Today we picture Cape Cod as a haven for fishing, shell fishing, vacationing, and as a world center for the arts. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cape Cod was also a center for communication technology with some of the leading edge scientific work showing its fruits here.
The Marconi Campus site and its finely crafted buildings were designed and built by the J. G. White Engineering Company for the American Marconi Corporation and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Even in the earliest days of the 19th Century there was a telegraph office on Main Street in Chatham where a lookout watched for ships coming over the horizon and quickly telegraphed the destination port that it was on its way.
The Atlantic was indeed a lonely place when communication was limited to visual methods. Many ships crossed the horizon and their fate was never known. Cape Cod grave yards all have memorial stones over empty graves of seamen who were lost to the unforgiving seas in unknown locations.
Even in the earliest days of the 19th Century there was a telegraph office on Main Street in Chatham where a lookout watched for ships coming over the horizon and quickly telegraphed the destination port that it was on its way. The Atlantic was indeed a lonely place when communication was limited to visual methods. Many ships crossed the horizon and their fate was never known. Cape Cod grave yards all have memorial stones over empty graves of seamen who were lost to the unforgiving seas in unknown locations.
In 1874 the Transatlantic Cable was completed between Eastham and Brest France only 5 years after the original but unsuccessful cable was laid between Newfoundland and Brest France. Bits of that cable are still hooked by anchors just off Nauset Light Beach and as the cliffs move back often a bit of that cable shows its ghostly presence.
In 1891 the cable was extended to Orleans and ended at the French Cable Station that many people each year visit to see the still existing equipment representing technology state of the art in the early 20th Century. In 1898 the 3000 mile Cable laid from Orleans to Brest France and was the longest undersea cable in the world.
Technology advances allowed simultaneous communication in both directions. Automatic inkers made permanent impressions that could later be read and transmitted to their intended recipients by Telegraph or Telephone. Among the earliest uses of the cable were by financiers that took advantage of different stock prices on the New York and Paris exchanges.
In 1899 Guglielmo Marconi validated his theory that Wireless signals could extend across the Atlantic and offer competition to the Cable monopoly on communication. Marconi was also attracted to Cape Cod for its proximity to Europe and in 1903 astounded the world by completing two way communications between his 35,000 watt station in Wellfleet and Poldu England.
Marconi was at the same time extending his enterprise by communicating with ships at sea outfitted with leased Marconi Spark Gap Transmitters and Marconi Magnetic Receivers.
It was in 1901 that the American Marconi Corporation started its first commercial Ship to Shore station, MSC on Nantucket. It was at that station where a young Russian immigrant David Sarnoff began his wireless career working for Marconi. Sarnoff eventually became the head of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) when it acquired the assets of the Marconi Company after World War I. The Nantucket Building still stands.
Others made history on Cape Cod in these days. Walter Massie built a station in 1901 on Monomoy as one of several stations along Long Island Sound to communicate with ships destined for New York and the Hudson River. An existing Massey spark gap wireless station rescued from Point Judith can be seen at the Museum of Steam and Wireless in West Warwick Rhode Island.
On Christmas Eve in 1906 from Brant Rock, Reginald Fessenden used his newly delivered G.E. Alexandersen Alternator Rotary Transmitter and broadcast Voice and Music for the first time ever. His violin playing of ‘Oh Holy Night’ captivated astounded those monitoring the Wireless Stations that night for the usual dots and dashes of International Morse Code.
(We take the liberty of calling Plymouth part of Cape Cod, after all the current Cape Cod Canal demarcation point would not be built for another eight years). For a while, the most powerful transmitter in the world was being run by the US Navy in Truro. Much was happening on Cape Cod.
Marconi received the Nobel Prize in 1909 and his name became a household word. His fame obtained financing for a new project to aggressively compete with the undersea cable companies offering of higher speeds and dramatically lower costs.
He began to construct a series of stations that would link America with both Europe and Japan. In 1914 he constructed the now famous campus on Ryder’s Cove in Chatham as Circuit 3 to communicate with Naerboe and Stavanger Norway. Chatham was the controlling location where a highly sensitive receiving station was to exist and remotely operate the 300,000 watt CW spark transmitter 30 miles away in Marion.
The Chatham Station was built in 1914.
Today, you can travel back a century all the way to World War II when it played a critical role in battling Germany.
Here are some highlights:
Stalking the U-Boats: Chatham Radio 1942-1945
Seventy years ago, US and Allied forces won the Battle of the Atlantic and defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. Chatham Radio (operating as the US Navy’s secret “Station C”), was a key to this victory, by locating and tracking the marauding German U-Boats in the North Atlantic. The interception of Germany’s Enigma-encrypted radio messages hastened the Allies’ victory.
In this anniversary year, CMMC’s Marconi-RCA Wireless Museum salutes Chatham’s classified wartime role with expanded exhibits about The Navy Years. The exhibits include an authentic WWII Enigma Cipher Machine, as well as hands-on Enigma-based coding and encryption experiences for adults and children, some special events, and Summer Speaker Series presentations by WWII experts.
As you arrive at the museum site, you are greeted by a reproduction of the “USN” painted shell logo that was displayed on the lawn of the ‘Administration Building’ during the war years, and by the 48-star US flag and Naval Infantry Battalion flag of that era.
View videos: The Titanic, Matt Tierney, and Marconi’s “Marvelous Invention”, Battle of the Atlantic and The Untold Storyshown at frequent intervals.
Antenna Field Trail
Not all of our exhibits are within the walls of the museum buildings. Plan a few extra minutes to walk the reconstructed trail that marks the path of the original Marconi Antennas.
History of the Station – Chatham Radio WCC
Visit the two dioramas, Chatham Port Receiving Station and the South Chatham Transmitting Station—Tone Rack—Chatham Radio Timeline—Directional Antenna—Kleinschmidt—Vacuum Tube Display.
Chatham Campus Diorama
Morse Code Interactive
Practice Morse code at this History of Communications interactive kiosk. Encourage students and children to ask front desk for game sheets to earn a Junior Guide for Chatham Radio WCC Certificate.
The WCC Operators were wireless “Brass Pounders” and landline operators were the “Wiremen”. Visitors will experience how Ship to Shore Morse code messages were sent anywhere, from wireless to wire and back, and by WCC between ships and landline telegraph offices.