CHATHAMPORT — For decades, wireless station WCC sent critical information to ships around the globe, 365 days a year, around the clock. Many of those messages were repeated many times, often serving as a kind of homing beacon for mariners from faraway Chatham.
When live traffic wasn't being transmitted, the wireless operators used an ingenious mechanical device known as a Creed keyer to repeatedly send strings of Morse code at up to 100 words per minute – faster than a human operator. Now, thanks to an amateur radio operator from Georgia, the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center (CMMC) now has its own working Creed machine.
Working a bit like a player piano, a Creed keyer reads a strip of thick “Wheatstone” paper that's been punched with holes by a special encoder known as a Kleinschmidt machine.
“We have searched continuously for roughly 10 years for this artifact, following leads with historians, other museums, archivists, ham radio operators, collectors, and any other possible leads,” CMMC Operations Manager Dorothy Bassett said in a news release issued by the American Radio Relay League – the national association for amateur radio operators. Marconi officials posted a request for a Creed keyer in the league's national newsletter, and the short notice was spotted by Gene Greneker of Powder Springs, Ga.
“Our members and supporters raised the funds, and we were able to purchase the Creed machine, a custom table, and an entire exhibit to showcase this item and how it worked with our Kleinschmidt machine,” Bassett said. She thanked the ARRL for running the announcement that made the acquisition possible.
Once the exhibit is complete, CMMC plans to install a button that visitors could push to start the machine, “so guests will get to hear the Creed working, see the tape move, and watch the pins and mechanics in action,” Bassett said.
Creed machines are rare finds for collectors. Greneker found his when he and a friend bought a lot of equipment from station WOE, a smaller RCA wireless station in Lantana, Fla.
“Most of these stations only had one keyer to broadcast the traffic lists on the hour, and these were cut with the Wheatstone perforator,” Greneker said. “Given that there were not that many shore-to-ship stations, not many Creed keyers were ever manufactured.” It's actually possible that the Creed machine Greneker provided for the Marconi Center had been to Chatham before.
“RCA was famous for taking old equipment from the flagship station (WCC) and sending it to the smaller stations (WOE) when they needed some item. The flagship station then got the new replacement equipment,” he explained. When shore station operators such as RCA closed those facilities, “the entire station was loaded up and carried to the dump, making the keyers almost impossible to find today,” Greneker said.
CMMC President Dick Kraycir said the Creed machine isn't just an important historical artifact; it's a teaching tool.
“We focus a lot, especially with our young people, on the use of codes,” he said. The Creed keyer reads not Morse code or the special code used by Western Union, but the Wheatstone code punched on the tape.
The recently acquired Creed machine works well, but Kraycir is in the process of restoring another artifact, a translator, that converts the output from the Creed machine into audible dots and dashes.
“It took awhile to get it running, because it's like 70 years old,” Kraycir said. That's not far from his own age, “and it takes awhile for me to get running, too,” he quipped. Once the translator is working well, it will complete the museum display, and visitors will be able to hear the same thing that shipboard wireless operators heard through their headphones decades ago.
That droning sound of rapid-fire Morse code was part of the everyday environment at the old wireless station, Bassett said. CMMC volunteer Lewis Masson, who worked for 35 years at the RCA station as a wireman, told her that the Creed machine was deeply important to him.
“Every time he came into work, he heard it running, and it was a tried and true part of the original atmosphere,” she said.