Academic journal article Journalism History

In Search of Alien Aerials: The World War I Campaign against Amateur Radio

Academic journal article Journalism History

In Search of Alien Aerials: The World War I Campaign against Amateur Radio

Article excerpt

Historians agree that World War I was a crucial period in the development of radio, though one aspect has not been examined in detail: the wartime ban on amateur radio. Drawing upon documents from the Department of Commerce in the National Archives, this article explores the methods used to enforce the ban, the techniques for punishing violators, and the internal logic that motivated such strict regulation. The evidence suggests that the government exaggerated the potential threat from German spies to justify the suppression of a new technology. This study also provides insight into post-war developments of radio, including the birth of broadcasting; illustrates the difficulties that regulators face when trying to control a new media technology; and suggests techniques that might make sense today will no doubt seem crude and misguided in years to come.

During times of political unrest or military conflict, communications technologies inevitably come under increased scrutiny from national governments. These concerns may result in surveillance of average citizens, including the monitoring of telephone calls and emails, or, in extreme cases, attempts to entirely suppress the technology under suspicion. In the late nineteenth century, Czar Nicholas resisted introducing the telegraph to Russia for fear that it "could be used in some subversive way," while in the spring of 20 1 1 , some repressive governments restricted internet access as a means of stifling political protests.' The closest parallel from American history is the control of communications technologies during World War I, when the government took over the nations telegraph, telephone, and cable systems. As part of this effort, the government also banned all amateur radio activities and granted the Navy control of commercial wireless stations, a situation that historian Robert Morrow described in 201 1 as "unthinkably radical" to modern sensibilities.2

The purpose of this article is to document this period in early radio history with particular emphasis on the campaign against amateur operators. While virtually everyone who has written about pre- 1920s radio history makes some mention of the wartime ban on amateur activity, no prior work has documented how this ban was implemented, how violators were punished, or what logic motivated the governments policy. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence under discussion, it is impossible to answer these questions completely, and the limitations of the evidence are acknowledged.

On April 6, 1917, the day that the U.S. officially declared war on Germany, the government issued the ban on amateur radio. Transmitting wireless signals was no longer permissible nor was the simple act of putting on a pair of headphones and listening to the airwaves. The historical record suggests that there were exceptions to the ban; a physics professor from the University of Wisconsin, for example, was allowed to continue operating station 9XM, which conducted experiments on behalf of the Navy.' Other irregularities are noted within this article, but these were exceptions to an otherwise rigid policy. For the vast majority of amateur operators, radio was entirely off limits during the war.

Many commercial wireless stations, largely clustered along the coasts, also were taken over by the Navy in April 1917, while most others were closed. It should be noted that during this period in radio history, stations classified as commercial did not advertise products over the airwaves, a practice that would become associated with this term in the 1920s. Commercial wireless telegraph stations instead were ones operated by private companies that offered their services for a fee to shipping companies or other businesses. During the early years of the twentieth century, several commercial wireless companies operated in the U.S., although by World War I, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America (hereafter American Marconi) dominated the industry. …

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