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History > The Telefunken / Sayville Wireless

LI Wireless Historical Society

Built in 1911-12 by the Telefunken Communications Company of Germany, the West Sayville facility, north of the railroad tracks, west of Cherry Avenue became one of the, if not the most powerful wireless station of world war 1.

Two major messages were hustled out of the station in code the first to waiting submarines at sea that spelled out the location of the Lusitania and the second from German Foreign Minister Zimmermann to Mexico asking that country to attack the United States and divert them from the European war. This last, when decoded by the British and forwarded to President Wilson brought this country into the war.

The U.S. Navy managed the station for the remainder of the war and continued to upgrade the technology until the Mackay Company leased the property combining radio with telegraph. When MacKay left for Brentwood, the CAA took it over and joined radio and Aeronautics two technologies that saw a great deal of development on Long Island.

The CAA, later the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA continued to use the stations radio capabilities until mid 1995 when they decommissioned it and let it lay dormant, attacked by vandals. The Friends of Long Island Wireless History, a newly formed group of historians, radio technicians and hobbyists and just plain Long Islanders are working with the Town of Islip to save, preserve and develop the site into a wireless museum that will also reflect the history of the Island during the years involved.

Technically the museum will cover Marconi to satellite. It will speak to the many applicaztions of wireless technology through the years. The Friends are establishing a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution's Electrical Collections division and other known technical associations.

The site is eligible for the National Register and the Friends are also working with the N.Y. State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to nominate it.

The Telefunken Transmitter at Sayville

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sayville Telefunken station was the unique transmitter it originally contained. Known as a Joly-Arco, or Telefunken alternator, it used a combination of rotating and stationary parts to produce radio waves. Although it had one major advantage, which we'll get to later, Telefunken alternators were not commonly used outside of Germany. Sayville is the only radio station in the United States known to have had one.

The earliest radio transmitters used a spark between two electrodes to produce signals. You may have noticed how far- away lightening makes your radio crackle. Using a small- scale discharge of energy similarly, spark transmitters produced crackles in headphones at distant receivers. Unlike natural lightening, however, the spark in the transmitter was turned on and off by a telegrapher's key, making it possible to communicate by code. Spark transmitters were relatively simple devices, and they could be built in any size desired, from lunchbox-sized portables to massive units that filled huge buildings. But even after years of development, it was apparent that they had some limitations which could not be helped. A thunderstorm can be heard all over your radio dial, and spark transmitters were almost as bad when it came to tuning. Only a few could operate in a particular area at the same time without interference. And they did not cover very much distance for the amount of power they consumed.

In 1900, Canadian-American wireless pioneer Reginald Fessenden realized there was a better way. If instead of sparking wild bursts of energy into the air, a way was found to concentrate that energy into a continuous wave of a single frequency, a lot of things would improve. Each station could be assigned its own frequency, allowing many more of them operate without getting in each others' way. It would also be possible to cover greater distances with less power. But at the turn of the century, the only known method of producing continuous radio waves of any strength was with electromechanical devices known as alternators.

To digress a bit, the alternator is the oldest member of the family of electrical machines, which includes motors and generators. In its simplest form, an alternator consists of a magnet, called the field, and a piece of wire that connects to the outside world, which is the armature. Any time a conductor (wire) is in the influence of a magnetic field that varies in strength, an electric current is set up in the conductor. It is not fully known why this is so, but rather than fret over the lack of an explanation, practical- minded people simply put it to use, starting about 140 years ago.

The strength of the magnetic field can be varied a number of ways. Relative motion between field and armature, typically obtained by forming the armature into a loop and rotating it in the field is highly effective. The same results are produced if the armature is held stationary and the field rotated instead. Most of the electric power we use at home and work comes from alternators that are built this way. In some designs, called inductor alternators, neither the field nor the armature moves. The variations in magnetic strength are produced by moving a piece of magnetic material between the field and the armature. If something like iron, which has a much higher permeability (ability to be magnetized) than air is used, the magnetic field "induced" in the armature gets much stronger as the iron is brought close. The strength of the field can even be varied by electrical means, with no moving parts at all, in which case the device is more properly called a transformer. As we shall see, all of these techniques were used in radio alternators.

The voltage at the output terminals of an alternator has a frequency which is determined by the design of the machine and the speed at which it is operated. In theory, if any alternator is operated fast enough, its output will be high enough in frequency to be used directly for radio. As you might have figured, however, it isn't so simple in the real world. The parts of an alternator must be large in order to handle practical amounts of power. Big parts cannot be made to rotate fast enough for radio work; long before the necessary frequencies are reached, the centrifugal forces become excessive and wreck the machine.

There are a couple of ways of getting around this problem. One is to use an alternator design that inherently produces high frequencies, such as the inductor type, and build its power and frequency capabilities up to the desired levels. Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, a Swedish-born electrical engineer who spent his career at General Electric, developed this type of machine to its highest state under contract to Fessenden. Maurice Latour, a noted French telephone engineer, produced some inductor alternators for France's wireless system that were even more powerful than the largest Alexanderson machines. The Bethenod-Latour alternators, as they were known, differed from the GE machines by having two or three sections ganged together in a row instead of just one, which allowed for higher power levels with moving parts of practical size.

Working in a different direction, Dr. Rudolf Goldschmidt in Germany invented a high frequency alternator that made use of Newton's Law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, as it applies to electromechanical devices. In any alternator, the production of power in the armature causes double-frequency pulsations in the field. Pulsations from any source in the field also interact with the armature, where under the right conditions, their frequency can be added to the armature's frequency. These two effects are usually considered nuisances, and engineers do their best to get rid of them. But Dr. Goldschmidt realized that if an alternator was designed to emphasize them instead, they could be used to obtain radio frequencies at commercial power levels with machinery that operated at perfectly ordinary, safe speeds.

Typically, the initial frequency produced by the rotating armature in a Goldschmidt alternator was 15,000 cycles per second. A tuning circuit connected to the armature and carefully set to that frequency caused that energy to be reflected to the stationary field 30,000 times per second. Another tuned circuit connected to the field and adjusted to 30,000 cycles per second then built up the energy at that frequency and re-induced it back into the armature, where its frequency was added to that of the armature, bringing it to 45,000 cycles per second. It was then reflected one last time back to the field with another 15,000-cycle increase to 60,000 cycles, at which frequency it was radiated from the antenna.

Efficiencies of 80% were claimed for the Goldschmidt machine, and it could operate with high power at higher frequencies than most other continuous wave transmitters then available. It was popular for a time, mostly in European stations. However, it could be finicky. If the adjustments weren't quite right, the various energies would not be properly absorbed by the tuning circuits or the antenna. Instead, they would stay in the machine and cause it to overheat. Before long the rotor would expand from the excessive heat and rub on the stationary frame, bringing the machine to a grinding halt and necessitating extensive repairs. Nevertheless, Telefunken installed a 200-kilowatt Goldschmidt alternator at its station in Tuckerton, New Jersey, which was the sister of the Sayville station.

Another approach to producing radio waves with alternators that operate at reasonable speeds is to connect them to static frequency converters that double and quadruple the frequencies to the desired point. A static frequency converter is somewhat like an ordinary power transformer, having no moving parts. It uses a principle similar to that of the Goldschmidt alternator to cause its output to "ring" at double the input frequency. The Telefunken alternator at Sayville had an initial frequency of 9,613 cycles. Two static frequency converters were used to double this to 19,266 and then 38,452 cycles, which was the station's transmitting frequency. It had a power output of 100 kilowatts, quite substantial for its day.

The Telefunken alternator did not reach frequencies as high as the Goldschmidt machine, and its efficiency was somewhat lower (around 60%) due to power losses in the static frequency converters. Its primary advantage was that it was more tractable than the other systems since the machine ran at a slow, safe speed and there were no deliberate reflections of energy internally that might get out of control and cause trouble. Slight misadjustments would injure only the station's performance, not the equipment.

Shortly before World War One began in Europe, a new transmitter was installed at Telefunken's Nauen, Germany station, which combined a number of these concepts. Called the Schmidt system, it used a gigantic low-speed inductor alternator which operated at 6,000 cycles. Instead of frequency converters, a carefully designed tuning network directly resonated the power into the station's antenna at 24,000 cycles. The overall efficiency was 66%, and the station had an output power of 500 KW, making it one of the most powerful continuous wave stations in existence at that time. More powerful continuous wave stations would not be built until after the war, and then using a completely different type of transmitter based on an electrical arc. In the next article, we'll look at these transmitters in greater detail, since an arc was what the U.S. Navy installed at Sayville following the war to replace the Telefunken alternator.

Christopher Bacon 12 April 1996

The Navy Arc Transmitter at Sayville

When America entered World War I in May, 1917, all radio stations on U.S. soil were seized and shut down by government order. Faced with an urgent need for radio equipment that American industry was not prepared to supply, many smaller stations were dismantled for parts that could be used by the armed forces. Several high power ones, including the Telefunken stations at Sayville and Tuckerton, New Jersey, were assigned to the U.S. Navy, which used them for government business and ship-to-shore communicatio ns. Records indicate that aside from the replacement of Telefunken's employees with Navy personnel, little else changed at the stations during the war.

Following the armistice in November, 1918, the government made it clear that it would not favor a return to the prewar situation in which wireless in America had been dominated by foreign companies such as Marconi and Telefunken. It had recognized the value of wireless for political and military purposes, and it decided that the United States was going to have its own wireless system. That era was very different from ours; the role of government had not yet expanded beyond planning, regulating, and defense. So as had been the case with railroads, and the power, telephone, and telegraph industries, wireless was turned over to American entrepreneurs who were trusted to act in the national interest because it coincided with their own.

With the Navy facilitating matters, British Marconi was persuaded to sell its American subsidiary to investors in the U.S., who then re-established it as the Radio Corporation of America. In Telefunken's case, the U.S. and German governments negotiated a settlement in which the Sayville and Tuckerton properties were included in the war reparations paid to America. Tuckerton was well situated as a commercial station but was of little use to the Navy in peacetime, so it was sold to RCA, which operated it for many years as a back-up for Radio Central. Sayville was thought to be good for a ship-to-shore station and for relaying messages to other Navy bases, so in 1920 it was modernized for those purposes.

A number of buildings were constructed, including barracks, eating and recreation facilities, and offices. Some farming was reintroduced to the land, and with large fuel storage areas and its own power plant, the station became capable of self-sufficiency for weeks at a time if necessary. A new transmitter building, which is still standing and is one of the structures FWHLI hopes to preserve, was built. The Telefunken equipment was removed and studied, after which at least some of it reportedly ended up at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The original station building was adapted to house large motor-generator sets for a new 200-KW arc transmitter, which was connected to the 500-foot antenna installed by Telefunken.

The transmitter was manufactured by the Federal Radio Telegraph Company of Palo Alto, California (not to be confused with the Federal Telephone and Telegraph Company of Buffalo, New York, which manufactured radio receivers from 1921 until 1929). Considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley--the company initiated the tradition later followed by Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer of starting in a garage, in which Dr. Lee DeForest performed some of his later vacuum tube experiments--Federal manufactured equipm ent for sale and also operated a network of ship-to-shore stations, most of which were on the west coast. Ironically, Federal was later purchased by Mackay Radio, which in turn leased the Sayville station from the Navy in the 1930s for use as the transmitting half of a commercial ship-to-shore system (Mackay's receiving station was in Southampton).

Federal's arc transmitters, developed to compete with the Alexanderson alternator and its German cousins, were very unusual devices which made use of some rather esoteric phenomena. Pioneering British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy had discovered in the 1840s that under the right conditions, when two electrodes are brought into contact and separated, an electrical flame or arc develops between them. Trying different materials, it was found that carbon rods create a brilliant bluish-white flame, and by the early 1850s, carbon arc lamps were in use for street and theatrical lighting. Households had to wait until Thomas Edison made incandescent lighting practical, however; aside from getting extremely hot, arc lights cause "sunburns" at close range (the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, which carbon arcs generate copiously, were not then understood), they create smoke and odors, and they hiss and splutter. The carbon rod electrodes had to be replaced frequently, and the fixtures were mechanical contraptions that slowly fed the rods into the arc as they burned away. Although carbon arc lights are rarely used nowadays, the principle is still very much alive for cutting metals and for industrial furnaces. As an aside, the earliest high-frequency alternators, discussed in article #1 of this series, were designed independently by Nikola Tesla and by J.J. Thompson in 1890 specifically for arc lighting. Alternating current has numerous advantages, particularly for big street lighting systems, but when conventional AC power was used, the lamps buzzed loudly. It was hoped that by using a frequency above the range of human hearing, AC-powered arcs would not be so objectionable. While these experiments only made a marginal impact on arc lighting, they led almost directly to the development of alternators for radio use! So it can be said that the arc gave its chief rival in wireless a head start, and then set out to catch up.

The arc entered radio in 1900 when an experimenter named Duddell made a startling discovery. An arc lamp he connected to a capacitor started singing! The noises were caused by the flame blowing out and re-starting at an audible rate as energy transferred between it and the capacitor. The reason why this happens is in the nature of all arcs, which have the unusual characteristic of drawing less current as the voltage across them is increased. This feature, called "negative resistance," is still vital in certain classes of electronic circuits today. If a power supply is made unstable (i.e. the voltage changes greatly with load), the voltage across the arc settles to a level determined largely by the amount of current taken by the arc. When the rods are first brought together, a great deal of current flows and the voltage is very low. They are held together until they get red hot, after which they are separated a small distance. This "strikes" the arc, or causes it to start burning. Since the flame does not conduct electricity so well, the current drops and the voltage goes up. This causes the arc to conduct even less current, which in turn allows the voltage to rise further until the arc literally blows itself out. When that happens, there is no longer any load on the circuit at all, so the voltage assumes the full level of the power supply, charging the capacitor along the way. For a brief instant, the area around the electrodes is still full of ionized particles from the flame. At maximum voltage, a spark can jump through these particles, which re-strikes the arc without moving the rods. This drags the voltage down again, but now the energy stored in the capacitor gets into the picture. It forces the voltage up, blowing the arc out again, and the cycle repeats. Depending on how one goes about it, an arc can be made to "sing" anywhere from dozens to many thousands of times a second. Duddell only saw in his arc a toy or novelty, but others recognized that if it could be made to sing its tune at radio instead of audio frequencies, it could be connected to an antenna and used as a continuous wave transmitter.

In 1909, Danish scientist Vladmir Poulsen announced that he had found a way to do it. He put a singing arc inside an extremely powerful magnetic field, which caused it to blow out hundreds of times faster. This brought it into the radio spectrum. The speed at which the arc blew out and re-started was increased further by using a hollow copper tube for one of the electrodes and circulating water through it to keep it cool. Another major improvement was discovered by trial and error. It had been noted years earlier that the electrodes in arc street lighting fixtures lasted much longer if they were enclosed in airtight glass containers, so experiments were tried to see what effect different gasses had on the operation of Poulsen's arc. A hydrocarbon atmosphere was found to be highly beneficial because of all gasses, hydrogen has the best ability to conduct heat away from the arc, allowing it to blow out more easily. The hydrogen came from kerosene, alcohol, or illuminating gas, slowly introduced into the arc c hamber where they decomposed in the intense heat. Despite the mixture of highly combustible materials and flame, there was little risk of fire or explosion while the arc was going because the arc chambers were airtight. The Poulsen arc transmitter was ready except for one thing: it needed a promoter.

As luck would have it, one arrived literally on the doorstep in the person of Cyril Elwell, an Australian-born Stanford graduate engineer who got interested in radio after some San Francisco-area investors hired him to investigate a wireless telephone system they were considering. Elwell's report was discouraging because the system lacked a source of continuous wave radio energy, but he realized that if this obstacle could be overcome, wireless telephony would have great possibilities. The radio frequency alternators of Fessenden/Alexanderson/General Electric, Telefunken, and already controlled all the electromechanical possibilities with patents granted or pending, so when Elwell read of Poulsen's work, he set off for Denmark immediately, believing it might be too good to be true. Upon his arrival, he met the inventor, saw a demonstration, and on the spot secured the American rights to the arc transmitter. With some of Poulsen's assistants, who emigrated to America to help Elwell (and who later went on to found the Magnavox Company), the Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph company was established in 1910. That year it built a few arc stations which it were integrated into a working network. In 1911, Elwell and his investors established Federal Telegraph as an operating company for tax reasons, and over a period of time, the Federal name became predominant.

The fact that the arc had to re-strike itself in order to work gave these transmitters some totally unique characteristics on the air. They could not be controlled by the telegrapher's key because even with the fastest operators, the spaces between the "dits" and "dahs" were too long. In that time, the ionized particles would dissipate and the arc would not re-strike. So it had to be left on all the time while sending and other means used for keying. In smaller transmitters, the key interrupted the antenna circuit. As there could be a few thousand volts of extremely nasty radio frequency energy involved, this was not an entirely safe arrangement. It was also impractical for the larger units, so the key was connected to shift the transmitter between two frequencies spread far enough apart that only one would be heard at the receiver. One of these carried the messages in normal Morse code, and the other was a mirror image of it. Woeful was the operator thought he was coping a message in cipher only to find out he had inadvertently tuned in the "back wave!"

Originally skeptical, the U.S. Navy tried arc transmitters in 1911, and liked them enough to equip many of its land and larger ship stations with them for nearly the next 20 years. The transmitters were compact for their power ratings, efficient, very simple to operate and maintain, and could operate over a far wider range of frequencies than alternators. They could be made in any size from small portable units (which were used as signal generators in labs) to one-megawatt mammoths, designed towards the cl ose of World War I, which were the most powerful radio transmitters then known. Even before the first pair left Palo Alto for the Lafayette Station being built by the U.S. Navy near Bordeaux, France, Federal's chief engineer wrote a memo in which he said he saw no theoretical reason why even more powerful units couldn't be built.

Theoretically possible, maybe, but there were a lot of practical reasons why bigger arcs were never developed. Aside from producing back waves, which were a waste of power and radio spectrum, the signals were not as clear as the waves from alternators, and this was a step in the wrong direction when it came to transmitting voice and music. (Despite this, huge carbon microphones were actually used to modulate arc transmitters for voice and music. Lee DeForest operated experimental transmitters of this type in New York City beginning in 1907, and Charles Herrold built one in San Diego, California for the first regularly scheduled radio broadcasting service, in 1911.) Depending on how heavily they were used, arc transmitters had to be shut down as often as several times a day so the carbon electrodes could be replaced and the soot cleaned out of the arc chambers. This was could be downright inconvenient as it meant that the busier a station was, the sooner it had to go off the air. There was no rushing the job either; if the arc chamber was opened too soon after the power was shut off, any leftover hydrogen gas would mix with the fresh air and explode raucously thanks to the internal components, which would still be red-hot. By 1917, researchers in France, England, and Germany had produced a variety of vacuum tube types which could handle voice and music as easily as code. Spurred on by the war, AT&T developed an excellent series of tubes for radio transmitters and receivers. The vacuum tube had been invented by Lee DeForest as a small-scale radio wave detector, but Irving Langmuir at the General Electric Research Laboratory was finding ways to get more power out of them than anybody had previously thought possible. The handwriting was on the wall for arcs and alternators. However, unlike the alternators, one of which managed to survive in operating condition until 1995, arcs had all but disappeared by the outbreak of World War II.

Though not as long-lived as some other communications technologies, the arc transmitter left a legacy which still has a profound impact on science and society. In 1931, Dr. Earnest O. Lawrence at Stanford University in California needed a huge, powerful electromagnet for a physics experiment. Funding to build one from scratch was proving difficult to find. Lawrence learned that a pair of one-megawatt arc transmitters--the sister pair to the ones installed at Bordeaux--were still sitting abandoned at the Fe deral plant. The armistice had put an end to the need for them a dozen years before. Weighing many tons each, nobody could think of a use for the huge steel electromagnetic frames and copper coils, and the value of scrap metal in the depression had gotten so low they weren't even worth junking. When the company heard from Dr. Lawrence, it was more than happy to donate one of the units to Elwell's old alma matter. In place of an arc chamber, Lawrence fitted it with apparatus that turned it into the world's first working cyclotron, or atom smasher. Lawrence and his Stanford lab were "drafted" by the military and assigned the problem of uranium-235 production. Another Federal arc transmitter from the Navy's Arlington station was similarly converted and used at Columbia University, where it answered many of the questions asked by Manhattan Project scientists during the early development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.






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