Hacking When It Counts: The Great Depression

In the summer of 1929, it would probably have been hard for the average Joe to imagine the degree to which his life was about to change. In October of that year, the US stock market tumbled, which in concert with myriad economic factors kicked off the Great Depression, a worldwide economic disaster that would send ripples through history to this very day. At its heart, the Depression was about a loss of confidence, manifested in bank failures, foreclosures, unemployment, and extreme austerity. People were thrust into situations for which they were ill-prepared, and if they were going to survive, they needed to adapt and do what they could with what they had on hand. In short, they needed to hack their way out of the Depression.

Social Hacking: Welcome to the Jungle

Bindlestiffs ambulating down the high iron. Source: Wikipedia

One reaction to the change in the social contract in the 1930s was increased vagrancy. While homelessness was certainly thrust upon some people by circumstances – in the depth of the Depression in 1933, something like 25% of men were unemployed, after all – life on the road was clearly a choice for millions. A typical story was that of the bored teenage boy, facing no prospects for a job and wishing to relieve his large family of the burden of one more mouth to feed. Hitting the road with a few possessions in his “bindle,” he learned the craft of life on the road from more experienced vagrants. And thus another hobo was created.

The popular image of the hobos as unique to the Depression is a little awry. Economic upheaval certainly swelled their ranks, but in America, hobos had first appeared after the Civil War, with war-weary veterans riding the rails looking for work. By the time the Depression hit, there was an extensive hobo culture in the United States, complete with its own slang and a rough code of ethics.

Hobos were top of the heap in the vagrant hierarchy, the “knights of the road.” They were migrant workers, generally unskilled, willing to stay in one place for a paying job but unwilling to commit to settling down. When the job was done or he had made enough money, he moved on. Tramps were the next step down – wanderers who were willing to work but only when absolutely necessary. Lowest in the pecking order were the bums who stayed put and relied on the kindness of strangers for their survival. Regardless of rank, all the vagrants had one thing in common – the road. More or less constantly on the move, they had to quickly learn how to provide for themselves without the creature comforts, which before the Depression hit had begun to include many modern conveniences.

Hobo stove in action. Source: Log Cabin Cooking

Cooking arrangements were one thing hobos excelled at, whether on the road or in one of the many hobo camps, or jungles, that sprung up at railroad crossings outside of towns. A campfire in a ring of rocks is the traditional view of outdoor cookery, but the hobos quickly learned that it’s not terribly fuel-efficient. One solution to this problem was the hobo stove, an ancestor of the rocket stove. Relying on convection to draw a huge volume of air into a combustion chamber, hobo stoves were easily fabricated from tin cans and other metal scraps that were easy to come by in a world before recycling and large municipal landfills. Most were assembled on the spot and served for a meal or two before being abandoned, but some actually had insulation between double walls and clever arrangements of the fuel shelf to feed automatically as the fuel burned away. Scraps of wood, pinecones, newspapers and cardboard – a hobo stove will eat almost anything, and burn hot enough that even damp fuel isn’t a problem.

Often finding himself with time on his hands, many a hobo kept himself busy with arts and crafts projects in camp. Making hobo nickels was a popular way to pass the time, and often resulted in a trade item far more valuable than the base value of the starting material. The Indian head figure on the US Buffalo nickels of the day were modified with tools fabricated from old nails and files; metal was pushed around the coin to create features on the figure, usually a bowler hat and facial hair. A ‘bo could trade the miniature bas-relief sculpture for a good meal; today genuine hobo nickels from the Depression era command high prices from collectors.

Radio: Razor Blades and Copper Pipe

Unless the hobo was flopping in town or at a really well-equipped jungle, chances are pretty good he wasn’t listening to the radio too much. From our 21st century outlook, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate how new and exciting radio was and the impact it had on everyday life in America during the Depression. Radio connected the nation in a way no other medium ever had. That the Depression did not kill this infant technology in its cradle is a testament to both its power as a medium – families would stop making payments on almost everything else so they could keep their radio sets – and to the tenacity of early electronics hobbyists, who learned to keep radios alive and even to fabricate them from almost nothing.

CrystalRadio” by JA.Davidson

Although tube-type superheterodyne receivers were widely available all through the Depression, crystal sets were still a popular and sometimes necessary hacker project during the Depression. Relying on nothing more than a tuned circuit and a detector connected to an antenna and high-impedance headphones, a crystal set was able to pick up strong AM broadcasts and sometimes even shortwave stations. The earliest detectors were crystals of galena probed by a tiny “cat’s whisker” wire, but metal oxides could also form the necessary rectifying junction, leading to detectors built out of razor blades and safety pins. Crystal radio skills would serve many a Depression-era farm boy well during the next decade as they went off to war in Europe and the Pacific; there they created foxhole radios to listen in on broadcasts without the risk of a more sophisticated radio set, whose local oscillator could be detected by the enemy.

VE7SL’s replica 1929 TNT transmitter, a close relative of the Hartley. Source: The VE7SL Radio Notebook

Receivers weren’t the only area in which Depression-era hackers made an impact. As commercial broadcasting took off, so did amateur radio, and few commercial transmitters were available to satisfy the burgeoning ham market. Depression-era hams had to home-brew almost everything and came up with some beautiful designs that modern glowbug hams recreate with loving attention to detail. A popular transmitter back in the day was based on the Hartley oscillator (PDF link). Using only a single triode tube and a tuned circuit with coils wound from 1/4″ copper tubing, Hartley transmitters could be built on a literal breadboard from scraps and widely available parts. Tuned to the 40- or 80-meter band, or even down to the 160-meter band, a Hartley or the closely related Tuned-Not-Tuned (TNT) or Tune-Plate-Tuned-Grid (TPTG) continuous-wave (CW) transmitters could put out enough power to work coast-to-coast contacts, or QSOs. Modern hams pay homage to the Depression-era pioneers of amateur radio with regular “QSO Parties” using replica Hartleys – most with bypass capacitors to keep the lethal voltages their forebears had to deal with off the coils.

The Great Depression lasted through the 1930s in America, finally dissipating just before the country mobilized for World War II. With factories suddenly working beyond capacity to supply the war effort, unemployment figures quickly plummeted, and the austere practices of the Depression were generally rolled back. Hobo culture declined and amateur radio was shut down by the federal government for the duration of the war, but neither the war effort nor full employment could kill the hobo spirit — modern hobos still ply the rails to this day. And the skills and mindsets developed by Depression-era social and electronics hackers paved the way for a lot of what was to come in the post-war years.

24 thoughts on “Hacking When It Counts: The Great Depression

  1. Hams of the pre WWII era homebrewed regardless because commercial gear was out of reach for all but the very wealthy, it had relatively little to do with the economic conditions of the Great Depression per se.

  2. I think as far as “clearly a choice” goes, when it’s a Hobson’s choice, you can’t hold someone fully responsible for it. What alternatives were they? Becoming homeless is actually less fun than you’d think.

  3. Nice article. In closing, it correctly states that the Depression really ended when the war factories started gearing up. Before that though, government intervened after Roosevelt came to power, essentially going into debt to kickstart the public projects and fix the banks with regulation. Since then, the US debt has been increasing. So it is good to be prepared for another Depression – sun can’t shine forever.

    1. “So it is good to be prepared for another Depression – sun can’t shine forever.”

      2008 and the bankster? 2008 was the beginning of world depression and still ongoing…

        1. There’s a few ticking time bombs in the US economy the student loan debt problem and the present bubble in silicon valley which has some of the aspects of the Japanese asset price bubble of the 1980s.

    2. Sort of. The economic indicators like the stock market did not reach pre-crash levels until some time after 1949 and the prosperity of the 50’s had a lot to do with the fact the world’s other industrialized nations were in ruins. On the other hand, those nations rebuilt infrastructure with 1950’s and 60’s technology, which is the source of the moaning we hear in the US (from Americans) about how much better various infrastructure programs are in Europe. As to the why we hear it, ignorance is my guess.

      This isn’t the place to answer the big questions, but there are plenty of economists who believe the Roosevelt economic approach extended the depression by 7 to 10 years. The export effect of ruined economies and hyper-inflation in other countries smoothed the way for more radical socialists to come to power and thus – the very big war.

      As for the radios. Crystal sets were very popular with kids and I suspect not hard to come by as they were often a school shop project. There were lots of battery powered portables that took two or three batteries of different voltages up to 60 or 90V but a hobo would not be likely to buy dry cells. A lot of the big home consoles also needed a battery, maybe for plate voltage to avoid hum? I think regenerative receivers were on their way out in 1929 and Superhet was coming on strong in consumer brands (invented by the same guy!).

      There were plenty of people who would help out a hobo and they marked the locations of houses where you could get a meal. My father often saw his mother give a sandwich to a stranger who would come to the back door, and his family was not at all well off. WWI vets and their families were often the most reliable. The vets were sympathetic having had their “Great War for Civilization” benefits cut off by Roosevelt.

      On more thing for the youngsters. It wasn’t recycling that made it harder to find cans. It was the anti-litter campaigns. The highways and dirt roads in undeveloped ares were solid litter along the sides well into the 1960’s in the U.S. A kid could take an hour walk and get enough returnable soda bottles to by lunch. Vacant land and out of the way access roads or dead-ends where treasure troves of old refrigerators, mattresses, construction debris, big blobs of concrete from concrete trucks unloading extra material and clean-outs, and used as general dumps – when no one was looking. I did not know anyone who did this and we always wondered where the stuff came from and some was old. Model T Ford parts were common. The old refrigerators were the most dangerous. A kid could hide in one not knowing that they could not be opened from the inside and we heard of suffocation too often. My father and few other men in the area would always check out an old fridge and remove the latch if they found one. The anti-litter campaign was a great success though I see some of it starting up again as fees for disposal are going up quite high in my area.

    3. While I can’t speak for the global or even national impact of the civil works programs at the end of the Great Depression, I can say that they did keep my family alive. My grandfather was a moonshiner kid who ended up working and making just enough money to send to his parents because of the CCC. After he cooked for the other boys digging a lake that would become a state park (I think I have his story about not knowing how to cook rice, cause what did a southern boy know about rice anyways) he survived those last lean years before he was old enough (and had work experience to make up for lack of education) to go work for the local railroad.

      Yeah, some of the projects under the New Deal were make-work projects. So are 90% of government contracts, but those are make-work for rich engineers and the New Deal was make-work for the poor 18-23 year olds. But because of them, my grandfather stopped making and running ‘shine and became “respectable”. Railroad, grocery store work, black lung from the rail road . . . replace his time in the grocery store with something else and you have the story of just about everyone’s grandfather/greatgrandfather in the area I grew up. And if those rail yards had gone empty during the war, because all those boys didn’t have work experience or work ethic (still making and running ‘shine because it was better money) then who knows how we would have turned our economy in to “war mode”.

  4. The bubble must burst at some stage, just don’t think we are as tough as those guys were. If it goes all sideways I think there will not be any HOBO Code. Each man for himself type of thing. The divide between rich and the poor just keeps growing. This is not a good thing at all. Great blog. Dan

    1. The divide keeps growing … I have the same feeling. It is interesting to me that the best days for workers in North America were 1950’s to 1980’s, during the Cold War. It almost makes me think that the West was good to its workers just to keep them silent, but as soon as Soviet Union collapsed, “good old days” of wild capitalism and trampling of workers rights started anew. Next thing you know children will be working in mines again.

      1. Some do very well for themselves at the cost of others. We are in the same boat. The west keeps building its military even though its the biggest in the world by far to “keep the peace” the policy makers of the west need a war to keep the machine running. if there is no threat, their economy will collapse.
        Everyone is being told that they can be filthy rich( Huge house,5 cars, flat screens u can see from the next town) and they chase that. I cant see how it is possible that it can work. It is proven that the best way to keep peace and improve well being is to keep the divide between the rich and the poor as small as possible. Keep chasing the western dream, The bubble will burst.. Its just a matter of time.

          1. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that there is a 100% system solution.
            We must just not go to far one way or the other with it. we cant rely on government to enforce a system in theory we should manage ourselves.If you have a balanced ego and not consumed with greed then it should not be a problem to know when enough is enough. you can use what you can spare to help others or put it towards something you believe in. I have no problem in people being comfortable but when actors get paid $100mill to make a movie then I find it a bit sad. after a certain point it just becomes greed. that kind of money can change a lives of a lot of people.we just need to make sure we don’t loose sight of what is real and what is fantasy

        1. That’s a mischaracterization. With inflation and stagnant wages eating away at the buying power of middle class salaries: the economic elite most certainly are taking from another!

          The pump and dump stock market blazes just long enough to get the suckers back on the line and then they kick out the legs once the retail investors are on the hook. Rinse & repeat.

          The only people who know which way the fed is going to manipulate interest rates are the wealthy and anyone on the outside is screwed with the news media leading them around by the nose in whatever direction they’re told to.

          Vote for Trump or Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t matter either way but at least they’ll spare us the indignity of pissing on us and calling it rain.

    2. The bubble is bursting. The flight of capitol from China (party members are moving assets offshore as fast as possible the last year or so) is about to cause a devaluation of the Yuan, which was a house built of straw. Imagine just a short while ago China was promoting the RMB is the new world standard. The recent offer to buy Fairchild by a China state owned consortium is likely to be disallowed as a strategic asset. But it is a good example of the efforts to get cash out of the country. The effect will be far reaching. The massive US debt could trigger another Worldwide depression/stagflation/inflation and changes in ruling power all over the place. We live in interesting times.

      1. Wow that is a very interesting comment and you are not wrong, You should see the desperate moves they are making in South Africa. We have made the BRICK agreement with them. BAD NEWS. In fact they are swarming into Africa in a big way to keep there ship afloat. The amount of Chinese investment we are getting here has gone up by more that a 1000% Even as far as propaganda on our TV has gone beyond through the roof. I have seen how they promise local government the world, building hospitals ect for mineral and fishing rites then when it is depleted they move on. To be honest we live in scary times and I fear that African people are to trusting of smiles and promises. Its really going to hurt long term.

  5. A number of years ago I created a simple crystal radio “from scratch” and posted about it here:

    A few months later I was successful at using a razor blade to build a “foxhole radio”:

    I guess I was into “hobo tech” for a while because a couple years later I made a simple alcohol stove following a YouTube howto video:
    A few years after that I experimented with woodgas stoves and had a lot of fun with those as well.

  6. Well I heard that the Chinese Stock market is falling apart like the proverbial Chinese Motorcycle (if you’ve owned one you know) so this article is very timely. Anyway if you look at the illustration at the top of the article you’ll see ‘Hobo signs”, heres a chart of most of them…


    And I think the sign for “Man with a gun” is my favourite.

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