The United States Navy and the Control of Radio Frequencies

This appeared on MARHST-L in April, 2002, and appears here by permission of the author, Keith Allen ( His source: History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, by Captain S. L. Howeth (ret.), prepared under the auspices of the Bureau of Ships and Office of Naval History, 1963.

Under Public Law 264 of 1912, evidently the first major federal effort to regulate radio, every radio license was to "provide that the President of the United States in time of war or public peril or disaster may cause the closing of any station for radio communication and the removal therefrom of all radio apparatus, or may authorize the use or control of any such station or apparatus by any department of the Government, upon just compensation to the owners."

Immediately after the outbreak of war in Europe, President Wilson ordered the navy to take over "one or more high-powered radio stations within the jurisdiction of the United States and capable of transatlantic communications." On 9 September 1914 the Navy took control of a new high-powered station at Tuckerton, New Jersey. It had been been built by a German firm, Homag, for a French company, but the Germans had withheld the station from the French on various pretexts. After some initial difficulties the station was able to maintain fairly reliable communications with Germany, with assistance from Homag. As the trans-Atlantic cable between the United States and Germany had been severed (presumably by the British), radio was needed to maintain rapid communications between the two countries. The Navy took over another high-powered station at Sayville, Long Island, which had been owned by an American subsidiary of the German firm Telefunken. This station, too, was used to maintain contact with Germany, and was also operated by the Navy as a commercial enterprise.

Efforts were made before the United States entered the war to further tighten government control of radio. These were prompted in part by concerns about the dominance of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, a subsidiary of the British Marconi Company. By November 1916, draft legislation was under discussion that would allow government stations to handle commercial traffic, would permit the Navy to buy existing coastal radio stations, restricted the frequency range of commercial stations, limited the number of shore stations that would be licensed, and prohibited the upgrade of equipment in existing commercial shore stations, a rather draconian proposal it would seem. Marconi and other private interests saw this, now without reason, as an effort to push them out of the radio business. The legislation was introduced in Congress and became known as the Alexander Bill. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, confirming the suspicions of American Marconi, flatly stated in a letter of 26 December 1916 that his aim and that of the bill was to eliminate commercial interests from ship-to-shore radio communications. He recommended that Congress purchase all existing commercial stations in the United States and that no additional stations be licensed. "He based his actions upon the necessity of eliminating interferences, duplications of efforts, and unsatisfactory radio discipline," although one would think that Daniels, an ardent Progressive, was motivated largely by suspicion of big business.

The bill was intensely debated and was still under consideration when the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. On the same day President Wilson issued an executive order directing the Navy to take over any radio stations it might need, and to close all stations that were not necessary. The Navy took over 53 commercial stations, most of them owned by Marconi. Of these, 28 were deemed unnecessary for wartime operations, and were closed. Amateur operators were told to cease their activities. No commercial traffic was permitted except through military-controlled radio stations, other than in Alaska.

Daniels continued his efforts to effect a permanent government monopoly. According to a U.S. Navy official history, "the actions of the Marconi officials further convinced Government officials that England was intent upon establishing her dominance in the field when the war should end. They were equally convinced that it was necessary to eliminate British influence from American commercial radio operations and further, if possible, to establish Government monopoly and American dominance in the field. With this in mind, and using wartime necessity as a reason, they proceeded to purchase the Federal Telegraph Co. stations and to convince the Shipping Board of the necessity of purchasing the installations on all seagoing vessels of American registry. This transaction was consummated by the Navy's additional purchase of the American Marconi coastal shore stations. Even with Government ownership of practically all the coastal radio stations, congressional approval of the Alexander bill was necessary to prevent the Marconi Co. from building new stations and leasing shipboard equipment once the Government was divested of its wartime authority. However, Daniels believed in the old adage, 'possession is nine-tenths of the law.'"

After the Armistice hearings on the Alexander bill resumed. Daniels urged Congress to make permanent the Navy's wartime control over radio. Some Congressmen strongly criticized the Navy for purchasing commercial stations without congressional consent. With the Republicans in control of Congress following the 1918 elections, the Alexander Bill had no chance. On 16 January 1919 the bill was tabled in the House Merchant Marine Committee and never came up again. After this most Navy officials shifted their goal to the creation of a strong American commercial company. Daniels would not give up, and continued to campaign for government control of ship-to-shore and international radio, but this was a lost cause.

On 11 July 1919 President Wilson approved the return of the radio stations to their owners, effective 1 March 1920. I assume that some compensation was paid, but don't have details. Later that year the Navy, despite Daniels's continued desire for government control, encouraged General Electric in the creation of the Radio Corporation of America, which absorbed American Marconi and ended fears of foreign domination of American radio facilities.

Last Updated: 6 April, 2002.

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