William Rathbone VIII – an early wireless experimenter with a human side

Geoff Chapman is a volunteer on the Information Age project. This blog follows on from his first foray into a mystery box of early wireless paperwork.

Hi, I’m Geoff, and in this blog I will describe what I found out about an early wireless experimenter called William Rathbone from the box of old radio related papers I wrote about in my first blog post. I discovered some great stories about what early experimenters got up to, and found William Rathbone had a human side which he revealed in the “Episode of the Den of Crombie”.

The particular William Rathbone issued with a wireless licence on 23 August 1913 was William Rathbone VIII, who lived from 1880 to 1941, and was son of William Gair Rathbone VII and Blanch Luling.  He served as a Captain of the Royal Engineers Territorials (Wireless Signal Co) in the First World War. The University of Liverpool Library hold the Rathbone papers and in a few words the Rathbones of Liverpool were non-conformist merchants and shipowners with a tradition of public service and philanthropy.

In the box of mystery wireless papers were a number of items linked with William Rathbone:

  • letters of  1905 to 1908 on technical aspects of radio such as use of coherer, aerials and jigger, from an experimenter in Crigglestone, near Wakefield
  • William Rathbone’s wireless telegraphy licence in its original form complete with red seal and receipt for fee paid
  • a letter from wireless pioneer Oliver Lodge asking if one of his junior members of staff, Dr T.F. Wall, can visit Rathbone’s wireless experimental station in Liverpool

The wireless telegraphy licence cost one pound and one shilling and permitted William Rathbone to communicate with two other named experimenters at a maximum power of 10 watts and with wavelength less than 100 meters

William Rathbone’s wireless station was near Seaforth, a Government wireless station for communication with ships at sea.  Rathbone was sensitive that wireless amateurs should not cause interference to communication with ships, otherwise amateurs risked being banned from transmitting anywhere near Government wireless stations – that would have held them back considerably.  

Rathbone focused his efforts on trying to prevent interference at Seaforth

That made Rathbone particularly sensitive to interference to the Seaforth station, as revealed by papers in our box about “The Episode of the Den of Crombie”, which occurred in early February 1914.

William Rathbone writes about the Episode

The incident, an episode of bad interference, was investigated by Rathbone who found that the ship’s radio operator on board Den of Crombie, and not a radio experimenter, had caused interference to Seaforth.  However Rathbone was struck by the “youthful spirits” of the ship’s operator and so acted carefully to both “thoroughly frighten him” into better future behaviour, while at the same time saving the operator’s career. The operator’s mother was involved and wrote “his enthusiasm and zeal in electricity and wireless of late years has led him into many troubles which we hoped were over now he had got to the desired occupation”.

Rathbone sends a telegram to Percy Dennison to get to the bottom of the interference.

The original papers give fuller detail of the story which also involved not only Captain Loring at the General Post Office (the licensing authority at the time) in London, but also Mr Bradfield, the Managing Director of the Marconi Company.

Captain Loring thanks William Rathbone for his quick actions

Look out for Geoff’s third and final blog post about Hugh Ryan, an experimenter who made radio contact between the UK and the USA.

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