by different companies. The Conference's Final Protocol outlined issues which the governments of the participating countries were asked to review, pending a proposed international convention, which convened in 1906.


In 1904, various U.S. government agencies, including the Navy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Army's Signal Corps had all begun setting up their own radio transmitters, with little coordination between the various departments. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a board, consisting of representatives from the various agencies, to prepare recommendations for coordinating government development of radio services. The 1904 "Roosevelt Board" Report -- or, more formally, Wireless Telegraphy: Report of the Inter-Departmental Board Appointed by the President to Consider the Entire Question of Wireless Telegraphy in the Service of the National Government -- proposed assigning most of the oversight of government radio to the Navy Department, plus significant restrictions on commercial stations. (A review of the development of U.S. regulation policies through 1904 appears in The Origins of Regulation chapter of Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 book, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy).


A second international radio conference was held in Berlin, Germany in 1906, to deal with issues left over from the 1903 Conference. The result was a comprehensive agreement, the International Wireless Telegraph Convention (Convention Radiotélégraphique Internationale), which was adopted on November 3, 1906, and became effective July 1, 1908. Although U.S. representatives signed the agreement in 1906, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the Berlin Convention until April 3, 1912, and the President proclaimed U.S. adherence to the Convention effective May 25, 1912. (An overview of the effect of the 1906 Berlin Convention is included in the Renewed Efforts to Establish Control chapter of Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy).

1910  SHIP  ACT  (AMENDED  IN  1912)

Although the United States signed the 1906 Berlin Convention, it didn't pass any regulatory laws until the June 24, 1910 Act to require apparatus and operators for radio communication on certain ocean steamers, which required larger vessels of all nationalities visiting U.S. ports to install radio equipment by July 1, 1911. (On July 23, 1912 this act was amended to cover additional vessels.) The job of enforcing the new law was assigned to the Bureau of Navigation within the Department of Commerce and Labor, which would be responsible for regulating U.S. radio until the 1927 formation of the Federal Radio Commission. Although the U.S. had not yet formally ratified the 1906 Berlin Convention, the law did follow some of the standards specified by that agreement, including certification of radio operators for the ships required to carry radio equipment. However, the new law did not set up any station licencing, even though the Berlin agreement had called for ship stations to be licenced.
  • Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor (extracts):
    • Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1910 There was just over a year to prepare for the requirements of the June 24, 1910 act. As part of the preliminary work, U.S. collectors of customs at the various ocean ports gathered information about the ships which would be covered under the act.
    • Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1911 This annual report was the first submitted after enforcement of the June 24, 1910 act had begun. Three "wireless-ship inspectors", based in New York, San Francisco and Baltimore, had been detailed to enforce the provisions of the new law. This report also lobbied for enactment of a law to require radio transmitters to be licenced, and suggested that the U. S. government should take over ownership of all coastal ship-to-shore radio stations.
  • Regulations for Radio Apparatus and Operators on Steamers: Edition July 1, 1913 reviewed the requirements imposed by this act. (Earlier versions of this publication were known as Department Circular No. 241, of which I have not uncovered any copies).


The Titanic disaster helped spur calls for stronger radio regulation. The New York Herald operated a radiotelegraph shore station, OHX (later WHB), and an article printed in the July 7, 1912 issue of its sister publication, the San Francisco Call, proclaimed the need To Check Wireless Anarchy, as "Congress and the International Wireless Convention of London will take steps to crush the pirates of the air and remedy abuses which result in dire danger to passenger vessels". The U.S. Congress soon passed a comprehensive Act to Regulate Radio Communication, which was signed by President Taft on August 13, 1912, and went into effect December 13, 1912. Officially this new law implemented provisions of the 1906 Berlin Convention. However, a new International Radiotelegraphic Convention had been signed in London on July 5, 1912, to become effective July 1, 1913, and the new U.S. law included many provisions which actually reflected standards of the soon-to-be ratified London Convention, most importantly the requirement that most radio transmitters had to be licenced, plus the provision that radio operators now had to qualify for operator's licences, not just certification. (The Achievement of Federal Regulation chapter of Linwood S. Howeth's 1963 book, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, reviews U.S. regulatory activities from 1908 through the adoption of the 1912 Radio Act). A number of publications were issued as the Bureau of Navigation worked to implement its new responsibilities under the 1912 radio act, including:
  • Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1912 (extract) The Bureau of Navigation only had 4 months to hire additional radio inspectors and set up the regulations covering the 1912 act.
  • Regulations Governing Radio Communication (three editions):
    • Edition September 28, 1912 explained the new law and the requirements which would go into effect December 13, 1912. The international references are still to the 1906 Berlin Convention.
    • Edition February 20, 1913 The 1912 Act to Regulate Radio Communication was now in force. Also, the international standards now referred to the recently ratified 1912 London Convention. (The 1912 London Convention was ratified by the United States Senate on January 22, 1913, and formally proclaimed by the President as effective on July 8, 1913, replacing the 1906 Berlin Convention).
    • Edition July 1, 1913 reflected more refinements, plus the fact that the Bureau of Navigation was now part of the Commerce Department. (The Department of Commerce and Labor had been split into two separate cabinet departments).
  • Radio Call Letters: Edition May 9, 1913. (This was the only version of this document, as subsequent call letter policies were reported in the annual Radio Stations of the United States, beginning with its first issue of July 1, 1913.)
  • The separate information listed above was eventually consolidated into a single comprehensive publication, Radio Laws and Regulations of the United States, which included the text of the U.S. June 12, 1910 ship act (as amended July 23, 1912), the Articles and Service Regulations of the 1912 London Radiotelegraphic Convention, the text and regulations of the U.S. August 13, 1912 radio act, plus the resulting Bureau of Navigation radio regulations.


Both the 1906 Berlin and 1912 London International Conventions mainly dealt with international communication--most importantly, extending the international protocols, for connecting national wire-telegraph systems, to include the new radio-telegraph stations. Radio stations that provided local services were largely outside the scope of the international conventions. However, the period after 1912 included a tremendous growth in the U.S. in the number of amateur stations, plus the beginnings of broadcasting--activities which were barely addressed by the international agreements, and also to only a limited extent by the U.S. 1912 radio act. Selected Radio Service Bulletin announcements, for the period 1915 to 1923, review the important issues and activities developing during this formative period.


As it started to use, and then to regulate, radio, the U. S. government began keeping track of stations. Early Radio Station Lists Issued By the U.S. Government is a review I've put together of the early official government lists that were published by the various governmental departments. Included are links to online copies for many of these publications.


From 1911 to 1927, responsibility for enforcement of United States radio laws and regulations was assigned to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Navigation. Beginning in 1911, three inspectors were hired to insure that larger ocean-going vessels carried radio equipment, as required by a June 24, 1910 act. Then, in 1912, the service was expanded into nine radio inspection districts, with a Radio Inspector headquartered at a major port within each district. These inspectors had the primary responsibility for controlling radio in its early days. For a decade they worked in relative obscurity, and concentrated mainly on making sure ships were properly equipped -- Wireless Ship Inspections, which was included in the 1911 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation, reviewed their work during the first three months of the new service. Suddenly, however, in 1922 broadcasting grew explosively throughout the United States, and these previously obscure civil servants became some of the most visible members of the U.S. government. Articles appearing in Radio Broadcast magazine, such as Shake Hands with the "R. I." and Guiding the Good Ship Radio, plus an occasional at-work publicity photograph (Batcheller), gave them national attention in a prominent magazine. But the party ended, in 1927, when the creation of the Federal Radio Commission shifted most of the responsibility for regulating radio over to five FRC commissioners -- political appointees -- and the radio inspectors faded back into relative obscurity.

From 1922 through 1925, the Department of Commerce sponsored a series of four annual National Radio Conferences. These conferences brought together representatives from the government and the radio industry, plus private citizens, in order to provide guidance to Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover on the future of radio. Reports for the first two conferences appeared in the Radio Service Bulletin, while the last two conference reports were issued as separate publications:

RADIO  ACT  OF  1927

The limitations of the Federal government's authority for effectively regulating radio communication resulted in near-chaos in the broadcasting service beginning in the summer of 1926, and resulted in the formation of the Federal Radio Commission by the Radio Act of 1927.


By the mid-1920s, U.S. broadcasting was dominated by four national radio networks: individual chains operated by the Columbia Broadcasting System and the Mutual Broadcasting System, plus two networks under the National Broadcasting Company banner. After studying the issue for many years, the Federal Communications Commission issued new regulations covering their operation in the May, 1941 Report on Chain Broadcasting -- the main effect was to require NBC to divest one of its networks, and subsequently the NBC-Blue chain was sold to become the American Broadcasting Company network.

"During the war it became the custom, doubtless for valid reasons, to create commissions, boards, or committees to accomplish many purposes and to vote to them large lump sums, in some instances vast sums, to carry out these purposes."--Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation to the Secretary of Commerce for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1920.