Great Lakes - Early CW
Since the focus of this site is on the history of the 10 HF radiotelephone stations that served the Great Lakes and the inland rivers system the subject of early CW operation will not be covered in detail. Therefore, the emphasis of this page will be on presenting links to information at other sites and showing information which is otherwise not likely to be found on the Internet.
This page continues to be very much under construction. Please excuse it's roughness and disorganization. Some things are here because I do not have a better place for them at this time. Eventually, some of it will likely be put elsewhere.
Originally this page was home to information about the SS South American. This information has now been updated and transferred to the new Georgian Bay Line Page.
Radio History site provides some information about the
beginnings and early use of CW on the Great Lakes. If there are
conflicts between information on this page and information on the Early
Radio History Site the latter is more likely to be correct. The
following pages on that site may be of interest to those interested in
this aspect of marine radio history:
The Early Radio History page http://earlyradiohistory.us/1903clrk.htm
and the book "Tower in Babel, Volume 1",
by Erik Barnouw indicate perhaps the
earliest beginnings of Great Lakes wireless pioneered by
Clark. He began experiments in the Detroit
area in 1899 and soon formed Clark
Wireless and equipped the
Garland, Sappho and Promise Steamers. By 1903 his
was called the Thomas E. Clark Wireless Telegraph and Telephone Co. and
began experiments with voice transmission. He built
transmitters in a number of port cities on the lakes, equipped more
steamers and in 1906 broadcast election returns to them. The
Early Radio history article has three pictures of the Clark Wireless
installation in Detroit. By 1909 Clark had 7 US stations and one
Canadian station operating and
two more US stations under construction - all of these in the Great
Lakes area. However, Clark Wireless was forced out of business
by (and/or sold to) United Wireless Telegraph
is needed about the time and circumstances of the demise or (sale to
United) of the Clark company.
words from the book, "Empire of the Air," by Tom Lewis may explain why
Clark could not compete with United: "The reason for its success
may not be attributed to superiority of the system, however;
United Wireless rarely charged for equipment or the messages it sent.
Instead it depended of ever-expanding stock sales to keep it afloat."
The 1909 station list shows United with 19 stations on the
Great Lakes, and the Lewis book indicates that: "At its apex in 1910
United Wireless boasted 70 stations in communication with 400 ships
sailing on the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes, far more than its
competitors." Some sources indicate that Thomas Clark alerted
authorities to the United Wireless scheme, and on June 15, 1910 the
government raided the company's offices in NY. Subsequent
investigation found the company to be insolvent - the principle
officers had siphoned off much of the money received from the sale of
stock. Five company officers went to prison as a result.
Another article http://earlyradiohistory.us/1907yht.htm details
the 1907 use of wireless telephony to report on the progress of a yacht
race from the radio equipped yacht Thelma.
CW Operation Begins on the Great Lakes: http://earlyradiohistory.us/1909uwgl.htm
Early Radio Station Lists Issued by the U.S. Government: http://earlyradiohistory.us/statlist.htm
The second link above is to a page which contains links to several early station lists. Here's my list of the 1928 lakes & rivers radiotelegraph stations - extracted from one of these nationwide lists.
The Early Radio History site
also has an excellent built-in search engine and entering "Great Lakes"
in it will produce a cornucopia of information.
These newspaper quotes (1909 and 1911-12) provide information on the early use of wireless on the Great Lakes. This information is from issues of The Detroit Marine Historian, the Journal of the Marine Historical Society of Detroit , and are used with its permission.
This Google search will turn up
twenty-some NY Times articles about United Wireless Telegraph
Co. in the 1907 to 1913 time period.
One of the early (1906) CW stations on the lakes was one owned by Marconi and located in the Elberta Frankfort, MI area. It was installed for the Ann Arbor RR to provide communication with its car ferrys on Lake Michigan. It initially used the call FK which later became WFK.
1911 the Marconi Co. sued the United for patent
infringement. The Marconi case was very strong, and the then-bankrupt
United was in no condition to wage a long court battle.
1912, the lawsuit was decided in Marconi's favor, and
in the merger of the two companies. Marconi acquired United's
land stations and over 500 ship-board installations. It was
primary communications provider to Great Lakes shipping until after WW1.
1919 the government assisted by GE engineered the formation of RCA to
take over the American interests of the Marconi Company. At
inception GE owned at least 80% of the stock in the new company with
the Marconi owning the remainder. The new RCA was initially a
communications company, though broadcasting and the manufacturing of
tubes and broadcast equipment soon over-shadowed the communications
According to George C. Oslin's book The Story of Telecommunications
Radiomarine Corporation of America was formed in 1927. It
be one of the prime providers of marine
communications equipment and services for more than 40 years.
A 1947 WLC Article received with other WLC documents was written by one of the founders of the station and has considerable information about the early years of the station and Great Lakes CW in general. The CW operation of WLC started in 1922. The station has also been known as WHT and WCAF.
The following FCC website documents the operation of the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation and later Radio Division from January 1915 to June 1932. (The FCC did not come into existence until 1934.) There is a bulletin for each month and each bulletin listed new stations and alterations to existing coast and ship stations often listing call letters. The January 1915 Bulletin gives a long list of ship stations under the Change to Existing category.
Here are a few selected Great Lakes related excerpts from the Bulletins:
Service Bulletin, April 1, 1924, No 84
WTK Cleveland - Marine Weather on 706 meters and WHT Rogers, MI - marine weather on 600 and 706 meters
Lists Great Lakes Ships that have been equipped with Vacuum tube receivers by RCA Radio Marine.
The May 1, 1924 Bulletin (No. 85) lists the Great Lake ships that are operated by RCA Marine.
Bulletin, June 1, 1925 (FCC) states that a new license was granted to
WMI Cleveland for operation of 600 and 875 meters. The owner
was Great Lakes Radio Telegraph C. Continuous
Service. This same bulletin states, starting July 15, 1925
that 300, 600, and 706 meters will no longer
used by ship and land stations in the Great Lakes. In place, 715 and 875 meters will be used.
1960s Great Lakes Wireless Article
Many thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Antique Radio Club which graciously granted us permission to copy and display their article "Wireless on the Great Lakes - Recollections by Levon R. McDonald" which was printed in the October 2006 issue of their publication Radio Age. The links are to images of the article's pages. Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4
Society of Wireless Pioneers, Inc. (SOWP)
These two links and the two pictures come
from the SOWP Sparks Journal, Volume 7, No. 1, October 1984 -
Great Lakes Edition - Used with permission.
Early CW Station WGH - Grand Haven, MI
Photo by SOWP member R.H.G. Mathews
WTK installed in Room 1070 of the Hotel Cleveland
in Cleveland - 1925
Here's another photo of the Grand Haven station.
Here's a copy of the 1924-27 "Commercial and Government Radio Stations of the United States" publication on-line.
FCC's early radio history page: https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/radio-history-documents
Some ship owner managed their own systems. However, many owners contracted wireless service from either Marconi or RCA Radiomarine (RMCA). The service supplied the hardware, provided the licensing, and often provided the operators. Licensing required a specification of the hardware. Any change in wireless hardware or wireless service required an update to the license and these changes were handled by Marconi or RMCA. If a wireless station charged for this service, then the charges were part of the license. All radio calls were published by the international bureau at Berne and were brought up to date on any change.
Around 1939 the adoption of radio telephone on Great Lakes made the Morse operator optional on the freighters. The Morse operator was extra cost and did not satisfy the need for rapid communications between ships in river channels, etc. The WW2 Navy restrictions on any unnecessary ship radio telegraph traffic resulted in a vast decrease in traffic and thus resulted in the demise of many radio telegraph shore stations. This can be clearly seen on the FCC Timeline page.
The widespread use of vacuum tube electronics did not start until the early 1920s. Prior to that time, spark gap and alternators were the transmitters. Coherers and crystal sets were the receivers. With no amplification at the receiver, the transmitters were required to operate at high power levels. All use of spark transmitters were prohibited for US licensees after Jan. 1, 1940.
120 Volt DC was the main power supply on the ships. Large motor generator units were used to increase the voltage to acceptable levels to operate the tubes in the transmitter. The receivers B+ was connected directly to ship's 120 Volt supply.
After the spark era the 500 KHz CW equipment was really modulated CW (MCW). That is a 400 Hertz AM signal that was turned on and off. The transmitter (500 watts) had a VFO and the frequency was determined by zero beating with the super regenerative receiver. A typical receiver had 4 bands and covered from about 10KHz to about 600 KHz.
Around 1918 ?,
(seems too early) the
distress signal was changed to key down for 4 seconds, key up for 1
second, etc for around a minute?
to trigger automatic alarm systems. If a ship was equipped
with an automatic alarm receiver, then 1 operator for cargo and 2
operators for passenger were required. However, the wireless
operators had to monitor traffic lists, sleep near equipment,
etc. A special clock was required in the radio room
to assist the wireless operator with the timing required to send the
distress signal. The clock also showed the Morse and the
voice quiet times.
On the ocean, 2182 receivers require 2 tones to activate the receiver. The purpose is to keep receiver quiet except for emergency situations. Otherwise, the receiver picks up 2182 communications from all over the world. It is equivalent to turning on an AM receiver night and hearing pure interference from several stations on the same frequency.
Here's a 1942 ad for a Scott marine receiver designed to have very low local oscillator radiation to thwart the detection of the ship via the enemy's use of radio direction finding gear. Ocean going ships got the priority for these receivers, but some were probably used on Great lakes vessels later on.
"Radio Operator's Manual" by RCA shows the following RCA CW
stations and their frequencies on the Great Lakes:
161 KHz Buffalo, NY - WBL
167 kHz Chicago, IL - WGO Duluth, MN - WRL
177 KHz Buffalo, NY - WBL West Dover (Cleveland), OH - WCY
410 (Distress frequency), 425, 3106, 3120, 4140, 4790, 6330, 6210, 11205 KHz All Stations
Here's a 1946 RCA Calendar showing both WCY and WBL in service at that time.
Some photos of WCY at George
Thompson's memorial site .
The Telegraph Office has a Wireless Photo Gallery page. Unfortunately, it appears that nothing remains of this great site except the index page.
In the 1941 Alpena, MI Telephone Directory I recently discovered a listing for a "Michigan Wireless Tel Co. Park Place ---------675" Its call letters were WGI. I lived in Alpena until I was 9 and remember the tower for what was likely this station as there were no broadcast stations in Alpena at that time. However, it could have been for police radio. Early in WW2 I remember someone telling my dad that the feds (Navy or FCC?) shut it down for the war duration for security reasons. A little more about the station's purpose and the shutdown is on page 10 here and about the station's finances on page 21/27 here.
W8TP who served as an operator on the Georgian Bay line's SS North American, SS South American and the SS Alabama prior to WW2 reported that WGO was on top of the Congress Hotel in Chicago and one of the Operators was ??? McCartney.
Non-RCA Station WLC was also
operating on CW in 1935 - Also WFK, Frankfort,
MI (Ann Arbor RR car ferries in Lake
In 1940 the GL calling frequency was changed from 410 to 500 kHz.
Here's a 1912 Map of Great Lakes Canadian Radio-Telegraph Stations
Except as noted here most of the site's content is in the public domain.