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.”
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.”
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
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.
Early Commercial Radio in Asheville
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:
“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 and radio supplies was slow to develop, 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’s first 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. 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.
Asheville did not get a long-lived commercial station until WWNC (“Wonderful Western North Carolina”) went on the air February 21, 1927. A year later, the 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.
The Amateur (“Ham”) Radio Sector: Asheville and Beyond
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The photograph, below, with equipment on a wicker table and upholstered side chair as “desk” chair–is likely the earliest that exists:
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.
A major job change also intervened. Soon after high school, he had drawn upon his high school vocational printing course to operate his own print shop. I have not been able to determine how long that lasted, but the 1936 Asheville city directory listed him as “clerk” (no indication of where).
By the next year—he had become a “printer, Am[erican] Enka Corp.”
And yet, with 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 city directories from the late 1920s onward 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”); and a commercial broadcasting company.
Evidence that, besides attending to his other family and work responsibilities, he continued to develop his radio knowledge and involvements lies in several other family photographs. This undated one offers the most detailed evidence:
For photographs of other early (1910-1930s) amateur stations, click here.
The 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).
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:
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
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:
Continuation of article above.
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] 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.
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:
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.
The outcome of the contest was not surprising, reported the Asheville Citizen the next day:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (or so) foot 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.
In 1958, after about 18 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,
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), he was unable to go to college. In 1937 he was fortunate to get a job at American Enka managing the Print Shop. 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 Plant 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.
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 EarlyTwentieth 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 Radio; History 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).