The Work of The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada

Jump to: navigation, search
The following article was published in the Canadian Defence Quarterly, Part I appeared in October 1924 and Part II likely in October 1925.[1]

The Work of The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada

By Major W. Arthur Steel, M.C., The R.C.C.S.

Part I – Co-operation With The R.C.A.F. In Forestry Patrol Work

Preliminary Survey of the Situation in Canada.

Ever since the conservation of our national forests was undertaken on a permanent and scientific basis by the Forestry Branch of the Department of the Interior, the necessity for rapid and reliable communication between the various units in the system has been one of the most urgent requirements. The nature of the country, and the long distances to be covered, made it almost impossible for them to establish telegraph or telephone lines upon which they could depend. Wind storms and fires wrought havoc with the bush lines which they did erect, and they were forced to depend mainly on messengers travelling on foot or by canoe. Prior to 1914, radio telegraphy had been considered and even tried out on a small scale in certain countries, but it did not give much promise of success on account of the great weight and cost of the type of equipment then in use, and of the limited range of operation of all the portable sets on the market. During the war, the science of radio communication progressed rapidly. The introduction and development of the thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, as it is commonly called, resulted in the production, for military purposes, of light, cheap and efficient portable sets with astonishingly long ranges.

It was not surprising then that our Forestry officials, many of whom had spent long periods in combatant or Forestry units in France, should return to Canada bent on employing in their peace-time occupation two of the most outstanding developments of the war period, namely, the aeroplane and radio communication. The aeroplane had become an efficient and dependable vehicle, while radio sets, with ranges of two or three hundred miles, and light enough to be carried in an aeroplane or transported by canoe or pack train on the ground, were in common use. In addition to this development in machines and instruments, hundreds of pilots had, for war purposes, been given a most thorough training along the very lines that would make them most useful as Forest Rangers, that is, they had been trained to cover hundreds of square miles of unfamiliar country, and yet be able to report accurately about conditions on the ground. That this would be of untold value in forest conservation is self-evident since the advantages of having even one man observe the country from an elevation of several thousand feet, as compared to any number of Rangers on foot, or in canoes, does not require argument. Realizing that they could cooperate to advantage, the Forestry Department and the Air Board got together soon after the war and decided to cooperate in the use of aeroplanes for Forest Patrol work.

Experiments in this work were first undertaken over the Forest Reserves in Alberta, in conjunction with the Dominion Forestry service. An aerodrome was established at Morley, in the hills west of Calgary, but later on was moved to the town of High River, 40 miles south of Calgary.

It became evident, early in these experiments, that to obtain full benefit from the Aeroplane Patrol, there must be some reliable method for the pilot to pass his information down to the ground, instead of waiting anywhere from one to perhaps six hours for the flight to be completed. Message dropping was tried but proved less successful than in France, since the bags became lost so easily in the woods. Coming down low over Ranger Stations in the forest in a dangerous proceeding since a forced landing there would mean a serious, if not fatal, crash. As we all know, radio-telegraphy was used extensively by the R.A.F. in France, chiefly for Artillery cooperation and, to a certain extent, for communication between formations in the air. The Air Board, therefore, decided to employ radio as an auxiliary to the Patrol Service, and since the planes received from England were completely equipped it was not a difficult matter for tests to be carried out. During the summer of 1920, a Ground Station was erected at Morley, and the machines in use were equipped with a spark, or damped wave transmitting set, and on each patrol a radio-telegraph operator was carried in the plane to transmit to the Ground Station all information collected by the pilot. Satisfactory results were obtained during the short time the system was in operation, but the range of the set was too short for the area to be covered.

In 1921 up-to-date Continuous Wave telegraph equipment was employed, and a large Ground Station erected at the High River Aerodrome. Better results were, of course, secured, and some excellent work was carried out by this Station, but the system was not yet perfect. The two year’s operation showed that the communication system had three serious faults: -

(1) Carrying a radio operator in the plane decreased the manoeuvre ability of the machine, and increased greatly the danger.
(2) Communication between Pilot and Operator was never good, and serious mistakes occurred.
(3) A large staff of operators was required, making the cost of communication high.

Early in the spring of 1922, arrangements were completed for the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals to take over all communication work for the Air Board, and the question of correcting the above faults was then seriously considered. The obvious thing to do was to make the pilot handle his own radio set, but unfortunately it requires long periods of training to turn out either good pilots or good telegraph operators, and few pilots have time to qualify along both lines. It became necessary, therefore, to employ radio-telephony in order to make this new system workable. Once this decision had been reached, steps were immediately taken to obtain and test out the necessary equipment, and to instruct personnel in the efficient handling of the low-power radio-telephone apparatus.

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 1.jpg
The RCAF Station High River Alberta

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 2.jpg
Interior of the Operating Room High River Air Station

The High River System

It may be of interest to describe briefly the equipment used at this station for the first Aeroplane to Ground radio telephony ever attempted in Canada.

The mast gear available consisted of a solid steel structure 185 feet high, built of angle iron and heavily guyed. The old umbrella antenna, used for spark telegraphy, was taken down and a fan type aerial erected in its place. This antenna was not sharply directional and gave excellent results both for transmission and reception.

The set obtained for use in the Ground Station was a Marconi Cabinet Telephone and Telegraph Set, rated by the manufacturer at 1 1/2 K.W. This was somewhat larger than was actually required in this case, but was the only thing that could be obtained quickly in this country. The set itself may be seen in the photograph of the operating room at the High River Station.

The source of power was a gasoline-driven generator, supplying current at 200 volts, and 185 cycles; this energy was then transformed to 10,000 volts by means of a Marconi Transprimer, before being passed to the Rectifying Valve.

One other point of interest about the system is the fact that the valves are lighted by a step-down-transformer connected across the low tension input leads. It might be interesting to note that an aerial current of from 8 to 10 amperes is obtainable in the aerial mentioned previously, when operating this set at a wave length of 1200 meters.

The receiver is of special importance on work of this nature due to the fact that the greater part of the work of the Station consists of the reception of messages and location reports from the planes. The circuit is arranged so that it can be used either on “Stand-by” or “Tune.”

On the “Stand-by” side, a single circuit, only, is employed, and the tuning is, therefore, not very sharp. This enables a quick search to be made for any given plane. When the required plane is found, the instrument can then be used on the “tune” side in case other stations or aeroplanes are causing interference. When in the tune position great selectivity is obtained, due to the fact that a small part only of the secondary is coupled to the primary circuit. This, together with the use of radio frequency in the amplifier, reduces very greatly interference troubles.

The Aircraft sets were standard R.A.F. types, known as T.21 and T.21A transmitters, together with the necessary auxiliary apparatus. The aeroplane equipment shown in the picture consists of the following parts: -

(1) The transmitter, containing the necessary power valves and wavelength controls.
(2) The telephone attachment by means of which the output of the transmitter was modulated by the voice of the pilot.
(3) A 1500 volt generator mounted on one of the wings and driven by a small windmill.
(4) The aerial reel for manipulating the trailing wire antenna used with the transmitter.
(5) The necessary resistances for controlling the set, the telegraph key, microphone and other accessories.
(6) A small leak-proof storage battery for lighting the filaments of the valves in the set.

Since the pilot was to be made responsible for the operation of the radio telephone set in the air, all of the equipment just described had to be installed in the cockpit together with the flying and engine controls. This required some manipulation as great care had to be taken to see that those parts in which valves were mounted were protected from jars and bumps, which are unavoidable during the period that the plane is taxying on the ground. The photographs give a general idea of the methods employed in mounting the set and show the type of rubber suspension protecting the instrument from shock. It was recognized from the start that the average pilot, being unfamiliar with both the theory and operation of radio sets, would in all probability be unable to make the necessary adjustments for wavelength and resonance while in the air. It would, therefore, be necessary for the technical personnel on the ground to adjust everything before the plane went up. When once in the air it would then only be necessary for the pilot to let out his aerial and throw over his send-receive switch in order to put the equipment into operation. To facilitate this test work, the station was provided with complete equipment to duplicate on the ground the conditions met with when the aeroplane was in flight. The provision of this test apparatus proved to be a very wise precaution, as highly satisfactory results were obtained in operation.

One of the main difficulties to be overcome in connection with radio-telephony from the air is the elimination of outside noises, due to the operation of the engine and the rush of the air. A very complete test on different types of microphones was made during the installation of this system, and while several microphones give excellent modulation there was only one type which was free from the effect of extraneous noises. This type is known as the anti-noise microphone, and is manufactured by the Magnavox Company of Oakland, California. In this microphone, the diaphragm is connected to the microphone button by means of a brass link about half an inch long. The combination is then mounted in the frame in such a way that the outside noises can strike with equal strength on the two sides of the diaphragm and are, therefore, balanced out. The speech, however, being impressed on one side only, is transmitted without loss to the microphone button. Excellent results have been obtained with this microphone, and so perfect is the noise elimination that when static is not present the circuit compares favourably with a long-distance telephone line.

One other point in connection with the equipment is worth mentioning.

It will easily be understood that, when in the air, the roar of the engine, and the rush of the wind, make it impossible for the person to hear himself speak. The natural tendency is, therefore, to try and shout and the effect at the receiving station is exactly the same as when a person tries to shout into an ordinary land telephone. It required considerable practice and a good deal of time spent listening to other radiophone operators, both good and bad, before consistent and satisfactory results were obtained from air to ground.

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 3.jpg
Map showing RCAF Radio Stations in Western Canada Operated by the RCCS

Operation of the System

The operation of the Station in practice may be briefly described as follows: -

The area to be covered is divided, generally, into two sections; the Bow Patrol, extending north from High River to the Clearwater River, and the Crow Patrol, covering the area between High River and the International boundary and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Under ordinary conditions of weather one flight is made over each of these areas every day. The Bow Patrol covers somewhat more area than the Crow Patrol and, therefore, it is necessary for the plane to leave early in the morning. The pilot usually lands at the northern base at Eckville for lunch, returning in the afternoon over the eastern section of the Reserve. The Crow Patrol is usually made during the afternoon.

Before the plane leaves the ground to make its patrol the set and wiring are carefully examined for adjustments and mechanical defects, and the watch on the plane is synchronized with the station time. This is to avoid, as far as possible, unnecessary interference between planes in the air. These duties are carried out by Signal personnel on the Station.

In the operating room maps of the entire area have been mounted on the wall, and small distinguishing flags are employed for the various pilots and patrols. At each report from a pilot his particular flag is moved to the new location given so that a glance at the map will show the Station officials the approximate location of the planes in the air at any time. It often happens that two machines will be in the air at the same time and, in order to avoid interference, arrangements were made for the Bow Patrol to make their reports on the hour and half hour, and the Crow Patrol on the quarter and three-quarter hour. The system thus helps to ensure the safety of the pilots, and it is for this reason that the pilots are instructed to give their exact location every time they come on with a report. Should a man fail to report at his proper time, and there is reason to suspect that he has encountered trouble and has been forced to make a landing, the station officials know, within a few minutes flying, where to look for him. Under ordinary circumstances a pilot should be able to come on and give his location even during the time he is gliding down and searching for a suitable spot to make a forced landing. The receiving set is manned from the time the first plane leaves until the last machine returns to the station. This is to ensure that should any such emergency arise it will be possible for the pilots to operate their sets and give information or ask for assistance. Should such emergency arise, and it is necessary for one pilot to come on at the exact time that another patrol should be making its report, the pilots have been instructed to use telegraphy in place of telephony, since telegraph signals are more easily copied through strong speech or other jamming.

When information of special importance has to be transmitted, as in the case of names of places likely to be misunderstood, all pilots have been instructed to give the information by voice first, but to repeat it immediately after, using the telegraph key. This ensures the gist of the information getting through, no matter what the static is like, since the telegraph signals are, of course, much stronger than the speech. Names of places, and proper names, are the only things which are liable to be misread or misunderstood. The repetition of map locations by telegraph is intended to make doubly sure that mistakes will not occur.

Results Achieved

During the installation and preliminary tests of this equipment, several long distance flights were made in an endeavour to gain some idea of the reliable operating range of the set when used for speech transmission. Distances up to 125 miles were consistently covered, even through rather severe static conditions, and it was estimated that the reliable range should be 100 miles under practically all conditions. This estimate has been greatly exceeded in actual operation, due largely to the fact that the personnel on the station have become better acquainted with the adjustment and operation of the receiving set. The average daily range, during the operations of the past summer (1924), has been about 160 miles, and on several occasions much greater distances have been covered successfully. The record to date, so far as we know, is 190 miles; on this occasion the aeroplane had gone out of its normal area to investigate a fire in the Clearwater Reserve, beyond the Nordegg River. The above results are the average of 4 1/2 months operation during the past summer, and most of the records were made in July and August. During this period, the static conditions are usually at their worst on account of the rapid changes in temperature between day and night. It is interesting to note that the strength of the voice at these various ranges compares very favourably with that received over a long distance telephone line of equal length. During this period 195 flights have been made from the station by aeroplanes carrying radio telephone equipment, and taking into consideration all cases of trouble, successful communication has been maintained in 90 per cent of the flights. The chief source of trouble was broken generator brushes, and next to this was the loss of the aerial when first letting it out, due to the improper use of the brake on the aerial winch. Static conditions were only responsible for three failures, as far as is known. This may be explained by stating that specially selective circuits were employed, and long periods spent in training the operators to read through heavy static disturbances.

The life of the valves used in the planes has been surprisingly long. This is due to the robust construction of the valves and partly to the fact that they were operated well within their normal filament temperature. This may have somewhat reduced the output from the set, but this was more than compensated for by the increase in life and the reduction in the operating costs of the station.

Two-Way Working.

In all that has been said so far, emphasis has been placed on reception from the plane rather than on the transmission of information from the ground to the plane. It will be readily understood that the more important problem was reception from the plane; however, extensive experiments were carried out in connection with two-way working between the aeroplane and the ground. Successful results were obtained up to a range of 100 miles from the High River Station without any particular care being taken to provide means for eliminating the magneto noises due to the ignition system of the plane. The reception in the plane was quite successful and very little repetition was required. These experiments indicated that if proper care was taken to shield the magneto wiring, it would be possible to still further increase the usefulness of this system by providing two-way working, or perhaps duplex radio-telephony for the pilots. The main uses for two-way communication might be summed up as follows; -

(a) For the Ground Station to ask for repetitions or further details connected with fire locations, etc. This is the most important use.
(b) To alter the instructions previously given to the pilot, or to transmit further instructions or weather reports.
(c) To assist in the location of a plane which has been obliged to make a forced landing.

Little expansion work along this line has been attempted up to date due to the fact that the requirements of the service have not demanded it. On the other hand it has been necessary to eliminate as far as possible all unnecessary weight, the result being that two-way communication for the aeroplanes employed for Forest Patrols has not been attempted.

The Development of a Standard Ground Set.

Based on the experience of the past two years, and keeping in mind the particular requirements of the Forestry and Air Force Services, the Corps has developed a standard type of Ground Station for use in Canada. Particular attention has been paid to the question of reliability, and as far as possible equipment and parts procurable in Canada have been used, so that the problem of repairs and replacements does not offer any serious obstacles. The transmitting and receiving sets, with their auxiliary apparatus, are manufactured in the workshops of the R.C.C.S. in Ottawa, but the power plant, mast gear and other standard pieces of equipment are obtained through well known Canadian engineering firms.

These stations are self-contained in every way. The source of power is a 3 KW. Delco-plant with a 110 volt station storage battery for purposes of voltage regulation, and as a stand-by in case of emergency. This plant supplies the lighting for both the radio station and the camp. High voltage direct current is used for the radio transmitter and is obtained from a specially designed motor-generator set operating from the station power plant. The transmitter is of the open panel type and is capable of putting from 500 to 1000 watts of energy into the antenna. It is arranged so that the power output can be adjusted to suit the distance to be covered and the atmospheric conditions prevailing at the time.

The receiver is designed on the same principle as the one in use at High River, but has been improved both in electrical details and mechanical construction. A tuned radio frequency amplifier is used and in this way the number of valves has been reduced from seven to four without loss in signal strength. This receiver may be used equally well for continuous wave telegraphy or telephony, and has proved to be very sensitive, highly effective, and yet stable in operation.

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 4.jpg
The operating room and equipment - A standard radio station of the RCCS

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 5.jpg

The transmitter, receiver, key and the necessary batteries have all been assembled on a solid oak operating table. This table also carried the push button for the automatic starter which controls the motor-generator set. The operating room is located at the opposite end of the building from the power plant and, with the automatic control on the power set, the operators can carry on their communication work without interference from outside noises. This is a very essential requirement in radio communication work. The photograph shows the set and the general arrangement of the operating room. The problem of vibration from the Delco-plant and motor-generator in such a small building was very successfully overcome by the use of special wooden bases floating on spiral springs. No concrete is required, therefore, and the problems of erection are thus greatly simplified, especially at the more remote bases.

The peculiar nature of this work necessitated the use of a special building to house the plant and auxiliary apparatus. The Royal Canadian Engineers have carried out this part of the work for us and their design of building has proved to be very satisfactory indeed. The mast gear for these stations is also of special design, and was worked out in collaboration with the engineers of the Dominion Bridge Co’y and the Ontario Wind Engine and Pump Co’y. Angle iron and lattice bars are used throughout and the entire mast is assembled on the ground and then erected by means of a derrick and hand winch, two of the holding guys being used to haul up the mast. Two masts are used at each station to support a 300 foot T type antenna on 20 foot angle iron spreaders.

A number of Standard Stations of the type just described, are being erected this summer, and it is hoped that by the end of the present season all the main R.C.A.F. flying bases in Canada will be fully equipped with this up-to-date apparatus.

The Manitoba System.

In the Forest Reserves of Manitoba the Forestry Department is assisted in its work by a fleet of seaplanes, operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force, from a base at Victoria Beach, near the southern end of Lake Winnipeg. On account of the great distances to be covered in this country the area has been divided into three patrols, and sub-air stations established: one on Forestry Island, Norway House, and the other at The Pas. Seaplanes are stationed at each of these substations for the purposes of patrolling a given area, the forests in the southern part of the lake being handled directly from the base at Victoria Beach.

In Manitoba the radio communication work has not developed as yet to the same stage that has been reached in Alberta. During the past two years ground communication has been provided by radio between the air bases at Norway House, Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg, and the Forestry and Air Force headquarters in Winnipeg.

This year Standard Stations are being erected at Winnipeg, Victoria Beach, Norway House and Le Pas and these points will be able to communicate directly at all times. In addition, all aircraft operating from these centres will be equipped with apparatus, similar to that in use at High River, Alberta, and it is confidently expected that equally satisfactory results will be obtained on this system during the coming summer.

British Columbia System.

A Standard Ground Station was erected at the Jericho Beach Air Station, Vancouver, during the fall of 1923, and in the spring of 1924 a small detachment of R.C.C.S. personnel was stationed there to provide radio communication for the Royal Canadian Air Force in British Columbia. The seaplanes used at that station were equipped with radio telephone transmitters, and experimental work was carried out in connection with the Fishery Patrols at Prince Rupert last summer. In addition, several aeroplane shoots were carried out in cooperation with the Coast Defences at Esquimalt, radio being used to convey the observations from the plane to the guns. These experiments were successful and this work will be put on a permanent basis in British Columbia during the present summer.

The ground stations at Vancouver and Winnipeg are in constant touch with the station at High River by radio telegraphy, thus giving to the R.C.A.F. first-class emergency two-way communication between their headquarters in Winnipeg and the Coast. The Ottawa-Borden System.

In the fall of 1921 the Militia Department undertook to provide a system of radio communication for the Canadian Air Board between the Headquarters at Ottawa and the Training Centre at Camp Borden. At that time telegraph and telephone connections to Camp Borden were not good and in addition the business to be transacted was so great that the cost became quite an important item. The first stations erected used small military sets which had been brought back from France and, for the amount of power involved, the results obtained over this 250-mile jump were surprisingly good. The volume of business handled was heavy, averaging 10,000 words per month during the first 18 months that the system was in operation.

In the fall of 1923 standard stations were erected at Borden and Ottawa and this service was put on a permanent basis. All traffic between National Defence Headquarters and the training centres at Camp Borden is now handled via the radio system, and in addition these stations are used to give practical instruction to all R.C.C.S. personnel under training at the Signal Depot, Camp Borden.

Part II – The Northwest Territories & Yukon Radio System

History of the Project.

The use of radio-telegraphy in the provision of a system of communication for the Northwest Territories and Yukon was suggested by Major R.A. Logan of the Royal Canadian Air Force, in the fall of 1922. Major Logan, at the request of the Northwest Territories Branch of the Department of the Interior, had accompanied the C.G.S. “Arctic” during the summer of 1922 on her annual cruise to Baffin Land and Ellesmere Island, for the purpose of reporting on flying conditions in the North. In his report Major Logan stressed the necessity for communication as a means of opening up the North, and suggested that the government should investigate this question in the light of recent advances in the art of radio communication. This report raised the whole problem of communications within the Northwest Territories and, as Major Logan was well acquainted with all parts of the country, including the Mackenzie Basin, from his years of work as a surveyor there, he was asked by Mr. O.S. Finnie, Director of the N.W.T. Branch, to investigate the matter fully and to submit recommendations.

In his final report Major Logan outlined the general requirements of the Territories from a communication point of view, and recommended that steps be taken at once to provide a radio-telegraph system to cover the Mackenzie Basin and the Yukon. As he was thoroughly conversant with the work of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals for the Air Force in 1921 and 1922, he suggested that the Department of National Defence be approached with the object of having a system similar to the one in use by the R.C.A.F., constructed on the Mackenzie.

It might be well to point out here that the question of radio communication had been considered by the Interior Department on one or two previous occasions, but had been dropped on account of excessive costs, as shown by the estimates submitted by the various companies which had been asked to tender on the work. During the time of the Oil Rush at Norman in 1921, radio stations had been considered as a means of connecting Fort Smith, the seat of government for the Territories, with the telegraph line at Fort McMurray, Alberta. In addition a scheme had been proposed for the use of radio between Mayo Landing on the Stewart River and Dawson City, Yukon Territory. Mayo was the transportation base for the newly discovered silver mines at Keno, 40 miles north of Mayo Landing.

On the basis of this report, the Department of National Defence was approached in October, 1922, with a request that they furnish the Northwest Territories Branch with an estimate on the construction and operation of a chain of radio stations running from Fort Smith down the Mackenzie River to the Delta, and taking in Dawson City in the Yukon.

Work of this nature was an innovation in the routine of this Department, and before any answer could be given, it was necessary to submit the whole question to Privy Council for a decision. In December, 1922, a ruling was obtained allowing the Department to undertake commercial work of this nature for other Government Departments in such parts of the country and under conditions which made it impossible for commercial companies to operate. It was brought out very clearly at this time that the Department would benefit directly by such an arrangement, since it provided the finest possible practical training ground for personnel of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals who had completed their courses of training at the Signal Depot, Camp Borden. In this way operators and technicians could be kept fully trained at all times.

Shortly after this authority was received the Department of National Defence decided to undertake this work for the Department of the Interior. Not least among the factors influencing the decision was the knowledge that the R.C.C.S. had available the necessary engineering staff and workshops, as well as a training establishment from which a supply of specially trained officers and men would be immediately available. In addition, the other activities of the R.C.C.S. throughout Canada made it possible for them to exchange the men on these northern stations at regular intervals, without increasing the overhead costs of the system.

In consequence of this decision an estimate was submitted early in 1923 covering a southern terminal station, a relay point at Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie, and a station at Dawson, Y.T. This estimate was later increased to include a station at Mayo, and the entire amount included in the appropriations for the N.W.T. Branch for 1923-24. The additional stations of the system were provided for in the estimates for 1924-25.

Necessity for Communication in the North.

Having briefly outlined the progressive steps in the inauguration of the system, it might be as well at this stage to review the conditions which made such a system necessary. The Northwest Territories include all lands and islands north of the 60th parallel and lying between the eastern boundary of the Yukon on the west and the eastern boundary of Canada on the east, as is shown on the map reproduced herewith. The Yukon Territory, while not included within these boundaries, comes under the Northwest Territories Branch of the Department of the Interior for administration. It will thus be seen that there is here an immense tract of country still undeveloped, much of which has never been travelled except by trappers and Indians. Within recent years considerable interest has developed in that part of the Territories known as the District of Franklin and including such large tracts of land as Baffin and Ellesmere Islands. Canada today claims sovereignity over this entire area and is therefore keenly interested in the opening up and development of this country. It is a well known fact that communication and commercial development go hand in hand and since the development had not proceeded to such an extent that commercial companies could afford to install a communication system, it became necessary for some branch of the Canadian Government to undertake this work. The commercial possibilities of the country are briefly summarized in the following paragraphs. Mining is still the main industry in the Yukon. While the individual operator has largely disappeared from the creeks of the Klondike Basin, the large companies are carrying on the work by means of dredges, and by hydraulicing, i.e., washing down the hills with streams of water controlled by large nozzles. The output from these operations, while not as large as in the days of the Gold Rush, is still of importance. Last year the value of the gold output of the Yukon amounted to nearly $900,000. Within more recent years a discovery of silver at Keno Mountain, 40 miles north of Mayo Landing on the Stewart River, has revived interest in the Yukon. A great deal of money is now being spent in this district, which gives promise of being as important as the better known silver areas of British Columbia and Ontario. Dawson City, located on the Yukon River, is the capital and seat of government for the Territory.

Fort Smith, on the Slave River, just inside the 60th parallel, is the seat of government for the N.W.T., and in addition is the southern terminus for the river transportation companies operating on the Mackenzie. All freight destined for the Mackenzie Basin must go in through Fort Smith and the entire products of the district, consisting at the present time almost entirely of furs, comes out through Smith to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway, via the overland portage to Fort Fitzgerald and the Athabasca River route to Fort McMurray at the junction of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers.

The oil fields near Fort Norman have not developed as rapidly as was expected in the early days of the rush, but the work is still underway and a new well is being driven down this summer not far from Discovery Well.

The Mackenzie Delta and the Northwestern Arctic produce the greater part of the fur output of the country. Lack of communication into the North has always been a serious obstacle to the fur trader. The journey into this country must be made in the late summer and the latest fur prices he can get are those of August or early September. The buying is done in the following spring and early summer and it has frequently happened that the bottom had dropped out of the fur market between the date the buyer left Edmonton and the time of purchase of the furs. In addition to the furs, there is some whale fishing in the Beaufort Sea. This is almost the last of the whale fishing in North Atlantic waters.

Within the last two years a law has been passed in Canada making it necessary for all foreign vessels trading in Canadian waters to pay Customs and Excise duties on all goods sold to the natives or taken out of the country in trade. To enforce this law, Police and Customs officials had to be stationed at the various points where traders were accustomed to call. There are only a very limited number of places on the Arctic coast where seagoing vessels can put in, as the water is very shallow on both sides of the Delta for comparatively long distances off shore. Herschel Island on the west and Tree River in Coronation Gulf on the east, have therefore become important ports. All trading vessels operating in these waters must call at one or other of these places and both Police and Customs officials go on board and supervise the collection of the Customs dues on all goods going over the side of the vessel in trade.

Although not on the coast, Aklavik Settlement on the Mackenzie Delta, is rapidly becoming an important port. It is the northern terminus of the river transportation and in addition all the large trading companies maintain posts there. There are two hospitals and two schools in Aklavik, erected and maintained by the Catholic and English Church Missions, respectively.

It might be imagined that a telegraph line would serve this country to more advantage than a radio-telegraph system, but such is not the case. Distances are very great. For example, it is approximately 2,500 miles from Fort McMurray to Aklavik, and the expense of erecting and maintaining a telegraph line in that country would be absolutely prohibitive. A good example of the expense of maintaining a telegraph line through undeveloped country can be obtained by reference to the old Dawson line running from Hazelton in B.C. to Whitehorse on the Yukon, and thence down the Yukon River to Dawson City. This line was only 1,000 miles long but it cost on the average $200,000 per year for maintenance alone.

The Design of the Radio System.

After considerable discussion between the officials concerned it was decided to proceed with the Mackenzie Basin part of the system at once in order to provide communication for Dawson City and Mayo and for the transportation companies on the Mackenzie. A relay system was decided upon for this communication scheme rather than two or three large stations. The main reasons for this decision were as follows,- First – To provide a greater number of contact points within the Territories and so serve a greater number of people. Second – To reduce the capital cost of each station.

The first reason is not nearly so important in the North as reliability and ease of access. On the other hand the cost must always be considered, and it might be well to point out that, when considering an extension of the range of a station, the cost increases many times more rapidly than does the range.

With these points in view the following distribution of stations was recommended, and later approved by the Interior Department. The southern terminus was located just north of Edmonton in order to secure freedom from interference from power and telephone systems and in addition to ensure reliable telegraph connections at all times. The central or control station was placed at Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River at the junction of the Liard and the Mackenzie, and the other stations, which were to be in steps of approximately 600 miles each, were located at Fort Smith, Mayo, Dawson City and Herschel Island (see map). The undertaking, as originally planned, covered a period of three years, and called for the erection of the two stations at Dawson and Mayo in 1923, Edmonton, Simpson and Herschel Island in 1924, and Fort Smith in 1925. The plan also considered the erection of a station at Fort Norman if the oil fields developed sufficiently to warrant the expense, but nothing was included in the estimates to cover this station.

Adaptation of Standard Equipment.

With the standard equipment developed by the Corps, and which was described in the first part of this article, was, in general, quite satisfactory for the purpose, certain changes and additions had to be made on account of the nature of the country and the peculiar ground conditions which had to be overcome. The most important of these changes was the provision of special wooden bases for the steel masts and anchors and the development of a counterpoise system or earth screen. Both of these changes were made necessary by the fact that permanent frozen soil is found on practically all of these stations, at a very short distance below the level of the ground. Concrete could not be used for the mast and anchor bases on account of the heaving action of the frost, and the ordinary ground plates are not sufficient in the winter time as frozen ground has a very low conductivity.

The buildings required for each of these northern stations were evolved from the standard building, previously described, by adding a second storey to the main building and by the provision of a small 12’ by 20’ building for Officers’ quarters and two 16’ by 20’ buildings for the storage of provisions and oil. The ground floor of the main building is exactly the same as in the single storey building, with the exception that a short stairway runs up from the operating room to the second floor. This second floor is laid out with three bedrooms, a large living room and a kitchen. The walls, floors and roof of the main building are built with three dead air spaces and as a result the building is very comfortable and is easy to heat.

Every station is provided with a complete set of spare parts for all the equipment, and repairs can be carried out at the station no matter what the nature of the trouble that may develop.

Installation of the System.

Work was begun on the installation of the system in the summer of 1923. As previously stated the plans called for the stations at Dawson and Mayo to be erected first. Development work on the mines at Keno was being seriously handicapped on account of lack of communication, and since Dawson was at that time in touch with the outside by way of the telegraph line, this part of the system could operate satisfactorily without the other stations mentioned. The writer, together with Lieutenant Taber and the operating staff for the two stations, left Ottawa in August. It was too late in the season to complete the erection of standard buildings and as a result existing building were taken over, in both Dawson and Mayo, and fitted up for use as radio stations. On account of the low water in the Stewart River the work was completed in Mayo first, the party returning to Dawson by the last boat of the season down the Stewart River. Through the kindness of the R.C.M.P. in Dawson we obtained the use of one of the historic buildings in the Police Reserve. This building was the first log structure built for the Police in ’98, and proved to be so satisfactory for our purpose that it has been taken over permanently and fitted up as the Dawson Radio Station. The system was officially opened by Mr. Geo. P. Mackenzie, Gold Commissioner for the Yukon, on October 20th, 1923. The group shown in the picture was taken just after the opening ceremony. The writer came out over the trail to Whitehorse in December, 1923.

During the early summer of 1924, complete equipment and personnel were sent out for the stations at Edmonton, Alta., Fort Simpson and Herschel Island, N.W.T. Lieutenant W.L. Laurie was sent to Edmonton, Lieutenant R.A.H. Galbraith to Fort Simpson, and Lieutenant H.A. Young to Herschel Island. Work progressed rapidly during the summer and both Edmonton and Simpson were in operation early in October. During the summer Lieutenant Taber was sent to Mayo to erect a standard building there and to move the station to the new location on the government property on Centre Street. The entire system was put into operation on December 5th, 1924, and congratulatory messages were exchanged between the Hon. Mr. Stewart, Minister of the Interior, the Hon. Mr. Macdonald, Minister of Defence, and the Gold Commissioner of the Yukon in Dawson City.

Early in the summer Lieutenant Young with his detachment proceeded down the Mackenzie River to Aklavik and thence North West up the coast 140 miles to Herschel Island. The equipment and supplies for the station were, however, shipped from Vancouver on the Hudson’s Bay boat ‘Lady Kindersley.’ Unfortunately the ‘Lady Kindersley’ with all her cargo was lost in the ice near Point Barrow on August 8th, and consequently the Herschel Island station could not be completed in 1924, the season being then too far advanced to permit of our duplicating the shipment. By the time the news of the disaster reached Herschel it was too late to withdraw the party, and they were forced to spend the winter on the island. Clothing, provisions and accommodation were provided for them through the kindness of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

During the past winter the entire project was carefully reviewed in the light of the experience gained up to date, and it was decided to alter, somewhat, the original plan. The northern terminal station was changed from Herschel Island to Aklavik in order to provide better service for the transportation companies, and a small station only was provided for Herschel Island. This station was to be operated by the personnel at Aklavik, but only for the period during the summer when seagoing vessels could navigate these Arctic waters.

Complete building materials and technical equipment for both stations were sent down the Mackenzie River on June 8th, 1925, and the party was moved over from Herschel to the mainland to carry out the erection and installation work. Lieutenant Hastings, with a construction and operating party, went into Fort Smith in June and the construction of that station was put under way. It is expected that both of these stations will be completed, and in operation, early in September of this year. This will complete the construction work on the Mackenzie Basin section of the N.W.T. Radio System. The plans for the eastern section, serving Chesterfield Inlet, Northern Labrador, Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island, have not yet been completed, but it is expected that work will commence on this part of the project during the summer of 1926.

Operation of the System.

The Dawson and Mayo stations have now been in operation for two years and the system as a whole for a period of ten months. For six months of this time the system has been carrying the entire traffic of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, as the telegraph line to Dawson was closed down between Hazelton and Telegraph Creek on April 1st, 1925. During this time the system has been threatened by both fire and flood but the total interruptions to service have amounted to less than twelve hours. This trouble occurred during the exceptionally heavy floods that prevailed in Dawson this spring. The water rose very rapidly, but the men were equal to the occasion. They closed the station at 8 o’clock in the morning, moved the entire equipment on to the second storey of a neighbouring building, swung over aerial and ground connection, and were in operation again at 8:45 o’clock the same evening. An idea of the volume of traffic being handled over the system, and the way in which this business has grown, can be gained by a study of the accompanying traffic chart. Press is handled daily between Edmonton and Dawson for “The Dawson Times,” and between Edmonton and Mayo for the paper published at that place by Mrs. Fotheringham. In addition, a correspondent in Fort Simpson supplies the papers in Edmonton and Calgary with a tri-weekly 600 word despatch. It will be observed that the traffic over the system is already heavy, and it is confidently expected that the volume of business will be still further increased when the stations at Aklavik and Fort Smith are in operation.

A working agreement has already been reached with the American Radio Stations in Alaska and traffic can now be handled via Alaska and the Sitka-Seattle cable to points in Alaska or on the Pacific Coast.

In order to provide accommodation for His Excellency, Lord Byng of Vimy, during his trip down the Mackenzie in August of this year, we were requested by the Minister of National Defence to equip the S.S. “Distributor” with a complete radio set, and to provide the necessary service through the stations of the N.W.T. Radio System. The writer was ordered to accompany the party and to be responsible for the communication required. A standard transmitter and receiver were installed on the boat but special masts and aerial gear had to be devised on account of the limited size of the vessel. The completed installation is shown in the accompanying photograph. Arrangements were made with the Canadian Press for a daily press service to the boat, and all Telegraph Companies and the various Government Departments concerned were notified to send all communications for the Vice-Regal party to the “Distributor” via the Edmonton Radio Station. The installation was completed on July 18th and good communication was established from the dock at Fort Smith with both Edmonton and Fort Simpson. Throughout the trip normal communication was maintained with the outside, either through Edmonton or Simpson, and even while tied up at Aklavik traffic and press were handled direct from Fort Simpson. The traffic handled was much heavier than had been expected. As soon as it became known that communication was available to the outside, all the transportation companies and the various trading posts along the river made full use of the service. From July 18th to August 12th, 1925, 406 messages, totalling over 20,000 words, were handled and in addition, 6,000 words of press.

The station was opened just in time to be of signal service to the Vice-Regal party. On account of the low water in the Peace River, the S.S. “Athabasca River” was not able to reach the party at Vermillion Chutes on the Peace River, and the “Athabasca” had to return to Fitzgerald to pick up a gas boat and light barge to navigate the shoals and rapids. This involved a delay of several days and the problem was to notify His Excellency of the reason for the delay and of the steps being taken to rescue the party. It was known that Mr. Rice of the radio staff of “The Edmonton Journal,” who was on board the Peace River Steamer, had a receiving set, so a message was sent to the “Journal” informing of the steps being taken and requesting that they broadcast it by voice from their station. Mr. Rice, however, intercepted this message in transit and conveyed the information to Lord Byng without delay.

It is extremely probable that this boat service will be made a permanent part of the radio system next summer and so provide radio message service for all the posts on the Mackenzie River.

There is another important service being rendered by this system that has not hitherto been mentioned. Meteorological men tell us that many of our storms and changes of weather originate in the Mackenzie and vicinity, but up to date they have been unable to make full use of data collected there on account of the lack of communication. That fault is now being rectified and we are now supplying complete set of meteorological readings from all stations in the district as fast as they are put into operation. It is as yet too early to estimate the full value of this service, but Sir Frederick Stupart assures us that this service will be of importance, not only to Canada and the United Stated, but to many other countries as well, once the system is in complete operation.

Traffic Chart – N.W.T. Radio System.
Month Year Number of Messages Number of Words
Dec. 1924 280 6,781
Jan. 1925 361 9,589
Feb. 1925 231 8,712
March 1925 544 13,757
April 1925 1097 38,455
May 1925 970 53,438
June 1925 1201 58,811
July 1925 1289 43,556

RCCS in the Field of Radio Communication in Canada image 6.jpg
The Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System

Related Photos

The following photos are not part of the published article but relate to the use of wireless sets at the RCAF High River station and other Canadian Air Board Locations.


  1. Military Communications and Electronics Museum Archives.