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Recollections of Thomas Drake, W4IWH

Archivist's Note: Before presenting Tom's recollections I must note that they are extracted (and rearranged and slightly edited) from a much greater volume of historical material that Tom has sent me via numerous e-mail messages.  The additional material has been, or will be, incorporated elsewhere on the site.  Many thanks, Tom.

I was first licensed as an amateur (W8PWZ) in 1953 when Morse code was the primary way of communicating. Until the novice license was started in 1952? the code speed was 13 wpm. Likewise, everything was tube oriented. AM was expensive and the range was poor. A lot of the equipment (especially transmitters) was home built and xtal oscillators were widely used. CW was many times better than AM. Lots of surplus WWII equipment at cheap prices was available. Also lots of crystals since radios in tanks, etc. were xtal controlled. SSB changed everything since the range was much better than AM and competitive with CW.

Tom Drake in his Radio Officers uniform

The picture on the right  was taken when I was Third Radio Officer on the Georgian Bay Lines SS South American  during the 1958 summer cruise season.   Claude Sheets was chief at start of season and then moved to NA.  Ray Heimberger signed on and became the chief. Second RO were Bill Stout (also worked in 1959 and possibly 1960) for about 1/2 the season, and James Mulligan was the Second RO for about 1/2 the season.  Often we only had 2 RO on ship.

In 1958, the SS SA had AM, CW, and VHF.  The radiotelephone equipment was RCA Radiomarine.  Lorain radiotelephone equipment was also common on the lakes, and it was often voice activated rather than push to talk, and sent a short tone to activate 2182 receivers.  As a result, you would hear the handset being hung up following use of equipment and the usual VOX characteristics.  VHF was rarely used and the range was not great in comparison today since equipment was tube and was not very sensitive.  120 Volt DC was used 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 operated correctly using 120 Volts.

In 1958, the AM channels had numbers associated with them. The Great Lakes channels were 10, 20, 30, 39, 40 (ship to ship), 51 (2182), 60, and 80. The Canadians used 39 and many US ships supported 39. The wireless office did not have 39 (2 MHz band) but the pilot house did have 39. Somewhere, I have the frequencies associated with each channel. The MF and HF channels supported selective calling where a shore station could send a sequence of tones to trigger a bell in the radio room although we were never called that way.

During the day, the range of AM was poor especially on Lake Superior. For day-time communications, CW was important. The 500 KHZ CW equipment was modulated CW. That is a 400 Hertz AM signal that was turned on and off. The transmitter (500 watts - a pair of 811 tubes as I remember it) had a VFO and the frequency was determined by zero beating with the super regen. receiver. The receiver had 4 bands and covered from about 10Khz to about 600 KHZ. You could always hear the 60 KHZ WVV signal on that low band receiver. In 1958, only the foreign ships, the SS South American (WGCW) and the SS North American (WTBA) had 500 KHZ CW. WBL and WLC were the only coast stations that supported CW for lakes and St. Lawrence River communications. The Coast Guard had CW at the Soo and Cleveland but not on their ships.

Our 2 VHF ship-to-shore channels were full-duplex using a cavity and a single antenna. It tended to whistle from the feedback so it was better to use the push to talk. The VHF equipment was leased from Bell Telephone or Western Electric and was housed outside the wireless office near the smokestacks. Both the bridge and the wireless office each had a control box for operating the VHF. A land station could dial the VHF, but WAY was the only station to use this method.  We also had either a telephone number or call sign WY XXXX that we never used.  It was either a 50 or 150 watt transmitter. There were no automated and remote VHF stations in 1958. There range was 20-30 miles. Detroit had put a VHF antenna at a high point hoping to capture travel from Port Huron to Toledo but there were lots of dead spots. Beside VHF channel 1 (same as 16), 2 (ship to ship), 6 & 7(both duplex ship-to-shore). We also had a channel X. X was a private channel between the South American and North American.  X apparently was also used by tug boats in some parts of the country.

Our FCC license specified VHF as well as Morse and AM.  In 1958, all ships had a 2 letter and 4 number call sign.  For example, WY4925.  Since the NA and SA had a Morse license, it was also assigned a 4 letter call.  International law required ships to have Morse capability and all US ships in international trade had 4 letter calls that started with either a W or a K.  The Great Lake are not classified as international waters since they are owned by the US and the Canada.  They are covered by the "Great Lakes Agreement" in the FCC rules.  Morse was not required and specific frequencies were allocated for the Great Lakes.  A ship had to satisfy the "Great Lakes Agreement" but had the option of being fully equipped for international service.  By law, Morse was not required by the NA or SA but was equipped with Morse for additional safety.  Besides communicating with WBL and WLC, the SA and NA had the option of communicating with any marine station in the world. 

In 1958, each of the AM stations also supported VHF. Bell also had a VHF station at the Soo. There was also a VHF stations at Geneva to serve a port between Buffalo and Cleveland. Lorain County Radio operated WMI, WAS and WAD. Michigan Bell operated WFS Detroit (AM, VHF) and the US station at Soo on VHF. Rogers City was the home for Bradley Ships which was owned by US Steel and supported WLC. WFV in Port Huron was no longer in operation in 1958. There was however a Canadian Station in Sarnia (VBE???). RCA operated WBL in Buffalo which was located to serve both the Great Lakes and also the St. Lawrence River. They utilized the 161 KHZ CW band to support long distance. The lower you go in frequency, the better your distance on a 24 hour basis. I enjoyed reading about WMI. I had always assumed that a shore station was a one-person job since I always thought the quantity of traffic was light. You always heard the same voice everyday.

The Canadian coast stations were Port Arthur, Sault St. Marie, Midland, Sarnia, Port Burwell, Toronto, Kingston, and Cornwall. The Canadians had terrible equipment. If you called them, you had to wait a couple of minutes before they would answer since they had to turn on their transmitter and let the tubes warm. There is a paper back: "Come Quick, Danger - A History of Marine Radio in Canada" by Stephan Dubreuil. The ISBN is 0-660-17490-1 and was published by the Canadian government in 1998. It gives the history of the Canadian stations. The Canadians implemented 500 KHZ CW in the 1990s at Thunder Bay and Toronto to communicate with foreign ships since the crews on these foreign ships could not speak English. I believe they only operated these stations for a year or two.

At nights, barge traffic on the Ohio and Mississippi was present all the time on 2182 AM. 2182 was the frequency that the barge people used for all of their communications. Lot of the barge traffic was associated with locks that are located along these rivers. The barges never moved to a ship-to-ship frequency. The ships on the Great Lakes were unhappy with having to constantly hear barge traffic as noise on 2182.

Although I never saw it in print anywhere, we were supposed to be charged based on the physical location of the ship.  There was a large map (behind glass) on the wall between the office and the sleeping quarters that showed the great lakes.  The lakes were divided into rectangles.  I think we were supposed to state that we were in a given rectangle when we handled traffic.  We were told to tell the land station that we did not know our location to avoid a distance charge.  Here's the form that was used on the North American and South American to record the radiotelephone calls (and the charges for same).

We were required in 1958 to carry manuals that listed all marine radio stations on a world-wide basis along with the services that they provided. We also carried a book with cable addresses and cable message codes. The call letters of the ship were displayed with 4 code flags vertically behind the pilot house at required times.

In 1912, ships under way were required to have a radio operator on duty 24 hours per day so that any SOS would be heard.  This required either 3 operators (8 hours per day) or 2 operators (12 hours per day).  This was expensive.  Around 1919, the distress call was changed from SOS to a key down for 4 seconds, key up for 1 second, and this sequence was repeated for about 1 minute.  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. 

The auto alarm receiver was introduced to detect this alarm sequence on 500 KHZ and ring alarm bells when detected.  If a ship had an alarm receiver, then only 1 operator per ship was required.  There were requirements placed on the operator so that intermittent monitoring was performed essentially all the time.  The radio officer had to sleep in the wireless room, listen to traffic lists, etc.  If a ship did not have an auto alarm receiver, then the ship was required to have 3 operators and full time monitoring.  The SA and NA did not have auto alarm receivers since they had an operator on duty at all times.

Following the sending of this alarm sequence, the radio officer would send the distress message giving location, etc.  Regulations required that a radio officer be present in the wireless office within a given time after the alarm bell was sounded.

Likewise, a 2 tone distress signal was added to 2182 KHZ so that the 2182 KHZ receiver audio would only be turned on when a 2 tone distress signal was heard.  Without the 2 tone facility, 2182 KHZ was very noisy and you heard radio transmissions from all over the world.  In 1958, we had to listen to Mississippi barge traffic all night on 2182 KHZ.  In 1958, some ships automatically transmitted the 2 tone signal on 2182 KHZ when they transmitted.  PAN and security calls were considered important enough to send the 2 tone signal on 2182 KHZ to activate the receivers in the pilot houses. 

The Great Lakes coast stations frequently used a multiple tone ringing system to call a ship on a frequency other than 2182.  These systems (I believe that there were 2 different systems in use - RMCA and Lorain?) were widely used on the GL.  The primary RMCA AM  receiver/transmitter on the SA and NA had the ringing system embedded internally in the equipment, and was noisy since it was implemented with filters and relay logic.  On the SA and NA, we had a book that had the ringer codes for all ships with this equipment.  The codes were at least 6 digits in length. 

On the SA and NA, the RMCA AM equipment was housed in a large metal cabinet with metal doors.  Inside, there was a motor generator system at the bottom to convert 120 V DC to usable voltages for the transmitter.  There was a separate crystal controlled receiver for each channel, but only a single transmitter with lots of relays to switch a crystal and several turned circuits for each channel.  The RMCA cabinet sat against the back wall between the shack door and the door into the 2 bunk bedroom.

There were three control boxes for this equipment.  One box was on the bridge, one box was in the captains quarters, and the third control box was in the wireless office mounted on the front wall.  The control box contained a telephone handset with a push to talk button.  Removing the handset from control box started the motor generator set to power the transmitter.  Each control box had a speaker and a volume control.  There was a switch to select the channel of interest (connect receiver to speaker).  We also had the option of connecting all receiver outputs concurrently to the speaker so you could simultaneously listen to all channels at the same time.  There was no squelch on the receivers, only a very good AVC system.

On the SA and NA, someone had cut the telephone handset wire in the wireless office, added a rotary switch, and connected several handsets to the switch.  There was an extra handset in the wireless office for passenger use, an extra handset in the purser's office, etc.  The idea was that the purser could make a telephone call with help from the RO in his office. 

Our VHF equipment also had a ringer embedded so that we could be called by a shore station on one of the full duplex channels.

Much later when digital data transmission started,  coast and ship stations used Sel-Call to handle automatic ringing.  When GMDSS was started each station, world-wide, was assigned a MMID code.  GMDSS approved VHF equipment is supposed to support a ringer system using channel 70??  This equipment requires a receiver to continuously monitor this channel.  This same VHF equipment gives the operator the ability to dial another VHF station.  The whole idea was to make VHF equipment emulate cell phones where you dial someone to call them rather than make a voice call.

In 1956, both the SA (RO, Jim Entreken) and the NA (RO Claude Sheets) picked up the SOS on 500 KHZ when the Andria Doria (cruise ship) and Stockholm (cargo) collided east of NY. The Andria Doria ultimately sank but they were able to get most of the passengers off the ship. Claude Sheets on NA told me that he called the pilot house to report the SOS and the location of the SOS. I have an email from the third purser of the SA stating he spend lots of time in the wireless office of the SA getting updates from the wireless operator.

In 1958 for certain and probably for many years, Julius Breit, a former RO on SA, was the consultant used by GBL relative to all electronic communications equipment on the NA and the SA.  I believe that he was RO in 1940s and was the chief RO on the last trip in 1967.

Julius Breit was on the SA when we left Holland, MI to start the 1958 cruise season.  The radio direction finder was calibrated under his supervision at Grand Haven, MI after leaving empty to pick up passengers in Chicago.  Claude Sheets and I were the RO aboard the ship at that time.  I agreed to handle the nights if he would handle the days.  Around midnight, we were called on 2182 by WAY Chicago.  When I picked up the handset, it started the motor generator system to supply power to the transmitter and the noise really scared me.  When I pressed the push to talk button, nothing happened.  I woke up Claude.  In his underwear and about half asleep, he couldn't make anything happen either, and he said don't worry since they will call again if it's important.  A few minutes later, Julius arrived at the wireless office from the bridge and was really mad at me for not responding to WAY.  I told him the equipment did not work.  He then determined that a switch was not in the correct position and fixed the problem.

In the video that I have, Julius discusses the PA system on the ship that he had installed sometime in the late 1940s.  There were speakers all over the ship and there were switches in the wireless office to control which speaker was connected to an amplifier and to which of the 2 amplifiers it was connected.  Likewise, there were multiple microphone connectors and switches to connect a microphone to one of the two amplifiers.  As a result, the radio operators made all public address announcements.  We also provided PAs to entertainment on the ship.

The number of ships on the great lakes is substantially less than in 1958. The ships now are much larger, much faster, and have automatically loading and unloading. In 1958, there was a ship passing Detroit every few minutes. Now, there may be one ship per hour. (Archivist Note: This reduced number of ships greatly diminished the volume of radio traffic and was an additional factor contributing to the demise of the lakes stations that Tom notes below.)

On the Great Lake, high VHF antennas, remote controlled VHF, and improved VHF essentially eliminated AM or SSB since you probably can contact the Coast Guard everywhere on the lakes by VHF. Cell phones work from most locations on the lakes since VHF and UHF propagation is great over water. The Coast Guard have unmanned VHF stations with tall antennas to cover great lakes by VHF. These factors essentially killed the coast stations on the Great Lakes.  Likewise, satellites killed LF, MF, and HF for marine on the ocean.

I have a GMDSS Radio Operator and Maintainer license, and I own a number of pieces of historical marine radio gear: The Vibroplex key that sent the last CW message from VCO Sidney, Nova Scotia in 1997, A Model AR8506 15-600 KHZ 4 band RMCA marine receiver (The same model as the receiver on the SA.), and ????

Tom Drake, W4IWH

Reconstruct the E-Mail address: tcdrake-at-bellsouth-dot-net

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