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Rescue at Sea | Article

The Boys of Wireless

Sam White, 1909

Young Samuel D. White of Hyannisport, Massachusetts began building Cape Cod's first amateur wireless station in 1907. Jack Binns' wireless-aided rescue at sea was more than a year away, but already radio amateurs had captured the public imagination. Starting about 1906, boys and young men across America had begun to build and operate their own wireless stations, sending and receiving messages in Morse Code. Binns' heroic actions aboard the "Republic" helped make these "wireless boys" pop-culture heroes. 

Sam, a high school junior, established his headquarters in a scallop shack behind the family barn. For his antenna, he erected a flagpole, and strung wires from it to the barn roof. Using scavenged parts, instructions from "Modern Electrics" magazine, and tips from his physics teacher, Sam built a wireless receiver. Soon, he was listening in on messages broadcast up and down the coast.


Like other young operators, Sam White was probably awed by his power. As if by magic, a wireless boy could snare transmissions from "the ether" and listen to messages sent from stations on land and at sea. He could broadcast as well, sending details about homework assignments, weather conditions, and technical tips to comrades at amateur stations miles away. 

Part of what made wireless popular was the simple equipment. Early on, prefabricated radio sets became available. But by using instructions from books and magazines, tips from fellow operators, and ingenuity, many wireless boys simply improvised. An umbrella frame became an antenna. Brass clips from a pair of suspenders became a sending key. A Quaker Oats box wrapped in wire served as a tuner. When Sam White built his first transmitter, he relied on a proven component--the automobile ignition coil:

This technological savvy helped make the wireless boys a public sensation. In the 1800's, America had won the West with a mythological blend of bravery, physical skill, determination, and guts. But at the start of the twentieth century, America discovered a new kind of hero--the scientist. Men such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Alva Edison, and Guglielmo Marconi used their brains and engineering skills to do things never before possible. And the wireless boys, technologists in their own right, became heroes as well. 

When Sam White built his wireless, a local paper carried a story featuring photographs of "His Office and Tower from Which He Sends and Receives Messages." "The New York Times Magazine" put 20-year-old amateur Walter J. Willenborg on its front page under the headline, "New Wonders With `Wireless.'--and By A Boy." 

An industry sprang up around the wireless boys. How-to books and magazines such as "The Collins Wireless Bulletin" and "Boy's Life" provided valuable information to amateurs. Mail-order firms and, later, storefront operations, sold wireless supplies. The Electro Importing Company's Telimco Wireless Outfit, which debuted in 1905, put a complete wireless in the hands of an amateur for seven dollars and fifty cents. Adventure novels with titles like "The Ocean Wireless Boys of the Iceberg Patrol" became popular favorites. 

In 1912, Hugo Gernsback, builder of the Telimco wireless and editor of "Modern Electrics," claimed that some 400,000 amateurs operated nationwide. Many of them had already founded wireless clubs, often at their schools. One club, the Junior Wireless Club, Ltd., formed in January 1909, just after Jack Binns became a hero.

In turn, local clubs made links across the country. Among the most important of these was the Wireless Association of America, founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1909. By the following year, the organization had enrolled some 10,000 members. Many joined, no doubt, due to the accolades wireless received after the "Republic" rescue.

The popularity of wireless doomed it to government regulation; radio was more than just a toy. For businesspeople like Marconi, it was a valuable commodity. For seagoing vessels, it was a lifeline. And the U.S. Navy considered wireless critical to the national defense. 

Even with their relatively low-power equipment, amateur radio operators could--and did--interfere with commercial and military broadcasts. An amateur station near the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, for example, could drown out signals from ships at sea simply because of his proximity to Navy receivers. The Navy accused amateurs of interfering with critical transmissions. Amateurs responded by criticizing Navy operators, sometimes justifiably, for their outdated receiving equipment and general incompetence. 

Still, many amateurs, including Gernsback, understood the necessity of regulation. After the sinking of the "Titanic," which underscored the importance of the wireless, Congress acted. The Wireless Act of 1912 required "private or commercial station not engaged in the transaction of bona fide business by radio communication" to limit transmission power and broadcast over specified wavelengths. 

During World War I, citing national security, the U. S. government shut down the wireless boys altogether. But the amateurs had a long history of graduating to professional positions. Many wireless boys traded their home-based transmitters for shipboard ones, serving their country at sea.

After the war, the wireless boys resumed transmissions with enthusiasm. By then, many of them had become men, but a steady crop of youngsters followed in the footsteps of amateur operators like Sam White. Simple, yet alluring, wireless was a toy for the ages.

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