WASHINGTON ISLAND — George Ulm is a talker. Once he gets started on his favorite subject, he could go on forever.
That’s not surprising, since his favorite subject is all about communicating daily with people all around the world. Ulm, 86, has been a licensed amateur radio operator for nearly 80 years and claims he has the world’s largest collection of transmitters, receivers, transceivers and amplifiers in the world. It is all housed in a couple of buildings on the far north shore of Washington Island off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula.
Ulm, who was born in 1930 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), remembers being exposed to amateur radio, or “ham” radio, at 3 or 4 years old in his parents’ home.
“My mother’s side of the family had a number of amateur radio operators at that time that were friends, and there was even in that house a radio station,” Ulm said.
One of the relatives by marriage was Karl Hassel, who was one of the pioneers of early ham radio.
According to the book, “Zenith Radio: The Early Years, 1919-1935,” the U.S. Navy dismantled most broadcast stations at the outbreak of World War I but retained the University of Pittsburgh station, where Hassel was an operator, to act as a government broadcast station. Hassel joined the Navy and taught Morse code for the service. After the war, he moved to the Midwest where he and fellow Navy radio operator Ralph Mathews set up a radio equipment business called Chicago Radio Laboratories.
“He and (his partner) were the first people who sold radios. They sold amateur transmitters, amateur receivers and general receivers that covered the broadcast band,” Ulm said. “Karl did the whole thing. He designed them, he ordered the parts or made the parts, he put them all together and hand-made instruction manuals, because they couldn’t afford a copier.”
Their tiny workshop also housed radio station 9ZN, so when the partners began advertising their 9ZN brand to ham operators, it was as “Z-Nth.” The company’s history said that by 1923, production outgrew several subsequent manufacturing sites, so a separate company was set up for building the units and was called Zenith Radio Corp. Zenith and CRL merged several years later.
Ulm picked up the story.
He said by the mid-1930s, Hassel didn’t have much to do, so he started spending time with Ulm, who then was about 5 years old and living with his family in Chicago.
“(Karl) had a big office and a secretary, but at 5 o’clock he would put on his hat and come up to Mother’s house, and he would sit with me,” Ulm said. “He said to me, ‘George, you don’t speak very good English, and you don’t speak very good German, so I am going to teach you International Morse Code to talk.’ I spent on the average four to five hours for four to five years, six to seven days a week with Karl. In other words, when he wasn’t at work doing nothing, he came and taught me everything he knew.”
Ulm was 7 years old when he got his amateur radio license, which required a code test and technical test to show proficiency. His massive radio collection began with gifts from Hassel and friends and continued with purchased radios. His display includes the first two he bought in 1938 and 1939.
“I paid $20 apiece, and that was a lot of money ... Before that, I have a lot of things I built myself,” Ulm said.
During World War II, Hassel collected operating manuals for all the radios made by the Allies — highly secret material at the time — and gave a copy of each to Ulm, who said he memorized their contents. After the war, Ulm was hired by buyers to consult on the value of these radio units as they came up for auction. His collection includes about 2,000 manuals.
With contacts developed through Hassel, Ulm also started a business designing, building and renting displays for industry trade shows, beginning with radio manufacturers.
As a youth during World War II, Ulm was an Eagle Scout helping lead summer camps on Washington Island. When his parents were looking for a retreat, he remembered the place and helped them buy a retired fruit orchard in 1959. He and Susan married in 1977 and visited the island often.
“When we moved here full time, we built a ham shack that just took five or six pieces of equipment so that I wasn’t with my wife 365 days a year. We would have killed each other,” Ulm said, with a crooked grin. “Then we enlarged it, we made it longer, then we put in a bigger area.”
Today, the operating equipment is stacked neatly on shelves — most of the units plugged in and ready to go — in a bright, vaulted-ceilinged cottage. The main room is lined bottom to top with hundreds of vintage and modern receivers, transceivers and amplifiers of every brand and model, plus more in a side room just for Collins radios, including some of the first FM transmitters used by the U.S. Air Force. A four-car garage houses rows of shelves with units awaiting repair. More than a dozen antennas rise and loop across the lake-side yard.
Ulm estimated that there are about a million licensed ham operators in the U.S. and three million in the rest of the world. Despite advances in modern communication technology, hams are still of great value.
“We do a lot of work for emergencies, for floods, for tsunamis, for hurricanes,” Ulm said. “Ham radios are the only source of communication when cellphones and regular phones are down. In Haiti, we provided communication for seven months before anything else was connected.”
Still, amateur radio seems to be an older person’s hobby — mostly men — Ulm said, and newcomers are more dependent on purchased equipment than something they’ve built. Of course, his collection includes some of the computer-based radios too.
Ulm is on the air regularly, including running a daily Western Rim network.
“I have people in New Zealand that I talk to; I have a large group in Hawaii. At night I talk to people in Europe. I probably talk to 20 or 30 countries every day,” said Ulm, who answers to call sign W9EVT. “Of course, I know their call signs and their first names, but not their last names or their religion or their color. I have no idea, or care.”
Many of the hams spend time in Ulm’s ham shack when staying in cottages that Susan runs as a rental business on the 302-acre farm.
“She has never sat with me for 10 minutes or talked with anyone on the radio. Ever,” Ulm said.
Susan is trying to retire from the cottage business, and Ulm said his hands and eyesight aren’t steady enough to fix all the units needing attention. His goal is to find a future home for his life’s work where it can all stay together.
No luck so far. The collection is just too big.