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Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) − Guardian of the Air Waves


The early days of amateur radio were challenging, with commercial and military interests trying to close down amateur radio.



The early days of amateur radio were challenging, with commercial and military interests trying to close down amateur radio. One key supporter was Herbert Charles Hoover. Michael Marinaro WN1M relates the story.


On August 31st 1921 American Radio League President Hiram Percy Maxim convened the first of what were to be many national conventions of the organisation he had co-founded. The union was barely seven years old and growing rapidly. Maxim proudly termed the Amateur members “pioneers” and exhorted them to be steadfast in their faith and loyalty to one other. Marking the event as historically significant he expressed his awe of the tremendous speed with which the events in wireless had advanced.


Early Days

Just recently released from the stringent regulatory grasp of the US Navy, the amateurs and all US wireless activities were newly governed by the Department of Commerce headed by Secretary Herbert Clark Hoover. Hoover sent a radio message to the conventioneers, which was read to the assemblage by his Chief Radio Inspector, W D Terrell: “The Department of Commerce, by authority of the Congress, is the legal ‘Patron Saint’ of Amateur Radio Operators. Outside of the coldly legal regulations the Department is anxious to be helpful in encouraging this important movement of Amateur Radio.”

Although they both served in Washington simultaneously and were sometimes confused, our Herbert Clark Hoover is no relation to J Edgar Hoover of FBI repute. Herbert Clark Hoover served during the terms of Presidents Harding and Coolidge (1921 to 1923 and 1923 to 1929 respectively). His tenure as Secretary of Commerce was a tumultuous one. The world of wireless had grown beyond all bounds. Commercial, marine, military and particularly broadcast radio interests had strengthened and demanded not only spectrum but a myriad of operating privileges. The prevailing antiquated radio regulations in effect since 1912 made the administration and the maintenance of order among these powerful elements exceedingly difficult because they were concerned primarily with licensing. The Act did not even mention broadcasting and limited private radio communications to the longer wavelengths.


Birth of the ITU

The US Congress was also unwilling to enter this conflict and modernise the radio rules, which were based on The Regulations of the International Telegraphic Convention (ITC) enacted in 1912. The ITC had been founded in 1865 as a multi-country organisation designed to standardise inter-nation telegraph operations and procedures. This group consisted of 20 European nations contending with telegraph operations across adjoining borders and in diverse languages. The extent of its communications regulatory scope was later broadened to telephone and even later to wireless and radio. The jurisdiction of radio interested the US as it began to monitor the development of regulations in that realm and adhered to their basic enactments. In 1932 the ITC became the International Radio Telecommunications Union (ITU). In 1946 the ITU became a specialised agency of the United Nations and today is comprised of 193 member nations.


Hoover Conferences

Unilaterally, Hoover set out to conduct meetings with the interested groups. Four Hoover Conferences shaped informal gentlemen’s agreements among the services. As a result, Hoover developed and adopted an entirely new concept that defined specific bands of frequencies for each service within which specific stations were assigned frequencies.

Importantly, and upheld to this day, the radio amateurs were exempted and were assigned specific bands within which any licensed amateur station could operate. The spectrum assigned to the amateurs was roughly the familiar 160, 80, 40, 20 and 15m bands. True to his word, Herbert Carter Hoover was a friend and supporter of amateur radio with long lasting influence beyond its infancy.


Unruly Broadcasters

The broadcasters, on the other hand, were another matter. They continued to be unruly.

Hoover expanded on the band/frequency allocation concept by persuading them to share assigned frequencies, limit power and divide the broadcast day into daytime and night operations. However, these remedies did little to relieve the interference and other problems. Hoover suspended issuing licences as all involved began to agree that self-regulation was not working.

Hoover’s frequency policy, and it was only a policy, was contested in the court in 1926 and was found invalid because the 1912 law was still in effect. To avoid total air wave chaos the various entities, at Hoover’s bequest and under his influence, voluntarily continued to abide by his frequency policy and the gentlemen’s agreements previously evolved.

The Secretary was not entirely alone in his efforts. His subordinate William Dandrige Terrell (1871-1965) served as Chief of the Radio Division in the Commerce Department from 1915 onwards. Terrill embraced Hoover’s concepts and was instrumental in implementing them with succeeding Agencies, which he served as Chief of Field Operations until 1943, and also as a member of US delegations to international conferences.


Further Progress

It was three successive proceedings that further solidified the position of the amateurs and brought order to the air waves domestically and internationally.

Firstly, encouraged by the League’s leadership, the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) had taken form in Paris in 1925.The IARU was sufficiently organised to participate momentously in the imminent ITU conference of 1927. The IARU became a significant factor in advocating for amateur radio at the conference and succeeding international radio law forums organised by the ITU. (See Marinaro, Michael W, “The IARU” QST magazine, ARRL. September 2016 p.53).

Secondly, with the intention of revising the Regulations set forth by the London Conference of 1912, the ITC had previously announced and convened an International Radio Telegraph Conference (IRTC) in 1927. The principal topics were wireless conduct and, significantly, frequency allocation, the same issues that were confronting the US Department of Commerce. The initial Conference was held in Washington, DC, and 73 delegations attended. Secretary Hoover acted as President of this gathering, which was followed by others in Ottawa and Prague in 1929 and concluded with a full conference in the Hague, also in 1929.

The atmosphere in these assemblies was not favourable for amateur radio. Amateurs were considered pests and intruders. Opinions varied from complete disbarment to severe curtailment. However, a strong US Delegation and the IARU won lasting privileges for the amateurs and US concepts.

Concurrently, in 1926 the US Congress, during the term of the next President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). The purpose of the commission was to… “regulate radio use as the public interest, convenience or necessity requires”. The Commissioners prepared for and organised the formal US Delegation participation in the vital IRTC and other Conventions.

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Lastly, following the resolutions and stipulations of the ITU, the US Congress enacted the Radio Act of 1927. Regulation of the broadcasters was a principal concern. The Commission was mainly authorised to grant and deny licences and to assign frequencies and power levels for each licensee following Hoover’s concepts. The Commission firmly positioned the broadcasters in the initial 540 to 1500kHz band and prohibited some operating practices.


1927 Act

Rather than nebulous rules imposed by an agency, the 1927 Act solidified the status of amateurs and amateur radio by act of Congress (and indirectly the ITU). And, it bestowed several new privileges:

•       Amateur radio was precisely defined.

•       Existing band/frequency allocations were confirmed.

•       A ten-metre band was added.

•       Three bands were specified where Radio Telephone was permitted.

•       Prohibitions were stipulated: Spark Transmission; Communication with non-amateur stations (Government, Commercial, etc.); Conduct of commercial activity; Broadcast of news, music, lectures etc. or any other form of entertainment.

The accomplishment of this formal US affirmation is attributable to the unwavering, persistent lobbying efforts of President Hiram Percy Maxim, General Manager Kenneth B Warner and the other leadership staff of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). And, at the ITRC, the efforts of the IARU. The amateurs had earned their status by their superior performance and resolution.


Creation of the FCC

In 1934 Congress acted again, creating the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to supersede the FRC with a broader charter and greater powers. The authorisation was: “to regulate interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and radio communications service.” As an independent, self-sufficient agency overseen by Congress, the FCC regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in the US and functions as the primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.


Amateur Radio at World Radio Conferences

This law ushered in a period of favourable regulatory relations. For 84 years US amateurs, led by the ARRL, have been respected as equals to other services and had many proposals of mutual benefit accepted and implemented. The League is valued as a self-policing organisation and initiator of policy proposals not only favourable to amateurs but in the best interests of the US. This constructive cooperation has also led to a unified presence in the ITU World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC) regulatory forums. The WRC is a treaty-level forum held by the ITU every three to four years at which countries decide on the allocation of frequency spectrum in order to allow the deployment or growth of all types of radiocommunication services.

The function of the Conference is to review and, when necessary, revise the international Radio Regulation treaty governing the use of the radio spectrum and both geostationary and non-geostationary satellite orbits.

Revisions are made on the basis of an agenda determined by the Council of the ITU, taking into account recommendations made by previous WRCs. The general scope of the agenda is established four to six years in advance, with the final agenda set by an ITU Council two years before each conference, following general agreement with a majority of the 193 ITU member states. The last WRC was in 2015, the next in 2019. Although there is no legal stipulation to do so, the results of a WRC are subsequently ratified and enacted at the national levels by each of the ITU members (as was done by the US after the 1926 IRTC and each subsequent Conference).

Preparation for a WRC requires a great deal of effort and coordination. The inputs of many diverse sources are considered and a consensus national position formulated on the principal agenda items. Corporate and academic bodies often participate in the position planning conferences. In the US, the process is orchestrated by a Department of Commerce agency, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) who, since 1978, manage the nation’s use of spectrum. NTIA carries out this responsibility with assistance and advice from its Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC). The IRAC comprises a member from each of the armed services, the major government agencies and departments and interested invitees. In turn, its Radio Conference Subcommittee (RCS) prepares the preliminary proposal containing the US suggestions, views, and opinions in respect to the agenda items. NTIA conveys the proposal to the major parties including the FCC. Differences are reconciled and the final approved document is sent to the Department of State for representation to the ITU.


Present Day

In over a century wireless has grown from simplicity to sophistication. Simultaneously, oversight has grown from virtually none to stringency. Hoover’s methods and tenets form the basic construct of the regulatory bodies that have followed. Today, the electromagnetic spectrum utilisation issues are complex and complicated contending with satellites, cellphones and other modern advances. These issues present a dramatic leap from the need to separate the broad raspy spark gap signals of yesteryear and the heterodyning AM broadcasters that shortly followed. Thanks to the foresight of H Hoover and others and the tireless efforts of amateur radio organisations, amateur radio continues to enjoy significant frequency privileges and a place at the international negotiating table. However, none of this can be taken for granted and constant vigilance is required to ensure that we do not lose what has been gained over the past century or so.

Herbert Clark Hoover won the very next presidential election, that of 1929, becoming 31st President of the US. He was again confronted with challenges as the great depression began shortly after his inauguration. The Radio Laws were of low priority during his difficult tenure. Complete collapse of the AM air waves was avoided by Hoover’s continued personal influence and the efforts of incumbent Commerce Secretary R P Lamont and W D Terrell.

During Hoover’s Presidency the number of licensed amateurs in the US more than doubled from 16,289 in 1929 to 41,555 in 1933, attributable to the favourable regulatory environment.

He was defeated in the 1933 election. Hoover went on to serve the remainder of his life in an advisory capacity to a number of succeeding Presidents, mostly concerned with humanitarian projects, and was a co-founder of UNICEF.

Two Hoover family members influenced amateur radio by direct participation:

Son, Herbert Charles ‘Herb’ Jr. (II) (1903-1969) was interested in radio from an early age and licensed as W6ZH (ex 6AE, 6XH, 3ZH, W4SR and K6EV). Herb was President of the ARRL and the IARU from 1962 to 1966. He served as Undersecretary of State during the administration of Dwight D Eisenhower. As a manager he headed several firms in the energy sector and as an educator and humanitarian he voluntary served on the boards of many public welfare institutions.

Grandson, Herbert William, ‘Pete’, (III) (1927-2010), was licensed as W6APW and adopted his father’s callsign W6ZH. Pete was an ARRL member for 50 years; a member of the ARRL Long Term Planning Committee from 1978 to 1981; Director of the ARRL Foundation; and active in amateur satellite endeavours. He also served as a Director of the Red Cross.


This article was featured in the December 2018 issue of Practical Wireless