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Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society

Airship America Events, Chelmsford October 2010

22nd January 2011 Amended to include photographs and report of the period transmitting from Chelmsford.

Double Centenary Events.
Cursor towards the bottom to see photographs from Sunday, 17th October

  • First Attempt by a Powered Aircraft to Cross the Atlantic
  • First Advertised, Powered Airborne Wireless - 15th October 1910.
  • First Air-Sea Rescue involving Wireless - 18th October 1910.
    World record of both endurance and distance by a powered aircraft.

CARS Involvement
To commemorate the achievements of the Airship America the Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society will transmit from the Marconi Hut at Sandford Mill Museum on Sunday, 17th October 2010 using the Special Event call-sign GB100MWT.   Other Amateur Radio stations around the world will be active including the Marconi Radio Club of America, W1AA.

Airship America - History
Explorer Walter Wellman had attempted to walk to the North Pole in 1893 but had given up and considered that the only practicable way to get there was by air.   At the Portsmouth (New Hampshire, USA) Peace Conference in 1905 he saw a French Lebaudy dirigible and considered that was a possible method of transport.

He ordered a non-rigid dirigible airship from Mutin Louis Godard from France in 1906, with the intention to become the first person to reach the North Pole by air.   There were several problems with the airship and the Polar attempt was abandoned.

Undaunted Wellman set about getting sponsors for a more daring escapade – crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an airship.   Three newspapers backed the enterprise; the New York Times, The Chicago Record-Herald and the London Daily Telegraph.

It was announced that the start would be in July 1910 and would take approximately six days although food was stored for ten.

Airship America in its hangar in Atlantic City, NJ.
Airship America in its hangar in Atlantic City, NJ.
The large notice at the right says
"This Airship will be Equipped with specially constructed Wireless Apparatus supplied by Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co and will be Worked by one of their Operators during the journey".

You can see that Marconi was very good with his publicity.

Once again Wellman secured the assistance of engineer Melvin Vaniman who arranged for the original airship used on the North Pole attempt to be enlarged and refined.   Wellman was aware of the use of wireless on board ships and approached the Marconi Wireless Company of America for assistance.   They readily acceded to the request and contributed the equipment manufactured in Hall Street, Chelmsford, England and nominated Marconi employee, Jack Irwin as the wireless operator.   Frederick Sammis, Marconi's Chief Engineer in America arranged for the equipment to be built in a box to contain the posibility of the Spark causing an explosion with the Gas Bag above.

Jack Irwin had been the Marconi shore operator who received the ‘CQD’ signal from the RMS Republic when it was rammed the year before by the SS Florida off Nantucket Island.   See “Jack Binns Event - 2009" in the CARS Web Site, Sandford Mill Folder -

Fitting up the America with wireless equipment required some ingenuity to meet the novel conditions – conditions which meant little space and little strain, coupled with much durability” (quote from Jack Irwin).   The airship comprised the envelope, the gondola (in the USA called the car) and below that a self bailing lifeboat purchased Saunders, Cowes, Isle of Wight, England.   The wireless equipment was installed in a waterproof cupboard in the front of the lifeboat which was 8 metres long and 2 metres wide.

Wireless equipment from Airship America.
Specially constructed Wireless Apparatus supplied by Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co.   Note the Sparking "Balls" are inside the box - as Mr David Barlow of the Lizard Radio commented "Sparks and Hydrogen do not go well together".
Phograph supplied by Virginia "Binns".   Virginia quotes "Sammis, (the US Marconi Engineer) rigged for Jack Irwin the equipment shown above.   This picture comes from Alfred P. Morgan, Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony Simply Explained, New York, 1913, Norman W. Henley, publisher.   Sammis installed the spark apparatus inside the box, to protect it from blowing up the ship".
PS   This did happen to an Airship in 1917 when the Spark Transmitter blew it up!

The transmitter comprised a loose-tuning coil, the primary winding was connected with the spark gap of an induction coil which was energised by a storage battery, charged in turn by a miniature generating set, which also supplied light for the airship.   The earth and aerial wires being connected with opposite ends of the secondary.

Wireless equipment from Airship America.
Jack Irwin standing by the side of the Wireless Equipment prior to installing it in the Forward
compartment of the Lifeboat.   The Airship can be seen behind Jack.
Photograph supplied and reproduced by kind permission of Mr Anthony Simon,
(Grandson of Frederick Simon, Navigator on the Airship America)

The receiver was a Magnetic Detector and headphone receiver which is approx 10 times more sensitive than the Coherer.

Wireless equipment from Airship America.
A Magnetic Detector, similar to that which Jack Irwin used to receive the messages while in the Airship.
The Detector is clockwork and runs for about 20 minutes.   Note the winding handle on the right hand side.
Photograph taken of the Detector at BAE Systems Research Headquarters, Great Baddow,
Chelmsford and reproduced by kind permission of the Director.

The aerial was supplied by a phosphor bronze wire leading from the transmitter to the car above.   The Wireless Earth was attached to the Equilibrator Cable - see below.   As was normal in those days it was necessary to switch the aerial and earth from transmit to receive and back again as required so a double pole switch would be used.

Jack was able to hear a station 1,000 miles away, but his own sending power ranged from 60 to 200 miles, according to the weather conditions and time of day or night and whether he was using power from his motor driven generator or batteries.   The problem he had was that the noise from the motor was so great it drowned out the sound of the incoming message!

There was also a telephone between the car and the lifeboat.

The Equilibrator was a 100 metre long cable attached to 30 steel casks, each one holding 30 gallons (US) of petrol and 20 wooden barrels which reached down into the sea.   This was the method Wellman used on his earlier expedition to ensure that the airship maintained a constant height of 60 metres above the sea.   When the Equilibrator was winched the idea was that it did not come up – the airship came down – this would be to obtain a cask of petrol.
Besides the petrol in the Equilibrator there was 1,200 gallons in tanks under the cabin.

On the morning of 3rd September the gas envelope containing 9,760 cu metres of Hydrogen was inflated and bags of sand in clusters of five were fitted to the car to keep it on the ground.   A total of ten tons of ballast (sand) was used to keep her on the ground.   The method of producing the hydrogen was by mixing 80 tons of Sulphuric acid with 60 tons of iron filings in a vat.   Many tests and trials were carried out on the airship: the whole escapade nearly failed when a gale in September almost destroyed the wooden structure housing the airship.

On September 28th the crew was ready to take off but the weather moved in and the attempt was postponed.   The wind subsided but was replaced by thick fog.   Further problems nearly caused the trip to be aborted when on October 6th Jack Irwin “the wireless man" brought his right foot into contact with the Sulphuric tank vent in the gas making plant burning his foot so badly that he had to be sent to hospital, he did not want to go but the doctors insisted, he soon returned to his post.

The Crew:-

15th October 1910 - Departing Atlantic City

Airship America.
Airship America as portrayed by the New York Times, one of the Sponsors of the event.
Note the "Equilibrator" is shown attached to the Airship by passing through the centre well of the
Lifeboat which contained the Wireless.   The Equilibrator cable was used as the Wireless Earth.

The America was provided with two Lorraine-Dietrich engines - one driving a propeller at the back and another at the front.   Soon after take-off one failed.   When darkness fell the lift dropped and the failed engine was jettisoned as ballast.   Another engine powered a generator for the Wireless and lighting.   After 38 hours airborne (a World Record for a powered aircraft) the second propeller engine failed and the America was at the mercy of the wind.

After another 33 hours airborne, with failed engines, the chance of getting across the Atlantic faded away and survival was the only thing they could think of.   “It’s all up.”   Was his brief comment in the middle of the afternoon when the gale struck the America and it looked as though they must take to the lifeboat immediately.   Later, in noting down the events of the early morning on which the ship the RMS Trent picked them up near Bermuda, Irwin wrote: “It was all rather funny, sitting in the lifeboat under the balloon and hearing inquiries being made for us and not being able to answer”.

Irwin’s great trouble came from the lack of power in his transmitter.   Much of the time he could hear, but could not make himself heard.   He would get the messages distinctly from the land stations.   But there was not enough voltage at his command for him to be able to answer.   It is duly noted in his diary for October 17. “Now hear Cape Sable sending a message to some ship.   It is from the New York Times and is about the weather”.

18th October 1910 - The Rescue
During the hours of darkness, Irwin descended into the lifeboat and called "CQD".   Nothing doing.   Then he got a small electric torch and commenced calling in Morse lamp fashion which was eventually answered by the RMS Trent and signalled to them that we were in trouble and required help.   Also convey to him that we were equipped with Wireless.   Captain Charles E Down requested his Chief Officer, W H Lainson to wake Mr Louis Ginsberg, the Trent’s operator.   Mr Ginsberg switched on his 2kW transmitter and he called, and as Irwin had his phones on answered him and instant wireless communication was established.     A World first!
As an aside, this is the Father of Alan Ginsberg, the poet.
The America was Call-sign "W" while the Trent was "RNR".

Airship America.
Airship America taken from the deck of the RMS Trent just prior to the Lifeboat being lowered into the sea to effect the rescue.
Note the Equilibrator can be seen dragging in the water. The RMS Trent was in danger of fouling this cable in its propeller.

Irwin then cut the aerial and earth wires, put watertight doors over the openings of the wireless cupboard, and stood by.   The boat was successfully launched, a most dangerous operation.   The most eventfull action of the whole eventful three days then occurred.

The Trent was following full speed, in the wake of the America and bore right down on the lifeboat.   It appeared they were about to be cut in two but fortunately at the last instant the Trent cleared them and grazed along side.

After two or three attempts to row to the ship with two small oars they waited, wallowing in a heavy sea, for the ship to come about.   This she did and ranged at slow speed alongside them.   Lines were thrown, but although they tried to hang on, the speed was too great for us, and again they were left astern.   Once more this manoeuvre was executed, and finally they got near enough to the ship to catch a line.   They came alongside and climbed aboard by a rope ladder.   The lifeboat and all the wireless equipment was winched aboard and saved.

The RMS Trent normally would not have been near Bermuda but Captain Charles Down had been requested to make a detour to Antilla in Cuba to pick up 68 passengers.   Ships were rarely in this area so the airship America was very lucky at this time to be rescued.

The voyage of the airship America at a duration on 72 hours airborne and travelled a distance of 1,008 miles was the longest powered flight in history to that date.   On their return to New York the crew were given a ticker-take welcome.

Kiddo the Cat
Many ships have a "ships cat"; it was no exception with the airship America.   Melvin Vaniman had acquired a kitten probably in Atlantic City.   When the America was eventually launched it waited until it had gained sufficient height before starting its engines.   As soon as they started the crew heard a strange noise, it must have been very loud bearing in mind that Jack Irwin was unable to hear signals in his headphones when the engine was running.   The cry was that from the cat which was called Kiddo.

The crew were not happy with the noisy creature thinking it was in distress.   Once out to sea they spotted a yacht and placed Kiddo in an empty ballast sand bag and attempted to lower it to the yacht, they found they were over rough water and Kiddo may have been injured and so they hauled him back on board the America.   Kiddo settled down and was looked after for the remainder of the voyage in the lifeboat.

When they had to abandon the airship they could not leave Kiddo behind to certain death.   The cat was taken with them in the lifeboat, rescued and was photographed with Melvin Vaniman on board the RMS Trent when she was off Bermuda.

Airship America.
Melvin Vaniman holding Kiddo having just been rescued from the Airship America and is
on the RMS Trent.

On arrival in New York the crew was given a ticker tape welcome.   Kiddo was not neglected - he was displayed in Gimbels window, one of the leading department stores of the time where he reclined on soft cushions in a guilded cage.   He was then looked after by Melvin Vaniman's daughter, Edith and never flew again.

Walter Wellman also never flew again and died February 1934 aged 75.

Subsequent Events - Akron
Two years later Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer to Wellman persuaded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company to build the gas bag for an airship that would be known as the “Akron” in honour of the company’s home town.   Vaniman used the recovered lifeboat from the America.   On July 2, 1912 after a series of test flights, Melvin Vaniman, his younger brother, Calvin, Walter Guest, Frederick Elmer and George Bourillion steered the Akron up and away from its Atlantic City, N.J. hangar.

The airship had hardly crossed the coast when, 150 metres up in the air, the 11,300 cubic metre of Hydrogen in the gas bag caught fire plunging the crew to their deaths.   Was a wireless installed which caused this accident - history records it was not a Marconi installation.
The lifeboat was salvaged from the shallow waters and shipped back to Goodyear where it was stored for 98 years.

Lifeboat from Airships America and Akron.
Lifeboat which was used on the Airship America to save their lives and also used on the Airship Akron, 2 years later.   This photograph shows the Lifeboat as it had been stored with its protective framework still attached.
Reproduced by kind permission of Mr Jared Haren, Goodyear Airship Operations from his personal collection.

Lifeboat from Airships America and Akron.
Lifeboat after its framework has been removed.   Notice the lovely condition of the Lifeboat which
was made by the the Saunders Company, Cowes, Isle of Wight, England.
Reproduced by kind permission of Mr Anthony Simon, (Grandson of Frederick Simon, Navigator
on the Airship America) and the Goodyear Airship Company.

It was donated to the Smithsonian Institute on 10th June 2010 and displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Washington, Dulles International Airport.   There is no trace of the wireless equipment which was involved with the rescue of the America two years previous as we now know it was returned to the Marconi Company of America after the landing from the RMS Trent in 1910.

Subsequent Events - R34
The first crossing of the Atlantic by an airship was achieved in 108 hours, starting out on 2nd July and landing on the 6th July 1919 by the R34 from East Fortune, Scotland when it landed in Mineola, Long Island.   It returned across the Atlantic to Pulhan, Norfolk starting 10th July and landed 75 hours later on 13th July.

Subsequent Events - Jack Irwin
Jack left the employment of Marconi on 19th June, 1916 and joined the American Army, Ohio Natial Guard serving in France during WWI.   He is recorded of being awarded the rank of Captain in the Signal Corp.
In 1924 he was found building wireless equipment and describing it in a magazine called Radio Broadcast.

From July 1931 to April 1936 he again is in the Army, Signal Corp with the rank of Colonel.
In 1934 he is noted as living in Haywood, California.

In WWII he is recorded to have been killed while on active duty in Europe.

On November 30th 1945, General Order 42 named a street in Fort Monmouth (where he operated out of) to be "Irwin Avenue".

Subsequent Events - Commander Simon
Frederick Murray Simon, Navigator on the Airship America, did cross the Atlantic many years later when aged 54 he travelled on the first crossing of the Atlantic from Germany to North America aboard the Airship Hindenburg on 6th May 1936.   The crossing took 3 days and it landed at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Frederick joined the Royal Navy in 1914, was a Commander in 1924, pursued his career as a Naval Officer until his retirement in 1941.


Presented by John G8DET.

Sunday 17th October at Sandford Mill, Chelmsford

Although there was a cool Northerly breeze the sun was strong and made for a lovely day with a temperature of about 12 degrees C.

Gwyn, G4FKH and Andy, G0IBN operated CW for the morning shift with a very good QSO rate.   Computer Logging was used and an occassional checking with WWW.QRZ.COM proved there was considerable interest in the special Call-sign.

Airship America.
Looking at Gwyn operating.

The rig is an Icom 756 Pro III running 100 Watts, Palstar 2kW Aerial Tuner, HP 17" computer and the 80 Metres Doublet Aerial.

Airship America.
Looking at Gwyn operating the computer with Andy looking on.

Airship America.
Dave Speechley, G4UVJ from SEARS, Canvey Island listening to the Morse on the Marconi Crystal Set next door.

40Metres was used for much of the morning with a shift to 18Megs to capture some Canadian stations.

The rig is an Icom 756 Pro III running 100 Watts, Palstar 2kW Aerial Tuner, HP 17" computer and the 80 Metres Doublet Aerial.

Andy is left handed, as was Jack Binns, but the Morse Key used had a long enough lead to enable it to be used either side of the operating desk. A computer controlled automatic Morse generator was used to "Call CQ".

In the afternoon the Morse Key was exchanged for a microphone and using SSB, GB100MWT once again spread the story of Airship America.   It was noted that soon after a contact the "increment counter" on" went up one.

CARS Vice President Geoff, G3EDM took over the microphone to be joined later by President, Carl, G3PEM.   James, 2E1GUA also added to the QSO score.
Brian, G3CVI and Malcolm, G4KGL also took the Microphone.
Colin, G0TRM and John, G8DET were in attendance providing the tea.

Airship America.
Malcolm operating SSB with James logging during the afternoon seesion.

Airship America.
Malcolm is now joined by Brian, G3CVI as Logger.

Airship America.
After the station was packed up, James got on his trusty stead and returned home with zero Carbon Footprint.

CARS would like to extend thanks to Dr Bowles who kindly let them use the Marconi Hut for this event.

Thanks also for the effort and kind help especially to those persons behind the scenes who are so necessary to the success of such an event.

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