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Excerpt: Chapter Two, Radio Days

Broadcast radio came to Savary Island late one night in 1922.

In the years before the "radio," some of the summer kids I grew up with on the island used to invite me down to Vancouver during the winter. In their basements they were playing with radio, just as a hobby. It was all spark, of course. They had a spark gap about an inch long, a wire out into the cherry tree, a big smell of ozone, and they listened on a crystal set. There were only fifty or a hundred of these "amateurs" in the entire city.

My ambition was to go back to Savary, put a bunch of equipment together, and talk to someone not on the island. Isolation was something we all felt very strongly in the remoter places on the coast. The prospect of being able to break through the long winter silence with wireless was very exciting to me.

One day I happened to sell a twelve-foot work boat I had found on the beach and fitted with a small engine. I spent the entire 50 dollars sending away for radio parts. I got a pair of brown bakelite Montgomery Ward headphones and a galena crystal with a cat's whisker, and for the rest all I used was bellwire wound on a circular oatmeal carton to tune it. Equipped with this apparatus, I could hear ships and shore stations sending their Morse Code messages. I had weak reception but my friend Jimmy Anderson climbed a tall tree and got a huge antenna up. I'd stay up half the night after everyone else had gone to bed, learning to read the Morse Code and trying to tune in new stations.

One night in 1922, I was twiddling the controls when suddenly, I couldn't believe my ears. Music! We'd read about "radio broadcasting" starting up, but it was all very strange and far away. I listened and listened until finally I heard the announcer's voice: "This is K-P-0 San Francisco. You are listening to Rudy Seager's orchestra in the Fairmont Hotel." I darn near died.

I got Dad out of bed. He listened to it, and the next night pretty near everyone on the island was crowded around our radio listening. This was the human voice coming out of space. It seemed unthinkable. And music. Played in San Francisco and heard in the same instant on Savary Island.

Once everyone got over the shock, they all wanted me to build them a crystal set. Harry Keefer, the postmaster and storekeeper, gave me $25. He said, "Build me the best one you can get!" I started building sets and selling them, just like that. By 1924 I had saved enough money to come back from the logging camps for good and go into business. Radio boomed, and it carried me with it. I often say I never worked a day since!

People began to come into Savary from all over. They got to hear about me and they'd come down in boats from Hornfray Channel, from Teakerne Arm, from Refuge Cove - "Where's the radio man?" I had a real production line going, taking "store-boughten" sets that didn't work and rebuilding them. I was thrilled. To be able to stay home and make money just fooling around at radio seemed like getting it for free.

After a while I got to thinking that my market could be greatly extended if I could somehow get out on the water and take my services to the people of the coast. Up to this time I had just been sitting back waiting for people to hear about me by word of mouth and then find the time to make their way over to Savary and track me down. But there were lots of customers up every inlet and channel who wanted radio if only I could get to them, if only I could get a gas boat large enough to take me around.

For many years I couldn't afford a boat. Then in 1935, Frank Osborne, my machinist friend at Lund, told me about Eric Nelson, a retired Swedish fisherman who might let me use his old codfishing boat, the Mary. It was thirty-two feet long, wooden, with a 9 horsepower Buffalo engine. Eric agreed to let me use the boat, and in return I would pay him a dollar a day and keep it in good repair.

Now I was well and truly launched. The Mary opened up a whole new world of business. I began cruising up and down the coast, calling in at the logging camps and homesteads among the northern islands as far up as Loughborough Inlet. It was so much fun in those days, going around. Every little
place had eight or ten families living in it. Before long I knew just about every logger, fisherman, and stumprancher in the whole area.

Things were going so well that I decided to spend some money refurbishing the Mary. It cost me $700. But the job was hardly finished when Eric Nelson took the boat back and sold it for a profit. This left me with a bit of a problem. I had customers waiting for me, and there were rumours of another sea-going radio man setting up in competition, which he did in intervals between drunks. I had to find another boat in a hurry.

At this time I was a member of a group of ham radio operators living along the coast. We called ourselves the Island Net. One of the regulars was Bob Weld, a boatbuilding enthusiast in Parksville. He and his son had spent two or three years building quite a large power boat in his back yard. Compared to anything I had had, it was a veritable palace. Well, I was telling Bob about my troubles and he said why didn't I buy his boat. His son had joined the BC Police and moved to Victoria, and it was too big for the old man to handle alone. He was asking $2,500 but we worked out a deal where I would pay for it at one dollar a day. In October, 1936, I purchased the boat and registered it in Powell River as the Five BR, part of my first ham radio call.

It was a wonderful boat. In 1937 I was married and lived aboard with my wife; my eldest son Ronnie, born in 1940, spent his first two years on board. The Five BR increased my range so that I could travel farther up the coast, eventually as far as Seymour Inlet and the north end of Vancouver Island. For seven years it served as my office, workshop and floating home. It became well known in all the little camps, canneries, steamer stops, and stump-ranches, although few people referred to it by name. I installed a police siren which I would blow coming into harbour and everyone ashore simply said, "There's the radio boat."

We were by no means the only ones doing business from a boat in those days. There were quite a few "store boats" and agents of one kind or another selling hardware, clothing, dry goods, whatever anyone needed. Sea-going dentists, insurance salesmen and hairdressers, including ladies who did hair-dos for the women and, in some cases, more personal services for the men. We got to know them all.

When the war began, I tried to enlist in the Air Force but at that stage they were taking only university graduates so I concentrated on my radio work. I used Savary Island as my home address. Customers wrote me there or sent in one of the reply cards I had printed up. Mother would look at my calendar, see where I'd be next, then forward the mail there by steamer. It was a clumsy method. Sometimes it took several weeks to respond to a message. There were pieces of paper chasing me all over the coast, and it was working less and less well as business grew and steamer service declined.

There was a demand about this time for some sort of two-way communication along the coast. The first radiophones, supplied by the Canadian Marconi Company, came in around 1921 or 1922. They were as big as refrigerators. Only a government forestry launch had room to put the darned thing. The Marconi company had a monopoly-if anybody else built one, Marconi would sue. Finally a guy named Ed Chisholm began building and selling transmitters right under Marconi's nose and they couldn't stop him; when I saw him getting away with it, I started. The first one I made went into Theodosia Arm for the big Merrill, Ring and Moore camp

Between running the Five BR, repairing household sets, and doing everything else, I was having a hard time keeping up. Once again the Island Net came to my rescue. Jim Hepburn, one of our members, was working as office boy and radio man for island Tug and Barge in Victoria. I arranged with him to take over the building of my radio-telephone sets. Things went so well that I soon suggested he join the business. I had found I was missing out on a lot of sales because I was up the coast somewhere chasing my tail when the inquiries came in. I figured the best solution was to establish a base in Vancouver where Hep could direct traffic and build radiotelephones full time. We built a tiny box of a building at the foot of Cardero Street and early in 194 1, Spilsbury and Hepburn Ltd. was born.

From the first, Hep was snowed under at the shop. We both worked incredibly hard for incredibly tiny sums of money. There were times when neither of us took our salary because the bank account wouldn't stand it. But the wartime economy of the coast was heating up and the business grew in spite of itself. Even with Hep building every spare minute, we couldn't make enough radiophones to keep up with demand, and in July we hired our first employee.

Business was booming, but what with various wartime restrictions it became harder and harder to travel up the coast in the Five BR. Towards the end of 1942, I left Vancouver and went on a seven-week trip in the boat. When I got back, the off controller lowered the boom on us and we weren't able to get enough gas to make a meaningful trip. We were grounded.

Oddly enough, Canadian Marconi chose this exact time to enter the field with a boat of its own. We could have fought the ruling, I suppose. Or paid 5 dollars for a commercial fishing licence and disguised the Five BR as a fishboat.

Instead, I bought an airplane.