The Radio Amateur’s Hand Book by Archie Frederick Collins


By Martin Ewing, AA6e
March 16, 2010

From spark to phone -- an interesting look at the technologies of ham radio's early years.

In his 1923 review, S. Kruse, 1OA, has some harsh words for this book (see a copy of the original review in the Photo Gallery below). It “is written down to the small boy, the absolute beginner...” It has “well-conceived diagrams and figures,” but “weak draughtsmanship.” “In these pages are preserved the well-nigh forgotten ...spark sending sets that have wholly disappeared.” Kruse thought Collins was woefully behind the times.

In 2009, the Collins Hand Book seems different. Modern readers need to know this is not the ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications and it was not written by Art Collins of Collins Radio. It is actually a collection of early Amateur Radio information and projects, complete with how-to-build-it information. While the content may not have been forward-looking for 1922, having several stages of technical history compressed into one volume is enlightening and entertaining for today’s readers. Collins’ purpose is not history. He presents the material as a series of projects without much “philosophizing.” Side-by-side, we see primitive and advanced spark rigs, crystal detectors, regenerative receivers, heterodyne detectors and even some radiotelephone transmitters. The book ends with a long list of “Don’ts” that is a classic in itself. (“Don’t use iron wire for your aerial.”)

The technical landscape has changed so many ways since the ‘20s. One feature we will not encounter again is a 110 V dc power main. DC mains were great if you wanted an easy plate voltage supply, but your tubes needed 1000 V if you wanted “high power” (50 W or more). With dc mains that meant a motor-generator set for voltage step-up. A 50 W tube would cost you $30 (about $340 in today’s terms) but the motor-generator set would cost $100 ($1100). Hams were still using dynamotor supplies into the 1960s for mobile work. [A dynamotor is a type of motor-generator combined into a single unit. It has a double armature with one being used as the motor winding to turn the rotor and the other being used as the generator winding to produce the output voltage. — Ed.]

In the amateur technology of 1922, continuous wave (CW) was supplanting spark, critical developments were soon to improve receiver selectivity and transmitter stability, and phone operation was beginning. (QST commentary would be skeptical of voice for some time. Serious Amateur Radio was all about message handling and that meant telegraphy.) By 1924, QST would have run its first articles on the superheterodyne receiver and crystal controlled oscillators.

The Hand Book is now in the public domain and is widely available. Unfortunately, some online copies are missing the diagrams and illustrations that are a key part of the book. The edition from Forgotten Books reviewed here was produced by scanning the original to make clear and accurate text but illustrations are only fair. The final product is available either for free online browsing or for sale as a well-produced print version, but it is not provided for downloading. [Note: Forgotten Books does have two PDF versions of the Collins Hand Book available for download. A low quality version is available to nonmembers and a high quality version is available to members. — Ed.]

Archie Frederick Collins (1869-1952) was a prolific inventor and author of many technical and popular works on radio, science and technology. We are indebted to him for this remarkable view of Amateur Radio technology in the early 1900s. The Radio Amateur’s Hand Book, was reprinted in 2008 and is available free online from Forgotten Books, and in paperback at, 236 p, $9.01.

Martin Ewing, AA6E, an ARRL Diamond Club member, built crystal sets in elementary school and passed his Novice class exam in 1957. He began operating as K5MXF in New Mexico. Early radio and science activities led to degrees in physics from Swarthmore College and MIT. As a radio astronomer at California Institute of Technology, Martin developed digital systems for very long baseline interferometry and millimeter wave research. In 1989, he moved to Yale University, where he directed information technology in engineering. Retired since 2002, Martin lives in Branford, Connecticut with his wife Eva and serves as a volunteer at ARRL HQ. He can be found on the HF bands operating CW, digital modes and SSB. He can be reached at 28 Wood Rd, Branford, CT 06405.