Category Archives: Scouting

Career Ideas for Scouts: Merchant Marine Radio Officer


Seventy years ago, the January 1947 issue of Boys’ Life contained some career advice for scouts looking for excitement:

Becoming “Sparks,” a radio officer in the Merchant Marine. The article’s author was Merceant Marine radio officer Lt. Robert Aronson, who noted that as ears and mouth of the ship, the position was one of rank and responsibility.

The most important job was to maintain a constant watch on the international distress frequency, 500 kilocycles. Other duties included a daily check of the radio room batteries with a hydrometer, and checking the traffic lists of the coast stations for any incoming messages.

And, of course, the job offered plenty of opportunities for heroism. The article begins with the tale of a radio operator firing up the transmitter of the ship in distress, and within moments having every ship within 800 miles prepare to rescue. “Radio alert was maintained throughout that sector of the ocean until, two hours later, one of the freighters announced triumphantly that she had all forty-six of the crew aboard, uninjured. Once again, a capable ‘Sparks’ had blocked off a watery grave.”

The job offered a lot of spare time to read, play cards, study, or anything else. The author noted that many radiomen found the life at sea ideally suited to advancing their knowledge of radio or any other subject.

The author’s advice for scouts contemplating this career was to get their ham license, a license only “slightly lower in grade and requirements than a commercial operator.” With the amateur license, the scout could set up his own station and communicate just as though he were on a ship.

The commercial license could be acquired by enrolling in a school, but for the student who could read a textbook and absorb the instructions, he pointed out that there was no reason not to engage in self-study. The amateur license would allow the student to practice the things taught by the books, and those books were available in any public library.

The prospective operator would be eligible for a commission as an officer six months after signing on to a ship, and at that time, the government made available excellent correspondence courses.

The author noted that the commercial license was the passport to adventure, but cautioned against hastily going to sea, especially if one had a “flaring temper or if you sulk, if doing the same thing day in and day out gets you down.” For prospective radio operators who fit those descriptions, he advised that one of the many radio jobs ashore might be better suited.


Boy Scout Field Telephone-Telegraph, 1937

1937JanBLEighty years ago this month, the January 1937 issue of Boys’ Life carried this ad for the official BSA field set, a field telephone and telegraph.  For $9.50, a scout could acquire two such units.  The possibilities for use during hiking and camping, or between two friends’ houses, seem limitless.

More details are given in an ad appearing in the February 1934 issue, which reveals that the set is manufactured by the American Electric Company, of 1033 West Van Buren Street, Chicago, “one of the world’s foremost makers of commercial telephone equipment.”  Contained in a durable khaki colored weatherproof case having a strong carrying strap, the set was ready for use at any time by simply connecting to line wires.  The set was said to have a range to be able to signal and talk clearly over a thousand feet.  The set was switched from telephone to telegraph simply by switching the key into the telegraph position.

The set was patented under US Patent 2072264, which described the set as being “inexpensively and ruggedly built to fill the need for such an assembly by Boy Scout organizations and others having need for inexpensive equipment which may be employed to establish temporary or permanent telephone-telegraph communication between two points.”

The only evidence of a surviving example I was able to find online was this eBay listing, which unfortunately contains only a photo of the unit in the closed position.

A resourceful Boy Scout owning such a telephone probably wouldn’t have had much trouble figuring out the Quist Quiz which appeared in the December 1956 issue of QST:


Two Scouts, one on each side of the river, are equipped with their official BSA field telephone-telegraph sets.  Without crossing the river or running a wire across the river, how can they hook up the phones?

Loyal readers of already know the answer, since we previously showed a similar system.  If you missed it, you’ll need to wait until tomorrow to see the answer.

Boy Scouts Distribute Air Raid Posters: 1942

In hindsight, the likelihood of air raids against Chicago during the Second World War seems small. But the Windy City, as well as the entire region, was a bit safer thanks to the efforts of the Boy Scouts, as reported by the Chicago Tribune75 years ago today, January 12, 1942. According to this article, the 110,000 Boy Scouts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan were making plans to distribute air raid instruction posters throughout the region.

According to the article, Chief Scout Executive James E. West had wired civil defense officials that the Scouts “would keep on the job until the nation is blanketed with air raid posters and all communities can join the Boy Scouts in being prepared for the emergencies that war may bring us.”

For more information about Boy Scouts during World War II, see my earlier post.

1917 Boys’ Life Transmitter

1917janblA hundred years ago this month, the January 1917 issue of Boys’ Life magazine carried the plans for constructing this wireless sending set. The author, A. Frederick Collins, had written the previous month on how to construct a receiver.

He notes that five parts are required: A spark coil, a tuning coil, a telegraph key, a spark gap, a battery, and an aerial switch, hooked up as shown here. The spark coil, the same type used for gas engine firing, was available for about five dollars. For those who wished to build their own, he directed readers to his own Book of Wireless, which contained more complete plans.

The tuing coil could also be procured for about five dollars, but he notes that a boy could easily make his own, and provides details.

He concludes:

A wireless telegraph set will give you all the apparatus you need for you to experiment with and theory to rack your brains over and on for the rest of your life, and it will also give you a liberal education in a highly specialized field of electricity.

1916 Boys’ Life Receiving Station


A hundred years ago this month, the December 1916 issue of Boys’ Life showed scouts how to put together this radio receiver and antenna. The author, A. Frederick Collins, explained that building the sending set might logically take precedence, but that with this set, you could listen in right away to what all of the other stations have to say. He pointed out that if you lived within a few hundred miles of any of the big government stations, you could get the correct time of day every noon, free of charge. He also pointed out that no license was required for a receiving station.

The cost of the complete receiving station was said to be about $5.

Peace Light and NPOTA: Herbert Hoover National Historic Site



I was recently in Iowa to present some Continuing Legal Education programs in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.  Whenever possible, I like to combine trips, and I used this opportunity to take part in two other events.

Cedar Rapids is close to the birthplace of Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa.  It is the location of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, as well as the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.  I’ve been looking forward to putting this National Park Service (NPS) unit on the air during the NPS Centenial year as part of the  ARRL National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event.  During this event,  Amateur Radio operators are setting up their equipment in NPS units  to make contact with other Amateurs around the world.  Since the beginning of the year, the event has been extremely popular.  There have been over 900,000 individual two-way contacts made from the parks, and it appears almost certain that this number will top a million before the end of the year.  As I’ve reported in other posts, I’ve made contact with over 300 different parks and operated multiple times from parks in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

I was especially eager to operate from President Hoover’s birthplace, since he played such an important role in the history of radio.  Indeed, his son was an avid amateur radio operator, and served in the 1960’s as president of the American Radio Relay League, the national organization sponsoring the event.

img_20161201_164804I didn’t have time for a long operation, but I was able to spend about an hour operating from the parking lot of the historic site’s visitor center, as shown in the photo above.  President Hoover’s birthplace home is barely visible in the photo (just to the left of the larger building in front of the car.  Despite the short time available, I managed to make contact with about 30 stations, all CW (Morse Code), ranging from Alaska to Florida.  After operating, at dusk, I paid my respects at the gravesite of President and Mrs. Hoover, shown here.

img_20161203_145243The next day, I used my drive home to the Twin Cities to transport the Peace Light of Bethlehem from Des Moines to the Twin Cities.

For at least the past several hundred years, and possibly more than a thousand, a lamp has continuously burned at the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditionally accepted location of Christ’s birth.  Since 1989, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides of Austria have annually sent a child to Bethlehem, who lights a lamp from the light and returns it to Austria.  From there, it is passed on around Europe during the Advent season.  Since 2000, the Peace Light has been delivered to North America where volunteers, most of whom are connected with Scouting, deliver it around the country.

This year, there was a gap in the distribution, and it wasn’t making it to the northern tier of states.  I coordinated with members of the Peace Light North America Facebook group, and made arrangements to meet with an Iowa Scouter in the parking lot of a Des Moines coffee shop.  From his kerosene lantern, we lit my lanterns, shown here, and I took the burning lanterns home.

From there, others have come to light their candles and lanterns, and the same ancient flame is burning in lamps in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Another volunteer from North Dakota is on the way here, and within a few days, the Peace Light will be burning in North Dakota, Manitoba, Montana, Washington, and probably other places along the way.

Many are curious as to how the Peace Light crosses the Atlantic.  It is transported by Austrian Airlines in the passenger cabin of an aircraft.  The ailine transports the flame from Israel to Austria, and then to New York and Toronto.  The flame is held within a blastproof miner’s lamp, which allows the open flame to be transported safely by air.  At Kennedy Airport, it’s walked through customs by an airline employee to the airport chapel, where a ceremony is held attended by those who fan out around the country to transport it.  Among those were one or more volunteers who transported it to Chicago.  From there, it went to Davenport, Iowa, where it was picked up by the person who gave it to me.


1941 Boy Scout TV Broadcast


Seventy-five years ago this month, the November 1941 issue of Boys’ Life carried this image of a New York television broadcast featuring scouts from Troop 1, Mendham, N.J. While not identified in the magazine, the gentleman in the center appears to be Troop 1’s Scoutmaster, William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt, the prolific writer whose works included three editions of the Scout Handbook.

From the CBS logos on the camera, the broadcast was from WCBW, which later became WCBS-TV. It is the nation’s second oldest commercial station, having gone on the air only an hour after rival WNBT, leter WNBC.

Both stations began commercial broadcasting on July 1, 1941, the first day that the stations then operating under experimental licenses were allowed to operate under commercial licenses.

Troop 1 was founded by the Danish-born Hillcourt in 1935, and chartered by the National Council of the BSA. He was asked to develop scouting in America, and he used Troop 1 to test his ideas. The twelve candles shown in the picture undoubtedly represent the twelve points of the Scout Law.

1956 Boys’ Life Radio Contest


Sixty years ago this month, the Boys’ Life Radio contest was once again underway, and radio made the cover of the November 1956 issue of Boys’ Life, depicting a ham who took a break from his duties in the school Thanksgiving  play to work some DX.

This cover was the work of frequent Boys’ Life artist Harold Eldridge. According to the magazine’s description:

Miles Standish thought he had it touch, having to defend the pilgrims with just a handful of soldiers armed with blunderbusses. But pity the poor dramatics coach who has his Indians better trained than his hams. That friendly Algonkian in the window probably pictures the coach back in the high school auditorium, sweaty hands clutching the curtain ropes, but not John Alden, no Priscilla Mullen, and no Miles Standish yet appearing in the wings.

According to the magazine, the artist never did tell whether the DX’ing ham ever got back in time to cut some turkey on stage.

1956 Boys’ Life SWL’ing


Notwithstanding the microphone and bug shown in the photo, the young ham shown here in the October 1956 issue of Boys’ Life is honing his SWL skills in preparation for the magazine’s forthcoming shortwave listening contest which would be announced the following month.

The accompanying article gives scouts pointers on the shortwave listening hobby, and reminds readers that there were a lot of interesting signals to be pulled in by even inexpensive receivers.  It pointed out that aspiring SWL’s should first take a look at the family’s radio in the living room, since there was a good chance that it pulled in the shortwave bands in addition to standard broadcasts.

The article appears to be a reprint of the same article that appeared in the October 1952 issue.  The author was Roger Legge, who penned the “English Broadcasts to North America” feature in Popular Electronics for many years.  The byline of the 1952 article also identified him as the Frequency Assignment Officer of the Voice of America.

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1916 Boys’ Life Telegraph

1916BLtelegraph2A hundred years ago this month, the June 1916 issue of Boys’ Life showed Scouts how to make this telegraph set. The plans are pretty self-explanatory. Closing the key energizes the electromagnet and makes the sounder sound. The article notes that it works just like a regular set used by the railroad and telegraph companies. It concedes that the set “isn’t much to look at, but it is a better one than Edison made when he was a beginner.”


It went on to show the hookup for two sets (simply using three wires) to communicate with a friend “across the street, down the block, or over the way.”

Collins in 1910. Wikipedia photo.

The author of the article was A. Frederick Collins, a prolific early radio author of books such as the 1915 The Book of Wireless.  He was also the principal author of the 1922 Radio Amateur’s Handbook.

The 1915 Book of Wireless, as well as his contributions to Boys’ Life, came on the heels of the low point in his life, a 1913 conviction for mail fraud, arising out of exaggerated claims over a wireless telephone stock promotion. In 1917, the year after this upbeat Boys’ Life article, his wife filed for separation, stating that he “had come back to freedom… with his disposition ruined”, “soured against the world, soured against even his benefactors, and soured against her,” and engaging in “long harangues and tirades of invectives against the world in general and the United States government in particular.”  Collins died in 1952 at the age of 82.

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