Not surprisingly, the very first entity to claim ownership of the increasingly precious spectrum real estate was Government, in particular that of the U.S. through its navy. The U.S. Navy, between 1900 and 1910, made several attempts to put radio under its sole control. The Navy, which during this period was already developing global marine communications and radio-navigation systems, was so assured of its right to rule the ether that it campaigned Congress for a monopoly of all of radio, both point-to-point and broadcast, on sea and land worldwide. Could Tesla have imagined how his invention would be pounced by military and other orthocratic entities that would assume that they owned the new medium?

The Navy also fought for the phase-out of spark and for the development of a more refined radio. The Navy set the specs for industry to develop the new continuous-wave technology.

Of course, the spectrum had not been waiting silently for government to step in and regulate it. The ether was already abuzz with activity, much of it conducted by the independent citizen-experimenters who ultimately became labeled (did they think it condescending?) as “amateurs.”

The Navy introduced into Congress a series of bills that had the standard formula of providing for different classes of stations that would be registered and licensed, and then making it illegal for any outsider to interfere with these stations. In these bills, no mention was made of the amateurs, whose transmitting stations (largely spark) were to number about 6000 by 1916. Thus, in these early legislative attempts, the hams were rendered de-facto outlaws. The Navy’s campaign was ultimately joined by the Department of Commerce and by such commercial interests as Marconi’s United Wireless. The hams, to defend themselves, organized into the still-active American Radio Relay League.

The legislation that finally passed (1912) did recognize the hams but banished them from any activity in the low frequencies. This was in the spirit of yes-you can-go-swimming-but-don’t-go-in-the-water, for low frequency radio was all the radio there was. The short waves were then considered not only inferior but unworkable, the desert real estate of the spectrum The hams took on the challenge and went on to develop the technologies that made short wave work. Later the military adopted the technology from the so-called “amateurs.”

The Government’s final solution to the problem of a peoples’ experimental radio was achieved, albeit briefly, in World War I when all amateur radio was flatly outlawed for the duration. The Emergency Order, which came from the Dept. of Commerce and was signed by the Navy, banned not only transmitting but short- and long-wave listening as well. The order put radio under the full control of the Navy, which then tried to persuade Congress to make this situation permanent. Ultimately, federal control of radio was to pass out of the control of the Navy and into the Dept. of Commerce, until the Radio Act of 1934 created the FCC.

WWI also provided the opportunity for the government’s destruction by dynamite of Tesla’s magnifying transmitter tower, which still stood sturdily at Wardencliff, Long Island, a curiosity to passers-by. The excuse given was that the tower could be used by “spies,” but the intention must have been to erase this monument to Tesla’s alien radio and wireless power.

During WWII the government ordered another blackout of amateur radio.

The hams are still on the defensive. As I write the ARRL is dealing with a threat to yet another amateur territory way up in the spectrum at 222 megacycles, a band United Parcel Service and others are pressuring the FCC to reallocate to land-mobile uses.

The low frequencies, under the control of government, have been allocated to military and other bureaucratic functions, to navigation beacons, like Omega (1014 kc) and LORAN (100 kc), and for weather stations, and time registers. Tesla had suggested low-frequency navigation systems. Some of the military transmitters are humungous, like the Navy’s 3000 acre NAA command facility (24 kc) that runs 2 million watts and ELF down at 76 cycles, which uses antennas over 50 miles long.

citizens’ radio

The government-military takeover of radio (nearly 100 percent of the low bands and much of the upper spectrum as well) has impacted on the amateurs, who have had to justify themselves as a quasi-government “service” in order to retain the privilege of radio. The amateurs’ awkward posture is: “We are an emergency service, but, until an emergency comes up, we’ll just be jawboning here to keep these bands open.”

As early as 1925 the hams were building close functional relationships with the military. During the amateur blackout of WWII, many hams, as a way of staying active, enlisted in a military-run civil-defense program called the War Emergency Radio Service. Before government had a police radio, there was an amateur service that assisted the police in matters such as recovering stolen cars.

The fact that there is any nongovernment or noncommercial radio is obscured from the public consciousness. While hams sometimes get a few seconds on the TV news when they are performing their public service during an earthquake, the general public is given little awareness via the mass media that such a thing as a citizen’s radio exists. On the TV the only character holding a radio mike is a cop.

A colorful wall-poster chart of the entire radio spectrum published by the Office of Spectrum Management (a bureaucracy within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration) provides elaborate color coding of 28 radio services, including broadcast, radio navigation, amateur, etc., but has no code for a citizens radio; and the 40-channel citizens band at 27 mc is ominously absent from the chart.

Regulation of the ether can never be absolute. Some governments, like Italy’s, have had to abdicate some of their control over broadcasting to independents (“pirates”). Pirate radio and TV flourish where a state radio tries to dominate, and, by the same dynamic, where broadcasting is dominated by a handful of media corporations acting as one, piracy will predictably rise, up. Some people believe in keeping a gun in the house by way of providing for some impending political catastrophe. I’m not a gun person, but I do advocate keeping a transmitter handy.(See Enhancing the Ramsey AM-25.) Does the First Amendment guarantee the right to bear transmitters? The FCC once thought that it controlled CB, but when CB exploded with the advent of inexpensive transceivers made possible by the phase-lock loop frequency synthesizer, the government found it could not enlist the cooperation of all operators in a licensing procedure and threw up its hands. CB may be anarchy, but it still works, and the FCC can’t do much about the kilowatt linears anyway.

Copyright © 1993 by George Trinkaus
All rights reserved.