First-Hand:Innovations in Radio Communications: Post WWI


Submitted by Paul D. Andrews

I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on the 14th of February, 1900. I built my first Amateur Radio Station in 1910. The station did not require a license as DX was about twentyfive miles and it was thought that my signal did not cross any state lines. World War I restrictions closed the station down in 1917.

I enlisted in the Navy at age eighteen in 1918. The Radio Officer at the League Island Navy Yard gave me a brief oral exam and I was given a rating as 3rd Class Electrician (RO). I received my basic training at Cape May, New Jersey. After a brief stay at the Navy's Cherry Head Radio school in Philadelphia, I was sent to the Navy Radio School at Harvard University along with my friend, Orrin E. Dunlap. Our training included the "High Power Course" which we thought would get us assigned to the Navy's station in France. However, we were both assigned to the new Navy station NBD in Bar Harbor, Maine. The principal problem with communications was "static." This led the Navy to put the station as far north as they could. A wealthy Italian named Fabbri owned the estate on which the station was located. He was a radio amateur and welcomed the Navy's presence. The Navy made him a Navy commander and put him in charge of the VLF station. The winter of 1918-1919 came before there was time to complete the buildings. A few small receiving shacks were built, one for each of the VLF stations. These stations copied everything transmitted by the British, French and German stations. It was believed that electric wiring brought in static. Thus, no electricity was permitted in the receiving shacks. The only light at night was by kerosene lantern and the heat was provided by kerosene heaters. The fumes on sub-zero nights were terrible. As the barracks had not been built, everyone but the officers lived in tents heated by kerosene stoves. The mess hall had been started but had no roof so you drank your coffee fast before it froze. We stood watches of six hours on and twelve hours off. Most of the transmissions were in five-letter code at about twenty words per minute which was all we could handle. One station had a machine sender at about fifty words per minute. To handle this, we used a oscillograph-like photographic recorder made by the General Electric Research Laboratory. We had one operator who could copy fifty words a minute so when the recorder failed, the call went out for Benny Suter. The VLF station was known as "Otter Cliffs." On the other side of the island, the Navy built a transmitting station known as "Sea Wall" which was equipped with a standard Navy shore station five kilowatt spark transmitter working into a 12 wire flat top antenna with a 12 wire down-lead supported by wooden towers, three hundred to three hundred and fifty feet tall. The radio shack was built almost under the antenna and we lived in a deserted farmhouse nearby. From this station we handled contacts with the Navy seaplanes on their history making flights across the Atlantic. We also handled the contacts with President Woodrow Wilson's ship when he went to Europe at the end of the war, as well as thousands of contacts from the returning military forces and their families. At the end ofWWI, the Navy was short of radio operators. It was only with the help of our friendly congressman that I finally was released from active duty in early September, 1919.

I graduated from Penn State with a BS in electrical engineering. It was expected that I would return to work for Ma Bell, but when I found that meant working in the Bell Telephone Laboratory in New York City, I rebelled. Having worked two summers in New York City, I wanted nothing to do with it. My credentials were good, and I had five firm job offers. I finally wound up with General Electric in Schenectady, New York. Of course, they said I had to spend a year or two on their "Test Course," which I refused to do. I told them I had no interest in turbines, motors, and such. I wanted to go directly into radio engineering. The recruiter said that the Radio Department was only a little operation. That it would never amount to anything (he did not know Dr. Walter R. G. Baker). Finally, I got just what I asked for. I reported for work at Schenectady in June, and was assigned to the Low Power Transmitter Section, of which Irving F. Byrnes was the Section Leader (now called Manager). I received the magnificent salary of twenty-seven dollars per week, which was considered good. The "Test Course" engineers only received twentyfour dollars per week. We all worked a forty-four and a half hour week.

In 1923, the Post Office began flying some of their first class mail by plane. There were no radio navigation aids, not even radio communication with the ground, thus, the pilots had to fly low and maintain visual contact with the ground most of the time. In bad weather, this resulted in crashes at times. I was assigned the job of developing a radio transmitter and associated equipment which would at least enable pilots to maintain verbal contact with the ground.

I developed a small transmitter providing 10 watts of radio telephone output to a trailing wire antenna which the pilot could raise and lower from an insulated reel. High voltage for the transmitter tubes was furnished by a winddriven generator, to be mounted out on the lower wing of the biplane. A control unit provided switching from the sending to the receiving functions, and for plugging in the microphone and the headphones.

An airmail plane was flown to Schenectady (NY). The equipment was installed and then test-flown by a well known pilot at that time. Everything worked fine, and I think that we sold quite a few to the Post Office Department.

In 1923 I became a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers. That membership was raised to the Senior level in 1943. I was issued a Professional Engineering license for New York State by the University of New York. I also became a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1940 and am currently a Senior Life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.