ETHER JUMPERS NEVER SLEEP (Nov, 1938)
ETHER JUMPERS NEVER SLEEP
By Emile C. Schnurmacher
THE man who stops time in its tracks, or turns it forward to tomorrow or backward into yesterday by simply pressing a button, sits quietly in front of the long panel in the master control room of the National Broadcasting Company at Radio City, watching the hands of a clock which point to twenty seconds less than twelve o’clock noon.
In just twenty seconds the musical program being broadcast by a Philadelphia concert orchestra will leave the air. In twenty-one seconds, hundreds of thousands of listeners who are tuned in on the network will, through their sense of hearing, be transported half way round the world to Delhi, India, where a speaker is waiting to give a description of an amazing election, telling how 33,000,000 voters, most of them illiterates, went to the polls.
But the man at the control panel does more than carry the radio listeners in imagination to Delhi. He also bridges time for them. Although it is noon in New York, the program in Delhi is taking place at 10:30 p.m. Berlin is listening to it at 6 p.m., Rio de Janeiro at 2 p.m., Shanghai at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning, Tokio at 2 a.m. and far-off Wellington, New Zealand, at 4:30 a.m. The ether jumpers never sleep as their programs go around the globe. The rapid strides of radio during the past few years have made possible world-girdling hook-ups which, in the space of an hour, will take you into yesterday, today and tomorrow, from a celebration in Moscow to a Gaucho orchestra on the Argentine pampas, from a ceremonial fete in Tokio to a native dance in Suva.
Ether-jumping programs with their intricate hook-ups, engineered with split-second accuracy, have become so popular that John F. Royal, vice president of the National Broadcasting Company, points out that international broadcasts are vying with the most popular commercial programs.
“During the past thirteen years we have presented more than 2,000 of these broadcasts and these figures tell the story of radio’s achievement in international broadcasting, also symbolizing the progress made in radio engineering and science,” states Mr. Royal. “Consider the first ether-jumping broadcast back in 1924. The pickup point was Havana, but radio used a cumbersome technique. The program of music was carried to the mainland by submarine cable and then relayed to seven stations. This required weeks of preparation.
“With the development of short waves which could be re-broadcast, the ‘cigar box’ control panel for broadcasting from any point whether it be a manhole or a congressman’s hat, and with other ingenious inventions and improvements by radio scientists, ether jumpers may now bring to radio audiences an address from Shanghai, a Papal ceremony from the Vatican, a concert from Berlin, the noises of a volcano in Italy and other interesting or important events in an uninterrupted program which goes smoothly on the network although those events originate at points thousands of miles apart. It is almost as easy to switch in Paris or London today as it is to pick up a dramatic sketch from Chicago or California, or a dance band from Boston.” The development of the short wave and of the technique for re-broadcasting it on regular wave lengths proved one of the greatest assets to the ether jumpers. In 1918 a twenty-meter wave was looked upon as almost useless, but today, after many experiments and improvements in the vacuum tube, tremendous distances can be spanned with the super-power of that short wave. Even the most important sponsored network programs are interrupted by the ether jumpers when there is an event of world- wide interest taking place. The announcement, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin from London, Moscow, Manila, Rome” or wherever the event may be taking place, has become an integral part of radio broadcasting, although the scientific preparation behind such short announcements may require weeks, or even months of work to make them possible as they occur.
An outstanding example of this occurred when King George V became seriously ill. Here was an event of world-wide importance to be flashed around the globe. Immediately watchers of the NBC took up their twenty-four hour vigil. At the gate of the palace, in front, of the homes of attending physicians, in every strategic point where the official word of the king’s passing might be given, they waited. Across the way from the palace gate, a man was stationed at a telephone connected with the British broadcasting station in London which in turn was connected with the master control room at Radio City, with a short wave “cue line” over which the engineers on both sides of the Atlantic could talk and get everything in readiness. When the king breathed his last, the watcher at the gate signaled the man at the telephone. “King George V died three minutes ago,” the man at the phone told the control room in London. Immediately the British Broadcasting Company talked to Radio City over the short-wave cue line. The message came in over short waves to the receiving station at Bound Brook, N. J. From there it ran over telephone lines to the master control room at Radio City, where the master control engineer pressed the “hot switch” and re-broadcast the message on the network.
Although the ether jumpers scooped the world on the news of this event they were still not satisfied, for the commercial program which they had interrupted to do so was broadcasting a cheery song.
They decided that in the future when such solemn events took place even more preparation was necessary. Soon the occasion arose for such preparation, for over in Rome, the Pope became seriously ill.
Immediately the same elaborate preparations were made. But in addition to the arrangements for the ether-jumping broadcast from abroad, in Radio City another group of watchers took up their vigil. There were four organists, one announcer and one engineer on hand so there might be a short solemn program of organ music as a prelude to the announcement. In order, therefore, to scoop the world, even greater speed would be necessary than before. The ether jumpers, who measure time in split seconds, would have to beat by nearly forty seconds their previous speed in reporting King George’s death so that there could be a thirty-second prelude of organ music before the announcement. For more than a month, until the Pope finally was pronounced out of danger, the studio vigil was kept, in addition to the one in Vatican City. The organists were divided into two-hour shifts and were on continuous duty, waiting for an event which did not occur.
“This demonstrates the great detailed attention which is being paid to every phase of ether jumping today,” states Mr. Royal. “It is not only a game requiring the immediate adoption of every practical improvement or scientific radio device as it is originated, but requires also great patience and the willingness to take long chances to bring world events to the radio audience as they occur.
“An impressive example of this was the expedition made to a tiny spot in the South Seas. Four tons of NBC broadcasting equipment with a staff of engineers and announcers made a 7,000-mile journey to the Southern Pacific so that ether jumpers might hear an eye-witness description of the longest total eclipse of the sun in 1,200 years. The complete program was to last only fifteen minutes and yet we sent this expedition to the only point in the 5,000-mile path of the eclipse from which satisfactory observations could be made, knowing in advance that if the day should prove cloudy there might be nothing to put on the air.”
In recent months there have been significant developments in ether jumping which students of world affairs as well as radio engineers and scientists believe soon may prove important in influencing the course of history. One was the formation’ of the International Broadcasting Union for the exchange of foreign programs throughout the world. All the great broadcasting systems of the globe were fused into a single universal network at the start for a program from Buenos Aires by the Associacion de Broadcasters Argentinos.
“There is every indication that music programs such as this will become exceedingly popular with the ether jumpers, for music is a universal language which needs no translating.” Mr. Royal explained. “It may well mark the beginning of a new era in which the radio engineer, the scientist and the musician have combined to promote international understanding of the various national cultures. To this end the principal broadcasting companies of each nation combine to present a program of music typical of their land, with radio systems of other nations throughout the world relaying the program to their respective peoples.”
Another significant development is that of the powerful mobile station which attracted the attention of the ether jumpers in March, 1937, when radio listeners on the short-wave band at 4 p.m. were amazed to hear an anonymous foreign station come in as strongly as the most powerful local station.
“Here speaks an illegal broadcasting station in Germany of the German Communist Party” the announcer told the ether jumpers in English. “We will broadcast again tomorrow night punctually at ten despite the German Secret Police and if this station should be traced and ourselves captured, all arrangements have been made for a broadcast to be made from another station.”
Despite efforts of German radio engineers to discover the source of this powerful station by means of directional finders, a method which generally can trace a transmitting radio station, they failed in this instance. As a result they concluded the programs were being broadcast from a fast-moving truck equipped with a powerful transmitter and telescoping antenna. The only way to interrupt its activities was to “jam” the air with a program sent out on the same wave length. This illustrates dramatically how the ether jumper today may get messages from distant points in spite of many obstacles.
During the same week another example of this sort surprised the ether jumpers when, as the Spanish rebel army was hammering at the very gates of Madrid and their planes were dropping bombs on the besieged city, the loyalist station broadcast a message to America on a wave length of 9.4 megacycles, also coming in strongly.
“This is EAQ, No. 2” the announcer said. “Hello, hello, English-speaking friends and listeners everywhere. Take a walk with us along the deserted streets of Madrid. Hear the dreadful hum of an approaching enemy plane. Listen. The bomb is exploding.”
So the eye-witness description of an actual air raid was broadcast and ether jumpers heard the bomb actually explode. This was made possible not only by the most modern broadcasting apparatus but also by a new directional microphone which picks up sounds in a certain direction and excludes them from others, American radio engineers pointed out.
All of these important happenings in international broadcasting have proved that while ether jumping is still in its infancy, and one of the newest of sciences, it is making tremendous strides forward. “It is already a factor in world affairs today,” Mr. Royal points out, “and tomorrow its far reaching effects may be well nigh incalculable.”