Catching the Radio Waves

The Wireless World's Early Days
by Bart Lee
(Reprinted courtesy of GGNRA ParkNews)

SF Examiner Aug 23, 1899

"Sherman is sighted." On August 23, 1899, U.S. Lightship no. 70 San Francisco announced the arrival of the U.S. Army troopship Sherman to the crowd assembled at the Cliff House. In the crowd were reporters from the San Francisco Call, who relayed this information to a city awaiting the return of its hometown regiment from the battlefields of the Spanish-American War. The lightship, miles out at sea in deep fog, relayed this message via wireless telegraphy (radio) through the fog to the Cliff House. This San Francisco radio success was the first nineteenth-century working use of radio outside of England.

The 1899 San Francisco wireless transmission represented a first in the United States in several categories: first Coast Guard use, journalistic use, maritime use, ship-to-shore message, and amateur transmission of message traffic by radio.

Capturing the Sparks

By today's standards, spark technology was primitive. A large coil transformer took the ship's dynamo voltage and raised it to very high potential that sparked when switched with a telegraph key. That spark made radio waves. On shore, seven miles away, a wire caught the radio waves, which traveled down to a simple tube of metal filings to the ground. When a wave came in, the filings shorted out and sent an electrical pulse from a battery to a landline telegraph paper-tape inker. This type of spark system remained in use through the World War I, by which time newer technologies had been developed.

By the 1930s, radio use was routine in both the maritime service and in international work, where it competed with cables. Technological developments made it possible for large shore stations to stay in touch with vessels and aircraft wherever they were, including the "ends of the earth," the north and south poles. This world-wide network comprised commercial and maritime stations, including those of the navies and governments of the world, as well as dozens of nations broadcasting to each other on the "short waves." These high frequencies were first explored by amateurs, and many more amateurs continued to use them to experiment and communicate worldwide.

A Century Commemorated

The 100th anniversary of radio was celebrated in 1999 at San Francisco's Cliff House. On August 28, the National Park Service and San Francisco historians commemorated the historic moment. The Perham Foundation, the California Historical Radio Society, the San Francisco National Maritime Museum, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, assisted by the San Francisco Amateur Radio Club, presented displays and talks, and the United States Coast Guard Cutter Point Brower recreated the Morse code radio transmission to the Cliff House.

Microwaves and satellites are commonplace today, but the early days of maritime communication were equally sophisticated and exciting in their own way. Our modern wireless world grew from these modest beginnings.

Read about more wireless history in the western neighborhoods!

Images: "Transport plays her searchlight on a grand pyrotechnic display" (at the Cliff House); San Francisco Examiner, August 24, 1899.

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