Building a Radio Tower atop Mount Washington

Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

“Believing that the development of experimental facilities on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, is an undertaking that is difficult of verbal description there are attached, hereto, a brief photographic record.  The pictures submitted only show phases of the construction under ideal conditions and fail to show the severe conditions of temperature and wind velocities encountered most of the time.  For example, the crew of eight men engaged in erecting the tower were three weeks on the summit of the mountain and were able to work only five days during this period.  The work was accomplished at below freezing temperatures and in winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour.” 

– Supplementary Statement, pp. 5-6. Radio Broadcast Station License Application, 1939.

To many visitors, the summit of Mount Washington, known as the home of the “worst weather in the world,” and at 6,288 feet, the Northeast’s highest peak, is a scenic destination to be conquered by foot, by car, or by riding the famous cog railway all the way to the top. To others, the mountain’s extreme weather makes it a place of interest for recording meteorological data. Lesser known, but perhaps of interest to historians of technology, is the role it has played in the development of broadcasting. Newly processed records at the National Archives illustrate part of this history.

In the fall of 1937, the Yankee Network, Inc., an owner and operator of radio stations and department stores in New England, established W1XER, an experimental high frequency broadcast station, on the summit of Mount Washington for the purpose of determining the value of transmitting from the location and the usefulness of doing so at very high frequencies. Prior to this the station broadcast out of Quincy, Massachusetts. Since the service area of a station operating at W1XER’s frequency was dependent upon the height of its antenna, the high altitude of Mount Washington inspired the move, in spite of the harsh weather conditions that are common at the summit. In order to operate, the network submitted applications for broadcast licenses to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Its programming included rebroadcasting from other stations. The applications submitted by the Yankee Network to the FCC included photographs documenting the construction of the transmitting facilities and other general images from the mountain.

Image of a small building on top of a mountain with clouds in the background.
The new Mount Washington Observatory, Sept. 1937
Image of men posing for the camera outside a building.
Laborers on the summit of Mt. Washington, N.H. at the beginning of construction of facilities for W1XER.
Image 3
Preparing the foundation for the Pump House. The gasoline tanks are in place. Note the cog railway and automobile road.
Image 4
Foundations under construction. These foundations were designed to support the 100 foot antenna system under ice loads of six feet in depth and winds of 300 miles per hour.
Image of Armstrong standing near a partially built tower.
Major Edwin H. Armstrong inspects tower construction, October, 1937.

“Noiseless” radio reception, also known as frequency modulation, and more commonly abbreviated as FM radio, was developed by Major Edwin H. Armstrong. In many instances it replaced, but never eliminated, amplitude modulation, or AM radio, resulting in improved quality and eliminating unwanted radio noise. In 1940, the Yankee Network submitted a request to the FCC to change W1XER from an experimental high frequency broadcast station to FM.

Image of a tall antenna tower with workers on top of it.
The fabricated portion of the antenna structure was completed with temporary construction bolts as shown. Later temporary antennas were erected on this structure. Signals were transmitted during the winter and summer of 1938 from the temporary vertical and horizontal antennas.
Image of radio tower.
September 1938. The supporting structure has been completed and the elements of the two bay “Turnstile” antenna are being assembled.
Image of tower and other buildings with clouds in the background
Looking South over a sea of clouds stands the completed antenna system. The lower set of arms is a receiving antenna for communication with Boston.
Image of radio tower and building adjacent to it covered with snow.
Typical winter conditions February 1939.
Image of radio tower and adjacent buildings covered with snow.
Spring is a long way off in early March.

The documents and photographs featured in this post are from entry UD-WW 109 in the series Deleted Broadcast Station License Files, 1923-1997 (NAID 607386), Broadcast Bureau/Mass Media Bureau, Record Group 173: Records of the Federal Communications Commission.


For further reading:

Mount Washington State Park Blog Post: Friday January 13th, 2012, by Mike Pelchat, blog.nhstateparks.org

Mount Washington, N.H.: The TV Years, 1954-2002, Tower Site of the Week, fybush.com

“Tomorrow’s Broadcast Magic Pictured by Radio Men: Viewing ‘FM’s’ Future: Electrical Engineers Stage Symposium to Season Experts in New Art,” by T. R. Kennedy Jr., The New York Times, October 20, 1940, p. 12.

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