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History :: Early Radio Regulation 1913 - 26

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Radio History
- Radio Invention
- 1902-06 US Navy
- 1906-08 Interference
- 1908 Early Reg
- 1912 Titanic
- 1913-26 WWI
- FRC to FCC
- Unlicensed / WiFi

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- Common Carrier
- Mergers
- - Communications Act
- - Telecom Act
- - Hush a Phone
- - Computer Inquiries
- - Digital Tornado 1997

- - Steven Report 1998
- - Broadband
- - Universal Service
- - VoIP
- - Mergers
- - Network Neutrality

Derived From: Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired), History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, Bureau of Ships and Office of Naval History, Chatper 27 (1963) (Govt Work: public domain)

Attempts  to  Establish  a  United  States  Government  Radio  Monopoly


"England, long dominant in cable communications which, with her monopoly of sea transportation, had been utilized for the expansion of the Empire's world trade, was quick to see the necessity of having her nationals in control of radio communications. Germany, refusing to accept a British monopoly, arranged for and called the first International Radio Telegraph Conference in 1903 in an endeavor to obtain international agreement for the control of the new medium of communications. This country sent delegates to this Conference who did much to further such agreement. However, our Congress took no action to prevent foreign interests from obtaining a foothold in this country. By 1912 this shortsightedness, combined with the unscrupulous methods of radio stock promoters, resulted in the survival of only one important American radio operating company, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of America, a subsidiary of British Marconi. The objections of the Marconi interests to any legislation, national or international, which would have controlled their operations have been related in the preceding chapters.

"It is most probable that, except for World War I, the Marconi Co. would have continued to expand and would have become the dominating factor in world radio communications. Existing resentment against the British control of communications was intensified in this country by the wartime severing of the cables connecting the United States and Germany which forced the use of radio for the conduct of business, diplomacy, and for the reception of news from that country.

"During the war the American Marconi Co. attempted to promote the belief that a substantial percentage of its stock was American owned but when the U.S. Shipping Board demanded they provide an affidavit showing that more than one-half its stock was owned by U.S. citizens, they were unable to do so.

"The war temporarily eliminated the Marconi interests from the American commercial radio business but, with an eye to the future, they made all possible efforts to obtain patent rights on all available continuous wave transmitting equipment, having become convinced that the day of the spark had passed, regardless of improvements which might be made to make its gap sing more sweetly. In 1915 the parent Marconi Co. conducted negotiations with the General Electric Co. for the purchase and exclusive use of Alexanderson alternators for their long-distance circuits. These efforts were discontinued because of wartime pressure on British foreign exchange. Later they attempted to purchase the arc transmitter patents of the Federal Telegraph Co.


US Navy Department radio station Fort Myer, Arlington, VA. Source: US Navy (Public Domain). Second tallest structures in the world at the time. [Arlington Public Library]



On 21 November 1916, an Interdepartmental Radio Committee draft of proposed radio legislation was informally discussed at a meeting of interested commercial and Government operating interests arranged by the Department of Commerce. The provisions of this draft materially increased governmental control over that authorized by Public Law 264 of 1912. The most important changes, which are given below, were opposed by the Marconi Co., represented by their vice president and general manager, Mr. E. J. Nally, who opened his discussion with the complaint that his company had only a limited time to study the effects of the proposed legislation.

"Section 5 contained the provisos that Government stations could be opened to the general public business and that the Secretary of Commerce could fix the rates charged by commercial companies. Nally objected to both of these provisos on the grounds that, if enacted into law, the Government would be in competition with private interests and that, since their rates would not be subject to the ruling of the Secretary of Commerce, they could undercharge in an effort to eliminate private competition.

"Section 6 contained the proviso that the Government, through the Navy Department, could acquire, by purchase at a reasonable valuation, any coastal radio station then in operation in the United States which the owner desired to sell. Nally stated that this indicated the Government's desire to eliminate commercial interests and that the proposed bill did not stipulate who should determine the reasonableness of the valuation of the properties.

"The last paragraph of section 7 provided that no license should be granted a new station if, in the opinion of the Secretary of Commerce, it would seriously interfere with an existent Government or commercial station in the vicinity. The penultimate paragraph of section 8 sought to vest further licensing authority in the same official by permitting him to determine in advance of construction whether the installed apparatus would be licensed. The Marconi spokesman opined that this would stifle the growth of the radio art as the opinion of one person could prevent the use of a newly developed apparatus.

"The first paragraph of section 9 provided that the President, at his discretion, could close stations, remove their apparatus or authorize their use as Government stations upon just compensation to its owners. Public Law 264 of 1912 authorized such action ''in time of war or public peril or disaster." In opposing this, it was stated by the Marconi Co. that it had, at previous times, voluntarily offered its complete organization to the Government for use in war or national emergency and that it could not see the necessity for extending these powers to the President in time of peace.

"Section 10 permitted the officials of the Department of Commerce to inspect the records of all commercial companies. The Marconi Co. contended that this should be limited to records pertaining to the transmissions of messages and the installed equipments.

"Section 11 included a requirement for the employment of licensed persons in the operation or supervision of a station. This was objected to since it necessitated the obtaining of licenses by engineers who might not necessarily be radio operators.

"Public Law 264 required a logarithmic decrement not in excess of two-tenths per complete oscillation except when transmitting distress messages. Section 17 of the proposed legislation provided that the Secretary of Commerce could specify the decrement. The Marconi official believed this would give ground for controversies since it was not, at that time, possible to determine in advance what the actual decrement of a new station would be.

"The Marconi Co. contended that the requirements of section 20 which prohibited commercial use of frequencies between 75 and 1,500; section 21 which restricted the number of frequencies allowed for commercial ship-shore communications; and section 23, which further limited the number of shore stations which could be licensed and prevented changing equipment in existent ones, manifestly favored Government operation at the expense of the commercial companies. Nally considered that the drafters of the proposed bill were attempting to solve the interference problem by limiting the numbers of stations and restricting the use of frequencies instead of conducting research to remove the causes.

"He closed his denouncement by stating:

"In general the proposed bill is evidence of a desire to limit private enterprise, and tends to discourage and suppress individual efforts to promote or advance the radio signaling art. For the reasons stated as well as for other technical considerations, the Marconi Company desires to record its protest against the provisions of the bill under consideration.

"Prof. Arthur E. Kennelly, of Harvard, president of the Institute of Radio Engineers, submitted a communication which was read by Mr. David Sarnoff, the institute's representative. He said that he was mainly interested "in the active development of the science and art of radio communication in America as a scientist, a teacher, an operator, a telegraphist and a United States citizen." Continuing his remarks he stated, in substance, that since it was the Government's duty to protect American enterprise and capital the Congress should oppose any legislation regulating the industry since such regulation in peacetime could degenerate into the confiscation of private property or might force existing companies from the business. He further contended that regulation could retard incentive and development as it had done to the Government-owned systems of several European countries.

"Similar protests were voiced by Prof. Alfred N. Goldsmith of the College of the City of New York and Sarnoff, himself.

"The attitude of the commercial interests toward what they considered an attempt to eliminate them from the business was reported in the Wireless Age of January 1917:

"The general trend of the discussion disclosed the feeling that in this bill was evident a distinct spirit of hostility towards existing wireless organizations. Criticism was leveled at the proposal to confer power upon government departments to compete with commercial stations operated by American citizens, and at the same time dictate the terms of regulation. It was asserted that the quickest way to stifle inventive effort would be to permit government competition or confiscation to destroy the market for private enterprise; furthermore that this was an unpatriotic action, since it is perfectly obvious that encouragement and aid should be given to promote invention in the art, so that the United States should have the best obtainable system in time of need.

"Proposals to restrict the operation of commercial stations in time of peace and to impose handicaps which would prohibit operation of these stations were unanimously opposed by all representatives at the meeting.


Despite the strenuous objections of the Marconi interests and the leading radio engineers of the country, the proposed legislation, virtually unchanged, was transmitted to the House of Representatives. It was introduced by Congressman Joshua W. Alexander of Missouri, chairman of the Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries, and became House Resolution 19350, commonly known as the Alexander bill.

"Secretary of the Navy Daniels, in a letter dated 26 December 1916, announced the Government's position, stating that the Alexander bill was aimed at the elimination of commercial interests from the ship-shore radio communication business. He further recommended that Congress provide for the purchase of all existing commercial stations in the United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Swan Island within 2 years and that no additional stations be licensed for commercial operation. He based his actions upon the necessity of eliminating interferences, duplications of efforts, and unsatisfactory radio discipline, and closed his letter by stating that radio stations must be in Government hands before the first hint of possible hostilities.

"Open hearings on the bill commenced before the Alexander Committee on 11 January 1917 with the presentations of its proponents. These were followed one week later by those of the opposition, led by the Marconi Co., assisted by numerous radio engineers and by all the amateur associations except the American Radio Relay League. The latter, headed by Mr. Hiram Percy Maxim, vigorously supported the measure much to the surprise of the other amateur organizations. Spirited debate occurred over the provisions of the bill that would have limited the percentage of the stock of any operating commercial company which might be alien-owned and the prohibition of against alien officers of such companies. At the Department of Commerce hearings, Nally had ignored this proviso because he did not care to divulge the percentage of foreign-owned American Marconi stock. The Marconi interests again marshalled their full strength in denouncing the provision which would permit Government radio stations to handle commercial traffic.

Edwin Howard Armstrong

In 1912, as a junior at Columbia University Armstrong continued his interest in radio and the Audion tube by inventing a regenerative circuit that fed part of the current back to the grid in the tube. This strengthened the incoming signal. In fact, Armstong received distant stations so loudly that he could hear them without headphones - something unheard of at that time.

Further experiments led him to discover that by increasing the feedback into the tube even more he could produce rapid enough oscillations for the tube to act as a transmitter as well as a receiver. From this work Armstrong's regenerative circuit became the basis for continuous wave transmitters that are still at the heart of radio operations today.

WWI's commanders wanted quicker, more reliable communication with the soldier in the field (compare to use of telegraph during the Civil War). And radio had advanced enough to believe this a feasible objective if the Army Signal Corp, working with General Electric/DeForest Radio and Telephone and Western Electric, could devise a way to go from the pre-War situation in which about 400 vacuum tubes were manufactured per week to making about 20,000 reliable, powerful tubes a week.

General George Squier, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, reported in 1919 that:

" advancement accomplished in less than two years represents at least a decade under the normal conditions of peace, and our profession will, it is hoped, profit by this particular salvage of war, which offers perhaps the most striking example extant of a minimum "time-lag" between the advanced "firing line" of so-called pure physics and applied engineering."

Armstrong's work for the Army signal corp fell into another area. His task was to develop a way to detect enemy shortwave communications. In the process of meeting this objective, in 1918 he developed an eight-tube receiver that could amplify radio signals to a degree never known before. He named this receiver the superheterodyne circuit and it remains the basic circuit used in nearly 100% of radio and television receivers today.

In 1935 Armstrong revealed his final great work, motivated by his own dislike of the static he constantly heard on the radio. His original paper on frequency modulation was entitled "A Method of Reducing Disturbances in Radio Signaling by a System of Frequency Modulation." Likely he did not imagine that this advance would be resisted. But, afraid that FM would make AM radio obsolete and slow down new developments in television, Armstrong's major financial backer withdrew its financial support. [IEEE]

So Armstrong established his own distribution channel by building a demonstration inter-city FM relay for New England 's Yankee Network. A shift in the location of the FM radio frequency, to accommodate the spectrum needs of the new television industry, made all Armstrong's FM equipment obsolete. It was not until the 1960's, after Armstrong's death, that the quality advantage of FM combined with stereo was enjoyed by most Americans.

[Rescue at Sea] [Radio Pioneers & Core Technologies, FCC History]

1917: World War I

Radio Arlington announces declaration of war to US Fleet. [Arlington Public Library]

"Prior to the completion of the hearings, diplomatic relations with Germany were severed, Government officials became deeply engrossed in other business, and the bill was not reported out of committee.

On April 7th, having entered WWI, pursuant to the powers given to it by the Radio Act of 1912 (a law motivated in part by the Titanic disaster), the federal government, led by the Navy, took control of and shut down all private radio operations in the United States. [] See also [Rescue at Sea ("USG shut down operation of amateur radio operators")][Mackay History (US Navy commandeers radio stations in the United States owned by Germans.)] (USG also assumed control of telephony and AT&T) This was not as drastic a measure as it might seem today since the commercial broadcasting we now know did not begin until 1920. But it was major blow to the thousands of amateur or "ham" radio operators who had discovered and begun to popularize the new medium of radio. Many of these men, like Armstrong, joined the Army, Navy, or Merchant Marine in order to put their now precious skills to work on behalf of the United States .

"The actions of the Marconi officials further convinced Government officials that England was intent upon establishing her dominance in this field when the war should end. They were equally convinced that it was necessary to eliminate British influence from American commercial radio operations and further, if possible, to establish Government monopoly and American dominance in the field. With this in mind, and using wartime necessity as a reason, they proceeded to purchase the Federal Telegraph Co. stations and to convince the Shipping Board of the necessity of purchasing the installations on all seagoing vessels of American registry. This transaction was consummated by the Navy's additional purchase of the American Marconi coastal shore stations. Even with Government ownership of practically all the coastal radio stations, congressional approval of the Alexander bill was necessary to prevent the Marconi Co. from building new stations and leasing shipboard equipment once the Government was divested of its wartime authority. However, Daniels believed in the old adage, "possession is nine-tenths of the law."


"Following the Armistice the Secretary was successful in reviving hearings on the Alexander bill. These commenced before the House Merchant Marine Committee on 12 December 1918. Daniels stated the Navy's position and followed with a description of the Navy system built up during the war.

"His closing statement commended the Navy on its foresightedness in purchasing the Federal and Marconi Co.'s stations, and pleaded for enactment of legislation which would permit the Navy to perpetuate its control. Upon the close of his argument there was heated discussion over these purchases. Congressman Edmonds of Pennsylvania rebuked him severely stating that:

"After this committee refused to bring out a bill to purchase wireless apparatus, you utilized the government's money to purchase this wireless apparatus and took over the commercial systems without the consent of Congress. He continued, stating that this action had embarked the Nation on a project that should have had congressional approval and accused him of forcing a monopoly of radio communications upon the Government.

"Todd, Director of Naval Communications, introduced an amendment to the bill which was calculated to appease the amateurs, and to a large extent did so.

"The Marconi Co., aided by the National Wireless Association which had organized powerful support, continued to lead the opposition without change in their line of attack. They were abetted by the midterm congressional elections of 1918 which resulted in a reversal of control of both the Senate and the House. With the Republicans, advocates of private industry, in control, thoughts of Government ownership were but little short of utopian. So vigorous was the opposition that on 16 January 1919 the committee unanimously tabled the bill. It was never reconsidered. Following this action Navy officials, excepting Daniels, shifted their support to further the formation of a strong, American-controlled commercial company.

"The Secretary, unwilling to admit defeat, addressed two letters to the President of the U.S. Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The first one, dated 19 July 1919, transmitted the text of a proposed bill which would authorize the use of radio stations under the control of the Navy Department for commercial purposes. The second letter, dated 24 July 1919, transmitted the recommendation that Congress immediately enact legislation regarding radio communications along the following lines:

"Either by a committee of Congress or by special designated commission, authorize a comprehensive study of the problems in connection with radio within the United States.

"Authorize the President to set aside from time to time, by proclamation, certain bands of wave lengths for ship-to-shore work, for shore and aircraft, and for transoceanic service, in accordance with international conventions and demonstrated needs.

"Constitute ship-to-shore radio service a government monopoly under the Navy.

"Constitute transoceanic and International radio service a government monopoly under the Navy.

"Authorize the Navy Department to utilize immediately all Navy radio stations for commercial and press business.

"Authorize the Navy and other departments to assist American enterprise in the sale of radio apparatus and the development of American owned radio stations abroad, and especially to authorize the Secretary of the Navy to authorize the use by American companies, under proper conditions, of government-owned patents and improvements, to be paid for either in exchange of patent rights or other suitable ways.

"No action was taken on the second letter. Unswerving to the end of his tenure in office, Daniels' final annual report, which was for fiscal year 1920, stated that the Government should have exclusive control of radio or else make it a monopoly in private hands.

"The November 1919 issue of the Wireless Age contains an excellent editorial on the radio situation. In substance, this stated that while Secretary Daniels had not abandoned hope of persuading Congress to pass the Alexander bill it was not likely that Congress would yield to any proposal leaning toward Government ownership of this method of communication. It continued, stating that a compromise had been suggested looking to the establishment of an American-controlled company, operating under a Government-authorized monopoly, but that there would be no commitment on the part of the Government until Daniels could be convinced that the legislation desired by the Navy Department could not be obtained. It ended the discussion stating that the solution to the problem appeared to be through private interests under Government control.


General Electric incorporates the Radio Corpopration of America. [IEEE]

"The President, on 11 July 1919, approved the return of the radio stations to their owners on 1 March 1920. Since the Government owned most of the coastal stations, legislation was required to permit the use of these stations for commercial purposes at locations where proper facilities were not provided or until such a time as they could be provided by private interests. Pursuant to the request of the Secretary, dated 19 July 1919, Congress, by Public Resolution, approved 5 June 1920, authorized the use of naval radio stations for a period of 2 years for the transmission and reception of private commercial messages at locations which lacked adequate commercial facilities. This was extended until 30 June 1925 by another Public Resolution approved 14 April 1922. Still further extension until 30 June 1927 was granted by Public Resolution approved 28 February 1925. Prior to the expiration of the last extension, the authority was made permanent by the enactment of Public Law 632, an act for the regulation of radio communications and for other purposes, approved 23 February 1927."


Nov. 2, First Commercial Radio Station KDKA Pittsburgh broadcasting news of Warren G Hardings presidential election victory. See also [Rescue at Sea] [Ismail p 2]

"For much of the rest of the decade, however, broadcasting was not a profitable operation and most broadcasters were not professional broadcasters, as we know them today.4 Although large corporations like RCA, GE, AT&T, and Westinghouse dominated the manufacturing of radio sets and other aspects of the radio industry, by far the vast majority of broadcasters in the early 1920s were non-commercial entities: colleges and universities, labor unions, and civic organizations. Only 4.3% of all stations in 1926 were "commercial broadcasters."5

"A major concern for industry leaders and policymakers was making broadcasters economically self-sufficient. In 1924, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, solicited major foundations to subsidize educational programming and proposed a 2% tax on sales of radio sets to "pay for daily programs of the best skill and talent."6 Hoover also engaged in strenuous efforts to regulate the emerging radio industry but after a federal district court ruled that he lacked authority under the Radio Act of 1912 to issue broadcast licenses, took the decisive step of discontinuing all regulation.7 Chaos ensued when more than 200 new broadcasters began to operate in the next six months." [Ismail p 2]

1921: Shortwave Radio developed. [IEEE]


1925: Zenith Radio Corp moves from 930 kHz to 910 kHz in order to avoid other broadcasts in the 930 kHz band, and without authority from the Dept of Commerce. Dept of Commerce sued and lost, with a court ruling that the Radio Act gave Commerce no ability to refuse requests for broadcast frequencies. Commerce did not challenge the lower courts decision. The result was multiple stations moving frequencies in order to get better transmission results, resulting in more interference between the broadcast stations. The chaos and interference of the broadcast airwaves would lead to the Radio Act of 1927.


"When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket." - Nikola Tesla (1926)

Hazlett p. 135: "Hundrends of commercial stations began emitting into 'the ether,' brining the zero-cost band to an end. The prevailing 'ownership' rule became increasingly bizarre, a fact which was only to become evident in a federal court case in 1926 and a subsequent opinion of the US attorney general shortly thereafter. These revealed that the secretary of commerce was legally unable to enforce frequency exclusivity; many radio stations roamed the spectrum at will, crossing into desired areas and frequencies without constraint. The market degenerated into 'chaos,' as the Supreme Court would observe in NBC and Red Lion - but a chaos mandated precisely by the fact that there was little private in this 'private sector.'"

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