The Kid From North Haven, Maine Who Revolutionized Radio in a Tiny Belfast Shack on an Evening in 1925
Harold Beverage lived in a bucolic setting at the turn of the century-North Haven, Maine, an eleven square mile island about an hour from Rockland by ferry. Farming was the family business but Harold was in love with all things scientific and farming bored him. Maybe it was the rusticators that swarmed the island in July and August that gave him a sense of a bigger world out there.
He’d sit under a tree and pore over electrical magazines and books on engineering, and was particularly fascinated by the works of Marconi. He observed a wireless operator on a visit to Boston at the age of thirteen. This led to an avid interest in the burgeoning technology of radio, and by 1908 Howard had put together his own ‘cat’s whisker’ wireless receiver, which had a range of 2500 miles.
In the early morning of April 14th, 1912, the fifteen year old picked up a wireless transmission from the RMS Carpathia, which was steaming toward the Titanic in great haste. Captain Arthur Henry Rostron had given the order to “turn the ship around” and as a result 705 passengers were saved and young Beverage was suitably impressed.
After securing an electrical engineering degree from the University of Maine in 1915 things moved fast for Howard. He designed an antenna for RCA in 1918; at the Naval Radio facility at Otter Cliffs, MDI, he tried various configurations of his wave antenna until he was able to receive transmissions from Europe. This paid off handsomely, as the first news of the WW1 Armistice was received by a Beverage antenna on Mount Desert Island in November of that same year.
International Radio Telegraph Company had a ship-to-shore radio transmitter south of Belfast (near present day Congress and Rt 1 intersection). David Sarnoff , CEO of RCA , saw the future possibilities, expanded the setup and built two Beverage Wave antennas, one of which stretched ten miles to Searsmont. Experiments indicated that the Mid Coast of Maine, especially around Belfast, encountered less thunderstorm activity than surrounding areas, resulting in less static and stronger reception than their original station in Long island, NY.
Extensive day and night testing was conducted by Beverage and a crack crew of technicians, including one L.B. Smith from the Marconi Company in London.
Thus it was that in February of 1925 arrangements had been completed between European broadcasters and RCA to attempt a re-broadcast a foreign radio program in the states.
The late winter air was chilly when, on the evening of March 14, the signal began in London, then via land wire; the sound then traveled to a station in Chelmsford, England, before, miraculously, being sent by longwave through the air to the US, specifically to an RCA receiving station in Belfast, Maine. The signal was then re-transmitted, by shortwave, to an experimental station set up in Van Cortlandt Park before, finally, being sent out over Western Union landlines to stations WJZ in New York and WRC in Washington, DC.
Listeners tuned to WJZ heard this: “Hello America.” “This is the Hotel Savoy broadcasting from 5 Savoy court, London, England, Station 2LO.”
The broadcast in question was some two hours of orchestral music, some live from an orchestra in London’s Savoy Hotel and some from an English musical duo, set up in a studio, playing piano and violin.
There were frequent crashes of static punctuating a fairly constant roar of atmospheric noise, but there were short passages of recognizable dance music from London, with “Alabamy Bound” one of the selections heard most distinctly, along with brief phrases from the BBC announcer. The broadcast was heard quite clearly in Belfast, but much of the clarity had been lost by time it reached New York.
That morning the New York Times reported: “While hundreds of English couples danced to American jazz music last night in the ballroom of the Hotel Savoy in London, thousands of radio enthusiasts in the United States from the eastern seaboard as far west as Milwaukee listened to the same music, brought to their home by the first successful experiment in double radio relaying.” And David Sarnoff, then president of RCA, showed even greater reverence and gratitude with his statement: “The people of the United States have received a new gift from radio, the culture and music of London have come to them through the air.”
The event resulted in a flurry of High Powered LongWave Radio station construction in Europe. For the next four years the Belfast plant continued to relay European radio to the US. It was finally closed in 1929 when shortwave radio became the new standard.
Beverage’s work eventually resulted in the first worldwide communications system. He served as vice president in charge of research and development at RCA until he retired in 1958. He counted among his friends Albert Einstein, who lived nearby his home in Riverhead, New York.
Harold Beverage passed away in 1993 at the age of 99.
Thanks to Harold E. Nelson, J. Marshall Etter, Charles Francis, and Megan Pinette of the Belfast Historical Society, which has an excellent display on this topic, for her generous contribution of photos, text, and assistance.
Tony Chiodo, BCC Staff Writer and Photographer