HISTORY OF CHATHAM RADIO / WCC
Chatham, Massachusetts, was home to the largest ship-to-shore radiotelegraph station in the United States, established in 1921 by the Radio Corporation of America. For most of the 20th century, the station was known to mariners worldwide as Chatham Radio, with call letters WCC.
The Marconi Connection
The history of the Chatham site began prior to World War I with the work of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi and the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. Marconi was born in northern Italy in 1874. Inspired by the work of Faraday, Hertz, and other 19th-century scientists, he experimented until he was ready to develop commercial radio. A British company and an American subsidiary were established with financial support from his Jameson Whiskey relatives. The distances he was able to send signals increased rapidly.
In 1901 and 1902, high-power wireless stations were built at Poldhu, Cornwall, England; Glace Bay, Nova Scotia; and South Wellfleet, Cape Cod, to compete with transatlantic undersea cable service. Although demonstrations such as a 1903 message sent from President Roosevelt to England’s King Edward VII were publicly acclaimed, these stations were never able to sustain competitive transatlantic communication.
In 1912, American Marconi continued to pursue the promise of intercontinental wireless with construction of five great high-power stations on the east and west coasts. Construction of the Massachusetts station, with transmitting facilities in Marion and receiving facilities in Chatham, began in the spring of 1914.
Within months, however, World War I began in Europe. The war had crippling consequences for the Marconi interests in America. The Massachusetts facilities were incomplete. The wireless equipment being manufactured by the parent company in England was not forthcoming, leaving the buildings idle.
Technology in Transition
The Marconi Company expected to open Chatham/Marion for transatlantic service after the war. Two factors combined to undermine that expectation.
First, the wireless technology that Marconi had pioneered was facing obsolescence. The latest developments in wireless were in the hands of the General Electric Company (GE), the U.S. industrial giant.
Second, the U.S. Navy under the Wilson administration had a vision of America’s position among the nations of the world in the post-war era. The U.S. needed to become the leader in global communications. A plan was devised whereby GE would acquire the controlling British interests in the American company and an all-American company would be created. Accordingly, in 1919, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was conceived, established, and primed to be the force that would make America supreme in radio communication.
Alexanderson Alternators - Marion MA
Under the leadership of the Radio Corporation, patents and resources of the leading American companies AT&T, Western Electric, Westinghouse, United Fruit interests, and GE were joined through negotiation, accelerating America’s advances in international communication.
RCA opened the Massachusetts station in 1920, with circuits to Norway and Germany. Soon, however, change was underway within RCA. The company consolidated its transatlantic operations at a new station on Long Island. Chatham’s transatlantic operations ceased.
Chatham - 1922
For a time, with purpose fading, the future of Chatham and Marion looked bleak. In a visionary move, RCA inaugurated maritime service in April 1921, adapting and improving the existing long-distance facilities to the business of communicating with ships on the high seas. Call letters WCC, formerly used by the defunct South Wellfleet station, were once again heard by mariners plying the waters of the world.
The conversion of a high-power intercontinental station to expansive maritime operations was a first for RCA. Company advertising of the ‘20s boasted that WCC was “The World’s Greatest Coastal Station.”
WCC went on to grow and serve global maritime interests throughout the balance of the 20th century, suspended only during the Navy’s WW II occupation. First known as Marion Radio, the name was changed to Chatham Radio in the 1930s.
At its peak, Chatham Radio / WCC was the largest U.S. coastal station, serving seafarers around the world until 1997, when its methods fell victim to the miracles of modern communication technology.
WCC Circa 1967
When you visit CMMC's Navy exhibit and see the video Chatham Radio Goes to War you will hear Henry Stamps tell how Chatham Navy radiomen listened for radio transmissions from German submarines during World War II. The Navy eavesdroppers intercepted Morse code signals, encrypted by the Enigma machine, and relayed them to Washington, DC, where they were decrypted with the Bombe, a forerunner of the modern computer.
CMMC's Navy exhibit committee first met Henry Stamps via email. He volunteered to help us with the exhibit from his home in Virginia. Henry was among the Navy radiomen who arrived in Chatham in 1942 to open the listening station here, and later was assigned to the Greenland station of the direction-finding network. After the war, he worked as a civilian at Naval Security Group Headquarters in Washington, DC, and at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, MD.
Henry died on April 24, 2012, after a short illness. His wife of 65 years, Mary Vallastro Stamps, his daughter Marilyn, his son-in-law, and his grandson survive him.
World War II buffs will be interested in an article Henry wrote several years ago that can be found on the CMMC website.
The Navy Years
Thank You, Henry Stamps (US Navy WWII & CMMC Contributor)
Navy Roster at Chatham MA During WWII
We have a roster showing personnel assigned to Chatham during WWI. It lists names, rank, and dates of assignment.
Click here to browse the roster.