Monday, September 10, 2018

The Grand Island Radio Monitor Is Watching You

In 1929 Radio Broadcast Magazine and a handful of newspapers like the Columbus Telegram described the construction of the Grand Island Radio Monitoring station. More here. The United States department of commerce erected a multi-tower array on an island formed by the Wood River and the Platte River in Hall county Nebraska. This station was designed to test the transmitting frequency of both U.S. and foreign broadcasters. The project didn't originate in Washington D.C. It all started with a Department of Commerce  Radio Inspector named S.W. Edwards.

Edwards was stationed in the Eighth Radio District which included Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and large parts of Pennsylvania and New York. You can see the district maps here. The districts were established in 1912, but the center of the 8th district was changed from Cleveland to Detroit in 1919. Edwards only seems to appear in the record in 1921 so I am assuming that he got the job after that date.  (Edwards appears a few more times in the book The Beginning of Broadcast Regulation in the Twentieth Century by Marvin R. Bensman.) Interestingly Nebraska was not in Edwards district. Nebraska is in the 9th District, and one has to wonder what the other inspector thought of Edwards...

The 9th District used specially outfitted Packard Radio Monitoring cars to drive around the midwest in search of a flat area with low radio interference.  While looking for a centrally located plot of land, the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce brokered a deal between the government and the estate of Fred Matthiesen, Jr. to sell fifty acres of land for one dollar.  That closed the deal.  The Bureau of Yards and Docks of the Navy Department constructed the facilities under the direction architect was F. W. Southworth. They started with a budget of $400,000, and engaged Westinghouse to manufacture the equipment. The area had inadequate power for the project so they also had to install their own generators and 2000 gallon diesel tanks. More here.

This project was actually part of the original purview of the Department of Commerce.  Under the Radio Acts of 1910 and 1912, the Department of Commerce was granted the authority to monitor and inspect shipboard radio equipment, license radio operators for that equipment and prevent interference between stations. In 1910 most of those radios were on ships. But after WWI the number of land-based stations began to grow. The March 1st, 1921 Commerce Department's Radio Service Bulletin included a list of 60 land-based licensed AM radio stations. Remember the first licensed station was KDKA-AM in October 1920. So this was 0 to 60 in 6 months.

The Grand Island Radio Monitor site is 6 miles from the city of Grand Island and half a mile north of the Lincoln highway. It began checking the transmitting frequencies some time in 1932. Station wavelengths were measured against a Precision Clock mounted in a vacuum chamber in a ten-ton concrete column. The building that housed it was built in a Faraday cage: all power leads were shielded and copper mesh is incorporated within all the walls. Even it's telephone wiring entered the station through nearly 3/4-mile of underground duct work. The whole operation was run by just 10 staffers.

In 1931 State Senator H.G. Wellensiek [R] introduced a bill to allow the U.S. department of commerce to acquire school lands adjacent to the Grand Island Monitor . This would allow it to "extend the radio receiving aerials." The bill passed 90 to 0. A 1932 article in Radio Craft magazine spelled out the need to further expand the monitoring station and in 1941 they bought another 80 acres for 9 new rhombic antennas. During WWII it's reporting on operations got quiet. This is probably because it could monitor stations outside the country. That Radio Craft article naively described this ability:
"Aside from its routine task, Grand Island performs numerous other special services for the Government. It is prepared, for example, to report on radio transmission in practically any country on the globe."
The monitoring station added services of the next few decades monitoring UHF, VHF and even citizen band radio in the 1970s.  It was posted to the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1973. It closed in 1996 sort of.  In 2013 PopComm magazine reported that the 200 acre facility was no longer manned, but that it was still part of the FCC's HFDF (High Frequency Direction Finding) network. More here.