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The “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

How a Technical Hobby Provided Social and


Spatial Distance

KRISTEN HARING

“It would be shortsighted to ignore the personal cultural value of amateur


radio. . . . Amateur radio gives to ordinary men, leading the circumscribed
lives of ninety out of a hundred people, a release from humdrum existence
and routine compulsions; it makes them freer men.” So might the amateur
radio hobbyist—often called a “ham”—of the mid-twentieth century
describe his activities. But where some saw liberation, others saw escapism.
In 1956 the wife of one ham radio operator called practitioners “truly the
lost souls of the hobby world, lost to all sense of time, responsibility or
physical comfort.”1 The men described by these quotations used radio to
gain social and spatial distance in the midcentury American home, and the
discourse that grew up around ham radio practice provides insight into
how tensions between personal identity and responsibility altered family
dynamics, particularly marital relations. That discourse and its implica-
tions for the social geography of the middle-class, postwar American home
are the subject of this article.
On a typical evening, the radio amateur passed hours at a cluttered
worktable in the basement, attic, or garage. There he used two-way radio
equipment to contact other amateur stations—speaking into a micro-
phone, typing at a keyboard, or tapping out Morse code on a telegraph key
to enter into conversations with strangers around the world. During peri-
ods of tinkering with or constructing equipment that might last for weeks
the ham resembled the stereotypical solo inventor. Then a flip of a switch

Dr. Haring will hold a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institut für Wissen-
schaftsgeschichte in Berlin for the 2003–2004 academic year. This article benefited from
the careful reading and helpful suggestions of Peter Galison, Edward Jones-Imhotep,
David Kaiser, John Staudenmaier, and two Technology and Culture referees.
©2003 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved.
0040-165X/03/4404-0004$8.00

1. Carl Dreher and Zeh Bouck, “Our Radio Amateurs,” Harper’s, October 1941, 535–
45, on 545; Nancy Anderson, “Hobbies,” CQ, April 1956, 87–88, on 87.

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and a spin of a dial brought the many voices of amateur radio rushing into
the home station. Layers of conversations in different languages competed
with staccato strings of short and long electrical pulses—the dots and
dashes of Morse code—across the frequencies set aside for hams by the
Federal Communications Commission. Only with precise tuning and some
luck could a single, clear signal be isolated. To participate in the communi-
cations hobby, the amateur responded to someone seeking a contact or sent
out his own signal, hoping that someone would hear and respond in turn.
There began the social side of this technical hobby.
During the rush of a contest or when conditions were poor, an “on-air”
conversation might be limited to a dry exchange of data about station loca-
tion and reception strength. Under other circumstances, two hams meeting
for the first time might communicate at length about their lives and hobby
experiences. Random meetings over the airwaves occasionally grew into
friendships that continued by written correspondence and further discus-
sions via radio. Hobbyists who lived near each other gathered in clubs and
met informally for “eyeball contacts” with people they knew through radio
only as disembodied voices. Drawn together by their technical interests and
skills, hams thought of themselves as a fraternity. The number of amateur
license holders in the United States—around a hundred thousand in the
early 1950s, twice that many by 1960—was sufficient to support an elabo-
rate social network and a profitable niche industry.2
Members of the amateur radio community had far more than an
unusual pastime in common. Though the following profile should not be
taken as invariable, it is helpful to have in mind a description of the typical
radio hobbyist. An estimated 95 to 99 percent were male. On average, the
ham had completed more years of schooling—after World War II this usu-
ally included some college—than the nonhobbyist, and he was far more
likely to hold a job in a technical field. Ham radio operators generally be-
longed to the middle and upper socioeconomic classes.3 In proportions
probably equal to the gender disparity, hams were white and not inclined to

2. Americans dominated the international amateur airwaves. In 1960 Great Britain


had the second most hams, around 9,400, and only sixteen countries had more than
1,000 amateurs; Henry G. Elwell Jr., “Amateur Population of the World,” CQ, April 1960,
57, 112–13. United States Federal Communications Commission annual reports for
1951, 1952, and 1960 (Washington, D.C.), 99, 89, and 86, respectively.
3. Among respondents to a 1957 survey in the hobby magazine CQ, the most com-
mon salary range was $5,000 to $6,000. This roughly corresponded to the mean income
of Americans in the second highest of five wage-earning categories. One fifth of CQ
readers made more than $10,000 a year. See Wayne Green, “CQ’s Survey,” CQ, December
1957, 34–35; United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical
Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C., 1975), 292. For
demographic information on the ham community, see also Stanford Research Institute,
Amateur Radio: An International Resource for Technological, Economic, and Sociological
Development (Menlo Park, Calif., 1966).

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identify ethnically. The hobby community discouraged all internal divisions


except geographic ones, deriding religious and ethnic clubs as “political.”4
The term “amateur radio” came to be applied to the hobby of two-way
wireless communication only in the wake of commercial broadcasting.
Through the 1920s, any use of radio equipment required active participa-
tion, and radio handbooks commonly referred to “broadcast listeners” and
OCTOBER
“transmitting amateurs” as “types of amateurs.” 5 Manufacturers, attempt-
2003 ing to capture every possible customer, eliminated the need to tinker with
VOL. 44
receive-only radios as the popularity of broadcasting soared.6 Then the
hobby of amateur radio split into two forms of leisure, passive listening to
broadcasts and active sending and receiving of signals, and only the latter
retained the designation “amateur.” While midcentury amateur radio re-
mained a more highly technical endeavor than broadcast listening, its tech-
nical position relative to other forms of two-way radio slipped. In the early
days of radio, hobbyists had often taken the lead in operations and ad-
vanced commercial and military communications. Postwar hams existed in
the shadow of professional radio and seemed out of step with the dawning
“age of electronics.” 7

4. Amateur radio operators vehemently opposed the use of the airwaves or their
hobby publications for any political purpose not related to radio regulation. In large part
this was to avoid ideological battles with the Federal Communications Commission, yet
hams also maintained that political neutrality suited their close relationship with tech-
nology. After two-way radio operators shed the image they had acquired as youthful
pranksters in the first two decades of the century, they expressed a sensitivity about the
“graying of the hobby” that has obscured the fact that licensees were actually quite evenly
distributed by age. The characteristics of the average ham remained remarkably stable
over the twentieth century, though there have been numerous undocumented claims
that more women entered the hobby after the Federal Communications Commission
dropped Morse code as a licensing requirement in 1991.
5. Merle Duston, Radio Theory Simplified, 2nd ed. (Racine, Wisc., 1926), 170. Susan
J. Douglas provided a thorough description of the practices involved in the hobby of
radio before and at the beginning of broadcasting in Inventing American Broadcasting,
1899–1922 (Baltimore, 1987); see also “Exploratory Listening in the 1920s,” in her
Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos ‘n’ Andy and Edward R.
Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (New York, 1999), 55–82. Many of the
numerous histories of radio include some material on amateurs of the 1910s and 1920s.
In Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis, 1997), Michele Hilmes
provides a discussion of women hobbyists not available elsewhere.
6. In particular, producers minimized the technical skills required of radio users in
order to attract female consumers. See Louis Carlat, “’A Cleanser for the Mind’: Mar-
keting Radio Receivers for the American Home, 1922–1932,” in His and Hers: Gender,
Consumption, and Technology, ed. Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun (Charlottesville,
Va., 1998), 115–37.
7. During World War II, the popular press and radio-electronics manufacturers pro-
moted the anticipated postwar shift in consumer technologies as the coming of a new
era, dubbed “the age of electronics.” See, for example, John Sasso, “What’s All This About
Electronics?,” House Beautiful, May 1943, 31, 123, 127; Walter Adams, “Mystery Weapon
Today, Your Servant Tomorrow,” Better Homes and Gardens, August 1943, 20–21, 64–67;

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Amateur radio’s combination of technical and recreational characteris-


tics makes it difficult to relate the hobby to the existing literature on radio.
Though the history of broadcasting is fascinating and well developed, it can
tell us little about a communications technology that operated on a one-on-
one basis. The name “amateur radio” suggests that the hobby existed as an
amateur version of the better-known broadcast radio, yet hams resembled
neither broadcasters nor their audiences. The content of radio communica-
tion (frequently the focus of cultural studies of broadcasting) for hobbyists
was personal, directed at one other individual. To distinguish hams from the
masses who sat “merely listening” to broadcast receivers, the hobby commu-
nity proudly pointed out amateurs’ technical competence and interactivity.
Only underlying electronics fundamentals linked amateur and broadcast
radio after the 1930s. The user experiences were entirely different.
Tinkering with radios in the 1940s and 1950s stood out as an odd and
even suspicious pastime. Once the First World War had proven the strate-
gic value of two-way radio, it became clear to all that the hams possessed a
powerful technology. The fear that rogue hobbyists might misuse their
home stations led the Federal Communications Commission to shut down
ham radio for the duration of World War II. In the early years of the cold
war, some Americans viewed amateur radio—mobile, wireless, long-range,
and relatively easy to operate—as an ideal tool for clandestine communica-
tions. Scrutiny of hobbyists intensified as Senator Joseph McCarthy added
to the spectacle already created by the existing anti-Communist movement,
primarily through the House Un-American Activities Committee.8 In
November 1953, Senator Alexander Wiley, chair of the Foreign Relations
Committee, called for restrictions on radio amateurs for security reasons.
He specifically cited the possibility “for a disloyal operator to guide a Soviet
plane to its target” in an attack on the United States. “The Communists are
keenly aware of the significance of amateur radio for their treacherous
operations,” warned Senator Wiley, noting the Subversive Activities Control
Board’s presentation to Congress of evidence that the Communist Party
had undertaken “a search to find amateur radio operators among CPUSA
members.” 9 Senator McCarthy argued that hams had “a tremendous poten-
tial for passing out improper information for espionage.” 10 A leading ham
magazine reacted to such allegations by chiding, “Be careful of what you,
the American amateur, say! . . . In America we have free speech, but when
radio amateurs use it, let’s remember that others are listening.” The edito-

“Electronics Era,” Business Week, 29 July 1944, 24, 26, 29–30; and F. Barrows Colton,
“Your New World of Tomorrow,” National Geographic, October 1945, 385–410.
8. Ellen Schrecker argues that McCarthy was just one element, although a very visi-
ble and vocal one, of a much larger political movement; Ellen Schrecker, The Age of Mc-
Carthyism: A Brief History with Documents (New York, 1994), 2.
9. Zero Bias, CQ, January 1954, 11; and Zero Bias, CQ, February 1954, 11, 50, on 11.
10. Zero Bias, CQ, May 1954, 7, 84, on 7.

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rial warned not that foreigners might be scanning the airwaves to pick up
American secrets but rather that nonhobbyists occasionally listened to
hams’ conversations and should not be given grounds for suspicion.11
Like television, ham radio experienced its most rapid growth during the
1950s, but the two electronics technologies served quite different functions
in home life. Commentators criticized television, as they had broadcast
OCTOBER
radio, for emasculating men by providing them with passive entertainment.
2003 Unlike television viewers staring at sealed receivers, amateur operators tin-
VOL. 44
kered with the guts of radio equipment and participated in a fraternal com-
munity. Because it was so out of the ordinary, two-way radio cordoned off
private space far more effectively than did television. Magazine articles and
advertisements raised concerns about how the introduction of a television
set into the home disrupted arrangements for sharing rooms and isolated
family members from one another, though the whole family used the tele-
vision.12 In contrast, ham radio won secluded, if not luxurious, space for
the leisure activity of one family member. Amateurs’ peculiar, interactive
form of entertainment thereby increased social and spatial distance.
The thousands of midcentury ham radio fans left behind a substantial
written record, including glossy magazines, mimeographed club newslet-
ters, and hobby advice manuals. Reading through these sources, I was
struck by the repeated appearance of a set rhetoric about family life, espe-
cially married life, and household space. This article incorporates material
primarily from the magazines CQ and QST; the newsletter of the Northern
California DX Club, the DXer; and ham radio handbooks.13 Yet remarks in
the style cited can be found throughout the hobby literature. Amateur
radio, undeniably, was a hobby focused on technology. In paying attention
to the gender discourse in hobbyists’ writings, my analysis points out the
important role that ham radio played in masculine identification.
To date, attention to technical competence as a component of mas-
culinity has been most common in studies of the work environment. Sever-
al studies document that the skilled or physically demanding operation of
machines has repeatedly been used to identify workers as masculine and
restrict women from the workplace.14 Technical interactivity similarly

11. In Our Opinion, CQ, October 1960, 11.


12. Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar Amer-
ica (Chicago, 1992), 60–72. The related problems caused by ham radio’s presence in the
home did not garner attention outside of hobby magazines, quite possibly because these
were so rare compared to the problems caused by television.
13. The names of these ham radio publications derive from hobby jargon. “CQ”
served as a call to all amateurs, “QST” limited this to members of the American Radio
Relay League, and “DX” stood for long distance communication.
14. For example, see Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological
Change (London, 1983); Arwen Mohun, “Laundrymen Construct Their World: Gender
and the Transformation of a Domestic Task to an Industrial Process,” Technology and
Culture 38 (1997): 97–120; and the four essays on manhood in the workplace in Boys

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marked some pastimes as masculine, though fewer scholarly works have


addressed this topic. Ruth Oldenziel’s history of the Fisher Body Com-
pany’s model-building program for boys and young men, for example, ex-
plained that Fisher emphasized the positive masculine traits developed
through participation in its technically oriented Craftsman’s Guild.15 The
context of leisure and the home—versus the male-dominated industrial
workplace—highlights overlooked challenges to the construction of mas-
culinity around technology. Ham radio bolstered male identity, but it also
came with disadvantages and did not simply overpower existing gender
relations.
The hobby of communicating by radio strengthened men’s claims on
masculinity and privacy in the midcentury household in an atmosphere of
sexual identity anxiety and women’s control over domestic geography. Ham
radio affected family life on two levels: in the realm of emotional, personal
interactions and in the physical home environment. Both identity and
material culture serve as analytical frameworks for the constant interplay
between men and machines, a mutually defining relationship central to the
amateur radio community. Associating with hobby machines allowed men
to exist temporarily outside the roles of husband or father, as hams. Based
on equipment requirements, hobbyists justified creating “shacks,” personal,
masculine territories. Even the name for the hobby area indicated separa-
tion, though the typical amateur station occupied the corner of a room or
a basement rather than its own building.16 By establishing a technical iden-
tity for participants, amateur radio created divisions within the family that
were at once social and technical.17

and Their Toys? Masculinity, Technology, and Class in America, ed. Roger Horowitz (New
York, 2001), 13–108.
15. Fisher manufactured automobile bodies, chiefly for General Motors. Ruth
Oldenziel, “Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930–1968, and the
Making of a Male Technical Domain,” Technology and Culture 38 (1997): 60–96. On the
way machines make a pastime manly, see Ben A. Shackleford, “Masculinity, the Auto
Racing Fraternity, and the Technological Sublime: The Pit Stop as a Celebration of Social
Roles,” in Horowitz, Boys and Their Toys, 229–50.
16. Ham shacks took their name from the “radio shacks” that housed equipment
onboard ships and for military field communications; Irvin Farman, Tandy’s Money
Machine: How Charles Tandy Built Radio Shack Into the World’s Largest Electronics Chain
(Chicago, 1992), 114.
17. I develop a concept of technical identity, related both to people and to technolo-
gies, in “Technical Identity in the Age of Electronics” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University,
2002). To summarize briefly, I use the term to indicate that some people choose, because
of their technical inclinations or skills, to identify with a technology. “Technical identity”
also intentionally reminds us that technologies possess identities. The double meaning
suggests an important connection between the two senses of technical identity, namely
that the technical identities of machines and people are coproduced.

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The Hobbyist’s Identity

In the midcentury home, ham radio had nonuniform implications


based on the age of the participant. Families demanded few responsibilities
of boys and dismissed youthful pastimes as play. Sparked by the cold war
urgency to produce scientists and engineers, experts told parents to encour-
OCTOBER
age sons’ technical hobbies, including amateur radio, as part of a long-term
2003 plan to strengthen national security. The undersecretary of commerce
VOL. 44
praised five technical “hobby kits” released in 1954 for providing “genuine
stimulus” to technological advancement and economic expansion and thus
contributing to the “preservation of our freedoms.” Educators further saw
electronics exploration as a way to prevent idle mischief.18 One aspect of
hobby radio—its homosocial, technical environment—suited boys’ leisure,
but could be problematic for grown men.
To the extent that it grounded masculinity in technology rather than in
sexuality, ham radio threatened human relationships. Many adult hobbyists
saw radio activities as incompatible with romantic interests. According to
one source, interest in ham radio followed “a fairly uniform pattern” of
varying inversely with sexual desire. “The youth, at first completely ab-
sorbed, gives up radio when the opposite sex begins to compete seriously
with the fascination of microphone and key. This alienation normally lasts
until the first baby is born, at which time recrudescence sets in and he is a
ham all over again.” 19 Recounting his own turn from radios to women, a
ham in 1950 called it “the old, old story—the hobby which wore skirts won
out.” “I married this little hobby and with her now tucked safely under my
arm I felt free to go back to my original love,” he said of his return to ham
radio.20 Such characterizations of the hobby prompted the attention given
here to married male amateurs.21

18. “The Children’s Hour,” Fortune, August 1954, 68–69, on 69. In the decade and a
half following World War II, four articles in Parents Magazine advocated tinkering by
boys: Joy O. Freed, “He Needs a Hobby,” April 1947, 139–40; Mary Newlin Borton,
“Hobbies Can Build Character,” May 1951, 44–46; Walker A. Tompkins, “An Amazing
New Hobby: Ham Radio for the Whole Family,” February 1955, 34–35, 100–102; and
Marianne Besser, “A Space Program for Your Young Scientist,” January 1962, 48–49, 88.
19. Dreher and Bouck (n. 1 above), 545.
20. “Burton New Director, Civil Defense Communications,” Happenings of the
Month, QST, December 1950, 25. The announcement of Robert R. Burton’s appoint-
ment included a long personal statement and explained that his reply to a query “for
some biographical dope” contained “some youthful experiences of such common ama-
teur interest that we hadn’t the heart to cut out even a single word.”
21. A 1941 survey of all licensed amateurs (with a response rate of better than two-
thirds) found that 60 percent of hobbyists were married; “A-ARS Activities,” QST,
November 1941, 51. It was in confrontation with the norms of stereotypical family rela-
tionships that ham radio had its most remarkable social-technical interplay. Of course,
all kinds of men participated in the hobby, but amateur radio activities seemed most at

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

In the immediate postwar years and through the 1950s, conflicting


opinions regarding the obligations of men to family and to self bombarded
the American public. Mass media ranging from fictional television pro-
grams to feature articles in magazines celebrated the middle-class nuclear
family composed of married parents with children. These depictions linked
the power to lead the family unit to a responsibility to support it financially.
Men were instructed to be good breadwinners, devoted providers to their
families.22 At the same time, psychologists diagnosed a crisis of identity
among men. Preoccupation with work and family responsibilities, the ex-
perts warned, had caused men to lose their sense of self. Loss of identity
seemed to endanger free will and consequently raised alarms at a time
when political ideology staunchly opposed collective thought.23 Psycholo-
gists’ advice that men should protect their identity as individuals directly
contradicted popular culture’s message to men.
Reports of disagreements between male amateur radio operators and
their families indicate how these competing public pressures played out in
private. During the 1940s and 1950s, complaints that ham radio upset
home life filled the hobby literature to an extent that suggests marital ten-
sions had become a standard trope of hobby culture. General Electric
acknowledged that active amateurs let family duties fall by the wayside
when it presented the wife of the 1953 Edison Radio Amateur Award–win-
ner with a gold watch for being “the most understanding wife of the year.” 24
How accurately this motif of tense ham households reflected lived experi-
ences is difficult to determine. Yet the stories of spousal bickering are still
worthy of study as evidence about hams’ positions on questions that re-
ceived considerable attention in midcentury America. Domestic disputes
about amateur radio voiced the debate over whether a man’s first responsi-
bility should be to self or family in terms of the hobbyist’s identity com-
peting with his role as husband or father.25

odds socially for those “leading the circumscribed lives of ninety out of a hundred peo-
ple.” Gay men, divorced men, and bachelors existed outside strictly dictated social roles.
To balance identity as an amateur radio operator with the prescribed roles of husband
and father was more challenging.
22. The origin of this ideology in expert opinion and its propagation through pop-
ular culture have been documented in Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American
Dreams and the Flight From Commitment (Garden City, N.Y., 1983); Elaine Tyler May,
Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988); and Wendy
Kozol, Life’s America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism (Philadelphia,
1994).
23. K. A. Cuordileone, “‘Politics in an Age of Anxiety’: Cold War Political Culture
and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949–1960,” Journal of American History 87
(2000): 515–45.
24. Louisa B. Sando, The YL’s Frequency, CQ, May 1954, 68, 86, 88–89, on 86.
25. Individual behavior affected the reception of ham radio into domestic life. Many
men practiced the hobby in moderation and never joined clubs or even subscribed to

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All recreational time spent at home placed demands on household


space and resources and therefore had the potential to bring family mem-
bers’ various interests into conflict. Under the morally defined category of
hobbies, certain leisure activities gained social approval because of their
association with values such as a strong work ethic, educational enrich-
ment, thrift, and structured use of time. Still, any individual intensely
OCTOBER
devoted to a single hobby could fall out of favor and disrupt the whole
2003 household.26 Ham radio operators were no different than other hobbyists
VOL. 44
in this regard. Unlike most other hobbyists, however, hams brought home
an extraneous technology. Attitudes toward technology thus entered into
appraisals of amateur radio.
Repeated and anguished references in the hobby literature hint at testy
relationships between hams and their neighbors. Accused of causing elec-
trical interference and faced with zoning hearings calling for the removal of
strange looking antennas, amateur radio operators commiserated and
advised one another on strategies for restoring peace across the backyard
fence.27 Occasionally hams engaged in harmless activities were teased just
for atypical behavior. On an episode of You Bet Your Life that featured an
amateur radio operator as a contestant, Groucho Marx drew a laugh with
his jab at “the guy next door who builds things all night in his garage.” 28
Strained neighborhood relations could compound domestic tensions, as
some families thought ham radio’s reputation reflected poorly on the
household. Nancy Anderson complained in 1956 that her husband had
ruined many friendships by interfering with television reception and had
“become stolidly indifferent to social customs and public opinion” while
participating in the hobby.29
The paper trail that followed amateurs’ radio communications piqued

ham magazines. Although amateur radio caused tension to varying degrees, the litany of
complaints indicates that hobby stress entered the households of more than just a
minority of overzealous hams.
26. Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (New York,
1999).
27. One of the most dramatic incidents of amateur radio interference, in which a
conversation between hams in Seattle and Portland accidentally interrupted army com-
munications during a battle in the Korean War, made the front page of the New York
Times; George Barrett, “Radio Hams in U.S. Discuss Girls, So Shelling of Seoul Is Held
Up,” New York Times, 9 February 1951, late city edition. The mundane arguments made
by nonhobbyists that ham radio disturbed neighborhoods visually and electronically
were so common that nearly every issue of the leading amateur magazines noted a zon-
ing case regarding an antenna, a Federal Communications Commission interference
investigation, or ideas for how to soothe local disagreements and prevent these types of
official proceedings.
28. John Guedel Productions, The Best of Groucho, episode 54-23, syndicated version
of the You Bet Your Life episode originally aired on 17 February 1955, Motion Picture and
Television Reading Room, Library of Congress.
29. Anderson (n. 1 above), 87.

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the curiosity of mail carriers and generated gossip about ham radio activ-
ity. Amateurs often confirmed on-air conversations with postcards that
listed information about the contact, including the location of the stations.
Receiving such confirmation cards with photographs of distant lands,
greetings in uncommon scripts, and exotic stamps contributed to the
excitement of long distance ham radio operation. But outsiders who saw
the cards wondered why American amateurs were in contact with China or
eastern Europe at the height of the cold war. One amateur’s wife felt sure
that “The mail-man eyes me suspiciously as he hands me colorful post-card
things scrawled with a queer jargon.” Another believed her entire family
had “become suspect and is shunned by polite society.” 30 To reduce scrutiny
of hobby mail, amateur radio clubs established postal consolidation centers
that enclosed multiple postcards in a single envelope.31
Beyond concerns about the outward appearance of the hobby, domestic
arguments about ham radio erupted around the allocation of the most basic
resources, money and time. Operating an amateur radio station imposed a
considerable financial burden on the family while benefiting only one indi-
vidual. Equipment prices and many little extras like magazine subscrip-
tions, contest fees, and club dues amounted to quite a sum, even within the
budget of the middle-class ham. Though a hobby receiver in 1960 could
cost as much as “a 21-inch television console, a new furnace for your house,
or a fairly decent used car,” a handbook for new amateurs warned the appa-
ratus normally was “rather severe looking” and came without a speaker.32
The ham radio literature portrayed married hams enmeshed in “spats about
spending $9.98 for a special condenser” instead of allocating the money for
household items such as “grass seed or the grocery bill.” 33
According to the standards idealized in the media, all husbands, includ-
ing radio enthusiasts, owed some after-work hours to chores around the

30. Ruth E. Johnson, “Wife’s Eye View,” CQ, July 1946, 18, 60–61, on 18; Anderson,
87.
31. Primarily amateurs explained mail bundling as a way to cut postage costs, but
they also noted that this system eliminated the suspicious appearance of mail exchanged
directly between radio hobbyists in the United States and in Iron Curtain countries.
William I. Orr, Better Shortwave Reception: A Handbook for the Radio Amateur and Short-
wave Listener (Wilton, Conn., 1957), 128.
32. Robert Hertzberg, So You Want to be a Ham, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, 1960), 37. A
1957 survey found that the average CQ reader earned $7,350, valued his present equip-
ment at just over $1,000, and expected to spend $245 (one thirtieth of his salary) on the
hobby in the coming year; Green, “CQ’s Survey” (n. 3 above), 34–35. The price of a sin-
gle piece of equipment in the amateur station could be daunting. The Johnson Ranger, a
midlevel transmitter, in 1956 cost $214.50 in kit form, $293 factory wired. More power-
ful models and those from more highly regarded manufacturers cost still more. The
Collins KWS-1 transmitter sold for just under $2,000 in 1956; Allied Radio Corporation,
Allied Radio, catalog no. 150 (Chicago, 1956), 196, 200.
33. Florence V. Collins, “Converting the XYL: New Conversion Data on a Widely-
Popular Non-Surplus Item,” CQ, December 1955, 37–38, on 37. See also Ruth E. Johnson.

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house and the care of children. Household work of middle-class men in the
1950s included do-it-yourself maintenance and improvement projects,
which were thought of as a kind of hobby.34 In deciding when to stop the
endorsed hobby of chores and begin freer leisure, men set the limits on
their obligations to others and to themselves. One ham alluded to the ten-
sion inherent in such decisions when he portrayed his inability to edit the
OCTOBER
club newsletter on time using the rhetoric of clashing hobbyists and wives,
2003 saying “the XYL [wife] handed me a list of ‘things to do’ around the yard
VOL. 44
and house this summer that I just can’t put off any longer.” Another year he
blamed “the confusion resulting from getting the kids packed for the trip to
Grandma’s” for the fact that the summer issues were “taking a beating!” 35
Describing a particular radio contest schedule as “a little tough” to recon-
cile with family life, a hobbyist in 1951 wondered whether the organizer in-
tended the contests “just for young and single sprouts.” 36 The amateurs’ dis-
course repeatedly counterposed hobby life and home life in this way.
Amateur radio did more than tempt men to squander household
money, ignore chores, and spend insufficient time with children. In lan-
guage that operated as the gendered parallel to men’s hobby rhetoric, wives
wrote of resenting ham radio for weakening emotional and physical mari-
tal bonds. Amateur magazines in the 1940s and 1950s regularly published
harsh commentaries by hams’ wives, including protests that technical inter-
ests diminished hobbyists’ sexuality. Certainly there was an element of
satirical humor present in these essays, but the consistent pattern of re-
marks suggests this was joking about a real, if exaggerated, issue. When men
chose to talk via radio to other hams instead of in person to spouses,
women reported feeling in competition for their husbands’ attention.
Several articles protesting the hobby’s interference with intimacy appeared
in amateur radio magazines in the decade after World War II.37 The frank-
ness with which women wrote of their desires can be partly attributed to
the reigning social expectations of wives. During the early cold war, psy-
chologists and popular culture alike portrayed married women’s sexuality
as essential to the masculinity of their husbands and sons and, indirectly
following from this, to the political stability of the country.38

34. On do-it-yourself activity as a hobby, see “Do-It-Yourself: Expected Leisure,” in


Gelber (n. 26 above), 268–94.
35. DXer, July 1961; DXer, June 1957.
36. DXer, November/December 1951.
37. The articles by wives cited below from CQ magazine were not solicited. However,
CQ generally published more humorous submissions than did QST, the other leading
hobby magazine of the 1940s and 1950s. QST—the product of a ham radio promotion
and lobbying organization, the American Radio Relay League—distanced itself from any
hobby controversy. Along with CQ, informal club newsletters provide rich information
on the daily experiences of hobbyists.
38. May (n. 22 above), 96–97. On the early cold war association of homosexuality
with Communism and other sexual-political anxieties, see Barbara Epstein, “Anti-

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

Television, an electronic entertainment with a much larger audience,


also drew criticism for disrupting married sexual relationships in the late
1940s and 1950s, as Lynn Spigel has documented.39 Whether the image that
held a viewer’s attention was a beautiful woman or a sporting event, how-
ever, the husband distracted by television seemed more acceptable than the
ham operator because of the television viewer’s limited involvement. Radio
hobbyists took part in two-way communication with real people. In addi-
tion to expressing jealousy about the distant men engaged in deep conver-
sation with their husbands, wives made frequent jealous references in the
hobby literature to the equipment that was the object of so much tinkering.
Amateur radio’s technical fraternity and technical interactivity contributed
to its masculinity, but this definition of masculinity broke from the domes-
tic norm. According to midcentury, middle-class standards, women were
the proper recipients of men’s attention within the home.40 A masculinity
based instead in technology offended these sensibilities by replacing
women with men and machines in a devotional relationship that carried
sexual overtones.
Complaints that amateur radios reduced spousal companionship and
improperly became objects of hobbyists’ desires need to be understood in
relation to the implications of ham radio’s homosocial environment for
men’s sexuality. Except in gender-crossing jokes played under the cover of
Morse code, the amateur community did not openly question that hobby
activity took place within a strictly heterosexual environment.41 However,
we can read in their posturing about heterosexuality an awareness among
hams that outsiders doubted hams’ sexuality. Succinctly capturing the sex-
ual tension surrounding the hobby, a character in a 1992 novel asked,
“What do you think those ham-radio buffs really talked about? Do you
think some of them were secretly gay, and they left their wives asleep and
crept down to their finished basements in the middle of the night to have
long conversations with friends in New Zealand or wherever?” 42 Remarks
about marital tensions by hobbyists and their wives could have been in-

Communism, Homophobia, and the Construction of Masculinity in the Postwar U.S.,”


Critical Sociology 20 (1994): 21–44; Frank Costigliola, “‘Unceasing Pressure for Penetra-
tion’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War,”
Journal of American History 83 (1997): 1309–39; and Cuordileone (n. 23 above).
39. Spigel (n. 12 above), 119–27.
40. On the time and class specificity of defining heterosexuality, see George Chaun-
cey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–
1940 (New York, 1994).
41. Operating amateur radio using Morse code afforded anonymity because electri-
cal pulses replaced the human voice. The hobby press recounted cases when a male ham
in these circumstances pretended to be female in order to play a prank on another male
hobbyist or simply to attract attention on airwaves overrun with male communicators.
42. Nicholson Baker, Vox: A Novel (New York, 1992), 136; italics in original.

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T E C H N O L O G Y A N D C U LT U R E

tended partly to emphasize hams’ heterosexuality, a preemptive defense


against accusations that the level of fraternization in amateur radio crossed
a critical border. Perhaps it was better to appear henpecked than face a
more pointed charge.
Loss of human togetherness and hams’ fascination with electronics
equipment, some women wrote, provoked wives’ distaste for the hobby.
OCTOBER
Leisure time spent apart made Polly Oltion complain that “Hubby was
2003 growing less and less familiar.” Previously the couple had shared pastimes
VOL. 44
of discussing world affairs and playing chess, but her husband’s solo ham
radio pursuits left Oltion isolated. She grew particularly “annoyed and
bewildered” after realizing that he used the word “we” to refer to himself
and “that disreputable conglomeration of tubes, wires, cans, and noise.” Ol-
tion felt replaced as the object of “his affection” by the machinery her hus-
band considered “his bosom pal.” While he tinkered in his amateur station,
she knitted fourteen pairs of socks “to pass away the time.” 43
In humorous descriptions of life with a ham, women claimed to com-
pete directly with hobby technology for men’s attention. Nancy Anderson
told of a husband who brought his friends right into his hobby area, located
in the couple’s bedroom, while his wife slept. “The crowning indignity,”
according to Anderson, was not the breach of privacy. Though there were
“more ‘hams’ in her bed chamber than in a Virginia smokehouse,” what ex-
asperated Anderson was that the hobbyists completely ignored the female
body. “The lads are so taken up with their wires and tubes they don’t even
realize the lady’s there. Honestly, girls, how much can a woman stand?” 44
Ann Gordon reported being similarly spurned during a courting experience
she ironically dubbed her “romantic introduction to ham radio.” After
Gordon and her suitor had driven up into the hills where they watched “the
lights of the city below us, full moon above us,” Gordon recalled that she
was “beginning to feel in the spirit of things—when out came the micro-
phone and on went the switches.” Instead of taking advantage of the roman-
tic and isolated location for physical intimacy, as Gordon had expected him
to, her date initiated a conversation with a distant, male stranger.45
That radio communication took precedent over conjugal relations be-
came a common joke in the ham community. The postcards Warren Bauer
used to confirm his radio contacts depicted a woman wearing lingerie and
high heels, provocatively perched on a chair, facing an amateur radio oper-
ator involved in an on-air conversation (fig. 1). “But dear I can’t go to bed
now,” the cartoon ham explained, “I’m talking with,” followed by a blank
space where Bauer would fill in the name of the recipient.46 Ham radio

43. Polly Oltion, “The ‘We’s’ Have It,” CQ, January 1948, 74, 76.
44. Anderson (n. 1 above), 88.
45. Ann Gordon, “The Bride,” CQ, February 1955, 50, 52, on 50.
46. “CQ QSL Contest,” CQ, August 1956, 63. Bauer’s card received second prize in a

746
HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

FIG. 1 This postcard, sent to confirm a radio contact, portrayed a ham operator
so absorbed in the hobby that he was immune to seduction. (“CQ QSL
Contest,” CQ, August 1956, 63.)

technology, as shown in this image, established asexual space in the home.


The glamorous woman in the foreground radiated a bodily beauty. In a
dark corner, the frumpy, balding amateur seemed to shrink from human
warmth. Absorbed in a technical world, the hobbyist could be said to have
fetishized radio equipment.
Wives voiced frustration that radio technology disarmed their seductive
powers. When Sylvia Frank expressed common annoyances with her hus-
band’s hobby—he was always in the basement, only discussed radio, had
driven away their friends, spent too much money on equipment, and clut-
tered the house with electronics—friends told her it could be worse if her
husband instead drank, gambled, or had an affair. People of that opinion,
Frank responded, clearly did not know any amateur radio enthusiasts. For
while “The aforementioned pitfalls may be overcome by talking, coaxing,
petting, or any number of other methods,” Frank knew from experience
that womanly charms could not lure a man away from ham radio.47 Manu-
facturers played to this sexual tension by suggesting that expensive radio

monthly contest for the best confirmation postcard design. For submission to the con-
test, Bauer had filled in the magazine’s name on the card.
47. Sylvia A. Frank, “Lament of an MYL,” CQ, February 1949, 24, 77, on 77. Frank
proposed “MYL” as a term for a married, nonhobbyist woman, but this was not a stan-
dard usage.

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2003

VOL. 44

FIG. 2 One hobby equipment manufacturer suggested that an expensive radio


gift was the surest way to elicit a ham’s affection. (National Company adver-
tisement, CQ, December 1953, inside back cover.)

gifts might stimulate men’s affection. A 1953 advertisement for National-


brand amateur equipment carried a drawing of an elegantly dressed cou-
ple. The man had pulled his headphones off with one hand, wrapped
the other around the woman’s waist, and swept her backward with a kiss
(fig. 2). The advertising copy explained, “It’s not her perfume” that attract-
ed him, “it’s the National she bought him for Christmas!” 48
The hobby slang for “wife,” it must be noted, was implicitly desexualiz-
ing. Built upon the ham abbreviation for a girl or woman, “YL,” the term

48. National Company advertisement, CQ, December 1953, inside back cover.

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

“XYL” literally designated a married woman as a “former young lady.”


Amateurs applied “YL” to females of all ages, so the title “former YL” sug-
gested not only lost youth but also lost gender. While female hobbyists
accepted the name “YL” proudly, only rarely—and then often ironically—did
they call themselves “XYLs.” One reason women hams reported liking the
term “YL” was that it seemed a fitting analog to “OM” or “old man,” the slang
for any male hobbyist. The well established association of maturity with
masculinity in the phrase “old man” further underscores the assumption that
a change of status from YL to XYL included a diminished femininity.
Despite frequent illustrations of spousal conflict brought on by amateur
radio, the hobby community considered marriage the ideal lifestyle. One
might expect that single men reading about marital woes in ham radio mag-
azines chose to remain bachelors, reveling in the freedom to allow a hobby
to dominate leisure time and the entire home. Instead, many single hams
sought wives who accepted the hobby. Amateurs appeared to agree that the
best arrangement resulted from marrying someone equally intent on spend-
ing time and money on the hobby. In hopes of appealing to the rare single
women readers, bachelors wrote letters describing themselves to amateur
publications. But an amateur license was not a prerequisite for a potential
wife. Hams also considered dates who patiently listened to radio tales and sat
through demonstrations to be good partner choices. It might be possible,
amateurs wrote, later to convert these women into fellow hobbyists.
Male amateurs anticipated that being married to another radio amateur
would eliminate “accusations like ‘You think more of those stupid old knobs
and dials than you do of your own family’” and “dirty looks when you pres-
ent her with a nice low pass filter for her birthday.” 49 In describing one
member’s station, a club newsletter called his hobbyist-wife a desirable
accessory. Although the member did “not have the fanciest setup we have
seen,” the newsletter pointed out that “he has something of which few of us
can boast, an XYL who is a ham.” 50 Hams who lacked this component could
try to make their own. Amid articles that described how to convert surplus
military communications equipment to civilian use, the hobby magazine
CQ published “Converting the XYL: New Conversion Data on a Widely-
Popular Non-Surplus Item.” Here amateurs learned how to change their
wives into hams. Having experienced the process first hand, Florence Collins
told men how they too could relieve household tension caused by the hobby.
“The schematic for a slick conversion job,” she promised, would produce “an
XYL ham operator to share your enthusiasm for this fascinating hobby.” 51
Hams who shared the hobby with their wives found that that supposed

49. Florence V. Collins (n. 33 above), 37.


50. DXer, May 1956.
51. Florence V. Collins, 37. See also Anne Gardocki, “How to Make Your Wife Love
Radio in One Easy Lesson,” CQ, February 1957, 54–56.

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T E C H N O L O G Y A N D C U LT U R E

solution came with its own problems. Florence Collins’s husband, James,
followed up her conversion instructions with a rebuttal titled “Nothing . . .
But the Facts.” True, James said, he no longer needed to justify spending
money on radio equipment. But because his spouse planned to use the
equipment, she wanted to be involved in selecting it. And when the new rig
arrived, James had to compete with Florence for air time. Having his bigger
OCTOBER
hobby budget subjected to compromises made James wonder whether he
2003 was really so fortunate to live with another ham.52 Maude Phillips admitted
VOL. 44
that similar discord arose after she joined her husband in the hobby.
Phillips only granted her husband access to their station when “some ham
wants to talk ‘technics.’” 53 Nevertheless, if wives participated in the hobby,
a large measure of the social and spatial distance created by ham radio dis-
appeared.
Women’s clubs that paralleled radio clubs offered wives an “honorary
or auxiliary or associate membership” in the ham community.54 The Ladies
Auxiliary of the Rochester Amateur Radio Association, La-RaRa for short,
welcomed “any ladies interested in radio, socially or technically.” La-RaRa
provided “an opportunity for all ladies to get better acquainted with their
boy friends’ or hubbys’ hobby.” Women’s auxiliary clubs did not discour-
aged the practice of ham radio, but their primary function lay in support-
ing the associated men’s radio club. In 1952, only five of the thirty La-RaRa
members held amateur radio licenses. One Ladies Auxiliary project in-
volved “obtaining neck ties for the men and putting their call letters on
them.” La-RaRa also catered the Rochester Amateur Radio Association’s
meetings and weekend-long contests.55 These activities kept women near
partners who were focused on hobby activities without threatening femi-
ninity by identifying with technical matters themselves.
Though auxiliary clubs for hams’ wives eased tension about the hobby
in some households, numerous domestic disputes about amateur radio lin-
gered and caused bad publicity. Hams struggled to change the hobby’s rep-
utation as incompatible with family life. In 1955, the editor of CQ maga-
zine sought contributions for a press release designed to make people see
ham radio as family friendly. He particularly solicited news of “anyone
[who had] managed to build a ham rig into a modern home and keep it un-
obtrusive.” Evidently CQ could not gather enough positive examples: the
editor repeated the call for happy “ham families” the following year.56

52. James M. Collins, “Nothing . . . But the Facts,” CQ, November 1957, 116–17.
53. Quoted in Amelia Black, The YL’s Frequency, CQ, June 1946, 40, 42, on 42.
54. Pauline Karrol, “Ham Shackles,” CQ, February 1960, 35, 123–24, on 35.
55. “To the Ladies,” RaRa Rag, September 1949, 4; Eleanor Wilson, YL News and
Views, QST, March 1952, 53, 116, 118, on 116; La-RaRa minutes, RaRa Rag, March
1950, 4.
56. Wayne Green, “de W2NSD,” CQ, October 1955, 11–12, 106, 108, 110, 112–13, on
106; Wayne Green, “de W2NSD,” CQ, July 1956, 10.

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

Twenty years later, amateur radio caused less severe conflicts with home
life. A ham magazine still felt the need to inform readers that families
would not “resent the time that you spend” on the hobby as much if they
understood it better.57 Electronics noise and drains on resources continued
to annoy those who did not participate in ham radio, but prevailing norms
had shifted. No longer did public appeals for family togetherness subject
men’s leisure time to intense scrutiny. Of course, men’s increased freedom
of identity in the 1960s and 1970s is the less-remarked-upon half of a bet-
ter-known story: women’s liberation contributed to relaxed attitudes
toward men’s hobbies. Husbands gained freedom, as individuals, to spend
time and money on amateur radio. Reports from the 1970s of tolerance and
even support of a husband’s ham activities broke dramatically with, for
instance, Ruth Johnson’s 1946 “Wife’s Eye View” that the hobby strained
marriages and her advice to “prospective wives” to avoid hams as hus-
bands.58 Social dynamics had changed in a way that accommodated ama-
teur radio in the home.

The Hobby’s Material Culture

The material culture essential to the hobby of ham radio posed differ-
ent challenges in the home than did the “personal culture,” but these inter-
twined inside a domestic space defined as much physically as by family
interaction. Ham radio shacks grew out of social negotiations about how to
fit a technical hobby into the household. On the surface, this was a question
of locating the amateur radio station. But closer examination reveals that
isolation in specialized hobby areas allowed hams to further develop iden-
tities apart from family roles. The privacy of shacks within the home em-
phasized hobbyists’ membership in the distinct ham community, and the
gendered domestic architecture that governed amateurs’ search for hobby
space reinforced the notion that closeness to technology was a masculine
characteristic.59

57. Tom McMullen, “Focus and Comment,” Ham Radio Horizons, April 1977, 6.
58. Ruth E. Johnson (n. 30 above), 61. CQ periodically published wives’ complaints
about ham radio from its debut in 1945, but printed no critique of this kind after 1960.
Then three articles by women in CQ during the 1970s reversed the castigating stance of
the 1950s and called for wives to support their husbands’ participation in ham radio.
Although shifting editorial policy must be acknowledged as one possible explanation,
the context of gender relations suggests that these publishing statistics reflected a new
phase of ham radio experience in the home.
59. On the topic of how another electronics hobby created male space in the home,
see Keir Keightley, “‘Turn it down!’ She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High
Fidelity, 1948–1959,” Popular Music 15 (1996): 149–77. Historical inquiry into the rela-
tionship between household space, gender, and technology is certainly not limited to the
domain of technical pastimes. Francesca Bray’s Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power
in Late Imperial China (Berkeley, Calif., 1997), to note one rich example, examines sim-

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T E C H N O L O G Y A N D C U LT U R E

The bulk of an amateur station presented a basic practical problem. At


the very least, every amateur operator needed a transmitter and receiver, a
telegraph key or a microphone, and headphones or a speaker. The typical
hobbyist’s equipment list extended beyond these basics to include tools, test-
ing instruments, myriad accessories, and sometimes an extra transmitter or
receiver optimized for operating on a particular frequency band. Add to this
OCTOBER
logbooks, maps, wave propagation charts, technical manuals, and so on, and
2003 the question of where to put a ham radio setup quickly takes on weight.
VOL. 44
Though they often pointed to different merits of the arrangement, hob-
byists and their families agreed that a station needed its own territory.
Transmitters that interfered with television reception, noisy communica-
tions, and workbenches covered by tangles of radio equipment made ama-
teur operations unwelcome in shared rooms. Those not involved with the
hobby saw shacks as a straightforward way to distance themselves from
such nuisances. In her scathing criticism of ham radio, Nancy Anderson
conceded that it “may be bearable if the ham has his rig in a shack removed
from family living quarters.” 60 Amateurs embraced the opportunity to
operate in their own part of the household, whether it be a separate room,
an unfinished basement, or a corner of the garage. In these personal, mas-
culine havens, hobbyists could escape job and family responsibilities and
spend long hours talking with like-minded men around the world. Shacks
provided a spatial compromise to settle social and technical disagreements
and enhanced men’s independence.
The relationship of hobbies generally to the division of the home ac-
cording to gender and function informs the case of amateur radio. Many
leisure pursuits required specialized household spaces, and women com-
monly controlled such access. As part of the increased focus on children in
the 1940s, families attempted to accommodate a greater variety of recre-
ational activities. Writing in American Home in 1943, Constance Foster was
aware that “The new psychology said that children’s developing interests
were more important than furniture.” Still, she had grown weary of clear-
ing away her children’s paints and musical instruments “to make the room
respectable” every time she entertained guests. Foster’s description of allo-
cating space in her seven room house for the ten hobbies of her husband
and three children outlined how even women in active families could insist
that “The Living Room Belongs to Mother!” 61
Women’s power to assign household territory contributed to the sense
that postwar homes had a feminine feeling overall. Constance Foster lim-

ilar issues with regard to women’s textile production and reproductive technologies in
Chinese homes.
60. Anderson (n. 1 above), 87.
61. On the centrality of children in the family, see “Baby Boom and Birth Control:
The Reproductive Consensus,” in May (n. 22 above), 135–61. Constance J. Foster, “The
Living Room Belongs to Mother!” American Home, April 1943, 28–29, on 28.

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

ited her husband’s and children’s hobbies to the private spaces of their
home. Her daughter painted at an easel in a drafty enclosed porch, and her
husband puttered in his woodshop in the unfinished basement. Meanwhile,
Foster retained the most refined and comfortable rooms as her own. The
public areas of the house were labeled feminine, and the private ones fell
under matriarchal control.
In contrast to the proper rooms of the house, rugged and unfinished
spaces like basements, garages, and attics had a manly feel. Gaston Bache-
lard’s 1957 study of how people experience domestic architecture, The Poet-
ics of Space, described basements as sites of rationality and practicality.62 Yet
these bleak underground spaces offered comfort to male members of the
family, as evidenced by John Wright’s memories of his father’s 1950s hobby
workshop. Since the 1930s, men active in do-it-yourself work around the
home or in the hobby of woodworking had coveted and gained separate
space for their “workbenches.” 63 Wright’s household fit the pattern where
all of the “finished, tidy, respectable spaces” “belonged” to his mother. This
left “only the basement and the garage” for Wright’s father. The cellar in
particular “was understood as a masculine space,” in a way that connected
to Bachelard’s characterization of the basement as a work area. “Here,”
Wright fondly recalled, “a man could get his hands dirty and not worry
about making a mess.” 64
Classification of the basement as a masculine work space made it a pop-
ular site for men’s hobbies that required workbenches and consequently a
gathering place for fathers and sons. Wright called his father’s workshop
“his place and his only,” “a masculine refuge in an increasingly feminized
household.” 65 Though cellars and the workbenches located there may have

62. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (1957; reprint, Boston,
1994), 18.
63. This term applied both to general-purpose, do-it-yourself worktables and to
highly specialized setups, often for woodworking. On the popularity of home workshops
for do-it-yourself projects, see Gelber (n. 26 above), 250–51. Gelber also provides a
detailed description of how men claimed a “domestic masculinity” through basement
labor. Though his examples are drawn mostly from the first two decades of the century,
Gelber makes clear that the influence of the craftsman era persisted into the 1950s
(204–17). Amateur radio related to do-it-yourself activities, but functioned differently
within the home. All ham radio operators adjusted and maintained the communications
equipment in their home stations. Many also handled major repairs and built equipment
from kits or individually purchased components. This willingness to spend one’s own
time and energy rather than pay a professional to complete a job aligned electronics
hobbies with the do-it-yourself movement. Yet the central project of a radio hobbyist
contributed little to the household at large. Apart from occasionally using his skills to
rewire a lamp, for instance, the ham operator spent most of his time building and tin-
kering with equipment that existed within the home only for the sake of his hobby.
64. John L. Wright, “Technology in the Household: A Reminiscence,” in Possible
Dreams: Technological Enthusiasm in America, ed. John L. Wright (Dearborn, Mich.,
1992), 94–97, on 96.
65. Ibid.

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VOL. 44

FIG. 3 The ham radio literature commonly depicted the hobby workbench as
a site of father-son bonding. (David A. Findlay, The Electronic Experimenter’s
Manual [New York, 1959], 68.)

“belonged” to fathers, men doled out parcels of this precious territory to


their sons. Radio hobbyist Adrian Weiss approached his father when he
needed a place for his first radio shack and successfully “talked my dad into
giving me half of the space on one of his workbenches in the basement.” 66
A photograph in The Electronic Experimenter’s Manual showed how the
geographical isolation of a technical hobby could draw curious sons closer
to fathers (fig. 3). As a father repaired a piece of apparatus, his young son
stood by the edge of the workbench watching intently.67
Hobbyists had a relatively easy time locating ham radio shacks in parts
of the house already considered male domains. Basements and garages, des-
ignated as locations for machinery, seemed particularly suited to radio
hardware. Amateur radio equipment stood out as more blatantly technical

66. Adrian Weiss, History of QRP in the U.S., 1924–1960 (Vermillion, S.D., 1987), 6.
67. David A. Findlay, The Electronic Experimenter’s Manual (New York, 1959), 68.

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

than the many other appliances common in the postwar home that con-
cealed their functioning parts behind cases designed to blend into the
domestic environment.68 Along with the frequent need to open cabinets
and tinker with radio innards, the rugged appearance of ham radios made
them seem more like machines than appliances.69
Leisure came behind essential household shelter needs, but when ham
radio occupied a spare bedroom the hobby took on the symbolic stature of
a family member. “The Bride” of one amateur complained that the radio
equipment and the marital bed received equal accommodations. After the
wedding, she reported, “We started renting a small two bedroom home,
naturally, one for us and one for the ham rig.” 70 Family growth meant less
room for amateur radio. A new father “got a good chuckle” at a ham club
meeting with the story of how his hobby had been squeezed out of the no-
longer-spare bedroom. Repeating the member’s statement “that he literally
screwed himself out of the shack in the house so they made it into a nurs-
ery and moved Bill out to one corner of the garage,” the newsletter editor
concluded simply, “C’est la vie.” 71
Whatever the location of a ham shack, hobbyists viewed separation as a
critical characteristic. Almost everyone who wrote about establishing a
shack pined for a distinct, private space of his own. The American Radio
Relay League’s Radio Amateur’s Handbook declared “the amateur with a
separate room that he can devote to his amateur station” to be “fortunate
indeed.” Luckier still were “the few who can have a special small building
separate from the main house.” The basement or attic, according to the
Handbook, qualified as a separate room, “although it may lack the ‘finish’ of
a normal room.” 72 One amateur willing to accept any private space for a
shack wrote that “The corner of the bedroom, the old coal bin or attic hide-
away that contains our station is our own personal pride and joy.” 73

68. On appliance aesthetics of the 1950s, see Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The
Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, Mass., 1994); and Spigel (n. 12
above), 45–50.
69. Comparison to the case of mass-marketed broadcast radio receivers is instruc-
tive on this point. In the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturers of broadcast receivers mini-
mized the technical and mechanical skills required of users and made aesthetic changes
to adapt radios to polite living rooms. Broadcast listeners were discouraged from tinker-
ing by the threat that it would void the warranty. See Carlat (n. 6 above) and, on radio
design aesthetics, Shelley Kaplan Nickles, “‘Safe and Sane Modern’ Radios: Defining a
Middle-Class Style in the Living Room,” in “Object Lessons: Household Appliance
Design and the American Middle Class, 1920–1960” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia,
1999), 158–218.
70. Gordon (n. 45 above), 50.
71. DXer, June 1959.
72. American Radio Relay League, The Radio Amateur’s Handbook, 32nd ed. (West
Hartford, Conn., 1955), 481. These phrases remained in the Handbook for decades.
73. Weldon Johnson, “QSLs the Photographic Way,” CQ, September 1957, 42–43,
110, on 42.

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The isolation of the ham radio shack allowed it to be more than space
for a hobby. Virginia Woolf focused on “the urbanity, the geniality, the dig-
nity” that followed from “luxury and privacy and space” when she made the
case for each woman writer’s need for a room of her own.74 Hobbyists, with
comments such as “A man’s ham shack is his castle!” pointed instead to the
link between practicing amateur radio and acquiring masculine space in
OCTOBER
the home. “Perhaps the ultimate satisfaction for a radio amateur,” accord-
2003 ing to one ham, was “to have a space entirely his own.” 75 In this regard, the
VOL. 44
perceived security threat of open radio communication benefited hams by
providing a justification for tight control of stations. Virginia Woolf ’s pre-
scription of “a room with a lock on the door” for genuine privacy neatly
meshed with the Federal Communications Commission’s cold war regula-
tions. Amateur radio license applications of the 1950s required hobbyists to
pledge that “the station will be under my exclusive control” and “the equip-
ment will be inaccessible to unauthorized persons.” 76
Efforts to distinguish the ham shack from the family home often sur-
passed the basic needs to secure the transmitter away from the television
and confine radio gear to one area. A photograph in a hobby handbook
showed the combination garage and shack that one amateur had designed.
Detached from the house, the building offered separation and presumably
some privacy in and of itself. But the ham had further reduced access to his
leisure space by installing, side by side, separate exterior doors to the garage
and the shack.77 Another amateur found that he had actually gone too far
in isolating his station. Ed Marriner published schematics for an intercom
that would allow hobbyists communicating with people around the globe
also to be in touch with their own families. “Practically any married Ham
will appreciate the necessity of an intercom when the Ham shack is in a
remote part of the house, or even out in the garage, etc.,” Marriner explain-
ed. “After all, the call to chow is pretty important.” 78
Finances and other practical limitations prevented all but a few privi-
leged amateurs from taking hobby needs into consideration when deciding
to purchase or build a home.79 Ham publications, however, indicated a

74. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929; reprint, with a foreword by Mary
Gordon, New York, 1981), 23.
75. Lawrence Le Kashman, “Designing the Post-War Ham Shack,” CQ, September
1946, 30–32, on 30. Such sentiments were timeless in the hobby culture. More than thirty
years later a handbook advised: “Every operator’s shack is his castle. It ought to be
guarded jealously.” George W. McCarthy, CB’ers Guide to Ham Radio (New York, 1979),
304.
76. Woolf, 105; “FCC Form 610, November 1955, Application for Amateur Operator
and/or Station License,” reproduced in Barry Briskman, Amateur Radio License Guide
(New York, 1959), 158.
77. Howard S. Pyle, Building Up Your Ham Shack (Indianapolis, 1960), 79.
78. Ed Marriner, “A Simple Intercom to the Ham Shack,” CQ, December 1953, 30.
79. Characteristics of the ideal amateur radio home included elevation high enough

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

clear preference for single-family houses and assumed that most amateur
radio operators could afford them. Immediately after the war, a hobbyist
described a station in a closet as a “clean-cut solution to today’s housing
shortage.” 80 Later some handbooks did mention adaptations of shacks to
apartment living, but comparisons between the “full-size workshop” and
the “apartment workshop” implied that the latter was a distinctly second
class accommodation.81 One amateur wrote that apartment dwelling hams
must prioritize, purge closets of trivial things, and “Tuck the pajamas under
your pillow, and toss the tux under the bed!” 82 The American Radio Relay
League described amateur radio as a “democratic hobby” in which techni-
cal ability and proper behavior mattered more “than thousands of dollars
invested in special equipment and an elaborate ‘shack.’” 83 Still, the league’s
handbook then proceeded to instruct readers on elaborate shack assembly,
casting doubt on the sincerity of this statement.
Ham radio operators who did not have the luxury of practicing the
hobby in a private part of the home struggled to cope in public space. One
amateur complained his station was “squeezed for space” because it shared
the garage with his wife’s ceramics kiln and supplies.84 Another ham noted
contemporary architects’ view that recreation rooms “should be a center for
the spare-time activities of the entire family,” but tried to shield himself
from the hubbub of multiple activities. He argued that the “Post-War Ham
Shack” could serve “double duty” within the household just as well if it were
established in a rarely used guest bedroom.85 When the station had to share
a room with the whole family, hams sought privacy by staggering their
activities. Amateurs pointed out, for instance, that it was convenient to chat
with hams in distant time zones while the rest of the family slept.
Hobbyists with stations in common areas of the home concealed ham
radio equipment or altered its appearance to meet family aesthetics. Nich-
olas Lefor claimed a ham station could be “located in the living room” if
stored inside a Sears Roebuck steel wardrobe cabinet. “In adapting this cab-
inet to an amateur transmitter,” Lefor explained, “appearance was the prime
consideration.” A centrally housed station carried the risk of family mem-
bers meddling. Lefor cautioned readers to “make sure your wife does not

to send and receive signals clearly, isolation from neighbors to reduce the number of
complaints about television interference, and freedom from zoning restrictions that
might limit antenna installation. The hobby literature repeatedly noted these features.
For one succinct description, see Karl T. Thurber Jr., “Station Design: How to Plan the
Site for Your Ham Station and Set Up Your Equipment,” Ham Radio Horizons, August
1978, 44–46.
80. Le Kashman, 30.
81. Findlay (n. 67 above), 65–79.
82. Pyle, 102–3.
83. American Radio Relay League (n. 72 above), 481.
84. DXer, July 1960.
85. Le Kashman (n. 75 above), 31.

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use this cabinet for the purpose it was originally intended, as was the case
here, where a few pairs of shoes were found on the bottom shelf.” 86 To
appease a wife described as “lord and master of the arrangement of furni-
ture and the overall appearance of the home,” a hobbyist who lived in a
three-room apartment published a plan for refitting a tall secretary-style
desk to hold radio equipment. He called this “The Good Housekeeping Ap-
OCTOBER
proach to Station Design.” 87
2003 Those with separate shacks enjoyed the freedom to tailor the whole area
VOL. 44
to ham radio. One amateur, expressing reverence for “better than ever”
postwar hobby equipment, advised hams not to “make the mistake of hous-
ing it in a ‘shack’ which is so inadequate that it will spoil half your fun.” 88
Aesthetic values similar to those applied throughout the home had a place
in radio shacks. In a chapter on “Assembling a Station,” The Radio Ama-
teur’s Handbook partly observed and partly commanded that “most ama-
teurs take pride in the arrangement of their stations, in the same way that
they are careful of the appearance and arrangement of anything else that is
part of the household.” 89 Howard Pyle, author of another ham handbook,
likewise advocated attention to style and detail in the station. If a plywood
panel served as an equipment base, for instance, Pyle indicated that the ply-
wood should be “covered with linoleum, micarta or similar material” and
that the edges should be trimmed “with chrome molding for best appear-
ance.” Pyle recommended that hobbyists who planned to spend “many
pleasant hours” in their shacks “make the surroundings attractive as well”
as functional.90
Of course, practical considerations specific to the hobby also entered
into shack design. An equipment manufacturer polled hams in 1956 and
found “the ultimate desire of all was to have equipment which ‘went to-
gether.’” The concern here was not that colors match, but rather that cabi-
nets be physically compatible. Results of the survey indicated that “The dif-
ficulty of installing odd sizes of cabinets has always been a source of
irritation to the neat and efficient operator.” 91 Handbook chapters on set-
ting up a station addressed the arrangement of nonuniform equipment and
assorted other “workbench tricks.” Novice hobbyists relying on these guides

86. Nicholas Lefor, “Enclosing the Transmitter,” Radio News, November 1941, 33, 66.
87. Walter A. Brauer, “The Good Housekeeping Approach to Station Design,” CQ,
August 1949, 15–18, 72, on 15. Operating mobile amateur radio removed the station
from the home, but raised similar aesthetic concerns with regard to the car. Calling it
“not too uncommon to find that the XYL [wife] has nearly the last word in the appear-
ance of the family automobile,” one hobbyist presented his idea for “A Family Man’s
Mobile Antenna” that would look normal when mounted on the car; G. Van W. Stivers,
“A Family Man’s Mobile Antenna,” CQ, May 1948, 45, 93, on 45.
88. Le Kashman, 30.
89. American Radio Relay League (n. 72 above), 481.
90. Pyle (n. 77 above), 87, 83.
91. “Harvey-Wells Offers Matching Station,” Radiogram, April 1956, 1.

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

learned, for example, that muffin tins and ice cube trays were ideal contain-
ers for keeping small parts organized, and that mounting a voltmeter on a
tilted rack made its face easier to read.92
Because amateurs made all the design decisions in their home stations,
hobbyists felt they could get to know a ham by viewing his shack. The
newsletter of the Northern California DX Club was one of many such pub-
lications to introduce club members by way of their personalized spaces.
Beginning in 1948, the DXer featured a monthly column picturing a ham
posed in his hobby environment. The limited circulation and budget of the
newsletter meant that a photograph had to be pasted into each copy by
hand. This process must have been tedious, yet the club retained the shack
profile feature until the mid 1960s.93 Amateurs’ desire to document their
shacks “to show to other hams, to send to radio magazines, or to show
‘before’ and ‘after’” led CQ magazine to publish articles with tips on photo-
graphing the typically cramped spaces.94
Control over private territory to some degree accounts for how amateur
radio gave “ordinary men, leading the circumscribed lives of ninety out of
a hundred people, a release from humdrum existence and routine compul-
sions.” 95 In the context of midcentury concerns that management bureau-
cracy jeopardized men’s sense of self, leisure projects completed entirely at
personal workbenches reasserted hams’ individual strengths and alleviated
mass production workers’ frustration with divided labor.96 One hobbyist’s
wife described shacks as critically different from sterile, white-collar work-
places. “After a busy day in a large impersonal office,” her husband liked to
“put on his old jeans and disappear into his shack where he can work by
himself and for himself.” 97
Ham radio shacks grounded the hobby experience and situated men’s
independent identities. When amateurs claimed separate space in the
home, they simultaneously identified themselves as distinct, at least during
leisure time, from the rest of the family. Technical requirements formed

92. Julius Berens, Building the Amateur Radio Station (New York, 1959), 21; Findlay
(n. 67 above), 75.
93. From March 1958 to April 1959, DXer did not carry station profiles due to the
expense of reproducing the photographs (DXer, March 1958). The shack feature
dropped away permanently when the newsletter shrank overall, during a period in which
the club had trouble finding a volunteer editor.
94. Julian N. Jablin, “Picture Your Rig,” CQ, October 1948, 43, 96, on 43. See also
Weldon Johnson (n. 73 above).
95. Dreher and Bouck (n. 1 above), 545.
96. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York, 1951);
William H. Whyte Jr., The Organization Man (New York, 1956). Hobbies in general, as
idealized work, relieved some of this stress; see Gelber (n. 26 above), 33–34.
97. Gail Steckler, “Confessions of an XYL,” CQ, February 1979, 70. This observation,
recorded in the late 1970s, eloquently expressed the anxiety about bureaucratization that
pervaded the 1950s.

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only a small part of the reason that hams wanted shacks. More than the site
of ham radio, shacks embodied ham culture. A hobbyist laying out his sta-
tion kept in mind how the space would reflect on him personally, particu-
larly in the eyes of fellow hobbyists. Finding privacy in shacks, amateurs
turned the hobby’s incompatibility with the domestic environment into a
source of freedom.
OCTOBER

2003
Ham Radio: Men and Machines United
VOL. 44
Ham radio operators’ association with leisure technology in the home
faced disadvantages not present when men associated with technology in
the workplace. Though technical interactivity and fraternization through
amateur radio demonstrated one kind of masculinity, this altered basis for
manliness destabilized heterosexual identity. Ironically, the technical,
homosocial hobby provoked anxiety about sexuality even as it confirmed
gender identity. The “personal cultural value of amateur radio” included a
differentiation of self from family. But inside the midcentury home this
threatened a husband’s sexuality, which depended on his connection to a
wife. With sexuality in the early cold war perceived as linked to political and
national strength, this was no small matter.
Masculinity did not necessarily trump feminine power in the home, as
indicated by the limitations on establishing private territory for radio. At
midcentury, women controlled the division of household space and inte-
grated many new technologies into the existing physical and social struc-
ture. The technical nature of ham radio did not alone justify granting it a
separate territory. It was the peculiarity and roughness of hobby equipment
that made shacks an appealing compromise. Based on those factors, how-
ever, amateurs typically received space in leftover, unfinished parts of the
home. While a hobbyist may have felt like his ham shack was his “castle,”
this tiny dominion belied the adage that “a man’s home is his castle.”
Despite these challenges, amateur radio offered men opportunities un-
available in other forms of postwar leisure. Radio hobbyists expressed male
individuality in the domestic sphere in their relationships to people and to
things. The choice of an unusual hobby set in motion a chain of events that
further demarcated hams as individuals. Out of debates about the alloca-
tion of household space, time, and money to the hobby, amateurs devel-
oped a stronger sense of belonging to a community apart from the family,
with a different value system. The shack and its odd equipment defined a
territory that made visible the line between hobbyist and outsiders. In ama-
teur radio, men nurtured identities distinct from family roles. It was the
hobby self—not the husband or father—who talked on the air with other
hams.
Technicality operated in combination with masculinity to promote the
separation of amateurs from family members. Hams who surrounded

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HARINGK|KThe “Freer Men” of Ham Radio

themselves with rugged machines marked off masculine space which, in


homes with an overall feminine feeling, became private space. Practicing
the hobby therefore functioned as a retreat from the household and the
roles and responsibilities typical of it. To find masculinity and privacy
within family homes, radio hobbyists developed a unique technical identity
out of personal identity and material culture. “Freer men” emerged when
amateur radio interrupted domestic relationships, just as the accumulation
of alien equipment in the corner of a room set off a shack. The intertwin-
ing of man and machine in ham radio allowed participants to simultane-
ously achieve social and spatial distance.

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