Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Anniversary of Titanic Sinking: The Wanamaker Radio Stations

It was at 11:40 pm on Sunday night April 14, 1912, now 117 years ago, that the new passenger liner, Titanic, on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic struck a large iceberg and sank south of Newfoundland, just two and a half hours later.  More than 1,500 people lost their lives in the freezing water in this tragic event that has stirred the compassion of people all around our world ever since.
The first ship to reach the devastated scene was another passenger liner, the Carpathia, which arrived three and half hours later and rescued more than 700 people, most of whom had been fortunate enough to find space in one of the lifeboats.  The wireless operator aboard the Carpathia at station MPA was Harold Cottam, and he was completely involved for almost five full days in the transmission of Titanic news and information to the United States. 
Assisting Harold Cottam at MPA on the Carpathia was Harold Bride who was the Junior Wireless Operator at MGY on the Titanic.  Bride had been washed off the Titanic as it began to sink, and he found safety, first on an upturned lifeboat, and then with others in a righted lifeboat.
One of the main wireless stations in the United States that received the Morse Code information  from the Carpathia was station WHI on top of the Wanamaker Store in New York City.  There were three experienced wireless operators at this station at the time; the now well known David Sarnoff as
a Marconi Executive, Jack Binns who was Station Manager and just on his third day of employment at the station, and J. H. Hughes, already an experienced Marconi operator.
The very successful American entrepreneur, John Wanamaker, opened his first store at Oak Hill, on the corner of 6th and Market Streets in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, in 1861.  Fourteen years later, he purchased an abandoned railway station on Chestnut Street in the center of the same city, Philadelphia, and there he opened his second departmental store. 
Then 35 years later again (1910), John Wanamaker demolished this railway building stage by stage, and and he had a new super departmental store constructed on the same site, and all the while his store remained open for regular business.  This new building was quite extravagant, with its own Post Office, child size monorail, Dairy Bar, and a Medical Office with a doctor and nurses on duty. 
As a major item of public appeal, Wanamaker bought a huge pipe organ for installation in his Philadelphia store, the largest ever made some say, that had been on display in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  It took 13 railway freight carriages to convey this massive organ with all of its parts to Philadelphia. 
When installed, the organ occupied its space 7 storeys high, with 6 key boards, 729 stops, and also a massive 28,750 pipes ranging in size from ¼ inch to 32 feet long.  The pipes alone weighed 287 tons.  The Wanamaker Organ was first played on June 22, 1911, at the exact time when King George 5 was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London.
At the same time as the organ was being installed, so also was a powerful communication wireless station.  The transmitter and operating desk were enclosed in a special room with double walls for sound proofing, and with a glass window for public observation. 
When in operation, there was a huge blue flash from the rotary spark gap, together with  earsplitting thunder that sounded like the loud shot from a large gun.  The 1,000 feet long antenna was installed on the roof and it stretched from Market Street to Chestnut Street.  The callsign for this Wanamaker communication station was originally HE, though subsequently it became WHE when the initial letter was granted to officially identify an American wireless station.
On April 24, 1922, the studio for a radio broadcasting station was installed on the 2nd floor of this same building, next to the Egypt Hall.  The transmitter for this station was installed on the 11th floor and it was on the air initially on 833 kHz with 500 watts under the call WOO.  Again, the antenna was on the roof of the building.
Over a period of time, station WOO occupied several different channels in what became the standard mediumwave band, though 590 kHz was its best known and longest occupied frequency.  There were many occasions when radio station WOO broadcast the music from the Grand Organ to their many listeners.
Radio station WOO was on the air for a period of 6 years, and it signed off for the last time just before midyear 1928.  By that time, the electronic equipment needed to be renewed; and in any case, there was already a host of other mediumwave stations on the air in the area.  The Wanamaker station had thus outlasted its usefulness as an advertising mediumwave for the Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia.
The callsign WOO was subsequently re-issued to an AT&T shortwave communication station at Deal Beach in New Jersey, during the following year (1929); and soon afterwards, AT&T transferred the usage of that callsign to their subsequently better known station at Ocean Gate, also in New Jersey.
The Wireless Engineer who installed the Marconi equipment for the longwave communication station HE-WHE in the Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia was the 26 year old Thomas Appleby.  He tells the story that there was a pretty young store employee whose daily duty was to bring up to the wireless office, messages requesting certain goods to be sent over from the Wanamaker Store in New York.
After a while, young Thomas Appleby requested a date with this girl, and a friendship developed.  For some time, Thomas’ mother had been trying to get her son to visit the home of one of her friends, who had a daughter she wanted her son to meet.  One evening, young Thomas mentioned to his family at home that he now had a new girl friend.  “Who is she?”, his mother plied.  “Laura Graves”, Thomas replied.  “Why“, said his mother, “That’s the girl I have been wanting you to meet!”  Yes, they married.
This has been Part 1 in the two part story of the Wanamakers radio stations, and when we present part 2 next week, we will tell the story of the other Wanamaker store in New York, and subsequently its participation in the wireless events associated with the tragic sinking of the Titanic.
(photo via WIkipedia)