Women in Early Radio
7th Jul, 2015

Women in Early Radio

Women have been active participants in the development of radio (or wireless) communications since its beginning. The age of radio communication began with the development of wireless telegraphy around 1900, in which Morse code could be transmitted over large distances using simple spark gap or carbon arc transmitting equipment, and various types of detectors for reception. Guglielmo Marconi achieved international fame in 1901 when he succeeded in sending a simple message in Morse code – the letter “s” – across the Atlantic from Cornwall in England to Newfoundland.

Women as Wireless Operators

Women had worked as telegraph operators since the late 1840s, and it was not long before women telegraphers began to work as wireless operators as well. In 1906, Anna Nevins, who had worked as a telegrapher for Western Union, began work as a wireless operator for Lee de Forest’s station “NY”, located at 42 Broadway in New York City. She was later employed as a wireless operator at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Early Female Shipboard Operators

One of the earliest applications of wireless telegraphy was enabling communication between ships at sea and land stations. While early ships’ operators were mostly male, some women entered the field as well. The primary requirement was a knowledge of Morse code and equipment operation, which many female telegraph operators possessed. Perhaps the earliest woman to operate on shipboard was Medora Olive Newell, an experienced telegrapher who was a passenger on the Cunard liner Slavonia in 1904, when Hungarian members of the Hague Peace Commission wished to send a birthday greeting to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. Medora Olive Newell (1872 – December 31, 1946) began work as a telegraph operator in Durango, Iowa, in 1886 at the age of fourteen. In 1897, she moved to Chicago and became a commercial operator for the Postal Telegraph Company.

Newell’s first-class operator pay enabled her to live a fairly affluent lifestyle; as Telegraph Age reported in 1909, “Miss Newell has been in the habit of spending her vacations abroad, and has always made these trips the occasion for investigating telegraph and railway management and operation in European countries On her return voyage from Europe in 1904, she found herself aboard the Cunard liner Slavonia together with members of the Hague Peace Commission, who were on their way to the United States to persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to call another international conference to continue the work begun at the Hague in 1899. The Hungarian members of the delegation wished to send a birthday greeting to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary by wireless, but the ship’s wireless operator was unable to send the message. Newell, who, according to Telegraph Age, “had a good working knowledge of wireless,” took her place at the key and soon had successfully transmitted the greeting. The grateful delegates thanked her for her assistance, and the secretary of the Hungarian parliament invited her to visit Hungary as the guest of the nation.

Women as Radio Amateurs

Amateur radio became a popular hobby in the early years of the twentieth century, and many hobbyists built their own transmitting and receiving equipment. Some of the earliest women radio amateurs, called “YLs,” were Mrs. M.J. Glass of San Jose,California, who operated as station FNFN in 1910, and Olive Heartburg, who operated as station OHK in New York City in the same year. M.S. Colville, of Bowmanville, Ontario, who began to operate as XDD in 1914, was one of the earliest Canadian YLs

The Radio Act of 1912 also required radio amateurs to be licensed. Gladys Kathleen Parkin (September 27, 1901 – August 3, 1990) was one of the earliest women to obtain a government issued license. In 1916, while a fifteen-year-old high school student at the Dominican College in San Rafael, California, she obtained a first class commercial radio operators’ license with the call sign 6SO.

Women as Broadcast Radio Engineers

By 1920, the technology had evolved to the point where voice and music could be transmitted as well as Morse telegraphy, and several radio stations began to broadcast regular programs of music and news. In 1920, Eunice Randall (1898-1982), an employee of The American Radio and Research Company, or AMRAD, became an engineer and announcer for the AMRAD radio station, 1XE. Her interest in radio had begun at the age of nineteen, when she built her own amateur radio equipment and operated with the call sign 1CDP. In addition to her technical duties at 1XE, which included repairing equipment and occasionally climbing the transmitting tower, she read stories for children as “The Story Lady,” and gave the police report over the air.

In 1922, the AMRAD station changed its call sign to WGI. Eunice Randall remained as engineer and assistant chief announcer until 1925, when the company went bankrupt and the station was taken off the air. However, she continued to work as an engineer and draftsman, and resumed her amateur radio activities under the call sign of W1MPP.

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