Your first exposure to technology was with amateur radio. How did that come about?
In 1936, I went to Sunday school, and a fellow came in with a box of radio parts and said, "Do you want these?" I said, "You bet." So I took them home. There was an article in Popular Mechanics on how to build a cigar box radio. So I built it and it worked. It changed my life.
[Later] I was an engineer at WPIX New York. While I was there, I [asked] permission to have a ham station on the top of the building. It was a 38-story building, and boy, did I have a line of sight from the top of the building.
Can you talk about how you promoted teletype over ham radio messaging, which was really a precursor to e-mail?
At the top end of the ham band, I heard these strange noises. Someone said, "That's Johnny Williams in Flushing with his hand teletype." So I went out to see him and the next thing you know I built a converter for a ham teletype. It was like e-mail is today, where you can send a message to anyone that can receive you. It turned on the printer automatically, received the message, and then turned everything off and sent a little "beep-beep" acknowledging the message.
And that's when you first got into publishing.
I said to Williams, "You've got to get a newsletter going on this and get more people involved," [but] he didn't have time for that.
So I started an amateur radio teletype newsletter. Within a couple of years I had 2,000 subscribers and a column in CQ Magazine, one of the three ham radio magazines at that time. [Then] for five years I was editor of CQ, and that was an adventure in itself. I got a free trip around the world, all expenses paid and visited 26 countries with a ham station on board the plane.
Then you launched 73, a competing magazine, which promoted emerging technologies as do-it-yourself projects, like your amateur radio repeater network and the advent of "cells."
A few ham clubs in the country were extending the range of their handy talkies and mobile units. A handy talkie is a little two-way radio that you can hold in your hand.
They were putting repeater stations on top of mountains and tall buildings to extend the range. The station's receiver was tuned to the frequency you were transmitting on, and it would rebroadcast on a different frequency, which you could pick up on your handy talkie. In that way, instead of talking for a mile or two, you could talk [to people] 200 miles away.
I put one up on the local mountain here in Peterborough and made it so that any amateur driving anywhere in New England could talk to any other one. I published hundreds of articles and developed the technology. The next thing I knew a group of hams out in Chicago put a transmitter on top of the Sears building and then put receivers around town to pick up the stations that were weak. And they called them "cells." Within three years, we had 8,000, and they were all over the world.
I wrote in my editorials and said, "Look, I'm able to ski the mountains of New Hampshire and Colorado with a little handy talkie in my pocket and make telephone calls anywhere in the world through the local ham repeater. Everyone is going to want to be able to do this."
Well, Art Housholder, who worked for Motorola, went to the top people, said, "Look at this," and showed them my editorial. And that's where we got cell phones. That's where it happened.