A Column about Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Texting Through The Ether
Binghamton's Historic Role in Wireless Communication

One hundred years ago the first wireless messages were exchanged between stations in Binghamton, Scranton, and a train travelling 60 miles per hour between the two cities. Called aerograms at the time and sent in Morse code, in today’s terms they were text messages. The date was November 21, 1913, and the world’s first test of wireless communication between fixed stations and a moving train was a success. It was a great day. We don’t know the content of those first messages, but if there was a Morse code equivalent to a smiley face emoticon, you can be sure it was there.

Over the next few days more tests were conducted, equipment was fine-tuned, and improvements were made. Finally on November 27, the first “official” announcement was made of wireless communication with a moving train.

It was 1895 when Guglielmo Marconi invented a practical method for wireless telegraphy. As he described the process to a reporter, “It is the Morse code… for one dot, a single spark jumps; for one dash, there comes a stream of sparks. Each spark indicates a certain oscillating impulse from the electrical battery that actuates the coil; each one of these impulses shoots through the wire, and from the antenna through space by oscillations of the ether, travelling at the speed of light. That is all there is in the sending of these Marconi messages.”

By 1913 Marconi wireless systems had been successfully used in a variety of applications, one of the most effective being ship-to-shore communications. Just one year before the Binghamton experiment it was a Marconi system that transmitted “SOS… TITANIC SINKING, PLEASE RUSH ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE, RUSH, RUSH.”

Now there was a growing need to communicate with fast-moving trains but at that time it was doubtful that it could be done. Transmitting to a slow-moving ship with a high antenna over an unobstructed span of water was one thing, transmitting to a high-speed train with a low antenna through mountainous terrain posed serious challenges.

Lackawanna Station viewed from northeast showing both towers and antenna, ca. 1913.

The sole remaining Marconi tower as it appears today.

To test the concept, in the summer of 1913 a wireless transmitting and receiving station was constructed at the Lackawanna Station in Binghamton. A 97 foot steel tower was erected at the east end of the terminal and a similar tower was positioned at the west end next to the Chenango Street viaduct. Four cables spanned between the tops of the towers to form an antenna. Transmitting and receiving equipment was installed in a small room on the second floor of the depot. Meanwhile a similar wireless station was constructed at the Scranton, Pennsylvania terminal sixty five miles to the south.

A third station was installed on the “Lackawanna Limited” train, where a horizontal rectangular aerial was mounted 18 inches above each of four cars and connected to each other by slack wires.

Each fixed station could transmit and receive over a range of about 100 miles, but due to the hilly terrain and the fact that its antenna was relatively low to the ground, the range of a moving train was less than half that.

Marconi’s plan was to have fixed stations spaced at 50 to 80-mile intervals along the railway, ensuring that a train would always be in contact with a tower as it travelled through successive overlapping “cells” of coverage. The cellular concept sounds familiar. In fact today’s wireless mobile phones work by the same principle.

After the initial tests, further refinements continued to be made on the Lackawanna Railroad wireless system. Wireless technology evolved rapidly and it soon became clear that the telegraphy system should be converted to wireless telephony, eliminating the need for Morse code and specially trained operators. Early in 1914 Marconi transmitting equipment was replaced by the new more powerful Wallace tuner. At the same time massive towers were erected at Hoboken and Buffalo, establishing a wireless telephone system with a range of 400 miles and rendering the Marconi system obsolete.

On April 15, 1914, in a test of the powerful new wireless telephone system, communication with a moving train was accomplished. It was an exciting time, but short lived. Any celebrating came to a stop the very next day when the U.S. Navy brought an immediate halt to the activity. As it turned out, the broadcast frequency used by the railroad was the same as that used by the Navy in communication with its fleet. The railway transmissions were blocking critical Navy communications.

Unfortunately, converting the entire Lackawanna Railroad system to a different frequency involved a major redesign of all the wireless stations. While conversion was being considered, entry into World War I put a stop to the entire project. Binghamton’s wireless station fell dormant. Just five months after the world’s first wireless cellular messaging was accomplished, it was all over.

In 1925, one of the Binghamton towers was dismantled, its steel framework re-used to construct light fixtures in the railroad yard. Later the only other original Marconi station in Scranton was removed.

It was nearly twenty years ago, after reading a short article on the subject by Broome County Historian Gerald Smith, that local business owner and vintage radio aficionado Scott Phillips, Sr. took an interest in the sole remaining tower at Binghamton’s Lackawanna Station.

Phillips, owner of Scott’s Radio & Television Company, recognized the significance of this long-forgotten piece of Binghamton history. “Everybody had seen the tower, but very few people knew about it,” said Phillips. He contacted others and formed the Marconi Tower Project to preserve and recognize the tower.

After countless hours of research and a personal investment of “thousands of dollars,” Phillips’ goal was realized. On October 9, 1998, Phillips, along with City and County officials dedicated a New York State Historical Marker at the site. “It was a beautiful day,” recalled Phillips.

Phillips’ passion for the project is obvious. “There was a lot of help by many others, and a lot of love. I just wanted to keep something in Binghamton that very few people knew about,” he said. Clearly, without Phillips’ involvement, not only would increasingly fewer people know the historic significance of this tower, but without a doubt it would have been dismantled years ago, cashed in for the price of scrap steel.

This November marks the 100th anniversary of the first wireless text messaging between Binghamton’s Marconi tower and a moving vehicle. Wireless communication has come a long way since then. Recent data shows over 300 million active cell phone accounts just in the U.S. Last year over two trillion text messages were sent “through the ether” to more than 300,000 cell phone towers in this country.

Incredibly, Binghamton was involved one century ago in the very earliest experiments of wireless cellular communications, and thanks to a small group of caring individuals, a 100-year-old cell tower stands downtown as a monument to that pioneering effort.

Asked about an observance for the anniversary, Phillips said the possibility is being discussed but no plans have been finalized. His immediate concern is to have the historical marker repaired and repainted, a project that he hopes to raise funds to accomplish, ideally in time for a 100th anniversary re-dedication ceremony.

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Lackawanna Station