Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

“Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond

Marconi’s first transmitter, incorporating a monopole antenna. It consisted of an elevated copper sheet (top) connected to a Righi spark gap (left) powered by an induction coil (center) with a telegraph key (right) to switch it on and off to spell out text messages in Morse code. Wikipedia.

As the Titanic was sinking on the night of April 15, 1912, the distress signal its telegraph operators tapped out was not (as in popular myth) SOS, but its predecessor CQD (CQ=”stop transmitting and pay attention”; D=distress).  Though that through-the-airwaves transmission proved futile, it dramatically boosted public awareness of still-new radio technology.

Had my father been born a half-century later than he was (in 1914, two years after the Titanic disaster), during his early teen years he would almost certainly have been buying transistors, primitive microprocessors and circuit boards, building kit computing machines, writing (maybe) FORTRAN for them, and joining the community of computer “geeks.”

But in the mid-1920s he bought and made “crystal sets” and learned Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraphic code. “Morse code” in Morse code  would be:

He wound copper wire coils, strung antenna wire from one tall object to another, read the early radio magazines, and sought companions among other early amateur radio operators.

Amateur radio remained a central interest and involvement for him  through the 1950s. His “ham” (a popular term for amateur operators) radio colleagues formed his major social group.  Building and operating his own amateur station provided technical education he had no means to acquire otherwise.  And both required and led to other areas of technical learning and expertise.

This post presents as much as I have been able to learn about his process, and ties it to larger developments in amateur radio and its social context.  It is based mostly in available written and documentary records, but also in my early memories of sitting with him in his dining room “station,” listening as he called over and over again, “CQ.  Calling CQ.  This is W4KI, W4 King Ida, calling CQ.  Come in, please.”

John Whisnant with my older brother Richard (b. 1935), ca. 1938 (the year I was born). Whisnant family collection.

The boxy black microphone on the left side of the table in this photograph dates from the post-Morse code era of amateur radio, which began experimentally in 1933, but by then my father’s CQ-ing had been going on for nearly a decade.

So in a way this post itself is also a CQ, though without the dramatic Titanic “D”: me calling to my dad and his “ham” radio friends across many decades: “CQ.  This is W4KI, W4 King Ida, calling CQ. Come in, please.”

Brief Notes on Early Radio: Marconi to KDKA

Experiments with what came to be called “electromagnetic waves” emerged toward the close of the eighteenth century, but it was about another hundred years (around 1899) before the term “radio” appeared in the language.

A young Guglielmo Marconi undertook  experiments with electromagnetic waves in the early 1890s.  He tried initially to gain support from the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, but its director declined, suggesting instead that the young man be packed off to the insane asylum for pursuing such ridiculous notions.

Marconi persisted, nevertheless, achieving some technical breakthroughs in mid-1895 that drew both scientific and public attention.  Two years later, he had received both British and

Marconi with British engineers, May 13, 1897. Wikipedia

U. S. patents, and technical advances moved forward rapidly. As time passed, transmission distances increased dramatically from a few meters to 2,100 miles–under favorable atmospheric conditions, across open water.  Marconi’s Marconi Company was soon formed as a major player in the emerging radio enterprise.

Marconi himself shared a Nobel Prize in 1909 for his work, and ran the Italian military’s radio service during World War I.  Five years after the war, however, he joined the Fascist Party, and in 1930 dictator Mussolini appointed him President of the Royal Academy (hence a member of the Fascist Grand Council).

Meanwhile, what had come to be called “radio” (see Timeline of Radio) moved steadily toward commercial applications.  Westinghouse’s commercial station KDKA in Pittsburg began broadcasting in 1919-1920, along with WBZ (Springfield MA) and WJZ (Newark NJ).  Commercial stations multiplied rapidly during the next few years, but did not begin to be licensed by the Federal Radio Commission until 1926.

KDKA (Pittsburg PA) early studio, ca. 1921. Wikipedia.

Early Commercial Radio in Asheville

Asheville Citizen, October 18, 1922, p. 7. Click for expanded view.

 

Meanwhile, 800 miles to the south of Pittsburg, Asheville radio listeners could tune in to pioneering KDKA in the evening for news from “the iron and steel industry,” kiddie stories, or a classical music trio.

A handful of other early stations ranging outward from Asheville could be heard “every night”: Atlanta, Chicago, College Park, Detroit, Louisville, Memphis, Newark, and St. Louis.  Newly on the air (1922) was WOC from the Mississippi River town of Davenport IA, site of the first (1856) railroad bridge to cross the river (to Rock Island IL), and itself in the midst of an Asheville-like early 1920s economic, population, commercial, industrial and cultural boom.

The second article implied, though it did not say so, that an emerging mark of a city’s growth and pride was to have its own commercial radio station.  The Citizen agreed, it appears.  A banner masthead called attention to the Citizen‘s new (it appears) regular column on commercial radio:

Asheville Citizen, October 18, 1922, p. 7.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Radio broadcasts have come to stay,” the writer declared, “PROGRAMS BY RADIO TO BE PERMANENT.  Public Has Realized Value of Quality Concerts, Stock Reports Being Broadcasted. Broadcasting has become a public necessity . . . [like] the telephone, telegraph, electric lights and moving pictures.”

The commercial market for radios, radio supplies and radio broadcasting emerged slowly, as were jobs in those areas. The 1925 city directory listed only a single radio “mechanic” working for Carolina Radio Company, but listings multiplied the next year.

Asheville city directory, 1926, p.27.

An early (but poorly documented) commercial broadcasting station was WABC, operated by the Asheville Battery Company, which boasted–in addition to automotive batteries and electrical parts–a Radio Branch that sold Complete Sets, Parts & Supplies, and Atwater Kent radio. When WABC went on the air or how long it operated is not certain, but it was apparently modest and short-lived.1

Better documented was Citizen’s Radiophone Broadcasting Station WFAJ, on the air at least by September 1922,operated by (it appears) Asheville’s Hi-Grade Wireless Instrument Co.,

Asheville Sunday Citizen, October 29, 1922, p. 2. Click for enlarged image.

founded a year earlier. Such equipment had been expensive, an advertisement in the Asheville Citizen said, but now it was possible to “purchase a complete radio receiving messages from from a distance of several hundred miles” for $8.50.2

Asheville did not get a long-lived commercial station until WWNC (“Wonderful Western North Carolina”) went on the air February 21, 1927, with studios atop the Flatiron Building. It apparently came into being, says a note on the back of a photograph at Pack Memorial Public Library, when Asheville entrepreneur G. O. Shepherd bought the equipment of “Station WABC, because it was in the backroom of the Asheville Battery Company on Haywood Street. [He] leased the station from the Chamber of Commerce (who were shutting it down), renamed it and moved it to the Flatiron Building.” J. D. Stentz as Manager and James Lorick as Assistant Radio Engineer.3

In 1928, Sterchi Brothers furniture store  called attention to “the best in radio” and their booth at the upcoming radio show at the George Vanderbilt Hotel, where a working amateur station was to be featured.

Asheville Citizen, February 20, 1928, p. 9.

The Amateur (“Ham”) Radio Sector: Asheville and Beyond

Logo of American Radio Relay League (1914). Click for ARRL history.

Before early commercial radio appeared, amateur radio operators had been active across the country, experimenting with and developing their own rudimentary low-power stations.  By 1910, there were thousands of them, some built by elementary school students.  In 1914–three months before my father was born–they organized their own American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

“Relay” in the name signified that if operators of low-power stations wanted to send messages over long distances, they had to relay them through intermediate operators (not unlike modern cell phones do, from tower to tower).  The ARRL eventually grew to more than 150,000 members.

Amateur radio activity was prohibited by federal order during World War I, but expanded quickly at war’s end. In 1921, two Deutschmann brothers opened their first Radio Shack store in Boston to cater to and supply early amateur operators.

When did amateur radio arrive in Asheville?  It was mentioned in the Asheville Citizen as early as September 3, 1915, in a quotation from President Taft concerning domestic security following the outbreak of World War I.  Subsequent articles during and after the war confirmed plans  to explore synergies between the military and amateur operators.

Asheville Citizen, October 18, 1922, p. 7.

Throughout the early 1920s, frequent Asheville newspaper articles charted local amateur radio interest and activities.  The Asheville Citizen announced on October 18, 1922 that the assistant inspector from the “United States radio board” would come down from Norfolk to Winston-Salem in November to examine applicants for commercial and amateur licenses. 

Plans for a semi-annual Asheville Radio Show emerged, and the city announced an effort to host the Amateur Radio Fans Convention previously held in Atlanta (May 1924).  An August 1924 letter to the editor proposed that “all radio fans get together and form some kind of club.”

John Whisnant and the Amateur Geeks

During his early teen years (1925 and beyond), my father John K. Whisnant became one of those pioneer operators.  His sister Bertha recalled nearly 60 years later that

when we got in high school, John was interested in radio.  That was when radio was [new], and he got the little crystal sets, and he got interested in that, and learned everything he could about it.

Actually, my father was involved with amateur radio before he entered high school, and became a licensed operator before he graduated.  In late 1926, Asheville High School students formed a Radio Experimenters Club.

Asheville High School annual, The Hillbilly, 1931, p. 38. John Whisnant is in middle of right hand column.

Radio Amateurs Club, Asheville senior high school, June 1, 1929.  Click for enlarged image.

Just before the school year ended three years later, the club became the Radio Amateurs Club, of which John Whisnant–probably already working to get his own license–was elected President.

Club students studied radio technology, bought radio magazines for the school library, and built and operated amateur station W4AL (perhaps suggesting AVL with the allowed 2-letter callsign).

In its June 30, 1929 annual published list of amateur radio stations, the Radio Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce included John K. Whisnant as holder of amateur callsign W4DE. The 4 was for the Fourth (southeastern states) District; the W was added to the earlier (e.g., 4DE) callsigns in 1928. Sometime before his 15th birthday, he had become one of 22 licensed amateur operators in the city. The 1928 city directory listed the Asheville Radio Club at 90 1/2 Patton Avenue, but the Asheville Amateur Radio Club was not formed, reported the Sunday Citizen, until February 1929.

Years earlier, amateur operators had formed their own broader organizational networks.  In 1915, ARRL’s new magazine QST (in radio “Q codes” list, QST = “General call to all stations”) began to link and inform amateur operators (many of them quite young) of my father’s generation.

Drawing of an early and young amateur operator in QST, March 1923, p. 31. Slightly caricatured image of a home-built transmitter with exaggerated coil (behind) and vacuum tubes (on top). A young operator, hand on his Morse code key, necktie blowing, leans into an electromagnetic “wind.”

Month after month, QST (the only magazine except for Reader’s Digest, Sunday School “quarterlies,” and the 5-cent newspaper-format Grit I recall seeing in our house–and selling to neighbors door-to-door) brought upwards of 100 pages of information, guidance, and sources of supply to amateur operators all over the United States.  Page after page of diagrams of elementary radio circuits; advertisements for new components such as vacuum tubes, headphones and speakers; photographs of stations built by members; news of local and regional ARRL meetings (e.g., the first southeastern convention in Atlanta in December 1923); and logs of amateur radio activity.

Importantly, QST also demonstrated that  amateur radio was not closed to women.  In April 1917, it reported that fourteen-year-old Winifred Dow of Takoma WA had just built her own receiver, thereby demonstrating that she was “of a mechanical turn of mind and . . . [able] to use tools more fitted for a man’s hands.” Not incidentally, her “mechanical turn of mind” qualified her to operate “second-class amateur wireless station” 7FG (the “W” prefix had not yet been added).

QST, August 1917.

An August 1917 QST editorial (just before the amateur radio activities were banned when the United States enteredWorld War I) noted that “several hundred of the fair sex” were already licensed, and that “becoming a ham need[s] no man’s permission, just the will and skill to pass a licensing test.”  The July 1920 issue included the first article written by a woman: a recently licensed 21 year-old operator from Baltimore.

Building His Own Station

Exactly when my father built and began to operate his  own first amateur station I have been unable to discover.  A few family photographs show several versions of his station, apparently dating back only to the mid-1930s.

How much time my father had available for amateur radio following his graduation from high school in 1931, I do not know.  A reasonable guess seems to be that my mother’s 1934 high school graduation, their marriage soon thereafter, and the birth of their first son early in 1935 (and two more by late 1939, when he was 25 years old and she was 23), did not leave a great many hours for amateur radio.

And yet, with a young and growing family and a new job, he did manage to pursue his radio interest, activities, and relationships within a growing amateur radio community.

Asheville’s growing community of radio-related activities is reflected in city directories from the late 1920s onward.  They show an array of companies offering radio sales, parts and repair; newly formulated jobs in the sector (radio mechanic, radio engineer, technician, radiotrician, salesman and serviceman, even “radio therapist”).

Evidence that, besides attending to his other family and work responsibilities, John Whisnant continued to develop his radio knowledge and involvements lies in several family photographs.  This undated one offers the most detailed evidence:

Unobstructed view of John Whisnant’s early amateur radio station. Wicker table and other details date it to perhaps 1933-35, possibly at 12 Hayes Street in West Asheville. Tall component at left is transmitter/power amplifier, and unit to right is “exciter” (approximately a first-stage amplifier)–both made by JKW. Stacked units on table are receiver and speaker (purchased; see image immediately below). Early microphone to left of receiver so far unidentified, but possibly carbon or condenser type from early 1930s, and almost certainly purchased.  Photo probably by John K. Whisnant. Click for enlarged image.

Radio Manufacturing Engineers’ RME-69 receiver (1937 version), speaker and DB-20 Preselector (separate unit on left; not included in Whisnant components).  Produced by the National Company, Inc.  Image from Radio Boulevard: Western Historic Radio Museum. 

 

A perplexing aspect of the photo of my father’s station above is the receiver-speaker unit.  The half-hex shaped speaker looks commercial to me, as does the main bezel surrounding the tuning dials.  Extended searches in the vast online historical resources on amateur radio equipment eventually led me to the exact receiver and speaker: the 1937 version of the Radio Manufacturing Engineers’ RME-69 receiver with matching RME speaker, shown here.  This link leads to detailed specifications on the unit (search down the page for this unit). Price was around $175 (=$3000 in 2018).

Certificate dated April 9, 1938, three months before the birth of second son.

Whatever the limitations of work and family, my father continued to pursue his ham radio interest and its associated network of colleagues and friends.  He received his ARRL certification to operate W4KI on the 75-meter band as part of the southeastern (W4) section of the national radio traffic system.

By this time, my father had been involved in amateur radio since pre-high school days–perhaps a dozen or so years would be my guess.  It had been good for him in many ways–as it remained on into the 1950s.

The Asheville Amateur Radio Club: Hams and Social Networks

The main context for John Whisnant’s radio involvement was the Asheville Amateur Radio Club.  The Asheville Sunday Citizen announced its formation in February 1929, but it may have gone inactive after the Asheville financial crash of November 20, 1930, when jobs and disposable income disappeared for so many (though not my father’s job: American Enka created and maintained several thousand jobs throughout the Depression and on into WWII).

In any case, when the Club reappeared in 1937, its President was my father’s longtime ham radio friend and colleague Rudolph Gibbs (W4HX). Vice President was their friend J. E. “Buck” Joyner (W4TO).  My then 23 year-old father was assistant Secretary.  In the same Citizen-Times issue, Joyner was featured  in a nearly full-page article about the city’s amateur operators.

The next year my father became treasurer of the club, and the Asheville Citizen announced that the city’s 50+ hams were expecting 300 operators from five states to attend their first annual “Hamfest” at the end of June. My father, with a 3 1/2 year-old at home and my own birth expected in about two weeks, may not have been able to attend.  He delivered an address to the club in October, however, and the following January was elected president.

As personal means and available (or improvised) technology permitted, Asheville operators joined others across the country in pushing the boundaries:

Testing an early mobile amateur station. John Whisnant (W4KI) at right front; unidentified woman (or young boy?) in front of him possibly also a ham operator, of whom there were a good number at the time; kneeling at right next to car is James E. “Buck” Joyner (W4TO); kneeling in front of him may be Rudolph Gibbs (W4HX), his face jokingly covered by a pasted-on animal’s face; woman standing next to car is probably either Gibbs’s wife Ada or Joyner’s wife Elizabeth. Auto is our family’s 1934 Plymouth sedan, still (it appears) in relatively good condition, ca. 1937.

These radio connections also had their social dimensions.  John Whisnant was a bit younger than either Rudolph Gibbs or Buck Joyner, who appear to have been his mentors as well as his friends.  The three of them, along with several other men helped to establish and

Asheville Citizen-Times, April 16, 1939, p. C4

nourish the Asheville Amateur Radio Club.  In April 1939, Asheville Amateur Radio Club wives (XYL’s, they were called in ham-radiospeak) organized their own club.

Families became friends and socialized together; children played together, as in the following (clickable) gallery of John K. Whisnant’s photos from a Whisnant, Gibbs and Joyner families picnic in West Asheville’s Rhododendron Park, ca. 1946:

Indeed, reading news coverage of ham radio in 1939, one could hardly fail to be struck by the similarity of some of its social functions to social media in the early 21st century.  Many were evident in an extended Asheville Citizen-Times article, “Radio’s Romance” in February 1939:

Asheville Citizen-Times, February 19, 1939, B3. John K. Whisnant (W4KI) in his amateur station in West Asheville. Click for larger image.  Article is continued here.

John Whisnant’s most important duty as Asheville club president, it appears, was to plan and organize the club’s second annual Hamfest in mid-1939.  His main promotional idea was to bring international code champion and code “key” developer T[heodore] R[oosevelt]

Asheville Citizen, May 23, 1939, p. 3.

 McElroy  to Asheville and feature him, ARRL champion L. R. McDonald, and others in a Morse code copying contest. 

Surprisingly, both men agreed to come.  The evening before the event, McElroy, McDonald, 14 year-old licensed female operator Jean Hudson from Delaware, and several other participants were interviewed on WWNC.

Getting the young but already legendary McElroy (1901-1963) to attend was a coup.  Starting as a Western Union messenger boy at 14, by seventh grade he could type 150 WPM.  He won his first copying contest at age 11, at 56 WPM.  Later he began traveling the country giving code-copying demonstrations, opened his own telegraph equipment manufacturing company in 1934, and by 1935 was world champion receiver.  His technologically advanced, rugged and efficient MAC-KEY (1938 model here, second from bottom) was widely adopted.

Four hundred hams were expected for the 2nd annual Asheville Hamfest on July 2, 1939.

Asheville Citizen-Times, July 2, 1939, p. 1.  Click for full article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Key pages of the program are available (viewable as slideshow) in the following small gallery.  A full PDF of the program is available here.

Two photos of meeting attendees have come to light:

Asheville Amateur Radio Club “Hamfest” banquet, George Vanderbilt Hotel, July 2, 1939. “Get your Banquet Pictures from Elliot Lyman Fisher,” said an advertisement in the program. Whisnant family collection.

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to attend the code-copying contest, held in a smaller room.  But a single photograph of the competition conveys the intensity of the event.

Code-copying contest, Asheville Amateur Radio Club “Hamfest,” July 2, 1939. The invited 14 year-old female competitor is not visible. Several women are present, but not competing when the photograph was taken.  Click to enlarge.  Whisnant family collection.  Photographer probably Eliot Lyman Fisher.

The outcome of the contest was not surprising, reported the Asheville Citizen the next day:

Asheville Citizen, July 3, 1939, p. 7.

T. R. McElroy set a “new world record” of 75 WPM, and L. R. McDonald came in second.  By remaining Class C champion at 30 WPM, 14 year-old Jean Hudson represented those who at the time were referred to as “the distaff side” or the “XYL” female Club associates.  As I discovered in scrolling to the top to find the page number, however, the notice of the contest winners appeared only one column away from the Citizen‘s longtime personal advice columnist Dorothy Dix’s weekly offering, strongly admonishing dissatisfied wives to think twice about blaming their husbands:

Asheville Citizen, July 3, 1939, p. 7. Click for full article.

Whatever Dix and other public advisors were offering, the fact was that women had continued to make themselves known (and licensed) in amateur radio.  A dramatic example was Chicago operator W9DXX, shown here in her splendidly equipped station in 1935:

By any measure, the 1939 Hamfest had been a success.  In appreciation for having been invited, T. R. McElroy sent my father a MAC KEY and a smaller Stream Key.  It turned out to be his final contest, and his record stood for years thereafter.  My father kept the code keys for the rest of his life–as well as the invoice.

Screenshot from Ham Radio Museum site. This is precisely the receiver/speaker unit I recall.  Click for larger, clearer image.gathering war clouds in Europe (Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March, and Poland in September) brought news blackouts and restrictions on amateur operators.  After the Hamfest there was no news about them again until mid-October, and very little until early June 1940.  Amateur radio communication with foreign countries or ships at sea was banned, as was any operation of portable stations.  The idea of an “Army Amateur Radio network” seems to have been floated, but details were scarce.

69 Brevard Road, West Asheville. Google Earth photo (cropped), 2014. Front porch and room to R may have been added later.

On October 16, the order came for all men 21-31 years old to register for the draft.  My father was 26, had been managing the Print Shop at American Enka for about 3 years, had three children under 5 years old, and the family was living at 69 Brevard Road.  Though modest, the house was larger than both 67 Brownwood Avenue in West Asheville (just up the street from his boyhood home), and considerably larger than the one they had lived in at 12 Hayes Street for several years.

Whisnant sons at 12 Crescent Street in Enka Village, ca. 1943. Left to right: Norman (b. 1939), David (b. 1938), Richard (b. 1935).  Not pictured: John, Jr. (b. 1943).  Whisnant Family Collection.

John registered, but (as sole support for a family of six) was never drafted.  Probably sometime in 1941 he managed to rent a two-story house at 12 Crescent Street in the Enka Village.

It was not lavish, but the village and its houses were well-designed and maintained.  Electric power, water, and sewerage were included in the modest rent, as were paved and lighted streets.  Houses were widely spaced, offering large yards for children to play in.  Nearby were a small shopping center, a gymnasium and athletic fields, a lending library, and garden plots. For a small monthly fee, one could join (as we did) a recreational lake club.  The entire development was surrounded by thousands of acres of roam-able forests.

It was, technically speaking, a “mill village,” but a model one, and it afforded us a home and a life we probably could not have afforded otherwise.  In later years we came to refer to it (only partly ironically) as “the best of corporate paternalism.” In any case, I have always felt fortunate to have grown up there.

Asheville Citizen, December 20, 1941, p. 5.

Surprisingly soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, some amateur operators were allowed–with specific federal permission–to operate again “to aid with civil and national defense.”  Whether W4KI was one of those, I don’t know, but his April 1938 ARRL certificate (shown above) suggests that he might have been.

Soon after the war ended, in any case, W4KI began to call CQ again from 12 Crescent Street, though with some upgraded station equipment.

My father replaced his pre-war receiver with a National NC-173 model (as in a not-long-ago dream I recalled both the image and the model number with startling clarity and detail, having not thought of them in decades).

 

Where the money came from to buy this equipment, I have no idea,  The NC-173 unit sold for about $190 in 1947 (=$2150 in 2018), when my mother was a stay-at-home mom (as she always was), there were four Whisnant boys (4 to 12 years old), and my father’s salary was modest.

Besides buying the NC-173, my father upgraded his antenna by hiring a local forester to trim all the limbs off a 40-foot (or so) white oak in our backyard, making a mast for a rotating dipole beam antenna (brief explanation here) he designed and built himself  in the shops at the Enka plant.

With these few changes, W4KI took on its final form.

Probably before 1948. Limb regrowth on tree substantially under way.

Epilogue

In 1958, after about 17 years in the Enka Village, my parents managed to buy a lot outside Asheville and build a house (the first they had ever owned, built by a contractor who was also a family friend). It was not large or lavish, but had some of the sought-after features of the time: a “picture window,” colored fixtures and showers in the bathrooms, a marble-faced fireplace in the living room and a waist-high brick one in the kitchen my mother was especially proud of, and a dishwasher.  My mother did the meticulous landscaping,

22 Bevlyn Drive, Oak Forest, south of Asheville.

But their new life as homeowners did not last.  After 20+ years of exemplary employment at American Enka, my father came back from lunch one day and found a letter on his desk saying that his services would not be needed after 5:00 p.m. that day.  His retirement checks  turned out to be $27/month, he was too young (mid-forties) for Social Security, and raising a large family had left no savings.

There was no alternative to looking immediately for a job, and the search surfaced the underlying tensions of my father’s gradual move from a working class family into professional employment–as it did for many of his generation.

A Depression-era high school graduate (and soon a father again), he was unable to go to college. About 1937 he was fortunate to get a job at American Enka managing the Print Shop.4  But through years of  International Correspondence Schools study at night (from small booklets he carefully saved and had bound into volumes), he trained himself as a mechanical engineer and was able to move to the Engineering Department at Enka.  On the day he was terminated, he was Director of Research Engineering, where he had hired and supervised many college graduates.

Home from college during the early days of his job search, I tried to help him develop a resume. But  lacking a college degree–whatever he had proved through years of professional work, made him feel (as I recall from many anguished conversations) vulnerable and hopeless.  By the time the Bevlyn Drive house was sold in early April 1961, he had found an engineering job in Shelby NC.  They moved, bought a small house, and started over again.

What happened to W4KI after the mid-1950s, I do not know. I left for Georgia Tech in 1956, and was at home only intermittently thereafter.  The station was never re-established in the Bevlyn Drive house, and I never saw any of my father’s equipment again except the two code keys T. R. McElrory had given him in 1939.

For John Whisnant, amateur radio had been a long (some 35 years or so) and almost entirely rewarding journey.  It remained a cherished link to his early life: to crystal sets and early vacuum-tube circuits.  It had been a vital part of a larger technological and engineering adventure that had afforded him some personal and professional confidence he had never had in abundance. It had been a domain of welcomed challenges, of considerable achievement and recognition.  It had been a compelling way to keep learning. It had been a social and cultural system in which to know valued others, and to be valued by them.

And for myself, writing this post has brought some at least partial responses to my long-delayed CQ to the dad from whom I learned so much.

References

Asheville city directories (various years); Asheville High School, The Hillbilly (1927-1931); Nan Chase, Asheville: A History, Appendix L: Rayon Production [Process] at Enka, 259;  Jim Cox, American Radio Networks (2009); Kathryn Anne Franks, Enka North Carolina: Planning an Early Twentieth Century Southern Mill Town (M.A. thesis, Drexel University, 1995); Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (2003); “New Hams” in Ham Radio History (2013); First Anniversary: Radio Station WWNC, Asheville, N. C.” in Edgar M. Lyda Collection, Special Collections, Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville (for WWNC items); History of Amateur RadioHistory of the Ham Radio Callsign; Neal McEwen, “T. R. McElroy: The Man, The Legend, and the Keys” in The Telegraph Office; Radio Division, U. S. Department of Commerce, Amateur Radio Stations of the United States (1920-1931); Radio Amateur Call Book Magazine (1931-1957); Radio Boulevard: Western Historic Radio Museum; United States Department of Commerce, Radio Division, Amateur Radio Stations of the United States (annual; 1924-1929).

Notes
  1. By the end of 1926, radio network historian Jim Cox reported, its call letters had been bought by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in New York.[]
  2. Asheville Citizen, Oct. 3, 1921, p. 5. My thanks to blog reader Robert Lozier, who first called my attention to these entities in this excellent comment: “The only ‘pre-history’ of Asheville broadcasting not mentioned was the station licensed as WFAJ from 1922-23 operated by John Rambau. There exist two, three tube radios built by Hi-Grade Wireless Apparatus Co. Asheville in that time period. They were built by Rambau and possibly George Stevens in rooms rented in the Asheville Citizen building. The walnut cabinets were made by a Dolph Blankenship on Brevard Rd. in West Asheville. A newspaper article says that the greatest number of listeners were at the wards of the veterans hospitals in Asheville. I do not know what the WFAJ broadcast schedule was. In those days, small stations operated only a few hours a week…. Say 1 1/2 to 2 hours, 3 to 6 days per week.” Further checking turned up the advertisement that follows.[]
  3. Asheville city directory, 1928, pp. 470, 591, 1050. Notes to G. O. Shephard Photograph Collection MS282.001G, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Public Library.[]
  4. Research for a later post revealed with virtual certainty that he had gotten a job at Enka in 1933.[]
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19 thoughts on ““Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond

  1. ROBERT BAUMBERGER

    DAVID;
    BRINGS BACK MANY MEMORIES OF ENKA AND YOUR FAMILY. HOW WELL I REMEMBER YOU FATHERS RADIO STATION AND THE PROMISE OF A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH IF YOU TOUCHED ANYTHING. I ALSO REMEMBER YOUR MOTHER’S FATHER BUILDING BIRD BATHS OUT OF CEMENT AND RE BAR IN THE SIDE YARD.
    MY WIFE PASSED AWAY LAST DECEMBER IN FLORIDA AND I NOW LIVE IN FRANKLIN( KIND OF A BORN AGAIN HILLBILLY) IREALLY ENJOY YOUR BLOG HOPE YOU CUNTINUE IT.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Bob:
      Thank you so much for this. I am very glad you are following the blog, and finding things there that interest you and reactivate memories. I love doing the blog, and always learn a lot myself in the process. Yes, the cement/rebar bird baths! I am sorry to hear of your wife’s death, but glad you are back in Franklin. We actually come through there a time or two a year on our way (a back way, but much better than the I-85 through Atlanta route) on our way to Birmingham to see our son Evan, who will graduate from Birmingham Southern in the spring. Best to you, and thanks again for your comment. David

    2. David Whisnant Post author

      Bob(by?): The posts keep coming; I hope you are seeing them. Now working on the 4th in a series (of maybe 8 or 9) on Enka. Check them out! David

  2. RICHARD A WHISNANT

    For whatever reason, I remember “W4KI, W4 King Ida” as “King Item”. There probably is a standardized lexicon for this, so Ida may be what he used.
    JKW’s picture in the high school annual (I assume that is he, though not stated) bears to me a striking resemblance to Derek.
    In the post card showing American Enka the caption includes “…be located at UL…” but I don’t know what “UL” is; upper left?
    You make 2 references to the photo of the “wicker table” station. One near the QST cover and later near the photo itself. The first one seems extraneous.
    As to the tree that supported the dipole antenna at Enka, I do not remember it as a white pine, but rather an oak of some variety. The growth on the tree does not look like pine needles. White pines take a long time to get that big. A minor point, in any case.
    ” It had been a domain of welcomed challenged…” ? challenge, or challenges, or ??

  3. Pingback: Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant's Early Years Together, 1934-1940 | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

  4. Ron White

    This was a most interesting story. I can relate to so much of it. I started tinkering with radio in 1947 at age 13. I was licensed W6IMC in 1950 at age 16. I am still licensed today (70 years later) at age 85. I have not participated in the hobby for over 50 years but keep my license renewed. I originally planned to go to sea as a ship radio operator but that did not work out due to my military obligation and the automation of much of ships radio equipment. I worked for the Pacific Telephone company for a few years and then went to college receiving a bachleor’s degree in Electrical Engineering when I was 30 years old. Ham radio was a glorious hobby for me in the 1950s and early 1960s. Then college and marriage took over my time. For the ham radio community, the entry of television in about 1950 caused a serious problem. The early and not so early television sets were severly interfered with by nearby ham radio transmitter signals. Many hams just gave up the hobby rather than deal with angry neighbors who could not watch their television shows without video and audio interference. My uncle, W6FYF who was licensed about 1921 just gave up in 1952 due to this television interference.

    Sincerely,

    Ron White
    Hendersonville, NC

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Hello Ron: I have to begin with a serious apology for not having answered your really interesting comment from last May. It wasn’t for lack of interest, I assure you. But it came about the time I had to drop off of work on the blog because of all the COVID upsets and dislocations, and I have just returned to it during the past several weeks. The post on my father’s ham radio years was one of the most interesting I have worked on of the 34 or so I have posted by now. I am in the first stages of one on the coming of American Enka to Hominy Valley in 1928. My father worked there for 25+ years, and I grew up in the village. I enjoyed so much sitting with my father and listening to the CQs from W4KI. He was licensed the first time as W4DE, at about age 14 or 15. I don’t know when he actually stopped using the station (or why; it might have been because of the television interference you mention). I left home to go to Georgia Tech in 1956, and I don’t remember his being involved in it when I was home during my co-op (at Enka) work quarters. I have searched in vain for a copy of his W4KI card (green photo of the mountains, with heavy block-lettered W4KI superimposed), but still hope someday to come across one. I would also love to find a working National NC-173 receiver like his (the one I pictured and discussed in the blog post you read). My very best wishes to you, Ron. I am also in my 80s (coming up on 83 next time), but am still in good health and busy with my various writing projects and other involvements.

      1. Ron White

        Thank you for your response. The virus has changed all our lives, especially for those of us in the vulnerable age range. I wish I still had my many hundreds of QSL cards but unfortunately they were lost during my many moves. I was born in Northern California, moved to Kentucky in 1981, to Texas in 1987 and finally to NC in 1999 for retirement. Stay as safe as you can and keep writing your blogs.

        Ron White

  5. Robert Lozier

    Wonderfully detailed article. The only ‘pre-history’ of Asheville broadcasting not mentioned was the station licensed as WFAJ from 1922-23 operated by John Rambau. There exist two, three tube radios built by Hi-Grade Wireless Apparatus Co. Asheville in that time period. They were built by Rambau and possibly George Stevens in rooms rented in the Asheville Citizen building. The walnut cabinets were made by a Dolph Blankenship on Brevard Rd. in West Asheville. A newspaper article says that the greatest number of listeners were at the wards of the veterans hospitals in Asheville. I do not know what the WFAJ broadcast schedule was. In those days, small stations operated only a few hours a week…. Say 1 1/2 to 2 hours, 3 to 6 days per week….

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Robert: Thank you so much for your comment. I had indeed not heard of WFAJ, but will do a quick newspapers.com check, and add a footnote to the post (citing you as having brought this to my attention). I will also follow up on your Hi-Grade Apparatus Co. suggestion. The idea of the cabinets being built on Brevard Rd. is wonderful. As I have mentioned to others, I have been looking for years for a copy of my father’s W4KI calling card, but have never found one. Have searched online every way I know, but nothing. If you have any suggestions about searching, i would be glad to have them. Thanks again! Davd

    2. David Whisnant Post author

      Robert: Checking back through some earlier blog comments to make sure I have responded properly to them all, I found yours here, and was not sure I had. I just looked back at the post, however, and found that I had in fact made the addition of WFAJ, and credited you in a foot note. I am going to go back again, however, and all the whole text of your comment to the previous note. Thank you so much (again). I hope you are well in this COVID time! David

  6. Robert Lozier

    Regarding QSL cards, ping Dave Rawley n4xo@northstate.net he used to have one of the most extensive collections of cards in the Carolinas. If he does not have your dad’s card, he knows other rabid card collectors. I just unearthed my ‘Mother Lode’ of microfilm references to the early days of radio in Asheville (pre 1925) ping me at kd4hsh@carolina.rr.com – I also have photos of the Hi-Grade radio I own…

  7. Robert Lozier

    Just note that Hi-Grade Wireless Instrument Co. is listed twice in the Radio Red Book, Volume 1 No.2 for November 1922. Address is given as 47-49 Zillicoa Street, Asheville, NC Under listings of makers of crystal sets and of vacuum tube sets. Advert in Asheville Citizen, 29 Oct. 1922. Front page article of The Sunday Citizen 10 September 1922 “Citizen Opens Radio Broadcasting Station” Another program announcement in 12 Oct. 1922 Asheville Citizen…Also October 1st & 3rd & 13th 1922

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Robert: Thank you for this also! I will follow up on it right now. I will make additions/correction to this post, giving you credit for the information. BTW: are you still in Asheville? I am in Chapel Hill.

  8. Robert Lozier

    No, I’m a life-long resident of Monroe, NC. Actually have been in Asheville only a few times in my adult years. Hoped to do more travel in retirement but leg problems have frequently made it painful to drive long distances. There must be compelling reasons to travel….

  9. Eve Hunt

    “Great goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just too great.
    I really like what you have acquired here, certainly like what you’re stating
    and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable
    and you still care for to keep it wise. I cant wait to read far more from
    you. This is really a tremendous website.”

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Eve: Thank you for your nice comment. I am glad you are (and have been) enjoying my blog. Please let me know if you have other comments or suggestions later.

      David

  10. Robert Lozier

    David, I’m good with your inclusion of my references and credits… Hope you are able to fill more gaps. I’m wondering if you had access to a photo scanner with native resolution of 600 d.p.i. or better (not interpolated) and wide dynamic range? If so it might be fun to see what I could do with Photoshop 7.0… Especially with the setup of the ham gear on the running board of the coupe.

  11. Robert Lozier

    Hello David, This is a copy of my query made to the email address I have on file for you. Hello David,

    Like so many, the COVID saga has thrown a monkey wrench into my aspirations to complete the story of the Asheville company that built a small number of home broadcast receivers in 1922-23. To date, collectors only know of five surviving, branded ‘made in North Carolina’ radios of the 1920s. I own or have access to three of them. Even after being vaccinated six months ago, fully mask compliant in public and only out about three hours a week, I still contracted COVID this month. I’m recovering and stayed out of the hospital.

    There is an event planned for October 23rd. at the Asheville Radio museum. It is supposed to combine a vintage radio swap meet and tour of the museum. I have decided that I want to donate one of the two known Hi-Grade Wireless Instrument Co. Asheville, NC sets to the museum on that date. I want to compile as much info as I can to go with the radio.

    I have sent you all the information I have regarding this enterprise. What I am asking you today, is the following:

    From a 1975 letter I have the following names associated with the venture.

    The owners: John Rambau and George Stevens, a cabinet shop owner by the name of Dolph Blankenship in West Asheville (Brevard Road) and hearsay that three radio amateurs, “Tennyson, Hilton and Tom Freck” may have worked for the little company.

    My question is: Do you know of any genealogy researchers in the county that could recognize any of these names and have any information associated with this enterprise?

    Your referrals would be very much appreciated.

    Yours,

    Robert

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