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Issue #36: Ham Detective Solves 150 WPM CW Mystery!

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

The morning newspapers broke the news on June 29, 1914, about events that led to the war in Europe. It was, for some reason, minor news -- the importance of a news item can be determined by its proximity to the front page. In this case, the tenth page of The New York Herald reported, “Assassins Kill Francis Ferdinand and His Wife Duchess of Hohenberg, in Bosnian Capital.” (See the Daily Mirror headline below). The editors of these papers must have had no idea how such an event could have precipitated a disasterous worldwide conflict, or the story would have been front page news. 


This history will appeal to radio enthusiasts because Amateur Radio proved to be a key element in the discovery of spying within the United States. Leave it to hams! The US Government may not have ever known about what occured on its shores if it hadn't been for amateur radio operators and one curious radio amateur/inventor in particular.


German Involvement in USA Radio


German radio technology was, at the time, far advanced over the rest of Europe and even the United States. The States had many valuable business and governmental ties on both sides of the conflict as it was policy to stay out of the war. Of course, there were ties to England but there were also German business interests with plans to build large radio stations in North America. They had even gone so far as to structure corporations that sounded very "American" . . . for example, the Atlantic Communications Company.


This German venture operated in the USA for the specific purpose of the construction and operation of a world-class radio station on the East Coast of the USA -- one with the capability to reach similar stations in Germany. Later, when this project was finally investigated by American authorities, it was determined that the station had been built "with every effort to keep its whereabouts a secret and to keep the name of the company erecting it from becoming known." [W7DGJ note: If I had erected a 500 ft. tower in my backyard, I'd find it difficult to keep it a secret.]


This "Atlantic Communications Company" was an investment by Telefunken, a German company with ties to the military. After the publicity of Marconi's invention of radio, two different German groups of researchers quickly developed technologies for wireless communication. One of those with ties to the Kaiserliche Marine was the company AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitatts-Gesellschaft). 


The other team was employed at Siemens, another private company with German army contracts. These two were fashioned together by the Kaiser who foresaw the need to have all German radio technology in one entity, with the resulting company named Telefunken.







Amateur radio had taken off like crazy by this time; experimenters of all ages were reading about electronics and building their own radio equipment. The ARRL came about in the same time period [W7DGJ note: Two years old at the time hostilities broke out] and the concept of radio "relay" had become entrenched. Every day there seemed to be some new development that would be reported on by amateurs . . . new technologies were then quickly incorporated into corporate and governmental radio efforts, or vice-versa. It was an exhilarating time for radio.


The Germans, through that American company established in 1912, designed and constructed a monumental station located in West Sayville, New York. This station on Long Island had enough power (and that tower at 500 feet) to reach Germany without relays. As the war broke out, it was made clear by US President Woodrow Wilson that the States would remain neutral and that German investments like this one would have oversight to ensure that they were not violating USA neutrality.


Some have called into question the quality of that "oversight." For example, the oversight committee consisted of one young man who was repeatedly seen going out for dinner and drinks with the German engineers who ran the Sayville station, carousing into the wee hours of the morning on their dime and not even showing up at the station until afternoons. This kind of oversight made it seem to some that the US government had not taken warnings seriously about damage this station could do to Allied forces if they used it for nefarious purposes. 


German radio power, joined with German sea power (including their submarines) proved devastating for some time.


When the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile cost the lives of  nearly 1500 British sailors (with only three injured men on the German side) it was clear that Germany had found a way to communicate globally with their ships at sea. It was suspected that there was a station operating out of the Maine woods, and possibly one in Mexico. There was most certainly a huge station operating out of Chile, a country with a large German immigrant population. Using these various stations as relays -- some located in neutral nations -- the Germans took advantage of their radio prowess to communicate across the world to ships at sea no matter where they were located.


Amateur radio operators listened for coded messages, but until one New Jersey ham joined in, no one could prove anything. The problem was that the Germans were using a system in Sayville that allowed them to broadcast code at 150 WPM. This "Wheatstone" system used perforated paper tape, and to amateurs listening, it was impossible to decipher. It picked up a nickname, the "Nauen Buzz," named after the station in Germany to which those messages were directed. [W7DGJ note: The Sayville radio tower rested solely on a ball and socket at its base! Sayville also was the first station to provide a "musical tone" to the continuous wave code, far easier to listen to than the spark gap which was so prevalent at the time.]


US Amateurs In the Hunt for Evidence


Charles Apgar (2MM) ran a station in Westfield, New Jersey, with 450 watts and very sophisticated radio gear. He was an early member of the ARRL, and Hiram Percy Maxim referred to him as an amateur who ran a "high-grade, highly efficient station." Apgar would regularly publish his designs for new radios in technical journals and was quite an experimenter. While in his early years he had been a simple tradesman (a mason), later in his life he moved to automobile sales where his fortunes really took off. That career move allowed him to afford the equipment and antennas needed for his radio passion.  In 1915, solving the Nauen Buzz mystery consumed his time and interests.




Apgar reasoned that the best way to clarify those ultra-high-speed CW transmissions would be to record them somehow and then play them back at a slower speed. After months of development, he had a system that could record these coded transmissions on wax cylinders which would then be transcribed. He struggled at first to get someone to listen to an "amateur" but an acquaintance introduced him to an inspector for the Department of Commerce Radio Bureau (the predecessor to the FCC). This inspector visited with Apgar and requested a demonstration. He was immediately convinced that the ham had something of value, and he alerted the United States Secret Service that this technology existed. Instead of taking it up on their own, they requested this ham radio operator to keep doing what he was doing and to send the transcriptions of the Sayville broadcasts on to them. This may have been a sign that the government felt that nothing of interest would come out of an amateur operator's workshop.


However, after the first of these coded transmissions were sent to DC, Apgar was contacted by the head of the Secret Service who put him on a contract to continue what he was doing. They even offered to pay him for his time and materials. It turned out to be a wise decision on the part of the US Government.


Sayville's Coded Transmissions and the Start of War for the USA


While the exact nature of these coded transmissions is too detailed to be discussed here, once the US government started to review those transcriptions (and Apgar's original wax cylinders), they ordered a detachment of 21 US marines to guard the station and ensure that it was not being used for coded messages. At the time, Telefunken was in the process of adding power amplifiers to the station and building multiple 500' towers. There was a legal dispute concerning patents, and even Marconi came to the States to present the conflict to a judge.  All the while, Apgar continued his nightly recordings of the Sayville broadcasts.


In March of 1917, the German engineers who had designed and built the Sayville station had moved to Mexico, where another large station had become operational. When British intelligence intercepted a message sent through Sayville to Mexico that enticed Mexico and Japan to attack the USA, that decoded message [W7DGJ note added later: The Zimmerman Telegram] was delivered to Washington, DC. Another coded signal (something like "get Lucy") was sent from Sayville to the submarine fleet harassing British ships in the North Atlantic. These messages were damning to USA-Germany relations.


"Lucy," the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, causing the deaths of nearly 1200, including 124 American civilians. These two messages were later seen as major reasons for the American administration to get off its neutral position and enter the war. In the Zimmerman message, the Germans promised the Mexicans that the USA would become their territory!


73 for now,

Dave, W7DGJ


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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated March 22, 2024 17:20