Radio Into the Air and Across the Oceans

Above: In January 1911, at a Tanforan aviation meet south of San Francisco, Lt. Paul Beck carried in his lap a 29-pound transmitter, in a wooden box. He tapped out messages to a ground receiver as pilot Phillip Parmalee flew their Wright biplane hundreds of feet in the air. The type A-4 American Wireless Telegraph set was designed and supplied by Earle Ennis, sole employee of the Western Wireless Equipment Company. They were delighted to hear later that the messages were heard with little interference as far as 40 miles away. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Just as wireless played an important role at sea, pilots and wireless operators quickly saw its value in making communication possible between an airplane in flight and an operator on the ground.

Like the maritime world, air transportation was an obvious venue for wireless. In addition to the airplane’s disconnection from the earth, its often unpredictable movement made wired communication clearly impossible. The loudness of engine and wing noise, along with small, confined and inconvenient spaces added new dimensions to the problem.

The development of air and sea communication became vitally important during World War I, as the airplanes and air balloons, like the Navy’s vessels at sea, became essential reconnaissance tools as well as weapons. Inventive young Americans returned from war with new skills, higher expectations, and ideas for new apparatus.