Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 38, no. 3 (Fall 1990), p. 36-39
At 9:00 A.M. on August 12, 1901, as many curious Nantucket citizens watched on 'Sconset's Bunker Hill, the signal came in loud and clear.
Siasconset Wireless Stations
By Captain John Lacouture
For years we have been coming to our cottage in 'Sconset near Bunker Hill, the site of America's first permanent wireless station. And, normally, each spring we spend several weeks on the Helford River in Cornwall, England, about twenty miles from the spectacular site on the cliffs at Poldhu where Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first radio signal across the Atlantic. It seems inevitable, therefore, that I should write about the early days of Siasconset's Marconi stations.
This 'Sconset story began in Europe in the late nineteenth century with Marconi's wireless experiments in marine communication, first in his native Italy and then in Great Britain. He installed his equipment on lightships and lighthouses, on British naval vessels and ocean liners, and on shore stations, transmitting and receiving messages which ranged from reports of popular racing regattas to accidents at sea. Impressed by Marconi's accomplishments, Commander John D. J. Kelley, senior writer-manager of the New York Herald, alerted its owner and publisher, James Gordon Bennett, who was also a yachtsman and racing enthusiast, to the usefulness of wireless to newspapers. At Bennett's direction, Marconi put up stations on shore and on two ships to cover the 1899 America's Cup Races in lower New York Harbor. He became a national hero by sending 1200 messages that updated the races' progress, and his success confirmed the Herald's confidence in the potential of wireless communication as a tool of the press.
The news vacuum which had for so long frustrated those on the high seas could now be eliminated. Transatlantic liners could report their position and estimated time of arrival. Their passengers could keep informed of world events and could exchange messages with persons ashore.
The enthusiasm of Kelley and Bennett for using the Marconi system to communicate with ships at sea would move the focus of events closer to Siasconset. As western stations the Herald selected Nantucket Island and, forty-two miles away, South Shoals where Nantucket Lightship was the first point of contact for ocean liners bound for New York City. Crookhaven on the south coast of Ireland became the eastern location.
When Siasconset was chosen as the specific site for a wireless station on Nantucket, Guglielmo Marconi was not present. He had worked continuously since the America's Cup Races to improve transmission distance and reception clarity and was deeply involved in preparing for his most spectacular triumph of transatlantic communication, which linked Poldhu, England, with St. John's, Newfoundland. His representative, W. W. Bradfield, and Commander Kelley selected a lot owned by Samuel Pitman on Bunker Hill behind 'Sconset village as the ideal spot for a marine communication station. They rented the Hussey cottage already on the site to hold the wireless equipment and to house the operators.
Early in August 1901, Antone Perry of New Bedford and a crew of five riggers began construction of the station under the supervision of Commander Kelley. He, in turn, was assisted by Mr. Bradfield, J. C. Lockyer, and E. N. George, all from the Marconi Wireless Company in London. Twenty-five hundred feet of wire arrived on August 3 from New Bedford. Spars for the mast were also built there. The bottom spar—77-1/2 feet of Douglas fir, 18 inches in diameter, weighing 3-1/2 tons—was the largest ever shaped in that historic whaling port. The topmast was white pine—68 feet long, 11-1/2 inches thick, weighing 3/4 ton; and the topgallant mast was 45 feet long, 8 inches thick, weighing 700 pounds.
The spars were so large that the regular Nantucket steamer refused to load them, and the tug Petrel had to be chartered to tow them the seventy miles to the island. The location of Nantucket's wharves and the narrowness of its streets complicated the arduous task of dragging the huge masts, mounted on wheels, to 'Sconset. The largest spar required a team of eight horses. By August 10, forty-eight hours after arrival, all three sections were nevertheless raised in place. The whole procedure caused great interest among Nantucket's permanent residents, and many retired master mariners gathered to watch and advise. The 186-foot mast, located on land 55 feet high, placed the receiving wire 241 feet above sea level. Meanwhile, Bradfield and his assistants were busy in the Hussey cottage erecting the apparatus for the large receivers, the transmitter key, and other equipment. Within twenty-four hours after the mast was in place, the Siasconset wireless station was ready to transmit and receive.
Bradfield and Lockyer along with Perry and the riggers then planned to set out immediately by tug for treacherous South Shoals and Nantucket Lightship No. 66 where they would secure a 45-foot wooden spar to her 60-foot steel mast, rig the cables, and install the wireless equipment. Although they were delayed at Nantucket by a reluctant tugboat skipper and at South Shoals by seasick riggers, Bradfield managed to complete the installation and departed from the lightship on Sunday evening, August 11. He left Lockyer to operate the wireless initially and to train two New York Herald operators. The first test was set up for Monday morning.
At 9:00 a.m. on August 12, 1901, as many curious Nantucket citizens watched on 'Sconset's Bunker Hill, the signal from South Shoals came in loud and clear: three dots and a dash, the letter V in Morse code. "We've got her!" shouted Bradfield, and signals were quickly exchanged. Siasconset's signal, or call sign, was MSC. The first message from station to lightship was: "How are you all? What's doing?, The response from No. 66: "Convalescent thanks. Foghorn going since last night."
News of the successful contact spread throughout the island. Soon, there was a string of visitors at the wireless station, marveling at the flying blue sparks and amazed that it was possible to communicate through space. On Tuesday morning, Margaret Fawcett, the little daughter of well-known actors, George and Percy Haswell Fawcett, raised the Stars and Stripes on the big telegraph staff. Construction personnel and station operators had given her the honor in gratitude to the Fawcetts for their many kindnesses. Those in neighboring cottages followed the example and set their colors in recognition of the event.
In the meantime, the New York Herald built up publicity prior to receiving the first official message from a transatlantic liner. One article trumpeted that the Herald's wireless station on Nantucket Lightship would shorten the Atlantic crossing by one day and that westbound passengers could communicate with the American continent fourteen to sixteen hours earlier. The paper announced that the route of communication from the liner would be first by wireless from the lightship at South Shoals to the 'Sconset station, then by telephone to the Nantucket office of the Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company and finally by telephone to the mainland and the Herald office in New York.
The Cunard liner Lucania, sailing from Liverpool on August 10, was selected as the first transatlantic liner to greet the New World with a wireless message sent from midocean. The Herald flashed: "...[It] is singularly appropriate that the old Cunard company's line...should inaugurate this magnificent achievement of science, genius, and inventive skill." The long ocean voyage would be robbed of the terrors of isolation.
While everyone awaited the much-publicized approach of the Lucania, the first message to reach the Siasconset station actually came on Wednesday evening when the westbound German liner Lahn asked to be reported. On Thursday, a passing tramp steamer made the same request. As Friday, August 16, approached and the Lucania reached transmission range, Commander Kelley of the Herald assigned men to forward messages from the Lucania quickly and sent the lightship a series of latest news bulletins to be transmitted.
Finally, the historic message from Captain Horatio McKay was received at Lightship No. 66, and was transmitted by Marconi operator Lockyer to Siasconset. As Kelley and Bradfield listened and watched breathlessly, operators Tom Tierney and E. Mitchell wrote out the words: "All well on board. We are 237 miles from Sandy Hook. Expect to reach New York Harbor Saturday." Within thirty minutes the Herald office had the story. The first private message from the Lucania was from passenger Carroll Payne to Clark Howell at the Atlanta Constitution: "Homeward bound. Passage rough. Though far from home message sent thanks to the Herald's enterprise."
By midnight, Siasconset station could read Lucania's messages directly, and by 2:45 a.m. there was good two-way communication between the ship and the station. Eight hours elapsed from the initial exchange of signals between Lucania and Lightship No. 66 until the final exchange between 'Sconset and liner. As the passengers of the Lucania disembarked, they received a souvenir issue of the Herald covering the vessel's historic voyage. Copies were sent to 'Sconset and the lightship so that all participants would be able to show their grandchildren the story of the inaugural operations of the first, permanent Marconi system in the United States.
The early novelty of wireless fascinated everyone on board the vessels that were equipped with it. On August 20, 1901, Nantucket Lightship began to relay messages from the North German Lloyd liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse via the 'Sconset station at about 10:30 p.m. For almost three hours, passengers stood outside in a driving rain to get the latest news. Because, in the time available, only a few could send souvenir messages, passengers offered as much as one hundred dollars to be selected.
Although its novelty wore off as more and more ships installed the equipment, wireless communication continued to prove its worth; and 'Sconset station settled down to a busy routine. Its first operators were Mitchell (chief), Fund, and Tierney; once the latter had mastered the system, he was transferred to South Shoals and became the first American assigned to duty as a regular, lightship wireless operator. 'Sconset shifts changed at midnight, 8:00 a.m., and 5:30 p.m., and the busiest period was usually from afternoon to early evening. Messages from New York, including the closing stock market prices, came in for transmission to passing liners. Ships that met in mid Atlantic could exchange messages that were relayed to Siasconset or Crookhaven and received days before the vessel reached its destination.
One of the principal, but unofficial, duties of the 'Sconset wireless station was to provide daily bulletins of the New York Giants' baseball games for the summer citizens of 'Sconset. Today, if one wonders "Why not the Red Sox?", one must remember that these bulletins went to members of the Lambs Club who were largely New York theater people. Whenever there was a game, they gathered at the Ocean View House down the road from the station. If the Giants won, there was much celebration; if they lost, however, the flag was lowered to half-mast, and it was a gloomy night in 'Sconset.
In spite of increasing general, business, and marine communication, the New York Herald did not continue to operate its own wireless stations. Two years after James Gordon Bennett and Commander John D. J. Kelley opened the 'Sconset relay and demonstrated the commercial uses of the wireless telegraph between ship and shore, they sold the Siasconset station to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. Kelley became the firm's treasurer and a member of its board of directors. (I wonder what happened to the station's painted sign, which Henry Paddack had presented to him: it included an owl, the emblem of the Herald, carved by Nantucket artist James Walter Folger.)
The Marconi Company's 'Sconset station became one of the most important in America; but as its work load increased, its facilities were no longer adequate. In 1904, an enlarged, refitted station was moved across the road and two taller wireless poles were erected. In 1907, an overheated exhaust pipe caused a fire that left only the chimneys, the foundation, and the generator standing by the time the chemical fire cart came from town. The structure was rebuilt, and the station's important operations routine continued until the end of World War I.
Over the years, the general public would be reminded of 'Sconset station's vital communication role only in times of marine crisis. On December 10, 1905, for example, Siasconset received the first American distress call. Replacement Nantucket Lightship No. 58, then stationed at South Shoals, had sprung a bad leak and was in danger of foundering. Upon receiving the call HELP (CQD before the days of SOS), 'Sconset alerted the Coast Guard and other ships in the vicinity. The U.S.S. Azalea rushed to the lightship's assistance and arrived just in time to remove the crew before the vessel sank.
On the night of January 23, 1909, two ocean liners collided in dense fog sixty miles south of the Siasconset wireless station. Duty operator Jack Irwin immediately picked up their call for help and flashed messages to all naval stations and incoming vessels. Soon, eight tugs and ocean liners were rushing to the scene where J. P. Morgan's White Star liner S.S. Republic with 750 passengers and crew had been struck broadside amidships by the bow of the Italian liner Florida.
Impeded by the fog, the Baltic was nevertheless first to arrive and found that the Republic was quickly sinking. The Florida, although badly damaged herself, had removed all of the Republic's passengers and crew. The Baltic went alongside the Florida, removed most of her passengers as well as all the Republic personnel, and took them to New York. The Florida eventually made port under tug escort. As a result of this dramatic rescue, Congress passed a law in 1910 that made the installation of wireless mandatory on all American ships carrying more than fifty passengers and crew on routes longer than two hundred miles. This, of course, increased markedly the work load of the Siasconset station.
The wireless heroes of the Republic disaster were its telegraph officer, Jack Binns, and Siasconset station operator Irwin. Binns had transmitted the original CQD to 'Sconset and sent out status reports from the badly damaged, sinking ship almost to the last. Jack Irwin received much credit for alerting rescue operations, but curiously, an act of personal kindness two years before would be of greater historical note than his heroic action in the sinking of the Republic.
In September 1906, through Irwin's help, David Sarnoff, an eighteen-year-old immigrant from Minsk, Russia, became an office boy in the Marconi Company's New York office. By 1908, when Irwin was one of four operators at the 'Sconset station, he had trained Sarnoff to replace him whenever he went to sea on one of the company's ships equipped for Marconi wireless. While living under Oscar Folger's roof in 'Sconset, David studied hard; but who would have thought that one day he would be General Sarnoff, founder and chief executive officer of R.C.A. (Radio Corporation of America)?
During the most famous sea-going disaster of the twentieth century, the Siasconset station played a critical role. Late on the night of April 14, 1912, duty operator Matt Tierney received distress signals from the sinking Titanic. Siasconset was the first mainland wireless station to receive them, and he immediately alerted all other stations of the tragedy.
With the start of World War I, new factors complicated the work of Siasconset station. On September 25, 1914, the government closed it for an alleged violation of neutrality laws. A Navy ensign assigned as censor had reported the violation. The company questioned the legality of this closure but was overruled by the government. On January 17, 1915, the station reopened under Navy supervision, which lasted for the duration of the war. On October 8, 1916, prior to our entry into the conflict, the station picked up, within a period of six hours, the distress signals of six ships, all torpedoed and sunk off Nantucket by one German submarine, the 17-53. Soon after World War I ended, the second Siasconset station closed permanently; but this was not quite the end of wireless communication on Nantucket.
In 1920, the International Wireless Telegraph Company thought a commercial wireless operation was still needed on the island and built a large station just south of Sankaty Golf Club. This third, short-lived station had the latest equipment and could communicate with steamers out to 1800 miles. Placed in operation on October 13, it did a thriving business for a while. For some reason—probably new, competitive communication developments—this last 'Sconset wireless station shut down for good in April 1922.
To commemorate the site of Siasconset's wireless operations and the seventieth anniversary of the reception of the Lucania's historic message, the Nantucket Historical Association erected a plaque outside the Cahoon cottage at Bunker Hill on August 16, 1971. The importance of this "famous first" and the vital services performed are evidenced by the replacement stations maintained in the area over the next several years. The 'Sconset stations deserve to be remembered for the significant role they played in the early years of American wireless communication.