Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Return to the Early Wireless Scene in Florida

Anastasia  Island Lighthouse (photo by Gayle Van Horn)
We pick up the story of early wireless stations in Florida with an outline history of the naval wireless station located at Warrington, on the mainland a few miles south west of Pensacola in what is known as the Florida panhandle.  Work on this station began in 1904 under a contract with the American de Forest Wireless Company.

            The first European settlement in the area was established by the Spanish in 1559, and some historians state that this was the first Spanish settlement in what is now the United States.  Some 1500 people arrived from Vera Cruz in Mexico on board 11 ships in August 1559.  However, it turned out to be only a disastrous temporary occupation due to the fact that a massive hurricane five weeks later destroyed the new settlement and killed a large number of the new inhabitants.

            Pensacola is currently in the news due to a very recent government announcement giving approval for the construction of a huge new bridge linking Pensacola city with the western end of the Fairpoint Peninsula.  This new bridge spans 3 miles of waterways, it will be 6 lanes wide with an additional pedestrian walkway, it is the third bridge at this location, and it will cost $400 million.

            In June 1904, the American navy awarded Lee de Forest a contract to install a wireless station  at the Warrington Naval Base on the edge of Pensacola.  Initially, plans for the new Pensacola station called for 3 towers at a height of 208 feet set in a triangle 300 feet apart, and a spark transmitter rated at 35 kW. 

            However, by the time Chief Engineer Frank Butler arrived at Warrington during the next year (1905), the station specifics had been reduced to two towers with a vertical fan shaped antenna system, and a transmitter rated at 10 kW.  The design of this new station in Florida was similar to the temporary demonstration station that de Forest had installed at the St. Louis Fair in Missouri two years earlier, in 1903. 

            At 8:00 pm on a date in 1905 that seems to be lost to history, test transmissions commenced from this new wireless station; the automatic continuous sending of the letter D in Morse Code.  However, no confirmation from anywhere came in, not even from the operator aboard a navy vessel just 2 miles away in Pensacola Bay.  Every incoming message stated “we do not hear you”.

            Over a period of time, the completed station was totally overhauled; none of the new wireless equipment seemed to be defective, yet the powerful spark signal from this new wireless station just did not propagate anywhere.  Engineer Butler questioned the operator of the nearby wireless station that had been recently installed by Western Union, and Western Union stated that they had encountered the same problem.

            The problem, stated Western Union, was that there were several distinct layers of white sand, clay, fresh water, and salt water, and the only way that they could transmit a clear signal was if the grounding system was driven 40 feet down though the different layers.  These distinct layers, he stated, provided some sort of “electrical resistance, or a dielectric”, which inhibited satisfactory propagation.        

            In order to ensure adequate grounding, Butler drove 12 iron pipes 45 feet into the watery sands, grouped together into a small circle.  The tops of the circle of pipes were connected with a heavy copper cable that led into the earthing section at the output of the spark transmitter.

            And again as usual, transmitter testing on 900 metres (333 kHz) began at 8:00 pm, the letter D was sent automatically and continuously, and this time reception reports poured in from many areas.  Naval wireless Pensacola station RK was now successfully on the air.

            When the navy regularized all of their callsigns throughout the world a few years later, station RK became NAS.  When on the air for the army at nearby Fort Barancas, the station was on the air under the callsign WZD, on 100 metres (3000 kHz).

            During that same historic era, another naval wireless station was installed on Anastasia Island, off the Atlantic coast of St. Augustine in the northeast of Florida.  This island, Anastasia, is a barrier island 14 miles long and one mile wide.

            The navy co-sited a wireless station with the already established lighthouse; the equipment was provided by the Shoemaker company, the station was inaugurated in 1905, and the original callsign was QX.  In that same year, lightning struck the wireless tower; and two years later a storm destroyed the mast and the antenna system.  

            In 1909, the navy changed the callsign from the irregular QX to the regular NAP; a fire destroyed the storehouse three years later; and in 1944, lightning struck the lighthouse and destroyed the radio transmitter.  On several occasions, a hand colored postcard with a photograph of the wireless station on Anastasia Island has been available for purchase on Ebay.

            The American navy established another wireless station in Florida back in that era, and this was installed at Jupiter Inlet, just north of Miami.  In the pre-colonial era, this area was inhabited by native Americans belonging to the Hobe tribe.  This name was shown incorrectly on early maps as Jove, which was subsequently transliterated to Jupiter, the name that the area still carries to this day. 

            The navy installed Shoemaker equipment also at this station which was inaugurated under the callsign RA.  In 1909, the callsign was regularized to NAQ, and the 3 kW transmitter was listed on 600 metres (500 kHz).  This station was intended to serve as an intermediate naval relay station between Arlington Virginia and Key West Florida.

            In February 1942, the German submarine U504 torpedoed and sank two American ships, SS Republic and SS W. D. Anderson, just off the coast from Jupiter.  Very rapidly, an intercept wireless station was constructed and co-sited with the Jupiter lighthouse and naval wireless station, and it was identified as Intercept Station J. 

            This wireless listening facility had a complex antenna system supported on 6 tall masts at 100 feet with the receiver and ancillary equipment housed in a cluster of unmarked white buildings.  At the end of four successful years in eavesdropping on enemy ships and submarines, station J was closed on July 15, 1945, and it was taken over by the Coast Guard as station NLM.       

            In addition to the sizable list of major wireless stations in Florida in the early years, there was also a long list of smaller stations scattered throughout this peninsular state.  During the 1920s, there was a whole list of communication radio stations with callsigns in the 4X and 4Z series, such as for example station 4XP which was operated by the Aeromarine Airways Corp in Key West for aircraft communication.  Then there was also station WX at Miami Beach which was part of the Tropical Radio Telegraph network, but that’s a story for another occasion.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 388)