The Radio Society of Great Britain stands synonymous with the progression and development of amateur radio in the United Kingdom and around the world, with early British radio pioneers working with and seizing upon the developments of Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla, while partnering with other countries across the globe to advance RF technology and the art of communications itself.
In order to better understand Great Britain’s ultimate role in the development of radio frequency technology, one need but look back to the year 1899 when Marconi reported sending signals across the English Channel. On December 12, 1901 he innovatively used a 152 meter kite-supported antenna from St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada to receive signals transmitted from a new high power station located in Cornwall, Great Britain. This covered an amazing distance of 3,500 kilometers, although signals were weak and sporadic, with no independent confirmation.
British experimenters continued to make their mark, witnessed by the first issuance of ham radio licenses from 1910-1913. With the outbreak of World War I, the General Post Office, the former British postal system, suspended all amateur activity, taking possession of “all the stations established by the Licensees for the working of telegraphy.” This was to insure “His Majesty the King’s” government that it would have complete control over all messages sent by means of wireless communications. Ham operators were told that as a matter of safety to “remove at once your aerial wires and dismantle your apparatus. Six years later the war of the trenches came to an end. British hams were encouraged by government authorities to reapply for their licenses.
Preceding the governmental decree which produced nothing but silent keys, ham operators across England had already been actively engaged in organizing themselves. The London Wireless Club witnessed its beginnings after Rene Klein published a letter in English Mechanic on June 6, 1913. It was with a sense of amazement that he noted that other cities had already formed gatherings of like-minded radio amateurs. And it was with this spirit of determination that the first meeting of the London Wireless Club took place on July 5 with four charter members in attendance: Rene Klein, Leslie McMichael, L Francis Fogarty and A P Morgan. Initial membership was set at ten and a half shillings for city residents, five shillings for those living in the country. It’s important to note that the intention of the organization early on was to spread beyond London and become an organization with broad reach and appeal.
The name of the organization was subsequently changed to the Wireless Society of London, this having been determined at a meeting on September 23, 1913. Membership in the organization was largely based on merit. Those over the age of 21, able to demonstrate two years of experimental work or adequate level of training, were granted the status of member. All others were classified as associate members of the group. By the end of 1914, membership had grown to 212 members, 31 associate members and two foreign members.
Even though many keys were silenced on the home front due to Great Britain’s entry into World War I, many members of the Wireless Society of London put their newly found experience to work in support of the war effort. Ernest Simmonds, upon entering the military, was eventually assigned to the Wireless Section of the Royal Engineers. After receiving instruction and training in Winchester, he was stationed at Worcester and attached to the Instructional Schools there and later at Newport Pagnell. As Mechanist Staff Sergeant he performed service in Ireland in charge of military wireless equipment. This afforded him, in his own words, “considerable opportunities for experimental work with thermionic valves of the types then available, both receiving and transmitting.” As 20D, after the war, he had the distinguished honor of being the first British amateur to have two-way communications with Canada. Mexico, Argentina and Australia were other countries he would soon add to his list of DX accomplishments.
Lieutenant Colonel Baynton Hippisley, was yet another formidable member of the Society. His colleagues knew him as HLX and later as 2CW. Hippisley had a genuine interest in wireless telegraphy, having worked at the Lizard Communication Station where he picked up messages from the Titanic in 1912. In 1913 he was appointed a member of the War Office Committee on Wireless Telegraphy. Once hostilities began, he joined Naval Intelligence, when under the leadership of Sir James Alfred and William Hall, he was given permission to set up listening posts at Hunstanten, the nearest point to the German coastline. It was here, working together with fellow radio amateur Edward Clarke that they were able to receive messages from the German fleet and report them to the Admiralty. This station became known as Hippisley’s Hut, one of 14 listening posts which pooled intelligence received from the numerous Marconi receiving stations. This intelligence was added to that received by the British Post Office station and the Admiralty’s “police” station. Soon most all German naval wireless traffic as well made its way to the now infamous Room 40 of British Naval Intelligence. In addition to being able to predict Zeppelin raids, Hippisley also made it possible to detect U-boats as they communicated with one another by means of some sort of double tuning device which he had crafted. Thus British destroyers were able to locate German U-boats and frustrate the success of any potential blockade envisioned by the enemy. For his valiant efforts Hippisley received the Order of the British Empire.
At the close of the war, receiving licenses were granted in October of 1919 and bona-fide amateur licenses were made available beginning in November of that same year. It should be noted that it was still difficult at the time to set up a station without the support of Marconi and his contemporaries. Obtaining an amateur radio license in 1919 required proof of British citizenship, two written references and an agreement to observe the secret and confidential nature of messages. Licensing at the time was actually quite restrictive, as British hams were limited to a maximum of five contacts and such contacts required authorization by the government. Power was limited to ten watts, although with special permission 1000 watts could be utilized while operation was limited to 160 meters alone. So-called “aerial licenses” were issued to those who had no need to actually transmit. However, to receive the coveted “radiation licence,” it was necessary to demonstrate to authorities the scientific value of one’s experimentation or overall benefit to the general public. When new amateurs received their operating permits, their station callsigns were generally a 2 followed by two letters, although the prefixes 5 and 6 were also used and often represented personal initials of the operator. Although the Wireless Society of London continued to work with the General Post Office to reduce restrictions, it wasn’t until after World War II that much greater liberties for British hams were afforded.
So far you’ve seen Radio Society of Great Britain mentioned only once, at the preamble of these pages. And that’s because it wasn’t until November of 1922 that the Wireless Society of London changed its name for the last and final time to the Radio Society of Great Britain for which the Society is known today. The Society described itself in this fashion: “The Radio Society of Great Britain is a virile and progressive body of amateur radio experimenters bonded together for the promotion of knowledge and brotherhood of those interested in radio art. It exists also with the object of the advancement of the art, the representation of the amateur in legislative matters and for the disciplined use of the ether in so far as amateur experimenters are concerned.”
Radio history witnessed a second series of tests which took place on December 8, 1923. Jack Partridge, 2KF successfully established communication with U1MO, operated by Ken Warner who held the position of Secretary for the Amateur Radio Relay League in the United States. Partridge wrote, “At 0545GMT on December 8, U1MO first received 2KF and gave me the OK signal, wishing me good morning. He then opened up by saying, “Some more amateur radio history in the making – this is the first two-way working with Great Britain. Here Warner of QST. QRA?” Contact was maintained until 0827GMT when I heard Warner say “Going now OM. Very QRZ. This is the end of a wonderful night. Goodbye.”
It’s always inspiring to see youthful operators make radio history. At 6AM on October 19, 1924 – Cecil Goyder, G2SZ at just 18 years of age, made the first around the world contact between England and New Zealand, much to the admiration of the local press. He made contact using the radio station in the school laboratory where he often found himself when not in class. Goyder was an electrical engineering student at City & Guilds Engineering College and had access to the local station. That very night a new antenna system had been put in place and young Cecil was intent on testing it. He heard Z4AA calling CQ and responded, learning that at the other end of his RF connection was Frank Bell, a local sheep farmer and radio experimenter. In celebration of this event and over 90 years of DX in New Zealand, hams now have and will continue to have the opportunity of working special event station ZM90DX through October 31, 2014. And, of course, the RSGB Centenary Station (Gx100RSGB format for various parts of the British Isles) will continue operation through December 2nd of this year.
Barbara Dunn, G6YL was the first female British amateur to obtain an amateur license. The year was 1927. Having been quoted as saying, “I don’t like phone,” her station was CW only. Nell Corry, G2YL became the second woman to be licensed in the UK in 1932. Constance Hall, G8LY was the third, having received her operator’s permit in 1936 at the age of 24. Constructing most of her own equipment, she set up and operated from her bedroom. Cooperative parents allowed her to drill holes through the window frames to accommodate the lead-in wires from various antennas strung about the premises.
Following World War I, interest in radio broadcasting began to grow and radio amateurs were at the forefront in Great Britain. Hams in Britain began experimenting with speech. There were those who took it upon themselves to inform and entertain others, going as far as to broadcast music from gramophone records, often on Sundays, while actually growing an audience and gaining in popularity. Gerald Marcuse, G2NM had regular radio contact with an operator from the Bahamas. Their communication became frequent and sometimes involved the retransmission of radio programming from England to other operators in the Caribbean. Marcuse actually applied with the General Post Office for a permit allowing him to broadcast speech and music for two hours every day over an experimental period of six months on 23 and 33 meters at a power of 1000 watts. You’ll be interested to note that the BBC had its early beginnings in 1928 after conducting their own tests from G5SW in Chelmsford, England.
In February of 1923 the so-called T & R Section (Transmitter and Relay Section) was formed as an integral part of the Radio Society of Great Britain. The British Wireless Relay League actually merged with the T & R Section “to promote intercommunications between experimenters and thus assist them to improve their apparatus, to join hands with similar organizations overseas, to investigate the quality of the transmissions in various directions at different hours and to establish a collection of wavemeters and other useful apparatus for loan within the Section.” Transatlantic tests were conducted from an experimental station in West London.
The first meeting of the International Amateur Radio Union is beyond a doubt the most important international meeting of amateur radio world representatives in the history of our hobby and pastime. This important Paris meeting included representatives from Belgium, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland and the United States of America. The RSGB was represented by Gerald Marcuse, 2NM. He was actually one of thirty-eight British amateurs amongst the 250 delegates representing the world of ham radio as a whole. Members of the Radio Society of Great Britain were to be found on various committees: Ralph Royle, G2WJ; Hugh Ryan, G5BV; Harold Bailey, G2UF; Fred Hogg, G2SH and Stanley Lewer, G6LJ. The IARU was created at this meeting with the clear objective for the “the promotion and coordination of two way radio communication between the amateurs of the various countries of the world; the advancement of the radio art; the representation of two-way radio communication interests in international communication conferences and the encouragement of international fraternisation”. Hiram Maxim, U1AW (W1AW) was its first President with Gerald Marcuse, G2NM International Vice-President.
In 1925 the T & R Section of the Radio Society of Great Britain determined to publish a monthly periodical with the modern ham radio operator being its target audience. The first publication of the T & R Bulletin contained 12 pages, having been published in July. It included a piece by Ralph Royle – 2WJ, detailing information of a single stage 23 meter transmitter. It was later referred to as the RSGB Bulletin, and affectionately called “The Bull.” Other name changes ensued over the years. In January, 1968 the name of the publication was changed to Radio Communication. Today RSGB members refer to it as RadCom and such is the the name of the magazine in its current incarnation today.
The first ever National Field Day took place in June, 1933. Its purpose back then well reflected the ideals surrounding Field Day around the world today. Low power portable stations and antennas were to be set up in various parts of the British Isles. The Radio Society of Great Britain wanted to demonstrate that “if the necessity arose, the amateur radio movement in the UK could place into operation an emergency network of stations at short notice.” Each participating district operated two stations. One station took on 20 and 40 meters, while the second station operated on 80 and 160 meters. The event was won by West London, district 15.
Important VHF experimentation took place in May of 1933, experimentation which would confound scientists of the time. It goes without saying, scientists were absolutely convinced that transmission of ultra-short waves for greater distances was impossible. Thus tests were conducted on the 5 meter band between the North Tower at Crystal Palace and a de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft. Douglas Walters, G5CV set a record. Using his homebrew equipment while flying at an altitude of 3,000 feet, he was able to establish communications at a record distance of 130 miles.
Great Britain was the first in the IARU to issue amateur TV licenses and assign corresponding frequencies. Video was viewed from 30-32MHz and sound audio was fed on 28-30MHz. The first actual public demonstration of amateur TV didn’t take place until years later on April 21, 1950 at an open meeting of the Shefford & District Short Wave Society. Televised was a short talk from the British Amateur Television Club, the antics of a local comedian; and a junk sale was televised live to the audience of 250 persons.
Bad news strikes again. A notice appeared in the London Gazette on August 31, 1939 and broadcast on the BBC during the evening news: “all licences for the establishment of wireless telegraph sending and receiving for experimental purposes are hereby withdrawn.” As was the case during World War I, innumerable British hams offered their expertise and experience for the war effort. Yes, World War II had arrived. Jack Hamilton, G5JH and Kenneth Abbott, G3JY were the first known RSGB members to lose their lives due to the war when HMS Courageous struck a mine on September 15, 1939.
In 1939, Lord Sandhurst of MI5 approached the leadership of the RSGB to determine whether radio amateurs could benefit the war effort in intercepting enemy radio signals. As amateur CW operators were often adept at reading weak Morse signals, many hams were recruited as Voluntary Interceptors. At first they were to listen for enemy signals transmitting within the UK, while later their work was all encompassing, as they were tasked with listening for commercial and military transmissions. With hostilities underway, they actually encountered transmissions utilizing three letter callsigns sending messages in five letter groups of code. This was immediately perceived as nefarious activity, certainly not the work of hams at any level. With more than a little effort these signals were deciphered and found to be of German origin, actually originating with the German Secret Service. The messages were sent to Bletchley Park for decoding and eventually passed on to allied commanders and the Prime Minister himself, Winston Churchill. By the end of the war there were some 1700 amateur operators engaged in the work as Voluntary Interceptors. Only recently has their contribution to the outcome of the war been recognized.
With the war over, the British government once again made provisions for amateurs to be relicensed for everyday operation. With on air activity back to normal, the RSGB installed its first HQ station in September of 1948. GB1RS made regular transmissions of standard frequency signals each hour from 0600 to 2400GMT. The CW transmission was “CQ de GB1RS (repeated) QRG 3500.25kc/s. VA GB1RS (followed by a long dash).” The headquarters station transmitted markers on the 3.5, 7, 14, 21 and 28MHz bands as a service to the amateur community in order to furnish a means to let listening stations know that they were “safely” above the lower band edge.
It wasn’t until September, 1955 that GB2RS became authorized to transmit news bulletins and items of general interest, first initiated by Frank Hicks-Arnold, G6MB. The station was committed by regulation to a Sunday morning only schedule on 3600kHz. Broadcasts on 2 meters were later added. This news service continues to this very day, made possible by a nationwide team of volunteers each and every Sunday.
Towards the end of 1957, discussions took place between the Radio Society of Great Britain and the General Post Office. The outcome of these meetings resulted in a six month trial on 6 meters. We speak in terms of a “trial” because British hams at this time had no access to this band, frequency spectrum which fell in the middle of the commercial band for British television. Operation had the potential of causing radio frequency interference to television viewers. An experiment followed during which amateurs in select areas were allowed to operate on 52.5MHz with special permission at all hours. Other amateurs selected for the trial would be allowed to operate from 0100 to 0930GMT only. It should be noted that today, operation is allowed on 6 meters with certain restrictions from 50 to 52MHz in the British Isles.
Although we could spend time discussing changes to the licensing system in Great Britain in 1964, honorary RSGB member JY1, the late King Hussein of Jordan or the new Novice license introduced in 1991, let’s look toward the 70s and pay special tribute to Peter Martinez, G3PLX. This great innovator did much to shape what we might call our “digital playground” today. In the late 70s he brought us AMTOR. This truly helped pave the way for future digital modes capable of error correction and the transfer of e-mail. However, by the early 1990s he realized that no single system had been developed to improve live keyboard to keyboard contacts. Peter developed a robust communications system with a bandwidth of a mere 30Hz. This meant that the activities of a crowded band such as 20 meters could actually fit within the space of a single voice channel. PSK-31 has enjoyed unparalleled popularity since its inception and continues to be discovered by young and old amateurs alike. Peter Martinez was not only honored with awards from the RSGB and the ARRL, but also received the coveted YASME Excellence Award for his distinct contribution and revolutionary advancements in digital technology.
Those visiting Great Britain may want to join with those who have seen and experienced RSGB’s National Radio Centre (NRC). Work began in January of 2010 on the facility at Bletchley Park, a place made famous for the Enigma code breakers of World War II. The NRC is meant to showcase amateur radio for the exciting hobby it is, while drawing attention to its technological aspects and the communications diversity to be found in the world of amateur radio, having progressed from the days of spark gap to now sophisticated voice and digital, even space age communications. While the NRC is not a museum, great examples of amateur gear through the 20th century are on display. You’ll also find a library reference area, accessible by appointment to those wishing to delve into the extensive archives of the RSGB, accumulated over the last one hundred years.
The Radio Society of Great Britain is now celebrating its Centenary Year. And it’s been a good one for amateurs of the United Kingdom. British amateurs may now take advantage of the new 600 meter band on 472 – 479kHz. Eleven individual band segments are also now available in the UK on 5MHz. There was a special celebration on July 5 of this year at Bletchley Park. This included several lectures, exhibits, special events and visits to the National Radio Centre. An elegant dinner took place that evening to celebrate 100 years of amateur radio within the RSGB.
The first RSGB RadCom editorial of the new millennium said, “Welcome to the 21st century. With the Millennium celebrations behind us we can all look forward to the next one hundred years of technical development. I wonder if the founders of the Society ever gazed into the crystal ball and wondered where radio communications would be in the year 2000? From humble beginnings at the turn of the last century, radio communications has developed further and faster than they probably would have envisaged. What of the next one hundred years? Certainly amateur radio played a key role in moving communications technology on in the last century and I am sure that we have a vital role to play in the future of communications in this, the 21st century. Are we up for the challenge? I believe we are, certainly the Society is gearing up to play a continuing role in representing amateur radio.”
Thanks to Elaine, G4LFM for her help and kind assistance.