The First Ham Clubs: 1930s to 1950s

Peabody Hall

The earliest known club shack was started in the 1930s in Peabody Hall (now housing undergraduate admissions). The details of the installation there are sketchy at best. From the recollections of Lee Moyer, K4ISW, our club trustee, we know that the callsign W4UVA was originally held by a professor at UVa at the time and he operated the Peabody Hall basement shack. He had cables running to rooftop antennas. And that is about as much as we know!

New information which has just come to light suggests that a club or group of hams may have existed dating back to the 1920s. As soon as more information becomes available, it will be posted here.

The above QSL card is from a UVa student in the 1930s, Chas Waff, Jr, W3UVA. This image was provided to us by UVa alum (1973 and ’75) Lee Garlock, KD4RE (ex-WB4SCP). Little is known at this time about Chas Waff except that he was indeed a student in 1934. We believe the callsign was his alone at the time at UVa, despite the “UVA” suffix.

Lee passes along a very interesting story of the re-discovery of a much older UVa ham club, as his group got a new ham club started in 1971. The equipment appeared to date to the 1930s and there was a mysterious “W3VA” callsign included with the relics (perhaps an old club call?). See his recollections below.

Back in 1971 a student named Bill Hughes was Ham and knew I was a ham and he wanted to get the UVA Ham radio club started up again.
There were a couple of other Hams around, Dave Wolfe who was Chief Engineer at WTJU before me, has a 2-B receiver in the engineering (transmitter room) at WTJU when in was in the basement of Humphreys… Anyway Bill told me he heard that the last active ham radio club had been located over in one of the ground rooms behind Varsity Hall (which has since been moved to make room for Rouse Hall expansion) In those days it was the Air Force ROTC building. Anyway, the ground level had a brick floor and sort of an open portico and across the back were a bunch of rooms (all brick of course). well we came to the old door and saw open wire feeder remnants overhead We opened the door and it was like opening a time capsule – There in the room was mostly 1930s and 1940s vintage gear, I guess it had not been used since the mid 1950s (or early 1950s).

There was a rack with an AM transmitter in it, sort of a copper colored paint on the front and on it was a piece of cardboard with the call sign W3VA, There were a number of old receivers in the room I recall a National HRO with its plug-in coils there was and RME receiver with a tunable preamplifier/selector as a separate box, and several others. I am not sure but the DX 100 we had for a while may have come out of there so that would have been late 1950s then..

Attached is a QSL I recently was given.. Remember Virginia was in the 3rd district originally.

The next time period we have information on runs from the late 1940s and through the 1950s. Henry Gould, K4CQA, a professor of mathematics at the University of West Virginia, was once an active ham and student at UVa and provided us with some information from that time. He tells a little bit about hamming it up from 9 West Range (just two doors down from Edgar Allen Poe’s former room):

In 1955 UVA would not let me put up a visible antenna, it would conflict with the Jeffersonian stuff, so I invented a vertical antenna using 30-gauge wire from a transformer with a rock on the end tossed straight up from window 40 into a tree! I had a 75 watt transmitter I built, using a single 807 type tube and my old 1939 Hallicrafters S19R Sky Buddy receiver. My first contact on 40 meter novice band was a guy in Mississippi and then on a CQ Hawaii I hooked WH6BHI in Hawaii! In the 1955 Sweepstakes I had the fifth highest novice score! In winters water would run down the wire and form a humongous icicle, and stretch the wire. My “icicle antenna with frozen reactance” was written up by Rod Newkirk in QST in his “How’s DX” column in 1956.

From Henry we know two ham club member names of the 1950s, Richard (Dick) B. Florence (ex-W4OFR, now K4VY and living in Ruckersville) and Robert (Bob) Blodinger, ex-W1ASV, now W4NPX, living in Charlottesville and still active on CW (according to QRZ)!

From Dick Florence, we obtained the following information:

Bert: Thanks for the e-mail. It brought back memories of my time at U. Va.
In the period 1948 to 1954 there was no organized ham club, but just a group of hams that hung out including Henry and Bob. Also Carter Feild, former k4gpk and now w4fvz, the engineer in the group.

Old timers reported that Dr. Quarles, dean of the Engineering School, was licensed as W4DQ. In the late ’50s, if I remember correctly, a ham club in the engineering school used the call w4ski, as w4uva was not available.
Good luck finding more information. Dick, K4VY.

There’s also Dr. Raymond Bice, Jr., a psychology professor who arrived at UVa in 1948 and had a storied 50 year career at the university. He was an active ham when he came to UVa and relayed the following amusing story of antenna deployment (the theme of which still resonates with our club’s struggles today!). Read the excerpt about the antenna here, with the full text (word document) of the “Inside UVa” article from 1998 here. A more recent interview also from “Inside UVa” to commemorate Bice’s 90th birthday can be found here.

One thought on “The First Ham Clubs: 1930s to 1950s

  1. Charlie Shepherd says:

    What great accounts from the UVA ham club members from the 50’s – talk about a nostalgia trip – wow! I was in grade school in the 50’s – entered first grade in 1950, and because of an uncle who was a ham (W4LGT) and attended UVA in the 20’s, I became interested in ham radio early on – probably about the 5th grade (1955 or so). I was an avid SWLer, listening on an old surplus RBS receiver that my uncle gave me. I lived at 412 Brandon Ave. at that time – in a house that is no longer there, being swallowed up by UVA expansion in the late 60’s. Tuning around, I can remember hearing W4SKI a few times, which I think was located at the School of Engineering then. Seems that they were using a BC-610 transmitter, if my memory serves me right. Needless to say, they were 5/9 ++ at my Brandon Avenue QTH! Anyway, I was never aware that the old W4UVA station was in the bottom floor of Varsity Hall, right across Jefferson Park Ave. from me. Guess they were off then air by then – who knows? I knew the UVA grounds like my back yard, but never stumbled onto the station at Varsity Hall. That’s probably a good thing, because I’m sure I would have made a nuisance out of myself tryin’ to hang out there! Hope some more old UVA ham club members will step up and share their stories with us!

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