Chatham On The Air: Marconi Center Celebrates Century Anniversary Of Station Opening

By: E.C. Moxon

Topics: History

The interior of the operations center in October 1922.  COURTESY CMMC

CHATHAMPORT – “The United States is today the only country in the world carrying on direct commercial communication by wireless with five other countries. Your corporation is the only company in the country operating high power radio stations communicating with other countries. This service has all been developed within the year.” The year was 1920, and these words greeted stockholders of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in its first annual report.  The rapid growth of this new American corporation was certainly boast-worthy. 

To the citizens of rural Chatham, there was something even more intriguing. The wireless communication that engaged with two of those countries, Norway and Germany, was close to home. The heart of that business was a modest brick building situated in Chathamport on the shores of Ryder’s Cove, which began its broadcasting activities 100 years ago this weekend.

During World War I, long-distance wireless communication clearly had become reliable. Intercontinental business communication, long the province of various undersea cables of foreign ownership, was revealed to be a vulnerable technology at risk of foreign manipulation which made imperative the rapid development of wireless.

Early in the 20th century, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi had envisioned a rival system of long-distance communication using wireless “space telegraphy,” or radio. In the United States, “The principal aim and purpose of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, during all the period of its existence, has been the establishment and maintenance of transoceanic communication.” To that end, Marconi ventures around the industrialized world were pursuing a similar vision and by 1912, “American Marconi” was planning transoceanic plants in California to engage with the far east via Hawaii, and in New Jersey to engage with industrial Great Britain. A subsequent station embracing Chatham (receiving) and Marion (transmitting), was to engage directly with continental Europe via Norway. Marconi had pioneered and patented a basic method for producing radio waves using electrical sparks. Other inventors later refined and advanced the radio art and devised improved methods and apparatus. New methods won acceptance, achieving superior efficiency and higher degrees of perfection.

In 1914, in the midst of the Marconi expansion, the Great War (World War I) broke out in England. By that time, Marconi’s technology was facing obsolescence even as it was being manufactured and installed. The New Jersey station was nearly ready for commercial transatlantic service, but its English counterpart was seized by the government. The Massachusetts station was left half-built and stranded because necessary equipment was being manufactured in England.

Marconi’s company declared that further developments would have to await the end of the war, but by 1918 the state-of-the-art in long-distance radio communication belonged to the General Electric Company (GE), the American industrial giant. A GE publication editorialized that a new apparatus known as the Alexanderson alternator would be “fraught with great consequences for the future of wireless telegraphy and telephony.” Clearly, the future of long-distance wireless communication lay with technology developed not by Marconi, but by numerous American companies.

Faced with technological obsolescence, Marconi’s British company sought to purchase the GE’s apparatus to compete in the field of worldwide wireless communication. The U.S. Navy intervened to block the sale, concerned that American technology should not fall into the hands of foreigners. In a series of complex negotiations, General Electric bought out the foreign Marconi interests and created the Radio Corporation of America — an American company owned by Americans — to exploit American technology in the field of radio communication. RCA’s first day of business was Dec. 1, 1919.

For a span of 15 months after the armistice, the government had maintained control of all U.S. radio stations, pending the “deal” that brought RCA into being. On Feb. 13, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued executive order 3228, declaring that the radio stations commandeered during wartime would be returned to private ownership as of midnight Feb. 29.

But for Chatham and Marion, more time would pass before they would go on the air as major players in international commerce. In a 1921 Congressional hearing, Owen Young, chairman of the board of RCA, cited instead May 17 as the opening day, because of the additional time needed to install GE’s Alexanderson alternators. Service to Germany from Chatham followed on Aug. 1, and by year’s end RCA had filled out its five high-power overseas circuits.

Page 48 of the Chatham station’s superintendent’s diary of May 17, 1920, the first day of operations, reads, in part, “7:30 am Commenced receiving tfc [traffic] from LCM [Stavanger, Norway].  Conditions good…”

Long-distance intercontinental wireless communication continued to evolve and in time Chatham’s initial business was moved elsewhere. However, Chatham would go on to greater glory as a world-famous ship-to-shore radio station. By mid-century, Chatham Radio/WCC was the largest U.S. coast station, serving seafarers around the globe from that same historic building on the shores of Ryder’s Cove.

A narrated slide presentation, “Chatham on the Air,” will be featured at Chatham Marconi Maritime Center’s virtual annual meeting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 16. Information on joining the meeting is at ChathamMarconi.org.

This story was adapted from a monograph by E. C. Moxon, Ph.D., a board director of the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center.