A fine aerial

“The installation of a wireless plant by the Department of Electrical Engineering necessitated the erection of steel towers on Maxcy and University Halls to carry the aerial.”

– Edwin A. Burlingame, Report of the Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings, Oct. 1916.

Maxcy Hall
Maxcy Hall with a steel tower on the roof to support the wireless aerial. This photo was taken sometime between 1916 and 1925. The aerial is also visible in a photo taken after 1925.

In 1916 Brown University announced that it would soon offer a course teaching students about a new technology: practical and experimental wireless telegraphy. It was more common during this era to transmit messages by radio waves using Morse code. Voice communication and broadcast radio did not become common until the 1920s.

University Hall
The roof of University Hall with a steel tower to support the wireless aerial.

The wireless outfit at Brown was described in the Christian Science Monitor as “the latest type.” It was capable of receiving transatlantic messages and could transmit to locations as far from Providence as Panama. The aerial, as antennas were then called, was 450 feet long and supported by two steel towers. One was located on the top of Maxcy Hall and the other on University Hall. The dimensions of the aerial were the same as the one used on the RMS Titanic; the wires are ¼ the length of the 600 meter band wavelength of transmission. The transmitter was located in the Physical Laboratory at Wilson Hall.

Titanic's Aerial
The wireless aerial of the RMS Titanic.

The United States government prohibited the operation of wireless stations during World War I. These restrictions were partially lifted in April 1919 to allow receiving messages. The Brown Daily Herald reported that “…Brown will be unable from now on to use its fine aerial for sending purposes, except in the case of special experiments.” By the fall of 1919 wireless transmitting was again permitted and students formed an amateur radio club. The club is still active today.

Providence Biltmore
A postcard from the 1920s of the Providence Biltmore Hotel with a wireless aerial strung between towers on the roof.

During this era there were a number of buildings in Providence with large antennas on the roof including the Biltmore Hotel. This one was likely used to receive news and music broadcasts which became common after the war.

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