Inquisitive amateur tinkerers built Bangor’s first wireless

Posted Dec. 13, 2009, at 8:31 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

BANGOR WILL HAVE WIRELESS,” declared a jubilant headline in the Bangor Daily News on March 8, 1906. In an era of miraculous technology that included light bulbs, movies and automobiles, the Queen City of the East was about to obtain yet another wonder confirming its status on the cusp of progress.

The wireless referred to wireless telegraphy or radio telegraphy — coded messages sent through the air without benefit of wires. The technology had been around for a few years, but it was still far from perfected or commercially available to everyone. Audio transmission, or what we think of as radio broadcasting, was still more than a decade away, although it had been accomplished experimentally.

“Bangor will have a wireless telegraph station in the near future,” said the Bangor Daily News. “J.S.B. Heath, manager for Northern Maine of the American DeForest Wireless Telegraph Co., is in Bangor where he will remain until preparations are made for the installation of the station.” Dr. Lee DeForest was the tireless inventor, who, it would turn out, was better at science than business.

A month later, on April 6, the newspaper carried another tantalizing bit of information. Another representative of the American DeForest Wireless Telegraph Co. announced at a lecture in Bangor before an audience of 25 that the Maine Central Railroad had asked for a price quote on wireless telegraph service at Bangor, Waterville and Portland. When it was installed, people would be able to send messages from moving trains. Demand for the company’s product was so great, however, that probably nothing could be done for the railroad for three years, said the report.

It would be nearly three years before I saw more local stories about wireless telegraphy in the Bangor newspapers. On Feb. 1, 1909, the Bangor Daily News announced that the steamers Camden and Belfast, which ran between Bangor and Boston, would be equipped with wireless outfits when they arrived in Bangor that spring. The president of the Eastern Steamship Co. said that every passenger-carrying steamer should be equipped with a wireless rig.

The benefits had been demonstrated during the last hours of the British ship RMS Republic off Nantucket in January. The Republic made history when it became the first ship to send a wireless distress message after it collided with the Italian liner SS Florida. Hundreds of passengers were removed to safety by the ships that responded.

For the time being, however, the Queen City would have to wait for its own wireless. In Bangor, the word had become a joke referring to the informal communication system used to alert saloon owners that the cops were coming. “The Wireless,” an expression used in many newspaper stories about police raids, consisted of spotters stationed on roofs and street corners (as well as friendly telephone calls from well-placed sources) assuring that most saloons would be closed or dry when police officers arrived.

Things were progressing on the real wireless front, however. Amateurs were stepping into the breach. On March 30, the Bangor Daily News carried a photograph and a story about Howard Heath of Belfast. The 16-year-old high school student had set up his own wireless telegraphy station. He was receiving messages over a distance of a quarter-mile. He had built a station at his home on Spring Street and another at the home of Roy Macomber on Bay View. Heath’s feat was indicative of the vast number of similar efforts going on as inquisitive tinkerers read excitedly about the accomplishments of men such as Guglielmo Marconi and Lee DeForest.

Just three weeks later, both Bangor newspapers reprinted a story from a Jacksonville, Fla., newspaper indicating once again that Bangor was about to have a wireless station The Queen City was on a long list of communities where the Atlantic Radio Co., which was then handling “the DeForest wireless telephone system,” was planning to locate towers from Eastport to Texas. Once again, it was stated, the company had an office in Bangor with a district manager.

Then came a great surprise. A century ago this fall, on Nov. 29, the Bangor newspapers acknowledged the city already had a wireless station — well, almost — and it had received its first complete wireless message. The owner was not a famous scientist or a business executive. He was a tinkerer, an “amateur electrician” and an employee of the local phone company.

“While a number of amateur electricians in and around Bangor have been experimenting with wireless telegraphy for some time, as far as known the first complete message picked up by an outfit here was read by Frederick Rogers of 24 Sixth Street on Saturday night when he heard the station in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York send a message to Chicago. … Mr. Rogers has also picked up messages from the Marconi station on Cape Cod reporting shipping news and fragments of messages from other stations,” said the Bangor Daily News that morning.

Rogers, with “material assistance” from P.J. Bell, “toll wire chief of the local exchange and an expert electrician,” had constructed the station using a receiver made by an electric supply company and an aerial consisting of wires running from a 75-foot pole in his yard to a pole on his house the same height from the ground. He was planning soon to set up a transmitter, which, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial that afternoon, would be Bangor’s first wireless telegraph station “of any capacity.”

In fact, the Commercial added, two young men on lower Main Street had stations that enabled them to send messages to each other and catch snatches of signals passing overhead to ships at sea. And “two boys in Brewer have similar stations, it is understood.”

Imagine the excitement generated then by these feats of technological prowess! I remember as a boy receiving a little do-it-yourself crystal radio set for Christmas and casting it aside in favor of my own transistorized version. Progress was marching on. By then the awe inspired by the first wireless transmissions received by tinkerers like Fred Rogers had been long forgotten as we waited for the Internet.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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