Miscellaneous Technology

Roger That: The History of Walkie Talkies

Isn’t it fascinating how things are invented? Take the case of walkie talkies. If it hadn’t been for what we might call a “step back in time,” which happened to coincide with the Second World War, they might never have come into being.

But they did, thanks to a Canadian radio operator and inventor named Donald Hings, who, along with the rest of his party, wound up stranded in the British Columbia wilderness while on a geological expedition for a mining company in 1933.

What Hings was to invent as a result of this episode wound up being of great benefit to allied forces during the war.

Let’s find out more.

Walkie Talkies: Pre-History

First, though, we need to explain the technology Hings already was familiar with at the time since it not only made him familiar with radio transmission technology but also with its two-way communication capabilities.

Wireless Telegraph

Radio has always been a two-way communication medium, at least in its technical capabilities. And this is how it was first used in the early 1900s, following the radio’s invention a decade earlier (attributed at different times to both Marconi and Tesla).

Radio’s first use was as a “wireless telegraph,” providing telegraph-type communication (well-established by that point) to ships at sea. Radio operators were able to communicate with other radio operators both on land and on other ships.

The “Amateurs”

But in the mid-1910s, when World War I was developing in Europe, young men in North America began experimenting with short-wave radio as a hobby. They would talk and play music just for the sake of hearing each other over distances.

This was the start of radio broadcasting, as we know it today. These amateur broadcasters soon enlisted in the military and received more formal training in radio operation.

When they returned, they (and some others) developed commercial radio broadcasting and broadcast networks like CBS and NBC.

The Two Directions of Radio

At this stage, radio was developing in two very different directions: (1) continuing as a vehicle for two-way communication and (2) as a broadcast medium for entertainment and news.

Walkie Talkies: Invention and Early Use

So, getting back to Mr. Hings… As the radio operator for the field expedition, he carried a very large, heavy backpack containing the two-way Morse Code-based radio set-up–their only means of communication with the rest of the world.

The Invention

Hings and his companions did somehow manage to find their way back home. When they did, Hings almost immediately began trying to come up with better technology for field communication than the bulky radio pack…

Especially since voice-transmitting would require even larger components than the radio that used only dots and dashes.

Hings set to work reducing the size of vacuum tubes and other radio components until eventually, everything would fit into a box he could carry in one hand. He returned to the wilderness and soon after was able to establish clear communication with a distant colleague.

Not only did he solve the problem of the component sizes, but he also figured out a way to adapt natural speech for transmissions that could have substantial static interference. Hence the “walkie talkie codes” we know today. Do you copy?

World War II

Working in Canada during the late 1930s, Hings could already envision a very urgent need for his new invention, which at the time he was calling “the packset”: the war in Europe.

He filed for a patent and approached the Canadian government. When they realized the significance of his invention, Hings was put “on loan” to the Department of National Defence and the National Research Council in Ottawa to help redevelop his invention for use in battle.

Before long, many thousands of these devices were in use by the Allied forces. it was renamed “walkie talkie” by wartime journalists when they saw what the technology allowed its users to do.

Post-War Developments

Soon after the war had ended, walkie talkies became all the rage for children in the Baby Boomer generation. Many of us remember begging for walkie talkie sets as Christmas gifts.

Kids’ walkie talkies were so popular, in fact, that in 1977, the FCC formally moved the official frequency for unlicensed “toy” walkie talkies from 27 MHz to 49 MHz.

This was done largely to make more room in the spectrum for Citizens Band (C.B.) radio that was increasingly popular with long-haul truckers and many others who followed their conversations.

Walkie Talkies and Two-Way Radio Today

The popularity of walkie talkies leveled off as other technologies grew more advanced. However, they are still very much in use today.

Professional Uses of Walkie Talkies

Professional fields that use walkie talkies today include:

  • Construction companies
  • Plumbers and other contractors
  • School employees
  • Those in emergency preparedness professions
  • Security professionals
  • Hospitality and event workers

Another group that uses walkie talkies is backcountry campers and hikers who are outside the range of cell towers and other wireless transmission facilities.

Walkie Talkies for the General Public

Today, it’s possible to find walkie-talkies and other two-way radios with flashlights, SOS signals, weather alerts, and various other features.

Most walkie-talkies, at least those used by the general public, have a  range of about two miles and weigh less than half a pound.

The End of a Life Well Lived

Donald Hings passed away in 2004. Clearly, he lived long enough to witness the rise of modern-day communication technologies, both analog and digital. And, from what we know, he was inventing things almost until the day he died.

He was an inventor before the fateful 1933 British Columbia wilderness incident. But would he have gone on to be as successful and productive as he was later in life if that event hadn’t taken place?

Would the walkie talkie have been invented at all if Hings had simply continued to use his bulky radio set without feeling compelled to think of ways it could be adapted to blend the capabilities of the wireless radio with those of the telephone?

And invent something that would serve an unforeseen purpose during wartime–and go on from there to help police, emergency responders, backcountry explorers, and many others in need of it?

If you’re interested in reading about more remarkable technologies and other human accomplishments, keep an eye on our ever-growing blog.

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