Friday, January 13, 2017

The Early Wireless Scene on the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico

As the first topic in our 2017 year-long emphasis on the radio scene in the Middle Americas, we visit the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico and we turn the clock back more than one hundred years, to the early 1900s.  Back at that stage, wireless was very young, and spark transmissions were the only way to transmit Morse Code messages through the air. 
            Puerto Rico is listed as the largest American island; 110 miles long and 40 miles wide.  It is a mountainous tropical island with many adjacent smaller islands, two of which are inhabited: Culebra and Vieques, both of which lie a few miles off the eastern edge of Puerto Rico.
            The original inhabitants of Puerto Rico back before the colonial era, were Amerindians who migrated in from North America, Central America and South America, usually via the intervening island groups.  At the time of the visit by the famed Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, it is estimated that the island population was as many as 50,000 local tribes people.
            On November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain.  A dozen years later, the first European settlement was established by the Spanish at Caparra, in what has since become a southern suburban area of the capital city San Juan.  Local historians claim the Caparra settlement as the oldest European settlement in the Americas.  The city of San Juan was established in 1521, and this is claimed as the second oldest European city in the Americas.  
            Settlement on Puerto Rico was established by the Spanish, it was attacked in succeeding centuries by the Dutch and the British, and it was annexed by the United States more than one hundred years ago.  The total population today stands at 3.4 million; with two official languages, Spanish and English.
            The first wireless station in Puerto Rico was established by the United States navy in December 1903 at Fort Morro on Old San Juan Island.  This introductory wireless station was a low powered 3 kW Slaby-Arco unit that was installed on a high bluff overlooking the ocean and the city of San Juan.  One of the stipulated requirements for this station was the capability for communication with another American navy station NAV that was installed on Culebra Island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.  
            During the following year (1904), work commenced on the construction and installation of a new high powered wireless station about a mile distant at Fort Cristobal, still on Old San Juan Island.  Three tall towers at a height of 210 feet were spaced in a triangle 300 feet apart.  Three descending fan antennas of 15 wires each were strung between the three towers, two for transmitting and one for reception.    
            The electrical equipment for the new 35 kW Morse Code station was manufactured by the de Forest company and initially the power source was the local electricity generating company.  However, the drain on the city power system was so heavy that the navy soon afterwards installed their own generating plant.
            After the final testing and tweaking that was performed by a de Forest electrician from the United States, station SA was taken into service in December 1905.  When the navy regularized their wireless callsigns worldwide seven years later in 1912, station SA San Juan became NAU.  
            Amateur radio was introduced into Puerto Rico when Joaquín Agusty Ramírez de Arellano  organized the Puerto Rico Radio Club in 1914.  His subsequent amateur callsign was 4JE.
            The first radio broadcasting station on the island was inaugurated on December 2, 1922 under the callsign WKAQ and it was the same Joaquín Agusty Ramírez who made the opening announcement.  The new WKAQ was installed atop the Puerto Rico Telephone Building under the auspices of RCA and ITT in New York, and the Radio Corporation of Puerto Rico.
            Back then, WKAQ operated with 500 watts on 880 kHz and it was a twin construction with another radio broadcasting station in the Caribbean, PWX in Havana Cuba.  The two tall towers for mediumwave WKAQ San Juan stood at ground level adjacent to the RCA Telephone Building. 

            Station WKAQ is currently owned by Univision Radio and it operates with 10 kW on 580 kHz.  The WKAQ programming is also relayed for islandwide coverage on WUKQ with 1 kW on 1420 kHz in Ponce, and WYEL with 5 kW on 600 kHz in Mayagüez.
Another early mediumwave station was the original WNEL, also with 500 watts, on 1290 kHz.  This station was inaugurated in the island capital, San Juan, on November 17, 1934.
            These days, there are almost a hundred mediumwave stations located throughout the various areas of the island of Puerto Rico, and in addition there is a dial full of FM stations.  Most of the mediumwave stations are at a lower power level, in the range of 1 kW to 5 kW, and lower. 
            Today there are several stations at 10 kW; and just one station at 25 kW, WVOZ San Juan on 1520 kHz.  There is also just one at 50 kW and this lone maximum powered station in Puerto Rico is WKVM Radio Paz on 810 kHz in San Juan.  Mediumwave  WKVM is a Catholic station and it was inaugurated in 1951.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 411)