Ah! What might have been….
By Robert Lozier (KD4HSH)


So read the headline of the major story in the Monroe (NC) Journal for September 13, 1918.  Followed by: LARGEST RADIO STATION IN THE WORLD IS PLANNED.

From then until the end of January 1919 there were a number of reports about the details of selecting the land for the project (some 13,000 acres), getting a rail spur and roads to the site and talk of the massive antenna towers to be built on the property.  This was to be a really BIG project costing some $3,000,000.

I learned recently that Patricia Poland, librarian at the Dickerson Genealogy & Local History Room, had assembled a file on the subject from her searches of local newspaper microfilm.  She remarked that from her reading of the news reports, there was no clear understanding of what happened to the project.  No article made a direct statement and clear explanation of why the project had been canceled.

Having been interested in broadcast radio technology for some 40 years, I was aware of this project.  In my conversations many years ago with local fount of town knowledge, Kirk Shute; he told me that the Joffrey Hotel on the Square had been built largely on the speculation that a radio communication complex would be built in the county.

The articles in the Monroe paper talk about the huge antenna towers to be built and the many construction jobs that would be available but nothing is said about the equipment to be installed there.  Fortunately there are a number of historical references to the equipment that would have been installed.  In fact, while the Monroe project was still born so to speak, the same station design was used in facilities at Annapolis, Maryland and at Bordeaux, France (albeit with changes demanded by the French).

Before WW-I commercial transatlantic radiotelegraph was largely controlled by the American Marconi Company (Great Britain) and German companies HOMAAG & Telefunken.  When the United States entered the Great War, these foreign controlled operations were seized for the duration and put under control of the US Navy. 

This was the first war where all the combatants realized that instantaneous wireless telegraph communications capability offers a tremendous boost to both naval and ground operations.   This lead the US Navy to make plans for greatly expanded capabilities to communicate wirelessly on all seas and continents.  At the time, 1915/1918, it was believed that reliable long distance radio communications could take place only at very long wavelengths (low frequency) using very high power.  The triode vacuum tube, invented in 1906, required ten years development just to get to the point where it could reliably put out a Watt or two of power; nowhere near the desired 50,000 to 500,000 Watts thought necessary on long waves.

There were basically only two ways to get such high power.  It could be generated by controlled electric arc discharges exciting tuned circuits or it could be generated by special alternating current generators that, instead of generating 60 Hz. power like is in your home, generated power at 16,000 to 30,000 Hz.

The US Navy decided to go with continuous “singing arc” transmitters developed by the Federal Telegraph Company of California.  Prior to the War these transmitters were showing great promise in being scaled-up from outfits that produced 500 to 2,000 Watts for use in ship-to-shore radiotelegraphy to monsters that could produce enough power for transcontinental work.  This is the type of equipment envisioned for the installation here in Union County.

By Armistice Day, 11/11/1918, a 500,000 Watt Federal arc installation had been completed at Annapolis, Maryland (station NSS) and the French government was proceeding with the construction of a 1,000,000 Watt Federal arc station completed in 1921 but rendered obsolete by 1926.

With the end of the War, the US government wanted to return the seized transatlantic stations to private ownership but absolutely did not want the ownership to be in foreign hands.   The solution was to form a US holding company that would take over the assets of the stations and serve as a marketing organization for the communications products of US manufacturers including General Electric, Westinghouse, Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co. and Western Electric.  This holding company?  Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

Other than a $10,000 initial grant, appropriations were never authorized by Congress for our station.  The new RCA did not see an immediate need to establish direct long haul communications with South America.  Even if they had an interest in doing so, they would not have used the Federal arc equipment favored by the Navy because the General Electric Co., (part of the RCA) built the high frequency alternators that were in direct competition with Federal Telegraph.

There is conflicting information regarding whether the Federal arc transmitters for our station were actually ever ordered for delivery here. (They were installed in pairs so that daily maintenance requirements would not interrupt service)   We do know that four of the giant arc converters were actually built for a project other than at Annapolis or Bordeaux.  I have seen one claim that the converters were built for a station planned in China but that the deal fell through.  Regardless, the converters wound up sitting in a warehouse for a number of years until two of them were scrapped.  By the early 1920’s it was becoming possible to build reliable vacuum tubes for powers in excess of 5,000 Watts.  These tubes could be used in transmitters operating at frequencies 10 to 100 times higher where radio amateurs had proven that less power was required to cover long distances. The remaining two converters were donated to the physics departments of Stanford and U.C. Berkley.  These arc converters consisted basically of a water-cooled arc chamber filled with hydrocarbon gas surrounded by a mammoth electromagnet structure.  It turned out that this huge magnet structure was just what was needed at U.C. Berkley to build the first cyclotron under the direction of Ernest Lawrence in the mid 1930’s.   Years ago I saw it in a special exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute.  Though no longer on exhibit, I presume that this historic nuclear physics instrument is still in the Smithsonian collections.

January 3, 2007
Robert Lozier, Monroe, NC  - kd4hsh@juno.com