Friday, December 17, 2010

The Cruise of the Great White Fleet

In the book Lee de Forest and the fatherhood of Radio By James A. Hijiya I found a very arcane reference to a piece of radio history. In passing he quotes a 1940 article by G.H. Clark that refers to broadcasting on "the Navy's round-the-world-cruise of 1907-09." I had never before heard of the event.  He describes an operator who played phonograph records over the wireless. These devices transmitted speech instead of Morse Code.  This was so early in the history of radio that he describes that in the news account the operator "gave out" the music as the word "broadcast" was not yet used in that context.
"Late in 1907 the Radio telephone Co. installed wireless apparatus on ships of the U.S. Navy before they embarked on a round-the-world cruise. (The sets did not work well, but de Forest blamed that on the haste with which they were installed and with which Navy operators were trained.)"
It was called the Cruise of the Great White Fleet. On Dec.16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet of U.S. battleships around the world. They did not complete the circumnavigation of the globe until February 21st 1909.For the record, the color "white" was not racial.  In 2004 journalist Mike McKinley explained it:
"Altogether, 16 battleships and 4 destroyers, together with additional support ships, were assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard ready to make the 14 month tour around the world. All of the ships were newly painted a gleaming white and hence the flotilla became known as the "Great White Fleet".
Each of the 16 ships bore the name of a U.S. state, except for the Kearsarge and each was assigned a call sign for each transmitter. Some callsigns appear to have been just abbreviations The Georgia was GC for example.  Others like KSZ on the Virginia were internationally accepted callsigns. The U.S.S. Ohio carried the main network transmitter. All told de Forest sold 26 sets to the Navy in 1907. The USS Connecticut served as it's flagship. They began at Hampton Roads, VA and from there hit more than a hundred remote locations: Honolulu, South Africa, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Cuba, Italy, Chile, South America to California. and so many more. It was a saber-rattling move that was typical of Roosevelt. Wireless had been used in the Russo-Japanese war and he felt America was now competing with the Imperial Russian fleet. He still called it a goodwill tour. More here.

In 1965 Robert Hart wrote a book about the it. He described these transmitters as "rudimentary wireless sets." More here. But simple or not, communication between ships, while still maintained to some extent by semaphore and signal flags, was now principally by wireless telegraphy.  This was a big change. These ships didn't have radio before the trip. They had new equipment and novice operators. They sent messages to other ships and to the ports to schedule their arrivals replete with crowds and parades. Captains reported the events of their stops directly to President Roosevelt and also with the land-based station CC on Cape Cod.

Some navy ships had wireless sets as early as 1902, but captains were mixed on them. Of course at this early stage of development they were difficult to use, but it wasn't about that. For every useful tidbit of information they were able to send and receive, there were also orders from their superiors. In short, wireless was a challenge to the immediate autonomy of a ships captain. It's been recorded in some sources that Captains often ordered them shut down and that calls be ignored. When the ships returned in 1909, the wireless sets were uninstalled. The navy's interest in wireless stalled until 1917 and the beginning of  WWI.