ARRL

Chatham Marconi Maritime Center

Terence, Hall, K6MA


If your summer travels take you near the Cape, visit Chatham for a dose of radio history.


The year is 1914 and Guglielmo Marconi has just built his third of a five circuit wireless network connecting America with Japan and Europe at Ryder’s Cove in Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Just imagine being transported back to this exciting time almost 100 years ago when Marconi was still building his reputation as a pioneer of wireless telegraphy.

To experience some of this excitement visit the new Chatham Marconi Maritime Center (CMMC) in Chatham, Massachusetts. The museum is housed in the original buildings built for Marconi and serve as the showplace for many of the authentic devices and antennas from that era. Feel the thrill of being on the cutting edge of this new science, experimenting with new antennas and pushing the fledgling electronics technology to its limit.

Outside, the original antenna field, now covering 13 acres (out of the original 18-19 acres), is still very visible and is being adapted to Amateur Radio. The site of the museum, still with all of the original brick buildings, is the actual site on which Marconi built one of his radio communication centers.

From the early stages of planning this museum, 8 years ago, the inclusion of an Amateur Radio “shack” was discussed enthusiastically as a necessary ingredient. As a result, the museum incorporates a dedicated room serving as a “ham shack” for the local ham radio club. Efforts are underway to modify the original antenna designs to work on the amateur bands in addition to installing donated modern antennas. The call sign for the museum ham club is: WA1WCC. It is licensed to the Chatham WCC Radio Club. In addition to putting in lots of volunteer work, all of the modern equipment in the shack was donated by hams.

Many people, including local hams, volunteered countless hours to renovate the buildings and equipment that are on display. Some of the equipment inside the museum includes: a direction finding antenna, a ship radio, an HRO Navy radio (with plug in coils), a diorama of the site, a remote transmitting station control panel, a radioteletype operating station, a Morse code exhibit and, of course, some vintage and modern Amateur Radio equipment.

The official preview opening date was  August 1, 2010. I was there the week prior on vacation and through the generosity of the museum personnel (Vice President Frank Messina and Communications Chair Roz Coleman) I was able to “sneak” in on the afternoon of Friday July 30 while they were still preparing for the opening. Rob Leiden, K1UI (a museum director) graciously spent considerable time with me as my host and guide both inside the museum and walking the antenna field. I wish to thank Rob for his time and knowledge as he was under great pressure to get everything ready for the opening.

Elbow in the Sea

The town of Chatham is on the “elbow” of Cape Cod and thus has ocean on three sides, making it a perfect place to communicate to ships at sea. In 1914, Marconi constructed the now famous campus on Ryder’s Cove (site of the museum) in Chatham as Circuit 3 of a five circuit wireless network to communicate with the towns of Naerboe and Stavanger in Norway. Chatham was the controlling location where a highly sensitive receiving station was built and from here the 300,000 W spark transmitter 32 miles to the west in Marion was remotely operated.

The site was called the Marconi Station, call sign: WCC. (Note: currently WCC is assigned to a Maryland station, owned by Globe Wireless, to transmit automated e-mail-by-radio.) Each ship would listen on a prearranged frequency for their call sign and then switch to another prearranged frequency to receive their Morse code traffic.

During World War II Chatham WCC was an important link in the intelligence chain and Chatham Navy Radio Commander John McKnight said: “You may never know the outcome of your work, however it is really working and the U-boats are disappearing fast.”

Maritime wireless communication flourished here at Chatham Radio WCC, one of the 20th century’s premier wireless telegraphy stations from 1920-1993. Worldwide wireless communication operated 24/7 during those years, except for one period.

In 1938 there was a severe hurricane. Storm damage prevented telephone communication between the Marconi site and RCA in New York City. The Amateur Radio operators working within the National Traffic System stepped in and relayed message traffic to and from RCA headquarters for several weeks until telephone communications were restored. If it were not for the hams there would have been no communication possible to the ships at sea.

Station History

In 1914, Marconi sought a more permanent solution to his weather-induced radio station woes on Cape Cod. The Wellfleet location (some 24 miles to the North on Cape Cod), built in 1903, was too close to shore and was continuously pounded by passing storms causing tremendous damage. The erosion and wind damage suffered by Marconi’s first Cape Cod station continues to this day. Almost the entire structure of the historic station is now long gone over the cliffs onto the beach and into the waters of the Atlantic below.

Marconi realized that a commercial operation required a location that was farther inland and somewhat sheltered. So it was that the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America built a new receiver station in Chatham in 1914 and its companion transmitter site 32 miles to the west in Marion, Massachusetts. In 1948 the transmitter site was moved to Forest Road Beach in South Chatham, Massachusetts, where the tower bases can still be seen.

In November 1919, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America sold all its patents to the newly created Radio Corporation of America (a consortium of GE, Westinghouse and United Fruit) at the request of the US Navy.

RCA, after acquiring this station from the Marconi Corporation, initiated operation as a point-to-point station communicating with Norway but soon recommissioned the station as a more lucrative commercial ship-to-shore station. It eventually became the busiest ship-to-shore station in this hemisphere, and possibly worldwide, as it was sufficiently sensitive to hear ship messages from around the world.

In 1917, it was occupied by the US Navy to be used as an experimental antenna testing location and also as a backup to the Belmar New Jersey listening station. Unfortunately, just a mile to the east, the WWI Chatham Naval Air Station was operating, communicating with the patrolling blimps and seaplanes, and was generating signals that interfered with the Chatham WCC listening station. Originally the transmitter for WCC was in Marion to prevent interference but in 1948 it was moved to Forest Beach in South Chatham.

In 1988, RCA sold WCC to MCI Communications as part of the breakup of RCA. In March 1993, WCC became a remotely controlled station using fiber optic cable to receive and transmit signals, and issue commands such as rotating WCC’s directional antennas. Even the keying of Morse code (CW) and Radioteletype (RTTY) was issued remotely. WCC was operated from KPH Radio in Point Reyes, California until its closing later that year.

Chatham’s Antennas

None of the original six-mast, 1 mile long, 400 foot high antenna remains. Built in 1914, five of the masts were removed in 1919 and the final mast in 1956.

The Navy built a pair of orthogonal goniometer coupled loop antennas [a device for determining the bearing to a radio signal source. Ed.] during WWI. At the time these were state-of-the-art and remained in use until the early 1930s.

One of the first commercial applications of the Bell Laboratories huge rhombic antennas was made at WCC in 1930 as the parent company of Bell Labs, AT&T, was a major owner of RCA, which now owned the station. The largest rhombic, built by the Navy, was designed to listen to transmissions from Berlin.

There were six rhombic antennas of various sizes for most of the HF spectrum constructed on the site; all of them were quite large. There is a model of the original site inside the museum that illustrates the scale of the antennas relative to the original buildings that still exist.

The antenna field is huge covering 13 acres with many towers and poles spread about. Two of the antennas were originally at 9.8 and 21 MHz. Both these were close enough to the amateur bands (30 and 15 meters) to be used by the radio club but may be too far away from the radio room to be restored as operating antennas. Restoring some of the smaller rhombics closer to the museum station is a goal of the station operators.

During my visit Rob, K1UI, had just completed the hookups to a 40 meter dipole and made a test run, pumping out 2 kW. He worked a station briefly but something was not quite right with his transmission so troubleshooting began. (Turns out 2 kW and RG-8X just don’t mix!) At this point, I thought it best to leave so that Rob could figure out what the anomaly was without my interference.

I took many photographs and plan on visiting there each time we go the Cape as my wife and I own a second home in Chatham. So at least a couple of visits a year will be made for updates and offers of some of my time to volunteer with the work needed to complete and maintain the ham radio facility there.

The station was the subject of the Mooncusser Films documentary Chatham Radio: WCC the Untold Story, narrated by the late Walter Cronkite, KB2GS (SK), and directed by Christopher Seufert; CMMC visitors may view portions of the film.

Historic Contacts

1928 communication with Richard E. Byrd’s first South Pole expedition

1929 communication with the Graf Zeppelin during the first around-the-world trip by air

1933 sends weather information to Charles Lindbergh

1937 possible last communication with the Hindenburg prior to explosion

1961 communication with Santa Maria (call sign CSAL) during hijacking

Acknowledgments

I would like to extend my grateful thanks to Rob Leiden, K1UI, for his time, knowledge and editing assistance in helping to produce this article and also to the CMMC for allowing me to intrude prior to the official opening.


Photos by Terence Hall, K6MA.

Terry (Terence) Hall, K6MA, an ARRL® member, is originally from Cheshire, England. He graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1964 and immigrated to the US in 1966 at the age of 23. Terry cofounded an engineering company in 1969 and codesigned the Mk 75 antisubmarine warfare system. He had an active electronics consulting business in addition to working full time at Hughes Aircraft Company. His final 28 years in the aerospace industry were at Northrop Grumman Corporation in El Segundo, California in various management positions.

Terry retired in 2008 and, missing the electronics design process, eventually “discovered” that ham radio can be very technical. For Terry 2010 was a big year. He obtained his Technician class license in April, General class in June (on Field Day) and his Extra class license in October. He has topped it all off by becoming a Volunteer Examiner. Terry can be reached at 16642 Calle Arbolada, Pacific Palisades, CA, 90272-1924, k6ma@arrl.net.