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The Day Radio Died


Imagine if a President of the United States, motivated by national security concerns, closed and seized all of the nation's radio stations

Imagine if a President of the United States, motivated by national security concerns, closed and seized all of the nation's radio stations.

Regardless of the rationale, the reaction would be fast and furious from both sides of the political divide. But buried inside the pages of America's newspapers 100 years ago was just such an announcement by President Woodrow Wilson.

According to Wilson's April 6, 1917, executive order, "to insure the proper conduct of the war…such radio stations within the jurisdiction of the United States as are required for naval communication shall be taken over by the government…" Wilson then assigned Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to oversee the seizure and closure of all radio "plants" around the country.

Burying this particular lede was understandable. America's front pages that day were emblazoned with the far blacker banner headline news that Congress had voted to declare war on Germany, pushing the U.S. into World War I.

Closing all radio stations in 1917 wasn't really a paranoiac strike to close down dissent against the war, of which there was plenty. At the time, there were only 56 "commercial" radio stations licensed by the Radio Act of 1912 and only around 125,000 receivers scattered around the country, largely ad hoc operations broadcasting mostly music to a hobbyist audience.

At the time, Wilson's radio seizure order seemed perfectly reasonable. In June 1915, a German-owned station in Sayville, Long Island, was caught sending coded messages to German submarines off the U.S. coast. Fears were palatable that German saboteurs and spies would use the new and largely unregulated technology to conduct their nefarious domestic terror operations. These fears materialized less than a year later when, on July 16, 1916, German agents spectacularly blew up a U.S. munitions storage facility on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, an explosion extensively damaging the Statue of Liberty on neighboring Liberty Island.

Rather than stifling contrarian views, seizing the country's largely amateur radio market instead threatened to choke off innovation for what was still a young, developing technology. There may have only been a handful of "commercial" stations, but there were tens of thousands of other unlicensed amateurs operating around the country. It was these unregulated broadcasters that Wilson's order was primarily aimed at – even though it was an amateur hobbyist, Charles Apgar of Westfield, NJ, who had picked up and ingeniously recorded the coded German messages from Sayville.

It would be two and a half years before amateur radio was allowed to resume. And when it did, it was as if a shaken bottle of soda burst open. When amateur radio was allowed to restart on October 1, 1919, all the pent up entrepreneurial energy of stifled radio enthusiasts burst. Within three years, radio quickly shifted from an exotic hobbyist curiosity to a mainstream consumer sensation, morphing into what became the consumer electronics industry.

This Week in Consumer Technology History:

Stewart Wolpin

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