HAM Radio 101

Celebrating Early Ham Gladys Kathleen Parkin, 6SO, SK, who Broke Stereotypes by Building Her own Equipment and Station

Amateur radio is no small hobby with more than three million hams setting up shacks across the globe, but, surprisingly, only 15 percent, or around 450,000, of those hams are female. Prior to the Radio Act of 1912 when short call signs were used and all communication was done using Morse code, women could operate with a certain level of anonymity, concealing their gender, and even going so far as to register their transmitters under a male relative’s name. But not all women were so clandestine, and in 1916 Gladys Kathleen Parkin, 6SO, SK, felt no need to hide her gender or her many amateur radio-related accomplishments.

One of the earliest and youngest women to get involved in the hobby, Parkin became interested in wireless telegraphy at age five, operating an amateur wireless station from her home in California for six years alongside her brother, John. It was one of the first wireless stations in California. She designed all her own instruments including a ¼-kilowatt spark-gap transmitter—no small feat. And, on April 13, 1916, at the age of fifteen, on a whim just to see if she could pass, she tested and obtained a first-class commercial radio operator’s license from the United States government—earning her the call sign 6SO—and a very high test score.

This made Parkin the first woman in California to pass the exam, the third woman to ever pass and obtain a first-class license, and the youngest woman (at the time) to obtain a government-issued license. It also allowed her the ability to operate any grade of wireless station and to secure employment on vessels. Plus, she earned a cover spot on the October issue of Electrical Experimenter and a feature article titled “The Feminine Wireless Amateur.” In it she describes her experience with amateur radio:

With reference to my ideas about the wireless profession as a vocation or worthwhile hobby for women, I think wireless telegraphy is a most fascinating study, and one which could very easily be taken up by girls, as it is a great deal more interesting than the telephone and telegraph work, in which so many girls are now employed. I am only fifteen, and I learned the code several years ago, by practicing a few minutes each day on a buzzer. I studied a good deal, and I found it quite easy to obtain my first grade commercial government license last April. It seems to me that everyone should at least know the code, as cases might easily arise of a ship in distress, where the operators might be incapacitated, and knowledge of the code might be the means of saving the ship and the lives of the passengers. But the interest in wireless does not end in the knowledge of the code. You can gradually learn to make all your own instruments, as I have done with my ¼-kilowatt set. There is always more ahead of you, as wireless telegraphy is still in its infancy.”

Parkin worked for her family’s radio business, Parkin Manufacturing Company. She was held in high esteem by local amateur radio enthusiasts for her contributions to wireless radio, which she continued to be highly involved in until her passing at the age of 89.

Want to learn more about amateur radio operator women? Check out the Young Ladies Radio League, a women-run and women-operated organization, committed to the advancement of female ham enthusiasts. For those interested, annual educational scholarships are also available on the site.

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