I have a collection of correspondence courses in radio and electronics from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Those were a viable way in those years for a poor or isolated guy (They always speak of the “radioMAN” in the course advertising.) to learn a trade that could give him a highly saleable skill. And throughout all that period radio was as new and cutting-edge as computers are now. Many young men would have been fascinated by it.
Electronics is a hard subject! As I read through these courses I imagine the jaunty determination with which the student who first owned the course would have cracked that first lesson booklet, and then the long, hard slog he would have had through the many lessons that followed. And when I come to some of the harder lessons I imagine the student’s wrenching struggle to learn to think in a new way that is really ultimately understandable only with fairly advanced math, of which so many people have a horror. Not surprisingly, some of the courses in my collection were never finished. Those that were completed tended to show, by the records of exams sent in and graded and sent back, that the student took over a year to complete the course.
My imagination especially dwells on the courses from the 1930s. I can picture how very much passing this course could have meant to, say, the young father with no job, who had somehow managed to scrape up the price of the course.
It would have been all or nothing for some of those men–their last shot: learn this strange body of knowledge and have a chance at a real job, or watch your family get poorer and poorer and eventually be put out on the street. There were no food stamps, unemployment compensation, or welfare then, so every responsible man had to support his wife and kids no matter what. And that responsibility was normally his alone.
What shame the husband and father who found himself failing such a last-ditch course would have felt! Or if not shame, perhaps terror. Those were deadly serious times.
It’s easy for me to imagine the negative side of all that because was born a pessimist. I wonder, though, what the guys who completed the courses and got the good job in radio that the course advertising had promised felt? Joy, pride, or just simple relief—every man must have felt some or all of these.
But whatever they felt they would then have had to buckle down all over again–for years–to actually learn to do their new jobs. The abstract knowledge they’d acquired in the course, it turns out, would have served only as the most basic foundation for the actual manual and procedural skills an electronic technician has to have. I know that from experience, just from doing radio as a hobby.
My hat is off to those long-dead men. They really had what it takes.