Ham Radio Operation During & After First World War

The level of amateur radio activity rose in 1912 and 1913, but the onset of the First World War resulted in operations being suspended around the globe for the duration.

Ham Radio History Includes:
Ham radio history overview     Early foundations     First radio hams     Early ham radio equipment     Licenses introduced     Callsigns     National societies     First World War     Trans-Atlantic contacts    

During 1913, the number of radio amateurs increased significantly as the hobby became more widely known and the public not only found the topic fascinating, but also the technology became a little more accessible.

This growth in numbers was soon stopped with the onset of the First World War when operations ceased, ultimately on both sides of the Atlantic.

Growth before the war

In Europe, amateur radio showed very strong growth. In general the authorities allowed operation, although naturally it was well regulated.

In the UK, during 1913 the number of applications for experimental licences increased dramatically. In 1912 there were about 250 licences in force. This almost quadrupled in 1913 to nearly 1000, and then in 1914 it rose significantly again to reach a total of about 1600.

In the USA the situation was very different. Although in Europe license had been introduced relatively early on, in 1905 in the UK, there had been no such regulation in the USA. However in 1912 after the situation had been appraised, Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912. In this radio amateurs needed to be licensed and operation was restricted to a single wavelength of 200 metres.

It was thought this would bring an end to amateur radio, but this was not the case. After an initial drop, numbers rose to over 6000 by 1917.

Clouds of war

Unfortunately the growth in interest and activity was not to last. Tensions were rising in Europe and on 28 July 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia.

In the UK, concern was expressed in several quarters quarters about the security risk of having almost uncontrolled wireless transmitting stations in private hands around the country. Accordingly, on 1 August, a few days before Britain declared war on Germany, all experimental licences were suspended. The licensees were instructed to dismantle their equipment, ready for an inspection by an Inspector from the Post Office, the Post Office being the UK government owned organisation that administered radio licences.

Most UK amateur radio licensees had their equipment removed but some were able to keep theirs, provided it remained dismantled. However, in 1915, it was decided that all equipment should be removed into the custody of the Post Office for the duration of the war. In view of the fear that wireless equipment could be used for spying, the penalties for using receiving equipment were severe.

This last measure was deemed necessary because of the mounting public concern about wireless equipment being used by German spies. There had been a considerable amount of talk and many reports to the authorities about possible spies, and radio was seen as an easy way for them to pass information back to their authorities.

Although the war silenced all amateur radio activity in Europe, it did not dull the inventive spirit of the amateur experimenter. Many of those who held amateur radio licences were able to use their expertise towards the war effort. Even though wireless was still very much in its infancy, the experience offered by amateur experimenters was valuable. Wireless communications were starting to prove their worth, and they were used increasingly as the war progressed. There was a particular need for wireless telegraphists and a number of pre-war radio amateurs were able to help the war effort in this way.

After the war

The dreadful carnage of the war ceased with the Armistice on the 11th November 1918 at 11.00am. After the guns fell silent, it took some time for life to return to normality. However, interest in wireless started to grow very quickly and it did not take long before people were calling for the reintroduction of amateur radio experimental licences.

During the hostilities, amateur radio experimenters had proved to be a valuable resource. Also radio technology had moved forwards - as one example, the superheterodyne radio had been invented, but there had also been very many more advances made.

However amateur radio activities did not immediately restart after the war. On both sides of the Atlantic the authorities moved slowly as amateur radio was not at the top of their priority list.

Return of amateur radio in the UK

In the UK, initially the government was not interested in issuing any licences, even for receiving. Rebuilding the country after the devastating impact of war on the people was their main priority. Also there were still considerable concerns over the security issues associated with amateur radio.Amateur radio, was naturally not a high priority.

However pressure started to build: a number of periodicals started to publish letters and articles, asking for the reintroduction of amateur radio licences. Eventually the government responded by saying that the conditions for amateur radio experimental licences were still under consideration. What was frustrating for many was that even the sale of buzzers and headphones was prohibited. This measure was introduced during the war to prevent people having access to items that might enable them to make radio sets.

Eventually there was some movement as the restrictions on the sale of equipment related to wireless started to be lifted. In April 1919 the sale of electrical buzzers was allowed. Headphones could also be bought, although the purchaser had to give a written undertaking that they would not be used for wireless purposes. At this time the restriction on the sale of valves (vacuum tubes) remained in place.

A further relaxation occurred in October 1919 when an announcement was made by the Post Office, saying that receiving licences were to be issued. A charge of Ten Shillings (50 pence in current UK money) was to be levied, and the use of valves was prohibited without special authority. This amount of money represented a significant amount for most people so it considerably limited the number of applicant.

It took until November 1919 before the Post Office announced that a new Wireless Telegraphy Act would shortly be placed before Parliament that would enable transmitting licences to be issued again. The conditions for these licences were outlined placed far more requirements on the prospective amateur radio licence holders than was previously necessary. The amateur licences were still experimental, unlike those issued in the USA that were true amateur licences. In view of this, applicants had to demonstrate that they needed a transmitting licence to perform a number of predetermined experiments. In addition to this a wireless theory examination would have to be passed, as well as a Morse sending and receiving test.

It took until the middle of 1920 before UK amateur licences were re-introduced. As before the war, callsigns were issued; they were three characters, but instead of just being three letters, they started with a number which was followed by two letters. Initially the number '2' was used for the numeral, but later other numbers were used as more callsigns were issued.

These first licences had many restrictions placed upon them. The transmitter power was limited to ten watts and the wavelengths of operation were limited to between 180 and 1000 metres. Limitations were also placed on the hours of operation, as well as the other stations that could be contacted.

Further restrictions were also apparent because not everyone who applied for a transmitting licence received one. If the Post Office thought that the experiments detailed in the licence application did not justify a full transmitting licence then they issued an 'artificial aerial' one. This allowed the holder to build and test transmitters, but only into a dummy load or artificial aerial that would absorb the power of the transmitter and not radiate it. Having been issued with an artificial aerial licence, it was possible to apply for a full licence at a later date.

Return of amateur radio licences in the USA

The situation in the USA as there appeared to be opposition to amateur radio. During the war, radio services had come under the control of the US Navy - it was reasoned that the main use for radio was for sea-going communications and therefore the Navy should have control, even if some new applications were being found on land.

The Navy wanted to maintain control and amateur radio was not on their agenda for a useful application for radio technology. Also legislation that had been introduced, supported this.

Every effort was made by the ARRL, the American Radio Relay League, the US national amateur radio society. In addition to this much political pressure was also applied but to no avail.

After many attempts to urge the Navy to re-instate amateur radio operation it took the efforts of Representative William Greene of Massachusetts who interceded at a House of Representatives Resolution directing he Navy to allow amateur radio operations.

Finally in November 1919 amateur radio was again allowed in the USA, and operations started.

Back on the air

In the UK it took a while for the amateur radio experimenters to build their equipment. The equipment was very varied ranging from spark sets through to equipment using war surplus valves.

Soon, some things started to improve. Some of the restrictions were removed after representations from various clubs and societies, including the Wireless Club of London that was later to become the Radio Society of Great Britain.

Whilst there were some improvements, not all the changes were to the advantages of radio amateurs. There was commercial pressure to remove amateur experimenter access to the long wave bands where the main long haul traffic was being carried. Accordingly amateur experimenters were only allowed to use wavelengths shorter than 275 metres, although they could use some wavelengths by special arrangement for a while - in particular they were allowed to use wavelengths of 440 metres and 1100 metres for a while.

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