Most people regard amateur radio is a very niche hobby performed in basements on equipment that hasn’t changed much during the last 100 years. But this wasn’t always the case. As Ars Technica reports, during the early 20th century, wireless radio was the latest in high tech and popular songs and plays were written about radio boys who provided critical communications links.
But it was not to last. Shortly after the Titanic disaster, many major newspapers accused “outside unrecognized stations” of spreading misinformation about the disaster. A few months later, The Radio Act of 1912 was passed, which for the first time imposed severe restrictions on non-commercrial operators. In 1927, the licensing requirements were extended to commercial operators as well. It later came out that the Senate Commerce Committee had the new law prepared well in advance and used the Titanic incident to gather public support for its passing. Of course, through all the regulations, the State was granted best frequencies and exempted from the licensing burden.
So was the Radio Act of 1912 motivated by a concern for public safety, a desire by corporate media to squeeze out amateur competitors, a government power grab over an emerging medium, or a legitimate technical problem? We’ll never know for sure, but it is interesting that from the earliest days of radio to FDR’s thought police, to today’s “wardrobe malfunctions,” regulations of the airwaves has been as much to do with controlling information as technical challenges.