By Christopher Shields
Did you know that the first Trans-Atlantic shortwave message was sent from a small structure near the corner of Clapboard Ridge Road and North Street right here in Greenwich? In an age when nearly instantaneous global communication is taken for granted, and communication delays of only a fraction of a second are intolerable for certain businesses, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in this arena in a relatively short time. Greenwich was the site of a noteworthy early step in this constantly evolving technology.
Shortwave radio uses a portion of the radio spectrum where wavelength characteristics are suitable for long distance communication. During the early part of the last century, many people were interested in the exciting possibilities that radio waves offered for rapid communication, and clubs were formed to explore this nascent technology. One of the earliest was the Radio Club of America.
On December 11, 1921, amateur radio station 1BCG successfully transmitted a message that was received by Radio Club member Paul Godley in Ardrossan, Scotland. This resulted from a great deal of experimentation and skill on the part of Mr. Godley and six fellow Club members, who constructed the antenna and operating shack on the Greenwich property of their team Minton Cronkhite. Accounts of the event note that these men employed then-unconventional radio techniques to make their breakthrough. Today, a small monument commemorating the event can be found on a traffic island near the site of the original transmission.
The achievement was important enough that two notable figures traveled to Greenwich to view the station’s configuration. They were Professor Michael Idvorsky Pupin, a scientist and inventor who made significant contributions to telephony and Mr. David Sarnoff, a leader in the development of radio and television as successful commercial broadcast media. Mr. Sarnoff also served as chairman of the board of the Radio Corporation of America (commonly referred to as RCA).
One of the men who constructed the Greenwich station, Edwin H. Armstrong, is best known today as the inventor of FM radio. He would eventually be brought to work at RCA by Mr. Sarnoff. Sadly, the men would become adversaries when Armstrong went on to establish an early FM radio network called The Yankee Network. Sarnoff saw FM radio as unwanted competition to his established AM radio stations, and lengthy litigation ensued.
The archives at the Greenwich Historical Society has the October 1950 publication of the Proceedings of the Radio Club of America, which details the achievement of station 1BCG in great detail. The archives are open to the public on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m.
Christopher Shields is Archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, CT 06807.