Earl C. Hanson was often heralded as a genius for his innovations in wireless communication, navigation and hearing aids for which he received more than 70 patents.
It also appears that he is the least remembered of all the talented people who have been produced in the Inland Empire.
Born in Chino in 1892, Hanson was an electronics wizard whose ideas were so innovative that in his early 20s he was recruited by the federal government to develop some of his innovations during World War I and afterward.
In his youth, Hansen was fascinated about electricity and all the new uses of it around the turn of the century.
One story says that Hansen, then about 7 or 8, would secretly remove the solution from the batteries attached to the family’s doorbell. Keene Summer wrote in American Magazine in 1922 that Hansen “knew that if the bell was out of order, an electrician would be summoned. Then he could get a chance to ask questions” of the electrician.
The family lived on Main Street in Ontario for a few years — his uncle was G.H. Hanson who owned one of Upland’s citrus packing houses — but later moved on to Los Angeles where young Earl went to high school.
It was there he took on his first major — and perhaps best-remembered — project. Dabbling with electricity and the newly developed vacuum tube, he found an innovative way to assist his mother Charlotte, who was terribly hard of hearing.
Hanson was the first to introduce use of a vacuum tube in a hearing aid. While in high school, he used that technology to in effect create a wireless telephone that amplified sound.
The vacuum tube became, for the first half of the 20th century, the critical element in not only hearing aids but also the early development of radio, television, radar and ultimately computers.
Hanson put this new technology to use when he was recruited by the Navy in World War I.
“A prototype of his product was used during World War I to snoop on the conversations of German troops in the trenches,” wrote Kent State University Professor Kenneth Berger in his history of hearing aid development.
Hansen received a patent for the concept in 1920. A year later, the Vactuphone, the first hearing aid with a vacuum tube, was put on the market by The Globe Ear-Phone Co. It weighed seven pounds in a 7-inch-by-7-inch case and cost $135 (nearly $2,000 in today’s dollars).
But as much as an improvement it was, “it wasn’t very practical. It was large, required lots of batteries and when you were away (from the device) you could not hear,” explained Dr. Robert Traynor, an audiologist in Greeley, Colorado.
But it was an innovative step. The vacuum tube was part of the ever-improving varieties of hearing aids until being replaced by transistors in the 1950s. Hanson’s work opened the door to not only hearing aid development but also wireless communication.
Before going to Washington, D.C., the 22-year-old Hanson assisted aviation pioneer Glenn Martin. In 1914, he produced a wireless aerial radio unit for Martin to try out during an air show, “The Battle in the Clouds,” held near today’s L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona. It was part of a publicity stunt for the groundbreaking for a new raceway that never went forward.
Martin was hired to do a number of aerial tricks at the two-day event in April including using Hanson’s equipment to communicate by wireless radio to those on the ground. The claim at the time was that this was the first-ever air-to-ground radio transmission. But that’s in question as there were several other fliers elsewhere about that time who claimed to be first to communicate by radio from an airplane.
A constant variety of inventions and ideas was forthcoming from Hansen while in his 20s and 30s, many of which earned him national attention in newspapers:
• The most notable was his “radio compass,” which was designed to guide ships through narrow passages or harbors in poor or foggy weather. An electric cable would be laid in the channel areas of harbors. An electric signal to and from the cable told the captain if he was off course and how to get back on to the correct direction.
In October 1920, the Navy Department laid a cable in the Narrows area of New York Harbor. The bridge of the destroyer USS Semmes had its windows blacked out. Using Hanson’s device, the ship successfully steered to a safe docking in the harbor.
• Two years later, Hanson produced “radiophone,” equipment enabling a fishing boat, with fishermen out on smaller boats, to keep track of their crews even in foggy weather.
• The same system guiding ships safely was also adopted by Hanson for aircraft. In 1930, two similar shortwave cables were placed along the landing strip of an airport in Lansing, Michigan. In bad weather, the pilot would hear signals from the cables telling him his location and how and where to safely land. He also did research on equipment to send wireless messages from moving railroads.
• Hanson developed aircraft equipment to enable aircraft to detect power leaks along long-distance electrical transmission lines. The aerial equipment could make inspecting power lines quicker and with fewer employees.
• In 1915, Hanson used similar equipment from Martin’s aircraft to test one of the first wireless telephones. In July, Hanson and his assistant William E. Seidel spoke with each other two blocks apart in Los Angeles.
Later, Automotive Magazine wrote that Hanson and experts from the RCH automobile company drove to Lookout Mountain, a peak just west of Mount Baldy Village north of Claremont to further test his equipment. The article reported the large antennas enabled his equipment to pick up a voice message sent their way from Long Beach nearly 50 miles away.
• In 1919, he arranged what he called the first “wireless phonograph.” It was radio equipment installed at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington D.C., that broadcast music to convalescing soldiers. He arranged with Title Insurance and Trust Co. in Los Angeles to provide the money for the installation.
As the Great Depression approached, Hanson’s inventiveness seemed to wane. He was married and worked as an electrical engineer for several companies in Ohio. He was at Republic Steel Co. in Cleveland in 1942, but after that there are precious few details about his life.
In spite of all his spontaneous genius for innovation and invention, Hanson apparently lived quietly in his last years and died without fanfare in Dade County, Florida, in 1979.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.