They Used to Call It Wireless
January 1, 1963
By Edward D. Stevens
So firmly have radio and TV become imbedded in “the American way of life” that many of us think they have always been here — and many others think they are creations of just the past few years. The man who picks up a telephone from the dashboard of his car and transacts business as if he were in his own office — the housewife who holds a tiny electronic device in her band and changes the channel of the TV set across the room – the cruising battalion chief who flips on red light and siren because his car radio has just said “All units: at Forty-third and University, eleven-seventy” — do these people realize that radio, too, has had its own, rugged history?
Here is the story of a man who was there before wireless became “radio” and when patient, groping men were finding the answers which were to make it what it is today.
I enlisted in the Navy aboard the flagship Chicago at San Diego on February 23, 1906, and though not assigned to the “wireless room” it was natural that I hung around there. My wireless experience began in San Francisco in 1905 as an amateur. William Larzalere was the first amateur in San Francisco and I became the second “ham” there.
My receiver had been a rolling-pin wrapped with bell-wire as a tuner, and a coherer1 made by boring a hole in a piece of broomstick. The hole was filled with iron filings and the ends closed with zinc plugs, with a tapper made from a doorbell with the gong removed. My receiving condenser was an old telephone condenser of unknown values, and the telephone receiver had been discarded by the telephone company after it was badly damaged in a warehouse fire. My antenna was a single bell-wire about 160 feet in length from a warehouse to my home, insulated by means of broken necks of bottles. My transmitter was a Ford spark-coil and a loading-coil made by the old Electro Importing Company. The key was home-made. With this equipment I communicated with Electrician Talmadge at Tatoosh Island, Wash., on several occasions.2
Fred Ward, of the Carborundum Company at San Francisco, gave me a bucket of carborundum scraps and I constructed a detector using a piece of carborundum, with a phonograph needle screwed against it under pressure. It was so satisfactory that I took several of these detectors with me when I enlisted in the Navy. Two years after I had been using carborundum George Hanscom, Radio Aide at Mare Island Navy Yard, invented the very same thing, and it became standard in use in the coastal radio stations.
We were at sea on April 18, 1906, and although I was not officially attached to the wireless room, I copied the message from Mayor John L. Sehon of San Diego to Rear Admiral Goodrich, commanding the Pacific Fleet. It read as follows:
Your wireless message received. First earthquake shock in San Francisco about five fifteen a.m., report very great destruction in San Francisco and bay cities. Hundred buildings business section razed. Streets blockaded, water mains generally over city broken and fire department rendered helpless.
Report second and third shocks, third being most severe. Fire followed immediately over city generally. Attempted to check fires by blowing up buildings with dynamite. Palace Hotel reported down entirely and three or four hundred dead in ruins. Hobart Building has fallen on Postoffice. Examiner Building badly wrecked. Call Building a complete wreck. Reported that military authorities have been requested to assume charge city.
Requests made for transports to take dead bodies to sea for burial. All direct communications to San Francisco down, messages being sent by steamer across bay to Oakland. Impossible to estimate loss of life. Frightful force of earthquake felt along Market Street.
This message must have been in reply to a request for information, from Admiral Goodrich, and the new Point Loma Wireless Station3 was able to get through to the Chicago, while others were not. With the wires down, the Southern Pacific Railroad sent their trainorders to Yerba Buena Island, thence by wireless to the Farallones, again by wireless to Point Arguello (the station to which I was assigned in 1907) and Point Arguello passed them on to the S. P. operator at Surf, where they were placed on the wires. This was the first time in wireless history that train-orders were sent to sea to control trains.
At that time the Pacific Fleet consisted of the small cruisers Chicago, Marblehead and Boston, the gunboat Yorktown, the little torpedo-boat-destroyers Paul Jones and Perry and the collier Saturn. Only two of them, the Chicago and Boston, had wireless equipment. In those days there were no three-letter and four-letter calls with official standing. Point Loma had the call TM and the Chicago was CO. They gave her that call because it was also the call of the Western Union Telegraph office at Chicago.4
At Point Arguello, there being no power from land lines, we had our own generator and used a Mare Island modified 1-kw transmitter, with an open-end transformer. The oscillator was of the directcoupled type, with the spark-gap in the center, and the condenser consisted of 24 sheets of 24″ by 24″ glass carrying 16″ by 16″ tinfoil sheets, centrally located, with tinfoil tabs for connections. The receiving set was a “Stone” tuner. This tuner consisted of a coil of spaced wire which travelled from one full coil of wire wrapped around a wooden roller; the free end passed to an adjacent roller where it was wound, turn by turn as needed for tuning, by means of a crank. Hanscom’s carborundum detector was used except when we tried out silicon, iron pyrites and galena, which sometimes worked better than the carborundum. The antenna was suspended from the 175-foot wooden mast by glazed porcelain insulators. Our distance in transmitting was generally less than a thousand miles at night, and two hundred miles in the daytime. Static was a bad feature at this station.
My next duty was aboard the Arethusa. This steamer, built about 1884, had been a British tramp freighter, and during the SpanishAmerican War the Navy bought her, converted her cargo-holds into tanks and used her to carry fresh water to the ships of the fleet. She had no evaporators and could make no fresh water, even for her own use. Another steamer bought at the same time, the Iris, had twentyone evaporators and could make plenty of fresh water from sea water, but she was very slow.5
The wireless equipment of the Arethusa was transferred to the Iris by the writer in 1908. The transmitter was a Slaby-Arco (Telefunken) set which had a mercury interrupter; a stream of mercury from a tank containing ten pounds of it was pumped through a nozzle against a segmented plate, to provide a pulsating current. This went into a 12-inch spark-coil which emitted high-voltage to the condenser, and through the spark-gap and primary of the oscillation transformer. It was a very poor outfit, and only on a few occasions could I manage to get over six hundred miles.
We used a Shoemaker receiver, a close-coupled affair with a platinum wire and a cup of dilute sulphuric acid for a detector. This wire, only 1/10,000 of an inch in diameter, was silver-coated for handling purposes; it was called Wollaston wire. In use, it was necessary for the acid to burn the silver off, before we could get signals. The wire barely dipped into the cup of acid; the rolling of the ship would lift the wire out of the acid, and the breaking of contact would burn the end off of the wire and we would have to prepare the end again, for service. I learned that a bit of cotton would carry the acid, and by draping the end of the wire over the damp cotton I could operate when the ship rolled, even violently.
The Iris had been the British steamer Dryden, later the Menemsha, built at Newcastle in 1884 and was 304 feet long, with a twocylinder engine. I paid off from the Iris as Chief Electrician (now called Chief Electrician’s Mate) on Washington’s Birthday, 1910.
After leaving the Navy I was manager of the United Wireless station, PQ, at Monterey. One day I got an urgent call from CH (San Francisco) with a message for the steamer Hanalei. They couldn’t reach her, so I tried her call, HN, and finally I got a feeble little call. The operator, in a shaky fist, stated that he was Herbert Nuttall of Monterey and was answering his call, HN, for the first time. I asked him to come in to the station, and that afternoon he came in, on his bicycle. He was about nine years old, and apparently had assigned himself the call HN because those were his initials. I told him that the call HN belonged to the Hanalei and to change his to NTL, which was quite suitable for a boy named Nuttall. That was before the Navy had taken over all three-letter and four-letter calls beginning with N.
A boy in San Francisco, whose initials were CH, adopted that as his call, even though it was the call of the station operated by the San Francisco Chronicle. I was on the 4 to 12 shift one day when the steamer Queen sent out an SOS; she was afire in the fore hold, and requested stand-by assistance from nearby ships. Then that darned kid butted in, calling someone in San Jose. I could not break him by radio, but called him on the telephone, told him that the Queen was on fire, and asked him to stay off the air. He told me that he would stay off for five minutes, but then would come back again. When the Queen was safe, I called R. Y. Cadmus, the Wireless Telegraph Supervisor at the U. S. Custom House, and told him all about it. He closed his office, went to the kid’s home, personally dismantled the wireless set and took it to the Custom House for safe keeping. The next day the kid and his mother called at the U. S. Marshal’s office, where they got the sweetest bawling-out that could be given in polite language. Much to my delight, he didn’t get his wireless set back for a year.
One day, though, a San Diego amateur was a real help. Robert Capps, son of the City Engineer of San Diego, heard me calling Point Loma, TM. TM did not answer, so Capps called me on the Iris, en route from Magdalena Bay to Mare Island. I told him to tell TM I was calling him, and then I heard Capps call TM, and heard TM tell him that they could not hear my signals. I was using that Telefunken coil and mercury rectifier, and it was a lousy, fuzzy signal that came from my set. So I called TM and Capps both on the same signal and told them that our condenser was broken down and we were about fifty miles from San Diego, traveling about four miles an hour under jury rig. Could they send a tug boat?
TM said that they were sending the tug Iroquois6 to our help, but that she had no wireless and we should send up a searchlight-to-cloud signal. The Iris had no searchlight, so we cruised around under a jib and staysail, and then the fog shut in and we couldn’t find the Iroquois. We cruised to Santa Rosa Island and then sailed south to San Pedro, where our engines were repaired. Poor old Iris! With her compound engine running full speed, we could make only five knots with a good tail wind.
Our commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. B. B. Bierer, listened to my report, and sent Robert Capps a fine letter of thanks for his good work in helping Navy Wireless.
1. The coherer was succeeded by the detector, using a crystal or an electrolyte; the detector was supplanted by the vacuum-tube, which now is giving way to the transistor.
2. In those days, obviously, government stations could chat with anyone!
3. Although finished, Point Loma Wireless was not “officially” in commission. It was placed in service by Chief Electrician R. B. Stuart on May 12, 1906.
4. The three-letter call later assigned to Point Loma, NPL, is still the call for the Navy’s local radio station.
5. For many years, the Iris served here as a destroyer tender.
6. The Iroquois was the old Spreckels tug Fearless — which, on occasion, John D. Spreckels used as a yacht.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward D. Stevens came to San Diego in 1898, attended Sherman Heights school and, before enlisting in the Navy, sailed transpacific in a big, steel, four-masted bark; a retired Navy radio engineer, he now lives in Cardiff.