America's #1 Amateur

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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