Tag Archives: amateur

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. 

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.

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.