If you were alive during the formative years of amateur radio, you knew Irv Vermilya. From the time he was 12 and he travelled to hear Marconi speak, ham radio was his first love, and he was a life-long ambassador for it. Born in June of 1890, he grew up in Mt. Vernon, New York, where he built his first rather primitive set (as Irv recalls, it looked strange, but it worked) in December of 1901, after his trip to see Marconi. Other more advanced (and more professional-looking) sets followed, and his dedication to wireless increased. His spark transmissions were so frequently heard that he was offered jobs on ships that needed a wireless operator. He became a member of the newly formed Radio Club of America in 1911, using the calls VN. (Later, he would use 1HAA, but he was best known as W1-ZE). In late 1912, the government began to require that all wireless operators be licensed. Irv hurried to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to take the test, and was given Certificate of Skill #1. For the rest of his life, he would be known as America's Number 1 Amateur-- which he truly was. Irv Vermilya's involvement with radio continued; at the age of 16, he did in fact go to sea as a wireless operator; a few years later, he was given the important job of running the Marconi Wireless Station (station WCC) on Cape Cod, Mass. (Friends of his recall that many years later, he still loved to tell about how noisy the station was-- with its 35 kW rotary spark gap...) During World War I, he served in the Navy, and then returned to Massachusetts to run the RCA wireless station at Marion. His engineering and wireless skills brought him into contact with such legendary figures as David Sarnoff, Lee DeForest, and Edwin Howard Armstrong, and his technical skills earned him the praise of the radio editor of the Boston Post who referred to him as an "expert sending operator." The editor noted that Irv Vermilya was "one of New England's best known amateurs, and one of the few... who were able to reach a European station during the recently held amateur tests." (Boston Post, 14 May 1922, p. 13) By 1921, professional radio stations were springing up, and Irv was interested in this new technology too. Using his newly acquired license for a land station, 1ZE, he began doing radio broadcasts to entertain his neighbours in and around New Bedford and upper Cape Cod. His work came to the immediate attention of the Slocum and Kilburn Company, which was planning to open a station at their mill (the mill was similar to what we would call a "general store", since it also sold electrical equipment, tools, and building supplies; the station would be located in the radio department). They hired Irv to build it and run it, and the station went on the air officially in mid 1922 as WDAU. (It still exists, although today, it is known as WNBH-- the initials stand for New Bedford Hotel, where its studios once were located.) When financial problems beset Slocum and Kilburn in late 1923, Irv acquired the station and moved it to his house (imagine his wife's surprise) in early 1924, where he operated it under the call letters WBBG ("The Voice From Cape Cod") until mid-1925. His was one of many small stations that suffered when ASCAP required all stations, no matter what their size, to pay large fees to play ASCAP music; such fees almost drove Irv's little station off the air, but it made him even more determined to find some financial backers so that he could keep the station operating. He was finally able, with a business partner, to move his radio station back to New Bedford, requesting the aforementioned WNBH call letters. It was common in radio's early days for stations to have studios at hotels, since this provided a studio audience as well as a house dance band, and it certainly gave WNBH a good community image to have the hotel as its location. Irv continued to play a major role in WNBH's operation, serving as its General Manager, as well as helping to hire the talent and getting the station publicity. His ability as an engineer was well-known, and he frequently kept the station up and running during winter storms or other weather-related problems. In May of 1934, he sold WNBH to the owners of the New Bedford Standard-Times newspaper, but he continued to work there, first as station manager and later as the chief engineer until he retired in 1955. While Irv Vermilya's career in professional radio earned him considerable praise, he never stopped being involved with ham radio. In 1921, he was named the New England Manager of the ARRL. He was the mentor to Eunice Randall, the district's first woman amateur, and at a time when women were not expected to know anything about radio, Irv was totally supportive of Eunice and encouraged other men to give her a chance-- Irv and Eunice were friends for many years, attending each other's weddings, participating in various conventions together, and of course, keeping in touch via their ham sets. Irv wrote columns on ham radio for QST and for various newspapers, and won virtually every award a ham could win-- it was impossible to read any magazine about ham radio without seeing another country or continent that W1-ZE had received or been received by. (In the early 1920s, amateur 'tests' were often held to see how far a transmission could go, and Irv was one of the few whose messages were received as far away as Europe...) And as you might expect, he also put a mobile transmitter in his car, and in the early 1930s, he set up the first police radio station for the New Bedford Police department. In fact, whenever he could put his radio skills to a positive use, Irv was right there to volunteer, whether it was relaying messages during a hurricane or attracting some publicity for ham radio by engaging in a "foot-sending" contest with Eunice Randall (Eunice usually won...). Years later, he was one of the founding members of the Old Old Timers Club, and served on its board. He was also the first American citizen ever given a permit to operate his mobile station in Canada. I would like to tell you that such a distinguished career and such a highly respected man lived to a ripe old age, but not every story has a Hollywood ending. Depressed by the death of his wife, in failing health, and perhaps feeling the industry he loved so much no longer had a place for him, in late January 1964, Irv Vermilya committed suicide. His death came as a shock to the many people who had admired him; even the New Bedford Standard-Times editorialised about what a fine human being he was, and how much he had contributed to broadcasting. Irv Vermilya elevated the status of ham radio, and was an able spokesperson and emissary, whose outgoing personality made friends wherever he went. If it were not for him, New Bedford and large parts of Cape Cod would not have had radio for a very long time, and thousands of people who met him via ham radio would not have known what fun this hobby could be. Perhaps he never invented something major the way Marconi did, perhaps his name is not as famous as Sarnoff's, but it is radio's early pioneers who paved the way for the fledgeling industry to grow and succeed. Irv Vermilya was definitely American's #1 amateur, and he deserves our thanks for his dedication and his many years of service.
Information Supplied by Donna Halper, [Contributing Editor,] Boston Radio Archives, Boston, Ma.
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