A Collegiate Radio Milestone

The Harvard Wireless Club 90th Anniversary Celebration

By Mike Manafo*, K3UOC

"CQ CQ, this is W1AF at Harvard University, special event station, celebrating 90 years as America's oldest amateur radio club. . ."

Tuning the bands on the weekend of October 2-3, one will likely hear this transmission coming from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. America's oldest amateur radio club will be celebrating its 90th anniversary over these two days by working as many hams as possible throughout the world. We invite all stations to work W1AF and join the celebration. Let the pileups begin!

Founded in 1909

The first club record book in the Harvard University Archives tells us that The Radio Society of the Institute for Geographic Exploration at Harvard was formed in early 1909 by Professor George W. Pierce.[1] By 1910, this group was known as the Harvard Wireless Club (HWC). Pierce, who was Rumford Professor of Physics and Director of Crufts High Tension Laboratory, was an early experimenter with the new super-heterodyne receiving circuit—experimenters still study and work with his Pierce oscillator circuit today.

The club averaged about 25 members in those early days. In March 1912, the HWC published Amateur Wireless Stations within 20 miles of Boston listing over 300 stations in the area.[2] This callbook predates all Commerce Department listings of amateurs as well as the ARRL's first callbook in 1915. At the time of this book's publication, HWC members were using the call "HDU" (Harvard University) from a station located in Jefferson Laboratory of the Physics Department. Within a few short years, operators would be signing 1AF and 1XJ.

Between the Wars

The post-war period between 1921 and 1925 witnessed tremendous advances in radio, with 1AF at the forefront. After three or four moves around campus, HWC operators finally found their ideal QTH atop Harvard football stadium. The station boasted CW and phone capability, two receivers, and two 60-foot masts 150 feet apart to support the antenna. This premier setup was featured in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, the New York Times, and in the July 1925 issue of QST. Unfortunately, this station was destroyed by a fire caused by an overheated woodburning stove during the winter of 1929.

The 1930's and 1940's were hard times for the HWC as first the Great Depression set in followed by rising world tensions and the outbreak of World War II. Alumni from that era remember W1AF as in a period of decline and sometimes without a home. At other times, the Harvard Wireless Club went by the call W1JOO and operated from the Harvard Law School. The callsign W1AF was even lost—twice; once to Bill Coburn, who taught a course at Harvard in communications for geographical explorers and several years later to a Medford, MA ham named Frank Gow who published two excellent construction articles in QST in 1936. And, of course, all amateur communications ceased at Harvard and elsewhere during World War II.

Thirty-Six Years at 52 Dunster Street

Following the war, the club eventually reformed in 1949-1950 under the leadership of club president Bill Hampton, ex-W9SWQ. During the 1950's, a magnificent Collins station was assembled, antennas were erected and membership increased rapidly. There are so many stories from this era, that we consider this to be the golden age of the HWC. Dozens of operators built, experimented, and operated from the third floor of 52 Dunster Street. And for several years, W1AF operators ran mountaintop Dxpeditions up in Vermont. HWC President for 1954-55, Carter Pfalezer, W1TCD (SK), was instrumental in garnering resources and support for the HWC.

As in the 1930's and 1940's, things slowed down again for W1AF in the 1960's. In reading back through the old station logs, one finds that reliable equipment was the major concern during this era. The old Collins gear was constantly on the workbench; finding new equipment and resources was a never-ending quest. In the mid-1960's, one HWC president came back from summer vacation to find several important pieces of equipment had been stolen. HWC operators were most certainly disheartened by these turn of events but eventually some newer Collins and National gear found its way to 52 Dunster Street, via the estate of a deceased alum.

Interestingly, in 1960 the HWC welcomed renowned operator Katashi Nose, KH6IJ (SK) as a member. Nose had come to Harvard to pursue his Masters degree in education and often dropped by the shack to operate or just to chat with other members. In a 1989 letter to the HWC, Nose recalls that he was known less for his operating talents at W1AF than he was for his skills at preparing tantalizing Japanese barbecue during the 1961 HWC Field Day outing.

During the mid-1970's, HWC operators turned toward contesting as several new beam antennas went up at 52 Dunster Street. We suspect that Fred Hopengarten (K1VR), an MBA student at the time, had something to do with this particular agenda. And the station log also tells us that a local operator named Ken Wolff (K1EA) began dropping by the club and working contests frequently from W1AF. In fact, we have several handwritten contest logs in our archives from a young Mr. Wolff! Now that's something unique!

During that same era another MBA student passed through Harvard and W1AF. This was noted IOTA Dxpeditioner A.E. "Buzz" Jehle, N5UR. Buzz left his mark on the HWC by taking it upon himself to preserve all the club's valuable documents by making copies and then placing the originals in the University Archives. Without his foresight, much of our important heritage could have easily been lost.

Disaster and Rebirth

During the early 1980's, HWC became involved in traffic handling and many of the hot CW operators of the day kept regular schedules handling net and emergency traffic. However, as in 1929, disaster struck again at the HWC in 1986. After 36 years at 52 Dunster Street, Harvard preempted the station space and the HWC was again without a home. For several years after, a small, determined group of members kept the W1AF flame alive, operating from the dorm room of club president Lisa Rees Miller, N9LM.

Finally in 1989, the HWC relocated to 6 Linden Street, where we reside today. With hard work and generous assistance from the administration and alumni, HWC members turned an old storage room and a squash court into a handsome station/clubroom complex. In October 1989, the new station was rededicated and a special event operation commemorating the 80th anniversary of the club was held. Over the next several years, HWC membership grew to an all-time high of 35 including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff members and Harvard alumni. And then in 1990, W1AF carried out a reciprocal exchange with a club in the Soviet Union and the US1A operation was launched. This was followed in 1991 by a Dxpedition to St. Maarten (PJ1A) and a mountain-topping Field Day excursion up to Vermont (W1AF/1) in the spirit of those adventurous HWC operators of the 1950's.

Over the past decade, HWC members have added several new operating positions, erected new HF, VHF and satellite antennas, worked numerous contests, held licensing sessions, and carried out a whole host of activities that amateur radio clubs do. During 1998-1999, we have again completely renovated the station, clubroom and antenna system. We are pleased that the HWC is in excellent condition today and that our membership is once again on the rise. The HWC is continually on the lookout for new members (licensed or not) from within the Harvard University community.

Visiting W1AF today, you will find four operating positions including two state-of-the-art HF installations, a fully operational Heath vintage station, and a VHF position with satellite capabilities. Up on the roof of 6 Linden, we have two HF towers sporting antennas for all bands except 160, and a VHF azimuth installation for satellite work. For an in-depth look at the HWC, take the Virtual Tour on our web site at http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~w1af/ .

Tomorrow's Challenges

As with many collegiate clubs across America, we see our largest challenge as recruiting new student members. We will always have our alums, faculty, graduate students, and staff members but the life blood of the HWC has always been the undergraduates and we are working hard to keep our students at the core of club activities. We believe that colleges can be fertile territory for attracting new members to the amateur ranks. In that sense, collegiate clubs have the same mission as the many elementary and secondary school radio clubs across the country.

At the same time, we realize that collegiate clubs must change with the times. We need to stay abreast of new communications technologies without extending ourselves into unsupportable projects. We need to offer activities and programs that rival the allure of the Internet without abandoning amateur radio. We need to sell ourselves to prospective members and then keep them interested once they are involved and licensed. We need to promote our presence on campus and in the amateur radio press. Did you know that there are more than 200 active collegiate clubs and stations in the United States and that new clubs pop up every year? There are many challenges and opportunities facing both the HWC and all collegiate radio in the future. And in celebration of what the future holds in store for all of us, let's have some fun!

A Special Event

  • The Harvard Wireless Club celebrates the 90th anniversary of its founding by Professor George W. Pierce in early 1909.

  • On Saturday and Sunday, October 2 & 3, 1999, between 1200Z-0000Z both days, listen for W1AF on the following frequencies: HF SSB—3.890, 7.270, 14.270, 21.370, & 28.390. HF CW—35 kHz up from the lower band edges. VHF SSB—50.150, 14.200, 432.150.

  • A special 90th anniversary QSL will be sent to all those requesting a confirmation. In addition, each request enclosing an SASE will receive complementary souvenir QSL cards from past W1AF Dxpeditions including US1A, PJ1A, and PJ8H.

  • Our mailing address is: Harvard Wireless Club (W1AF), Harvard University, 6 Linden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

  • For further information, contact club officials at w1af@harvard.edu


[1] much of the early club history is taken from The Harvard Wireless Club: 80 Years History of W1AF by Dr. Gene Simon, W2KOY (SK).

[2] This early callbook and many other club primary source documents are available on the Harvard Wireless Club website at http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~w1af/.

*6 Linden St., Cambridge, MA 02138 k3uoc@aol.com

About the Author

Mike Manafo, K3UOC, holds an Extra Class license and has served as Trustee of W1AF, the Harvard Wireless Club, since 1988. Over the past 20 years, he has operated under a number of DX calls including 7Z5OO, 7Z1AB, PJ5AA, PJ8H, 4M5V, YX0AI, US1A, 4M4A, P46S, and a host of portable K3UOC operations mostly from Venezuela and the Dutch Caribbean. Mike holds a doctorate in educational administration from Harvard and is the proud father of Molly, born July 16, 1999. Visit his interesting web site at http://members.aol.com/k3uoc/index.htm.

"Ham" Originates at Harvard?

Perhaps you've heard the story about the term "ham" having originated at Harvard. This story has been published and told by word-of-mouth countless times over the past decades. Here's how it goes:

Have you ever wondered why we radio amateurs are called hams? Well, the word ham originated in 1908 and was the call letters of one of the first amateur wireless stations operated by some members of the Harvard Wireless Club. They were Albert Hyman, Bob Almy and Peggie Murray. At first they called their station Hyman-Almy-Murray. Tapping out such a long name in code soon called for a revision, and they changed it to Hy-A1-Mu, using the first two letters of each name. However, early in 1909 some confusion resulted between signals from HYALMU and a Mexican ship named Myalmo, so the operators decided to use only the first letter of each name and from that point on identified their station as HAM.

In the early pioneer and unregulated days of radio, amateur operators picked their own frequencies and call letters. Then, as now, some amateurs had better signals than some commercial stations. The resulting interference finally came to the attention of Congressional Committees in Washington and they gave much thought to proposed legislation designed to critically limit amateur activity.

In 1911, Albert Hyman chose the controversial Wireless Regulations Bill as the topic of his Senior Thesis at Harvard. His instructor insisted that a copy be sent to Senator David Walsh, a member of the committee hearing the Bill. The Senator was so impressed that he sent for Mr. Hyman to appear before the Committee. Hyman was put on the stand and described how the little amateur station, HAM, was built. Then, in an emotional statement, he told the crowded committee room that if the bill went through, the three operators would have to close down HAM because they could not afford the license fees and other requirements which were called for in the bill.

The debate started and the little station, HAM, became a symbol of all the little amateur stations in the country that were crying out to be saved from the menace and greed of the big commercial stations who didn't want them around. Finally the Wireless Regulations Bill got to the floor of Congress and every speaker talked about the poor little station, HAM. And because of Hyman's stirring testimony, Congress voted to save amateur radio and limit the power and influence of commercial radio. Thereafter, nationwide publicity identified the station HAM with amateur wireless operators. From that time to this, and probably to the end of time, in radio, every amateur is a ham. And, that's how it all got started.

Great story isn't it? Thanks to Harvard's Albert Hyman for saving amateur radio and providing us with the "ham" label as well! Unfortunately, "it just ain't so." HWC members have thoroughly researched this story over the years. Albert Salisbury Hyman actually did graduate from Harvard College in 1915 and then went on to earn his M.D. degree from Harvard in 1918. He was a prominent cardiologist in New York City and is credited with introducing the first heart pacemaker in 1932. However, Hyman is not listed on the early membership rosters of the HWC. Furthermore, there is no mention in the Harvard Archives of Dr. Hyman ever being involved in amateur radio or ever testifying before Congress. Additionally, neither Almy nor Murray appears in any alumni records of the time. We have to admit, though, it's a very entertaining story. And where it came from, we haven't a clue . . . .

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