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Susan Douglas on: Amateur Radio Operators
Susan Douglas Q: What kind of appeal does technology have to boys?

SD: Well, in 1906, 1907, reporters begin to discover that there are these boys around the country who are dabbling in wireless telegraphy, and they've been able to do so because it's been discovered that a simple piece of crystal can be used as a detector of wireless waves. How can we account for this particular fad or embrace at this moment? I think for young boys at this time, they're confronting very conflicting notions of what it means to be a man and how you can be successful as a man in the United States. The old model of Victorian manhood that was modeled on self-restraint and moral rectitude. You know, kind of the Dudley do-right model of manhood, was being cast off as a feat and irrelevant in the early twentieth century. And at the same time, there was a whole celebration of primitivism. The Tarzan books were huge, Teddy Roosevelt first, you know, storming through Cuba and then going off on Safari, Jack London novels. There was a great celebration of the new primitive. But what if you weren't a new primitive? What if you weren't a he-man? And, in fact, that was often very counterproductive in the work place, for example, where many young men, in fact, were feeling an erosion of autonomy, an erosion of control.

And so here you have technical tinkering, where you can know a code, you can have mastery over something that other people don't know about, you can enter a realm that a lot of other people can't, you can crack into nature without having to go off on Safari. And, you also learn very valuable skills that will later on benefit you in the work place. So for many boys, technical tinkering, especially with wireless, allows them to kind of retune manhood in a way that is very satisfying and yet filled with adventure.

Q: Who are these boys? Tell me about them.

SD: The little evidence we have about these ham operators in the first decade of the twentieth century, suggest that most of them were white, middle-class boys, upper middle-class boys, who could afford the five bucks or so that it took to assemble a wireless set. Many of them lived in ports where they could eavesdrop on ship-to-shore communication or ship-to-ship communication. So they lived in New York, Chicago--the Great Lakes was a great area of activity for ham operators--and they often exchanged football scores, homework answers, technical information, over the air. And this explosion really began in 1906, 1907.

Q: And there were books written about it.

SD: Well, the amateur operator was basically the hacker of the early twentieth century, and for a brief period he is greatly celebrated in popular culture. A guy named Hugo Gernsberg, who ran a company that sold equipment to ham operators, greatly promoted this hobby, telling parents it would keep their sons out of pool halls and nickelodeons. But, there were also writers who sought to capitalize on the fad, and there were books for boys, "The Radio Boys" and "Tom Swift and His Wireless Machine," and stories in magazines, "In Marconi Land," and "Wooed by Wireless." And they all celebrated the heroism and the adventures of these young boys once they put on their earphones and took to what was referred to as the great void. They loved eavesdropping on, and sometimes arguing with operators who were on board ship, both civilian operators and also naval operators. And it was great fun for them to exchange messages back and forth, to eavesdrop on what was going on and sometimes to interfere deliberately with their messages.

Q: Explain to me the fact that in the earliest days of wireless, that almost only one thing could be going on at a time, right? Otherwise, the signaling was constantly being jammed.

SD: You have to remember that early wireless wasn't tuned very well, and that the transmitters were crude and they sullied a great portion of the spectrum, and activated a whole bunch of wavelengths at the same time, and so there was a lot of interference. And this meant that in some areas it was often difficult for more than a few transmitters to operate at the same time without interfering with each other.

Q: So what happened when they interfered?

SD: You have to remember that between 1906 and 1910, it's the ham operator who dominates the air. There are more hams on the air than any other kind of sender. Their transmitters are crude, they are sending all kinds of unofficial messages, they are capable of interfering with each other, with commercial liners and with naval operators.

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