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The rise of any new technology can attract people who try to exploit it for personal gain. When radio came to prominence, unlicensed and unpermitted radio operators became a nuisance. A new protector — the radio detective — emerged to fight criminals, one transmission at a time.
Radio broadcasting was still in its infancy when it made its 1921 debut in Dallas. The Dallas Police Department’s first encounter with radio was not for patrolling but for promoting the new, wireless technology. On Aug. 7, 1921, The Dallas Morning News wrote that Dallas was the “City of the Instant” where wireless communication was used to apprehend criminals.
KVP was Dallas’ ”police and fire radio signal system.” It featured a desk sergeant broadcasting for his squad, sending police to investigate a murder, hijacking, burglary or some other crime. Three police officers would rotate eight-hour shifts to maintain the 24-hour broadcasts, The News reported in July 1932. For radio hobbyists, it was an opportunity to peek into the life of a policeman.
Enforcing the limits
Outside the DPD, the “radio cop” enforced the newest laws surrounding the wavelengths. At the time, the radio was “not a limitless medium” and “the ever increasing number of radiophone and radio telegraph stationed in operation” followed stringent rules to reduce interference.
The specialized inspectors would use a radio compass, which “consists simply of a wooden frame that holds a number of turns of wire,” to guide them to the culprits. Fortunately, many radio amateurs and novices were law-abiding residents and quickly corrected their actions.
Special radio patrolmen were even assigned their own vehicle that was equipped to combat wireless crime, The News reported in December 1923.
A feature in The News on Nov. 22, 1931, described a visit to Dallas by officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s radio division. They praised not only WFAA, an early radio station, but also two local radio detectives who — with their radio test car — uncovered an unauthorized station running out of Seymour.
There were also private radio detectives. In March 1925, The News reported on the work of G.E. Clampitt, who could solve any wavelength puzzle. At work, he “is a mystery and a magnetizing attraction,” but at home, “he is just the husband and father of a wife and two children.”
Clampitt’s fascination with radio began as a hobby. He had experimented with wired and wireless transmissions since he was 15. His first radio was a crystal set he built with “two nails in a table top, with wire coiled between,” which became the germ that turned into full-blown “radio disease and he has never recovered.”
Clampitt created his own equipment, or sets. One piece was a telephone test set that allowed him to “single out any conversation he wants to hear” within 100 feet of a telephone cable.
Clampitt’s most ambitious contraption was his automobile set. Wanting to receive receptions from a great distance, “he concocted a three-tube set, using automobile wet batteries with a standard dry battery. With it, he reached out to Winnipeg, Canada, Los Angeles and other distant points.” The wires were connected to a large speaker on top of his car, which brought in programs “on a loud speaker from within a thirty-mile radius clearly.”
Another weapon in Clampitt’s arsenal was his body set. It was designed to fine tune and pick up weak signals of unruly noises. Underneath his overcoat was “seventy-five feet of wire looped upon Clampitt’s back” with a box at the front.
So who hired a private radio detective? “Anyone who has static hires him. Anywhere static is, he trails it.” His reputation grew. Friends would bring the “sick and sickening static to his attention. They woke him up early in the mornings. They pestered him all day. They broke into his meals. They stirred him late at night … [under] one unanimous cry — get rid of the static!”
Clampitt often found mundane causes for the static. “The principal offenders are defective wiring in the house … [or] in the poor joints, faulty appliances and overused machinery in the electric consumer’s home.”
What else could a private radio detective find? Occasionally a pickpocket. When Clampitt, “was showing his set to a group of curious onlookers in downtown Dallas[,] one nearest to him ran a hand over the aerial of Clampitt’s back.”
“ ‘I sure could hear you do that,’ the inventor spoke up.”
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