Before the advent of wireless or “radio”, many ships, crews and cargoes were routinely lost at sea simply because there was no effective way (from a distance) to call for help. Signal flags, lanterns, flares, and rockets all have a limited visual range. The story of Guglielmo Marconi is well-known because he was the first to build a commercially viable and reliable two-way radio system (using Morse code) for use by land and ship stations, and the first to prove these wireless waves could be transmitted and received at incredible distances around the world!
VBA Port Arthur operating position ca. 1914-1918. Canadian Marconi Company / Library and Archives Canada / C-065134.
For many years (since 1902) there was speculation as to when a wireless station would be established at the Lakehead, and it took
local MP James Conmee's hard Ottawa lobbying, but in the summer of 1910, the Marconi Wireless Company of Canada established an experimental
wireless station in Port Arthur, Ontario, based at the Mariaggi Hotel on Cumberland Street (near the current marina). Wireless equipment
was also installed on the lighter (barge) EMPIRE and the famous ice-breaking tug JAMES WHALEN. The tug would tow the barge into Lake
Superior to act as a floating test ship radio stations.
At the end of October, the first Canadian Great Lakes wireless station (callsign
“MUG”) was constructed in the north end of town, on the corner of Dawson and High Streets. It had a 3-section spar mast (54.5m) Marconi
vertical antenna and could easily receive signals from hundreds of kilometres away. Two-way wireless communications were conducted
using the Morse code with very powerful spark-gap (damped wave) transmitters, and the frequency used by MUG and other stations just
happened to be near 500 kHz (600m) and this frequency would later become the Morse code international distress and calling frequency.
spark-gap transmitters generated a very broad (wide-band) signal, often interfering with other nearby coast and ship stations, and
early 20th century transmitters also showered wireless operators with sparks that earned them their nickname. The word "radio" (Latin:
to radiate, beam or shine) entered the English vocabulary and wireless telegraphy soon became radio-telegraphy.
Mr. S. G. Ashley was
the first station superintendent, and the first officer-in-charge (OIC), coming from the Belle Isle station, was 21 year-old John
(Jack) H. Bartlett of the world famous Bartlett family of arctic explorers. The other operators (all men under 30) also hailed from
the east coast, and soon a very distinctive “down east” accent was heard in Port Arthur!
MUG also provided a commercial radio-telegraph service for the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. At 3:15 p.m., 17 December
1910, the mayor of Port Arthur sent the first radio-telegram to the mayor of Duluth:
"Greetings from Port Arthur in first wireless message. We clasp unseen hands across Lake Superior.
I. L. Matthews, Mayor."
Just 10 days before, the newly opened station received the first (by a Canadian Great Lakes station) wireless call for help. The bulk
cargo canal boat SS DUNELM went hard aground near Blake Point (Canoe Rocks), Isle Royale. She didn't have wireless but fired off distress
rockets instead, and these were seen by a following steamer and it made the distress call. The JAMES WHALEN and EMPIRE set out in
a northwest gale to save the crew, and 2 days later brought them safety back to Port Arthur, but the ship and cargo would take 3 weeks
to salvage, aided by constant 2-way wireless communications with MUG.
Bolstered by the DUNELM rescue, in 1912, the Canadian government
began the construction of a chain marine radio stations down to Kingston, Ontario, and in 1913, a new operations building was built
at Port Arthur with a second antenna added using a more powerful transmitter (6,000 watts driven by 70,000 volts). The Department
of Naval Services (DNS) assumed control of the Great Lakes stations, but the staff were trained by and worked for the Marconi Company,
and it ran the stations under a sole-source government contract until the 1950's. The former "Marconi wireless station" now became
known as the “government wireless station”, and was assigned the new international radio call sign “VBA” (as a result of new regulations
resulting from the RMS TITANIC disaster). “V” identified the country, “B” was the Great Lakes region, and “A” recognized its historic
place as the first Canadian Great Lakes marine radio station.
Port Arthur land and ship radio operators (1913) with OIC John Hopkins Bartlett (centre). This composite portrait was created just
before the Marconi station was transferred to the Canadian government. The original print was donated to the Thunder Bay Museum by
Mr. McCuaig (lower right of Mr. Bartlett) and his brother is to the upper left of Mr. Bartlett!
1. In the 19th century, telegraph [railroad] stations (the reason why we call ships "stations") were connected together on one big
party line, and a method to contact any specific station was needed. Unique 2-letter identifiers were adopted by the ITU (International
Telegraph Union) and known as station call letters, call signs, or just call. As the number of stations increased, 3-letter call signs
were adopted (but not internationally regulated). For example: “M” plus two letters denoted either a Marconi coast or ship station.
In the early 20th century, the first ship wireless operators were landline telegraphers who brought those signals and procedures to
sea. One was the signal “CQ” (each character sent separately) used to attract the attention of "all stations" on the line (for daily
time checks, important notices, and general inquiries). The approved ITU (1865) prosign signal CT (sent as one group) was used to
call a specific station and also used as the start of message signal (the underscore should be an overscore but my text editor can't
produce it), but there was no ITU general "all stations" signal, so 19th century telegraphers simply morphed CT into the variant "CQ",
but it wasn't recognized by ITU (now International Telecommunications Union) until 1912 when CT, "CQ", and "QST" (another "all stations"
variant) were used. In 1927, CT was only used as the start of message signal, "CQ" became the only "all stations" and general inquiry
signal, and "QST" was dropped, but Radio Amateurs (Hams) still use it.
3. Because there was no formal international distress signal, the Marconi Company, in circular no. 57 (1904) created one. Quote: It
has been brought to our notice that the call “CQ” (All Stations) while being satisfactory for general purposes, does not sufficiently
express the urgency required in a signal of distress. Therefore, on and after the 1st of February, 1904, the call to be given by ships
in distress, or in any way requiring assistance, shall be “CQD”. End quote. "CQD" simply means "All Stations Distress". In 1905, the
Germans invented the distress signal prosign SOS (it means absolutely nothing and was created because it's a signal nature (atmospheric
static and noise) cannot create in repeating or coherent patterns, and this was especially important given the primitive transmitters
and receivers of the day). SOS became the ONLY international distress signal after the RMS TITANIC disaster (1912).
4. Another direct
result of the RMS TITANIC disaster was the need to clearly identify all radio stations world-wide, and assigned blocks of unique country
prefixes were created for this purpose, with the the call sign consisting of combinations of letters and/or numbers to identify any
individual land, air, coast or ship station operating in any country (London ITU Convention, 1912, refers). For example: CYQT is the
Thunder Bay international airport; CKPR is a Thunder Bay commercial radio station, and no other stations in the world have the same
Heavy duty Marconi straight key. Copyright University of Oxford. Used with permission.
High power and voltage spark-gap transmitters (hence the RO nickname “Sparks”) were very dangerous. Hand keys had large, thick copper and brass parts because the radio operator keyed the primary side of the spark coil transformer using a very high current. Wireless operators also wore rubber-soled shoes or boots for additional protection.
Early basic spark gap (damped wave) wireless transmitter in use from about 1896 to 1910.
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