by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In conjunction with the rise of radio came the development of the amateur enthusiast, or the “ham,” so named because amateurs in the early days of radio, according to the Amateur Radio Relay League, a national organization founded in 1914, “could effectively jam all the other operations in the area.”
Because of this, “frustrated commercial operators would refer to the ham radio interference by calling them ‘hams.'” Consequently, the story goes, “amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves.” The pejorative origins, therefore, have vanished, though the use of the terms “ham-fisted” and “ham actor” continue that negative connotation in other areas.
In just over a century, the ham radio operator has been one of the many “subcultures” of American society in which its devotees have developed their own cultural practices (organizations and clubs, language and terminology, best practices based in part on federal regulation, and many others) for their hobby. There was a lot to learn and know in the world of amateur radio, from the equipment to the technical information to the rules and regulations requiring licensing and the registration of a station and its band.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is a program for the tenth annual Pacific Division convention of the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), which still exists today, held at the Hotel Alexandria in downtown Los Angeles on 29-30 November 1929. It is an interesting look at where the state of amateur radio was about fifteen years after it exploded in popularity.
The Welcome statement noted that the convention was eagerly awaited by members “as the red-letter days of the year” because “it is a source of new ideas, new inspirations” and “a ‘ham’ goes home, carrying with him many things of value to his station, and a renewed faith in the amateur fraternity.” With the time spent among others in the field, the ham “is a better man, and a better amateur for having attended the convention, and he has gained something which helps him throughout the year.”
The convention was held under the auspices of the Amateur Radio Research Club (ARRC) and included in the program was the twelfth issue of the club’s publication, The Oscillator, along with convention-related information. Listed in the program were the executive committee members for the convention and their specific roles (chair, convention manager, publicity, reception, etc.); ARRC officers; and officers of the Los Angeles section of the club. Of course, each name was accompanied by that person’s station call sign.
Also included was information about the ARRC Cup Contest, awarded to the best amateur station by judges who took into account several criteria, including the design, construction and arrangement of the station; the efficiency of the transmitter; consistent transmision range; performance of the receiver; compliance with federal laws governing amateur radio; and others.
Noteworthy is “The Amateur’s Code,” consisting of six sections and reprinted from The Radio Amateur’s Handbook, issued by the ARRL. The components were that the amateur radio enthusiast was to be gentlemanly in conduct by not lessening the pleasure of other operators; lotal to the ARRL; progressive in staying up-to-date of the science of the hobby as well as having a clean and regular operation with a well built and efficient apparatus; friendly to other operators and the listener; balanced so that the hobby was such that the operator “never allows it to interfere with any duties he owes his home, his job, his school or his community;” and patriotic so that “his knowledge and his station are always ready for the service of his country and his community.”
The two-days program featured an opening meeting and convention opening a trip to the California Institute of Technology, or CalTech, in Pasadena to see an electrical display; a technical meeting with several speakers, including from Vitaphone Corporation, an early producer of sound for films, and the Radio-Victor Corporation; and plenty of social time, including a “smoker” or a stag party of men only, a banquet (with music, talks, the awaring of prizes and the selection of the city hosting the 1930 convention) and a “hamfest.”
There was also a short essay about the establishment, in 1927, of the ARRC in Los Angeles with the specific mention that this was done after an international convention that led to concern “in regard to the amateur status, and to prevent, if possible, any further mutilation of the amateur’s rights” by the growing power of professional radio interests.
While an organization was effected by the end of the year, the ARRC name was not adopted until February 1928 and interest was such that an information meeting location at the home of a ham operator was changed to a more formal one in south Los Angeles in what still stands today as a Masonic hall. At the time, meetings of the ARRC were held every Wednesday at that location.
During the course of that first full year, there were social events, the launch of The Oscillator, a booth at a radio show, presence at the famed air meet held in September 1928 at Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport, and the successful lobbying effort to bring the Pacific Division convention to Los Angeles. In 1929, a banquet celebrating the goal of having 100 members in the club was held early in the year in addition to other events and achievements leading to the convention.
There was a page in the program devoted to other regional radio clubs, including those in Long Beach, Pasadena, the Pomona/Ontario area, and several San Gabriel Valley cities from Pasadena to El Monte. The issue of The Oscillator contains, among news of local ham operators, a description of a “rally banquet,” articles of a technical nature, and advertisements of businesses selling radio equipment.
Many more ads are found throughout the remainder of the program, including those from manufacturers and purveyors of equipment, the Hotel Alexandria, the December 1929 edition of The Radio Amateur Call Book; the Radio College of California, which had a main camps in Los Angeles and a branch in Santa Ana; and many from local operators with compliments for the convention.
At the back of the publication are pages for technical notes and autographs of fellow attendees, though the owner of this program decided to put two pages of technical notes on the latter. Sadly, but typically in a society in which racism was so deeply ingrained, there is a section called “Rastus Goes on the Air,” in which convention manager Bertram Sandham uses racist black dialect through the characters of Rastus, a minstrel show staple as a stereotype of a “happy-go-lucky” African-American and Shinola in an attempt at humor.
As professional and commercial radio exploded in popularity and use during the 1920s, so did the interest in amateur radio, even with concerns about the encroachment of one in the world of the other. Today, the ARRL states that ham radio operators are a diverse group, perhaps more so than in the 1920s, with people of different socio-economic levels, ages, professions and ethnicities, as well, presumably, with more women involved than there used to be (of the 28 officers and committee members listed in the program, just two were women with their own call letters.)
Moreover, while many operators enjoy the fun of communicating with others through their own licensed stations on a primarily social level, ham radio has been very important for emergency preparedness and communications during natural and human disasters. The ARRL remains the preeminent organization for amateur radio enthusiasts and operators after over a hundred years and this program is an interesting look back at the early history of the organization and its Pacific Division as ham radio was becoming increasingly popular.