Elisabeth Lansdale DuVal, wireless operator.

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Elisabeth Lansdale DuVal, from her husband’s 1922 passport application

Baltimore’s Elisabeth Lansdale DuVal (1893–1987) earned a commercial radio license, first class, in September 1917 and was assigned to the SS Howard in December 1917 (as “junior operator,” according to Marconi Service News). The Howard, a ship of the Merchants’ and Miners’ Transportation Co., was one of those requisitioned by the US government. The Howard‘s routes were listed as Baltimore to Norfolk and Savannah to Jacksonville. According to this account, DuVal’s shifts were 1:30–8 am and 1–6 pm.

Although various accounts credit DuVal as the first US female wireless operator in sea service, the May 1918 Marconi Service News (14) lists Mrs. R. H. Tucker of the Indianapolis, Mabel Kelso of the Mariposa, Mrs. Sickles of the Roanoke, and Graynella Packer of the Mohawk as her predecessors.

In February 1918, DuVal applied to serve on a US Navy ship and was told by Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels that he would take the request “under advisement” (it never occurred, although Abby P. Morrison had previously achieved the rank of first-class electrician as a wireless operator in the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation). Although US ships were under threat by German U-boats during DuVal’s service from December 1917 to December 1918, with a number attacked and even sunk not far from the US coast, and she asserted that “my patriotism can best be demonstrated . . . aboard a United States naval vessel,” she is described rather cloyingly in this account in the 20 Feb 1918 Washington Times as “young and pretty and more than one naval officer who saw her at the Navy Department when she presented her petition to Secretary Daniels [were] hoping for her appointment to his ship” (1). She praised the Navy’s daily wireless news service, “The Navy Press,” which was sent to all ships and coast radio stations:

It keeps us from feeling that we are “out of it” . . . When we can have the daily reports of what Washington officials are doing and what is happening on the French frontier it seems as though we were closer to things that are happening in the world. (Cordova [AK] Daily Times, 12 June 1918: 3)

DuVal was a great-granddaughter of Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Duvall. Her father, Edmund Brice DuVal, was a captain in the Maryland National Guard. In 1922, she married Herman Hobelman, who had served in World War I as a private in the AEF’s 303rd Tank Center, according to Maryland in the World War. He is listed in the 1930 and 1940 censuses as involved in real estate. The 1930 census lists DuVal as a saleslady and the 1940 census as a seamstress.

Further reading:

• “Elisabeth Lansdale DuVal, Ship Wireless Operator,”  OneTubeRadio.com

Elisabeth Lansdale DuVal Hobelman Collection, Maryland Historical Society

Women’s Radio Corps of WWI.

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Members of the Women’s Radio Corps. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Spearheaded by suffragist Erna von Rodenstein Owen (Mrs. Herbert Sumner Owen, 1859–1936), the Women’s Radio Corps was created in 1917 to train female wireless operators so that male operators could be released for war service. Courses were held at locations such as the YMCA and Hunter College in New York. Members included:

Belle W. Baruch (1899–1964), daughter of financier Bernard Baruch. After she received a first-grade telegraphy license, she was appointed to the US Army Signal Corps and taught Morse code to aviation recruits. As Mary Miller’s Baroness of Hobcaw notes, on one occasion Baruch and David Sarnoff (RCA president and former wireless operator) tapped jokes and messages to each other in Morse code.

Reed Lorena Reed (later Protheroe, 1895–1974). Maine native Reed had ambitions to be an actress before her interest turned to radio. As this piece from the Cambridge Chronicle and her obituary make clear, she was a teacher of Morse code to naval cadets, was an instructor in radio physics at Wellesley, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps during World War I. She married Owen G. Protheroe in 1918 and had one child, Polly. After taking the US Steamboat Inspection Pilots Examination in 1923, she was licensed to operate vessels up to 65 feet—a license she held for more than 50 years. She was a WAC in World War II and received a number of service medals.

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Hunter College wireless students with Guglielmo Marconi and Erna Owen, July 1917. Owen’s daughter, Elise, is front row, second from right. Elise earned a first-grade emergency radio license.