In the early years of electronics, avid amateurs vied with academics to understand and advance the field of electronics. This was the birth of our “Nerd Nation,” as young men and women became entranced with the notion of communicating across long distances by electromagnetic currents unencumbered by wires and cables. A passion for “wireless” experimentation drove the need to share technical information.
The Perham Collection of Early Electronics includes thousands of publications, spanning from the 1850s to the 1960s, that illustrate the shared knowledge of those entering the new field of wireless telegraphy and telephony. This collection of rare books, journals, technical reports, manuals, trade catalogs, and pamphlets is especially rich in publications from the age of early wireless and radio (1890-1945).
As homes were electrified, publishers in the 1890s offered eager amateurs and home-brew experimenters many helpful volumes such as, for the self-taught individual, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1873,) by Hermann von Helmholtz. These early “ham” operators, adept at assembling and maintaining complicated electrical equipment, became an important source for the wireless telegraphers and radio operators needed by America’s rapidly expanding communications networks, and as military radio operators of World War I and II.
- Many early wireless operators grew up with books like Fun with Electricity Containing Sixty Experiments in Frictional Electricity for Boys and Girls arranged to Amuse and Instruct, by Thomas St. John (1897). They might graduate to such practical texts as Practical Electrics: A Universal Handy-Book on Everyday Electrical Matters (1894) and Edward Leavert’s Experimental Electricity (1895).
- Frank L. Pope’s Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph (1872), first published in 1869, was considered the complete handbook for the telegrapher or electrician to use in the field. It went through 15 editions by 1895, and was adopted by the U.S. Signal Corps.
- At hand would be H. L. Twining’s Wireless Telegraphy and High Frequency Electricity (1909) and W. H Marchant’s 1914 Wireless Telegraphy: A Handbook for the Use of operators and Students, not to mention the official Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World, Including Shore Stations, Merchant Vessels, Revenue Cutters, and Vessels of the United States Navy.
- The library of inventor and early electronics entrepreneur Dr. Lee de Forest (1873 -1961) includes books from his Yale student days as well as text used during his early decades of invention, such as studies of electricity and magnetism, telegraphy and telephony, and his own handy Mechanical Engineers’ Pocket-book (1916).
The field of electricity and electronics took hold in academia in the 1880s. The first textbook author to top the charts in the new field of radio engineering was Columbia professor John H. Morecroft. His texts and lab books, covered the new field of radio communications through the 1920s and early 1930s until his work was supplanted by Stanford’s Frederick E. Terman.
- William Aryton’s Practical Electricity: a Laboratory and Lecture Course (1887) was aimed at first year students of electrical engineering.
- Frederick Terman’s Radio Engineering (1932) replaced John Morecroft’s texts as the go-to guide, with its comprehensive treatment of the latest in vacuum tube and radio phenomena. This text, along with Terman’s Fundamentals of Radio (1938) and Radio Engineer’s Handbook (1943) were a must for the radio engineer’s bookshelf.
In addition to the extensive number of radio-related texts, the Perham Library covers a range of subjects related to 20th century communication: history and repair of television; aeronautical and military communications; satellites, space communications and related Cold-War surveillance; and the growth of the personal computer industry along with the early history of Silicon Valley.
- Pacific Radio News (1917-1921), one of the earliest of the semi-technical monthly magazines, started in California amid the West Coast’s thriving early wireless community. After only four issues it suspended publication when the U.S. government shut down amateur radio because of American intervention into World War I. Even so, the magazine thrived, resuming in January 1920. (In November 1921, it became Radio).
- QST was first published by the American Radio Relay League in 1915 as a magazine for members. Aimed at amateur radio enthusiasts, it focused on receivers, transmitters, and circuitry. Its name is derived from the radio “Q” signal that means “Calling All Stations.” Like Pacific Radio News, it shut down after the September 1917 issue, but has been in continuous publication since May 1919 when ham operators were allowed back on the air. It continued publication throughout World War II, despite a similar ban on amateur operations — a nod at the high demand for military radio operators. Today, there continues a strong interest in the role of the amateur or volunteer radio operator’s participation in emergency communications.
- Radio News (which began as Radio Amateur News) was the most widely read magazine during the first decades of radio, from 1919 to 1959, when it became Electronics World. In 1948, it became Radio and Television News. It, too, began as a technical magazine for the non-commercial or amateur operator, with information on circuits, components, and other technical topics. It soon broadened its coverage, from amateur radio equipment and patent news, to broadcasting, radio club news, and commercial program listening. This lively magazine, with its witty editorials by long-time editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback, humorous illustrations, contests, and even one-act plays, illuminates the evolution of electronic media in the U.S.
- The prolific Gernsback, a well-known science fiction writer, also published Radio Craft (1929-1948), specializing in electronics and circuits, and Short Wave Craft, which concentrated on technical topics.
- As the changes in Radio News reflect, by the 1920s, wireless, or “Radio” had become a popular entertainment phenomenon, no longer limited to those listening in on headphones. The radio magazine audience included those who could now purchase elegant radios as living room furnishing. New magazines, some of them industry driven, enticed those interested in consumer electronics, as well as construction and operation (Popular Radio), marketing, and broadcast news (Radio Broadcast).
- The science of radio electronics retained its own avid readership, with magazines like Radio Electronics, Radio Engineering, Practical Electrics, and Popular Electronics.