Monday, February 22, 2010

In the Air and On the Air - NBC SW Transmitter, Part 2

On this occasion, we go back to the year 1934 as we trace the very interesting story of a set of radio broadcasting equipment that was on the air in many different circumstances and in many different locations. In our story today, we now assemble a brief outline of several feature topics presented recently here in Wavescan, and we show the connection between each of these historic radio events.

We begin with what was described at the time as a light, compact radio transmitter that was designed and built specifically for installation in a high flying balloon. During the space race between the United States and Russia back some eighty years ago, a small light weight radio transmitter was installed in a small gondola suspended beneath a high flying stratosphere balloon. The date was July 28, the year was 1934, and the location was near Rapid City, South Dakota.

Test broadcasts were made in advance from this 8 watt transmitter on 13050 kHz under the callsign W10XCX. The balloon did fly high, almost a record height at the time, but a tear in the balloon’s fabric brought about a rapid descent, with the three-man crew bailing out and landing safely with their parachutes, and the gondola crashing into the ground.

The radio transmitter that was in use high in the sky was rescued, repaired and rebuilt, and it was used in the next balloon flight at the same location one and half years later. On November 11, 1935, with the equipment and crew sealed into a newly designed gondola, the balloon did achieve a new record altitude, some fourteen miles high.

The rebuilt transmitter, with the same 8 watts output on the same channel 13050 kHz was on the air under a new callsign, this time W10XFH. It should be noted that QSL cards were issued by NBC in New York to verify reception reports on this specific occasion.

After this successful high altitude flight, the electronic equipment was taken from the gondola and incorporated into other equipment to form a 100 watt shortwave transmitter that was installed into a brand new airplane, the China Clipper, for the inaugural flight across the Pacific. The callsign for this broadcast transmitter was now WOEH. The China Clipper set out on November 22, 1935 for an eight day flight, hopping from island to island with an overnight stay at each island.

Several broadcasts were made from station WOEH during this historic event, from such exotic locations as Midway Island & Wake Island. Additional broadcasts were also made while the plane was in the air in between the islands, including a progress report that was intended for rebroadcast from the well known mediumwave station in Manila, KZRM. The National Broadcasting Company, NBC, provided two men for these broadcasts from the China Clipper, an engineer and an announcer.

Early in the following year, 1936, the 100 watt transmitter, WOEH, was installed into another airplane for another historic flight, this time with the well known Howard Hughes as pilot. The flight on this occasion was from Los Angeles, up to Nome in Alaska, over to Siberia, and return.
Later in the same year, transmitter WOEH was taken on yet another historic flight, this time across the Atlantic to Paris, with again Howard Hughes as the pilot.

In the meantime, there was another RCA shortwave transmitter that was installed in the ship Seth Parker for broadcast usage as KNRA during a world tour beginning in 1934. After several mis-haps in the Pacific, the Seth Parker was sold and the 1 kW transmitter was removed.
In the next development, all of the previously mentioned electronic equipment was taken again and this time it was assembled into a much larger shortwave transmitter, now weighing five tons and rated at 1 kW. This unit was taken to Honolulu and installed onto a small naval ship that was used as an aircraft tender.

The purpose this time was to relay radio broadcasts from the Pacific back to the United States during a major eclipse of the sun in the year 1937. The ship was the Avocet, the transmitter callsign was WMEF, the location in the Pacific was Canton Island, the in-between relay station was RCA in Hawaii, and the ultimate reception station was RCA in California.

On all of these above occasions, the major purpose for the usage of the little transmitter that grew and grew on each occasion of its usage, was to feed news reports and commentaries back to the NBC in New York for relay on mediumwave across the United States. However, on each occasion, as was quite common in those days, a secondary purpose for these broadcasts was for direct reception on shortwave for any listener who might be interested.

After the solar eclipse in the Pacific, the transmitter was taken back to the continental United States, and placed in storage. However, five years later, this huge five ton transmitter was taken out of storage, renovated, and taken over to North Africa.

Then, in August 1943, it was transported to the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean where it was set up and placed on the air in the city of Syracuse. Shortly afterwards, it was re-loaded onto a ship and taken to Bari on the west coast of Italy, where it was then taken by road across the Italian peninsula to the city of Naples and placed on the air again.

In its onward journeys, this transmitter was finally taken to the city of Rome, where it was placed on the air as a temporary shortwave relay station for the Voice of America. By this time, this transportable radio broadcasting station was nicknamed as Relic, due to its age and size.
So, that is the story of a shortwave radio broadcasting station that started life as a small light weight portable unit at 8 watts for use in a high flying balloon in an isolated country area in the United States in 1934, and it grew larger and larger until it ended its life as a huge 1 kW unit in a distant country eleven years later. Here is a list of its many parts and its many travel adventures:-
* 1934 & 1935 South Dakota 8 watts 2 high flying balloons W10XCX & W10XFH
* 1935 & 1936 Pacific & Atlantic 100 watts 3 different airplanes WOEH
* 1934 & 1935 Atlantic & Pacific 1 kW Ship Seth Parker KNRA
* 1937 Pacific Island 1 kW Ship Avocet WMEF
* 1942-1945 Sicily & Italy 1 kW Relay station VOA

So, what happened to this historic transmitter afterwards? We don’t know, but we would presume, and probably correctly so, that the Relic was just simply abandoned in the city of Rome.
(AWR Wavescan via Adrian Peterson/NWS52)