Monthly Archives: May 2014

The “Foxhole Radio” Turns 70

FoxholePictorialI suspect that most who are familiar with the “foxhole radio” learned about it from the 1950’s era book All About Radio and Television by Jack Gould. This book, a staple of many elementary school libraries, includes the crystal set shown here, which was constructed using a razor blade and pencil lead as the detector. Gould recounts how such a radio was used by soldiers in the foxholes of World War 2, and I suspect that it was the appearance in Gould’s book that popularized the name.  And it turns out that Gould probably originated the name.

The name “foxhole radio”, and perhaps the concept, seems to have originated from the construction of simple crystal sets by soldiers at Anzio in 1944. From March through early May, 1944, fighting was light, “living was leisurely” for the thousands of soldiers on the beachhead, and the beachhead was a “honeycomb of wet and muddy trenches, foxholes, and dugouts.”

One of the first references to the foxhole radio I’ve been able to find appeared in QST for July, 1944. It doesn’t use the term “foxhole radio,” but this “Stray” reads as follows:

According to Toivo Kujanpaa, a licensed ham op stationed on the Anzio Beachhead, several of the radio men there rigged up a field version of a “crystal” set using a razor blade for a detector. Their efforts were rewarded by the reception of a “jive” program (along with some German propaganda) aimed at the American forces from an Axis station in Rome.

About that same time was when, as far as I can tell, a variation of the name “foxhole radio” first appeared in print.  Time Magazine for July 17, 1944 made the report,.   Time reported that one Lt. M.L. Rupert was one of “hundreds of U.S. infantrymen” who made the foxhole receiver to kill time and boredom at Anzio.  Lt. Rupert wrote to Marlin Firearms Company (the manufacturer of the razor blades) with a description of the set.As QST later lamented, Time “as usual” hadn’t given credit to hams for coming up with the idea.

A similar account, also crediting Lt. Rupert’s letter to the manufacturer, appeared in the New York Times on June 25, 1944. According to the New York Times, the idea of using the pencil lead originated with O.B. Hanson, NBC’s vice president of engineering, who refined on the concept sent to the razor blade manufacturer. Interestingly, the byline of the New York Times account is none other than Jack Gould, the author of All About Radio and Television.  So it’s safe to say that Gould is the originator of the name “foxhole radio.”

There were two follow-ups in QST. The August issue contains the following Stray:

Further details on the foxhole radio sets now have been received from a correspondent in Italy. The razor blade and safety-pin detector is described as follows: “A station was found by moving the point of the safety pin, anchored at the other end, over the opposite end of the blade from where it is connected to the coil and antenna. The ‘phones are inserted between the pin and the grounded side of the coil.” He adds that “reception was very good.”

Finally, a letter appears in the October issue of QST from Justin Garton. No call sign is listed, but Garton’s address is shown as 448 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. Garton reports that the boys on the Anzio beachhead were able to receive Rome during the day and Nazi propaganda programs from Berlin at night. Garton also includes the following schematic:


I wasn’t able to find a call sign for either Kujanpaa or Garton. Since the Stray indicates that Kujanpaa was licensed but didn’t give his call, I’m guessing that he was licensed after Pearl Harbor and consequently did not receive a call sign. It’s possible that he received a call after the War, but I wasn’t able to find it. According to this enlistment record, one Toivo J. Kujanpaa of Massachusetts, born in 1910, enlisted on June 11, 1943. According to the Social Security Death Index, he was born on June 19, 1910, and died on January 6, 1991.  Its quite likely that he got his amateur operator license after Pearl Harbor but before enlisting a year and a half later.  With the wartime moratorium on station licenses, he would not have received a call sign, despite being licensed.

If you’re an ARRL member and logged into your account there, you can download the QST articles cited above at the following links:

And this June 1945 Stray submitted by W2MIB includes an alternative detector,

Update:  Gould’s book “All About Radio and Television” is now available for free download at

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Sinking of the Empress of Ireland: 1914

The 1912 edition of Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World  notes that the Canadian steamer RMS Empress of Ireland was equipped with a wireless set capable of 85 nautical miles, operating on 110 and 300 meters. She bore the call sign MPL.


Popular Mechanics, July 1914

Popular Mechanics, July 1914

A hundred years ago, the wireless operator Edward Bomford was called upon to send the distress call SOS DE MPL, signalling the greatest peacetime maritime loss in Canadian history. 1012 souls (840 passengers and 172 crew) perished during the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, following a collision with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad. The steamer had just begun her voyage from Quebec City to Liverpool, England. The harbor pilot had just disembarked at Pointe-au-Père, Quebec, and Captain Henry George Kendall was taking the ship on its normal outbound course. He sighted the lights of the Storstad several miles distant, but ultimately lost sight of the coal ship in the fog. At about 2:00 AM, the Storstad crashed into the side of the Empress.

The Storstad was relatively undamaged, but the Empress sunk in the approximate 40 meters of water in about 15 minutes, leaving little time to evacuate the ship of the mostly sleeping passengers.

Bomford, the young wireless operator, had just relieved operator Ronald Ferguson. An officer ran to the wireless house with orders from the Captain, but Bomford was already at the key, calling the station at Pointe-au-Père. He made contact with Pointe-au-Père operator Crawford S. Leslie. Leslie and other operators quickly notified the government boats Eureka and Lady Evelyn. The Eureka had steam up, having just taken the mails to the Empress. The Eureka got under way immediately, followed closely by the Lady Evelyn. They found the surface of the water calm, dotted with a few lifeboats and debris. Some survivors were taken aboard, some of whom succumed to exposure after exposure to the cold waters of the St. Lawrence, the temperatures that night being just a few degrees above freezing.

The survivors were taken to Rimouski, Quebec, a town of about 2000. That town’s doctors scurried from house to house to treat the survivors quartered there. Most of the town’s population, having been alerted by telegraph, was present at the wharf to meet the survivors, eager to provide whatever help that was possible, carrying blankets, hot coffee, food, and medicine. Among those assisting with the relief efforts was John McWilliams, one of the wireless operators from Pointe-au-Père, who had hastily gone to Rimouski to help render aid. According to one account, few gained more praise than was accorded to him for his efforts.

Both of the wireless operators, Bomford and Ferguson, as well as Captain Kendall, were among the survivors. I haven’t been able to find any information about Bomford (whose name is spelled Bamford in some accounts). There was an Edward Bamford born in 1887 who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1918. This is almost certainly a different person, since this Edward Bamford had enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1905, where he served until his death in 1928.

The chief radio officer Ferguson, was later a licensed ham, G4VF. He was picked up by the Storstad, and later transferred to one of the tugboats assisting in the rescue. Since the tug had left hastily with no wireless  operator aboard, Ferguson was given permission to smash the lock on the tug’s wireless and put it on the air to help coordinate the rescue efforts. Ferguson died in 1985 at the age of 91.

Over a thousand perished that night. Canadian and Norwegian inquiries reached conflicting conclusions as to the blame for the collision. The Canadian inquiry largely placed the blame on the captain of the Storstad, while the Norwegian inquiry largely blamed the Canadian captain.


Read More at Amazon:

Young readers will enjoy the young-adult novel Second Watch by Karen Autio. It is the story of an 11-year-old girl’s dream to visit her grandparents in Finland, and her trip on the Empress.

Canadian readers can find the following books at

En francais:

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Decoration Day, 1914

The following editorial appeared a hundred years ago, in the Arizona Republican of May 24, 1914.  In just a few years, there would be many more graves of those who gave their lives for their country.  But we are reminded that the sacrifices of the heroes are not diminished by honoring as well the least among us.

The Potters’ Field

We print this morning a protest presented by members of the Women’s Relief Corps against the purpose to strew flowers on the graves of the Potters’ Field on Decoration Day. We cannot think that the memory of the heroic dead, whose memory we are accustomed to revere on  Memorial Day, would be dishonored by such an act. Nothing would be detracted from the observance of our duty to them. In placing flowers indiscriminately upon the lowly graves of the unknown dead, we should be acting as proxy for many a mother, wife, sister or daughter who does not know where her dead lies, or, knowing, could not perform that office herself.

Decoration Day is made the occasion in ail cemeteries for laying wreaths upon the graves of loved ones, who may not have laid down or offered their lives for their country. If you go into any cemetery in the land next Saturday, you will find little graves covered with flowers. You will find the graves of mothers decorated by loving hands.  You will find remembrances upon the graves of many who were born and have died since the war.

No one would raise a protest against such an expression of love on Decoration Day or any other day. Would we place a stigma instead of flowers upon the graves of those who lie in the Potters’ Field because they died friendless and penniless?

There are among us all. and there must be among these protestants against the decoration of the Potters’ Field, those who believe that there is a life beyond the grave; that there is a heaven not barred  against the souls of those whose only crime was that their bodies found sepulture in a Potters’ Field. Surely, we would not dishonor by scorn the graves of such as these.

There are desecrations of Decoration Day in protests against which we would join. We would protest against the custom of making the day a date for prize fights, and we would protest against turning from the solemnity of the Memorial Day services to merry-making in which is forgotten the purpose of the day, the annual renewal of our loyalty
to the country and our sense of gratitude to those who offered their lives for it.

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Radio Scouting in 1920



Among the many hats I wear is that of counselor for the Radio Merit Badge.  I was also on the staff of K2BSA at the 2013 National Scout Jamboree.

Radio has a long history with scouting. The first edition of the Scout Handbook includes several pages on how to construct an “up-to-date wireless apparatus for stationary use in the home or at the meeting place of each patrol.”  Wireless Merit Badge was originated in 1918 and was renamed Radio in 1923.  And in 1920, scouts were called upon to relay government bulletins to their communities.  This small item appeared in the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner of May 19, 1920.


It reports that the Naval radio station in New York was sending out a daily message to scouts from the National Council of the BSA, “predicated upon appreciation of the war service of radio operators who learned wireless telegraphy when they were scouts.” It reports that the signals had been received from 42 states, including all on the Pacific coast.

More details, including the illustration shown above, are given in the July 1920 issue of Boys Life.  The message was sent each evening from station NAH at 9:30 PM Eastern time at 25 words per minute, with a 1500 meter (what we would today call 200 kHz) spark signal. The 30-50 word messages “always contain something of interest to boys. Sometimes they are from the Department of Agriculture or some other government department, with a request for each operator to make the message known to the public immediately.” The recipient was expected to have a system of reaching those in his neighborhood, such as “farmers’ telephone, semaphore, Morse flag, blinker or heliograph,” or even a “good horse, a bicycle, motorcycle, automobile, sea-scout cutter or other vehicle.”

The Boys’ Life article concludes by admonishing every scout to have arrangements to receive the daily NAH bulletins, and to do his part when a test message or other urgent communication comes through.

The June 1920 issue of Boys’ Life points out that “neither the army, navy, postal service nor any land telegraph or telephone company can cover the country as quickly, at present, as the scouts will be able to do if they grasp their opportunity and make use of the Navy’s cooperation.” The article also admonishes that “every tenderfoot, second-class and first-class scout should consider signal practice with buzzer sets or radio sets at once” to avail themselves of this opportunity, the value of which to our government would be beyond calculation.


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Caruso Hits the Airwaves, 1914

carusoradioA hundred years ago, the New York Sun, May 14, 1914, reports that the voice of Enrico Caruso was broadcast from New York to Philadelphia. The broadcast took place from the roof of the Wanamaker Department Store, and was also announced in the advertisement shown here.

CarusoPortraitThe paper reports that “scores of amateur wireless enthusiasts in Greater New York and along the Jersey coast were mystified over hearing through their receivers the voice of Caruso singing.” The “tenor’s phonographic tones were clearly heard by the operator at the wireless station at the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia,” and also that a “commercial message, dealing with ordinary business of the day” was transmitted as well.

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Mobile Wireless Goes To War: 1914


The Army Signal Corps truck-mounted wireless, as shown in Popular Mechanics, October, 1914.

A hundred years ago today, May 10, 1914, mobile wireless was about to become a reality for the U.S. Army, as reported in the Washington Herald of that day:


Government Rushing Work on New
Portable Apparatus for Signal
Corps in Mexico.

A new wireless station mounted on a mortortruck. which is being constructed with all haste by the [U.S.] government in Mexico, was given a preliminary trial last night in which the operator was In easy communication with Key West and Philadelphia. The machine is to be used by the Signal Corps of the troops in Mexico.

The idea of a wireless station made portable by mounting on a motortruck, is original with the War Department and this machine which soon will be ready for active service is probably the only one of its kind in existence. The machine is constructed on a new design by Signal Corp engineers and has been assembled by the National Electric Company, work continuing In secret night and day.

A new “rapid transmitting panel” containing the latest improved wireless apparatus has been set about midway in a big six-cylinder White auto-truck, which carries in boxes at each side, a jointed portable aerial reaching 85 feet into the air when fully extended. The electric power for the wireless is furnished by the motor of the truck In direct connection with an electric generator, supplying enough current to light the mounted wireless room and run the instruments at their full capacity. The apparatus has a range of 400 to 800 miles in sending, and of nearly 2,500 miles In  receiving. The machine is for service at the army’s general headquarters giving the commander of forces easy communication with a fleet at sea, or with any of the small portable field instruments carried by sections of the Signal Corps.

In recent preliminary trials the machine was subjected to strict tests. As soon as the work reaches a satisfactory stage of completion field tests will be given and the possibilities of the equipment accurately determined. Quick shipment to Mexico will follow.

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Doing an FCC Ship Inspection

About 30 years ago, I got my FCC Commercial Second-Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License.  A few years later, the FCC consolidated the licenses, and it became the General Radiotelephone Operator’s License (GROL), and I was suddenly on equal footing with those who held the First Class license, for which I never got around to taking the test.  Other than the slight bragging rights associated with having such a license, I never made use of it until yesterday.

Last fall, I decided to post on my website the fact that I was duly licensed and qualified to conduct inspections of certain vessels on the Great Lakes.  I thought it might be an interesting diversion.  I guessed that if anyone called, it would be the owner of a small passenger vessel.

Last week, I got a call, but it wasn’t from the owner of a small vessel.  Instead, it was from the Captain of the Schooner Denis Sullivan, a 98-foot re-creation of a typical 19th century 3-masted Great Lakes schooner, owned and operated by Discovery World, a Milwaukee science museum.  So yesterday, I drove to Milwaukee and tested and signed off the vessel’s radio installation.  It did pass with flying colors, and I can personally attest to the safety of the radio installation.

My inspection was mostly limited to the VHF radio, power supply, and a visual inspection of the EPIRB.  I wasn’t able to do a full inspection of the MF-HF radio and other equipment, so my inspection is valid only for the Great Lakes.  If the ship is taken into international waters, which it has been in the past, it will need a more complete inspection, which is more readily done at a major port.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the ship, but I encourage you to visit the website of Wisconsin’s official flagship to see this majestic ship.

I had to scrounge together some of the equipment I needed for the inspection, and would like to thank N0AIS and K0NY for graciously supplying some of the required gear.

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