What did 18th Century Ontario Lt.Gov. John Graves Simcoe Do for Ham Radio?

John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant Governor General of what was then called Upper Canada (now Ontario) from 1791 to 1796. Among his many achievements was the founding of the City of Toronto.

Back in those days the city was called York and was named after the cathedral city with the same name in Simcoe’s native England. Indeed the name New York could have been chosen, but by then the British owned city at the mouth of the Hudson River had already been called New York for over a hundred years.

A Typical English Snob
Simcoe was an aristocrat who attempted to create a native aristocracy in British North America (which became Canada much later in 1867) as a defence against American democracy. Fortunately he was not entirely successful.

But one of Simcoe’s most laudable achievements was the surveying of Upper Canada. The dense forest that covered most of the province (including modern downtown Toronto) was cleared and the land divided up into 200 acre lots.

It could be argued that this monumental task led to two great side benefits:

  1. It enabled the calculation of the speed of electromagnetic radiation from which all antenna measurements are derived.
  2. It laid the foundation for the non-WARC amateur radio bands

Advanced Scientific Equipment – Not Required
What advanced scientific tools made these achievements possible? There were no computers available in the 18th Century; not even pocket calculators. The abacus had been available since ancient times and indeed may have been used by Simcoe’s team of engineers and surveyors. It is still possible to order an abacus today on Amazon.

But no, the apparatus used to determine the speed of light (and other electromagnetic radiation, notably radio waves) was surprisingly rudimentary. In essence it comprised a horse, a sturdy cart and a heavy length of chain.

Each 200 acre parcel of land was laboriously measured by laying out a length of chain along the ground. A 200 acre lot was typically 20 by 100 chains. The chain was a standard invented in 1620 by English clergyman and mathematician Edmund Gunter. The measurement is still in use today, especially by US forest firefighters. An example of Gunter’s physical chain is preserved at a museum in Ohio.

Amazing Coincidence … or?
Gunter’s chain was 66 feet long which by coincidence is one full wavelength on the amateur radio 20-metre band. Since the non-WARC bands (10m, 20m, 40m and 80m) are harmonically related, 66 feet defines the wavelength of all these bands. Since we know the frequency range of the non-WARC bands we can calculate the speed of light (or radio waves) by multiplying the frequency by the wavelength.

If you wish to measure a dipole for the 80-metre band, which would be nominally 132 feet long, by traditional methods you would attach your chain at the centre point and stretch it out in either direction to mark the ends. Of course, you would also need a large supply of hay to feed your horse so you might choose to use a tape measure instead.

Dead and Buried – in Land Owned by Ontario
A short but interesting note to conclude this fanciful story. John Graves Simcoe suffered from poor health, the typically aristocratic ailment of gout was one of his downfalls. He died at the age of 54 and was buried in a small plot of land owned by the Province of Ontario – in England! The site is Wolford Chapel in the English county of Devon which was acquired by the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1982.

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