Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana.
Science Hall at Geneva College.
Sitting in his ham 'shack,' Harry packs his pipe
while describing his early days in radio.
This old spark gap transmitter
is just one of Harry's treasured oldies.
Frank Conrad's amateur radio station 8XK, operated
from the garage pictured at the left,
became KDKA in Pittsburgh.
"Everybody's crazy about something, I guess. And, as you can see, I've been crazy about this business for all these years." Those were Harry Mills' words during a recent conversation that I had with him at his lovely old home in Hendersonville, N.C. And, these weren't just words! The vast array of radio or "wireless" paraphernalia found in and around his home could well document the evolution of wireless. From spark gap transmitter to a modern Ten Tec Jupiter ham radio transceiver, Harry's collection of equipment extends from the oldest to the newest and from the crudest to the most sophisticated.
My first contact with Harry was as the guest at the "Old Friends Club." The club meets the first Friday of every month at a little restaurant north of Spartanburg, S.C., and just south of the N.C/S.C. state line. Among the membership of this group are some of the most prominent and knowledgeable hams to be found anywhere. Harry is almost always present at the meetings, and he usually brings an interesting relic or two from days gone by. Harry has also done many interesting presentations before the group.
Born in Beaver, Pa., on Sept. 19, 1907, Harry was destined to become addicted to wireless at an early age. At the age of 12, Harry joined the Boy Scouts in high school. The last chapter in the Scout handbook described a wireless station using a coil with slider and a crystal detector. Harry didn't have a crystal detector, but he was able to fashion a detector out of razor blades and carborundum. Later, he was able to find a galena crystal detector. Harry was having difficulty hearing anything in his headphones: He was using a simple 200-ohm telephone receiver. His dad sought the advice of a college professor who recommended the use of a high-impedance headset. Now he could hear several stations around the area.
Harry's interest in wireless continued to grow, and he had a voracious appetite for more knowledge on radio and wireless. During high school, Harry built and experimented with many wireless devices to further his knowledge but after high school, there was no money for college. Besides, not much was offered from colleges on the subject of wireless.
Harry says, "Getting yourself educated on wireless back in those days was no easy task." He studied various courses at different colleges during several years, trying to expand his knowledge of wireless. Later, Harry sold magazines for Curtis Publishing Company to earn money for college. He attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., for two years, followed by one year at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.
Harry then went to radio school in Pittsburgh to study for his commercial license. He also taught radio at school part time. He received 10 percent credit on his exam. Soon after getting his license, Harry went to Philadelphia to RCA to get a job as a radio operator on a ship. The ship had an arc transmitter. Harry says he knew nothing about the arc transmitter. It was a 2-kilowatt Federal transmitter. That evening, Harry found himself serving as radio operator of an arc transmitter on board a ship heading down Delaware Bay. He had to do some fast learning about the arc transmitter in order to signal the Coast Guard station. The ship was named the 'Bohemian Club,' and its call sign was KDTB. Harry learned that an arc transmitter was good for one thing: self-destruction. Harry served as radio operator until about a year later when a ship collision in Delaware Bay took his job. Between 1929 and 1930, Harry worked as chief engineer of radio station WMBR in Tampa, Fla.
Harry got his ham radio operator's license in 1922, and there were no station licenses at that time. Then, in 1923, he was issued his first station license with the call sign 8VHX. At that time there was no Federal Communications Commission. Communications were regulated under the Department of Commerce with Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce.
The RCA Years
Soon, Harry returned to his hometown of Beaver to run a radio business, Mills Radio Company, where he sold and repaired radio equipment. By now, it was the late 1930s and, still seeking to further his education in radio, Harry enrolled in Tri-State College and earned a degree in radio engineering.
In 1942 Harry applied for a job with RCA. He says, "They told me if I could answer one question I had the job." The question was, "How do you get a circular pattern on an oscilloscope?" Of course, Harry answered correctly and the result was a 30-year career with RCA.
Harry worked in various positions throughout his career with RCA. Early in World War II, RCA assigned Harry to the U.S. Navy to install the first submarine radars at Portsmouth and New London. Subsequently, Harry served at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. After the war, until about 1950, RCA assigned Harry to the U.S. Army. Harry was responsible for establishing schools to teach NATO countries how to use and maintain U.S.-supplied Signal Corps equipment. He supervised as many as 50 engineers in six countries from Portugal to Turkey. During this time, he even held a German amateur radio call sign - DL4TZ.
When Harry returned to the United State in 1956, he was transferred to marketing. He sold engineering services to the U.S. Air Force in Rome, N.Y., and at Sacramento, Calif. While working in California, Harry was called back by RCA headquarters, which asked him to go to Wisconsin to establish the McCoy Job Corps Center at Tomah. The University of Wisconsin was a subcontractor. So Harry left California for Wisconsin to work with a staff of 525 people. According to Harry, 'this was a 24/7 job.' After that, Harry was assigned to the Washington, D.C., marketing office as manager for government services.
The Retirement Years
In 1971, Harry and his wife retired to Hendersonville, N.C. Though Harry's wife Peggy passed away in 1991, Harry still lives in Hendersonville with his son Richard. In 1974, Harry founded Chapter 76 (Blue Ridge Chapter) of QCWA. Harry served as the first president of the chapter that year, and he also served as the 25th president. Harry continues to support the chapter, which meets monthly at Ryan's Steak House in Hendersonville. Harry has also been quite active over the years with IRE/IEEE.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Harry and two other gentlemen - Arch Doty and John Frey - teamed to do some serious experimental antenna work. The object was to study the effects of ground radials on vertical antenna performance at 160 meters. The experiments were conducted on Arch Doty's property near Fletcher, NC The measurements were quite exhaustive, and part of the experimental program was published in QST in February 1983. These papers were also presented at the IEEE in Atlanta, and they also appeared in the Antenna Handbook.
So the crystal receiver project from the Boy Scout handbook is what sparked Harry's interest in wireless. Harry is still quite involved in radio, and he continues to help others understand, appreciate and enjoy this wonderful phenomenon. He has held nine U.S. call signs and the German call sign - 10 in all! His current call sign is K4HU.
A couple more notes of interest: Harry was interviewed on PBS and National Geographic radio and TV shows as the last living person who heard 8XK radio before it became KDKA in 1920. Recently, Harry learned his antenna experiments paper was the basis for a thesis of a student at the Democritus University of Thrace in Xanthi, Greece.
Harry is still active on the ham radio bands as well as in repairing and restoring older radios. He can be heard twice weekly checking into the AM net on 3810 kHz as well as the Chapter 76 QCWA SSB net on Saturday mornings on 3930 kHz - K4HU! Thanks, Harry, for many great years of service to the field of radio and for your mentoring to many.