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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, March 18, 2012

Radio Broadcasting in Ceylon: The Early Experimental Years

The island of Sri Lanka, or as it was known in earlier times, Ceylon, is described in the encyclopedia as a beautiful island, rich with tropical plant life, and noted for its spices and precious stones. It is a world renowned tourist destination, with its wide tropical beaches and inland mountain scenery, particularly in the high tea country. The very name of this independent island nation betokens its idyllic circumstance; for the two words, Sri Lanka, are taken from the ancient Sanskrit language, meaning Resplendent Land.

Among its many tourist attractions is Sigiriya Rock, which is described by UNESCO as the 8th Wonder of the World. This remarkable rock formation, located almost right in the center of the island, rises abruptly 500 feet above the surrounding plain. Anciently, it was used by a local king as his palace and his capital city. Another major tourist attraction is the annual Perahera Festival in the regional city Kandy, with its parade of ornamented elephants and colorful traditional dancing teams.

The island is 275 miles long and 140 miles wide, and it is described as pear shaped. It is located off the south east coast of sub-continental India, and at their closest points, they are just 20 miles apart.

It is suggested that the first settlers in Ceylon were the early Veddahs, a Dravidian people who migrated in from India. These days, there are still a few small isolated villages where the people are directly descendent from these original inhabitants.

These days, the island of Sri Lanka contains a population of some 20 million people, made up of several varied ethnic groups, including the Singhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers and Malays. The largest language cluster is Singhalese, and according to the historian, this ethnic group arrived in Ceylon from West Bengal in India around the year 543 BC.

In ancient times, the island was known by many different names; to the Greeks, it was Taprobane, to the Arabs it was Serendib, and to the early Hebrews, Ceylon was somehow part of the mystical Land of Ophir. It was visited by the fabled Marco Polo on his return from China in the year 1292. This is how he described Ceylon:

I want you to understand that the island of Ceylon
is, for its size, the finest island in the world,
and from its streams come rubies, sapphires, topaz,
amethyst and garnet.
In the year 1505, Portuguese explorers discovered the island of Ceylon which they called Ceilao, and they established a settlement that has grown to become the largest city, Colombo. One hundred and fifty years later, the Dutch came to Ceylon, and they took over. Then, another 150 years later, the English came, and they took over. In the year 1802, Ceylon was designated a British Crown Colony.

On April 5, 1942, the Japanese made a bombing raid upon Colombo, and a few days later, they returned and bombed the British navy base at Trincomalee on the other side of the island.

The island of Ceylon gained its independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948; and in 1972, the name of the island was officially changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.

Now, from our point of view, we are interested in the radio history on the island of Ceylon, so we go back 99 years to the year 1913. An early wireless list shows that the very first wireless station in Ceylon was established at Colombo, and it was on the air with its spark wireless messages in Morse Code under the callsign CLO.

Subsequently, the callsign was regularized to VPB, when the initial letter V was adopted in all parts of the British Empire in honor of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. This maritime wireless communication station was initially operating from a location a short distance inland from Mt. Lavinia, a little south of the busy trading harbor at Colombo.

During the same era, there was another spark wireless station located at Matara, right at the bottom tip of the island. The actual location of this wireless station was just a little inland, directly north of the town of Matara itself, and it was on the air under the callsign BZE.

The first experimental radio broadcasting station was constructed by Edward Harper, an English resident who was the Chief Engineer of the Telegraph Department. He organized a wireless club under the title Ceylon America Wireless Association, and then he assembled a transmitter using the wireless set taken from a captured German submarine, together with some additional parts found in the Colombo Telegraph store.

This original radio transmitter was on the air as an experiment and it was located in a back room at the Central Telegraph Office in Colombo. It would appear that this low powered composite transmitter assembly radiated on a channel in what we would now call the longwave band.

This initial transmitter was on the air only experimentally and spasmodically and the programming consisted mainly of gramophone records played into the primitive microphone. However, these experiments proved that the concept of radio did work, and that it could therefore become a viable means of communication and entertainment.

Early in the New Year 1924, a new radio transmitter was inaugurated as a radio broadcasting service and it was officially launched on February 22 for the opening of the new YMCA Building in Colombo. Four months later, at 3:30 pm on Friday, June 27, this new station was officially opened as a radio broadcasting service by Sir William Manning, who was the English Governor General at the time.

This upgraded radio broadcasting station was still at the same location, the Central Telegraph Office, and the transmitter power was rated at 1/2 kW. We would suggest that the wavelength was still somewhere in the longwave band.

One month later, broadcasts were on the air somewhat irregularly two or three times a week, with gramophone records, news, weather reports and time signals. At that time, only 24 listener licenses had been issued, but perhaps there were just as many unlicensed listeners, perhaps even more.

And that's where we leave the story of early radio in Ceylon for today, in the year 1924. Two weeks from now here in Wavescan, we will continue this interesting story, when the Coastal Radio Station VPB re-enters the picture.