Towers for Telegrams: The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Emergence of Microwave Telecommunications Infrastructure

The American landscape changed significantly in 1945 when telecommunications companies began building microwave relay networks throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Relay sites with towers and equipment buildings seeded antenna farms as the Federal Communications Commission and the communications industry planned for deploying new technology after the end of World War II. The Western Union Telegraph Company was one of the firms leading the build out of new microwave relay sites. Between 1944 and 1948 the company planned for and built two microwave relay systems that became the first successful private-sector entity to carry commercial traffic using the new technology. This paper explores how Western Union secured the necessary resources of technology, licenses, and land to build its first-generation microwave network linking New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh.


In 1944 and 1945, engineers and real estate specialists representing American telecommunications companies fanned out across the Mid-Atlantic states in search of properties on which to build microwave relay sites. Advances in radio technology achieved during World War II and significant regulatory changes by the federal government opened up new opportunities for private sector uses of radio spectrum. The Western Union Telegraph Company, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T;), Raytheon, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Philco, and International Business Machines (IBM) were among the firms jockeying for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses and prime relay sites in a slice of the American landscape extending from Boston, south to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington and westward to Pittsburgh.

Between 1944 and 1948 dozens of microwave relay sites sprung up on mountaintops, in farm fields and suburban backyards, and on urban rooftops as the first footprints were set in the construction of new infrastructure corridors that opened up the information age. Like the turnpikes, canals, and railroads that preceded them a century earlier, these new telecommunications corridors would make indelible imprints in the American landscape. Radio towers began to break the horizon along such historic corridors as the National Road (U.S. 40) and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30) and in rural areas where water towers, grain silos, telephone and telegraph poles, and electricity transmission lines once defined the vertical limits of engineering potential. The descendants of the first-generation microwave relay sites may be seen throughout the country in the thousands of wireless telecommunications facilities dotting the landscape at the turn of the 21st century, providing cell phone coverage and broadband Internet access.

This study of microwave relay sites begins in the corporate offices and laboratories of Western Union, hotel meeting rooms where work groups from the communications industry planned for postwar developments, and FCC hearing rooms. Western Union, along with AT&T;, was a first mover in microwave telecommunications. Between 1944 and 1948, the company built two microwave systems with two dozen relay and terminal sites in five states and the District of Columbia. Western Union became the first to successfully go online as a common carrier using the new technology. The template for microwave relay sites developed by Western Union became the basis for most of the wireless telecommunications infrastructure built after the end of World War II. By examining how Western Union secured technology, licenses, and land for microwave relay sites, researchers can get a glimpse at the prototype onramp to the information superhighway.

Sources and Approach

In 2002 the author began a survey of Western Union microwave relay sites in the Mid-Atlantic. At the time, the FCC was negotiating with representatives of the telecommunications industry and historic preservation interests to develop a streamlined approach to ensure the agency’s compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).[1] Among the limitations of the two programmatic agreements executed in 2001 and 2004 stemming from the FCC proceedings were exclusions from consideration under Section 106—a provision in the 1966 NHPA requiring federal agencies and their licensees to consider the effects of federal actions like licensing and permitting on properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places that included existing communications towers.[2] Excluding existing communications facilities would eliminate a wide array of historic properties from Section 106 consultations and potentially would result in the demolition or alteration of significant engineering properties already listed in the National Register or meeting the eligibility criteria for listing.[3]

The first Western Union site documented was the company’s Washington terminal: an Art Deco concrete and limestone structure located in the District of Columbia’s Tenleytown neighborhood. The survey widened to sites in neighboring Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Each site was visited to evaluate its condition (intact, altered, demolished, or replaced), and research was conducted in local land records to determine if the site was owned or leased by Western Union and any other relevant land use information. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documented one relay site in 2005, the former Jennerstown (Laurel Hill) relay in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, approximately 44 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Archives consulted included the Western Union Telegraph Company Records in the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History and the Records of the FCC in the National Archives at College Park. The FCC records included docketed proceedings related to the allocation of radio spectrum and the licensing of microwave common carriers. Also consulted were files related to the licensing of Western Union’s microwave network and the construction and marking of tower structures. Because Western Union consulted extensively with the U.S. Forest Service in the selection of an appropriate tower structure, the records of the U.S. Department of Agriculture also provided a wealth of primary documents.

Although the literature of telecommunications technology and regulation is voluminous, there are few thematic and site-specific studies of the material culture of telecommunications infrastructure. Exceptions to this include archaeological testing of 19th-century Dutch optical telegraph sites on Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles and HAER documentation of Cold War-era White Alice stations in Alaska and California’s Chollas Heights Naval Radio Transmitting Facility.[4] Studies in Europe include English Heritage’s survey of six Cold War-era microwave sites that resulted in the designation of London’s BT Tower as a protected national monument.[5] The history of microwave telecommunications, and specifically Western Union’s endeavors, is documented in FCC annual reports, the media, journal articles written by Western Union engineers, and syntheses of developments in microwave technology.[6] These sources informed this study of the Western Union microwave network.

Historical Context

The economic, social, and technological changes that accompanied the large-scale transformation of energy into consumer products, workshops into factories, and yeomen into wage laborers joined with individual entrepreneurship to define the first industrial revolution in the years bracketing the turn of the 19th century. During the mid- to late-19th-century, corporate entrepreneurship and managerial hierarchies prevailed in the market. They combined with a communications infrastructure anchored by railroads and telegraph companies, expanded workforces, and the economy as distance was eliminated as a significant barrier to production and trade. These events frame the boundaries of the second industrial revolution. In the aftermath of World War II, government regulatory agencies wielded a firm visible hand over innovations in telecommunications, aviation, and electronics to mark the 1940s and 1950s as the opening years of the third industrial revolution that is known as the information age.[7]

Infrastructure is a common thread linking many of the technological and economic transformations associated with the events generally described as the “industrial revolution,” and telecommunications is one of four infrastructure modes that form the foundation of modern society.[8] Wired, point-to-point communications require technology for transmission and reception, rights-of-way, poles, cable, and labor to ensure and maintain connectivity. Telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting, computers, and the present search for the ultimate wireless grail are industrialization’s quintessential material culture. “In the nineteenth century, high chimneys in the landscape were appreciated as symbols of industrial progress. Similarly, in the twentieth century, telecommunications towers became the visible signs of the information society,” wrote Dutch engineer Anton Huurdeman.[9]

The electromagnetic spectrum is unlike coal, iron ore, trees, and water: it is a natural resource that cannot be mined, packed, diverted, or shipped by rail. Its ecological relationship to culture is directly related to the technological sophistication of the people trying to make use of it.[10] Spectrum is divided into regions by measuring the characteristics of its transmission, i.e., the number of cycles per second (frequency) of electromagnetic current. Small portions of it are visible, while other portions are only accessible and measurable by electronics. The visible portion—light—occupies the part of the spectrum between infrared and ultraviolet light, whereas sound (e.g., vibrations) that is converted into radiation can only be detected by electronic means.

The portion of spectrum known as the radio spectrum occupies the range between 3KHz and 300 GHz . The technologies making the radio spectrum commercially viable have been in use since the last quarter of the 19th century. Although inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) is popularly credited with “inventing” wireless communications, his work, like that of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison, broke beyond the technical milestones of other inventors to become accessible to the wider public and profitably reproducible by industry.[11]

In the years following Marconi’s 1899 wireless reporting of the America’s Cup races in New York Harbor, amateurs, the government, and shipping companies rapidly entered the wireless realm. Experiments in receiver and transmitter technology as well as content, including voice and pictures, spurred an accelerated rate of culture change in the U.S. Key technical milestones during the first few decades of wireless telecommunications include the ability to transmit and receive voice and music signals (Reginald Fessenden and the continuous wave alternator) and the capability to detect and amplify, i.e., tune to, a specific frequency (Lee DeForest and the Audion vacuum tube). Wireless offered the public a release from corporate monopoly in telephony and telegraphy while simultaneously creating a need for government oversight to police the use of spectrum and ensure its use did not interfere with maritime safety and national defense.

The federal government recognized the need to regulate telecommunications by passing such laws as the Radio Act of 1912, the Radio Act of 1927, and the Communications Act of 1934.[12] The latter created the FCC and combined the regulation of telephony and telegraphy with broadcasting; these laws purportedly sought to prevent interference and protect American moral values by treating the radio spectrum as a scarce publicly owned resource. Marconi’s entrepreneurial and technological successes opened the path to wireless telegraphy and telephony. After 1899 there were four periods of intensive telecommunications infrastructure development and concomitant regulatory regimes. The first period, from c. 1900 to 1917, saw the appearance of coastal commercial and military wireless facilities and the proliferation of amateur antennas across the nation. Commercial broadcasting’s birth in 1920 spurred the rapid construction of radio stations up to the start of the Great Depression in 1929, comprising the second period of infrastructure development. The third period, beginning in 1945, was facilitated by landmark spectrum allocation hearings held by the FCC the year before that resulted in major allocations and frequency assignments to industry. Finally, the fourth period may be linked to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the intensification of cellular and personal communications services (PCS) facilities siting.

In addition to controlling spectrum and equipment standards, the FCC also was responsible for regulating broadcast tower sites in coordination with the bbbbronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce (the precursor to the Bureau of Air Commerce and later the Federal Aviation Administration). Radio and commercial and private aviation came of age at the same time, and broadcasting’s infrastructure, towers, were potential “obstructions to air navigation.”[13] The earliest tower-marking schemes introduced in the 1930s included beacon lights and alternating painted tower segments: alternating bands of chrome yellow and black or bands of white and black.[14] In 1936 new marking standards were recommended, and these were adopted in the summer of 1937. The new standards included painting certain towers in alternating bands of “international orange” and white, the standard that persists into the 21st century.[15] Towers were to be lighted based on their height and proximity to aeronautical facilities (i.e., airports, landing areas, or designated landing approaches). For example, towers 200 feet or higher above the ground were required to be lighted and painted, while lower towers were to be marked at the discretion of the FCC and Bureau of Air Commerce. The government wanted to ensure all broadcasters got the message and embarked on a public relations campaign that included sending color chips that illustrated the “international orange” standard to newspapers throughout the U.S.[16] The campaign worked well. On 14 September 1937, The Washington Post carried this headline: “Attire of Orange and White Ordered for Radio Antennae.”[17]

Western Union predated the creation of the FCC by almost a century. It was incorporated in 1856, 12 years after Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) and his collaborator, Alfred Vail (1807–1859), demonstrated their electromagnetic telegraphy system, complete with transmission and reception technology (keys, wires, and poles) and a software system, Morse code, using a Baltimore to Washington telegraph line.[18] Formed by the consolidation of several smaller telegraph companies using electrical telegraphy as the means for long distance communications, the company expanded in concert with railroads to create the first national telecommunications network.[19] For two decades Western Union had a natural monopoly, and then in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell perfected and patented the telephone. Patent litigation and competition united American Bell Company and Western Union in an uneasy telecommunications oligopoly lasting nearly a century.[20]

The 1930s were a period marked by significant technological advances in radio. Engineer Edwin Armstrong (1890–1954) invented frequency modulation (FM) radio in 1933 as a static-free alternative to amplitude modulation (AM) radio. FM radio differed from AM by the way broadcast signals were encoded and transmitted. By effecting changes in a radio wave’s frequency (measured in cycles per second), broadcasters could reduce signal fading and interference that results in static caused by natural phenomena and other transmitters.[21] Also at this time, engineers were developing other ways to use the radio spectrum. In Europe, French engineers successfully tested the first microwave communications technology in 1931. Three years later, a microwave network linking aerodromes in Calais, France, and Lympne on the English coast provided telephone and teleprinter communications.[22] Microwaves are super high-frequency radio waves used in radio for point-to-point communications, and the microwave spectrum is located at the higher end of the radio spectrum in the 1 GHz (gigahertz or billion cycles per second) range. Higher frequencies allowed for directional beam technology that did not require large and expensive antennas because microwaves travel in straight lines. American engineers rapidly began experimenting with microwave technology, and in 1936 RCA initiated experiments between its Camden, New Jersey, headquarters and New York City.[23]

Microwave technology was found to be useful in detecting obstacles by bouncing high frequency waves off objects via parabolic reflector antennas. The new radar technology initially was deployed to detect icebergs at sea and during World War II was adapted to military use.[24] World War II stimulated experimentation in radio technology, especially in the development of radio tubes and in propagation.[25] “Experimentation and development have occurred in almost every field of radio including television, facsimile, frequency modulation, direction-finding, and selective calling devices,” the FCC reported in its Annual Report for 1942.[26] Many of the advances made in the 1930s, television and FM radio among them, were put on hold during the war, and their commercial use was delayed because of the conflict. Planning for the postwar period began in 1943 with the formation of an industry working group known as the Radio Technical Planning Board (RTPB).[27]

One year later, the FCC began spectrum allocation hearings to act upon the findings made by the RTPB. The proceedings, known as Docket 6651, began with hearings in November 1944 and concluded with a series of orders issued in early 1945 that allocated radio spectrum to nongovernmental entities, i.e., industry and private citizens. Up to the licensing of cellular telephone systems in the 1980s, the Docket 6651 hearings were considered the most significant realignment of radio spectrum in U.S. history, and they set the FCC’s spectrum allocation paradigm for the following four decades.[28] Outcomes of Docket 6651 included the shift of FM frequencies to a higher band, creation of the UHF television band, and citizens band (CB) radio. The new allocations also expanded industrial radio applications for aviation and railroad, and they allowed for mobile telephony—early car telephones, the precursor technology to cellular telephones.

During the spectrum allocation hearings, Western Union vied with AT&T;, Raytheon, and IBM for common carrier relay licenses and frequencies.[29] The hearings provided the vehicle for Western Union and its competitors to begin the arduous process of transforming laboratory experiments into infrastructure in the field and economically viable consumer services. Microwave telecommunications held the key to the future, promising “economy, dependability, and capacity,” Western Union vice president Fernand d’Humy told the FCC in a 1943 hearing. He added, “The writing on the wall tells us that the bulk of the overhead communications wires criss-crossing this continent are destined to come down.”[30]

Telecommunications companies racing to build out their microwave networks in the 1940s recognized the challenges of implementing a costly system that relied on uninterruptible service, facilitated by automated remote stations that were packed with expensive radio equipment. “To be commercially feasible, relay points, many of which will be located in relatively inaccessible places, must be designed for unattended operation,” explained General Electric Company’s H. B. Fancher in testimony before the FCC.[31] In its October 1944 application to the FCC for microwave spectrum in the Docket 6651 proceedings, Western Union detailed its technical requirements and the equipment and infrastructure necessary to implement its plans for a nationwide relay network. The application included bandwidth requirements and detailed how the company planned to ensure the system would not interfere with other telecommunications systems. Western Union estimated that it would require stations spaced “25–35 miles at the relay points over typical terrain.”[32]

At the same time Western Union was petitioning the FCC for spectrum, it was also filing applications to construct experimental relay stations. In October 1944, Western Union filed an application to build four experimental stations: one at its New York City headquarters, two portable stations in New Jersey near New Brunswick and Bordentown, one in Camden, and another in Philadelphia. Together, these stations would comprise the nodes of an experimental network linking, at first, New York and Camden. FCC attorneys and engineers who reviewed the application wrote, “The applicant’s objective is to determine the practicability of the use of radio relay circuits in lieu of wire or cable circuits for the transmission of its common carrier traffic upon a regular basis.” This application was approved at the FCC’s 20 March 1945 meeting.[33]

On 7 November 1945, FCC commissioners approved by circulation Western Union’s application for additional experimental relay station construction permits. In this application, Western Union sought consent for “a chain of twenty-two (22) Experimental Class 2 microwave relay stations to extend between terminals at New York City, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia.”[34] The network Western Union proposed, including the earlier New York to Philadelphia relays, would consist of five separate but interconnected systems, equipped with transmitters and receivers from RCA linking the urban terminals . Western Union estimated its network would cost $1,487,008, a sum that included $168,950 for towers and antenna equipment; $64,000 for land, power lines, and access roads; and $50,000 to build the new Washington terminal tower.

By the end of the first quarter of 1945, Western Union had its radio equipment selected and its applications for spectrum had been filed. It was working on securing construction permits from the FCC and had settled on an architectural and engineering configuration for all of its relay sites. In designing a network, telecommunications companies can select from two basic relay site configurations. One configuration involves a concrete tower that encases all of the radio equipment and supports antennas mounted atop it. AT&T; used this configuration for its first relay network that linked New York and Boston, which was licensed in 1944 and first publicly tested in the fall of 1945. The other configuration involves building a self-supporting antenna structure (tower) and constructing an equipment building at its base to house equipment.[35] Western Union elected to go with a variation on the latter design, using a steel forest-fire lookout tower as an antenna-support structure and a ground-level concrete equipment building. Western Union’s design included mounting radio transmitters and receivers inside the lookout’s cabin. Each relay site would have the same elements: an access road or drive, fenced compound, concrete block equipment building, and a tower. The company’s standards and specifications for terminal and relay sites were published in several company documents and journal articles . These specifications include directions for assembling antenna and radio units in the cabs and equipment-installation instructions for the equipment buildings.[36]

Relay Towers

After receiving its initial permits from the FCC, Western Union had to finalize the designs for its facilities as well as select and acquire relay sites. With RCA providing radio equipment and installation specifications, all that remained for Western Union was to find an appropriate antenna support structure and standardize the plans and specifications for each relay site. Western Union evaluated several alternative tower designs in developing a standardized antenna support structure for its network. The company eliminated from consideration masonry and “tubular steel” towers and settled on a design based on U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service fire lookout towers.[37] Costs rather than technological considerations appear to have fueled this decision.

In March 1945, Western Union engineer H. A. Haenseler began corresponding with the Forest Service in search of an appropriate tower model to suit the company’s engineering needs. “We contemplate building for our use a 100 ft. tower which would have a small building on top,” wrote Haenseler. “As you no doubt have had considerable experience with steel towers that have small enclosed buildings on top, in connection with your forest fire protective service, it occurred to me that you perhaps have developed definite specifications covering such structures 100 ft. in height.”[38] The Forest Service responded by sending drawings and specifications of its “E-Improvements-Lookout Towers.”[39]

Subsequent correspondence in spring 1945 between Haenseler and various Forest Service staff concern specific issues such as stairway design and safety. Western Union was mainly interested in Forest Service accident rates involving ice and snow on tower stairs. Haenseler wrote the Forest Service on 20 April 1945: “We are very much interested in the subject of towers at the present time, and in this connection I am wondering if the open-stair towers present a considerable hazard in ascending and descending during sleet and snow storms.”[40]

By late June 1945, Western Union had determined that the specifications for “the light tower” sent by the Forest Service “would be definitely inadequate” for the company’s program. “It is our opinion, however, that your standard lookout tower for 14 ft. square cab would be suitable for our requirements covering a radio beam transmission tower,” Western Union lines engineer H. H. Wheeler wrote to Forest Service acting chief of engineers H. R. Jones.[41] Unlike earlier radio towers that simply provided basic support for transmitting and receiving antennas, the new microwave towers required adequate support for an enclosure at the top of the tower to house radio equipment that had to be close to the antennas and parabolic reflectors, protected from the weather, and accessible to Western Union maintainers.[42] It is worthwhile to quote at length the remainder of Wheeler’s 22 June 1945 letter because it lays out Western Union’s engineering requirements for the proposed antenna support structures:
In arriving at this opinion, we were strongly biased by the knowledge that you have had wide experience with towers and the belief that the tower for 14 ft. square cab has been fully satisfactory to you.

If you can consistently do so, I would appreciate receiving a copy of your latest complete specifications including stair and platform details for your standard lookout towers, 30 to 120 ft. high for a cab 14 ft. square. I, also, would be pleased to receive drawings covering a steel cab on this tower, if such drawings are available.

In making the above request, I have in mind furnishing tower manufacturers with a photostat of your tower drawings together with stair and platform details. We would add to these drawings details of a special cabin that we will require on the top of the tower. We would also incorporate in our request to the tower manufacturers the information outlined in your letter of April 24th regarding gusset plates and channels for stair stringers. If you have any objection to the use of your drawings as indicated above, I will be glad to have you advise me.

The towers we will require for radio transmission will range from 60 to 120 ft. in height, and it is desirable that they have only limited deflection at the top. To help secure rigidity, we propose to use a cab 12 ft. square, and thus reduce the wind pressure on the structure.

It occurred to me, in connection with the matter of the rigidity of the tower, that you might be able to suggest some changes in the tower members or in tolerances covering bolt and rivet holes, which would help secure additional rigidity with relatively small increase in cost. If you have any such recommendations, I would be gratified to receive them.[43]

The Forest Service complied with Western Union’s requests and sent the company plans and specifications for a steel lookout tower and a 14-foot cab. The Forest Service recommended that Western Union contact the International Derrick and Equipment Company to meet its needs for a specially designed steel cab and the bbbbrmotor Company for steel towers. In response to Western Union’s query regarding the reduction of wind stresses, the Forest Service recommended eliminating the standard shutters and reducing the glazed area of windows in the cab.[44]

Western Union found the information useful and pursued a tower design based on the Forest Service’s L-1601 design, detailed in the agency’s 1938 Standard Lookout Structure Plans.[45] Starting in 1912, the U.S. Forest Service began purchasing bbbbrmotor lookout towers, and the company rapidly became the leading supplier for federal and state lookout towers. The bbbbrmotor Company was founded in Chicago in 1888 as a fabricator of windmills, water pumps, and their support towers.[46] In the years bracketing the turn of the 20th century, bbbbrmotor windmills rapidly spread throughout the Midwest and eastern U.S. as a more durable substitute for earlier wood windmill structures.[47] bbbbrmotor’s galvanized steel support structure became the standard for lookout towers in the years before World War II. Capitalizing on its technical capabilities and functional knowledge, bbbbrmotor expanded its production portfolio to other structures such as electricity transmission towers, radio towers, and emergency siren towers. “For over 50 years bbbbrmotor Company has been designing and building galvanized steel towers for a variety of uses,” boasts one 1959 company brochure.[48]

In fall 1945, Western Union finalized its engineering requirements for its microwave towers, and its plans were reported in October 1945 on the front page of the New York Times: “The rural area towers will be steel structures with cabins twelve feet square at the top.”[49] All of the relay-station antenna support structures (towers) in the Philadelphia-New York and the New York-Washington-Pittsburgh systems were constructed using bbbbrmotor galvanized steel towers.

Western Union’s towers were the most prominent features at the company’s relay sites. Each square-plan tower was constructed on concrete piers and included the tower structure, cab, catwalks, stairs, electronic components, and conduits. The self-supporting lattice towers were constructed of rolled, L-section members, furnished by the Bethlehem Steel Company. Modifications making the towers suitable for telecommunications needs included the galvanized metal cab that housed the antennas and radio equipment. The interior of the cab at the Jennerstown relay site compares favorably with illustrations published by Western Union shortly after the network was completed. The square-plan cab, surrounded on all sides by a metal catwalk and metal pipe rail, has a wood floor and is reached by an exterior stairway leading from the 100-foot tower’s uppermost landing to the catwalk on the top platform. The cab is accessed by a metal door, manufactured by the Richards-Wilcox Company of Aurora, Illinois, in its north façade.

The cab, clad with corrugated galvanized steel, has a pyramidal galvanized steel roof, pierced at the peak by a round ventilator. There is a single casement window, three lights per frame, in the south wall. Rectangular piercings in the west and south walls are covered by radio-frequency-transparent fiberglass panels that are perforated for ventilation. Power junction cabinets and cable conduits are attached to the interior of the north wall, east of the door.

There are four bolted-steel L-beams placed diagonally inside the cab at approximately 10 feet above the floor. These beams served as supports for the vertical antenna and radio equipment box (head-end units) mounting racks. The antennas, which would have been mounted side by side on the racks facing the RF-transparent panels, are missing; however, the mounting brackets remain connected to the racks. The head-end unit cases, paired in each rack (transmitters and receivers for each direction, i.e., towards Washington and towards Pittsburgh) are intact, but all of the radio equipment has been removed. Each unit is hinged to open downward, and the face of each is marked with system identifiers along with the appropriate label, “RECV” for receivers and “TRANS” for transmitters.

Additional modifications to the towers include cable runs that lead from the cabs to the equipment building and platforms, which were constructed to house additional radio equipment. During testing along the New York-Philadelphia system, engineers encountered signal fading that was caused by atmospheric conditions. To compensate for the reception problems created by the fading and to stabilize the signal, additional receivers (“diversity receivers”) were placed on platforms located 20 to 25 feet below the cab and the tower’s top platform.[50]

Equipment Buildings

To house its main radio equipment and auxiliary power plant, Western Union designed a building to be constructed at the base of each relay tower. The company’s design was for a one-story rectangular concrete-block building with a shed roof, two doors, and one window. The main part of the building was entered through a door in the long axis, which opened into a radio that housed a pair of metal radio equipment cabinets. The remainder of the main interior space was divided into a battery room and an engine room. A square heater room was accessed by a door in the building’s rear. Because of the remoteness of the relay station locations, each building was secured against intrusion by solid-core doors, deadbolt locks and exterior padlocks, and metal shutters bolted from the inside.

Security and protection from the elements weighed heavily in the building’s design. Each building housed the station’s main radio equipment and apparatus for ensuring an uninterrupted power supply. The relays were connected to commercial power lines by aboveground wires, carried on poles. If power was interrupted by damage to the lines or at the generating source, voltage regulators in the buildings switched to the station’s battery banks stored in the battery room as an interim power supply until the gas-powered 10 kw generator in the engine room was operating. At that point, the power was switched to the locally generated alternating current until the commercial electricity could be restored.[51]

A window in the side of the building housing the radio-equipment cabinets provided daylight to maintainers working in the relay. The engine rooms were designed with a pair of louvered vents, operated by motors that are activated when the engine is running. The vents are protected outside the building by screened metal hoods.[52] To fuel the engine, each building was equipped with a 120-gallon underground gas storage tank. Poured concrete fill guards secured the tanks, and the fuel was conveyed to the engine via conduits in the concrete slab floor.

The buildings were engineered to ensure stable operating temperatures and humidity levels. The oil-burning furnaces in the heater room prevented condensation in the radio equipment and ensured that the building’s temperature would not drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. When occupied by maintainers working in the winter, the heater had the added capacity to ensure warm working conditions.[53] A concrete-block chimney ventilated the furnace.


With its engineering standards set and refinements underway to its operating parameters, Western Union turned its attention to acquiring sites for its relays throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. No records documenting Western Union’s site selection process have been located; however, in Pennsylvania the company used its Philadelphia-based real estate subsidiary, the Telegraph Realty Company, to acquire sites throughout the state, whereas the remainder of the sites was acquired directly by the New York corporate headquarters. Western Union had to select sites based on access to highways and telephone and electrical lines as well as site topography and vegetation to ensure an unbroken line of sight. The company also had to ensure that each location was within a jurisdiction with zoning conducive to the construction of a relay tower.[54] The siting of relay stations was determined by economic and technological factors. The economic factors called for constructing the least number of relay stations, spaced as far apart as technologically feasible, i.e., maintaining the lines of sight to the connecting relays. According to Elmer W. Engstrom, the engineer who chaired RTPB Panel 9 (Radio Relay Systems), the property costs and initial equipment costs were a significant investment in the creation of a relay network.[55]

Western Union sited all of its relay stations in groups to ensure timely and cost-effective maintenance and repair. In addition to locating the relays on or near such major transportation routes as U.S. 40 and U.S. 30, the company also recognized that, despite its efforts to power each station from the commercial electricity grid, situations would arise where there would be power-supply interruptions, hence the incorporation of auxiliary power supplies at each relay point.[56] Between June 1945 and January 1946, Western Union bought 17 parcels and leased 5 on which it built its relays and Washington’s Tenley terminal; in 1947 the company had to acquire another property in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey, to correct obstructions in the link between New York City and the New Brunswick relay. The properties were small, square or rectangular outparcels between one-quarter to one acre in area. Each relay site had an access road and a utility right-of-way for electricity poles and lines. The relay sites conformed to the company’s standardized design: a steel bbbbrmotor tower, topped by a 12 by 12-foot metal pyramidal roof cab, and a concrete-block equipment building inside a cyclone fence compound. All of the relay sites were completed by May 1947. The landmark Tenley site—the network’s Art Deco-influenced architectural gem and futuristic symbol—was completed in March 1947.

Going Online

“The era of the pole-less telegraph was heralded here,” reported the Christian Science Monitor the day after Western Union demonstrated its experimental microwave relay network on 22 October 1945.[57] Western Union executives and engineers, in the telegraph company’s Manhattan headquarters, unveiled the nation’s first commercial microwave relay network to the media and the world. In a scene reminiscent of Morse’s 1844 demonstration of the first electromagnetic telegraph line linking Baltimore with Washington, DC, Western Union engineers sent a message from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia via wire and then from Philadelphia to New York by “radio beam,” using two New Jersey relay stations. A teleprinter produced a greeting from Western Union’s Washington, DC, manager, while simultaneously a facsimile machine across the room printed a handwritten message from Western Union vice president T. B. Gittings in a preview of the nation’s first commercial wireless broadband network. The event captured Western Union’s vision of the future of telecommunications in its capacity to simultaneously transmit 2,048 messages.[58]

Experiments continued throughout 1945 and 1946 while the company was acquiring site control over its relay locations and the Washington, DC, terminal. Construction of all the facilities in the New York-Philadelphia network and the New York-Washington-Pittsburgh triangle was completed by the end of 1947. By early 1948, both networks were online and carrying commercial traffic.[59] Even before the first networks were completed, Western Union was contemplating extending its microwave system west to Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and beyond. Also, technology was changing rapidly, and improvements in antenna technology and radio circuitry spurred the company to consider the next phases in its microwave program, including the addition of commercial video (television) signals.

Western Union was an industry leader in telecommunications: first in wireline telegraphy in the 19th century, next with commercial facsimile services in the first half of the 20th century, and, ultimately, with microwave telecommunications in the postwar years. Despite its path-breaking innovations, the company repeatedly found itself losing its market share to the Bell system. Telephony made it possible to bring telecommunications into the office and home. Western Union’s attempts to reinvent itself through technological innovation repeatedly failed. Its microwave network, which was part of a $62 million, seven-year capital-improvement program, was hailed by Wall Street as a potential cure to the company’s financial and labor woes in the 1940s.[60] The promising outlook signaled by the adoption of the new technology, however, was short-lived.


The first-generation microwave network that was authorized after the FCC’s Docket 6651 hearings quickly morphed into a transcontinental system within two decades, and some of the lookout-tower antenna support structures were replaced by higher paired and guyed “periscope-feed” towers with passive reflector antennas others were abandoned and sold to the federal and state governments, regional microwave communications companies, or to emerging entities in mobile telephony. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Western Union modified its system to enable some of the sites (e.g., Neshanic and Mt. Laurel in New Jersey) to relay television signals and other services. Changes in technology, including the introduction of satellite communications in the late 1960s, wireless telephony in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Internet in the 1990s, made the postwar microwave equipment obsolete. As its technological needs changed, Western Union abandoned its first-generation microwave sites, starting in the early 1960s.

The sites’ elevations and existing infrastructure made them attractive to new users in the public and private sectors. In 2005, 16 of the original relay sites remained in place with varying degrees of physical integrity; only the Jennerstown relay was fully abandoned and not demolished or recycled into another sector of the telecommunications industry. Tenley terminal in Washington, DC, remains a valuable piece of vertical real estate and is used by its owner, American Tower Corporation, as an urban antenna farm. Western Union’s microwave network failed to save the ailing company. AT&T;’s monopoly on telecommunications services and infrastructure eroded. New long-distance carriers like MCI entered the market. New technologies, such as satellites and packet networks added to the new competition, rendered Western Union obsolete. The company was sold in 1994 to First Financial Management Corporation; its brand name survived as a money-transfer network, and the final Western Union telegram was sent in January 2006.[61]

The architectural and engineering site template of unmanned remote relay sites envisioned by Western Union and its contemporaries has been continued into the 21st century with the proliferation of personal wireless services facilities that consist of an access road leading to a fenced compound with a one-story equipment building and antenna support structure (tower). Western Union’s microwave system changed the American landscape by opening up isolated mountaintops and backyards to high-tech industrial development and contributed towards the creation of a vertical real estate market that was exploited by commercial telecommunications companies. Travelers along the Lincoln Highway and the old National Road during the postwar years saw towers rising above the forest canopies and silhouetted on the horizon. When they were built, the towers were welcomed. However, by the turn of the 21st century, many people considered the industrial structures to be blight and unwelcome visual intrusions. Sites like Jennerstown and the other surviving Western Union relays, plus Washington’s Tenley terminal, are key repositories of architectural and engineering information that can provide insights into economic, technological, and social history.


I thank the Historic American Engineering Record for its generous assistance in documenting the Jennerstown relay site; Christopher Marston, Larry Lee, and Jet Lowe provided invaluable assistance. The site’s documentation would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support given by owner Robert Mallet. The U.S. National Museum of American History Archives Center assisted with research in the Western Union papers and graciously allowed me to use images from the collection in this paper. Finally, Cold War communications researcher Albert LaFrance’s Western Union website fueled some of my initial questions into the system’s historical significance, and Albert has put up with many email queries about everything from tower architecture to sources for his amazing collection of Western Union materials. As always, I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions in this paper.


1� David S. Rotenstein, “Towering Issues and the FCC,” Forum News 10, no. 6 (Aug. 2004): 1–2, 6 [Newsletter of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Forum].

2� Federal Communications Commission, Report and Order FCC 04–222, “Nationwide Programmatic Agreement Regarding the Section 106 National Historic Preservation Act Review Process” (5 Oct. 2004).

3� David S. Rotenstein, “Radio Towers: New Federal Policies Threaten the Legacy of America’s Communications Industry,” Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter 32, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 1–2; David S. Rotenstein, “New Federal Policies Endanger Historic American Engineering Sites,” Society for Industrial Archeology Newsletter 34, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 17.

4� “Chollas Heights Naval Radio Transmitting Facility,” HAER No. CA-154, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC; “Rabbit Creek White Alice Site,” HAER No. AK-23, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC; Jay Haviser, “Archaeological Testing at Optical Telegraph Sites on Curacao,” Proceedings of a Symposium on the Optical Telegraph, 21–23 June 1994 (Stockholm, Sweden: Telemuseum Press, 1994), 25–31; Jay Haviser, “Archaeological Investigation at Optical Telegraph Sites on Curacao” (Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles: Archaeological-Anthropological Institute, 1994) [Report on file, National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm, Sweden].

5� Wayne D. Cocroft, Cold War Monuments: An Assessment by the Monuments Protection Programme (London, England: English Heritage, 2001); Wayne D. Cocroft and Roger J. C. Thomas, Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946–1989 (London, England: English Heritage, 2003), 218–24.

6� Donald C. Beelar, “Cables in the Sky and the Struggle for Their Control,” Federal Communications Bar Journal 21 (1967): 26–41; Gerald W. Brock, The Telecommunications Industry: The Dynamics of Market Structure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981); Philip L. Cantelon, The History of MCI: The Early Years, 1968–1988 (Washington, DC: MCI Communications Corp., 1993); Philip L. Cantelon, Technology and Culture 36, no. 3 (1995): 560–82; Julian Z. Millar, “A Preview of the Western Union System of Radio Beam Telegraphy, Part I,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 241, no. 12 (Jun. 1946): 397–413; Julian Z. Millar, “A Preview of the Western Union System of Radio Beam Telegraphy, Part II,” Journal of the Franklin Institute 242, no. 1 (Jul. 1946): 23–40; J. Z. Millar, “Two Thousand Telegrams Per Minute by Microwave,” Western Union Technical Review 1, no. 1 (Jul. 1947): 1–8.

7� Louis Galambos, “Recasting the Organizational Synthesis: Structure and Process in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries,” Business History Review 79 (2005): 3; Louis Galambos and Eric John Abrahamson, Anytime, Anywhere: Entrepreneurship and the Creation of a Wireless World (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), 254–55; Richard N. Langlois, “The Capabilities of Industrial Capitalism,” Critical Review 5, no. 4 (1991): 526.

8� Robert Britt Horwitz, The Irony of Regulatory Reform (New York, N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 11–12.

9� Anton Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (New York, N.Y.: J. Wiley, 2003), 393.

10� Thomas W. Hazlett, “The Wireless Craze, the Unlimited Bandwidth Myth, the Spectrum Auction Faux Pas, and the Punchline to Ronald Coase’s ‘Big Joke’: An Essay on Airwave Allocation Policy,” Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 1443, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 335–469; David E. Nye, “Shaping Communication Networks: Telegraph, Telephone, Computer,” Social Research 64, no. 36 (Fall 1997): 1067–91; Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies without Boundaries: On Telecommunications in a Global Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).

11� Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899–1922 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987).

12� G. Caldwell, “The Standard of Public Interest, Convenience or Necessity as Used in the Radio Act of 1927,” Air Law Review 1, no. 3 (Jul. 1930): 295–330; Ronald H. Coase, “The Federal Communications Commission,” Journal of Law and Economics 2 (1959): 1–40; Hugh Slotten, Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States, 1920–1960 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000); Robert Carleton Smith, “Legal Phases of Radio Communication,” Journal of Business of the University of Chicago 2, no. 3 (Jul. 1929): 291–311.

13� Federal Communications Commission, “Regulations Governing Establishment and Certification of bbbbronautical Lights and Instructions for Marking Obstructions to Air Navigation,” 1 August 1930, Department of Commerce, bbbbronautics Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission, Record Group 173, Box 477, File 130–3, Washington, DC [hereafter National Archives].

14� Federal Communications Commission, “Marking Obstructions to Air Navigation” (see n. 13).

15� D. Fagg to Secretary of the Federal Communications Commission, 1 June 1937, National Archives (see n. 13); Federal Communications Commission to the Department of Commerce, 18 August, 1937, “Subject: Antenna Tower Marking,” National Archives (see n. 13).

16� R. S. Boutelle to the Secretary of the Federal Communications Commission, 10 July 1937, National Archives (see n. 13).

17� “Attire of Orange and White Ordered for Radio Antennae,” The Washington Post (14 Sep. 1937): 11.

18� Russell W. Burns, Communications: An International History of the Formative Years (London, England: Institution of Electrical Engineers), 80–86; George P. Oslin, The Story of Telecommunications (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 1992).

19� Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), 195–203; Daniel D. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1982), 3–29.

20� John Brooks, Telephone, The First Hundred Years: The Wondrous Invention That Changed a World and Spawned a Corporate Giant (New York, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1976); Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1992); David Hochfelder, “Constructing an Industrial Divide: Western Union, AT&T;, and the Federal Government, 1876–1971,” Business History Review 76 (Winter 2002): 705–32.

21� Hugh Slotten, Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States, 1920–1960 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000).

22� Burns, Communications, 577 (see n. 18).

23� “Microwave Radio Circuit of the Radio Corporation of America,” Science 83, no. 2164 (19 Jun. 1936): 600–02.

24� Burns, Communications, 577–84 (see n. 18).

25� Slotten, Radio and Television Regulation, 154–55 (see n. 21).

26�Federal Communications Commission Twelfth Annual Report: Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1946 (Washington, DC: Federal Communications Commission, 1942).

27� W. R. G. Baker, “Statement of Operations of the Radio Technical Planning Board, Summary of Operations of the Radio Technical Planning Board,” 27 September, 1944, Records of the Radio Technical Planning Board Meetings, 1942–1948, National Archives, Box 3 (see n. 13).

28� John O. Robinson, Spectrum Management Policy in the United States: An Historical Account, OPP Working Paper No. 1558–62 (Washington, DC: Office of Plans and Policy, Federal Communications Commission, 1985); Gregory L. Rosston and Jeffrey S. Steinberg, “Using Market-Based Spectrum Policy to Promote the Public Interest,” Federal Communications Law Journal 50, no. 1 (Dec. 1997): 88–89; Hugh Slotten, “Rainbow in the Sky: FM Radio, Technical Superiority, and Regulatory Decision-Making,” Technology and Culture 37, no. 4 (Oct. 1996): 686–720; Slotten, Radio and Television Regulation, 119–27 (see n. 21).

29� “Western Union Relay Network,” 31 October 1944, FCC hearings on Radio Technical Planning Board, Docket 6651, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission, Record Group 173, Box 42, Washington, DC [hereafter Docket 6651].

30� “Transmission of Telegrams by Radio Beams Seen W.U.’s Ultimate Goal,” The Christian Science Monitor (25 Aug. 1943): 15.

31� “Relay Systems,” 31 October 1944, Testimony of H. B. Fancher, Docket 6651 (see n. 29).

32� “Radio Relay Network of the Western Union Telegraph Company,” Docket 6651 (see n. 29).

33� Law, Engineering and Accounting Departments (FCC) to the Commission (FCC), “Minutes of the 20 March 1945 Commission meeting (Telegraph Matters),” 14 March 1945, interoffice memorandum, National Archives (see n. 13).

34� “Minutes of the 7 November 1945 Commission Meeting, W.U. Relay Applications,” National Archives (see n. 13).

35� Helmut Carl, Radio Relay Systems (London, England: Macdonald, 1966), 171–74.

36� Millar, “Western Union System, Part II” (see n. 6); RCA Victor Division, Engineering Products Department, Microwave Radio Relay Equipment Instructions, (Camden, N.J.: Radio Corporation of America, 1947).

37� Western Union Telegraph Company, “Engineering Progress 1945–1950,” uncompleted manuscript, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Western Union Telegraph Company Records, Box 2, Folder 9, n.d., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC [hereafter W.U. Co. Records]; Millar, “Western Union System, Part II,” 33 (see n. 6). Prefabricated towers could be carried on truck beds and assembled at each site, thereby reducing the costs of transporting and constructing materials for a concrete building. The lookout tower design enabled engineers to place radio equipment close to the antennas in space. A guyed or narrow tower would not have allowed for the placement of radio equipment close to the antennas.

38� H. A. Haenseler, Western Union, to the U.S. Forest Service, 31 March 1945, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Forest Service, Record Group 95, Box 53, Washington, DC. [hereafter Forest Service].

39� H. R. Jones, U.S. Forest Service, to H. A. Haenseler, Western Union, 2 April 1945, Forest Service (see n. 38).

40� H. A. Haenseler, Western Union, to H. R. Jones, U.S. Forest Service, 20 April 1945, Forest Service (see n. 38).

41� H. H. Wheeler to H. R. Jones, U.S. Forest Service, 22 June 1945, Forest Service (see n. 38).

42� H. P. Corwith and W. B. Sullinger, “Western Union’s Microwave Relay System,” Western Union Technical Review (Jul. 1948): 105; P. J. Howe, compiler, “A Brief Outline of the Technical Progress Made by the Western Union Telegraph Company, 1935–1945,” Box 3, Folder 1, n.d., W.U. Co. Records (see n. 37); Western Union, “Engineering Progress,” (see n. 37).

43� Wheeler to Jones, 22 June 1945 (see n. 41).

44� H. R. Jones to H. H. Wheeler, Western Union, 27 June 1945, Forest Service (see n. 38).

45� T. W. Norcross, Standard Lookout Structure Plans (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1938), 3–3C.

46� Lindsay Baker, A Field Guide to American Windmills (Norman, Okla.: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 37–40; Wes Haynes, “Fire Observation Towers of the New York State Forest Preserve,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001), F2; Peter L. Steere, “National Forest Fire Lookouts in the Southwestern Region, USDA Forest Service,” National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987), item 8, p. 25.

47� Haynes, “Fire Observation Towers,” F1—F2 (see n. 46).

48� “bbbbrmotor Galvanized Steel Towers” photocopy of the original in the collection of Michael Pfeiffer, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC.

49� “Radio to Supplant Telegraph Wires,” The New York Times (23 Oct. 1945): 1.

50� Western Union, “Engineering Progress” (see n. 37); Howe, “History of Technical Progress” (see n. 42).

51� Millar, “Western Union System,” 33–36 (see n. 6); H. M. Ward, “Power Supplies for Microwave Relay Systems,” Western Union Technical Review 3, no. 4 (Oct. 1949).

52� Ward, “Power Supplies,” 136 (see n. 51).

53� Ibid., 135.

54� J. J. Lenehan, “Factors Affecting Location and Height of Radio Relay Towers,” Western Union Technical Review 4, no. 4 (Oct. 1950): 143–48; Millar, “Western Union System,” 29–33 (see n. 6).

55� “Relay Systems,” testimony of Elmer W. Engstrom, Docket 6651 (see n. 29).

56� Millar, “Western Union System” (see n. 6); Ward, “Power Supplies,” 133–42 (see n. 51); G. B. Woodman, “Maintenance of a Radio Relay System,” Western Union Technical Review 5, no. 4 (Oct. 1951): 141–47.

57� R. Mullen, “Era of Pole-Less Telegraph Heralded by Western Union,” The Christian Science Monitor 23 (Oct. 1945): 3.

58� Millar, “Two Thousand Telegrams” (see n. 6); Mullen, “Era of Pole-Less” (see n. 57).

59� Lenehan, “Factors Affecting,” 95 (see n. 54); Western Union, Box 2, Folder 9, n.d., W.U. Co. Records (see n. 37).

60� “W.U. on the Air: Telegraph Company Adopts High Frequency Radio for Use on Heavy Traffic Circuits. System Dooms Conventional Pole Lines,” Business Week (27 Oct. 1945): 20; “Electronics Puts Young Blood in Old Company,” Business Week (27 Aug. 1960): 86–96; Twelfth Annual Report, 26–29 (see n. 26); Harold Fleming, “Telegraph Industry Facing Revolution,” The Christian Science Monitor (7 Feb. 1947): 17.

61� Valerie Bauerlein, “Western Union’s Last Telegram Marks the Conclusion of an Era,” The Wall Street Journal (3 Feb. 2006): B3; Mike Musgrove, “The Telegram, 1844–2006,” The Washington Post (3 Feb. 2006): D-1.

By: David S. Rotenstein