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Night of nights, 2015

Every year, the Maritime Radio Historical Society celebrates the closing of the last commercial Morse code radio station, which happened at 0001 UTC, July 13, 1999.  They do this by re-manning the watch for a few hours in honor of all those who so diligently listened for distress signals on 500 KHz and other frequencies continuously for over 90 years.  Your humble author was one of those, who in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s strained to hear, through the static crashes and OTHR, the simple, yet effective combination of SOS sent in Morse code.

Fortunately, after the closure of KPH, the National Parks Service took over the land and preserved the buildings and antenna fields intact.  Today, a dedicated group of volunteers maintain these facilities as a working museum.  This is the earliest history of radio technology and from this, sprang Amateur Radio, then Broadcast Radio services.

So, if you have the opportunity on July 12 (Sunday, starting at 8 pm, EDT), tune around to some of the frequencies listed below and see how ship to shore communications was handled:

KPH KFS KSM WLO KLB NMC NMW Ship transmit
426 426 488 472 448 425, 454, 468,480,512
500 500 500 500 500 500
2055.5
4247 4343 4184
6477.5 6383 6276
8642 8438.3 8658 8582.5 8574 8368
12808.5 12695.5 12993 12992 12552
17016.8 17026 16914 16968.5 17220.5 16736
22477 22280.5

These are duplex frequencies, meaning; the ship transmits on one frequency and listens on to the shore station on another and vice versa.

Those medium frequencies do not carry that far during daylight, however the high frequencies should be heard across the world.

In addition to that, there are youtube videos to watch:

There are more videos on youtube, if one is so inclined.

Those old RCA transmitter look like they are in excellent condition. Somebody has spent a lot of time restoring those units.

Hopefully, one of these years, I will get a chance to head out to San Fransisco during the middle of July and see this in person. It would be nice for my children to see what their old man used to do in what seems like a different lifetime.

Maritime Radio Historical Society Night of Nights XIII

Every year on July 12, the Maritime Radio Historical Society (MRHS) commemorates the end of commercial Morse code use in the US. I have a soft spot for Maritime Radio, as that is where I began my radio career.  For nearly one hundred years, ship board radio operators, “sparks” communicated with land based stations using Morse keys and relatively simple low powered transmitters.  The skills gained by a good CW operator could only be attained by time spent sitting watch.

In order to remember those who did that service, several former coastal radio stations fire up transmitters once a year on July 12th.   This year’s frequencies are:

KPH KFS KSM WLO KLB Ship transmit
426 426 488
500 500 500 500
4247 4343 4184
6477.5 6274 6276
8642 8438.3 8658 8582.5 8368
12808.5 12695.5 12993 12992 12552
17016.8 17026 16968.5 16736
22477 22280.5

Festivities begin at 8pm eastern time.  In addition to those frequencies, K6KPH will be on the air on 3550, 7050 14050 and 21050 KHz.

KPH, KFS and KSM are all operated from Point Reyes National Park, transmitters are on Bolinas. This is a video of the transmitter gallery in Bolinas:

Other video of Bolinas Facility:

Former KPH receiver site, Point Reyes National Park:

This is a former coastal station site in Cape Cod, which was torn down:

Lots more information at the Maritime Radio Historical Society site.

Radio Before Broadcasting

Before anyone ever though to click a mouse and play the latest Ke$ha “song,” or spin Stairway to Heaven for the millionth time, radio was used for a different purpose.  Early radio was developed to transmit messages between ship and shore or between continents.  Radio apparatus consisted of spark gap transmitters, which were very simple devices only suitable for sending Morse code.  Some did experiment with voice modulation methods, but the quality was poor.  It was not until Lee Deforest developed the vacuum tube that the state of the electronics art was capable of transmitting voice and music.

ATT developed AM (amplitude modulation) for point to point long distance service over high frequency radio circuit.  This is how early inter continental long distance phone service was first established.  In fact, up until the early 1970’s much of the long distance telephone traffic was routed via high frequency stations like WOO, WOM and KMI to Europe and Asia.  It was this development that allowed Ham Radio operators to begin transmitting music and other programming to their neighbors and the idea of broadcasting was born.

The Coastal Radio stations that for years transmitted and received messages from ships and sea, transmitted navigation warnings, weather broadcasts, news and responded to distress calls have all but faded away.  The operators of those stations often become nostalgic with the memory of sitting in a small room late at night straining to hear what might be faint SOS call under all the other chirping CW notes.  Successfully “working” a distress call is considered the pinnacle of a shore operator’s career.  High Frequency Continuous Wave (HF CW)(Continuous Wave is the technical description of Morse code modulation) has several distinct advantages for distress work.  A small signal can travel long distances and still be well received.  The average life boat CW transmitter had 5 watt output and often they could be heard across an ocean, 1,000 miles away.

I put together a few lists of these Coastal (ship to shore) radio stations.  The first are commercial public stations, these were responsible for sending message traffic to and from ships at sea.  They often had other purposes like transmitting signals point to point or High Seas Telephone service.  High Seas Telephone is just the way it sounds, persons on board a vessel at sea could place a telephone call.  It was hugely expensive and was replaced by INMARSAT, which is only moderately expensive.

Call Sign Location Owner Services Notes
KFS Palo Alto, CA Federal Telegraph/ITT Coastal Sold to globe wireless, ceased operation 7/12/1999
KPH, KET (point to point) Pt. Reyes, CA RCA/MCI Coastal, point to point Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 7/1/1997
KLB Seattle, WA ShipComm, LLC Coastal In service
KMI Dixon, CA ATT Coastal, High seas phone service Ceased operation 10/8/1999
KSM Pt. Reyes, CA MRHS Coastal In service
WBL Buffalo, NY RCA Coastal (Great Lakes) Ceased operation 1984
WNU Slidell, LA Coastal Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 7/12/1999
WLC Rogers City, MI United States Steel Coastal (Great Lakes) Ceased operation 1997
WCC Chathem, MA RCA/MCI Coastal Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 1997
WLO Mobile, AL ShipComm, LLC Coastal, (oil rigs) In service
WOO, WDT (point to point) Toms River/Ocean Gate, NJ ATT Coastal, High Seas and point to point Ceased operation 10/8/1999
WOM Pennsuco, FL ATT Coastal, high seas phone service Ceased operation 10/8/1999
WSC Tuckerton, NJ RCA/MCI Coastal Ceased operation 1978
WSL Brentwood, Sayville, Southhampton, Amagansett, NY Federal Telegraph/ITT Coastal, point to point Ceased operation 1984

This is by no means an inclusive list as at one time there were hundreds of these stations licensed to the US.  There were many inland stations on the Great Lakes and rivers.  These are the most common ones that I’ve heard, heard of and or seen personally.

KPH

Most people mark the end of commercial Morse Code as July 13, 1999.  There is, however, one station, KSM, which still is open as a public coastal station.  That station is a part of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, which operates from the former KPH facilities in Pt. Reyes, California.  KPH suspended operations in July, 1997 while other station continued on for the next two years.

Rectifiers from PW-15 transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

Mercury Vapor Rectifiers from PW-15 transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

Press Wireless was a company used by newspapers to transmit articles and pictures. They developed their own transmitters and operated point to point sites in Hicksville, NY and San Francisco, CA. A few of their transmitters survive today at KPH.

RCA H series HF transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

RCA H series HF transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

The 1950s H and K RCA HF transmitters were built to last. The carrier power is 10 KW and can be used for CW, SSB, and RTTY.

KPH is the best preserved Coastal Station, when the facility closed down in 1997, the US Park Service took ownership and left it mostly untouched.  In 2004 volunteers and former station employees began to restore the equipment to operation.  Eventually, these efforts led to the licensure of KSM, the only operating commercial CW station in the US.  KSM uses restored donated equipment from KPH and KFS.  Restoration work continues and if I lived closer, I’d volunteer my services.  MRHS also operates amateur radio station K6KPH.

WOO

Other facilities survive in parts, the former WOO is home to the  Tesla Radio Foundation and Museum.  Anyone that knows anything about radio will recognize Tesla as one of the founding fathers, perhaps much more so than Marconi, who often gets more credit than is due.  During it’s day, this was a huge facility, connecting North America with Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.  Point to Point service included programming relays for the VOA, Long Distance phone service and so on.

WOO transmitter floor, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

WOO transmitter floor, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

ATT seemed to use the same design for their HF sites, the buildings at KMI, WOO and WOM all look alike, right down to the brown/yellow tile floors.

WOO transmitter, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

WOO (PW-15 ?) transmitter, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

Again, this facility was restored through the hard work of Radio Amateurs.  Unfortunately, unlike KPH, the old CW transmitters where scavenged for parts and none where restorable.

WOO antenna switching matrix

WOO antenna switching matrix

All of the transmitters were routed to this antenna switching matrix.  As you can plainly see, there were many, many antennas at this facility.  There were also several types, rhombics, verticals, inverted cones, etc.  They were (some still are) located in a tidal swamp.  From this matrix, with a few exceptions, the transmission lines were routed through BALUNs which then fed open wire transmission lines.

WOO Ocean Gate Radio transmission lines

WOO Ocean Gate Radio transmission lines

These lines went to various antenna fields pointed at Europe, South America, Asia and Africa.

WCC

The former WCC receiver site is now home to the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center and has the amateur radio call sign WA1WCC.  This is a museum that is open to public.  The town of Chatham, with donations from Qualcomm and Verizon, has endeavoured rehabilitate the old receiver site and operations building.  They have spent a fair sum of money on replacing plumbing, fixing the driveway and other necessary work to turn the site into a historical attraction and provide a center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) on Cape Cod.

WCC transmitting antenna, South Chatham, MA courtesy MHRS

WCC transmitting antenna, South Chatham, MA courtesy MHRS

We used to go to the public beach right next to this radio tower.  It looks like a Milliken tower similar to WICC ‘s towers in Bridgeport. I believe the transmitter site in South Chatham was bulldozed and turned into a wild life refuge.

WLO and KLB are in service with HF voice and SITOR, PACTOR and AMTOR modes but not CW.  These stations are operated by ShipCom, LLC.

Coast Guard Maritime Radio

The US Coast Guard operated a network of Coastal Radio stations as well.  These where to communicate with Coast Guard vessels and aircraft but also interfaced with civilian shipping.  They stretched up and down the east and west coasts, covered Alaska, Hawaii and territories like Puerto Rico and Guam.  They ceased CW operations in 1995 and are remotely operated by the two surviving stations, NMC at Pt. Reyes and NMN in Portsmouth, VA.

Call Sign Location Services CW close date Disposition
NMA Miami, FL Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN Portsmouth, VA
NMC Pt. Reyes, CA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 In service GMDSS
NMF Boston, MA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN, Portsmouth, VA
NMG New Orleans, LA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN, Portsmouth, VA
NMO Honolulu, HI Limited Coastal, Military, Point to Point 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMC, Pt. Reyes, CA
NMQ Long Beach, CA Limited Coastal, Military 1980 Closed
NMN Portsmouth, VA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 In service GMDSS
NMP Chicago, IL Limited Coastal, Military 1975 Closed
NMR San Juan, PR Limited Coastal, Military 1986 Closed
NOJ Kodiak, AK Coastal, Military, Point to point 1/4/1995 In service, GMDSS
NRT Yokota, JP Point to point N/A Closed 1992
NRV Barrigada, GU Coastal, Military, Point to point 1993 Remoted to NMO in 1992, then to NMC in 1995

This is by no means a complete list, there are several more stations that existed but were closed by the mid 1970’s.

GMDSS is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, an automated system consisting of satellites and HF radio that replaced the use of manned listening watches on ship and shore.  A few years ago, the Coast Guard explored eliminating HF services all together, however the public outcry was loud and vigorous, thus they didn’t carry through with the plan.  Even so, the voice weather and navigation broadcasts are computer generated simulated human voices, which are not a good as the real thing, in this former operator’s humble opinion.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, most of these stations where disposed of without ceremony when they were turned off.  Some former Coast Guard Radio Stations were sold off for land, others which were part of existing bases, were dismantled.  The only exception to this is the remnant of NMY (New York) on fire island, now administered by the National Parks Service.

There are a fair number of former Coast Guard radio operators with fond memories of working at these places and the satisfaction of a job well done.

If you are interested in history, check out those sites and or pay them a visit if in the neighborhood.  You may learn something you didn’t know before.

Donating old equipment

There is a propensity among radio engineers to save old equipment. Sometimes I look at something and think, “Man, that cost a lot of money ten or twenty years ago.”  Truth be told, much of what is saved will never be used again.  This equipment should be scraped or donated to someone who might find it useful.  One thing that is most appreciated by Amateur Radio (AKA Ham) operators are old 1 KW tube type AM transmitters.  Ham operators love these things, and with good reason.

A fair amount of repair work, some cleaning and a bit of reworking will turn what might have been a useless dust collector into a 160 or 80 meter AM rig and with a good story to boot.

Personally, I’d rather see a Gates BC1T or RCA BTA1R off to a new home than off to the scrap yard.  To that end, today we unloaded the BC1T at WLNA to a willing ham.  This particular transmitter had last run in 2001 or so and was used as a spare parts supply for other BC1T transmitters owned by the same company.  There was no way it would ever work again and truth be told, it really wasn’t needed any longer anyway.  Since the Harris MW5B was replaced as the main transmitter by a BE AM6A, the backup transmitter was never used.

Gates BC1T transmitter

Gates BC1T transmitter

John Aegerter, a frequent commenter on this blog, drove all the way from Madison, Wisconsin to pick it up.  Prior to pick up, I removed all of the tubes, transformers, crystals and glass envelope time delay relays.  I packed up the glass objects in a box.

Gates BC1T tubes, transformers and spares

Gates BC1T tubes, transformers and spares

There were several spare tubes and parts which are no longer needed.  These went with the rig, along with what ever manuals I could find.

Gates BC1T loaded into pickup truck

Gates BC1T loaded into pickup truck

The transmitter was then loaded into the back of a Dodge Ram 2500 pickup truck and tarped for it’s trip back to Wisconsin.

Axiom


A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
~Benjamin Franklin

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
~Rudyard Kipling

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19

...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.
~Alan Weiner

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