Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Radio Scene in Central America's Belize

Radio Belize QSL (Gayle Van Horn Collection)
The independent Central American country of Belize has been the third smallest country on the isthmus land bridge that joins North America with South America.  The smallest country in Central America was the Panama Canal Zone, a temporary country that was carved out of Panama in 1903, and it was under the authority of the United States for three quarters of a century before it was reintegrated back into Panama.

The second smallest country in Central America, or now the smallest since the Panama Canal Zone no longer exists, is El Salvador which lies on the west coast of the isthmus, abutting against Guatemala and Honduras. El Salvador has the highest density of population in Central America. Next comes Belize on the Caribbean coast, and though it is now the second smallest country in Central America, yet it has the least people density with a total population of just one third million. Belize is just 180 miles long and 70 miles wide.  It is stated that the government of Belize holds 9,000 square miles of undistributed land which could be available for purchase and development. 

The former capital city is also identified as Belize, though a new capital city Belmopan is under development 50 miles inland in an endeavor to avoid the frequent and disastrous hurricanes that strike the coastal areas.  The country of Belize hosts a quarter million tourists each year. The largest employer in Belize is the banana industry; one of their largest exports is petroleum oil; their Wildlife Sanctuary is the world’s premier site for the preservation of the Jaguar population; and the cost of electricity in Belize is the highest in Central America. The world’s second largest Barrier Reef runs parallel to the country’s east coast for 560 miles; only the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of eastern Australia is longer. 

One of the major tourist attractions in the Belize Barrier Reef is the Great Blue Hole, which is a giant underwater sink hole, perfectly round, 1,000 feet across and 480 feet deep. 

The Great Blue Hole protects more than 500 species of plants and animals that are unique to the area.  Back in 2012, the American TV network Discovery Channel presented the Great Blue Hole in the Belize Barrier Reef as their number one choice at the top of their list of the Ten Most Amazing Places on Earth. Back two thousand years ago, it is estimated, the total Mayan population in what is now Belize was around one million people.  When the Spanish explorers arrived five hundred years later, they reported that there were three separate Mayan communities in the area.  The Spanish did establish a few minor settlements in Belize, though when there were no rich sources of gold, they left and settled elsewhere.   

The British established their first settlement in Belize, or British Honduras as it was known at the time, in 1638, and a flourishing trade in mahogany was soon developed for use as an ornamental wood working timber and for use as a strong fabric dye.  The country changed its name from British Honduras to Belize on June 1, 1973, and the country obtained its independence from Great Britain eight years later on September 21, 1981. During the year 1911, the United Fruit Company in the United States made an appeal for the establishment of a wireless station in British Honduras as an aid to the development of the banana industry.  During the following year (1912), plans were announced for the projected wireless station, and a callsign was allocated for this new facility, UCF, a callsign indicating the United Fruit Co. 

Two years later (1914), work commenced on a new wireless station in Belize, though it was a function of the British government, not the United Fruit Co. This new wireless station, under the callsign VPP, was installed in the British Military Camp on the extreme northern edge of the city of Belize near the ocean front.  Two tall towers at a height of 250 feet supported the antenna system; and all of the the electrical equipment was imported from the United States.Two longwave channels were chosen for this new wireless station; 600 metres (500 kHz) for general communication transmissions, and 1,000 metres (300 kHz) for communication with Swan Island out in the Caribbean.  Back at that time when the station was officially opened (1915), the wavelengths for these two transmission channels were listed, not in the metric system in metres, but in the imperial system in feet, as 1969 feet and 3281 feet.  All messages intended for the United States and Europe were relayed from Belize via the wireless station on Swan Island.

In November of the following year (1916), an American weather station, with the wireless station and weather reports and forecasts were broadcast in Morse Code for onward transmission to the United States. During the year 1920, there was a recognized need to upgrade the Belize wireless station.  In fact, during the following year (1921), the American wireless magazine, The Wireless Age, a publication from the Marconi company in New York, stated in its February issue, that the Belize spark wireless station was underpowered, and that a completely new station was under consideration. Three years later (1924), a photograph of Belize town was taken from one of the towers of the wireless station in the army barracks, and this was published as a black and white postcard.  The photograph is looking south along the coast towards the small town nearby.

During the mid 1920s, the spark wireless system at station VPP in the British army encampment was changed over to valve/tube operation, and at the same time a small network of country communication stations was installed throughout Belize.

It would appear that the old wireless callsign VPP was discarded at that stage, and a new callsign ZIK was applied to the new transmitter equipment in the Belize encampment.

That’s where we leave the story for today. On the next occasion when we pick up the story of the radio scene in Belize, we plan to present the information regarding their earliest endeavors at the broadcast of radio programming.
(AWR Wavescan 466)