In June, 1904, the American De Forest Radio Company was awarded a contract by the U.S. Navy to build five radiotelegraph stations, to provide communication between Pensacola and Key West, Florida, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. Although the overall goal of continuous communication turned out to be too ambitious, the De Forest installations were reasonably successful. Once of the major discoveries of this work was the intense static audible in the tropics, especially in the summertime.
Radio Broadcast, January, 1925, pages 492-497:

Pioneering  With  De Forest  in  Florida
High  Adventure  with Temperamental  Wireless  When  Forty  Feet  of  Sand  Brought  Failure  Close--Despair,  Expense,  Trouble,  and  Final  Success--How  the  Pensacola  and  Key  West  Navy  Wireless  Stations  Were  Built

Former  Chief  Assistant  to  Dr.  Lee  De Forest

THE erection of five high-powered wireless stations in the South guaranteed to give perfect communication over a distance of one thousand miles was the flattering contract offered Dr. Lee De Forest by the United States Government after he had made his sensational success at the St. Louis World's Fair. Naturally, he was elated at such unqualified endorsement of this success coming from so high a source. And I, having worked with him during every hour of that long and desperate struggle, and having shared with him the final triumph, was equally elated. Pensacola tower base
    The stations were to be built at Pensacola and Key West, Florida; at Guantanamo, Cuba; San Juan, Porto Rico; and Colon, Panama.
    They were to be the first wireless stations ever erected in the tropics. They were to work over a distance two thirds greater than wireless communication had before carried. But what of it? Had we not smashed the world's record at St. Louis? As a preliminary to this stupendous achievement had we not conquered all installation troubles? This Southern job was going to be an easy matter now that we had the St. Louis experience back of us! There was nothing to worry about, even though this time we were working for the Government.
    This was the way we felt the day we started for the South. But, alas!
    That Southern trip, begun in 1905, lasted close to two years. In the exercise of patience and the development of skill it made those gruelling days at St. Louis seem as no more than a preliminary bout before the battle royal.
    It was a battle from the very start. All nature seemed in revolt at our intrusion. She fought us with static overhead. It was fierce, relentless static such as was never heard before with the crude tuning devices at hand. She baffled us by "ground conditions" underneath that taxed to the utmost our perseverance and ingenuity in the effort to conquer them. She pestered us day and night with insects so vicious we grew to think of the mosquito as a friend. But we stuck. And we stuck until we conquered.
What  Dr.  De  Forest  Said  of  the  Author

    "Mr. Butler, is in fact the only surviving member of the "old guard" who is still interested in wireless and who is in a position to lay before the public, in a graphic and interesting manner, a gripping story of those old days and the subsequent development of radio under the De Forest banner. He has just read me the first three installments of a most graphic story of his early days in wireless, recalling a thousand interesting facts which I had forgotten, and in which every radio fan must be intensely interested."

MY FIRST stop was at the Warrington Navy Yard, Pensacola, where I was to have charge of the erection of a two-masted station with a fan antenna. This station was to be of to 10 KW capacity, and although very similar to the St. Louis Fair installation, excelled it in refinements of apparatus and wiring. I had a special letter from Mr. Breckenridge Long, then Secretary of the Navy (under President Roosevelt), requesting all officers to assist us as much as possible in our work, but it was not necessary for me to use it because the navy officers at this yard were always exceedingly courteous and helpful to us in every way.
    For a time I lived at the hotel in Pensacola. But only for a time. As our troubles multiplied I found it necessary to be right on the spot day and night. So I moved down to the wireless station where I slept on a bunk and ate my meals with the "Jack Tars" in their mess hall. It was here among these happy fellows that I learned many things which have proved most helpful to me ever since. They patiently taught me the knack of tying knots and of rope splicing, accomplishments I afterward found most useful in making proper antenna construction. I was allowed access at all times to their machine shop and electrical department, and I had the advantage of their experience with heavy construction work, wind stresses, mathematical formulas, etc. And so, for weeks, all concerned in the erection of the station worked happily, undaunted by nature's enmity, worked with the persistent energy that comes from a surety of ultimate success.
    When the installation was finally completed it had all the aspects of a beautiful job.
    As the day arrived for the initial test, the stage was all set to begin the test signals at 8 P.M. Dr. De Forest was located at Key West, about 400 miles distant. He was notified to listen-in at the appointed time when we were to send out the accustomed "D" test signals. All of the reading instruments on the operating table registered perfectly, the spark across the spark gap was fast and powerful, and there was every indication of a perfect inauguration of service without delay. Pensacola transportation


THE battleship Brooklyn was anchored in the harbor about two miles distant. The wireless operator aboard had been a daily visitor at the station and was interested in the test, so he planned to listen-in that evening. It seemed ridiculous to us that he should listen in on a 10 KW station located only two miles away, but he did. As I started the test I was positive of its success. I sent "D's" for hours, waiting anxiously for a telegram from De Forest at Key West. Nothing came.
    However, at eleven o'clock, the Brooklyn operator came ashore in a launch and reported at the station. He inquired as to why we had not been sending, and added that he "had not heard a peep" from us. The following morning a message was received from Dr. De Forest stating that he had not heard our signals. Every item of the installation was carefully checked over and not a flaw found. A slight change in adjustment was made and the test resumed that evening with the same result. This testing continued week after week with relentless patience and continual changes. Even the large spread fan antenna was taken down, closely inspected and replaced. Jolly Tars
    This "ground" had been considered a good one for the reason that it was made of heavy sheet copper one hundred feet square and buried five feet underground two feet under water, and connected to the spark gap by a four-inch copper bus bar.
    To make sure the ground was all right, we dug up the plate and prepared to sink it deeper into the sea water. To do this it was necessary to construct a cofferdam, and while a force of men shoveled out the sand another crew on each corner operated force pumps to keep out the water so the digging gang could work. It was slow, stubborn work. When a depth of eleven feet had been reached, we were compelled to stop further excavation on account of the increased rush of the incoming water. Then we dropped a new one hundred square feet of copper and buried it, feeling certain it would solve our ground difficulties. That evening we sent "D's" energetically and with renewed confidence in our success.
    It was a staggering blow to receive the following morning the old accustomed telegram from Dr. De Forest, "Heard nothing." This was followed by some suggestions of another change and an admonition to keep up courage.
    That day, when the clouds of despair were at their darkest, an incident occurred which, trivial in itself, was the turning point in our apparently hopeless battle with an unknown trouble.
    It was a drink of water that brought about the idea that solved the Pensacola problem.


WITHIN a few rods of the wireless station was a well from which we obtained our clear, cool drinking water. As I strolled over to the pump to get a drink on this day I met a Navy officer who reached the spot at the same time I did. After the usual greeting, I said: KW station
    "This is fine drinking water. Wonder if it's a drilled well."
    To which he replied:
    "It is. I know because I drilled it."
    "How deep?" I asked, and little realized the tremendous importance of the question.
    "Fifty feet," came the answer. "But," went on the officer, "if I had stopped at forty feet or gone down to sixty feet, I would have had nothing but salt water."
    "How's that?"
    "Well, you see it's this way. This white sand around these parts is about forty feet deep, and below that is a stratum of clay and stone twenty feet thick, and beyond that is an indefinite reach of sand."
    "Ah, I see," was my rather inane comment. But I was too stunned by the idea that had flashed into my mind to carry on the conversation further.
    The idea was that perhaps that white silica sand, the body of which was greater than the thin film of seawater that seeped around it, offered too much resistance or formed a dielectric which prevented a good ground.
    I spent the rest of the day absorbed with this idea. It still had full possession of me when, in the evening. I went to the Western Union office to send a telegram. Before I left I asked the operator what kind of a ground he had. He replied that the ground they used consisted of an iron pipe driven down forty feet, and that rising any less than that produced no electrical results whatever. Palms and wireless at Key West
    That settled it. I was sure the solution of our baffling problem was at hand.
    The following day I bought about six hundred feet of four-inch pipe and engaged men to drive twelve iron pipes each forty-five feet long into the loose, moist sand. These were grouped in a small circle about two feet apart. The twelve tops were joined together with heavy copper cable and a large bus bar run into the spark-gap.
    The evening after this was finished we started sending "D's" promptly at 8 o'clock, and scarcely before I could realize it, the joyful news was received from Dr. De Forest that he had heard the first signals we sent out. To have success so suddenly thrust upon us after weeks of discouraging failures, was indeed a keen pleasure and relief. You radio fans who enjoy making your own sets and revel in the thrill of "hearing results" for the first time, can perhaps appreciate to a degree the sensation that was ours that evening.
    From this time on "PN" worked perfectly, and it was not long before we were heard by distant Northern stations.


COURAGE soared. It was time for another "forward march!"
    Leaving the Pensacola station in charge of the Navy wireless operators, I departed for Key West, overland, by way of Tampa, and thence by steamer. Even if I had not taken a snapshot of it, I should still be able to visualize the primitive engine that went ambling leisurely from Pensacola to Tampa, an engine of the "diamond stack" wood burning type. About every twenty-five miles cords of three foot stove wood were loaded on the tender, to be consumed during the next twenty-five miles with much belching of smoke that, compared to coal smoke, was a grateful odor. Day's Work
    Arriving at the Tampa docks just before noon, I had lunch, after which I found my finances reduced to exactly five cents. My boat ticket included meals, but the boat was not to leave until evening. There was nothing but a railroad yard at the Tampa docks, and the city itself was ten miles distant. So, with insufficient carfare to "go to town" there was nothing to do during the long afternoon but to watch the fish from the dock. It did not occur to me to mourn over being broke, for, during those early days of wireless, being broke was the usual condition with all of us, and being flush meant knowing where next month's rent was coming from. And it was worth it, the fight, the privation, the anxiety. And even if any of us had had it in us to weaken, it would have been impossible with De Forest always at the helm, an inspiring leader.
    I found him at Key West in his wireless station set in the midst of a picturesque tropical grove. Cocoanut, banana, and palm trees completely surrounded the station and the living quarters of the wireless crew. So far as climate and scenery were concerned, this island was an ideal place in which to live. But the restaurants were exceedingly poor. The only appetizing food was rice and hard rolls. Although fish was abundant, no one seemed to know how to cook it.
    When our work was going fairly well (comparatively speaking) we felt rather disturbed about this inadequate food supply. But when trying to solve seemingly unsoluble problems, we scarcely knew whether we ate or not.
    Spread majestically over the trees of the grove that surrounded the station was the huge triangular cage antenna consisting of 45,000 feet of wire, suspended from three equi-distant masts, two hundred feet high. The radio fan who has used seven stranded phosphor bronze wire for antenna purposes knows how stubborn and kinky it is and how difficult to handle. Think, then, of the difficulty of this antenna installation owing to the density of the tree foliage and the prevalence of high winds.
    Many improvements in the wireless apparatus were noted at this station, and the quality of the spark at "KW" (as it was then called) was better than hitherto heard. Most notable of these changes were new ideas in receiving tuning devices. We made a definite endeavor to overcome the incessant static.
    In my diary, under date of April 16, 1905, I find a notation of an experiment we carried on at this Key West station with an incandescent lamp for the purpose of eliminating static. In these tests we used bulbs of various voltages and watts in conjunction with coils and condensers. The results were unique but not definite. PN Pensacola
    This was two years before the famous "audion" bulb was invented by Dr. De Forest. Little did we know how closely we were stumbling at the door of the "wonder lamp" that was destined to revolutionize wireless and make radio broadcasting possible. Had we gone a degree or two farther we might have a different story to tell here.
    Evidently the doctor had become tired of "pump handling" "D" signals as was done at St. Louis, day after day, because here had devised a mechanical contrivance operated by clockwork, which sent out the "dash-dot-dot" "D" signals incessantly, without manual effort.
    My stay at Key West was short, as it was now time to begin operation at Guantanamo, Cuba, where the third station of the group was to be erected. Again, I started forth with high hopes, believing that the worst of my experiences with wireless were behind me. As it turned out I was going straight into a work that called for wholly unforeseen and difficult engineering feats and the most crucial physical endurance test of the entire contract.
    How success was finally accomplished after eleven months of hardships and disappointments is a story in itself which will follow.
(The next article in this series will deal with
the experience of these radio pioneers in Cuba)