Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

1918-1919: Trans-Pacific Radio silenced in West Marin

By Richard Nielsen · February 12, 2019

The Marconi powerhouse, 1915. In March of 1918, the spark transmitters and other equipment were removed by the Marines & taken to Mare Island. <span>&copy; Marconi Museum, Cape Cod </span>

The Marconi powerhouse, 1915. In March of 1918, the spark transmitters and other equipment were removed by the Marines & taken to Mare Island.

In 1913, Guglielmo Marconi placed West Marin on the radio map of the world.  His company constructed a transmitting station at Bolinas and a receiving station near Marshalls on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay.   When America entered World War I, Marconi notified the United States government that all Marconi facilities would be made available for the war effort. Nonetheless, one hundred years ago, after being in operation for just four years, the Marconi radio stations in West Marin were closed.  

The antennas, strung three hundred feet above the ground, swayed in the winds.  No longer warmed by intermittent jolts of electricity, fired by code keys, the antennas corroded, unused and unmaintained in the damp fog that swept over the cliffs.  Droplets hung from the wires, undisturbed by a flush of power that would have sent signals coursing over the Pacific Ocean.  The buildings sat empty.  Radio equipment had been taken by the Marines to Mare Island naval shipyard on the basis of a frail argument that signals might sneak across the continent to the ears of German ships listening in the Atlantic Ocean.  

The men of the station didn’t know when things would return to normal.  Most of them would later return to reinvigorate the dots and dashes that brought commercial communication to ships at sea and receiving stations on land.  A few would never return to what became the most powerful transmitting station ever to send signals across the Pacific Basin.

 For over a year, beginning in early March of 1918, silence conjured up ghostly billows of mist at the dormant communication post built by Guglielmo Marconi on the wind-swept mesa northwest of the hamlet of Bolinas.  Towers poked holes into low-lying clouds from the grassy dairy land below.  Sturdy, stark concrete buildings, which had been etched into that grassland, neither hummed with life nor were permeated by the biting smell of electrical discharges.

Few were aware that the U. S. Navy as well as commercial interests were stalking the halls and colluding with Congress.  The lingering infancy of radio in the late World War I era meant that few would understand the fallacious arguments being devised to engineer the demise of Marconi’s foothold in North America.  Marconi had had a vision of nearly instantaneous round-the-world communication provided by a chain of radio stations.  Those in North America were essential to that vision.  

There were several fallacies in the argument presented for closing West Marin’s Marconi stations.  First, not all radio station’s in the San Francisco Bay Area were taken off the air.  

 Secondly, spark transmitter technology meant that signals struggled to communicate with ships at sea or land-based stations, much less make a prodigious leap across the continent.  As it stood in this early period of radio, Marconi had to use telegraph lines to communicate with the East Coast stations.  Thus, since signals could not even be sent across the country, it was a fallacy that the Germans could receive signals from the transmitting station at Bolinas and it was completely unnecessary to move the radio equipment from the receiving station near Marshalls to Mare Island.

Eventually, the end of World War I forced the return of the radio equipment to the Marconi station in West Marin.  Having spent a year without maintenance, it took considerable effort to get the equipment and the station back on line.  But by the time the station was returned to operation, behind the scenes intrigue between commercial entities and their supporters in Congress molded the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) into existence and forced the sale of Marconi’s American radio stations to RCA.  West Marin would take little notice of the change, however.  The people in this rural part of Marin County would continue to reap economic and social benefits for decades to come under RCA.

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