Radio Free Belfast (Maine)
Maine’s city of Belfast did not play a part in bringing down the Berlin wall (as the title suggests). However early radio experiments conducted there in the 1920’s by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) did contribute to advancements in radio technology. My research started in May 2003, and it is just beginning to reveal the major radio complex that existed in Belfast 80 years ago.
A Maine Radio Pioneer
A native of North Haven, Harold Henry Beverage
had an interest in radio, a new technology that was developing rapidly, and he became a HAM (amateur radio) operator at an early age. While working at the U. S. Naval Radio (Fabbri) facility at Otter Cliffs on Mount Desert Island, Beverage experimented with an antenna concept called the “wave antenna”. It was a long wire suspended on poles with insulators, not unlike a telephone line. He found that if the wire was pointed in the direction of the transmit source, reception was better than if the signals broadsided the wire. The antenna was set in place just in time to receive news from Europe that the Armistice had been signed, ending World War I. This wire antenna, developed with his colleagues Rice and Kellogg is still known as the Beverage Wave Antenna, and is often used by HAM operators today.
The Belfast Array
International Radio Telegraph Company (IRTC ) operated a ship-to-shore radio service out of Rockland for a year, and in 1920 moved their radio facility to Belfast. Near the intersection of Congress Street and the Route 1 bypass, IRTC built two radio masts, anchored by 6 large concrete piers
Because RCA had many overseas contracts, IRTC sold their Belfast facility to RCA in 1921. David Sarnoff, CEO of RCA, (who would later go on to create the National Broadcasting Corporation), visited Belfast to inspect the site. RCA expanded their experimental/commercial radio relay station in the ensuing years. Indeed, the old section of the Belfast Armory was built by RCA when a larger facility was needed. RCA also built two Beverage Wave antennas, one south from the Armory building crossing Belfast Reservoir No. 2, probably served South America. Another Beverage extended 10 miles west-southwest from the RCA complex stretching across Dog Island to the foot of Moody Mountain in Searsmont.
My Beverage Exploration
Original RCA relay station. Note the giant tuning coil to the right. Congress Street is in the background. Photo source: Republican Journal Newspaper Archives, Belfast Maine
By profession, I am a geodetic survey technician for the Maine Department of Transportation. My background in geodetic, plane and engineering surveys greatly aided the effort to locate the wave antenna lines. The U. S. Dept. of Agriculture office in Belfast had 1939 aerial photographs that clearly showed both Beverage routes. Using Maptech software, I plotted the antennas on topographic maps electronically, created “waypoints” along the route and downloaded them into a Garmin GPSIII-Plus handheld unit. GPS greatly added to the efficiency of the search, as one can easily get “turned around” in the woods!
Last summer, I was greatly assisted by Mr. Bruce Clark, a HAM operator (who owns two Beverage antennas) in finding “guy-anchors”, or “backstays” and coils of Belfast’s Beverage wire on what we called the “Reservoir” line. Bruce and friends also retrieved artifacts for the Belfast Historical Society for their developing radio display.
Belfast Relays Radio History
On March 14, 1925, the Belfast relay station made radio history! Live dance band music from the Savoy Hotel in London was sent by
1) land wire to radio station 5XX in Chelmsford England, then
2) sent by long wave to Belfast.
3) RCA station 1XAO Belfast caught the signal on the 10 mile long “Dog Island” wave antenna, then
4) sent the signal via shortwave to another RCA station in Van Cortland Park in New York City.
5) RCA then broadcast the program on AM broadcast band via station WJZ to New York listeners.
6) The program also was sent by land wire to Washington, D. C. where station WRC broadcast the same.
Bruce Clark, “radio archeologists” friends, the Belfast Historical Society and I are continuing to follow up on ever unfolding leads on Belfast radio history. The American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) studied radio signal strengths from Europe, later selecting a site in Houlton for their Transoceanic Radiotelephone Receiving Station that opened in 1927. At some point, RCA switched to using AT&T Long Lines connections to relay radio received from overseas, and AT&T owned a farmhouse and acreage along Woods Road in Belfast. The farmhouse still has giant concrete piers inside the cellar below a “radio room”. Because of conflict between receiving antennas and transmit antennas being close proximity, RCA may have operated remote transmit antennas as far north as Brooks and Monroe.
Much more field research (e.g. interviews with local people), and countless hours in libraries needs to be done. Kudos to Bruce Clark for all his time already spent in the Belfast Public Library, and going through microfilms of the Republican Journal newspaper archives.
The book, Genius at Riverhead, A Profile of Harold H. Beverage
by Alberta I. Wallen, published by North Haven Historical Society, gives a good synopsis of his life and details how this technically oriented man got a job with the telephone company as a youth, graduated from the University of Maine Electrical Engineering program in 1915, and went on to become the Chief Research Engineer at the Riverhead, Long Island RCA facility.
One of the piers marked “1920” is still easily visible in the back slope of Route 1 just north of Congress Street.