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The Science of World War I: Communications

Amateur Radio Matured That Decade

The rapid expansion and even "mania" for amateur radio, with many thousands of transmitters set up by 1910, led to a wide spread problem of inadvertent and even malicious radio interference with commercial and military radio systems. Some of the problem came from amateurs using crude spark-transmitters that spread signals across a wide part of the radio spectrum. In 1912 after the RMS Titanic sank, the United States Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, which restricted private stations to wavelengths of 200 meters or shorter (1500 kHz or higher). These "short wave" frequencies were generally considered useless at the time, and the number of radio hobbyists in the U.S. is estimated to have dropped by as much as 88%. Other countries followed suit and by 1913 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was convened and produced a treaty requiring shipboard radio stations to be manned 24 hours a day. The Radio Act of 1912 also marked the beginning of U.S. federal licensing of amateur radio operators and stations. The origin of the term "ham", as a synonym for an amateur radio operator, was a taunt by professional operators. But the restrictions of the Radio Act of 1912 spurred Amateur Radio forward and Hams experimented, developing new technology to use the restricted frequencies that were first believed to be useless. These innovations passed into the commercial sector and radio use made significant strides in the years that followed.

World War I is frequently referred to as "the first modern war," since a number of technological inventions made their debut during the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. Nowhere was this more true than in the realm of communications — the recent introduction of electricity- and radio-based communications revolutionized the art of war, joining other advances such as military airplanes, tanks, machine guns and chemical weapons.

Despite these new technologies, many military leaders were slow to take advantage of them and continued to wage war as if it were a cavalry-based affair. Their reluctance (or inability) to adapt to new methods of warfare has been cited as one reason World War I was such a bloody affair, resulting in more than 17 million civilian and military deaths. 

A portable radio transmitting station in Germany, 1919
World War I had put a stop to amateur radio. In the United States, Congress ordered all amateur radio operators to cease operation and even dismantle their equipment. These restrictions were lifted after World War I ended, and the amateur radio service restarted on October 1, 1919. Many Amateur Radio operators are veterans, some got their start in radio communications while serving. 

Please take a moment tomorrow, November 11th, to remember the many who sacrificed for our freedom in military operations.

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