How early radio experimenter Hugh Ryan made contact with the USA

Geoff Chapman is a Science Museum volunteer who catalogued a box of amateur radio materials for our exciting new gallery Information Age. You can read his earlier blog posts here and here.

Since writing my last blog post I’ve looked further into the box of papers on wireless I described in my first blog to find out about experimenter Hugh Ryan who was active from the early 1920s.

Hugh Ryan’s morse code test, essential to obtain a licence at the time, was arranged in August 1922.  He apparently passed because in November 1922 he demonstrated music and speech transmission, with reception at a church hall in Southfields.  ”The use of such apparatus for amusement is irregular” wrote a GPO official, even though the demonstration was permitted.

Radio licenses in the 1920s were strictly for experiment, not for general amusement – as the Post Office are reminding Hugh Ryan here (Source: Science Museum)

In 1923 Hugh Ryan was perhaps pushing boundaries and as a consequence received a letter in July 1923 asking him to strictly observe the terms of the permit issued to his mother.

The Post Office checked up on Ryan to make sure he was sticking to the terms if his radio license (Source: Science Museum)

On 17 December 1923 he was granted special authority to take part in trans-atlantic tests and transmission was allowed for a maximum of 15 minutes a night.

In 1923 Ryan was granted permission to experiment with Trans-Atlantic radio communication (Source: Science Museum)

However ahead of the trans-atlantic tests Hugh Ryan claimed to be the first amateur to make radio contact with the USA after he exchanged calls with 8AJW, on 2 Dec 1923 according to several cards in the box.

Ryan was editor of publication EW&WE (Experimental Wireless and Wireless Engineer) and in that capacity received postal reception reports ( also known as DX reports) from experimenters.  Many reception reports were addressed to Hugh Ryan by his callsign 5BV, which was expressed internationally as British 5BV or G5BV.  The reports came from experimenters in many countries and included technical details and speculation with evidence on factors affecting radio propagation such as time of day, moon phase, barometric pressure, weather conditions, aerial type and even polar lights.  A source of echo was speculated as signals taking two paths round the earth.  These reports read as examples of citizen science.  One experimenter reported on experiments with low power.

When amateur radio operators make contact with each other they send a ‘QSL card’ like this as a record. Hugh Ryan wrote on his “The first amateur to work USA”

To quote a few examples from the reception reports.  An experimenter in a letter dated 3 April 1926 mentions “…we are getting some useful data on conditions as we transmit at various times of the day and night and it does seem that on sunny days the fading is a lot worse than any other time…”.  In a letter of 3 Feb 1926 from Copenhagen in the context of transmissions from boat SS Island the writer reports “one night where polar lights completely caused the signals [from SS Island to Copenhagen] to fade out”.  A letter of July 1925 reports a record, the first reception in England of a South African station.

One experimenter mentions conducting reports into fading for the Radio Research Board, perhaps this was an example of citizen science overlapping with official research.  What became of EW&WE is not recorded in the papers in the box, but Hugh Ryan kept up his enthusiasm for radio and was still licensed as a radio amateur as late as 1965.

Discover more about the history of communication technologies in our exciting new gallery Information Age, opening September 2014. 

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