by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s hard enough being the child of a famous person, let alone the namesake of an American president, but Herbert Hoover, Jr. (1903-1969) managed to carve a career for himself out of the shadow of his father, the nation’s 31st president, with much of his early work, centered on the development for radio technology for aviation.
The featured artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a press photograph, date stamped 23 March 1929, of the 25-year old about the time that he was hired by the early aviation firm, Western Air Express, which was based in Los Angeles, to supervise efforts to establish wireless communication between aircraft and control towers at airports. The image shows Hoover seated with a radio apparatus and wearing headphones, though it is not clear if this was equipment for his new employer or for previous work he had conducted.
Hoover was born in London while his father was working as an engineer for a British mining company with interests in Australia, and the elder Hoover made a fortune in consulting for mining companies, writing the textbook for his field, ownership of his own mines and other endeavors. Herbert, Jr. developed a fascination for the rapidly growing world of radio while in his early teens and, while he suffered serious hearing impairments as a result of the 1918 flu pandemic (he even made himself a hearing aid), he continued his hobby.
He followed his parents’ footsteps and studied at Stanford University in northern California, where, in 1919, his father, who’d earned international fame for his humanitarian effort in feeding people in the nations badly damaged by the horrors of the First World War, established the Hoover War Collection, soon renamed the Hoover War Library and now the widely known Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace.
Herbert, Jr. studied engineering and, after graduating in 1925, went to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business Administration, where he wrote a thesis on aviation and economics. He was then granted a Guggenheim fellowship to continue his research and, after completing his studies in fall 1928, just about the time his father was elected as president, he applied and was hired for the position at Western Air Express.
The Los Angeles Times of 9 January 1929 reported that “he will have charge of the radio department . . . and will aid in the installation of a new communication system for the planes of the company.” It was added, though, that Hoover’s “title with the company will be assistant to President Harris M. Hanshue,” who informed the paper that his assistant would oversee the placement of wireless telephones “so that regular messages can be relayed from the planes in flight to any telephone in the country” and that these would be for the benefit of passengers in the craft.
It would be more than naive to not acknowledge that, for Hanshue and Western Air Express, landing the son of the incoming chief executive of the company was both a public relations benefit and a connection to federal contracts that could be vital to any aviation firm. While initial reports of his hiring suggested he would begin work after the first of February, his presence in Washington, D.C. for the inauguration, then held in early March, meant that he would conduct business on behalf of the company while in the east.
On 14 January, Hoover was appointed to a committee including an official from the federal Department of Commerce, which his father headed since 1921, and representatives from four aviation companies, Boeing, Universal, Pan-American and National Air Transport to develop a plan by which “a chain of aeronautical radio stations” was to be created “to maintain communication with planes in the air and handle other matters not provided through regular government aids.”
The idea was to forestall problems experienced in the early days of radio when there was no broad coordination of communication systems and channel establishment. A commerce department official noted that there were sixty-four airports in greater Los Angeles and if all of them had a transport company affiliated with it, “it is easy to visualize the confusion which might develop if each was permitted to operate its own station.” Hoover and his committee colleagues were “to recommend the provision of specific bands for aeronautical radio and the reallocation of interfering bands in the coastal regions” while it was agreed that planes should have “lower-powered transmitters closely spaced” and that frequencies were to be distributed to chains rather than individual companies, while bands reserved for later chains.
The 2 February edition of the Long Beach Sun ran a lengthy feature on Hoover, in which he was quoted as saying about his new job: “I suppose I will be general handy man and office boy about the place.” This may have been a self-deprecating humorous aside because he also said that he “believes a career in two newest of the arts, radio and aviation, is promising,” and it was reiterated that he was long a “ham” operator with his own amateur station from his time at Palo Alto. The piece noted that Hoover worked for Dr. John H. Dellinger in the study of short wave radio communications, but added “with typical Hoover modesty, he does not like to discuss his work or himself.”
In advance of coming to this area after his father’s inauguration, Hoover and his wife Margaret Watson, whose father, Douglas, collaborated in the early 1930s with Thomas W. Temple II on two books on early California history, began looking for a place to live. It was reported that, because of proximity to Western Air Express’s new airport on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra as well as the California Institute of Technology, where radio communication experiments were to be conducted, the couple chose a Spanish Colonial Revival house in San Marino to rent—the residence still stands today.
In its issue of 11 March, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that a federal radio commission began meetings to discuss 89 short-wave radio channels to be used for commercial aviation and these gatherings included Hoover as representative of Western Air Express. The conferences were intended “to coordinate the views of various aviation operating companies, communication companies and others” to develop means for those in aircraft and on the ground to establish reliable communications. Applications were being accepted for licenses and permits for transmission stations, but concerns continued to be expressed about making sure government and commercial aviation could work in harmony, that safety standards would be as high as possible and that aviation progress could develop smoothly.
The next day’s Times provided additional coverage of this work, noting that the establishment of these channels included the vital navigational elements of beacon signals, radio compass bearings and the transmission of weather reports to aid aviators. The system to be used by private operators for freight, mail and passenger service was considered supplemental to the work done by the airways division of the commerce department.
The paper clarified that the 89 wavelengths included about 70% to be used in continental North America, eighteen for transoceanic use and others for medium and short wave applications such as those for contact between ground stations and aircraft and the system was to exclusively utilize radio for voice communications.
A sidebar observed that, while Hoover was present at a federal radio commission hearing, “everyone expected the President’s son to make a presentation for his company and a large crowd was present.” The assemblage, however, was disappointed when the secretary of the body asked, “Does Mr. Hoover wish to be heard?” and “silence was all that rewarded the listeners” as he declined to speak.
A week later, on the 19th, the Times ran a featured titled “Young Hoover Takes Desk” and noted that, the prior day, he arrived at the company’s offices in the William May Garland Building at the corner of Main and 9th streets a block or so south of the Great Republic Life and National City Bank buildings, the construction of which Walter P. Temple was involved. Described as a vice-president and assistant to Hanshue, Hoover, the paper stated, conducted his first day “in discussing plans for the radio communication departments . . . which will be under his direct supervision, posing for photographers and answering questions of interviewers.”
Greeting the paparazzi with “a timid smile,” the president’s son did not make any formal statement, but “readily answered questions pertaining to his plans for the organization.” It was observed that he’d been visiting eastern manufacturers, acquiring materiel for experiments done for Western Air Express to enhance communications for flights plying routes from the Angel City to San Francisco and Salt Lake City “and the completion of the wireless telephone system now projected for use on the Los Angeles-to-Kansas City line.”
Hoover further noted that a primary objective was
the improving of the radio contact between the different terminals of the organization where weather reports, air conditions and other flying data may be available for the entire system. The next step in radio communication will be the inauguration of contacts between the ground and the [air]ship, and the final the two way contact from ship to ground stations and from ship to ship.
He went on to observe that, while wavelengths were assigned by the government’s radio commission for the system “the use of these channels for the transmission of miscellaneous messages from passengers to business associates still is a matter of experiment.” While there were advances in the early research and development of the technology, “the necessary equipment has not been manufactured” and what had been created to date was equipment built by each company.
After noting that Hoover was interested in radio since he was 12 years old, the paper commented that, on that day, “he will make an inspection of the planes at the Western Air Field and their equipment, as well as the present radio transmitting facilities at the weather report stations of the organization.” The account concluded that the Hoovers returned from Washington, D.C. the previous morning and went directly to their house in San Marino.
The Hollywood Citizen of the same day quoted Hoover on his work, including his prediction that it would be about a year “before radio communication can be developed to such an extent that a passenger may phone home or office” from an airplane and only then for emergencies. He went on to state that “primarily air-to-ground communication will be provided for weather reports and business dispatches to the pilot of a ship” and that “these will be received in practically the same manner one receives a telephone call.”
The “San Marino News” section of the Pasadena Post, also of the 19th, highlighted the settling of the Hoover family in their house in town, but added that, as answered questions from reporters at the office on his inaugural day of work for Western Air Express,
The youthful executive quickly made it known that he much prefers the title of “Los Angeles business man” to that of “son of the President.”
It returned to the matter of the residence with the report that Hoover and his spouse “were immensely pleased with” the house “that had been selected for them sight unseen” and that its “excellent view of the mountains and orange groves is acceptable.” Again, the photo featured here may be from his initial days at the Western Air Express office or from earlier work, but is an interesting object relating to early greater Los Angeles aviation.
Hoover’s stay with the firm, however, was short-lived as there were accusations that his position there allowed for Western to get federal contracts. Bothered by these statements, he resigned in 1930 and then contracted tuberculosis and took an extensive leave to recover his health. Though he briefly returned to the company, he went on to found United Geophysical Company in Pasadena, which used seismographic technology to search for oil and was later purchased by Union Oil of California, as well as the Consolidated Engineering Company, which developed the instruments for this process and was acquired by Bell and Howell.
His vast experience with the oil industry led to Hoover being hired as a consultant for such countries as Venezuela and Iran and his ability to broker a deal by which British-controlled oil interests in the latter were divided among several companies and the government led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to appoint Hoover as Under-Secretary of State, a role filled by him for three years.
Hoover and his younger brother Allan purchased their father’s birthplace in West Branch, Iowa for preservation and it became a national historic site, while he retained his passion for ham radio, serving as president of a national association in the early 1960s. Hoover, who only survived his father by five years, suffered a massive stroke in July 1969 and died a few days later. The Times praised his government service and stated that “this quiet man . . . whose unassuming nature belied his considerable achievements . . . will be missed by his community, his state, and his country.” Hoover was interred at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.