Early Wireless and Radio in Manitoba, 1909-1924
MHS Transactions Series 3, Number 35, 1978-1979 season
Less than eight years after Marconi had first spanned the Atlantic by wireless on 12 December 1901, amateur operators, or “hams” as they are generally known, were active in Manitoba. In the fall of 1909, Alex V. Polson and some of his classmates at Central Collegiate Institute on Kate Street began experimenting with wireless. Young Polson had visited a United Wireless Telegraph Company station while travelling in the eastern United States that summer. When he returned to Winnipeg he told his friends all about the marvels of wireless and they decided to build an outfit of their own.
Their transmitter had a one-inch spark coil, glass plate condenser, tuning helix and spark gap. Messages were sent from Polson’s home at 94 Cathedral Avenue to Melville Sayer who was living on Graham Avenue in the Alexandria Block. The receiver consisted of a Hughes-type microphonic detector, which had a steel needle resting on carbon prisms, a tuning coil and headphones. This is the first recorded use of wireless in Manitoba. Because of the success that attended these trials, there were soon many others who took up this new and fascinating hobby.
Even before Marconi had sent a signal from Cornwall to Newfoundland, the Canadian government had laid the groundwork for wireless communication in Canada. In May 1901, the Department of Marine and Fisheries had ordered two wireless stations from Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company that were to be built on the northern approaches to the Strait of Belle Isle. They went into service with the opening of the 1902 shipping season on the St. Lawrence route and were the first wireless installations in Canada. One was on Belle Isle, the other at Chateau Bay, 22 miles due west of Belle Isle on the Labrador coast. Chateau Bay was linked to Montreal by a telegraph line.
The British North America Act stipulated that the residual powers, those not specifically delegated to the provinces, were vested in the federal government. Ottawa therefore wasted no time in assuming regulatory control over all forms of wireless. In July 1905, Parliament passed the Wireless Telegraphy Act (incorporated as Part IV of the Telegraphs Act in 1906) which gave the Minister of Marine and Fisheries the exclusive authority to issue licenses for the installation and operation of any apparatus for wireless telegraphy anywhere in Canada or on any ship of Canadian registry. Section 6 of the act made reference to the granting of licenses to amateurs solely interested in conducting wireless experiments.
Early in April 1910, great excitement was created among the Winnipeg scientific community, and particularly the amateur wireless enthusiasts, by the announcement that Dr. Lee de Forest, the famous American inventor and wireless wizard, was coming to the city from New York to give lectures and to demonstrate his system of wireless telephony.
De Forest had begun his engineering career in 1899 by experimenting with spark wireless. In 1902 he started the American de Forest Wireless Telegraph Company. His financial backer in this enterprise was a New York entrepreneur, Abe White, who turned out to be thoroughly dishonest. De Forest erected several stations using his patented equipment along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in the Caribbean and, in 1903, on the Great Lakes including stations at Toronto and Hamilton.
In 1906, Abe White and some of his co-directors had looted the American de Forest treasury to finance the United Wireless Telegraph Company. De Forest severed his connection with American de Forest and organized the de Forest Radio-telephone Company.
Wireless and radio are synonymous and interchangeable terms. They may refer either to the broadcasting of speech and music or to the transmission of information in a telegraph code via the medium of electromagnetic waves travelling through space. The expression, wireless, came into use first and is of British while radio is of American origin. In the text, the term wireless or radio will be used as found in the original reference material.
In December 1906, de Forest tested the prototype of a radiophone transmitter known as the Aerophone. The Aerophone, like many of the radiophones developed during the first decade of the century, was based on a 1903 Danish invention, the Poulsen arc. Poulsen had found that if a coil and condenser were connected across a direct current electric arc, a phenomenon known as oscillation would take place in the circuit generating a continuous radio frequency wave that could be keyed for telegraphy or modulated by audio frequencies to broadcast speech or music.
In 1907, de Forest invented the device which made him famous, a three element radio vacuum tube that he called the audion. The original audions were sensitive detectors but were unstable and erratic when used as amplifiers. Audion technology continued to improve year by year but it was not until 1913 that vacuum tube transmitters became a reality. In that year, feedback circuits were discovered that caused the audion to oscillate, and like the Poulsen arc, generate a radio frequency wave usable for telegraphy or telephony.
When de Forest arrived in Winnipeg on 13 April 1910, he was interviewed by reporters from the three local papers. De Forest said that while he intended to deliver a series of lectures and put on a demonstration of two-way wireless telephony, his primary purpose in visiting the city was to choose a site for a long distance wireless telegraph station and to make final arrangements for establishing a laboratory and factory for the design and manufacture of the equipment to be used in a chain of wireless telegraph stations he proposed to build across the prairies. De Forest was accompanied to Winnipeg by a corps of engineering assistants some of whom, he said, would remain here to staff the factory and laboratory. A representative of his company had already leased space in the Enderton Building on the corner of Portage Avenue and Hargrave Street for its Canadian headquarters.
De Forest told the reporters that after leaving Winnipeg he would be going to Calgary and on the way would select locations for stations on the main line of the CPR, probably at Brandon and Regina. Later there would be stations on the CNR line at Saskatoon and Edmonton. Winnipeg would be in touch with his master station in Chicago by wireless telegraph and the western Canadian stations would be similarly linked to Winnipeg. Each station would have short range wireless telephone capability using Aerophones. De Forest said that the flat prairie terrain was especially favorable for wireless work and he prophesied there might soon be a wireless telephone in the home of every well-to-do western farmer. He also intended to take a trip to Selkirk to investigate the feasibility of putting wireless telephones in the boats on Lake Winnipeg.
In 1908, de Forest had acquired the North American rights to a German spark wireless system with which he was having great success in his wireless telegraph installations. The heart of the German system was technically known as a quenched spark which produced a piercing, high-pitched note when operated on 500 cycle current instead of the conventional 60 cycle. Code transmitted by this method could easily be read through heavy interference over distances of up to 1,000 miles.
On Thursday evening, Dr. de Forest delivered the first of three popular lectures he gave in the city. This lecture was sponsored by the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers and was given in the Science Building of the University of Manitoba. It was attended by an overflow crowd of interested citizens. The amateur wireless hobbyists turned out en masse and de Forest spent considerable time after his illustrated talk answering their questions and discussing in detail the operating features of his transmitter and receiver. It was a unique opportunity for Winnipeg hams to study the most modern wireless equipment, much of it on display for the first time in Canada.
De Forest had scheduled a demonstration of two-way wireless telephony on the following Monday between the Royal Alexandra Hotel, where the de Forest party was registered, and Eaton’s store. On Saturday, de Forest advised the newspapers that one of the sets of audion receiving apparatus had been damaged during shipment from New York. Because of this he would be transmitting in only one direction, from the hotel to the store. He said he believed that Eaton’s was the first business or commercial establishment in the world to be on the receiving end of a wireless telephone conversation.
On Monday, de Forest was honored at a luncheon in the Royal Alexandra Hotel given by the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau. He gave an entertaining non-technical discourse on wireless telephony. He predicted high powered equipment would soon be available that would enable all residents of the province to hear bulletins on world news sent out by a central wireless telephone station in Winnipeg. In a brief address, Premier Roblin commented that with wireless telephony now an accomplished fact, science appeared to be advancing so rapidly he would not be surprised if some time in the future it was possible to journey to some other planet.
De Forest said the unseasonable blizzard that had blanketed the city had delayed the erection of the antennae on the roof of the hotel and Eaton’s but now all was in readiness for the test which would proceed the next day.
For his Winnipeg demonstration, de Forest used the latest model of the Aerophone which had a power rating of 500 watts at an arc voltage of 220 dc. Its estimated range was 25 miles; a larger unit, rated at one kw, had a 500 volt dc power supply. The Aerophone was housed in a handsome mahogany case. Tuning coils, covering wavelengths from 300 to 3,000 meters, were inside the box and could be adjusted by a slider on the front of the set. The arc was enclosed in a nickel plated metal cylinder bolted to the right-hand side. Modulation was accomplished by a pair of heavy-duty carbon microphone buttons that were mounted in a standard telephone mouthpiece attached to the front of the box. The microphone was wired into the ground lead; it operated “barefoot,” speech and power amplifiers were unknown and all the radio frequency current passed directly through the carbon buttons. The operator kept a pencil handy to tap the microphone and loosen the carbon granules if they packed and stopped articulating due to overload. The audio quality of the Aerophone was comparable to the mechanically-reproduced phonograph records of that era.
De Forest had incorporated some useful gadgets in the Aerophone. One was a key and buzzer which could be switched into the circuit in place of the microphone. He called this device a “chopper” and it enabled the Aerophone to be used for telegraphy. He would send a burst of telegraph signals to attract attention and then turn on the microphone. The receiver, with its audion detector, was housed in a smaller. case of similar design.
On Tuesday morning, 19 April, a large crowd was on hand in Eaton’s to witness the first demonstration of wireless telephony ever given in Canada. The first to don the headphones to hear the voice of de Forest was Mayor Evens. He said the speech was clearly audible end every word understandable. Throughout the day a great number of people listened in and all expressed amazement at the clarity of the conversation; many found it almost impossible to believe that the voice they heard was actually coming from the Royal Alexandra hotel without the use of a connecting telephone line.
Eaton’s advertising in 1910 consisted of a full page ad in each of the Winnipeg dailies. In recognition of de Forest’s success in showing the wonders of wireless telephony to the public, Eaton’s took a most unusual step. They killed a large center section of their advertisement in Wednesday’s papers end inserted in its place laudatory comment that was headlined:
One aspect of Eaton’s ad emphasized a commonly held concept of the future of wireless telephony, that its role would primarily be a utilitarian one such as the dissemination of news rather then the provision of music end drama for the listeners.
What became of de Forest’s grandiose scheme for a Winnipeg factory and a chain of wireless stations across the West? The answer is nothing. He made no attempt to interest local investors in this enterprise and no record of a company office can be found in subsequent editions of the Winnipeg directory. On the other hand, his arch-rival, the United Wireless Telegraph Company, had, before de Forest’s arrival, rented an imposing suite in the Union Bank head office, Winnipeg’s newest and finest office building. From these quarters, Robert A. Grant, “fiscal agent for Eastern end middle Canada” was conducting a high-pressure stock selling campaign on behalf of United Wireless.
While de Forest’s demonstration of wireless telephony may have been a short-lived wonder with the public, his visit had a stimulating effect on amateur wireless activity and an ad hoc committee was set up to explore the possibility of forming an amateur wireless club. In February 1911, the Canadian Central Wireless Club was organized. Available records suggest that this was the first amateur wireless club in Canada. The Wireless Association of Toronto came into existence later that year.
The Winnipeg club had 12 charter members. The first president was Alex V. Polson, who was then in his freshmen year at the University of Manitoba; vice-president was Stuart Scorer, a student at Central Collegiate who lived at 458 Spence Street and the secretary-treasurer was Benjamin Lazarus, a 17 year-old bookkeeper residing in the Exeter block on Henry Avenue. The club dues were only 50 cents a year, anyone with a serious interest in wireless could join, and meetings were held on a rotating basis in member’s homes every two weeks. Prospective members were offered instruction and assistance in the building and operation of a wireless set. By the end of its first year the club had 20 members, some of them outside Winnipeg. Most of the members were students but there was a sprinkling of older men. There were no YLs on the air (YL is the ham term for young lady), amateur radio was still a male preserve in Manitoba. The executive of the club had hopes of forming a nation-wide amateur organization based in Winnipeg and the secretary was in correspondence with amateurs as far away as Toronto and Vancouver.
The sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic on 15 April 1912, while on her maiden voyage, with the loss of over 1,500 lives, caused a news sensation exceeded only by the outbreak of a major war. The public’s imagination was caught by the part played in the catastrophe by wireless telegraphy. Shortly after the disaster, the Free Press carried a long article about local amateur activity and many people became aware for the first time of the presence of wireless experimenters in the community.
A new high school, Kelvin Technical, was opened in the south end of the city in January 1912, and quickly came to rival Central Collegiate as a hotbed of amateur wireless activity. A crosstown network was set up and a favorite pastime was playing checkers by wireless using numbered boards to indicate checker movement.
By the end of 1912, several of the amateur stations in the city had quite a professional appearance. Among the better equipped were those of Polson, Scorer and Lazarus and those operated by Harold E. Mott at 9 Central Avenue on Armstrong’s Point and by Archie St. Louis at 419 McMillan Avenue. Nearly all had first gotten on the air with the old reliable Ford spark coil. The most commonly used detector was a crystal of galena or pyrite on which rested a “cat’s whisker” of fine wire - a distant cousin of today’s solid state transistor. In addition to the instruction available from the wireless club, American magazines such as Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Electrical Experimenter and Scientific American and the English Christmas annuals, Boy’s Own and Chums, had construction articles on both transmitters and receivers. Almost all the amateurs built their own apparatus but if more sophisticated equipment was desired one could send for the catalogs of such American radio shops as the Electro Importing Co. in New York, the William B. Duck Co. in Toledo, Ohio, or the Manhattan Electric Supply Co. in Chicago, all of whom sold a complete line of amateur gear. ElCo was the world’s oldest radio supply house; it had been started in 1906 by Hugo Gernsback, editor of Electrical Experimenter and later of Radio News. For two cents ElCo would send you their 120-page catalog loaded with attractive goodies for the radio ham. Among the ElCo specialties were a one-inch spark coil in an attractive oak case and their famous electrolytic detector that was modelled after an invention by an expatriate Canadian, Reginald A. Fessenden. A popular item with the Duck company was their “Arlington” loose coupler or two circuit tuner while the Manhattan Electric Supply would mail postpaid, in a wooden jewel box, a “genuine galena crystal guaranteed loaded with supersensitive spots” for the low price of fifty cents.
There were also kits available such as the Gilbert Wireless set made by the A. C. Gilbert Company, manufacturer of a variety of electrical toys. The Gilbert set had a buzzer - the opening and closing of the buzzer contacts caused a spark that generated a signal which could be picked up at a distance of several blocks. During the first World War, operators on ships sailing in close convoy used buzzers for short range communication to avoid having their big spark transmitters zeroed in on by enemy subs.
As far as can be determined, there were no de Forest audions in use by Winnipeg amateurs before World War I. Some of the local hams had switched from the crystal to the electrolytic detector which was a close second to the audion in sensitivity.
Code practice for amateurs on the prairies was no problem even though they were far removed from the shipping lanes. Every evening the booming 100 kw spark of NAA, the U.S. government station in Arlington, Virginia could be heard sending QST, the general call to all stations, on 2,500 meters. Then came a series of dots and a long dash at nine o’clock to indicate the exact time. After the time signal came a news report for ships at sea followed by the weather report for the eastern US all sent at a steady 20 words a minute by crack U.S. Navy brass-pounders. Over sixty years have gone by but the author can still recall listening with eager anticipation to hear whether the duty operator would slip up on the keying of the word “Mississippi.”
There is no accurate information on the number of rural hams in Manitoba prior to World War I but there is good reason to believe that out in the country, in fact right across the West, there were a lot of wireless experimenters. Construction articles were in too many popular magazines for technically minded youths to ignore them and Ford spark coils were easy to come by.
In May 1910, administration of the Wireless Telegraphy Act was transferred to the newly-formed Department of Naval Service. By international agreement certain alphabetical license blocks had been allotted to the contracting governments. One of the blocks assigned to Canada by the Berne Bureau - a branch of the International Telegraph Union - was the series XAA-XGZ and this was reserved by Canadian authorities for amateur, experimental and training school stations.
Naval Service adopted a laissez faire attitude toward amateurs allowing them a large degree of self-regulation provided they did not interfere with coastal or ship traffic. The only stringent regulation was that they must operate below 50 meters with a power not exceeding ½ kw. If an amateur remote from the shipping lanes wished to apply for a license, he would be granted a provisional or “C” license that was valid until he appeared before an inspector for examination. The nearest inspector to Manitoba was at the Lakehead.
None of the members of the Canadian Central Wireless Club held a license issued by the Department of Naval Service. Instead the Winnipeg club gave each member a call letter and a station number for identification. Unfortunately, no list of the club calls has survived. The official record shows that the only amateur in Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta to obtain a license from Ottawa before World War I was F. A. Anderson, XDZ, of Portage la Prairie.
Wireless telegraphy reached northern Manitoba in 1913. Construction of the Hudson Bay Railway was about to start and in its February 20 issue, the Hudson’s Bay Herald (later The Pas Herald) printed an Ottawa dispatch datelined February 18 that the Hon. Frank Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals, had announced the establishment of a wireless telegraph service between The Pas and the ocean terminus of the railway, either Port Nelson or Fort Churchill. This would enable his department to keep in close touch with the progress of the work and would obviate the long wait for reports while steamers went back and forth to the bay. On March 7, the Herald reported that on completion of the railway, a chain of wireless stations along the route of navigation to and through the bay would be installed. Next week, the Herald confirmed the choice of Port Nelson as the northern railhead.
The twin wireless stations at The Pas and Port Nelson were designed to performance standards set by the Radiotelegraph Branch of the Department of Naval Service. The successful tender for the antennae, spark transmitters and receiving equipment was Canadian Marconi. All the apparatus would be supplied by the parent British Marconi company and would be their latest improved model. After acceptance tests, the stations would be operated by Naval Service on behalf of Railways and Canals.
The original estimate for the overall cost of each station was $100,000. They would have four 250-foot masts supporting the antenna array. The engines to drive the station generators would be 280-hp units, as large, to quote the Herald, as those supplying power to run the entire The Pas sawmill and would cost about $35,000. Although no specific figures on transmitter output were given, they were said to be, next to the 300 kw Glace Bay transatlantic station, the most powerful in Canada. The airline distance between The Pas and Port Nelson was 410 miles and, according to press reports, they would have an overland capability of 750 miles corresponding to an overwater range of 3,000 miles. Extra power had been provided because of mineral deposits along the signal path.
An article in the Scientific American said The Pas station might eventually become part of a northern network covering the country right up to the Arctic ocean. These stations would furnish meteorological reports and would aid the R.N.W.M. Police in patrolling this vast territory.
A. E. Rioch, the chief engineer of Canadian Marconi, and Walter A. Rush of the Radiotelegraph Branch, arrived in The Pas on April 12 to choose the station location. They selected a site on a seven-acre tract of Crown land which lay on high ground on the north side of the Saskatchewan River some two miles from town.
On 21 August, a contract was let for a one-storey operations room for The Pas station with an adjoining powerhouse. A radial system of ground wires for the station was buried in the earth underneath the building. Erection of the masts and antenna was completed on 9 October. Instead of a massive array supported by four masts, as originally proposed, the antenna was a conventional flat-top with three parallel wires of stranded phospher bronze. The antenna was strung on 30-foot oak spreaders between two masts 250 feet high and 650 feet apart. The masts, a new type patented by Andrew Gray, the chief engineer of British Marconi, were fabricated from 36-inch diameter steel tubing in 10-foot lengths with flanged ends which were bolted together for assembly.
They were designed to withstand wind velocities of 120 miles an hour and were stayed by four sets of steel guy wires. The masts were mounted on concrete bases, 10 feet square, that had footings going down below the frost line. The guy wires were deadheaded to heavy concrete anchors buried in the ground. Each mast had a ladder reaching to the top for servicing the antenna. The ladder was not fastened to the tubing; it was suspended from the top and was slung a couple of feet out from the mast. Rungs were of wooden slats clamped to steel cable side pieces. The ladder was steadied by outrigger brackets at 50 foot intervals. There was no safety rigging and climbing 250 feet straight up a swaying ladder was no job for the faint hearted.
On Saturday, 22 November, the receiver was given a tryout. Signals were copied from the US naval station, NAA, and from a transatlantic station at Sayville, Long Island, as well as stations on the Pacific coast. Mr. E. Richards, in charge of installation for Marconi, invited residents of The Pas to visit the station at 9 p.m. to set their watches to the time signal from NAA. He also offered to furnish The Pas Herald with any items of world news transmitted by NAA after the time signal.
While construction of The Pas station had proceeded without a hitch, it was a different story at Port Nelson. The ice-breaking sealer, SS Beothic, had sailed from Halifax on 16 July with a full cargo including the equipment and supplies for the Port Nelson wireless station. Passengers on the Beothic were the Marconi installation crew and the station operator and his engine mechanic. Ottawa received word on July 24 that the Beothic had piled up on rocks near Riche Point on the northwest coast of Newfoundland and might be a total loss. She was, however, refloated but as there was some structural damage, it was felt advisable to lighten her load. The captain transferred some of the heavier wireless gear to the tramp steamer SS Cearense, also bound for Port Nelson with coal and building material.
There was more trouble ahead. On 13 September, while only 14 miles from her destination, Cearense ran hard aground on a shoal. She was eventually abandoned but her cargo, including the vital parts for the wireless station, was lightered on to scows which were towed into Port Nelson harbor.
By the time the wireless equipment was safely off-loaded on to the makeshift dock at Port Nelson, freeze-up had set in. Other construction had a higher priority and it was late October before work on the wireless station began. The man in charge for the Marconi company was L. Stanley Payne who had been sent from England to supervise the job. The first task was to dig the foundations for the masts and the guy wire deadheads in frozen clay with pick and shovel. The concrete bases were poured in December at temperatures down to 20 below zero Fahrenheit. A more rigorous operation was the assembling of the sectionalized masts using block and tackle and the stringing of the antenna in the face of Arctic gales howling off the bay.
In spite of all difficulties, the Port Nelson station went operational on 20 February 1914, and thereafter regular schedules were maintained with The Pas.
Another of the blocks of call signs allotted to Canada was VAA-VGZ. The federal authorities assigned calls in this series to land and coastal stations and to ships of Canadian registry. The Pas station was VBM; the Port Nelson station, VBN. The operator at VBM was Herbert H. Jeune; at VBN, William Parkin.
In 1913, the use of high power and long waves was still thought to be the best method of punching signals through the ether. VBM and VBN were rated at 10 kilowatt output on their authorized wavelength of 1,800 meters and had a normal range of 600 miles according to the Marconi company’s Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony. The transmitter spark was produced by a 240 cycle synchronous disc rotary spark gap.
The gasoline engine driving the station generator was a one-cylinder match start 20-hp Canadian Fairbanks Morse unit. Herb Jeune has given a graphic description of how the engine was started, “A match was inserted in a removable plug at the end of the cylinder, then you jumped up on one of the spokes to bring it up to compression, banged the match container with your hand, jumped off and away she went part of the time anyway.” VBN also had a Marconi ½ kw spark set for handling local marine traffic on 600 meters.
Both stations were equipped with the standard Marconi multiple tuner, an all-wave set, using the Marconi magnetic detector. Jeune said the “maggie” at VB M never worked properly and he replaced it with a galena crystal detector. Reception conditions were very good and a readable signal came through at all times. In the summer, most operating was done during the daylight hours; in winter, in the evening. Jeune had to copy messages sent over the telegraph line from Winnipeg in the American Morse code and then transcribe into the Continental code for transmission by wireless. Some of the letter and figure characters are different in the two codes.
The overall costs for VBM and VBN are buried in the estimates for the Department of Railways and Canals but they were probably about one-third the original appraisal of $100,000 per station for a much larger installation.
On 8 January 1914, the Boys’ Club of Winnipeg organized a wireless and scientific section. The purpose of the new section was to give boys a thorough grounding in wireless. The instructor was Mr. H. H. Pratt. Study sessions were held Friday evenings in the Sherbrook Street clubhouse. One proposed project was to build a small transmitter and a receiver capable of picking up signals from VBM and from VBA at Port Arthur.
In the summer of 1914, there were ominous indications that war with Germany was imminent. Amateurs became worried about their status if hostilities broke out. A modernized and more comprehensive Radiotelegraph Act had been passed by Parliament on 6 June 1913. A completely new set of regulations in accordance with Section II of the Radiotelegraph Act was published in the Canada Gazette for June 20, 1914. These regulations covered all phases of radio operations in Canada. On 2 August 1914, the government issued an order-in-council closing all amateur and other nonessential stations for the duration of the war. Section 10 of the Radiotelegraph Act gave the federal authorities the right to issue such an order, “in the case of actual or apprehended war, rebellion, riot or other emergency.”
At the time of closure there were only 79 licensed amateurs in Canada including the first YL, Miss M.S. Colville, XDD, of Bowmanville, Ontario. Obviously this was only a small fraction, probably 10 per cent or less, of the amateurs actually on the air.
The Canadian Central Wireless Club now had 43 members and several joined up as soon as war was declared. The club continued to hold meetings at sporadic intervals until the spring of 1915. Many felt that Kaiser Bill would soon be defeated and hams would be back transmitting shortly. When it became apparent the struggle would be a long one, the club disbanded.
A small number of stations that were engaged in military training were allowed to carry on. In 1915, the 79th Overseas Battalion, that was located in Brandon, was issued experimental license XWB. The XWA-XZZ series was yet another of the call letter blocks allotted to Canada.
Construction of the Hudson Bay Railway continued throughout the war years and the VBM-VBN circuit handled a great deal of traffic including news of the conflict for the isolated inhabitants of Port Nelson. The peak year was 1916 when 7,817 messages containing 570,281 words were sent. There is no record of service interruptions during the operating life of VBM-VBN but as a backup there was a monthly mail by dog team, the famous “Northern Express,” between Port Nelson and The Pas in the winter months. On 15 October 1918, word came through from Ottawa to halt work on the railway and lay off all crews including the staff at the wireless stations. This action resulted in the permanent closure of VBN, Port Nelson, and VBM, The Pas.
The military authorities, who were responsible for enforcing the shutdown of amateur stations, permitted a limited amount of radio lab work at Kelvin subject to the proviso that no actual transmitting or reception was attempted. David Willis, a student at the school, had, in 1918, constructed a working model of a Poulsen arc similar to the one used in de Forest’s Aerophone. It is understood that this was the first made-in-Winnipeg apparatus with radio telephone capability.
Classes in radio theory commenced at Kelvin in the 1918 fall term with J. Ralph Foster, a returned vet, as instructor. At the same time the military allowed Kelvin to erect an antenna on the roof and install a radio set in anticipation of the expected resumption of operations. Many of the hams-to-be were improving their code speed by copying the old reliable U.S. Naval station, NAA, Arlington.
In March 1919, the Winnipeg Radio Club was formed. The president was J. Ralph Foster; vice-president was Douglas C. Chapman while the energetic secretary was Graham Spry. Spry, Manitoba Rhodes scholar in 1922, later became co-founder and president of the Canadian Radio League. The league was the driving force behind the establishment of nation-wide, publicly owned broadcasting in Canada which culminated in the incorporation of the CBC. The club met in the old red brick University of Manitoba Arts building on Kennedy Street just north of the Law Courts. There were some 20 members, mostly war vets with signalling experience plus a few students.
The eagerly awaited news about the restarting of amateur activity was published in the Canada Gazette for April 29, 1919: “H.E. the Governor General in Council is pleased to order that. .. because the technical officers of the Department of Naval Service now state that the war being to all intents and purposes, over ... the order in council of 2 August 1914, is cancelled as from 15 April 1919, and that on and after that date the pre-war regulations with respect to the licensing of amateur experimental stations will be resumed.” Regulation 25 under the Radiotelegraph Act, 1913, thereby went into effect with amateurs being allotted calls in the series XAA to XGZ as before the war.
On 15 May, the Winnipeg General Strike began. The telephone operators and the mailmen went out early in the strike and on 17 May the commercial telegraphers quit their keys thus completely isolating Winnipeg from the rest of the continent. A complicating factor was the walkout of pressmen and stereotypers that effectively stopped the Free Press and the other newspapers from publishing.
On 22 May, senior staff at the Free Press succeeded in putting out a single page paper on what the Free Press said was, “a press of limited capacity.” One side was dated 21 May the other 22 May. On the Thursday, 22 May page, a headline proclaimed, “Communication established between city and outside world.” The article went on to say that with press, brokerage and commercial wire services closed, wireless telegraphy was brought into use and on Wednesday evening, a highly efficient apparatus had been set up on the roof of the Free Press building. Few people noticed the spreading antenna attached to the flagpoles or grasped its significance.
On 23 May, under the headline, WIRELESS NEWS FLASHED ABROAD FROM FREE PRESS the newspaper reported that, “An accurate description of the state of affairs in Winnipeg was last night flashed to the outside world by wireless. This is the first time wireless had been made use of by any newspaper in Western Canada, if not in all Canada, and the installation was immediately utilized to let it be known that, although Winnipeg had a general strike, the city had neither disorder nor were people living under famine conditions.
A communication was sent to the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks as well as a general call to all wireless stations. The following is the message marconigraphed by the Free Press operator:
The word “uncensored” in the above telegram confirms the fact that striking telegraphers were handling a limited number of emergency messages provided they were stamped “Approved by the Strike Committee.” The reference to the University of North Dakota is puzzling. Prior to the US entry into the war, the university had a station with call 9YN but the US did not start relicensing until 1 October 1919, and the university station would not be in operation before then. It would appear probable that the “wireless communication” of the Free Press was simply sent blind to any station outside Winnipeg that might pick it up. In effect, a symbolic gesture to show the telegraphers that the Free Press could get a message out from the city without their help.
The radio apparatus used at the Free Press was owned and operated by three Winnipeg students who were active amateurs. They were Douglas C. Chapman, Don G. Turner and Greg Hutchinson. The transmitter was a ¼ kw spark; the vacuum tube receiver covered all wavelengths currently in use. The operation ran for about two weeks and a considerable volume of world news was taken down, much of it from NAA and a Mexico City station. The amateurs were assisted in copying press by an ex-commercial telegraph operator called by the union a “scab telegrapher.” Due to the bitter feelings engendered by the strike, the Free Press did not reveal his identity which remains a secret to this day.
Some four years later John W. Dafoe, the editor-in-chief of the Free Press, offered a Winnipeg amateur association the use of a meeting room in the Free Press building in appreciation, it was said, of amateur cooperation during the general strike.
Amateurs were anxious to get back on the air and take advantage of the tremendous improvements that had been made in radio technology, particularly in the field of vacuum tube receivers and transmitters. They were quick to adopt the new techniques although a few spark sets continued in use until radio broadcasting became popular.
When it became apparent that all 182 calls in the XAA-XGZ sequence would soon be assigned, the Radiotelegraph Branch switched to an entirely different system. On 10 January 1920, Canada was divided into five districts; district 4 consisted of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The new amateur call signs were made up of the district number followed by two (and years later, three) letters. The author’s first call, issued 27 February 1920, was 4AG. The Canadian prefix VE did not come into official use until 1 April 1929, although many Canadian amateurs began using it the previous year.
Throughout 1919 and 1920, participation in radio in the 4th district was limited solely to the amateur service and a radio inspector was not appointed until mid-1920. In the absence of an inspector, Manitoba hams, with very few exceptions, did not apply for a station license but operated sub rosa using their initials for call signs. Former amateurs, who were on the air during this period, confirm the fact that no Winnipeg hams were issued calls in the XAA series. The first Manitoba ham to receive a 4 call was William M. Cummings, 4AD, of 391 Simcoe Street in Winnipeg who was licensed in February 1920.
In January 1920, the Winnipeg Radio Club and The Manitoban, the student paper at the University of Manitoba, became involved in an unusual journalistic venture. Early in January, the three Winnipeg newspapers began to warn their readers of a critical shortage of newsprint. This was caused by an ongoing dispute between the Paper Controller for Canada and the Fort Frances paper mill, the sole supplier of newsprint to the Free Press, Tribune and Telegram. Finally, on 15 January, all local supplies were exhausted and the papers were forced to cease publication. Normally, the Manitoba was printed weekly with a press run of about 3,600. On 19 January, the editor-in chief, Graham Spry, and his staff, started putting out a four-page daily which sold on the streets of Winnipeg for five cents. Twenty-six thousand copies of each issue were printed. The Manitoban was printed on flat paper, of which there was a good supply, rather than on the roll print used by the large dailies.
Spry recruited Douglas C. Chapman, the vice-president of the radio club and one of the trio that ran the Free Press radio during the Winnipeg General Strike, as “Wireless Operator of the Manitoban” and he was so listed on the paper’s masthead. The Manitoban could not use the regular copyrighted wire services so Chapman listened to NAA and other stations for items of world news. A hastily organized reportorial staff picked up local stories. Four daily issues in all were printed and the Manitoban then reverted to weekly status when three carloads of paper arrived for the Winnipeg newspapers.
In 1920 the Marconi company received authorization for point-to-point stations to be built at Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Glace Bay. They were to operate on 3,000 meters using 15 kw vacuum tube transmitters in the telegraph mode. The principal purpose of this network was to provide a direct link between the Winnipeg grain exchange and foreign markets through Marconi’s overseas service. This project never got beyond the planning stage; there was strong opposition from the wire telegraph companies, CP and CN, against this intrusion into their lucrative field of operations.
Winnipeg got its first acquaintance with music over the air waves in the fall of 1921 courtesy of a group of students known informally as the Kelvin Radio Club which ran the school station, XEY. Operators included E. V. N. Kennedy, 4AY; Fred Stevenson, 4AX, and William G. Speechly, 4AZ. The XEY transmitter was a portable Mark II Marconi Radiotelephone-telegraph rated at 20 watts input. The station receiver had a set of de Forest honeycomb coils and a vacuum tube detector and amplifier. The war surplus transmitter was located in one of the basement labs. The antenna was on the northeast corner of the school roof. The original station license cannot be found in the school archives but it is probable that it was granted shortly after relicensing began on 1 May 1919.
The club had an old-fashioned hand-wound Victrola but owned only one record, a well-scratched 78 rpm version of “The March of the Toreadors” from the opera Carmen. After four they would warm up the set and wind up the phonograph; while one of the ops held the microphone in front of the horn of the Victrola the rest of the gang hurried home to listen to Bizet’s music. On Saturdays they would switch the transmitter to radiotelegraphy and endeavor to contact 9YAF, Pembina High School, Pembina, North Dakota.
The man who really brought radio broadcasting to Manitoba was the late Lynn V. Salton. He became interested in radio in 1910 at the age of 13 while living in Moose Jaw. His first outfit was the usual spark coil-crystal detector set and like scores of other amateurs across the prairies he operated without benefit of license. By the time his family moved to Winnipeg he was seriously considering radio as a career. In 1917, while in his third year at Wesley College, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a wireless operator, and after taking courses in engineering, he was promoted to commissioned wireless officer. He served at Gibraltar, the West Indies and Naval Headquarters in London. He was demobilized early in September 1919, and returned to Winnipeg to complete his university studies. He graduated as Gold Medallist in Arts in 1920.
On 29 June 1920, Salton was appointed radio inspector for District 4 - the three prairie provinces. In a brief statement to the press, Salton pointed out that licenses were required for both sending and receiving sets and that licensees must be British subjects. The appointment of a radio inspector caused a rush of Winnipeg hams to legalize their operations by securing a station license. In 1921, Salton founded the Salton-Foster Radio Engineering Company in partnership with J. Ralph Foster. Early in 1922, he was elected a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers.
He designed and built a 100 watt broadcaster and in February 1922, he went on the air from his home at 1164 Grosvenor Avenue in Winnipeg. His call sign was CKZC; his assigned wavelength was 420 meters. Canadian stations were licensed to operate in the 400-450 meter band, a wavelength segment not occupied at that time by American broadcasters. They were (and still are) issued calls in the series CFA(A)-CKZ(Z). CBC call signs were granted to Canada some years later by a concordance with the government of Chile, which then held the series CAA-CEZ.
At the time CKZC began broadcasting, there were 60 licensed amateurs in Winnipeg with another 10 elsewhere in the province. In addition, a considerable number of Winnipeggers had bought or built receiving sets that were capable of hearing programs from the radio stations that were springing up like weeds across the USA. Salton went on the air on Sunday and Tuesday evenings calling, “Hello, hello, this is station CKZC, Winnipeg.” He had a good selection of phonograph records, his favorite being “El Capitan March” with which he began every broadcast. CKZC was reported heard at a distance of 845 miles. The unprecedented outburst of enthusiasm for this new form of entertainment that had swept the US and eastern Canada following the commencement of broadcasting in 1919 by the Westinghouse experimental station 8XK in Pittsburg, later KDKA, and by the Marconi experimental station XWA in Montreal, later CFCF, had now spread to Manitoba.
In 1922, most broadcasting stations in Canada were owned either by firms, such as Marconi, which were primarily interested in the sale of radios and wished to provide programs for their customers, or by newspapers who did not realize that radio would become their strongest competitor in the field of news dissemination but were under the impression that it would somehow increase their circulation.
In Winnipeg there was intense competition for readers between the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Tribune. If one discovered a promotional scheme that promised success, the other must perforce take countermeasures. On Thursday, 23 March 1922, the Free Press reported that it had been granted a license for the operation of a broadcasting station on a wavelength of 410 meters with the call sign CJCG. The paper said that L. V. Salton had been engaged as consulting engineer and that an up-to-date plant would be in operation in about ten days.
The Free Press broadcast its first program on Sunday, 2 April. Promptly at 10 p.m., operator Salton, to quote the Free Press, “Sped through the ether the warning call: Hello, hello, hello, radiophone broadcasting station 4AH, Free Press broadcast number one.” The opening announcement was ambiguously worded; it did not specify that the Free Press was the owner of the station. A similar introduction was used for the second and possibly later programs.
4AH was Salton’s amateur call but it was illegal for an amateur to broadcast on a commercial channel. Salton was the radio inspector and was responsible for enforcing the law. Why was the Free Press’s own call CJCG not used? A logical explanation is that their license application had not received final approval from Ottawa. The Free Press, however, was eager to get on the air before its rival, the Tribune.
The inaugural program, which gave every evidence of being hurriedly arranged, consisted of a few musical numbers and a talk by the Reverend Dr. George F. Salton, the father of L. V. Salton.
The Free Press wasted no time in telling the world that it was the first newspaper on the prairies to start broadcasting. Actually their transmitter had a flea-power rating of only ten watts and worked into a makeshift antenna on the Free Press roof but it had beaten the Tribune to the punch. It was rumored that the Free Press had ordered the set shipped by express from Toronto when it heard that the Tribune was going into the broadcast business. The Free Press advised its readers that it had placed an order for a 2,000 watt station to be built by the Canadian Independent Telephone Company under de Forest patent rights and that Salton was designing an antenna which would give the station a 2,500 mile nighttime range.
In its 5 April issue, the Winnipeg Tribune said it was recognized that there was a wide field for newspaper enterprise in this newest popular pastime. Three days later the Tribune stated that it expected to have one of the most powerful radio broadcasting stations on the continent functioning within ten days. Erection of steel antenna masts on the Tribune building was being carried out by the Carter-Halls-Aldinger company and a contract for installation of the station equipment had been awarded to the Marconi company for completion not later than 20 April.
On 13 April, L. S. Payne, a Marconi engineer, arrived in Winnipeg along with ten cases of radio apparatus that had been shipped from Montreal. Payne was the expert who had installed VBN at Port Nelson in 1914. By 17 April the set had been tuned to its operating wavelength of 400 meters and tests were being run at power reduced below its normal input of 500 watts.
The Tribune announced a gala opening program for its station, CJNC, to be held on Thursday, 20 April, with an introductory address by the Lieutenant Governor, Sir James Aikins, and a concert by over 200 artists including the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir, the Oratorio Society, soloists May Clarke and W. Davidson Thompson as well as the Princess Pat’s regimental band. It was the most ambitious program ever presented by a Canadian radio station and received many compliments from listeners in southern Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota. It was obviously designed to put to shame the opening performance of what some of the Tribune radio crew referred to as the “Carlton Street peanut whistle.”
Two of the biggest downtown movie theaters were quick to exploit radio as a gimmick to attract more customers. On 17 April, the papers carried large ads by the Capitol and the Allen (now the Metropolitan) saying that they had installed receivers and loudspeakers in order to demonstrate to their patrons the wonders of radio. The Capitol equipment was operated by Salton-Foster; the Allen’s by H. W. G. Kirk, 4CV, a 15-year-old amateur.
Both theaters made identical claims. Each boasted that it had the largest and most powerful receiver - the only one capable of being heard throughout the theater - and that it was the first picture palace in Canada to install such an apparatus for the benefit of their patrons. Each promised reception from such distant points as Boston, Pittsburg and San Francisco. They had an ace in the hole, if atmospheric conditions prevented them from hearing the American stations, they could tune in the Free Press or Tribune which were only a couple of blocks away. The musical programs were interspersed with code signals from transatlantic stations, which must have mystified the theater goers.
Within a few days accusations of fakery were being bandied back and forth. It was charged that the opposition was playing phonograph records over their loudspeakers because of defective radio equipment. The Capitol management offered a $100 reward to any person who could prove that the radio demonstration being conducted at the Capitol by the Salton-Foster company was not genuine: “The Capitol equipment is open to the closest scrutiny by anyone doubtful of its authenticity.”
The novelty of the theater demonstrations soon wore off and after a couple of weeks were discontinued. Talking pictures were still seven years away but the audience must have wondered why the sound they heard on the radio could not be wedded to the silent screen.
T. Eaton Company ads for 22 April told of the opening of a radio section on the fourth floor of the store. Eaton’s was the first large city firm to enter the radio merchandising field. Salton resigned his position as radio inspector and disposed of his interest in Salton-Foster Radio Engineering to his partner before taking charge of Eaton’s radio department on May 1. He set up his CKZC transmitter in the store and it was a great attraction to the customers who were fascinated by a close up of the apparatus that put a radio program on the air.
Eaton’s also began a radio section in its mail order building; as in the city store, it started as an adjunct to the music department. Eaton’s mail order is now only a memory but a half-century ago, it completely dominated the radio mail-order business in western Canada. Eaton’s Radio Bulletin was the bible of radio fans across the prairies for many years; it displayed a full line of receiving sets, kits and component parts.
On 4 May, the Commissioner of the Manitoba Telephone System gave a statement to the press whose significance was not realized at the time but which would have a tremendous effect on radio broadcasting in Manitoba for the next decade and more. He said that at a conference the previous day with the Minister of Telephones, Thomas Johnson, it had been decided that the MTS would enter the domain of radio broadcasting. Strangely enough, neither newspaper commented on the MTS decision. The following month, the Commissioner took an option on a Northern Electric 101-A 500 watt radio-phone transmitter.
The Free Press, with its feeble little ten-watt set, was having trouble competing for audience attention with the 500-watt Tribune station. Seventy-five foot antenna towers had been erected on the Free Press building by 4 May and the paper continued to assure its readers and listeners that its “major broadcasting station” would be on the air shortly. Apparently the manufacturer was having problems getting the bugs out of the transmitter, a radically new design.
On 31 May, the Free Press reported that its broadcasts would sound much louder in the future as alterations and adjustments by operator Foster, 4CR, (Salton’s former partner) had provided six times more power in the antenna. As a result the program was received with a “storm of enthusiastic applause.” It seems probable that the Free Press acquired the use on a temporary basis of the 100 watt set that had been the CKZC transmitter.
By July, CJCG and CJNC had developed a daily program pattern. There were noon-hour news, grain and stock market reports and sports bulletins; each weekday evening a two-hour program consisting of an instrumental and vocal concert with fill-in phonograph records. On Sunday evenings, both stations broadcast a one and a half to two-hour program of sacred music. CJNC began an unusual feature on 4 July, a 15 minute code practice session by the station operator, D. E. Bankart, prior to its evening program.
Instrumentalists and vocalists performed gratis and every music teacher in the city was continually pestering the radio stations to put their prize students on the air. Vocalists ranged from coloratura sopranos to basso profundos plus an assortment of elocutionists and dramatic readers. The piano was the most popular solo instrument but there was no shortage of violinists, banjo combos, mandolin quintets, cornetists, mouth organ virtuosos, Hawaiian steel guitar artists and xylophonists.
An article in the 8 July issue of the Free Press was a preview of a controversy that has continued to rage until the present day. The Free Press was extremely critical of a letter written by W. E. Weaver of Hespeler, Ontario, to the American magazine Radio News. “Speaking from the depths of arrogant ignorance,” to quote the Free Press. “Weaver had made the unqualified statement that the boys of Canada, the coming generation of this country, are being exposed to an unavoidable American influence which may result in a loss of pride in their nationality, that American pronunciations threaten to creep into Canadian speech and that American ideas threaten to stifle Canadian individuality. Canadians must realize the necessity for better radio stations of their own if their national life is to be saved from extinction.”
The Free Press was particularly incensed at Weaver’s allegation that Canadian broadcasts were of poor quality. The Free Press said it had received many letters testifying to the excellence of its programming, not only from Canadian listeners, but from many points in the northern US as well. “Abysmal ignorance of his own country is to be regretted in the writer to Radio News as characteristic of the poorest citizenship.”
The long-promised Free Press high-powered transmitter finally went into service on Thursday, 27 July. A brick superstructure to house the transmitter, power supply and an artist’s studio had been built on the roof of the Free Press under the west antenna tower. The station had a power of 1,600 watts.
A two-hour initial program on the new set featured well-known singers, pianists and violinists. The Princess Pat’s band played three numbers and Sergeant Everson gave a cornet solo. The Free Press waxed ecstatic the next day in telling of “the rare galaxy of talent” whose “superb performance ... caused a furore.” The newspaper said it was flooded with congratulations from distant points on the strength of the signal and the clarity of the modulation which was “unequalled in the short history of radio in western Canada.”
Broadcasting was not the only new development in Manitoba radio in 1922. The previous summer, the Forestry Branch of the Department of the Interior, which was responsible for natural resources, had asked the Air Board, the forerunner of the RCAF, to fly patrols over the area east of Lake Winnipeg where valuable stands of spruce were being ravaged by forest fires. The Air Board set up a staging depot on the Red River at the foot of Glasgow Avenue in Winnipeg with operational bases at Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg and at Norway House at the north end of the lake. Three war surplus F3 twin engine flying boats were dispatched to fly the Manitoba mission. Carrying a crew of ten, the F3s had a cruising speed of 80 miles an hour.
Officials of the Interior Department were so pleased with the results of the 1921 operation that three more planes were added to the fleet. In August 1922, the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals installed radio stations for the Forestry Branch in the old Customs House in Winnipeg and at Victoria Beach and Norway House. These stations were used for inter base communications and the dispatch of aircraft.
In 1921, experiments conducted with radiophone equipped planes, flying the area along the eastern slope of the Rockies, had shown that an average range of 150 miles with good commercial speech could be maintained. This meant that aircraft in the Lake Winnipeg district could be in continuous contact with either Victoria Beach or Norway House. Major W. A. Steel of the Signal Corps offered to install radio transmitters in the F3s but the Air Board commandant rejected the suggestion saying that the flying boats carried reliable homing pigeons and would continue to rely on them in emergency situations. Each flight had on board two birds trained by a pigeoneer. In the event of a forced landing, a released pigeon would, hopefully, return to its home base within a few hours. This policy remained in effect for several years. RCAF planes were not equipped with two-way radios until the 1930s.
On 14 June 1922, the Radiotelegraph Branch was transferred back to the Department of Marine and Fisheries and by September I the branch had been reorganized and a revised set of regulations promulgated. Significant in the new regulations was the establishment of three new classes of station license: private commercial broadcasting, amateur broadcasting and private receiving station. The rule that the owner and operator of a station must be a Canadian citizen or other British subject was waived in the case of the private receiving station for which a license fee of one dollar was charged.
The amateur broadcasting station was a unique Canadian institution. Its purpose was to provide radio programs in communities not reached by the larger urban broadcasters. Amateur broadcast licenses were issued only to bona fide radio clubs of a non-profit nature, not to individuals or commercial interests. Manitoba never had any amateur broadcast stations for reasons that will be discussed later. Some writers on Canadian radio continue to confuse amateur broadcasting stations with amateur experimental or ham stations. They are in no way related; the mix-up is caused by the use of the word amateur in both designations.
Another change in the regulations saw the allotment of figure 6 calls to technical and training school stations. Kelvin Technical High School, formerly XEY, became 6AB while St. John’s Technical High School was issued the call 6AX.
Besides the licenses issued to Salton, the Free Press and the Tribune, the Radiotelegraph Branch granted broadcast licenses to George E. Bell and Canadian Westinghouse. Neither opened stations in Winnipeg. Bell became involved in the operation of stations in Calgary and Regina while Westinghouse decided to specialize in the manufacture of receivers rather than enter the broadcast field.
With the arrival of autumn, the reception of distant stations improved and the number of broadcast listeners increased at a prodigious rate. Many of the radio fans were building their sets either from construction articles in radio magazines or from home-assembly kits. A vacuum tube receiver was a necessity for picking up the faraway broadcasters. Most utilized regeneration, a method by which the feed-back of energy in the circuit increased sensitivity and signal strength. In 1922, all receivers were powered wholly by batteries, the technique of using ac power to run a set was still under development. A wide variety of vacuum tubes was on the market for the set builders and the favorite was the Northern Electric “Peanut” tube at $5 which required only a single dry cell for filament supply.
Among the more popular factory built receivers was the Westinghouse “RC”, a regenerative receiver with two stages of audio amplification which had sufficient output to operate a loud speaker to a room volume and which sold fully equipped for $175. Another was the Westinghouse “Aeriola Senior” a single tube regenerative receiver which cost $65 less earphones, batteries and aerial.
There had been an astonishing proliferation of broadcasting stations in the US, many of them could be heard in Winnipeg by even a single tube receiver. Interference with reception, particularly of distant stations, was an annoying problem. Sparks from the trolley wires as the street cars rattled along, the firing of the ignition of the ubiquitous Model T Fords, the “hash” from faulty insulators on hydro lines and from defective electric apparatus, could blot out weak signals. Probably the worst offenders were the regenerative receivers themselves. When adjusted past the point of maximum regeneration, the setting where the feed-back of energy made them most sensitive, they broke into oscillation. In other words, they became miniature transmitters whose squeals and whistles could be heard for blocks by other receiving sets.
A well-orchestrated campaign tried to lay much of the blame for interference on the radio hams. A spark transmitter could cause an intolerable noise on a broadcast receiver and when Salton’s CKZC first went on the air a few malcontents were trumpeting “spark forever.” But the formation of the Manitoba Radio Association, shortly after the newspapers began broadcasting, brought agreement among Winnipeg amateurs to respect voluntary “quiet hours” between 7 and 10:30 p.m. This step was taken in order to avoid confrontation with a militant and growing horde of BCLs (broadcast listeners) many of whom were threatening to demand repressive action against amateurs. The hams had already begun to dismantle their out-of-date spark sets and convert them to the much more efficient tube transmitters which had a far lower interference threshold. The most popular tube among the amateurs was the U V 202, better known as the five-watt bottle. The 202 required a 500 volt power supply that was furnished by a homemade chemical rectifier pack that converted ac to dc. There were no rectifier tubes available to amateurs.
After broadcasting for nine months, the Winnipeg newspapers were becoming concerned about the viability of their radio enterprises which were in a continuing loss position. Whatever the papers had hoped to gain by their venture into broadcasting had evidently not materialized; certainly there had not been an increase in circulation. They would be happy to get out of broadcasting if it could be done without antagonizing the public for whom they had been providing free entertainment.
The fledgling broadcast industry was in serious trouble right across Canada. The problem was the rigid governmental rules regarding advertising. A limited amount of indirect advertising, such as the naming of a sponsoring company at the beginning and end of a program, was permitted. Direct advertising, that is, the airing of spot advertisements during a program, was expressly forbidden.
On 8 January 1923, the publishers of both papers met with John E. Lowry, the Commissioner of Telephones, and explained their predicament to him. They asked if the Manitoba Telephone System still intended to go into broadcasting. The answer was yes if the Manitoba government could come to an understanding with the federal authorities regarding jurisdiction over radio and the division of private receiving station license fees. According to Lowry, both papers stated that they would give every support to any action which the provincial government might take for the control, regulation and development of radio in the province. This unequivocal promise of both the Free Press and the Tribune to support any future government policy regarding radio reflected their eagerness to get out of broadcasting.
Lowry’s game plan was to have complete control of radio in Manitoba vested in the Telephone Commission. On 22 September 1922, he had sent F. M. Black, Provincial Treasurer and Minister of Telephones in the newly formed Bracken administration, a “Radio Telephone Memorandum” outlining certain proposals regarding radio broadcasting. Lowry followed this up on 29 January 1923, with a draft of “The Manitoba Radio Regulation Act” which codified many of his ideas. This document is too long to quote in its entirety but a few excerpts will indicate its scope: “No person, company or corporation, shall establish any radio station or shall establish or operate any radio telephone or telegraph apparatus within the province except under and in accordance with a license issued by the Commission. The Commission shall prepare, issue and control, standard methods for the erection of all wires, structures and apparatus used for radio stations within the province and all such shall be installed in a manner approved by the Commission. 90 per cent of all radio license fees shall be retained by the province. Licenses may be withdrawn temporarily or permanently for cause at the discretion of the Commissioner and approval of the Minister after a hearing by the Commission.” The phrases “radio station” and “radio telephone or telegraph apparatus” included receivers.
Under the proposed act, if a Justice of the Peace was satisfied by information on oath that there were reasonable grounds for believing any radio telephone or telegraph apparatus was used or intended to be used in contravention of the act, he might grant a warrant for the search of any suspect premises and the seizure of any radio apparatus found in such place.
The “Radio Telephone Memorandum” had also recommended that authority for enforcement of the Radiotelegraph Act be transferred to the province and that inspectors be hired by the province to enforce the regulations under the act.
One point should be made clear. The Manitoba Government Telephone Act called for the appointment of a three-man Board of Commissioners, to be known as the Telephone Commission, that was to run the Manitoba Telephone System. But only one Commissioner, John E. Lowry, had been appointed. In all cases therefore, where the word “Commission” is used, one should read, “Commissioner Lowry.” In his report on “Manitoba Commercial Enterprises,” Carl Goldenberg noted that the concentration in a single person of the control of a business as large as the MTS was unusual. If the Manitoba Radio Regulation Act had ever been enacted into law, it would have made the Commissioner the virtual czar of radio in Manitoba.
A draft copy of the proposed Manitoba Radio Regulation Act was submitted to the Department of Marine and Fisheries for their consideration and comment. In a 24 February letter to the Minister of Telephones, Lowry reported that Ottawa, “did not altogether approve of the contemplated legislation.” Departmental officials suggested, however, that if the Minister of Telephones wrote the Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries stating that the province was desirous of establishing a monopoly of broadcasting, they were of the opinion the department had authority by virtue of Section II of the Radiotelegraph Act to grant the province the right to approve all licence applications for broadcasting stations and to control the issuance of permits for sending and receiving stations.
Lowry went on to say, “The suggestion ... appears to be a very good one and might obviate a lot of difficulties, the contention being that we can get all by letter that we could secure by legislation. This letter would have the further advantage that no local criticism would be stirred up when the newspapers dropped out of the business and the whole matter could be developed without any friction anywhere.”
The subject of license fees for private receiving stations was a separate topic. Any division of fees between Ottawa and the province would necessitate Parliament passing an amendment to the Radiotelegraph Act.
Manitoba wasted no time in carrying out Ottawa’s suggestion. On 27 February 1923, the Minister of Telephones wrote the Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries advising him that the Executive Council of Manitoba wished to secure a monopoly of broadcasting in Manitoba and that future licenses for broadcasting stations and for sending and receiving sets should be issued only by and with the consent of provincial authority. The minister also requested that the fee for a private receiving station license be increased to $2.50 effective 1 April 1923, with an unspecified portion devolving to Manitoba. He said this matter was now urgent as the newspapers in Manitoba were pressing for action since they wished to terminate their operations at the end of the month or as soon as possible.
On Thursday, 8 March, the Free Press and the Tribune announced they were relinquishing the field of broadcasting to the Manitoba Telephone System. The last broadcast of the Tribune station, CJNC, was on Friday night, 9 March, while the last broadcast of CJCG, the Free Press station, was its Saturday noon program of news and sports. Both papers printed similar explanations for discontinuing broadcasting. They said they had an amicable understanding with the Manitoba Telephone System - they had not been forced out of broadcasting. They concurred with the viewpoint of the MTS that radio and wire telephony belonged together and that one high-powered station was adequate for a city the size of Winnipeg.
The Tribune commented, “Some of you may not be sorry if broadcasts are less frequent. We have had many complaints Winnipeg stations have hogged the air so much that it has been difficult to listen to broadcasts from other parts of Canada and the US. We believe the MTS will be more merciful and not pound the ether so hard.”
The Manitoba Telephone System was authorized to operate on a wavelength of 450 meters using the call sign CKY. A three-letter call was unique; the reason for the choice of a three-letter call is not known unless it was to distinguish the lone publicly-owned broadcaster from the privately-owned stations all of whom had four-letter calls.
CKY’s 500 watt Northern Electric transmitter and studios were located on the main floor of the Government Telephone Building on Sherbrook Street just south of Portage Avenue. A flat-top antenna was strung between the towers on the roof. The overall cost of the CKY installation was only $18,005; operating expenses were minimal. In a letter to a Nova Scotia official who enquired about CKY, Lowry said he doubted if anyone could run a station on a smaller budget. The only salaried employee was D. R. P. Coats, announcer, chief operator and general factotum who was paid $150 a month. The transmitter was operated by volunteer labor recruited by Lowry from engineering personnel. The Commissioner would not put up money for a record library so Coats had to borrow records from music stores.
The first program of the new station was broadcast at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 March 1923. It was strictly an in-house MTS affair with selections by staff members. The premier, John Bracken, delivered the opening address. He paid tribute to the newspapers for their pioneer work in radio broadcasting. The intention of MTS was to put broadcasting on a revenue-earning basis as far as possible and to develop it as a public utility for entertainment, instructional and commercial use. The premier said that three concerts every week on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings from 8:30 to 10 p.m. were considered as meeting with general approval because a great number of listeners wanted plenty of free air time to listen to programs from distant points.
In addition, records, news, sports and market reports were broadcast from 12:30 to 2 p.m. daily except Sunday. On Sunday night there was a concert of sacred music at 9 p.m. The final time slot in the Thursday evening program was occupied by the “University Hour,” a series of talks by university professors that became one of CKY’s most popular features. The decision to limit programming to three week-day nights was indicative of deficiencies in the state of the radio art in 1923 that resulted in severe inter-station interference.
The CKY transmitter embodied the best available principles but it emitted a wave that would be considered broad by modern standards. It occupied at least one-fifth of the dial on the average receiver (as had CJCG and CJNC) and blocked out weak signals from faraway stations over a substantial portion of the radio spectrum. A complicating factor was that the technique of controlling wavelength or frequency by a quartz crystal had not been developed and transmitters tended to wobble off their assigned wavelength.
Much of the fault lay with the receivers, especially the most popular type, those which used regeneration and had the detector tube connected directly to the aerial circuit. These were inherently broad-tuning and non-selective.
The legislature was in session when CKY went on the air. There was only a brief mention of the entry of the province into broadcasting. This occurred during the Wednesday night sitting, 14 March. J. T. Haig, Conservative, rose on a question of privilege to say he understood that the MTS had ordered the newspapers to close their radio stations and that the MTS had installed its own apparatus. He had hoped the government would consult the legislature before embarking on such an important change in policy. He thought the House should have more control over the Telephone Commission. In reply, the minister said it was incorrect to suggest that the government had forced the newspapers to shut down their stations - it had, on the other hand, been a mutually agreeable arrangement. He went on to say the government had no intention of imposing a tax on radio receivers but that the MTS expected to obtain some revenue through rentals. A Labor member, F. J. Dixon, also protested the government’s failure to notify the House before commencing broadcasting. There was no further discussion of CKY.
On 27 April 1923, the Hon. E. Lapointe, Minister of Marine and Fisheries, introduced Bill 114 in the House of Commons, an act to amend the Radiotelegraph Act, 1913. The amending act read: “The Governor in Council may authorize the payment of a portion of the license fee to a provincial government or private company for services given in connection with the operation of broadcasting stations.”
Speaking to second reading on 1 May, the minister said: “This bill is to meet specially the situation in Manitoba where the two broadcasting stations operated by the newspapers have been abandoned on account of cost. The province operates the telephone system and is quite prepared to operate a broadcasting station but wants something in return. We think it is only fair that the thousands of persons who are getting enjoyment out of their receiving apparatus should pay something to the broadcast station that supplies the enjoyment. The idea is to give part of the license fee to the provincial government or to any private company that will operate a broadcast station.” The bill passed third reading on 3 May and was given Royal assent on 13 June.
No other province and no private company availed themselves of the revenue from the license fee split. Manitoba first asked for 90 percent, then 85, but finally settled for 50 per cent of the one dollar fee subject to review after a year with the suggestion the fee then be doubled.
The Canada Gazette for 16 June 1923, published revised Regulation 2 (b) of the Radiotelegraph Act which became effective 15 May 1923. The new regulation read: “Application for license to install and operate any of the following classes of stations for radiotelephony in the province of Manitoba will, under arrangement between the Dominion and Provincial Governments, be submitted to the Minister of Telephones of the province of Manitoba for endorsation before being finally dealt with by the Department of Marine and fisheries: Public and Private Radiotelephone Stations, Private Commercial Broadcasting Stations, Amateur Broadcasting Stations.” The department stated, however, that, “The control of all stations remains in the hands of the Dominion Government as heretofore, and all stations will continue to function under the regulations issued by this department.”
Radiotelegraph, amateur experimental and technical training school stations were exempt from the new regulations. The Manitoba amateurs were told by the department there would be no change in their status without full consultation between the department and the amateur fraternity.
Although the Minister of Telephones obtained only a small part of what he asked for in his letter of 27 February, the practical result of Regulation 2 (b) was to grant a virtual monopoly of radio broadcasting in Manitoba to the Manitoba Telephone System. Commissioner Lowry was adamantly opposed to any station competing with CKY. His point of view regarding other broadcast outlets is shown by these quotations from three of his letters: “We want it understood that no other broadcasting stations will be allowed ... as such would be a duplication and economically wrong.” And, “One single station in each state or province is going to be the ultimate solution.” And finally “If Brandon had a station, Portage la Prairie and probably Neepawa would want similar facilities.”
The Winnipeg newspapers avoided attacking the monopolistic practices of the MTS but Lowry found himself faced with an antagonist when the magazine, The Radio Bug, began publication in June 1923. The Radio Bug, the only general interest radio magazine ever published in Winnipeg, catered to both amateur radio operators and broadcast listeners. The editor of the first two issues was V. T. Thomas, 4CE. When Thomas left for the US, J. Kelvin Maxwell took over the editor’s job. The Radio Bug survived until November 1924, and during its short life waged an unremitting anti-Lowry campaign. Lowry called the magazine a scurrilous and irresponsible rag.
Editor Maxwell arranged a meeting in his office on 14 August 1923, of local amateurs desirous of forming a trans-Canada amateur organization. Speaking as one who attended this meeting, it was obvious to Manitoba amateurs that, in the absence of a strong national association, they were helpless to prevent any curtailment of their privileges.
Lowry was constantly harping on the alleged interference with radio broadcasts by amateurs. In a letter to the Minister of Telephones on 4 January 1923, under the heading “Radio Legislation,” Lowry stated that, “The province should have some control which would stop interference or annoyance from amateurs.”
One clause of the Manitoba Radio Regulation Act proposed by Lowry read, “Any person who ... without lawful cause or excuse, interferes with or obstructs any radio transmission, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to summary conviction and a penalty not exceeding $100 or one month’s imprisonment.” Another clause stated, “The Commission may not issue licenses for telephone and telegraph stations which are considered to be a danger or detriment to the development or progress of radio communication.”
In his 2 May 1923, letter to the Minister, Lowry said, “Amateur transmitting stations, especially telegraph stations, are more or less a menace to commercial business and under the present system there is no control and not a proper system of inspection. Providing there is proper regulation and inspection, we would not object to a limited number of amateurs operating on a wavelength to be determined and during hours which would be set.”
The Radio Bug, in its August-September 1923 issue, reported that Lowry had told a meeting of radio dealers that “Amateurs were only a nuisance, this type of license should either be eliminated or raised to a prohibitive amount.”
If the Manitoba Radio Regulation Act had become law and the Commissioner had been given authority to write the regulations and appoint inspectors, the future of amateur radio in Manitoba would have been bleak indeed.
A second meeting was held in The Radio Bug office on 1 September and an ad hoc committee was set up to organize the Canadian Radio Relay League. League headquarters were to be in Winnipeg and the official publication was to be The Radio Bug. The decision to form the CRRL created some consternation at the American Radio Relay League head office in Hartford. Incidentally, the word “Relay” refers to one of the original objectives of the ARRL, a network of amateur stations to relay messages coast-to-coast.
In the November 1923, issue of QST, the ARRL magazine, there appeared a long editorial headed: CRRL. According to the editor, “The ARRL was functioning in Canada at the request of leading Canadian amateurs who realized that Canadian amateurs were not sufficient in number to finance a successful organization. When the Canadian amateurs elect to separate and maintain their own organization, the ARRL will withdraw from Canada. In the meantime, the ARRL considers it has a sacred trust in Canada and it proposes to safeguard that trust with all its ability. It would be false to its trust if it withdrew in favor of an amateur organization fostered by a publishing company for pecuniary motives.” These were noble sentiments but Manitoba hams felt that they had been left to fight the battle alone when Commissioner Lowry was attempting to emasculate amateur activity in the province. There is not a jot or tittle of evidence to show that the ARRL intervened on behalf of Manitoba amateurs.
The CRRL divided Canada into seven divisions and in September nominations were called for divisional directors. The league received enthusiastic support west of the Lakehead but in the east it got only a lukewarm reception. Later in the year the directors decided to change the name from CRRL to Canadian Amateur Wireless Association to avoid further confrontation with the ARRL. The CAWA eventually folded when it was unable to generate country-wide support and its house organ, The Radio Bug, ceased publication.
On 22 September, the Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries wrote the Minister of Telephones that the radio-telephone business in Manitoba had become a matter of some concern to the Dominion government, the strongest representations having been made to the effect that the actual working out of the arrangement between the two governments was severely handicapping the development of the radio industry in Manitoba.
Commercial interests with plenty of financial and political clout were endeavoring to break CKY’s stranglehold on broadcasting. One of the interveners on behalf of private industry was the Radio Corporation of Winnipeg (owned by the Toronto-based Canadian Radio Corporation) which was acting as the sales agent for the Free Press station. They had applied for a license with the intent of putting the CJCG equipment back on the air to promote the sale of the entire station unit. Lowry had refused to endorse their application unless the Radio Corporation agreed to certain conditions one of which was a guarantee that the standard of broadcast programs be as good as CKY’s. After further discussion, Radio Corporation withdrew their license application.
The first time radio was used for communication between an isolated Manitoba mine and Winnipeg was in the fall of 1923. The mine was the Bellevue, situated in the wilderness 30 miles inland from the east shore of Lake Winnipeg and 110 miles northeast of Winnipeg. Mail and supplies reached the mine from Riverton, some 75 miles north of Winnipeg on the west shore of the lake. In summer the route was across the lake by boat and then along a winding river with numerous portages to the mine; in winter, by team across lake ice and then over a rough bush trail to the Bellevue. During the spring break-up when lake and river ice was melting and during the fall freeze-up when the ice was forming, the mine was cut off from civilization-plane service into the north was only a hope for the future. The mine manager wanted to investigate the practicability of radio as a means of all-seasons communication with the city and had ordered a receiver and a 20 watt transmitter from the Acme Magneto and Electrical Company in Winnipeg. The owners of the mine, the American Development Company of New York, had applied for an experimental license, which at that time carried a 9 call, with the idea of getting a commercial license if the test proved successful. The author was offered a three-way job as assayer, mine survey helper and radio operator. The radio equipment arrived on the last boat across Lake Winnipeg for the year along with advice in the mail that the license application had been rejected because the company did not have a Canadian charter. It would be necessary to reapply in the name of the manager, a Canadian citizen. In the interim, the author would use his amateur call, 4AG, when operating the set. On 2 November, an emergency arose that necessitated getting the radio operational without delay. The mill foreman’s wife, Mrs. E. G. Symms, who was expecting a baby, suddenly developed complications with which the local Indian midwife was unable to cope and a doctor was urgently needed. After unsuccessfully attempting to raise a Winnipeg station, contact was made with Harry Drew, 9EBT, Fargo, North Dakota. He was asked to phone the company’s Winnipeg office and have them try and get a doctor to the mine. The company vice-president, H. V. Hudson, contacted Dr. S. Thompson, the resident doctor in Riverton. The doctor volunteered to try and reach the mine. After a hazardous trip by dog team over newly-formed ice on Lake Winnipeg to Manigotagan on the east shore, he was taken by a guide through the bush to the mine, travelling on horseback. He arrived at the Bellevue on November 5 in time to save the mother’s life although the baby was stillborn. Because of their part in getting badly needed medical assistance to the remote community, 4AG and 9EBT were awarded citations by the American magazine Popular Radio for the most outstanding achievement by radio amateurs in 1923. Later the station power was increased to 50 watts to enable regular communication with Winnipeg using the special experimental license 9AD.
When good reception conditions returned in the autumn, CKY introduced an unusual service to its listeners. Sensitive receivers with directional antennae were installed by M.T.S. at locations in the city that were relatively free from man-made interference. The first spot chosen was in the Fort Rouge district, the second on Atlantic Avenue. When one of the receivers monitored a strong signal from a U.S. broadcaster, it was fed by telephone line to CKY and the received program was put on the air. During the course of an evening, a variety of programs from different U.S. stations might be re-broadcast over CKY. Lowry was continually extolling the excellence of CKY productions yet if an entertaining program was coming through from Denver, Des Moines or elsewhere, the unpaid CKY artist was unceremoniously bumped off the air. In some quarters it was felt that this scheme might be counter-productive in that it would encourage listeners to buy receivers capable of picking up US broadcasts direct in preference to CKY’s own offerings.
In 1921 amateurs had succeeded in conquering the Atlantic using low power on short waves. By 1924 the old concept of ultra-high power and long wavelengths for transoceanic communication had been abandoned by the commercial radio companies. A mad scramble was now on to stake out claims in what had formerly been the amateur radio ghetto below 200 meters. At the 1924 Washington Radio Conference, to which Canada was a signatory, the short wave (high frequency) spectrum was apportioned between the various radio services. Amateurs were granted band segments at 80, 40, 20, 10 and 5 meters. With intercontinental contacts a daily occurrence, a hurried decision was made to adopt unofficial national prefixes. Canadian hams began using C.
Broadcasters were happy to read in the report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries for the year ending 31 March 1924, that the department was relaxing the ban on direct advertising to see whether advertising could be handled in such a way as to make it acceptable to broadcast listeners. The necessity for this change in policy can be seen in the figures for CKY operations for the first six months. Overall costs were $3,119 while revenue from indirect advertising was only $1,806.
The most interesting local event in broadcasting in 1924 was the granting of phantom station license, CNRW, to the Canadian National Railways. A phantom station was, like an amateur broadcasting station, uniquely Canadian. The holder of a phantom station license did not own a broadcasting plant but purchased air time from a licensed broadcaster and used its phantom station license to identify its programs.
Sir Henry Thornton, then president of the CNR, had developed the idea of establishing a chain of radio stations across Canada which were either owned by the railway or which operated under phantom station licenses. These stations produced high quality programs that could be picked up on the radio equipped CN transcontinental trains for the entertainment of the travelling public. It was the first Canadian radio network and proved to be immensely popular with listeners in all parts of the country. In Winnipeg, the CNR leased time from CKY and broadcast using the call CNRW. This provided CKY with substantial revenue and did not violate Lowry’s strongly held principle that there should be only one broadcast outlet in each province.
Acknowledgments and References
Much of the material in this article is based on the author’s recollection of events in the field of radio in Manitoba throughout the past 60 years.
The Pas Herald was the principal source of Information on the Marconi wireless stations at The Pas and Port Nelson. The Winnipeg newspapers are the basis of the story on CJCG and CJNC. Information on the various amateur radio clubs was found in the Free Press, the Tribune and The Radio Bug. The account of de Forest’s visit to Winnipeg is from the Winnipeg papers; biographical data on de Forest is from his autobiography, Father of Radio, published by Wilcox and Folett, Chicago, 1950. Manitoba Calling, a publication of the Manitoba Telephone System, furnished information on CKY. The Lowry correspondence is located in the Department of Public Works file, RG-I I, Al-Box 3 under Radio 1923 in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
Hansard and the Sessional Reports of the Departments of Marine and Fisheries, Naval Service and Railways and Canals have proven to be valuable sources of information. The Canada Gazette has been consulted for details of the radio regulations as they changed over the years.
A host of publications in the public domain have provided minor details including the Scientific American, Radio News, the Manitoban, Marconi’s Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphs and Telephony and Popular Radio.
Of the individuals whose rememberances of early wireless were most informative, there are at least five who should be especially thanked. They are Herb Jeune of Victoria, who was 84 at the time of writing and who had a fund of stories about station VBM; Arthur Scott, possibly the only surviving member of the Canadian Central Wireless Club; Douglas C. Chapman, one of the operators of the Free Press wireless during the General Strike in Winnipeg; Graham Spry of Ottawa, the secretary of the 1919 Winnipeg wireless club and particularly, William G. Speechly, ex4AZ, who suggested several very productive research leads.
Finally, I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Elizabeth Cam, who scrutinized the article with professional skill and pointed out numerous errors in spelling, style and syntax.
Page revised: 2 December 2021