One box, one volunteer – the subject was early wireless, what would I find?

Geoff Chapman is a volunteer working on Information Age, a new gallery about communication and information opening in 2014.

Hi, I’m Geoff and I’m a volunteer in the team developing the Information Age gallery. I’ve been investigating the early days of experimental wireless communication prompted by a box of mainly 1910’s and 1920’s letters, documents and photographs.

The box is not much larger than two DAB digital radios but its contents told several tales (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum).

Early radio amateurs were also known as experimenters, and in the UK they were issued with licences for experimental purposes. In April 1913 the Postmaster General announced that the number of these licences had increased to almost 2000. There were several photographs in the box of early experimenters with their radio transmitting and receiving equipment.

Amateurs were often pictured with wall displays of cards showing call signs (a kind of official ID for radio operators) from other experimenters proving that communication was made (Source: Science Museum).

In the box I’ve found evidence of friction between an on-ship based wireless station and William Rathbone an early experimenter based near Liverpool. Inside the box was a licence he was issued on 23 August 1913 – 100 years ago this month! From the papers I discovered a behind the scenes attempt to save the career of the on-ship radio operator who caused interference but whose “youthful high spirits” inspired others to step in and help. Even the ship radio operator’s mother was involved. There were other intriguing things in the box too: there was a letter written by wireless pioneer Oliver Lodge to William Rathbone, and William Rathbone’s original licence with its red seal, there were also details of 1920’s conferences and of celebration dinners.

I’ve found evidence of an early example of citizen science. Experimenters sought to understand how weather, moon phase, barometric readings and more affected reception. Reports from around the world were sent by post to London based early experimenter Hugh Ryan and published monthly, in effect a post and paper magazine blog called Experimental Wireless and Wireless Engineer. It would have publicised when wireless communication was good and bad, and when records were broken such as the longest distance communication by an experimenter, claimed in one letter as between Hanoi, Vietnam and Orleans, France.

In the box I also found evidence of early experimenter Hugh Ryan “pushing the boundaries” both with a demonstration of music and speech transmission (the use of such apparatus for amusement is “irregular” wrote a GPO official), and with trans-oceanic communication. Cards from Hugh Ryan state “The first British amateur to communicate with America”.

Look out for my next blog post, with more on amateur radio operator William Rathbone, he saved the career of an on-board ship radio operator who caused interference but had an inspiring personality.

One thought on “One box, one volunteer – the subject was early wireless, what would I find?

  1. Richard Anthony Morris

    Wow, it must be great working at a place where you can unearth fascinating stories of days past. For an object that today seems so commonplace that we don’t even think about it but 100 years ago required a licence.

    Reply

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