CHATHAM — Seventy years ago tomorrow, the RCA wireless transmitter in South Chatham first crackled to life, sending messages around the globe. Its bank of 24 transmitters put out around 20,000 watts of power each, occasionally causing the lights in the village to flicker. It was those transmitters, rather than the more visible receiving station in Chathamport, that earned station WCC international renown.
This summer, the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center will showcase a new exhibit about the transmitting station, which was located on what is now town-owned conservation land behind Forest Beach. The wireless museum is putting out the call to local residents for photos, information or artifacts to contribute to the exhibit.
Except for village residents and mariners who used the tall South Chatham tower as a navigational landmark, the station was less conspicuous than the Chathamport receiver site, with its many towers and location on a main roadway. But its tucked-away location on the Mill Creek salt marsh was the reason for its success, longtime station operator Ron Farris said.
“We had a good geographic location. Being out on Cape Cod, we didn’t have a lot of noise from the environment,” he said. The South Chatham site replaced an earlier one in Marion, Mass., and had a key advantage: a better ground plane system.
“Salt water provides that. You can’t beat it,” Farris said. “At high tide, you really had a potent signal.” The outgoing radio signals routinely reached stations across the Atlantic, throughout the Mediterranean, and even in the Indian Ocean. Farris recalls one morning when his station received an acknowledgment from a receiver in Sydney, Australia.
“That gives you an idea,” he said. The signal became a mainstay for major shipping companies around the world, who relied on wireless messages to coordinate their trade.
Most South Chatham residents seemed not to be bothered by the station, but a few were regularly rankled by the challenges it presented, including the electrical spikes. While a single 20,000 watt draw didn’t affect the power grid, if more than one of the 24 transmitters happened to kick on at the same moment, there was trouble.
“You had a tremendous amount of power consumption,” Farris said. “The lights in South Chatham and many of the houses in the area would blink a little bit,” he said. Eventually, the electric company was forced to install a new substation near the intersection of Route 137 and Route 28, expressly to meet the needs of the wireless station. “When the station closed the substation disappeared,” he said. The transmitter’s electrical bill was sometimes near $60,000 a month in today’s dollars.
Naturally, the wireless traffic from WCC needed to be reliable. To guard against power outages, the South Chatham station had a backup generator, but not the kind you might imagine today. The generator at the time was monstrous, powered by a V-12 engine that had to be regularly tested. When the behemoth started up, the station’s switchboard would light up with complaints. The transmitter’s strong signal also interfered with television sets, and the station’s engineers would routinely make house calls to install filters on neighbors’ aerials.
“They did that as a courtesy,” Farris said.
In March 1999, several years after the South Chatham station was decommissioned, crews demolished the central lattice tower in the middle of the marsh. The steel structure seemed unwilling to go, and it took several attempts before the tower collapsed on itself. Some neighbors might have been happy to see it go, but for Farris and others affiliated with WCC, it was a dark day.
“It’s sad,” he said. And while the Marconi Center’s new exhibit will tell the whole story of the South Chatham station, it will focus on its heyday. “We’re trying to stay away from the demise of the place,” Farris said.
A centerpiece of the exhibit is one of the station’s big SSB T-3 transmitters, made by RCA. The transmitter was saved from the scrap heap and has been restored for demonstration purposes. For all kinds of reasons, it can’t be restored to its original power. Not only couldn’t the station be licensed, but it’s become impossible to find the vacuum tubes needed to operate the unit, he said. The amount of electricity needed to operate the transmitter wouldn’t be available, either. And then there’s the heat the unit would generate.
“Just one, you could heat your house with it,” Farris quipped. The South Chatham station was very loud, mostly because of the strong fans needed to cool the transmitters. On a moderate summer day, temperatures in the transmitter building could reach 105 degrees, he said. So the unit to be displayed, while fully original, won’t transmit a signal. But the transmitters were a marvel of engineering, as proven by the fact that they operated 24 hours per day, seven days a week, for 20 years. “That’s how reliable these things were,” Farris said.
Anyone with information, photos or artifacts related to the South Chatham transmitting station can email MarconiCurator@gmail.com.