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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, February 14, 2010

The Story of the Good Ship Seth Parker

The story of the sailing ship Seth Parker is filled with indecision, controversy, adventure and perhaps even intrigue. In addition, the Seth Parker also provides us with a remarkable glimpse of early radio history during its developing era way back some eighty years ago. There is also an interesting sequel to the story of radio broadcasting on the good ship Seth Parker. It all happened this way.

In the year 1918, a small sailing ship, less than two hundred feet long and weighing only 867 tons, was built in Portland, Oregon for use in hauling lumber along the west coast of North America. It was named the Georgette.

Thirty years later, the young radio entertainer, Phillips Lord, purchased the Georgette, installed a diesel engine, refurbished the vessel luxuriously, and installed a decorative radio station in its decks, all for a total outlay of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. This ship in its new condition was renamed Seth Parker in honor of the main character played by Phillips Lord himself on an NBC network radio drama.

In addition, the Frigidaire company in the United States installed state of the art refrigeration and air conditioning on the vessel, and they supported the project with their advertising. They also printed an attractive advertising booklet in color, giving details about the Seth Parker and its intended round the world voyage.

As part of the publicity campaign associated with the sailing of the Seth Parker, arrangements were made in advance to post attractive envelopes from various exotic ports of call in several different countries. The sale of these envelopes would of course provide additional funding for the entire project.

It was on November 20, 1933, that the Seth Parker set sail from New York Harbor with twenty seven people on board; crew, staff, and radio personnel. In fact, NBC provided a 1 kW shortwave transmitter valued at $12,000 and the engineer to operate it, so that radio broadcasts on shortwave could be fed to the NBC radio network in the United States. The broadcast transmitter was licensed with the callsign KNRA, and an additional low power experimental transmitter on the Seth Parker was licensed as W10XG.

Beginning at Portland Maine, the Seth Parker called in at several ports on the American east coast, and the first known radio broadcast at the beginning of this venture took place on February 13, 1934, at Wilmington, Delaware. Special shortwave broadcasts were made each Tuesday evening from progressive locations down the coast, and out in the Bahamas, and also from Haiti in the Caribbean.

However, controversy had already entered the scene at this stage and NBC ended their contract with Phillips Lord. The reasons for this move are unstated, but rumor would suggest that many unsavory and scandalous events were said to be taking place on board the Seth Parker. NBC in New York even made moves to send staff down to Jamaica to remove their radio station from the ship.

New network broadcasting arrangements were made, and the ship moved on, down to the Panama Canal, and out into the Pacific. A shortwave broadcast was made from the Galapagos Islands; and the final known shortwave broadcast from the Seth Parker was made in February 1935 when it was some three hundred miles from Tahiti.

It was at this stage that additional controversy entered the picture. The Seth Parker supposedly encountered two storms in the Pacific, off the coast of Tahiti, badly damaging the vessel. In fact transmitter KNRA was on the air with an urgent SOS message in April 1935 that was picked up by the maritime station WCC at Chatham in Massachusetts. Chatham Radio forwarded the information onwards to the Pacific and the British Royal Navy was asked to assist.

The Royal Navy vessel, HMAS Australia, was diverted to pick up all nine people now aboard the Seth Parker, but the Australia stated that they had encountered no storms in the area. The Seth Parker was then towed by a tug boat, the Ontario, and brought into Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa.

Soon afterwards, the Seth Parker was sold for use in tuna fishing; and ultimately, it was towed to its resting place in an artificial lagoon near Kane’ohe Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii where it was scuttled in shallow water. At this location, the ship became a tourist attraction where it finally decayed and was demolished.

During its more than a year of spasmodic radio broadcasting, station KNRA on board the Seth Parker in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was logged by multitudes of international radio monitors located in North America and the South Pacific. It is true, these radio broadcasts were intended for relay on the NBC mediumwave network throughout the United States.

However, these relay broadcasts were also heard direct, off air shortwave, from many exotic seaboard locations. Several different shortwave channels were in use, and the corresponding land based stations heard in two way contact with KNRA were the RCA communication facilities located at Rocky Point on Long Island, Bolinas in California, and Kahuku in Hawaii. Additionally, KNRA was also heard on occasions in contact with station LSX in Argentina.

Back in the Seth Parker era, QSL cards, generic in nature, were issued by NBC from their radio building in New York City. These cards are these days a quiet reminder of the short but hectic era of radio broadcasting aboard the now notorious schooner, the Seth Parker.

Oh, and by the way, before we forget. The shortwave transmitter KNRA on board the Seth Parker was rescued by NBC personnel before the ship was sold, and it was integrated with other electronic equipment from another historic shortwave transmitter for use in radio broadcasts in the Pacific and Europe. More about that next week.

In the Air and on the Air with Many Callsigns and Many Locations, NBC SW Transmitter - Part 1

In this feature, we go back to the balloon era some eighty years ago, and we trace the history of a small shortwave transmitter that was on the air, and in the air, under three different callsigns. This is what happened.

Back during the early 1930s, there was a space race on between the United States and Russia to see who could get the highest first. In 1933, plans were implemented to launch a massive high flying balloon somewhere in the United States. This would be a joint project between the National Geographic magazine and the United States army.

The location chosen for launching was near Rapid City in South Dakota, and teams of personnel, civilian and army, made all things in readiness. The balloon when inflated stood at a mind boggling height. There was a strong gondola strung beneath the balloon, and it contained many scientific measuring instruments, as well as an 8 watt shortwave transmitter under the callsign W10XCX.

On July 28, 1934, the launch of the Explorer balloon began with a rapid ascent near Rapid City South Dakota. Progressive observations were radioed on shortwave from W10XCX to a 200 watt station on the ground, W10XCW, for onward relay to shortwave W3XL and W3XAL in New Jersey. There are no known QSL cards verifying these relay broadcasts.

Just before the Explorer reached a new record height, a tear was noted in the fabric of the balloon, and the entire craft began to plummet towards the ground. In good time, the three man crew parachuted to safety, and the gondola crashed to the ground.

Soon afterwards, plans were laid for another balloon flight from the same location with similar equipment and this took place on November 11 in the following year 1935. It would appear that the previously used low powered shortwave transmitter was rescued, repaired and re-installed in the gondola for the next flight. It was still rated at 8 watts and still operating on the same channel, 13050 kHz, though a new callsign was given, W10XFH.

The balloon, re-designated as Explorer 2, was upgraded and fitted with a newly designed and sealed gondola and the strange craft now stood at a staggering height of 315 ft. This second flight proved to be more successful than the earlier flight and they set a new height record at 74,000 feet, a little over fourteen miles high.

During this flight the Explorer 2 personnel talked with ground station W10XFN, and also to the new China Clipper airplane, callsign KHABZ, that was on a test flight in California. Relay broadcasts from the gondola were again carried by the NBC network via their shortwave stations W3XL and W3XAL in New Jersey. NBC in New York issued specific QSL cards for the transmissions from both W10XFH in the air and the 200 watt W10XFN on the ground.

During this same era, Pan American Airways, known better as PanAm, were implementing plans to launch an air service across the Pacific. They procured three Martin seaplanes which they named as China Clipper, Hawaii Clipper, and Manila Clipper, though the first one, China Clipper, became the most famous.

As part of a publicity plan, a shortwave broadcast transmitter was installed on the plane for its inaugural flight across the Pacific. This transmitter was the previously used light weight unit, known as W10XCX and W10XFH for the balloon flights during the past two years, though it was repaired and modified, with a power increase from 8 watts up to 100 watts. A new callsign was allocated, this time WOEH.
The farewell ceremony in Los Angeles for the commencement of the inaugural flight was a gala event. The Captain, with the family name Musick, read a congratulatory letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there was band music, and the usual speeches from participating dignitaries.

The China Clipper flew out of Los Angeles California on Friday afternoon November 22, 1935 with a cargo of postal mail numbering 110,000 items, as well as two personnel from the NBC radio network, an engineer and an announcer. The first leg of the flight was to Honolulu, a journey of two thousand four hundred miles, a flight of eighteen hours, at an air speed of 125 miles per hour.

The first official flight of the China Clipper, from Los Angeles in California to Manila in the Philippines, took almost sixty hours of total flying time, for a distance of more than seven thousand miles. Overnight stops took place at Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam, with the final destination for this historic pioneering flight at Manila.

En route, the transmitter WOEH was in use for progressive radio broadcasts to nearby radio stations. On several occasions, these broadcasts were picked up and relayed back to the United States for network mediumwave coverage. One such broadcast was taken on relay by the RCA communication station located at Kahuku on the northern tip of the island of Oahu.

Other noted broadcasts were made from Midway Island and also Wake Island. As the China Clipper was nearing Manila on this first occasion, the NBC personnel aboard the plane made a broadcast specifically to the well known mediumwave station KZRM in Manila.

During the following year, 1936, the NBC portable shortwave transmitter WOEH was transferred into a Douglas DC plane for a flight to Alaska piloted by the well known aviation entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. Program relays were arranged with the RCA stations at Bolinas in California, KEE on 7715 kHz and KEI on 9490 kHz.

Later in the same year, Howard Hughes made another memorable flight in a low winged monoplane from New York to Paris. With him on this occasion also was the same 100 watt transmitter, WOEH. Relay broadcasts in the United States were arranged through the RCA receiving station located at Riverside on Long Island.

Even though the relay broadcasts from the transmitter WOEH were heard by international radio monitors throughout the United States and in the South Pacific, there are no known QSLs verifying these transmissions.

No, that was not the end of transmitter WOEH. During the next year, 1937, it was incorporated into the electronic equipment of another radio broadcasting station that was on the air in the Pacific and later in Europe. More about that next week.