THE LOST BLUE COLLAR SCHOLARS

We get all sentimental about the ARRL Founder, Hiram Percy Maxim. We probably should. But he’s only the titular leader of what became the amateur radio movement in the United States back in the early 1900’s. Did you know he didn’t found the ARRL by himself? Yea, and Joe Namath was not the only quarterback that the New York Jets drafted in 1965 either. Can you name the Heisman Trophy winner whom the Jets also drafted that year? Well, I taught a graduate course on the sociology of sport so I got a head start on you, perhaps. There was a co-founder of the American Radio Relay League. And there were many other early hams that gave life to this amazing hobby! I call them the Blue Collar Scholars who made the blue lightning pass the spark gap and set the foundation for ham radio to become what it is today.

It is also important for us to understand the blue collar scholars and pioneers in that movement as much as it is the role of Mr. Maxim. We may never know who the original ham operator was or if there was a single first op. And where was that movement birthed? It’s often said (and I did in a couple of books I wrote) that time cannot be fully understood without a consideration of space. Historians and geographers make very good bedfellows! So where in the world was Waldo…uh, the first ham operators?

I’ve been digging into that ever since a club in my state claimed to be the “oldest” one in Mississippi. Since they said in a brochure to have been started in 1949, I really doubted that this was an accurate statement. I checked into the first experimental licenses given through online libraries containing what was then the Federal Radio Commission records. Mississippi A&M (Now MSU) and the University of Mississippi each had one and a club to go with it. So those darn historical facts get in the way of perfectly good bragging sometimes. That memory gave me the intellectual itch to examine what we can know about the earliest hams in the U.S.

We can get a firm glimpse of who those early ham operators were by looking at FCC and ARRL records. The first Blue Book published by the FCC was in 1909. And, when Mr. Maxim and his co-conspirator founded the League, they published Issue 1 of the modest magazine, QST. In it, they also published a list of amateur operators with call “letters” (signs). Gosh, where were these people located in the United States? Where was Maxim living at the time? He died in Colorado and is buried in Maryland. But did he light the “spark” (pun intended) to the spark gap in his neck of the woods? Was it a widely spreading thing due to the newfangled “radio” (they had to invent a name for it) being in the newspapers from coast to coast and in other continents?

It is written here that Maxim may have spent some of this life on Third Street near Smith Street in Brooklyn NY. Today that might carry him right by the Ugly Baby Takeout and the Hannah Senesh Community Day School (see map excerpt):

Over at my companion website, foxmikehotel.com, I’ve posted a reasonable set of answers to these questions. And, an interactive map to see not only where the earliest record of licensed hams (that I could find thus far) were located and just how big were their coils? Some of them are noted to be KW in their capacity. (I wonder if those were in California, giving an historical grounding to that contemporary phrase, California Kilowatt!) I’ve looked at all of them and just wonder what things were like back then when they were learning to communicate through the ether, the first wireless capacity being developed by the grass roots efforts of both kids and grown ups.

They weren’t all boys and men (see, among others, here). Miss Kathleen Parkin was on the cover of The Electrical Experimenter magazine. She was called “youngest successful female applicant for a radio license ever examined by the Government at that time,” or as The Mary Sue blog says, “Parkin began her hobby at age five with her brother, and was the first woman in California to pass the first-class radio license.” They labeled her “a total badass.” I don’t disagree. One bit. She and her own “apparatus” is shown on the right. She started the itch for radio at age five with her brother. She was reportedly the “first and youngest successful female applicant for a radio license ever examined by the Government at that time.”

There is a graphic on the home page at foxmikehotel.com with a link to the page with a fuller story under the Maps tab. It’s called The Lost Tribes of U.S. Radio Amateurs. Were any in your area where you live today? Are you perhaps related to any of the original license holders? Isn’t it as important to know who some of these lost tribe members were, the ones who persevered into the night experiencing the propagation vagaries that we now predict (well, try to) with software? Without them, Maxim may just be known as the guy who developed a gun silencer and a few mufflers for the motorized horse.

I may continue to look at this, adding additional years to track and estimate the diffusion of this most important innovation of the last century. But for now, give the interactive map a go. You can reach me at my email for thoughts or suggestions. I’m good on QRZed.

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

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