Electronics in the West: The First Fifty Years, Jane Morgan, 1967, pages 32-38:
WIRELESS BEGINS TO TALK -- AND FLY
Perhaps few in the audience were more intensely interested than an 18-year-old radio amateur from Berkeley, Ralph Heintz. He hung around the planes and made friends with Paulhan's mechanics. One, Diddier Masson, was also a flier and could speak a little English. Ralph had the thrill of taking him home to Berkeley one night to have dinner with his family.
Not long after Paulhan's one-man show at Tanforan, in the spring of 1910, Ralph went into the office of Earle Ennis to buy some parts for his wireless telegraph set. Earle had a small company, the Western Wireless Equipment Company, and a wireless station in the Grant Building at Seventh and Market streets in San Francisco. Earle built and sold wireless equipment for private and commercial ships, and broadcast the news in code to the ships' wireless operators as far as he could reach them at sea with his spark set, using the call letters "T-G." Ennis was a six-foot-one, 240-pound, genial fellow with a keen mind and a lively sense of humor. He had grown fond of his bright young Berkeley customer.
"Ralph, how would you like to bring your receiver out to the Tanforan race track this week? I know a fellow who is going to fly his plane down there, and I'm going to see if it's possible to have him send a wireless message from the plane while he's up in the air."
"That sounds great!" replied Ralph eagerly. "I'll be there!"
The morning of the experiment, Ralph was up before the sun in order to catch the first train. He was loaded down with gear, including three spreaders for his antenna, each six feet long, and a shoe box containing earphones, as well as dilute acid and fine platinum wire for his "electrolytic" detector which he used instead of a crystal set.
Taking the train and the ferryboat was a daily routine for Ralph, as he had chosen to commute all the way to Lick High School (now Lick-Wilmerding High) in San Francisco for its excellent science and shop courses, not then available at Berkeley High. But this day, instead of taking the streetcar from the Ferry Building to school, he took a streetcar to the train station and a train to the race track.
Earle Ennis was already there when he arrived. He had brought his fiancee with him, a beautiful young woman named Carol Read. The pilot and Earle were installing the special lightweight spark-gap transmitter which Earle had assembled for the plane. They were puzzled as to where to put the ground wire for a transmitter that was about to leave the ground. They finally hooked it on the engine. Then they attached a coil of wire about 25 feet long near the pilot so he could let it out for an antenna after he was airborne. The pilot was to send just a few letters with the telegraph key, not attempting any complete sentences. Ralph hurried down the field looking for a quiet place away from the others to set up his receiving equipment. He found an old telephone pole that was ideal for his antenna.
There were not more than six people there that day, just friends of Earle Ennis and the pilot. Although no one had ever sent a wireless message from an airplane in flight, and many experts had assumed it could never be done, it did not occur to Earle Ennis to have official witnesses or to arrange for publicity. He was only interested in trying the experiment for his own information.
With what excitement Ralph Heintz watched the frail little biplane take off! He adjusted his headphones tightly over his ears to shut out the noise of the motor. At last he heard the dots and dashes, faint but perfectly understandable, tapped out by the pilot as he circled the field.
Ralph raced back to the rest. "Did you hear the signals?" Earle called to him jubilantly from his own receiving set. "Yes, I did!" answered Ralph. The pilot landed and there were congratulations all around. But Ralph couldn't stay. He had to pack up his gear and hurry back to San Francisco, for he dared not miss any more school that day. It was only years later that he realized how important the morning's adventure had been. He and Earle Ennis had been the first men in the United States to receive a wireless message from an airplane!
Neither of them kept a diary or any record of the experiment. However, Earle's fiancee recalled the timing of the event vividly even 57 years later, because shortly after that day the federal government, on June 24, 1910, passed a law requiring certain ships carrying 50 or more passengers to have a radio transmitter and a licensed operator on board. Earle invested and lost so much money in his efforts to equip with wireless the many ships coming into San Francisco that their wedding had to be postponed until the next year.
Neither Ralph Heintz nor Mrs. Ennis can remember today the name of the pilot. There were a number of fliers in the Bay Area in 1910. The year before, the Pacific Aero Club had been formed for the builders and pilots of airplanes, balloons, and gliders. The club's secretary, Cleve G. Shaffer, the area's first professional plane builder, had established the Shaffer Aero Manufacturing and Supply Company in 1909, and had built a plane that year.
Fung Joe Guey, a Chinese lad from Oakland, flew a "Curtiss-type" plane of his own design as early as September 23, 1909, when he is recorded as flying in Oakland a distance of 2,640 feet. One of the most successful local amateur pilots was Fred Wiseman of Santa Rosa. His first publicized flight was in May of 1910. In February, March, and April of 1910 Frank H. Johnson, the agent for Curtiss planes, gave exhibitions in Chico, Stockton, Woodland, Del Monte, Salinas, Alameda, and San Jose.
Another plane in the area that spring was one built by Dr. William Greene of the East Coast which belonged to Roy Crosby and was flown by 18-year-old Harold Hall.
George Loose, who had a cycle shop in Mayfield (now a part of Palo Alto), designed six airplanes, the sixth one of which actually flew in 1910. The magazine Aeronautics listed nearly a dozen men who were making successful flights in California in 1909 and 1910. On May 29 and 30, 1910, San Francisco staged a "good roads meet" at Tanforan where airplane and glider pilots, "motor car" drivers, and motorcyclists were to perform. It was announced that "Proceeds will go to repairing the roads from the end of the boulevard to Millbrae. This is one of the worst stretches anywhere to be found and has long been one of the motorists' greatest worries."
Frank Johnson, Fred Wiseman, Harold Hall, and others were scheduled to fly, but it was too windy by the time the meet began. It is possible that one of these pilots took Earle Ennis' radio equipment up early in the morning, or a day before or after the meet. It is a matter of record that Hall flew his Greene biplane in a successful test just two days before the public show.
There is another wireless operator still living in 1967 who remembers conducting a similar, unpublicized, unofficial air-to-ground experiment on August 4, 1910. Elmo Pickerill sent and received telegraph signals from a Wright biplane which he himself piloted at Mineola, Long Island, with a friend at the other end of his two-way transmission, perhaps the first in radio history. Pickerill recalls that he also communicated with five steamships, two Marconi coastal stations, and a wireless station in Manhattan, during the hour he was airborne.
Also in August of that year, on the 27th, J. A. McCurdy, a Curtiss-trained pilot, sent to Harry M. Horton what they thought was the first message ever received from a flying plane. This was at an air meet at the Sheepshead Bay race track in New York. Since there were Signal Corps officers and representatives from Washington and from the Aero Club of America who witnessed the Horton-McCurdy demonstration, as well as newsmen and thousands of spectators, this is recognized as the first official transmission of a wireless telegraph message from the air to take place in the United States.
Earle Ennis' experience in 1910 was valuable in preparing equipment for his first official air-to-ground radio work which took place at California's "Second International Air Meet" held near the Tanforan race track from January 7 to January 26, 1911. An important objective of this particular meet was to explore the military uses of airplanes and airborne radio. Lt. Paul W. Beck of the Signal Corps at the Presidio in San Francisco had attended the first air meet in Los Angeles in 1910 and had become convinced that the Army should own its own airplanes, equipped with wireless, for scouting and combat purposes. As Secretary of the Aviation Committee, Beck was virtually in charge of the meet. He and Ennis established a radio "shack" at one end of the specially built grandstand. Here Sergeant Dunn of the Signal Corps sat with windows closed against the roar of the planes and the cheers of the crowds, ready to send and receive the wireless signals.
The Second Battalion of the Thirtieth Infantry took part in the exercises. When the soldiers established their camp in the fields near the race track, they promptly named it "Camp Selfridge" and the airfield "Selfridge Field" in honor of Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge of San Francisco, one of the Army's earliest fliers, who had been killed in a flight with Orville Wright in 1908.
Eugene Ely made naval history during the meet by landing a Curtiss biplane on the deck of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, anchored in the Bay, and taking off again. The Selfridge Field wireless shack kept in constant touch with the ship, coordinating this first demonstration of the idea of naval aircraft carriers.
The infantrymen staged a mock war against the airfield, with troops marching from the Presidio. Planes were sent up to find and photograph the approaching "enemy." For the first times a plane dropped explosives on targets (near the shoreline, far from the troops), hitting them with fair accuracy. A Curtiss biplane was used to establish radio communication while scouting for the advancing army. The pilot, Charles F. Willard, wore an Ennis-and-Beck-designed tiny receiver strapped to his wrist, and headphones with mufflers. According to Willard, whom reporters described as a "serious, businesslike member of the Curtiss team," he had no difficulty in making out the simple cipher message sent him, which was "Turn to the left and return to Camp Selfridge immediately." "Despite the roar of my engine and the whistling of the wind," said Willard, "I could hear the signal quite clearly and I am positive that the receipt of wireless communication by an aviator is thoroughly practicable."
On January 21, Lt. Beck went up with Phillip Parmalee, a modest, retiring member of the Wright team, in a Wright biplane equipped with one of Earle Ennis' transmitters. The apparatus was housed in a mahogany box which Beck carried on his lap, and which weighed 29 pounds. As Beck tapped out a half-dozen messages, Sergeant Dunn transcribed and handed them out the window of the wireless shack to the officials.
The first message to be sent was a sentence written on a slip of paper by the reporter from the Associated Press and handed to Beck with the instructions that he not read it until he reached an altitude of 500 feet. In this way the reporter could be sure that Beck and Dunn had not prearranged what the message was to be. Soon after Parmalee, Beck, and the big box were over the field, Sergeant Dunn began taking down the coded signals. When he handed the slip of paper to the reporter, the latter grinned. Lt. Beck had sent the sentence exactly as it had been written, but had added a few words of his own. The next day's newspapers carried the story of the successful wireless experiments. The first message of the day was quoted in full, with slight censoring: "500 feet up and running level. It's getting chilly. Blank, blank awfully chilly."
One of the messages tapped out by Lt. Beck was picked up by a puzzled amateur operator, Cyril T. Lotz, 40 miles away, who knew nothing of the transmissions being made at the air meet: "Scotford is not the only bird on the committee." F. E. Scotford, the 250-pound president of the Aviation Committee, had just had his first plane ride. When Lotz, a charter member of the Bay Counties Wireless Telegraph Association, read about the wireless tests in the newspapers the next day, he reported hearing the message. Ennis and Beck were happy to learn that their airborne transmitter had a 40-mile range!
At the end of the air meet, General Tasker H. Bliss, Commander of the Department of California, was well pleased with the effectiveness of both planes and airborne radio. Officials in Washington, hearing of this first use of airborne radio in military maneuvers, wrote to Earle Ennis for more information on his apparatus. His hopes high, Earle described the kinds and prices of his various transmitters and receivers which he had designed for airplane use. There the matter seems to have ended. We can imagine Earle's disappointment. He soon after gave up his radio business and became a newspaper reporter. An extremely modest man, he rarely mentioned his historic part in the beginning of air-to-ground communication, except among his family and close friends. Lt. Beck went on to take flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss, and to promote the cause of airplanes and airborne wireless with speeches and articles.