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Machrihanish Radio Station

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The mast at Machrihanish, believed pd by age
The mast at Machrihanish

Machrihanish Radio Station was established on the seafront at Uisaed Point, west of Machrihanish on the Kintyre peninsula, in December 1905. It remained there as part of an experimental transatlantic radio system until December 1906, when it collapsed during a gale.

The earliest references to the station appear to be in the Argyll Herald of May 1905, which reported that negotiations were underway for the lease of a field on which a wireless station was to be built. The venture was backed by the National Electric Signalling Company of Washington (NESCO), USA, and was paired with a similar project being undertaken at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, by the Canadian inventor, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. The work was completed by December 1905, and the Campbeltown Courier carried an account of the structure:

The station stands about 450 feet high, being 50 feet higher than at first estimated. It looks like a badly proportioned chimneystack, having a cap-like arrangement on top all bristling with huge spikes. The whole ground within the boundaries is covered with a network of wires, laid grid fashion in trenches and covered only with some earth, and the ends of the wire are led into a deep trench along the shore at sea level. There are a few houses for the accommodation of the staff. The secrets of the station are being well preserved. The ground is fenced off and no visitors are allowed within the enclosure.

- Campbeltown Courier c. 1905

The mast was wide enough to incorporate a ladder within its interior, accessed by hatches at the base of each section, which allowed engineers to climb to the top, and carry out various tasks. At the base of the mast, a large metal ball was fixed to an insulated base, permitting the mast to rotate and avoid the creation of unnecessary stresses and bending along its length. The actual base construction, and method of insulating the mast at Machrihanish from the ground are unknown, and insufficient remains survive to identify these, however, the American base is known to have used layered stacks of ceramic insulators as used at the top of telephone poles, to keep the cost down. Next to the base was a small building with a chimney, which housed the station, equipment, and steam generator used to powered it.

Mast base and station building, believed pd by age
Mast base and station building

The first two black & white images of the Machrihanish site were obtained from the web, and are acknowledged to the Scots Magazine of July 1989. The third image was found in from a web article about Fessenden. Dating from 1905-06, the are believed to be public domain by age.

Transatlantic communications began between the two stations in January 1906, using Morse Code radiotelegraphy. Initially successful, contact was soon lost, then re-established three weeks later after Fessenden sent his chief engineer to Machrihanish to assist. No cause was determined for the loss of contact, which soon returned, and continued until December 5, 1906. With the benefit of hindsight, this apparent failure is more likely to have been due to prevailing atmospheric conditions and propagation effects dominant at the time, rather than any technical or engineering shortcomings of the people or equipment.

Following several days of high winds, a severe gale hit the coast at Machrihanish, and the guy wires gave way - the unsupported mast snapped in two places, and collapsed on the site. Although no-one was injured in the mishap, no efforts were made to re-establish the station. The remaining equipment was dismantled and the staff were dispersed, leaving only the concrete foundations to mark the existence of the station and its site.

Mast and guy wires, believed pd by age
Mast with guy wires

Construction of the mast had been undertaken by the Brown Hoisting Company of Cleveland, and subsequent examination of the joints holding the guy wires revealed had not been correctly formed or inspected. Similar in construction to the Brant Rock mast, and expected to withstand the same stresses, with its defective supports, the Machrihanish mast was judged to have been fortunate to have stood until the arrival of the gale that brought it down. With a remarkable similarity to present day engineering disasters, the faulty joints were attributed to the work of a sub-contractor.

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, via Canadawiki
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (October 6, 1866 - July 22, 1932) was born in East Bolton, Quebec, the son of a Protestant minister, the Canadian went on to become a notworthy inventor, with some 500 patents to his credit, and worked with other inventors such as Thomas Edison.

While researching the inventor's connection with Scotland, and the radio station he established at Uisead Point near Machrihanish, it was interesting to note that although most of the stories imply the station to be of major significance, the reality is probably that it was not. Due to propagation difficulties, rather than design faults, the station almost failed completely in its task of establishing transatlantic communication with its Brant Rock counterpart. Also, other than the accidental and unintended voice contact, it was only able to communicate using Morse telegraphy, and was not involved in Fessenden's voice communication experiments. With no attempt to restore it after its demise, one is forced to question just how important it was considered to be by its owner.

Alternatively, having established the operating principle, perhaps its job was done, and it was time to move on.

Technically, the Machrihanish station operated as a Continuous Wave (CW) facility, using Morse Code Radiotelegraphy to communicate with its partner at Brant rock. Voice communication would have required the use of Amplitude Modulation (AM) to convey the signal, and there are no references to Fessenden ever having equipped the station with his apparatus for AM operation, which he had been developing and using since 1900.

Fessenden does not appear to have visited the Scottish station.

The accidental connection

The mast at Brant Rock Penny postcard c. 1910, pd via Wikipedia
The mast at Brant Rock
Penny postcard c. 1910

Despite the loss of the station at Machrihanish, there is an earlier story which makes a case for voice communication having been made between Brant Rock and Machrihanish:

In November that year while testing the revolutionary "spark gap" method of radio transmission between Brant Rock and a smaller station in Cobb Island, Maryland, voice signals were accidentally picked up in Machrihanish.

In an excited letter sent to the scientist, Uisead's chief operator recalled the moment the first live words had been sent across the Atlantic. He wrote: "At about four o'clock this morning I was listening to telegraph signals from Brant Rock when to my astonishment, I heard, instead of dots and dashes, the voice of Mr Stein telling the operators at Plymouth how to operate the dynamo."

- Sunday Express, February 25, 2007. Pages 42 and 43.

Despite the chief operator's excitement, the destruction of the station and a lack of finance (and interest?) meant that this observation was never followed up.

But Machrihanish was only equipped for Morse operation

True. Based on the accounts given of the station at Machrihanish, the equipment installed there was for Morse Code Radiotelegraphy (CW) operation. If so, how could the chief operator have heard voice communications intended for Cobb Island? Assuming that Brant Rock was operating at a high enough power level to pass Maryland and reach Scotland, then the answer it relatively simple, and depends on the knowledge that no electrical or electronic circuits are perfect. Although a Morse or CW receiver should only respond to presence or absence of a carrier signal, in reality, it will not have a perfect response to that signal, and will generate a proportional output in response to signals that lie between those levels of completely present or completely absent, and that is basically what an AM signal is. Therefore, although it may not be designed to demodulate an AM signal, a CW receiver, especially if not of very high quality, will quite happily function as an effective, if not ideal, AM demodulator.

Fessenden's voice transmission experiment

On Christmas Eve 1906, Fessenden is reported to have transmitted the first audio radio broadcast in history from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. The transmission was received a few hundred miles away, by a number of ships at sea in the Atlantic Ocean. These ships had been equipped with Fessenden's demodulating apparatus in advance of the test, and were alerted by telegraph (Morse) of the impending test transmission. The test was successful, and they reported receiving a broadcast which included Fessenden playing the song O Holy Night on the violin, and reading a passage from the Bible.

Prior to this date, Marconi had sent radio signals from England to Newfoundland in 1901, but these were one-way only and by Morse Code telegraphy. Fessenden's achievement was significant in that he accomplished two-way voice/audio communication by radio between his Brant Rock land station and vessels at sea, using synchronous rotary-spark transmitters and his barretter detectors. Unfortunately, it seems the potential for his invention was not recognized at the time, with even his own backers failing to register an interest in voice or music communication.

2006 marked the first centenary of this broadcast, and events were held both at Machrihanish and Brant Rock to mark the occasion.

The controversy

Deserving of the same analysis and review that he applies to the Fessenden account, James E O'Neal published an article in the magazine Radio World (October 25, 2006), in which he finds that, despite wanting to believe the Fessenden account, his research of the event and records of the time found no documentary corroboration. He claims he was unable to find any references to it in technical journals, newspapers, or wireless logbooks maintained by radio operators at the time.

O'Neal found that Fessenden only mentioned the Christmas Eve broadcast once, in a letter written 26 years later, shortly before his death, in 1932. Later references to the broadcast come from his biography Fessenden: Builder of Tomorrows, written by his wife Helen in 1940.

Lee De Forest (August 26, 1873 – June 30, 1961) published a claim in Radio News, 1925, stating that he made the first speech and music broadcast. O'Neal observes that there was no rebuttal issued by Fessenden.

The final point is technical, and concerns a statement by Fessenden to the effect that he "alerted stations by wireless telegraphy of the impending broadcast". O'Neal expresses doubts that there was any wireless telegraphy equipment capable of demodulating an AM signal at that time.

60th Anniversary Plaque

The plaque in the final photograph below, which was taken during the events of the 2006 centennial, is attached to the remains of the base of the former Brant Rock mast, which now lies within an RV (Recreational Vehicle) park on the site. It reads as follows:



A mast/guy support with main site in distance © http://www.geograph.org.uk/user/JMBriscoe/
A mast/guy support with main
site in distance
© JM Briscoe
Mast support viewed from the main site © http://www.geograph.org.uk/user/JMBriscoe/
Mast support viewed from the
main site
© JM Briscoe
Remains of the main mast base in foreground © http://www.geograph.org.uk/user/JMBriscoe/
Remains of the main mast base
in foreground
© JM Briscoe
Concerte bases and remains of main building © http://www.geograph.org.uk/user/JMBriscoe/
Concrete bases and remains
of main building
© JM Briscoe
Remains of Brant Rock mast base © Garrett A Wollman
Remains of Brant Rock mast base
Edward F Perry Jr owner of
WATD-FM © Garrett A Wollman

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