Tinkerer invented the walkie-talkie

B.C. resident won international acclaim for developing a portable radio

that forever changed battlefield communication

Special to The Globe and Mail
April 7, 2004


VICTORIA -- Donald Lewes Hings was a self-taught electronics wizard who modified his two-way radio into the walkie-talkie that saved the lives of untold Allied soldiers in the Second World War.


Mr. Hings, who has died at the age of 96, was credited as inventor of the walkie-talkie, although he himself never claimed the title. By nature a modest man, he preferred to describe his contributions as belonging to a natural evolution of advancements in the burgeoning electronics field. Others were not as reticent. Motorola unveiled a portable radio in the early 1930s, although it needed to run off a motorcycle battery and only transmitted in Morse code. Some sources cite a team of U.S. Army technicians at Monmouth, N.J. Toronto-born Al Gross claimed to have invented the two-way portable radio in 1938, although by that time Mr. Hings's own radio was already in production.


An inveterate tinkerer, Mr. Hings was hired by Consolidated Mining & Smelting Co. (now Cominco) whose geologists sought mineral deposits in isolated bush country, yet lacked a means of contacting civilization.


After much trial and error, Mr. Hings developed, in 1937, a portable two-way voice radio for emergency transmissions. The radio was cased in a watertight container painted a bright yellow for quick recovery should a float plane sink. The radio was a marvel for bush pilots. Further advancements came quickly, as such innovations as a speech scrambler, a noise filter, a voice magnifier and improved earphones made the technology ever more useful on battlefields.


The Canadian military put his models through rigorous testing, including throwing a set over the edge of a seaside cliff. "By the time the army got through with them," Mr. Hings once said, "they had to be built like tanks."


The walkie-talkies designed by Mr. Hings and made available to Canadian and British troops in the Second World War were lighter, more durable and more powerful than any issued by friend or foe. For the remainder of his life, Mr. Hings would receive testimonials about the quality of his invention from grateful veterans.


The son of a decorated Boer War veteran who became a grower of fruit trees, Donald Lewes Hings was born on Nov. 6, 1907, at Leicester, England. His parents soon became estranged and the boy moved with his mother to Canada at age 3.


He was educated at grade schools in Lethbridge, Alta., and North Vancouver, abandoning formal education early to help support his mother, a bookkeeper. An inheritance of land brought them to Rossland in the rugged and isolated Kootenay region of southeastern B.C.


Young Donald was obsessed by a new marvel of technology -- the radio -- and built his first crystal set at age 14. More than eight decades later, he would still be listed as a Ham radio operator with the call letters VE7BH. As a young man, he helped establish the first radio station in the Kootenays.


He worked as a labourer at a plywood plant before being hired by Cominco, where his insatiable curiosity was indulged.


Mr. Hings travelled to Spokane, Wash., in 1939 to file U.S. patents on his portable two-way radio. After an exhausting day of lecturing a patent lawyer on the intricacies of electronics, a tired Mr. Hings was returning to his hotel room when interrupted by excited newsboys. Germany had invaded Poland. His homeland was at war.


The merits of his device in warfare were clear. He was invited to Ottawa to demonstrate his equipment, after he was seconded to the National Research Council. He worked as a civilian with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, which would later name him an honorary colonel. The earliest examples were delivered to Britain shortly after the Dieppe Raid of 1942.


Mr. Hings called his wireless radio a "Packset." Motorola had developed what it called a "handie-talkie." The popular name is said to have been coined during a presentation to reporters in Toronto, when a soldier demonstrating the equipment was asked its purpose. "Well," the soldier said, "you can talk with it while you walk with it." Apocryphal or not, the device has ever since been known as the walkie-talkie.


A refrigerator factory in Toronto was retooled to manufacture the sets, about 18,000 of which were produced during the war.


Most were designed for use in the European theatre, with its harsh winters, while others were designed for the tropics or for use aboard a tank. The Canadian design was widely felt among the Allies to be the superior equipment. The sets lacked moving parts and were simple to operate, allowing soldiers in the field to share in their comrades' reconnaissance.


Although stories about two-way radios had appeared in newspapers even after the outbreak of war, the equipment was developed in an atmosphere of secrecy until a decision was made by the brass to unveil the wonder device.


A Toronto newspaper's headline captured the awe: Miraculous walkie-talkie like quarterback to army. "To radio men it is a midget miracle," the newspaper reported, "a tiny but tough combined broadcasting and receiving set, easier to operate than a hand-telephone set, light but tough enough for paratroopers to take along in aerial assaults on enemy airfields, versatile enough so, in combination, they become a military network of broadcasting and receiving stations for attacking troops.


"To infantrymen, the walkie-walkie is like giving a football team a quarterback."


For his service, Mr. Hings was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1946.


After the war, he bought a parcel of land atop Capitol Hill in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. The spot, where he had camped as a Boy Scout, afforded an unobstructed view of neighbouring Vancouver and its harbour. Mr. Hings built a modest home for himself and his young family, surrounding it with towers, radar sheds, electronic shops and laboratories. Over time, he sold lots of land to his employees at cost, building a hilltop community of scientists.


His company, Electronic Laboratories of Canada Ltd., of which he was president and chief engineer, won many contracts from the Department of National Defence. Radar and antenna designs found application on the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line across northern Canada.


Mr. Hings registered more than 50 patents, including some related to the thermionic vacuum tube and to a Doppler radar aircraft-landing system. Many involved airborne and subsea geomagnetic instruments for exploration of minerals. He even had a patent for an electronic piano.


The compound was a playground for innovative adults and curious children alike. "I thought every kid had a mad scientist as a grandfather," said Morgan Burke, the daughter of Mr. Hings's youngest daughter.


Mr. Hings retired in 1986. Although he had never attended a single university class, he was a member of the American Geophysical Union and the Association of Professional Engineers of B.C.


A fall several years ago left him an invalid, as doctors feared his weakened heart could not withstand the stress of hip-replacement surgery. A rare excursion from his home came three years ago when the visiting Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson made him a Member of the Order of Canada in a private ceremony in Vancouver.


Mr. Hings died at his Capitol Hill home on Feb. 25. He leaves a son, Donald P. Hings, daughters Doreen Player, Elaine Cramer and Mary-Lynn Burke, 15 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.


He was predeceased by his wife, the former Rakel Saarukka, who died in 1999 not long after marking their 69th wedding anniversary.


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