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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, August 2, 2009

World's Oldest Wireless Postcards

As our second major feature in this edition of "Wavescan", we present the story of the World's Oldest Wireless Postcards. You will remember that two weeks ago here in "Wavescan" we gave you the story of the world's very oldest wireless card, and this was a photograph of the wireless pioneer Marconi and it was issued in the year 1901. However, this card was not a postcard and it was quite small, less than a quarter the size of a regular postcard.

Obviously, Marconi was making quite an impact in the world at the turn of the century way back then, because the first known wireless cards after that was a humor card, printed in England. In the picture on this postcard, two ships are talking to each other in Morse Code, and down in the water one fish says to another:  What are they talking about?

Actually, the oldest card we have seen with this picture is postmarked on December 4 in the year 1902; thus this postcard is nearly 107 years old. Even though this postcard was printed in England, yet the postmark is Andover, Maine in the United States.

A second humor card refers to the Marconi wireless transmissions across the Atlantic Ocean, from a station located at Lizard Bluff in England to St John's in Newfoundland. This card shows a Lizard in England talking by wireless to the national black dog in Newfoundland. This card was also printed in England, though it is postmarked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1903.

The Indianapolis collection contains an additional fifteen wireless postcards that are postmarked in the United States more than one hundred years ago, and each features a wireless station in those early years. In fact, each card, usually in color, shows a picture of a wireless station; the building, the antenna towers, and the local scene around the station.

The Marconi Wireless Station located at South Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts was constructed in 1901, and shortly afterwards a winter storm destroyed the tower system. A new antenna system was erected in the following February and the postcard shows the four tall antenna towers located close to the ocean. The rotary spark gap operated at 20,000 volts and the noise could be heard four miles away.

On January 19, 1903, this Marconi station was used for the historic exchange of messages between President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington DC and King Edward 7 in Buckingham Palace London.

Another of these early wireless postcards shows the government wireless station co-located with Highland Lighthouse at the same Cape Cod. This station was built in 1904 for the navy and it was in use for wireless communication with ships at sea. This station was closed in 1943.

Back at this time, the New York Herald realized the usefulness of wireless communication in news gathering and they arranged with the Marconi company in England for the erection of a station at Siasconset, Massachusetts. This station was enlarged, it was destroyed by a fire, and again rebuilt; and in 1912 it was the first wireless station in the United States to respond to the tragic distress signals from the British passenger liner, Titanic. Our postcard of this Siasconset station is postmarked in 1906.

Another early wireless experimenter was Reginald Fessenden from Canada. He established an early wireless station at Brant Rock in Massachusetts in October 1905 for communication with a sister station in Scotland. He succeeded in communicating with his transatlantic facility, but unfortunately, storms destroyed the station in Scotland soon afterwards. Fessenden also transmitted voice and music in addition to Morse Code from his Brant Rock station. The tower was demolished six years later, and today the property is a Trailer Park.

We take a look at two more of these early wireless postcards, and both are postmarked in California, one in 1904 and the other in 1909. These two cards show the very early wireless station located at Avalon on Catalina Island, just off the coast of Los Angeles. This station on the tourist island of Catalina was established for communication with the California mainland.

However, there were so many people in the Los Angeles area who could read Morse Code in those days that eavesdropping proved to be a problem. A few years later, when a cable was laid between Los Angeles and the island, the usage of the wireless station was terminated.

So, you have just heard the story of some of the world's oldest wireless postcards, cards that were printed and postmarked more than one hundred years ago. Next time, we will present the story of some of the world's oldest postcards that were postmarked in other countries.

American Apex Stations

The era of High Fidelity radio stations in the United States was an experimental era that lasted for approximately ten years and it was the forerunner for the now widely accepted FM system. This High Fidelity experimental era was made up of two specific time periods, and two widely different broadcasting bands. Let's go back to the beginning.

See, what happened was this. Back in the early 1930s, reception of radio broadcasting stations in the regular mediumwave band, stretching from 540-1500 kHz as it did in those days, was subject to the problems of static, and long distance coverage at night. In an attempt to correct these problems and to produce a better quality radio signal on the local scene, some radio stations began to experiment with a high fidelity system, which included a wider bandwidth, the usage of higher frequencies, and the installation of a very high antenna system. In this way, it was hoped, there would be less atmospheric and man-made static, and the signal would not be affected so much by the variables associated with day time and night time coverage.

The two bands that were in use were the top end of the mediumwave band stretching from 1510 to 1600 kHz, and very high frequency channels usually in the 9 metre and then the 7 metre shortwave bands. The two time periods were from 1932-1937 before commercially made receivers were available for the Apex band, and then 1937-1942 when commercially made radio receivers incorporating also the high frequency Apex band became available.

The very first station to install a transmitter in the high frequency Apex band was the CBS station, W2XDV, in New York City, which was inaugurated on February 6, 1932. This station emitted just 50 watts and it was on the air experimentally and spasmodically with a relay from the mediumwave station WABC, now identified as WCBS. The transmitter was installed in the CBS headquarters building in Madison Avenue, New York City.

The very first station to commence a regular broadcasting service in the high frequency Apex band was W8XH in Buffalo, New York, with a relay from the well known mediumwave station WBEN. This was in the year 1934. On November 3 in the following year, 1935, the aforementioned W2XDV-WABC introduced a regular broadcasting service on the Apex channel 31600 kHz. In the following year again, 1936, station W9XAZ in Milwaukee Wisconsin was the first Apex station to originate its own specific programming in this High Fidelity broadcast band.

In the year 1937, radio receivers which included the high frequency Apex band began to appear on the American market. One of the most notable of these receivers was manufactured by McMurdo Silver, and they issued innovative advertising to this effect.

At this stage, the FCC allocated a total of 5 MHz band width for Apex broadcasting, and this section of the radio spectrum ran from approximately 41 to 44 MHz. The station lists of this era show that twenty two Apex stations were on the air.

In early 1939, the FCC issued a dozen additional licenses for Apex stations, though around this time they advised radio broadcasting stations in the United States to consider the implementation of the alternative FM system which was far superior to the Apex High Fidelity system.

On June 15, 1940, the FCC issued licenses for three more Apex stations, the last licenses that were ever issued for radio broadcasting in the Apex high frequency band. The last station to leave the Apex band and convert to the new standard FM band is believed to be station WBOE in Cleveland, Ohio and this event occurred in February 1941.

At the height of its popularity in late 1938 and early 1939, there were somewhere around fifty or sixty radio stations nationwide on the air in the Apex High Fidelity high frequency bands. During the ten year period in which Apex broadcasting was in vogue, there was a total of a little more than one hundred different stations on the air at some time during this era.

Many of these stations were heard at a great distance and radio magazines in Australia and New Zealand show that at least thirty of these stations were heard "down under." These stations also issued QSL cards and our records show at least a dozen.

However, at the same time as High Fidelity broadcasting was taking place in the high frequency shortwave bands, a similar attempt at quality radio transmission was taking place at the top end of the mediumwave band, running from 1510 to 1600 kHz. Stations were allocated a wider band width to accommodate higher audio frequencies, and this experimental era began in 1934, just two years subsequent to the launching of experimental High Fidelity broadcasting in the ultra shortwave bands. The first four stations on the air in this section of the spectrum were:

Call kHz City State
W1XBS 1530 Waterbury CT
W2XR 1550 Long Island City NY
W6XAI 1550 Bakersfield CA
W9XBY 1530 Kansas City MO

However, the total number of broadcasting stations in this segment of the electronic spectrum is quite small, maybe just a dozen or so. These stations also issued QSL cards, many of them, to listeners. In fact one station, W9XBY in Kansas City, Missouri, numbered their QSL cards, and we have seen one card with the high serial number 4027.

Now, at the same time as High Fidelity broadcasting was being developed during the 1930s in the twin areas of the electronic spectrum, at the end of the mediumwave band and in the Apex shortwave bands, so also was experimental broadcasting using the FM, Frequency Modulation system. At this stage, the FCC recommended the usage of FM for high quality radio broadcasting.

Thus, in 1940 and 1941, both of the earlier systems were abandoned; High Fidelity in the upper end of the mediumwave band and Apex in the ultra shortwaves. However, if you look at the radio dial of receivers manufactured in the late 1930s, you may still find a radio receiver that tuned one of the Apex bands, a symbol of a bygone era.