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Dr. Wolters is an historian of technology at Iowa State University and a captain ill the U.S. Navy Reserve. He qualified ill submarines on USS GROTON (SSN-694) and taught submarine comm11nicatio11s at the Naval Submarine School.

Three articles recently appearing in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW discuss the history of submarine radio communications in the United States Navy.1 The first of these chronicles submarine radio developments through the 1920s, devoting a majority of space to the First World War (1914-18) and after. The article’s authors point out that by 1910 several U.S. submarines had been equipped with transmitters and receivers; they also describe a primitive antenna system installed on OCTOPUS (C-1) around the same time.2 Yet OCTOPUS appears not to have been one of the original test platforms for submarine radio communications. That honor belongs to several other boats, notably STINGRAY (C-2), NARWHAL (D-1), and GRAYLING (D-2), each of which conducted important wireless experiments in 1909-1O.

This article examines those experiments, as well as another series of tests performed in 1915 that likely were the first in which American naval personnel used a floating-buoy antenna designed for a submarine. In aggregate, these experiments demonstrate that the individuals who worked with submarines a century ago were aggressively trying to get radio on boats and out to sea. Before exploring such efforts, however, a quick overview of the Navy’s work with wireless prior to 1909 is necessary.

The first United States naval officer to communicate from a warship via electromagnetic radiation was Bradley A. Fiske, who in 1887 signaled between his ship and a nearby pier. Fiske accomplished this by passing current through copper plates suspended beneath his ship and the pier, but when he tried to implement this system on moving vessels it failed to work. Fiske went on to other endeavors, one of which involved inventing and developing the stadimeter, a device well known to later generations of submariners.

While Fiske was perfecting his stadimeter, the U.S. Navy experimented with ways to extend the range at which signals could be sent and received. One interesting avenue of research involved messenger pigeons, but this work barely had begun when a new technology arrived on the scene.4 That technology was wireless telegraphy, which Guglielmo Marconi first demonstrated to American naval officers in the fall of 1899. Marconi’s demonstration showcased the potential of radio when during one trial two cruisers thirty-six nautical miles apart, communicated success-fully.5 But Marconi had not yet solved the problem of interference, and he insisted on annual royalty payments, something the Navy Department could not legally disburse. A few years passed before the Navy purchased its first radios, from a German company, in February 1903. The fleet utilized these several months later in an exercise conducted off the New England coast.

The Battle of Tsushima (27-28 May 1905), during which the Japanese naval commander used wireless more judiciously than his Russian counterpart, seems to have created a new sense of urgency within the Navy Department over the adoption of radio. Yet exercises conducted in July 1905 and January 1906 revealed that interference was still a major problem.7 Spark gap transmitters, the only reliable type during the first decade of the twentieth century, produced highly damped waves (i.e., their energy was dispersed over an extremely wide frequency band}, and early receivers were temperamental, particularly under the harsh conditions of shipboard use. Fortunately, better equipment was on the way. Dependable arc transmitters would become available in time for World War I, but even before then Marconi and others introduced the quenched spark gap, a transmitter that minimized damping and thus helped overcome the interference problem. Receivers improved too, especially after Greenleaf W. Pickard patented his crystal detector near the end of 1906. Soon thereafter, Pickard founded a company that sold many of these devices to the U.S. Navy.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, then, wireless technology had advanced to the point where submarine radio was a realistic possibility. The Bureau of Equipment, which held responsibility for radio, was favorably inclined toward the idea but needed a few subs on which to conduct experiments. Fortuitously, in the spring of 1909 the Fore River Ship and Engine Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, had just launched and was completing work on three submarines: STINGRAY, TARPON, and NARWHAL.9 STINGRAY and TARPON were C-class boats, designed by Lawrence Y. Spear and built in Quincy under a sub-contract from the Electric Boat Company. Each had a single hull, contained internal ballast tanks, and displaced 275 tons sub-merged. NARWHAL, built under the same contractual arrangement, was nearly identical in design but larger, displacing 337 tons submerged. She was the lead ship of the U.S. Navy’s D-class submarines.

Testing commenced in June 1909 with a schedule that called for experiments on both STINGRAY and TARPON, but the latter had an unrelated material problem so STINGRAY became the sole test platform. She received a compressed air (i.e., quenched) spark gap transmitter designed by Canadian-American inventor Reginald Fessenden, but naval electricians quickly discovered a broken condenser on that device. As such, no transmitting tests could be performed. STINGRAY succeeded in receiving messages from the nearby Boston Navy Yard, however, a feat that may have been a first for an American submarine.

A few weeks later the Bureau of Equipment used another submarine, NARWHAL, for a wireless experiment designed to ascertain if underwater reception of radio was possible. Of course, this was similar to what Bradley Fiske had tried to accomplish more than twenty years earlier. This time around, the navy installed two brass plates below the waterlines of NARWHAL and a service vessel. Electricians ran insulated leads vertically up from these plates to each ship’s deck. Initially the service vessel, then NARWHAL, succeeded in receiving signals from a nearby warship. When the leads were run from NARWHAL’s deck down the hatch and into the pressure hull, though, the signals became very weak. This led George H. Clark, the radio expert observing the experiment, to report “that the presence of a metallically continuous screening around the leads from the under water plates to the receiver is very detrimental.”

Still needing to determine the feasibility of underwater wire-less communications, in June 1910 the Bureau of Equipment conducted more tests on another D-class submarine, GRAYUNG. These experiments initially mirrored those done on NARWHAL, with metal plates (this time copper, instead of brass) being submerged beneath the hull. The receiver on GRAYUNG was almost certainly better than the one used the previous year, although electricians learned that one type of crystal detector “was very quickly put out of commission by the battery gas present within the boat.”14 After the initial configuration demonstrated reliable signal reception, sailors moved the copper plates topside and hung them on oars lashed to GRAYLING’s diving masts (figure 1 ).

The submarine then submerged to various depths while moored to the pier. The copper plates touched water when GRAYUNG submerged lo ten feet, and were covered completely at twelve feet. Signals could be heard to a submerged depth of fifteen feet (i .e., the top of the plates were three feet beneath the water), but no deeper. According to George Clark, the GRAYLING experiments demonstrated conclusively .. that there is some penetration of sea water by electro-magnetic waves, but that this is not sufficient to enable a method of wireless communication … to be employed in practice.”

Clark captured the essence of a problem that continues to plague submariners even today: how to communicate while submerged. Recently the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as part of their TRITON program, awarded a $31.8 million contract for the construction of a blue-laser underwater communications system slated for trials in July 2012. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin continues its work on buoys that potentially will allow for better two-way communications between submarines and shore stations, ships, and/or aircraft.16 In the early twentieth century the Triton program would have represented science fiction, but the buoy concept was certainly comprehensible. And while today’s engineers wrestle with issues of how to maintain radio connectivity at both depth and speed, naval personnel in the 191 Os had their own idea about how to transmit from a submerged submarine. That idea centered on a floating-buoy antenna.

Cold War submariners undoubtedly will recall the BRA-8, a towed-communications buoy used by SSBNs to receive messages while on patrol. Its original forebear never had a name, but dates to 1915, when American naval personnel tested a floating-buoy transmitter. Known sources do not positively identify who first conceived of such a device, but many submariners surely would have liked the idea of being able to send messages without having to surface.17 The experiments on GRAYLING in 1910 had demonstrated that a sub could receive messages while partially submerged, but transmitting through water was an altogether different matter. Likely prompted by someone familiar with submarines, the Bureau of Steam Engineering, which by then had assumed responsibility for naval radio, explored the potential of the floating-buoy transmitter in November 1915. The bureau’s tests involved two different arrangements for exciting a small antenna mounted on a buoy that was to be “carried in a ‘nest’ in the submarine [and] so arranged that upon being released, it will float to the surface with its antenna.”18 The first arrangement proposed locating the entire transmitter inside the submarine, with an insulated cable running up to the antenna.

The second arrangement proposed placing a majority of the transmitting equipment on the buoy itself .

Standard shipboard antennas of the era were usually quite long, often 80 feet or more in length. Obviously this would not work for a buoy carried by a submarine, so the bureau tested three relatively compact antennas during the trials. The first was a 20-foot tall vertical pipe antenna with kite aerials; the second was simply a I 0-foot tall pipe, apparently borrowed from the navy’s stock of interior communications voice tubes; and the third was a spiral antenna made of looped copper wire .

The recently launched destroyer CONYNGHAM (DD-58), moored in Philadelphia, simulated a submarine with a specially installed spark-gap transmitter equal in power to that which could easily be fitted on a sub. After a routine check of CONYNGHAM’s own antennas, a 180-foot insulated lead was placed in the water and attached to the floating buoy. Each of the three antennas radiated at between 4.5 and 4.8 amperes, inclusive, with the tallest antenna giving the best results. 19 Yet the signals were not sufficiently strong to be heard by wireless operators just eight miles away. Would the results be better when electricians moved transmitting apparatus onto the buoy itself? Unfortunately, the answer was no. In fact, the results were significantly worse, with a maximum radiated signal of only 1.0 ampere. Although the first arrangement had proven superior, it was nevertheless inadequate, leading the officer who observed the tests to report “that it will probably be impossible to work the desired 30-50 miles with a 1/4 KW set, and the small antenna that can be used. “20 In short, the trials revealed that a promising idea was simply not practicable with the technology then in existence.

Indeed, the promise of a floating-buoy transmitter would not be realized until the advent of high-frequency radio, and routine use of such devices would have to await the Cold War, when the BRT-1 SLOT (Sub Launched One-way Transmitter) buoy became standard equipment on board U.S. submarines. While such developments lay well in the future, the experiments conducted on STINGRAY, NARWHAL, GRAYLIONG and CONYNGHAM in the early twentieth century made clear to American naval personnel the basic limitations of early submarine radio. They also marked a critical first step toward solving the inherent challenges of submarine communications.


CAPT Edward Clausner, USN(Ret)
CAPT Joseph G. DiGiacomo, USN(Ret)
CAPT Ralph L. Enos, USN(Ret)
CAPT James P. Forsyth, USN(Ret)
LCDR Phillip B. Kinnie, USN(Ret)
CDR John F. Kubovchik, USN(Ret)
Mrs. Sidney Elizabeth Donelson Meyer
RADM Maurice “Mike” H. Rindskopf, USN(Ret)

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