Mon Nov 19, 2018, 10:56 PM

Amateur Radio Gangsters in Roaring 20's Chicago! (seriously!)

Part II: Days of the Radio Gangs

Ralph Mathews—remembering his early teenage forays into Chicago’s amateur radio scene—described it more like a Prohibition-style turf war. There were “North, South, and West Side gangs,” he wrote in a 1921 article for QST magazine, “each having as a primary object the annihilation of the aerials of the others.”

Radio gangs?!

Indeed. With commercial radio not yet in existence, the city was essentially a sea of wireless pirates competing to establish the biggest and best communication relay networks. As a result, there was an incentive for sabotage.

“Frankly, Chicago conditions before the war were the worst that this writer has ever seen anywhere,” Mathews wrote, citing a specific occasion when an entire antenna was “forcibly and thoroughly removed” thirty minutes before a scheduled relay time. When a replacement was built, it was manned with armed guards to protect it. “Two friends sat out under the mast with 38-calibre cannons,” Mathews recalled, “and they chased away exactly eight individuals, each with his little side-cutting pliers.”

In typical Chicago fashion, even the city’s geeky ham radio element had to start employing pistol-packing heavies. There needs to be a film about this madness.

“If this condition had continued,” Mathews noted, “Chicago would have been the dead spot in regard to relay traffic. . . Fortunately, however, there were in each of the already existing sectional ‘clubs’ certain individuals having influence and with an unselfish consideration for the radio game as a whole. and Mr. F.H. Schnell, then Chicago City Manager, called together these men and the Chicago situation was discussed. As a result, the method of organization now known as the ‘Chicago Plan’ was evolved.”

The “Chicago Plan”—not to be confused with Daniel Burnham’s better-known “Plan of Chicago”—is rarely mentioned as part of the grand history of the Zenith Radio Corp, but it stands as one of the first of many major achievements in which the company played a leading role.

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