BOOKS OF THE WIRELESS PIONEERS – Part 1
Needless to say, many of the men and women who lived by transmitting the printed word—and yes, sometimes codes or what would appear to be gobbledygook—ended up having a literary bent. Besides their personal reminiscences that you can find in SoWP publications, a number of them authored books. Here are some short reviews of a couple of the books by SoWP members that I’m aware of. These books are long out of print, but check WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/advancedsearch) for library availability or AbeBooks (www.abebooks.com) or Alibris (www.alibris.com) for used copies.
SOS to the Rescue by Karl Barslaag (Oxford University Press, New York, 1935)
Barslaag, SoWP member 175-P, presents some high seas adventures, starting with the very first ship distress call from the Goodwin Sands Lightship on March 3, 1899, down to the unlucky Tashmoo (April 24, 1928). In between we’re treated to riveting accounts of the Republic rescue (Jack Binns, radio operator), the “unsinkable” Titanic disaster (John George Phillips and Harold Bride, radio officers), and many others. The book is a pleasure to read. Barslaag, who himself had been a ship radio operator and was later a Lieutenant Commander in US Naval Intelligence, spent 5 years researching these distress calls and spoke to many of the people involved. He not only knows his stuff but is able to explain the practical realities of maritime radiotelegraphy without seeming overly technical or pedantic.
Not only seagoing disasters but profiles of radio operators, developments in wireless communication, and details that would be hard to find anywhere else are presented. For example, in his chapter on “Girl Marine Radio Operators” I learned that, perhaps not surprisingly, they were generally shunned by many of their male colleagues. But this was for a surprising reason… Many marine radio operators had previously been landline telegraphers. “They had not forgotten the great telegraph strike of a few years before when women had stepped into their places.” Some men had lost their jobs as a result, and didn’t want to see it happen again. So female ship radio operators faced anything from cool indifference to outright hostility by men who would try to “burn them up” by sending code faster than they could copy. Where else are you going to find out about that?
“SOS to the Rescue” is a historically rich, well written book and one I highly recommend.
Wireless Communication in the United States by Thorn Mayes (The New England Wireless and Steam Museum, Inc., East Greenwich, RI, 1989)
Historian, engineer, and writer Thorn Mayes was a major contributor to the preservation of early radio history. He provided many articles and talks via SoWP as well as the Antique Wireless Association. We continue to discover and post more of his articles on this website. His primary research involved taped interviews with early wireless pioneers, some of which are preserved at History San Jose and can be found at this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bZaNJpxJIfz9vPTdUK0voWz4AoXMjChXDasYb1i9Mgc/pub.
Thorn was also the driving force behind a new category of SoWP member. Although he was a ham (W6AX), since he had never actually been a commercial radio operator (a prerequisite for full membership), a way to recognize what he brought to the Society was found in the creation of a new associate membership. Originally called a “Friend of the Pioneers” (or FOP, which may not sound to good but overall sounds better than the name initially proposed for a radio operators union, the Federated American Radio Telegraphers), the name was changed to the better-sounding “Technical Associate”, and Mayes became TA-1.
This book, published posthumously, is one-stop shopping for an accurate history of commercial radiotelegraphy in America. Amply illustrated with photos, charts, and line drawing, it gives a concise history of the wireless companies to be found in the US early in the century, including De Forest companies, United Wireless, Marconi of America, Federal, and others. Sections on the Alexanderson Alternator and overlooked pioneer Harry Shoemaker make for great reading as well. The appendix contains letters from pioneers like Elmer Bucher, Greenleaf Pickard, Lee De Forest and others. If you’re at all into radio history, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.