Journeys to the Past

by Wayne Thalls, KB6KN

My wife thinks it is a phobia? Do you  also find yourself looking for antennas on houses and cars? Perhaps I am doubly cursed. When I travel, I find myself on the look-out for historical connections to electronic communications.

I first became interested in amateur radio during my junior high school days. Following World War 2 military service I pursued a career in electronics and communications. Combine this background with a long-time interest in historical research, and perhaps it has become obsessive.


Not long ago my wife and I spent a week in the Midwest. We were there for a 50-year reunion of my WW2 Army Air Corps outfit. I had not seen any of those fellows since our 1944 graduation from an intensive year-long program of meteorological studies at the University of Iowa. The bonds of a half century ago were quickly renewed--but that's another story.

The nostalgic mood was set. As we toured, before and after the reunion, we encountered many gems of radio-related history.

Our first night was spent at a hotel near the Cedar Rapids airport. Close by was the old Collins Radio plant. That company was founded by Arthur Collins, an avid ham radio enthusiast (9CXX) from his high-school days until his death a few years ago. The firm, now part of Rockwell International, was for decades THE source of top-notch ham radio gear. Collins also produced commercial and military equipment. In the Air Corps I used the Collins ART-13 airborne high frequency cw and voice transmitter. That unit became became a ham favorite on the post-war surplus market.

The following morning we drove the short distance to Iowa City. After checking in at our hotel, we made a leisurely walking tour of the university campus. Memories of those long-ago days were recalled, as we visited buildings where I had attended classes. Lots of laboratory time had been spent in the university Physics Building. It was here that physicist James Van Allen conducted post-war studies of the radiation belts surrounding the earth. The resulting knowledge of the Van Allen Belt has been an essential element in the development of present-day communication satellites, and other space technology. Growth of the Iowa Physics Department has been accommodated by a new structure, named for Dr. Van Allen.

There were other nuggets. In 1922, the State University of Iowa station WSUI became the first educational radio station west of the Mississippi. The station still provides programming to the campus and the community. In 1932 the university took to the air with W9XK , the first regularly operating educational TV station in the world. Such ham-like calls were once assigned to experimental stations.


Following the reunion, we spent several days touring surrounding areas. We visited nearby West Branch--the childhood home of Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States. The Hoover Presidential Library and Museum are located there. What possible connection to ham radio could this have, you ask?

Hoover had a long-time interest in radio. It may have been fueled in part by his son, Herbert II, also known as Pete. He was licensed as 6SR around 1919, while he was a Stanford University student. One museum exhibit includes a photo of Pete Hoover at the controls of his 1920 era ham station. Herbert Hoover III W6ZH, grandson of the former President, is still on the air from southern California. During the 1960s, he was president of the American Radio Relay League.

Herbert Sr. served as Secretary of Commerce from 1921 until 1927. That agency had jurisdiction over U.S. non-military radio operations until 1934, when the FCC was established. During his tenure Secretary Hoover brought order to the chaotic and virtually unregulated field of radio communication. Frequency allocation procedures were established, and stringent licensing requirements were introduced for all classes of stations. Displayed in the museum as an example is a 1922 Amateur First Class license issued to a midwestern ham.

Hoover was nominated for the Presidency in 1927. He became the first candidate to make extensive use of radio broadcasting in his bid for office. He was also the first U.S. President to appear in a TV broadcast. He became the first chief executive to have a telephone in the oval office. The instrument now rests on the desk in a museum re-creation of his White House office.


We spent several enjoyable days touring along the Mississippi River--still a major marine artery. One leisurely river-side drive led us to the lovely old city of Galena, Illinois. Galena was an early boom town in the Northwest Territory. In the 1840s and '50s, it was the largest city in Illinois. Larger by far--and wealthier--than Chicago. Numerous pre-civil war era buildings line the downtown streets. A remarkable 85 percent of the town structures are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

What was the source of all this wealth? In the mid 17th century, French traders discovered extensive deposits of lead in the area. The principal ore of lead is lead sulfide--also called galena. This became the name of the mining town. Mining continued until the 1950s, when growing environmental concerns sharply curtailed the world-wide demand for lead.

Ulysses S. Grant was a resident of Galena, when he was re-called to active duty with the Union army during the Civil War. During this conflict some revolutionary innovations were introduced to warfare. This was the first time that aircraft were used in combat. Hot air balloons were utilized for artillery spotting and other surveillance activities--the first spies in the sky. Electronic digital communication was also adopted by the army. Samuel Morse's telegraph proved a boon to newspaper correspondents at the battle sites as well. The citizens back home often received battle details within hours.

Is there a connection here with electronic communications? Galena--the mineral--was perhaps the most popular material to be used as a detector in early crystal-set radios. It was the fore-runner of modern-day semiconductors--the devices which bring the promise of a futuristic electronic information highway. Galena--the city--still evokes memories of the 1870s, when rivers were the super highways.

Some sites for more information:


Hoover Library and Museum

WA3KEY Virtual Collins Radio Museum

The XTAL Set Society


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