WBF - A Typical Ute

by Robert Fraser


The following item is taken from pages 59-61 of the July 1978 edition of SPEEDX. It is placed here with permission of SPEEDX.

(I am deeply indebted to Mr, Luther W, Eldridge of South Weymouth, Mass,, an engineer at WBF, for the technical information and operations of the station; and to Mr. Cornelius C. Maher, Manager of the Public Affairs Administration of the United Brands Company, for a general history of the Tropical Radio Telegraph Company.)

Back In 1871, Capt. Lorenzo Baker of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Mass., brought to Boston, America's first cargo of bananas. Despite his friends and associates labeling them "monkey fruit", they were quickly sold.. Pleased, Baker immediately went into business growing and shipping bananas. In 1885, Baker headed up a Boston group forming the Boston Fruit Company. The headquarters were located in the Board of Trade Building at 131 State Street and the firm leased the whole south side of nearby Long Wharf. In 1899, the Boston Fruit Company headed up and became controlling member of a merger of 12 American banana growing and shipping concerns which became the United Fruit Company. Merging with other food producing firms in the 1950's and 1960's. United Fruit became the United Brands Company in 1970. Sailing ships first brought the unusual fruit and after 1879, steamships. Refrigerator ships were first used in 1903. The fruit was picked green and ripened on the voyage. But it was highly fragile and the hot tropics or cold Now England weather quickly spelled disaster despite all precautions. Often, tons of rotting bananas had to be thrown overboard while at sea. Bostonians quickly learned to flock to Long Wharf whenever a banana boat was expected, Almost always, stalks of over-ripe bananas, which couldn't be sold would be handed out. A story told me me of a man who received a stalk of about 100 bananas. As he shouldered his way through the mob on the wharf many "helping hands" reached out. When he was free of the peoples he discovered all he had was a bare stalk.

The invention of radio greatly interested United Fruit. By it they could keep in touch with their Central American branches and ships at sea. In 1903, United Fruit began building their own network. The US Navy's "Wireless Radio Stations of the World" (1907) list four radio stations in Central America owned by the Boston Fruit Company. They were: 'B' at Bocas del Toro, Panama; 'X' at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; and 'Q' at Bluefields and 'UE' at Rama, both in Nicaragua. The only details given was that the equipment was all by Shoemaker. As all long distance stations then, they operated an long wave, were of the spark type and used CW instead of voice. Oddly, none of the Boston Fruit Company's American stations are listed nor none of the shipboard radios. The latter may be explained as the Boston Fruit/United Fruit only owned one ship in their whole existance, chartering all their vessels.

The tropics are plagued by many thunderstorms with resultant static. Mr. Eldridge was first at a United Fruit spark type radio station in Guatemala. He told me that the reception of a spark type transmission often sounded more like static than did the static itself.

In 1913, the Tropical Radio Telegraph Company was established as a wholly owned subsidiary of United Fruit to take over and operate the parent company's radio network. it is not known when WBF came into existance but it was in operation in 1928 when Mr. Eldridge joined it. WBF was first located on the Board of Trade Building's roof and the four antenna towers still exist here. Mr. Eldridge passed on two stories he heard of the call letters. One is that they stand for William B. Filene, owner of the famous Filene's Department Store and prominent member of Boston's Board of Trade. The other story was that the letters stand for the Boston Fruit Company. Mr. Eldridge doesn't take stock in either legend.

Due to lack of room for the growing business, WBF was moved to Charles Street, in southeastern Hingham, Mass., located some 12 miles southeast of Boston. Two 250 towers, oriented east and west, were built with a four wire flat top aerial. The antenna was divided into two portions, one for 147 kHz and the other for 436/500 kHz on the long wave marine band. The 147 kHz section was fed directly from the main transmitter using a single wire transmission line. The 436/500 kHz section was energized through an open wire food line to a tuner house under the east tower. Inside it was a relay which selected the proper inductance of the leading coil for either 436 or 500 kHz. The relay was under direct control of the radio operator an well as various other relays within the transmitter itself. A storm (possibly the 1938 hurricane) destroyed the flat top aerial and it was replaced by a single wire, divided into 147 kHz and 436/500 kHz portions.

The main transmitter, covering the low frequency marine band, was rated at 23 kW and used a water cooled tube in the final with 20,000 volts in the plate. The transmitter had come from the TRT Guatemala station at Barrios where it had been a long wave relay between the other TRT stations and as direct communication to New Orleans. The new shortwave transmitters had made it obsolete so it was brought to the US, rebuilt to cover the long wave marine frequencies, and installed at Hingham, No one knows what type it was. Mr. Eldridge said that the nameplate had been removed in the rebuilding and never restored. Despite its age, the transmitter was very satisfactory and under good atmospheric conditions, covered most of the North Atlantic and as far south as Chile.

The auxiliary transmitter was a 750 watt HCA shipboard type. Its antenna was a single line running from the transmitter to half way up the east tower. Switching frequencies on the auxiliary was very clumsy to say the least. The radio operator was unable to do it and he had to call the man on duty at the transmitter to do the switching for him. Fortunately, the short range auxiliary was seldom used. There were also a couple of "home-made" marine high frequency band transmitters rated at 2.5 kw input power. They energized Delta type doublet antennas with one antenna for each frequency used. The transmitters were hand tuned twice a day since there were daytime frequencies and nighttime frequencies. These antennas were oriented northeast-southwest to cover most of the traffic. Marine operation was shut down in 1942-1945 because of the war and ceased in 1950.

The four point-to-point transmitters were also converted RCA types of 2.5 kW each. Each transmitter had its own line to the receiving station and could be separately keyed by the operator on duty. The PTP transmitters used broadband Rhombic antennas energized by 500-ohm open wire transmission lines. The antennas were oriented on Miami, Florida; New Orleans, LA; La Lima, Honduras; Guatemala City, Guatemala; and Panama City, Panama.

A FCC ruling about 1939 forced a change in the WBF transmissions. Before, a lot of private messages had been sent but now, it all had to be of a commercial nature. The FCC also required frequent identification on each transmitter while in use. Motor driven identification discs with time delays were used at WBF. With the first impuse over the keyline, the relay opened permitting the use of the transmitter by the remote operator. At the end of the operation and after a predetermined time, the relay closed putting the identification disc back in the keyline.

After World War II, the FCC ruled that each frequency was to have its own call, Thus, the PTP circuits dropped WBF and became WBW, WBO, WBQ9 WCA-36, WCB-20, WCB-23 and WCB-27. (Mr. Eldridge thought there were more call letters but was unable to recall them.) Incidently, the PTP circuits continued in use during World War II but Naval personnel were on hand for the usual censorship.

The receiving station of WBF was also moved from Boston to Charles Street, Hingham in 1930 and it stood on the southern half of the property. In 1938, due to increased traffic and its close proximity to the transmitter, the receiver was moved to Derby Street, Hingham and about 2 miles southwest. This used Rhombic antennas for the PTP circuits and Doublet antennas for the high band marine frequencies. Underground hard drawn copper transmission lines ran from the terminating transformers on the antenna poles to the antenna switchboard in the basement of the receiving station.

Until 1952, all traffic was transmitted by hand or by prepunched perforated tape and incoming messages were transcribed by the operators directly on typewriters. Teletypewriters connected the radio station to Western Union and the United Fruit headquarters in Boston. Afterwards, all manual telegraphic operations ceased and teletypewriters were used. Incoming messages were received in printed form and outgoing traffic was transcribed on tape. To prevent reception of all messages by all stations, a "forked system" (Mr. Eldridge's words) was used. A special coded pulse was transmitted first which started the teletypewriter in the desired station.

On June 30, 1960, the Hingham station was closed and its traffic then handled either by Miami or New Orleans. This may have been due to the fact that the Port of Boston had been going downhill since the end of World War II. In fact, only a few of its 250 wharves are in use today.

The northern half of the Charles Street property (where the transmitter stood) was sold to the Maryknoll Fathers who built a school on the site. The southern half of the property (where the first receiver stood) was used by the TRT Engineering Service from 1938 to 1971. Then they moved to the Prudential Building, Boston and in 1974, to Washington DC. This section of the Charles Street property was then sold to a "gentleman farmer". The Derby Street property (where the second receiver stood) is now the Hingham Shopping Plaza. Oddly, and as previously mentioned, the original WBF antennas still exist atop the Board of Trade Building in Boston.

The Tropical Radio Telegraph Company is now the Tropical Radio Telecommunications Corporation with headquarters in Washington, DC. It is still wholly owned by United Brands Company.

Mr. Eldridge added that TRT has only one active radio station In use today - WNU, New Orleans which also has two PTP circuits. The Miami station, WAX, was closed in 1975, As many utes, TRT is now using landlines, cable, microwave, and satellite relays and automatic message distributions, Despite their radio stations closing, TRT is rapidly expanding its circuits via the new means into Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the Far East (via San Francisco).


General Broadcasting Menu - Radio History Menu
Main Menu - SPEEDX Menu

This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

My Address Is In This Graphic