Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Volney G. Mathison (1897-1965)-Part 2


Founded in 1894 by the twenty-eight members of the Fairhope Industrial Association, Fairhope, Alabama, was to be a community where Henry George's economic theories could be put into practice. The legend is that the community had a "fair hope" of success, and by most measures, it seems like that has been the case. In 1908, the city of Fairhope was established within the bounds of the community. Since then, Fairhope has been a gathering place for artists, writers, educators, and other intellectuals. It has also been a resort and a place for tourists. Among the many people drawn to Fairhope over the years were the family of Volney G. Mathison.

Mathison's father, Fred Mathison, intellectually inclined despite his hardscrabble life, was a follower of Henry George, so devoted in fact that sometime between 1900 and 1910, he moved his family from Oregon to Fairhope. When the 1910 census taker counted them there, Fred Mathison's wife, Bertha A. Mathison, was occupied on her own account as a "Keeper, Boarder." With her were her two children, Volney G. and Eva G. Mathison. Fred Mathison was nowhere to be found. Bertha, or Agnes as she was called in earlier records, was determined to escape the desperate poverty of the Texas dirt farm she had worked with her husband. By 1910 she had put her marriage to the farmer behind her, too, for the census listed her as "D" for divorced. (1)


Known as one of San Francisco's original Seven Hills, Telegraph Hill has been a burial ground for seamen, the location of a nineteenth-century semaphore, a destination for bohemian intellectuals, and a home for people and parrots. The hill is now topped by Pioneer Park and its Coit Tower, which offers a panoramic view of the city. Below the park, where Telegraph Hill Boulevard meets Lombard Street, you'll find a monument to Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), the father of long-distance radio transmission, also known as wireless telegraphy. South and east of Telegraph Hill, at 428 Market Street, is the former location of the Haller and Cunningham Electric Company, a manufacturer and retailer of wireless radio equipment and in operation between 1911 and 1920. In 1918, less than a month after he turned twenty-one, Volney Mathison registered for the draft in California, giving his address as 428 Market Street and his employer as Haller Electric Company. When asked his occupation, Mathison answered "Seaman." In all likelihood, he was actually the operator of a shipboard wireless telegraph or radio, the same job that would occupy him for at least the next decade.

Only twenty years before, Marconi had ushered in the era of radio communications with a series of tests and trials in Europe and the United States. On May 13, 1897, for example--only three months before Volney Mathison was born--the first ever wireless telegraph message was sent over the open seas. The distance for wireless transmissions became greater with each successive test. By 1903, even the Atlantic Ocean no longer presented a barrier to wireless messages. "Marconi's activity aroused world interest," observed The Pictorial History of Radio. "The result was that the first application for radio was established for marine telegraphy." In 1912, a young David Sarnoff made a name for himself when he received messages from the Carpathia, a ship carrying passengers rescued from the wreck of the Titanic. Somewhere out on the continent, in Alabama or Oregon or California, a teenaged Volney Mathison may very well have taken notice. He must have remembered his father's words to "read up-to-date scientific books." In any case, Mathison became a licensed wireless operator at age sixteen, only a year or two after the Titanic disaster. Like countless hobbyists all over the country, Mathison must have built his own radio sets to listen in on radio traffic and to communicate with other operators. It must have been exciting to participate in the development of a new technology and a new medium.

In 1920, the nation's first commercially licensed radio station--Pittsburgh's KDKA--began broadcasts that have continued to this day. The following year Westinghouse began offering a $60 home radio receiver to consumers. Radio stations proliferated and radio sales took off. Radio was literally in the air in the 1920s. Throughout that roaring decade, Volney Matthison worked as a radioman aboard the ships SS Robin Goodfellow and SS Greylock, plying the waters of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and probably California and Alaska. (2) He was a little loose with the facts when it came to his years of service, but 1918 is probably pretty close to the year he went down to the sea in ships. (3)

I have offered these details on the history of radio because knowing something about radio is important in understanding Mathison's life and work, and for two intertwined reasons. First, Volney Matthison the inventor is known for a piece of electrical equipment called the E-meter, derived from his work as a radioman and used by followers of L. Ron Hubbard from the 1950s onward. Second, Volney Matthison the author is known for writing in a new genre of literature advanced by a radio entrepreneur, a man named Hugo Gernsback, sometimes called the father of science fiction.

To Be Continued . . .

(1) I haven't found Fred Mathison in the 1910 census, but he reappeared in 1920 in Alameda, California, working as a farm laborer. In 1930, he was enumerated with his sister and brother-in-law in Oakland, California. Volney Mathison registered for the draft in California in 1918, giving his father's name as his nearest relative. In 1931, Volney gave a Berkeley address in a passenger list. I don't know when Fred Mathison died, but for a dozen years or more towards the end of his life, his son was close at hand. 
(2) For those keeping track: The SS Robin Goodfellow, a steam cargo ship built in Seattle in 1920, was torpedoed by a German U-boat on July 25, 1944, in the South Atlantic. The SS Greylock, also a steam cargo ship but built in Los Angeles in 1921, was torpedoed by a U-boat on February 3, 1943, northeast of Iceland.
(3) Like Henry George before him, Volney Matthison went to sea as a teenager. The two men also lived in San Francisco for some time during their lives, and of course both were writers. I would not say that Matthison was trying to imitate George, but it's my business here to make connections.

A postcard from Fairhope, Alabama, from the 1920s, long after Volney Mathison had departed.
The SS Robin Goodfellow, a poor reproduction of an image showing just one of the ships on which Mathison served during the 1920s.
The SS Greylock, another cargo ship, built on the West Coast and in service in the Pacific Northwest during the 1920s. Volney Mathison served on board these two ships as a radio operator. He may not have been an employee of the shipping company, rather one of a radio or wireless company. If anyone who knows about early shipboard radio operations, feel free to write.

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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