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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 N296, October 26, 2014

100th Anniversary Panama Canal: The Radio Story - Part 1

Quite recently, we discovered an important anniversary from a couple of months earlier that had escaped our attention. The official opening of the Panama Canal in Central America to shipping traffic occurred on August 15, 1914, and here we are a little over one hundred years later, and we have not yet presented a feature on this important anniversary.

Let us catch up on this highly significant world event; and so here in Wavescan today we present this slightly delayed feature on the story of the Panama Canal, together with part 1 of the radio history in the American administered Panama Canal Zone.

We go back to the beginning, and we discover that the first suggestion for digging a canal across Central America to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans came from the Spanish in the year 1529. Of course, back then technical capability was quite limited and there was no practical way in which this concept could be implemented.

In the year 1821, the Central American colony of Panama broke away from Spain, declared its independence from European control, and joined South American Colombia, which conjoined ultimately emerged as the Republic of New Granada. However, 82 years later, on November 3, 1903, Panama split off from Colombia and thus became an independent nation in its own right.

It was in 1826 that the United States began preliminary negotiations with New Granada for the construction of a canal, though the French actually began construction work on the canal in the territory of Panama a little over half a century later. Just two weeks after Panamanian independence (November 3, 1903), the United States and Panama signed a treaty which established the Panama Canal Zone (November 18).

The Panama Canal Zone was administered as an American territory, and it encompassed 553 square miles in a swathe of jungle territory ten miles wide, plus all of the lakes and waterways that feed into the canal. During its 3/4 century tenure, the Zone issued its own postage stamps, some of which were overprinted Panamanian and American stamps, though the valid currency generally speaking was the American dollar.

Nearly 50,000 men from all around the world were employed in canal construction, large numbers of whom died from poor hygiene, deadly jungle snakes, and a multitude of diseases, including malaria from the mosquito infected jungles. In 1906 alone, 80% of the work force were hospitalized at some time or another for malaria.

Work on the Panama Canal was completed in ten years, and the official opening took place one hundred years ago, on August 15, 1914 when the cargo ship SS "Ancon" traversed the entire system. However, the first ship to traverse the canal was a pleasure boat, the "Lasata," which made an unofficial voyage during the day before.

The highest fee ever paid for the use of the canal was more than 1/3 million dollars by the cruise ship "Norwegian Pearl" in 2010; and the lowest fee ever was paid by American Richard Halliburton who swam the full distance of the canal in 1928. This epic swim took 50 hours of swimming spread out over 10 days and it cost him just 36 cents. These days, more than 30 ships traverse the eight hour journey through the canal each day.

The Panama Canal Zone was taken over by the government of Panama on October 1, 1979 and once again the two sides of Panama were joined together into a single country. The Panama Canal Zone, which, for example, had a population of 45,000 in 1970, was no longer an American territory.

The first wireless station in the Panama Canal Zone was installed by Dr. Lee de Forest for the United States navy near the Atlantic entrance to the canal at Colon in 1906 and it was on the air originally under the callsign SL. The 35 kW longwave spark wireless transmitter operated on 1250 metres, 240 kHz.

A couple of years later, a 100 kW spark transmitter was installed and the callsign was regularized to an American navy callsign NAX. This station was in regular usage up into the 1930s.

The United States navy operated two other wireless stations in the Panama Canal Zone: stations NNL at Coco Solo and NBA at Balboa. The Coco Solo Station was located at a submarine base and it was on the air in the 1920s.

Additionally, the U. S. army also operated half a dozen wireless stations in the Canal Zone, and these were located at army camps and they were on the air under army callsigns, such as:

The two best known wireless/radio stations in the Panama Canal Zone were the navy communication station NBA at Balboa, and the army broadcasting station at Quarry Heights. That is the story next time, when we present part 2 of the story about radio broadcasting in the Panama Canal Zone.