In some ways the Internet of its day, amateur radio allowed communications across miles and across oceans, with “high school ‘kids’ and ordinary clerks being on the same footing with adults and professional men.” In 1938, N&O readers learned of ham radio communications being established locally.
Fifteen members of the Raleigh Amateur Radio Club concluded a 26-hour test at 6 o’clock yesterday afternoon after setting up a portable radio station in a tobacco barn several miles from the nearest power lines and communicating with 35 other amateur stations from Texas to Vermont.
The amateurs, ranging in occupation from a college professor to a meat cutter, established their station six miles out of Raleigh on the Poole Road.
Twenty watts, enough to operate an ordinary light bulb of the same wattage, were generated by a quarter horsepower gasoline engine inside another barn. Another small engine operated electric fans to keep the primary generator from overheating and shoo the flies away from the “hams,” as the amateurs call themselves.
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The broadcast was the second time the Raleigh amateurs had cooperated with the American Relay Radio League and its 2,000 non-commercial stations in the United States and Canada in transmitting and receiving under emergency conditions such as occur in major disasters when established methods of communication break down in the afflicted area. In the annual practice, each emergency station is scored on the basis of how many stations are contacted, at what distance, and with how little current.
The broadcast began at 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon. Six club members manned the station during the night, taking short naps by turns. Nine others relieved them during the light hours, and a score of children and relatives joined them at the close of the broadcast for a wiener roast. The N&O, June 13, 1938
Only a year later, with World War II looming, this new communications technology was taking a central role in the war effort.
That great American army of “ham” radiomen, of which Raleigh has its full quota, is remaining anything but idle in these troubled times, marked by the muzzling of thousands of foreign stations that for years provided the most interesting exchanges for United States amateurs.
War has opened up at least one new field for short-wave station owners in Raleigh, as well as throughout the nation, and has greatly increased activity in another.
Counter-espionage on the air is the task assigned to the several thousand American “hams” affiliated with the Naval Communications Reserve. Raleigh has four in this category, one of them a lieutenant – Thomas B. Smiley, who in private life is a power company executive.
With this country making every effort to steer clear of war, the Navy has taken notice of the powerful espionage potentialities of amateur short-wave broadcasting, and it has ordered its reservists to police the air. Lieutenant Smiley and his fellow “hams” have instructions to monitor stations in this and foreign countries and report any conversation that might affect the neutrality of the United States.
So far, the Army Communications Reserve, in which Prof. H. L. Caveness, another Raleigh radio amateur, holds the rank of captain, has sent out no policing instructions, but members believe they might come soon.
Short-wave stations operated by Smiley and Caveness are at their respective homes, on opposite sides of Vanderbilt Avenue.
Throttling of “hams” by the belligerent nations, as well as by some neutrals, also is causing American operators to give more attention to experiments in communications on high frequencies. From these experiments, many believe, will come valuable discoveries which might help television and would certainly be useful from a military standpoint in time of war.
Directional broadcasting is one phase on which Raleigh operators are concentrating. W. M. Derby, whose 250-watt station, W4JB, is behind his Brooks Avenue home, is just completing a 65-foot directional antenna tower, with which he will experiment in “controlled” broadcasting. Repeated tests with domestic stations will show him just how nearly his broadcasts can be made to go in the direction and the distance he wishes.
While some of the other neutral nations already have closed down all amateur stations, this country has taken no such step as yet, and the American Radio Relay League, with which most “hams” are affiliated, has taken the lead in seeing that its members do not place the nation’s neutrality in jeopardy by broadcasting their opinions or information that might be useful to belligerent countries.
The N&O, Sept. 30, 1939
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.