The Old Man: Rotten Reasons
In the early years of the ARRL, co-founder and first President Hiram Percy Maxim occasionally penned editorials in QST magazine using the pseudonym "The Old Man." These "rants" became legendary. As part of the ARRL Centennial celebration, we'll be re-publishing a number of The Old Man's observations throughout the year.
In this “letter” to ARRL Headquarters, The Old Man recounts a raucous club meeting that culminated in a rhetorical battle royal between two members nicknamed “Final Authority” and “Radical.”
Rotten Reasons (February 1927)
By “The Old Man”
Say, son, I’ve just got to get this off my chest. I’ve been sitting around for a long time now, listening and thinking, and watching you young ones run things, and seeing Amateur Radio bulge and shrink in spots, until I’m likely to bust if I don’t blow off steam. Poor little Kitty has had a bad time of it lately, and I’ve got where “I isn’t fit company for no man,” as the profusely perspiring lady said to the gentleman at the dance.
We have had an Old Timers Meeting of the remains of our old Radio Club out here, and we ventilated a certain subject very thoroughly. It’s the points brought up at this meeting that lead this old bundle to take his pen in hand again.
We persuaded our old time president to preside at the meeting, which he consented to do only after we had sent over to the blacksmith shop and fetched him a maul, that he might be able to wallop the desk in the good old way and keep order. He glared around at every one present with the delightful belligerency of by-gone days, and it really gave us other old-timers quite a kick. He outlined in his characteristic manner the object of the meeting, to the effect that we were here to find out what was the matter with Amateur Radio. And that the sooner we settled the matter the healthier it would be for all concerned.
He had grown older, this old-timer warhorse president of ours, and his methods, while not exactly partaking of those of the prize ring, are a bit old fashioned. He still knows how to conduct a radio club meeting, and don’t anybody forget it. You are not likely to, for when you go home you feel that you have had a narrow escape.
Final Authority was there with his glasses and his professional manner, and of course he had the cure for what is wrong with Amateur Radio. He is older, but he hasn’t smoothed out any to speak of in recent years. He looks up at the ceiling just as much when he talks. He is just as long winded, he gets just as involved in complexities as in the early days, and he still roils up Radical just the same as in days of yore, and Radical fidgets in his seat in the same dear old manner that he used to when we smashed up the furniture at every meeting.
Final opened the ball and took about twenty-five minutes to get the trouble out of his system. His notion was that amateur interest had appeared to flag for the reason that amateur wave-bands were now separated, that the gang on the 80 meter band was not on speaking terms and those on the 20 meter band were so blamed high-brow that they thought that persons using a frequency less than 14,000 kilocycles were so depraved that they were not fit to associate with. This and a lot of highfalutin hogwash about the higher intellectual plane of radio communication today and how we have become amateur physicists and radio research engineers, and similar uplift bunk, pretty nearly drove some of us to plot murder.
After having satisfactorily impressed us that he was a deep-water thinker, Final sat down and wiped his eye glasses very carefully. Our old-time president gulped a couple of times and, from force of habit, reached for his maul. You could see he was trying his darnedest to formulate some kind of an intelligent comment upon Final’s speech. But Final had failed to provide a handle on any of his ideas, and when there isn’t any handle to get hold of, there isn’t any use searching around and trying to find one. The president simply gave up and took out the maul, glaring around at everybody.
Everyone expected Radical to crash through about this time, but evidently he was not ready. Somebody else got up and built upon telegraph operating and after all it was the training of proficient radio telegraph operators that gave us amateurs our pull with our Government, and for him he got more fun handling traffic in a snappy manner than fooling around with circuits invented by people with impaired digestions.
This inflamed another nitwit, and he got us and got all haired up over the CQ business, and the DX hounds and the lamentable falling off in message traffic, and the unspeakable ethics of those creatures who failed to deliver radiograms. He got himself hopelessly off the track, but he succeeded admirably in working himself into a white heat of indignation and in tearing his passion to tatters. His ideas hadn’t any handle on them either, and so silence again fell and broke a hole in the floor.
All this was too much for poor Final, and realizing that the universe was tottering and the stellar system was upon the verge of going completely cuckoo, he arose and, after majestically clearing his thin but gentle manly throat, he opined that we must keep clearly in mind what our problem was. Our major problem, according to Final, appeared to be to maintain the intellectual interest in making available to civilization the manifold advantages that were obviously on the threshold in radio.
Waving his awkward arms, he pointed to the skip-distance business, and how we should go about finding out what frequencies would offer skip distances that were ultra-terrestrial. Then there were the cork-screw waves. He pointed out that there were reasons for suspecting that these cork-screw effects might not have the skipping sickness at all. Amateurs certainly could not aver that interesting work was lacking when there was the cork-screw stuff lolling around waiting for somebody to come and fondle it. Then there was the transmission of pictures. We certainly must have picture transmission by Amateur Radio if we hope to get a ringside seat in the radio hereafter. Then there was the transmission by Amateur Radio of the moving picture, and certainly that was fraught with mental gymnastics interesting enough to suit the most fastidious. Then came radio television, waiting for us amateurs to televise each other.
In a burst of gentlemanly restrained and impressive oratory, Final finished with a deadly argument to the general effect that anybody who thought there wasn’t anything more for the amateur to do in radio needed to have the Duco scraped off his brains, or words of like import.
Everybody took a deep breath when Final sat down. Then Radical arose, and we knew this was the knock-out round. He started off sort of gentle-like about the flagging-interest business and the traffic handling, as if he didn’t want to scare Final out of the room before he had time to take his axe out. He paid his respects to the CQ imbecile and the DX atrocity, and then he proceeded to unlimber.
Interest was not flagging. On the contrary, we amateurs were more interested in radio then we ever were. How else could anybody account for the fact that the whole civilized world was our playground, these days? He said that any amateur who couldn’t work every continent on Earth in a single night must have sleeping sickness. That QST was more interesting than it ever was, and that our ARRL was bigger and better and stronger than it ever was, and that the commercial companies thought more highly of the technical abilities of the amateur than they ever did.
And looking straight at the back of Final’s head, he said that while some of us might be interested in establishing the electrical constant of radio television, there were others of us who took an equal interest in getting continuous-wave high-frequency telegraph signals so perfected that one didn’t have to employ a bloodhound to chase around through the ether and keep them in the head phones. Message traffic of the old character could not be handled by existing amateur stations because of unsteady frequency, and just as soon as we found out how to make signals that would enable us to make solid copy on a long run of stuff, message traffic would come back. Not that the old kind of cheap guff traffic would return, but that a new form of better traffic would come into style and would give all the kick that we ever got with a spark, and then some.
Then he read the riot act about the experimenter and the operator. He asked if it was good business to spoil a good operator trying to make a bum research engineer, or to spoil a good research engineer trying to make a bum telegraph operator out of him. He didn’t think it was. It might not be so intellectual, but it seemed to him to be sensible to recognize that we amateurs had different tastes, that some of us preferred to do one thing and some of us another thing. And that instead of yowling around about flagging interest, we ought to be organizing experimental work and developing something steady for our operating end to telegraph with.
Some 25 of us started to talk all at once and the president began to threaten them. The thing ended with no casualties and no smashed furniture. When we got outside into the cool night air and found that we were all accounted for, we decided to sit right down and write Warner and Handy all about the mater.
This is my letter, and I feel better now I have it off my chest. I can light the old pipe now and get on the air and see what they are doing down in South America. I leave it for you boys in Hartford to pass on this thing. It’s a long time since this old horse was fired up enough to write to Headquarters. He hopes all the gang are still QSA. GN and 73 all around —T.O.M.