Along with the excitement of groundbreaking discoveries, early radio experimentation also included periods of "labor combined with hardship", as various equipment configurations were tested to find what worked best. In this article, Pickells mentions that one of Reginald Fessenden's experiments required twelve days of raising and lowering various antenna configurations in order to determine the best design for radio reception, all of which took place outdoors in the late winter.
Fessenden had a reputation for being difficult to work with. But, in a 1940 bibiography of her husband, Helen Fessenden praised those who had worked for him in these early days: "Looking back on the succession of young men who were identified with my husband's work from 1900 on, the memory is one of an amazing consecration to the job. Whether college graduate or day laborer, each gave a loyalty and zeal that took no note of times or seasons. A fine lot of men whom I am proud to have known."
At the time of these experiments, the Outer Banks of North Carolina were known as "the graveyard of the Atlantic" because of the large number of vessels lost along its shores. At the close of this article, Pickells notes that when Fessenden was leaving the area in 1902, a local storm sank four schooners, with the loss of twenty lives. But by the time this article appeared in 1913, the pioneering work in which Pickells and the others had participated had helped to make the sea much safer. A couple of years after Fessenden's Outer Banks experiments, American DeForest -- which later became United Wireless -- set up coastal station "HA" at Cape Hatteras, which was still in operation at the time this article appeared. Because of radio, mariners now had a much better chance to avoid storms, or be rescued if they got in trouble.
Modern Electrics, December, 1913, pages 954-957:
Early Experiences In Wireless Telegraphy
By Alfred C. Pickells
U. S. Radio Inspector.
TO be a radio experimenter of the present day means that one has to be fairly well posted in three laboratories: the physical, electrical and chemical.
But what did it mean in the early days? The first necessary qualification was that of electrical engineering; the next, a knowledge of gasoline engines. Then he had to be somewhat of a chemist, a draftsman, and he had to be capable of not only handling the pick and shovel, but to raise a mast and place the guys at the places of greatest strain. More than that, he had to be capable of rigging the aerial and to build rough houses beneath it for the operating station. In other words, he had to be an all-round man.
Work is necessary in the development of any science, but what was encountered in raising radio communication from infancy was hard labor. Moreover, eight-tenths of the experiments had to be conducted in the open air under all weather conditions. It meant not labor alone, but labor combined with hardship.
When radio communication began to toddle on its feet Professor R. A. Fessenden began his struggles in the haze which surrounded the secrets of much needed apparatus. There were six assistants associated with him and an unlimited supply of developing material from picks and shovels to the most sensitive electrical measuring instruments.
The experiments were begun at Rock Point, Md., in 1900. Five hundred yards were covered with the apparatus already in use, so that the greater distances required for new apparatus and the secrecy desired for protection until their completion caused their removal to Roanoke Island, N. C.
The trip on a small two-masted schooner, light enough in draught to ply the waters of Albemarle Sound, began one day in October and ended one night in November on a sand bar about two miles north of Roanoke Island. A stiff "nor'easter" had caught the vessel in the middle of Albemarle Sound. Were it not for the cargo, which was composed of some fine electrical apparatus, the party might have weathered the gale comfortably until morning, but shortly after midnight water began to seep into the hold.
Coming out of a warm cabin in the early hours of the morning, with the wind and spray howling about one's ears at a temperature of 38 degrees, is what might be called a hardship. It was the first that this scientific corps had encountered. But water and induction coils especially were not built to agree, and while the schooner lay on an even keel we, wet and cold, rigged slings on the fore and main throat halliards and hoisted the coils to a point where each would escape the action of the spray. It was perhaps the only way by which they were saved.
While the masts were being raised on Roanoke Island another portion of the corps began building the laboratories and operating station. They had to set foundations for the engines and dynamos, as well as align them after mounting them. Afterwards came the rigging. What was considered the most efficient antenna at that time was the vertical, so that the rigging of the mast consisted of a gaff with throat and peak halliards. Last came the task of placing the ground. It required four men digging six hours in loose sand to place the great copper plates that were used, but we were hunting for the ideal ground and found it.
The first test made was a try-out for distance between Roanoke Island and Cape Henry, a distance of 110 miles. In order to reach Cape Henry the testing party had to drive seven miles up the beach from the point where they left the train in the teeth of a 48-mile northwest wind at a temperature of 25 degrees. The results were frosted hands when most of us reached the shelter of the lighthouse keeper's residence at the Cape, and a delay of a day in which to thaw them out.
Nothing but the old coherers was used at that time, but all known combinations of filings were tried and for two whole days we "listened in." There were no results but an occasional rattle. Static was little known then, but it was considered that some of the signals might have come that far. It was a sort of balm, at least, for the freezing we received while riding up the beach.
A few months after the erection of the laboratory on Roanoke Island, Professor Fessenden tried the experiment of using a substance which decreased its resistance with increase of heat to detect the collected waves on the aerial in place of the coherer, and in order to make this type of detector very sensitive he used the finest platinum wire obtainable. This, however, is only manufactured with a silver coating which counteracted the efforts of the platinum to detect the waves.
It was finally decided to take the silver coating off by chemical decomposition. But to find the acid which would best produce these results without destroying the platinum was a matter of searching around by experiment.
A score or more of these experiments were made with various acids and combinations, and it was while trying these that one of the test tubes exploded and burst a two-quart bottle of 100 per cent. sulphuric acid. One of the experimenters, standing with his back near the table, received the full charge of the acid on his trousers from the waist down, and in a few seconds they became a brilliant red.
Only quick action, with a solution of water and ammonia, saved this young man's flesh from the waist to his feet, but that portion of his trousers was cut out as clean as though with a knife and he was compelled to return to his boarding house with two great patches of burlap.
The first test conducted between Roanoke Island and Hatteras occurred in March, 1901, immediately after the barreter, or detector, had been completed. As it was then made, this little detector was crude, being composed of a minute loop of platinum wire mounted on two small copper plates which were fastened to a hard rubber base. The terminal wires lead from this base and the whole apparatus was enclosed in a brass case.
On this first test many of the loops were burned out by static as fast as they were inserted in the aerial circuit, but signals from a 12-inch coil at Roanoke Island came in clear on days when static did not interfere.
The second part of the test consisted of sending "D's" every fifteen seconds for three days with various combinations of spark points. First, two points were used, then two balls, then two discs, followed by combinations of these. More radiation was developed between the ball and disc than between any other combination.
In order to do away with the sparking vibrator, due to forcing a heavy current suddenly through the primary circuit, a relay connected with the key was used to move one electrode of the gap to the sparking position while the vibrator kept constantly at work. It gave excellent results.
One of the objects of these tests was to develop a greater current at the receiving station with a smaller amount of energy at the sending station than was generally employed at that time, and one of the greatest details to be considered was the capacity of the aerial. When the Hatteras party returned to Roanoke Island they were set to work on the construction of several types and sizes of aerials.
Herein, also, came more hardships. The laboratory was located on the weather shore for that time of the year and for a week or more a cold biting wind blew steadily from the north. But weather conditions were no hindrance. In measuring the capacity of the different aerials we rigged up a bridge method, using instead of the galvanometer a vibrator composed of a mandolin string with a pair of head phones. One variable capacity and the aerial to be measured made up one side, while a fixed resistance and a variable resistance made up the other side of the bridge.
The first aerial measured was a cylinder 6 feet in diameter and 170 feet long, using eight wires of No. 10 gauge. The same design was used with Nos. 8, 6 and 4 wire. Another cylinder 14 feet in diameter was also tried with the same sizes of wire.
The next design was the fan aerial using the five different sizes of wire. Finally a single wire using the same sizes was tried, then two wires, and so on up to ten. When it is considered that these parallel wire aerials were tried with varying distances between the wires, one can realize the number of hauls that were made. It required twelve days to make these measurements and tabulate the results, because it was necessary to stop every half hour or so and thaw out frozen hands. Altogether, there were 125 tests made, which also meant that those aerials had to be hauled up and down 180 feet the same number of times. The results indicated that six wires in parallel of the largest size and about six feet apart was the combination which possessed the largest capacity.
In the latter part of April preparations were made for an official test of the system as it stood by the representatives of the Army and Navy. As most of the apparatus was already at Hatteras, the schooner took only the four men necessary to put the station in readiness. They left Roanoke Island at noon with a brisk southwest wind blowing, but once out in the sound it grew stronger, until toward late afternoon it had increased to a gale. This meant a lay-in for harbor for the night at an abandoned fishing camp across the sound on the mainland.
While lying at anchor two of the party went ashore for fresh water. A spring lay within fifty yards of the shore, but they had not gone far before they were stopped by the warning of a rattler. Glancing up the path they sighted the gray and white spots of a snake large enough to make them decide that the schooner water was as good as spring water and they returned without it.
Before the Army and Navy party arrived a test message with 127 words in the check was sent to Roanoke Island and was received without a break. The same results were obtained by the Army and Navy party until static conditions arose and prevented further tests. One of the facts noted, however, was that the Morse operators from the Signal Corps, who had never handled the wireless key before or heard the buzz in a wireless receiver, worked the system at the rate of about 30 words a minute with but little trouble.
Static at Hatteras is perhaps worse than at any other place in the United States during the spring season, and at midday it prevented any work at all. Two incidents happened during that time to make us wonder at the physiological effect of static.
As stated before, the apparatus was only temporarily set up in all test work, so that when the party left the station at night a ground wire was connected with a double connector to the aerial. This had apparently worked out one night, for the next morning, when one of the men took the lead from the station outlet to connect the aerial, he did not notice that the ground wire had worked out until he was knocked fully six feet. Apparently a charge of great intensity had accumulated on the aerial. The young man was rendered unconscious for several minutes but revived with no treatment other than a little water on his head.
Several hours after that one of the men caught a black snake, measuring five feet, in the engine room, and decided to electrocute it. He tied the head to the aerial, allowing the tail to hang to within two inches of the ground. When he pressed the key and held it down the reptile became stiff. It was supposed that its end had come, but to make sure it was tied to a stake out in the sand. Barely fifteen minutes later the snake was making a circle around the stake in an effort to get away. It was supposed that the heat from the sun and sand revived it.
During the next few months we spent most of the time in improving the construction of barreters. Each test, however, indicated the same weak point; namely, that static played havoc with them because of their delicate structure. Some of them were tried when only half of the silver had been eaten off, with no better results. But these tests perhaps lead the way to one of the most sensitive detectors that has been used in radio work--the electrolytic.
A small test station had been constructed at the south end of Roanoke Island from where signals were sent to the laboratory. One morning the sender at the south end, after making "D's," received the message: "Coming clear and loud. Make words."
At the laboratory, Professor Fessenden had inserted in circuit one of the barreters just taken from the acid solution, and he was surprised to note the clearness and steadiness of the signals, although static was present to some degree. Out of curiosity he took the barreter out and placed it under the microscope. What he saw was that the platinum wire had been broken but both ends were encased in a bubble of acid that had been left on the wire. This lead to further experiments with acid.
During the following winter the stations were abandoned in this section and the experiments moved to the Virginian coast at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. But one incident might be cited which will show the comparison of the days before radio stations were used to warn shipping of storm danger and the present day. Leaving Roanoke Island one morning in February the party which was detailed to close the station at Hatteras were wrecked in a northeast gale on New Inlet bar. They were taken off the vessel toward evening by life savers, but, the gale growing stronger, they were compelled to spend the night at Kinnakeet, a small fishing hamlet on the strip of beach which separates the ocean from Pamlico Sound.
During that night the ocean flooded the beach and entered the Sound. It did not recede until noon of the following day, but the sign it left was enough to convince one that more than one vessel and its crew had met their fate. As it was, four schooners were wrecked and more than twenty lives lost. It so happened, however, that two of the schooners held on until late in the morning and kept their crews safely above water. They could have been saved by help from a vessel.
In these days of radio communication such wrecks, when not reached by the life savers are reported to HA.