TOC | Previous Section: Chapter XIII | Next Section: Chapter XV
History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired), 1963, pages 187-191:


Early  Navy  Effort  to  Develop  Aircraft  Radio


Lt. George C. Sweet, USN, who as an ensign had witnessed the failure of the Langley flight tests on the Potomac in 1903, is credited with being the first naval officer to fly in an aircraft and to evince interest in aviation as an adjunct to the Navy. His interest came close to being short lived. On 17 September 1908, a demonstration of aircraft was staged from the parade grounds at Fort Myer, Va. Sweet and Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, USA, first aviator of that service, were scheduled to take flights. Selfridge, desiring to take an early afternoon train to New York, requested Sweet to trade flights, to which he acquiesced. The plane crashed, with Selfridge as a passenger, and he was killed. This disaster was sufficient to convince the Secretary of the Navy that the day of naval aviation was not yet at hand, but Sweet, with the backing of Rear Admiral Cowles, Chief of the Bureau of Equipment and brother-in-law of Theodore Roosevelt, recommended the Navy pursue the matter of planning for the utilization, buying, and testing of aircraft.1
    Sweet envisioned an amphibious plane capable of carrying more than one person, and of such design that it could be carried on board ship and launched therefrom for scouting. A minimum speed of "at least 40 miles an hour appeared to be a requirement and it should be capable of hovering, if such could be accomplished. A radio installation was essential." He felt that in the then existing state of "aeroitation," as he termed it, these requirements were entirely practical, and he foresaw the great contribution radio-equipped aircraft could make to the scouting powers of a fleet and as a protection against enemy attack. Additionally, he stressed the point that since underwater minefields had been detected from the air, why could not approaching submarines be detected in the same manner? In a rather convincing letter he recommended that the Navy obtain planes meeting the above mentioned requirements, place them in the hands of its own personnel, and train them as rapidly as possible. In the last paragraph of his letter he noted:
Attention is invited to the great encouragement being given to inventors of like apparatus abroad, particularly in Germany and France. It is believed that the Department should not be behind in this, as the most practicable flying-machine at present is the invention of a citizen of the United States, and it would seem advisable to lead other navies in this as in the past had been done in other features.2
    Sweet's letter was referred to the General Board of the Navy, of which Dewey was the president. The latter's interest was aroused and he recommended that the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Steam Engineering consider the problem of providing space for aircraft in the plans for a new scouting vessel. Although this recommendation was not approved, it did lead to the establishment of an elementary aeronautical organization in the Navy Department. Little encouragement was manifested in the idea of which one admiral remarked, "Why waste the time of the General Board on wildcat schemes?"3 The failures of the Langley and Selfridge flights were not easily forgotten. However, the Wright Brothers had succeeded in meeting U.S. Army requirements and sold the War Department one plane in August 1909.4 In the spring of 1910, followed the occasion of his successful flight from Albany to New York, for which he was awarded the New York World's $10,000 prize, Mr. Glen Curtiss announced in a speech in New York City, "The battles of the future will be fought in the air."5 During the last few days of June 1910, Curtiss gave an exhibition of "bombing" floating objects on Lake Kueka, near Hammondsport, N.Y. This had been arranged by the New York World.6 Dropping short lengths of lead pipe from altitudes ranging from about 300 to 900 feet, he finally succeeded, on the second day of the tests, in scoring hits on a 90- by 500-foot target simulating a dreadnought. While these demonstrations served to emphasize the shortcomings of aircraft to many of the military observers, the World became critical of the Navy and in its editorials deplored its willingness ". . . to squander $18 million for one battleship when there is already in existence a $5,000 flying machine capable of carrying enough brains, brawn, grit and nitroglycerine to send it to the bottom in an instant."7
    The remarks of the World's correspondent concerning the above demonstration are of special interest in demonstrating the opinions then held:
To the official observers the test demonstrated two important points:
    First--That no aeroplane can be made into an efficient war machine unless it is fitted for carrying two persons--one to act as pilot and attend the motor, the other to act as gunner.
    Second--That the dropping of projectiles is a waste of ammunition and that a prime necessity is a gun that can be aimed from overhead and which can carry its missile straight at the target.8
    Worldwide interest of both civilians and military personnel was aroused and greater support for aviation in the Navy was obtained, when on 14 November 1910 Eugene Ely, a member of the U.S. Naval Aeronautical Reserve and a former pilot of the Curtiss Co., successfully launched a landplane from an 83' X 24' temporary "flight deck," erected on the forecastle of the U.S.S. Birmingham, and landed on the broad sandy beach of Willoughby Spit, Va., after a flight of 2½ miles. This was the first flight launched from a ship.9


Following numerous other successful tests, Capt. W. I. Chambers, USN, who had been assigned the duty of watching aviation developments, persuaded the Secretary of the Navy to request the House Committee on Naval Affairs to recommend an appropriation of $25,000 for the purchase of the Navy's first planes. The act of March 4, 1911 provided this sum, and the Navy purchased two land planes, a Curtiss and a Wright, and a Curtiss "Triad" amphibian.10 Clauses in the contracts provided that the firms train a pilot and a mechanic for each plane. Lt. John Rodgers, USN, scion of one of the most famous lines of American seamen, was selected to report for training at the Wright plant in Dayton, Ohio. Lt. John H. Towers, USN, later to become Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics during World War II, joined Lt. Theodore L. Ellyson, USN, at the Curtiss plant in Hammondsport.11
    The Navy's first aviator was Ellyson. In July 1911 he qualified as a licensed pilot under the rules of the Aero Club of America. Rodgers and Towers qualified in August and September respectively. The three planes were delivered in October.12


As envisioned by Sweet, the early naval uses of aircraft were for spotting the fall of shot and for increasing the scouting ranges of ships. Both of these activities required the use of radio for the attainment of maximum results. Consequently, with the delivery of the aircraft, work was immediately commenced to adapt radio equipment for fitting into them.
    The equipment used in the earliest attempt consisted of the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co.'s IP76 receiver and a transmitter which used a Ford spark coil, connected to a short trailing wire and to the fuselage and guy wires of the plane. The operator of this equipment was an electrician named Range. It was powered by a small storage battery to which Rodgers objected very strenuously because of its weight. This equipment did not prove successful.13 Following this, the task was assigned to Ens. Charles H. Maddox,14 USN.
    Although not an aviator, he was a radio enthusiast and was keenly interested in its application to aircraft. He not only designed, developed, and installed the apparatus, but also operated the first successful set in an airborne aircraft.15
    For his radio experiment, Rodgers selected the Wright plane which was built of wood, fabric covered, with many wires and fittings holding it together, and fitted with pontoon floats. It was a pusher with a 32-horsepower engine and chain-driven counter-rotating wooden propellers, which Rodgers referred to as the "Flying Windmill."
    The generator which provided the radio set with power was designed to be light and driven in such a manner that it would not interfere in any way with the safe and efficient working of the aircraft engine. It was mounted on the lower wing and driven from the flywheel of the four-cylinder airplane engine by a leather belt. The antenna system was designed to be capable of radiating freely, to avoid possibility of creating a short circuit, to be properly tuned while on the ground and not require further adjustment when airborne. The original idea was to use a fine trailing wire but Rodgers objected to its dangling. The system finally devised consisted of four flexible stranded copper wires spread under each of the wings and secured to bamboo spreaders 8 feet long, made of fishing poles bought at a fish market in Annapolis. Being limited to a total weight of 40 pounds for the radio apparatus, Maddox was presented with a difficult design problem. The set, which was a modification of Navy equipment, consisted of a 250-watt 500-cycle self-excited generator and transmitter with a quenched gap. It was contained in a small case and mounted just behind the copilot's seat, which was simply a board on the lower wing. Maddox stated that "one sat on the lower wing like riding on a duck's back." The receiver, which consisted of a crystal detector and magnetic amplifier, was contained in a small wooden case measuring about 3"X7"X9" This was an experimental design built by the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co. It was suspended from a sling around the operator's neck. Ordinary headphones were used, over which Maddox wore a tight-fitting, soft leather helmet. A double-pole, double-throw, send-receive switch was attached to a strut within reach of the operator.16
    During the tests Maddox sat beside Rodgers with the telegraph key and the hotwire ammeter strapped to his right and left legs and a screwdriver and monkey wrench in his hands. The wrench could be laid down behind him on the wing because it was heavy enough not to blow off. These tools were kept handy to tighten up bolts, nuts and screws of the engine casing that frequently worked loose from vibration. He related that on one occasion while sending signals, he received a poke in the ribs from Rodgers who had just heard a ping, which meant that a nut had come off a bolt on the engine and nicked the propeller. So great was the vibration in the air that as a result of numerous overhauls and the resulting badly worn nuts, it was not unusual for one to come off.17
    During the tests only very strong signals emitted by nearby stations could be heard above the engine and ignition noises and the vibration of the plane. On 26 July 1912, at an altitude of 300 feet, Maddox succeeded in transmitting, "We are off the water, going ahead full speed on a course for the Naval Academy," which was received by the U.S.S. Stringham over a distance of 3 nautical miles. Later in the tests the transmissions of the aircraft were received at distances up to 15 miles by both the torpedo boat and by the Naval Academy radio station.18 Maddox wrote, "These were the first radio messages ever received from an airplane radio transmitting set in the United States and probably in the world. Elated, Chambers had visions of ranges of 50 miles and talked of 'no more homing pigeons.' "19
    Maddox's pioneer set, an ingenious and notable first step, was the beginning of future efforts to provide reliable and efficient aircraft radio communication. His work was but little appreciated at the time for it was not until 22 years later, as a result of action instigated by Hooper, that he received a letter of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy in recognition of his work.20
    Following this, however, little was accomplished in improving aircraft radio until 1915 and then only under the pressure of necessity. Radio was not then popular with aviators who generally considered the additional weight a handicap to safety and its utilization an undesirable personal burden.

    1 Archibald D. Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord, "History of United States Naval Aviation" (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1949), pp. 4-5.
    2 Ibid.
    3 Ibid., p. 16.
    4 S. C. Hooper, "Navy History--Radio, Radar Sonar," transcript of recordings, Office of Naval History, Washington, D.C., p. 194.
    5 Tumbull and Lord, op. cit., p. 6.
    6 New York World, 1 July 1910, p. 1.
    7 Harold Blains Miller, "Navy Wings," (Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1957), p. 55.
    8 New York World, 1 July 1910, p. 1.
    9 Turnbull and Lord, op. cit., p. 11.
    10 Ibid., p. 17.
    11 Miller, op. cit., p. 90.
    12 Ibid., p. 97.
    13 A. Hoyt Taylor, "Radio Reminiscences: A Half Century," (Office of Naval Research, Washington, D. C.), pp. 110-111.
    14 Maddox was born in Canada and appointed a midshipman from Pennsylvania. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1909. As a boy he had been much interested in electrical subjects, especially telegraphy and telephony, and like Hooper, had learned Morse telegraph code well enough qualify as a "fairly proficient operator." His first connection with radio in the Navy came in summer of 1908, when as a midshipman on the old cruiser Chicago, he had been detailed to the ship's radio room. This experience gave him an opportunity to learn practical operation of a radio station, of which he wrote "I took full advantage, especially the opportunity of surreptitiously sending personal messages of greeting to other midshipmen throughout the fleet," and "In those early days wireless telegraphy was a deep mystery in the Navy to all but a very few." After graduation from the Naval Academy in 1909 he was ordered to the battleship Ohio, and about 6 months later to the newly finished battleship Michigan. Early in 1911 he was on torpedo boat Bailey, which, with torpedo boat Stringham, was detailed to special duty in connection with radio transmission tests. Experimental work undertaken by these two ships was directly under his supervision. Prior to this duty Maddox spent several weeks under instruction at the U.S. Naval Radio Laboratory in Washington. While still attached to the Stringham he was assigned additional duty with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet to assist in the calibration of ships' transmitters in order that they might carry out the Navy's initial radio frequency plan and to observe results of use of radio as prescribed by "Target Practice Instructions, 1912." In February 1912 he was sent by the Navy Department to the Graduate School of Applied Science at Harvard University, where a course in "wireless" was being offered. There he studied theory of radio under Prof. George W. Pierce. Maddox was the first U.S. naval officer to receive postgraduate training in this subject and acquired a high reputation in this field. During the summer vacation of 1912, between semesters, he was ordered to the U.S. Navy Experiment Station, Annapolis, Md., for the purpose of investigating practicability of applying radio to an airplane. The Navy's air arm then consisted of the three aircraft previously noted, which were housed in canvas tents on the shores of the Severn River across from the Naval Academy. It was while at the Experiment Station, that, in July, he developed the Navy's first successful aircraft radio set. Maddox retired as a captain on 1 June 1946. (Encl. to letter, dated 29 May 1939, C. H. Maddox to George H. Clark, Department of Information, Radio Corp. of America, New York, N.Y., entitled "Memorandum for Mr. G. H. Clark, RCA, New York.")
    15 Hooper, op. cit., p. 184.
    16 Hooper, op. cit., pp. 187-189.
    17 Ibid., P. 189.
    18 A. Hoyt Taylor, op. cit., p. 110; Hooper, op. cit., p. 190; Maddox, op. cit., p. 6.
    19 Turnbull and Lord, op. cit., p. 25.
    20 Hooper, op. cit., p. 190.
TOC | Previous Section: Chapter XIII | Next Section: Chapter XV