Bangoreans could feel a little safer when they took the Boston boats beginning in the summer of 1911 a century ago. The Eastern Steamship Co. was required to install wireless systems by July 1.
A new federal law required wireless communication capability on steamers carrying 50 passengers and “going along the coast 200 miles,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 21. They included the Belfast and the Camden, the two big steamers that sailed between Bangor and Boston. If something went wrong at sea, the ship’s crew would be able to call for help for the first time.
“The wireless” referred to wireless telegraphy or radio telegraphy — coded messages sent through the air without wires. Radio transmission of voices was still several years away, although it had been accomplished experimentally.
Shipping accidents were common. In early August, for example, the Belfast and the Camden both struck schooners in Rockland harbor in foggy weather in separate incidents.
Vessels disappeared and nobody knew what had happened to them. A momentous example engraved on the minds of Mainers was the disappearance of the steamer Portland on a voyage between Boston and Portland with the loss of nearly 200 passengers and crew. Everyone knew the vessel went down in the terrible gale of 1898, but nobody knew the circumstances. The crew had been unable to call for help or to report the vessel’s location.
The wireless was right up there with the advent of the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane and other technological breakthroughs. Bangor still did not have a commercial wireless office, although amateurs were experimenting with the exciting new technology, talking to each other and receiving messages from afar on their homemade systems.
A reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial was invited aboard the steamer Belfast to see how the new system worked. So far it was mainly a novelty, “as was the case when telegrams were first sent over lines back in the 40s,” he reported on July 21.
He predicted more people would want to use this convenient form of communication when they learned it only cost “$1 for 10 words plus the Western Union cost for telegraphing on land.” (That doesn’t sound so cheap, considering $1 was worth about $20 in today’s currency.)
The United Wireless Company had a receiving station in Quincy, Mass., where messages were received from steamers up and down the East Coast. The operator on board the Belfast was Donald R. Hall, who attended “Massachusetts technological college.”
Leaving Boston, the first message Hall sent to Quincy was the time of departure. Off the twin lighthouse at Thacher’s Island, Hall informed Quincy of the vessel’s speed and safety. This information was relayed from Quincy to the steamship office in Boston. At about the same time, a weather forecast was received by Hall from a wireless station at the Charleston Navy Yard. Stock quotations, marine news, world and national news and even baseball scores were also transmitted to the boat.
The wireless room was located in a stateroom near the pilot house. The reporter was impressed by the “complicated and delicate” apparatus squeezed into a small space. When the machine started, it made a pop like a firecracker. “The machine is one kilowatt capacity and can easily communicate with Boston when the steamer is lying at the Bangor wharf,” he wrote.
Did amateurs transmitting signals pose a problem, the reporter asked. At a distance they did not, said the operator, but in Boston harbor, they were “a nuisance for they often prevent us from receiving messages.” Traffic from Bangor must have not amounted to much yet.
Hall, who was still a teenager, had been a wireless operator for seven years. He had his own two kilowatt apparatus at his home in Arlington, Mass. He was among those who had received the distress signal sent out by the sinking British steamer RMS Republic off Nantucket in 1909, a famous incident in wireless technology’s brief history.
Bangor’s newspapers had been publishing reports predicting the wireless would be coming to the Queen City since at least 1906. One story said the Maine Central Railroad was pricing a system that would enable passengers to send and receive messages on speeding trains.
Finally, the wireless had arrived — by boat.
“It is possible that an official wireless station may be established in this city as there are a number of competent amateur wireless operators who have well-equipped plants,” commented the reporter hopefully. Until that occurred, average Bangoreans would have to continue depending on the telephone and telegraph, unless they were bound for a voyage on the high seas.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.