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Malcolm P. Hanson

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Biography

Malcolm P. Hanson was the chief radio engineer for Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica and a pioneer in the development of long-distance radio communications.

Hanson was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1894. His father was an American-born engineer and his mother was Danish. Growing up in Germany, he showed early interest in engineering and aeronautics. For example, he invented a rudimentary alarm system for his family’s apartment that sounded if thieves were attempting to steal the morning’s delivery of fresh bakery rolls. He eagerly observed demonstrations of flight by the Wright Brothers and Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

In 1911, the Hansons moved to the United States. Malcolm Hanson completed his secondary education in Milwaukee and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Working his way through college, Hanson became interested in the work of a physics professor, Early Terry, in wireless technology.

In 1917, as American entry into World War I loomed on the horizon, Hanson left college and joined the naval reserve as a radio operator. He served in Michigan, passed his ensign’s exam, and moved to the Hampton Roads, Virginia naval base. There, he was exposed to influenza and became severely ill. Unable to ship out to Europe, he was assigned to develop and test naval aircraft and wireless communications systems in Ohio. He joined a test flight of a dirigible that traveled across the east coast.

After the war, he served as a radio operator on commercial shipping vessels and then re-entered the University of Wisconsin in 1920. He spent more time developing the university’s radio station than participating in class, and did not graduate. But in 1924, he was recruited to work at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., on wireless communication.

In 1926, he took leave from the Navy to join Admiral Richard E. Byrd on an expedition to the Arctic Circle. He served as Admiral Byrd’s radio operator. In 1928, Byrd planned an expedition to the South Pole and hired Hanson to be his radioman. During his year at the “Little America” base camp, Hanson sent the longest-distanced radio signals ever attempted. He also monitored Byrd’s eighteen hour and fifty-five minute plane flight to the South Pole. Using code to shortwave messages, Byrd’s expedition was able to stay in contact with American scientists and commercial radio stations.

In 1929, the Radio World Fair recognized his contributions to wireless radio with its Gold Medal. David Sarnoff, then the Vice President of RCA, gave the medal to Hanson’s wife. Byrd honored Hanson by naming an Antarctic mountain after him.

Hanson continued to develop wireless radios through the 1930s. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he joined technical missions to set up communications stations in Alaska, which was threatened by Japanese invasion. In August 1942, en route to test new equipment, he died in an airplane crash in Alaska.