Review: The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: A Social History

The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: A Social History
The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: A Social History by Richard A. Bartlett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There don’t seem to be many books written about the history of amateur radio, so I was enthused when I came across this book on Amazon. If you are looking for a technical history of amateur radio – something that details what was being built with what component, or a timeline of technological changes then, as the title suggests, this book is what you’re looking for. Bartlett has written a social, organizational, and operational history of amateur radio. Although the title doesn’t indicate it, you will probably want to keep in mind that it is for the most part a history of amateur radio in the United States. Amateur radio in other countries is for the most part only mentioned in relationship to amateur radio in the United States and in involvement in world regulatory meetings. What I enjoyed about this book is that it isn’t so much about amateur radio itself but about amateur radio operators – the “hams.” Perhaps Bartlett put it best himself in the Introduction:

“This book unabashedly praises the amateurs, the hams. It traces their first fifty years with emphasis on their social history. Technological changes are kept to a minimum.”

The author’s brother. Forrest A. Bartlett (1914-2006) was a ham – W6OWP. He was the inspiration for The World of Ham Radio, 1900-1950: A Social History. W6OWP’s life as a ham saw a great deal of change in the hobby, from almost the earliest days through it’s formative period, and through a great many regulatory and organizational periods so the author, Richard A. Bartlett, was able to see the evolution of amateur radio through his brother’s eyes.

The World of Ham Radio chronicles the earliest days of radio and the involvement of Hiram Percy Maxim and the formation of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) before going into how Amateur Radio survived World War I. While the great technological advances made between the World Wars are mentioned, the books shows how the years in-between the wars also saw amateur radio strengthen organizationally, become established with regulations worldwide, gain attention and popularity, and show what radio could do to benefit the community in emergencies and help advance exploration and knowledge. With the coming of World War II, the book shows how the hobby and hams helped the war effort, how amateur radio operators helped out both in the military and the home front and finally shows how the hobby strengthened in the post-war years. Bartlett does this by telling the stories of amateur radio operators who participated in emergency services aiding their communities, who took part in and joined in expeditions exploring various parts of the globe, and who joined the military and served the community at home. A major character in the book is the ARRL itself; some might say that it overly praises the ARRL but the part the ARRL played in protecting the hobby from threat during its formative years and the years between WW1 and WW2 cannot be denied. Although we may not agree with everything they do or all of the positions they take, the ARRL continues that mission today. In essence, Bartlett has not just told the story of amateur radio in the United States, he has told how amateur radio and amateur radio operators interacted with the community around the hobby and most importantly how it had a positive impact on the world community it.

“There is a genuine fascination for us on any old night when we marvel of our ability to sit in a half-darkened room before a little collection of instruments, with the audions dimly glowing and hear the messages from our friends come buzzing in the through the night.”

That line from The World of Ham Radio helps explain the allure of the hobby. The radios I operate may not have glowing audions (tubes) but it still amazes me that I can sit at my radios and talk to folks from across town or the other side of the globe without them being sitting with me or without wires connecting us. That excitement all of us hams have of using the airwaves is conveyed by Bartlett in this book and he does a pretty good job of it. If you’re an amateur radio operator and want to know how the hobby began, established itself, and grew then this is the book for you. I think it does a good job of telling the story without being overly technical or getting bogged down in the jargon of the hobby, so if you’re not a ham and are curious about the hobby, then this is the book for you as well.

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