This Week in Block Island History - Early February 1903: Squeezing to the mainland through space

Mon, 02/07/2011 - 5:06am
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02/05/11 - This week in Block Island history, 108 years ago, strange happenings were occurring on Mohegan Bluffs — the construction and apparatus could have been right out of a science fiction novel of just a few years before.

The equivalent today might be if a computer guru were to visit the island with massive amounts of machinery and wires to announce construction of a new invention that could physically transport tourists here, stuffing them into a small wire and then invisibly through thin air in a microsecond — even faster than the five newfangled high-speed ferries that are likely to be running to the harbors soon.

Impossible we’d think, for a 150-pound object to move through a tiny wire and then instantly through space.

Then you can imagine the implausibility of the project taking place that February of 1903 just to the east of the Southeast Lighthouse, where famed inventor Lee De Forest was erecting a 200-foot wooden mast, with a maze of wires, to send messages for miles across the sea through thin-air.

The undertaking was the scheme of the Providence Journal that, with the help of a similar mast being built in Point Judith, planned to establish a new daily newspaper on the island for the summer of 1903. The gimmick was, instead of using the 20-year-old telegraph cable underneath Block Island Sound, all the news would be sent through the air by wireless.

Sending signals through the air, or “wireless,” was such a new concept that it was just a month before, on January 18, 1903, that the inventor Guglielmo Marconi had managed to send the first message, in dots and dashes, from the United States to Europe. Through the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station erected on Cape Cod — with four 200-foot masts — President Theodore Roosevelt and England’s King Edward VII exchanged polite greetings.

Here was an invention that had just shrunk the world in one great swoop — and Block Island was right in the middle.

For their Block Island news experiment, the Providence Journal contracted to buy a wireless system from a rival of Marconi, the American inventor Lee De Forest. Though a newcomer to this very new field, De Forest was the real thing, eventually topping even Marconi three years later by developing the vacuum tube, which soon enabled not only dots and dashes, but also the human voice to be sent through the air through a new concept called the radio.

On the island that summer of 1903, the new Block Island Wireless did come to fruition, publishing 45 issues between July 9 and August 29. This was the first and only daily newspaper published ever here. By coincidence there were two weekly Block Island papers that season, making that summer the only time when three Block Island newspapers were simultaneously published.

The Wireless newspaper had nothing to do with the Southeast Lighthouse, but was located on a private lot adjacent to it. Two small wooden buildings were used. One housed the wireless telegraph equipment, where signals were received and sent between the island and Pt. Judith.

During World War II, long after being abandoned, the property was bought sight unseen by an artist stationed in the armed forces in Europe. Upon returning from the war, John Hapgood was thoroughly in love with what his friend had picked out for him, spending a half-century of summers in the old wireless building, which he added onto charmingly like a Hobbit might, until his death in the 1990s. The stubby remains of the square 200-foot wooden tower can still be seen next to the house, imbedded in a cement pad with the numerals “1903” spelled out in pebbles.

Just to west of the wireless building was the printing office where the young newspaper staff spent much of the night setting the type and rolling the press, in time for the next morning paper.

Several copies of the Wireless have come my way, their distinctive masthead depicting a tall antenna mast on each side, one for Pt. Judith and one for the island. Also dutifully mentioned at the top of each issue was this boast: “One of Two Daily Newspapers in the World Whose News Dispatches Come by Wireless Telegraph.” The other paper was on Catalina Island off the coast from Los Angeles, Calif., where their “Wireless” began publication a few months earlier on March 25, 1903.

In 1984 a commemorative set of all 45 issues of the Block Island Wireless was reprinted by a private individual, nicely bound, for a then whopping $100 each. That was a lot of clams, which is what I used to pay for them.

In late July 1903, Lee De Forest visited the island, as the paper explained, “for a few days correcting a minor trouble in the apparatus. It took Dr. De Forest about 10 minutes to find the trouble in the apparatus.” Whatever he spent most of his time doing here — in the middle of a beautiful summer on a wonderful resort — wasn’t explained.

That previous winter and spring, though, when De Forest was on the island to construct the wireless station, he did have an adventure when he and another man ventured out from the bluffs in a small boat to place an electrical grounding plate in the sea. They were swamped by a large wave “and they had to swim for it, getting scratched and cut up as breakers tossed them through the rocks and onto the shore.”

If De Forest had drowned on Block Island, the invention of the radio tube would have been postponed and perhaps everything in the succession after it. We may not have had successful television until the 1960s instead of the 1950s, and cell phones might not be invented yet, and those tourists we will someday squeeze instantly through space might not ever appear here.