Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


One of the student organizations that had ramifications extending far beyond the confines of the campus was the Tufts College Wireless Society, organized in 1910. It was the outgrowth of a freshman essay competition on "Why Tufts College Should Have a Wireless Club." Wireless communication, still in its infancy then, had already been the subject of experimentation by Professor Amos E. Dolbear of the Physics Department, in the early 1870's. He had obtained a patent in 1882 for a device for wireless signaling, on the basis of successful sending of messages to and from various locations on and near the campus. Students had become interested in the possibilities of this new means of communication and in 1899 had watched a demonstration by a student of the Tufts Engineering Society at a meeting in the main College building. News of the success of the experiments of Marconi and others also spurred the organization of the local club.



Quarters for the Society were first secured in Robinson Hall, and through the efforts of a faculty member who was a captain in the Army Signal Corps a portable wireless set was obtained. The students showed considerable ingenuity in building their own transmitting and receiving apparatus and soon established themselves in a first-floor room in Paige Hall. Before they had to suspend amateur operations because of the First World War, they engaged in such activities as transmitting national football scores to the Tufts Oval while home games were in progress, experimenting with various kinds of antenna, and receiving daily weather reports from Washington, D.C.

The moving spirit behind the early interest in wireless at Tufts was Harold J. Power, of the Class of 1914. While still an undergraduate he had served during vacations as a wireless operator on several vessels, including J. P. Morgan's yacht Corsair. With backing from the famous financier, Power organized the American Radio and Research Corporation (AMRAD) in June 1915 and with the permission of the College built a small laboratory on the hillside north of the College buildings. This structure became the nucleus of the building known as North Hall, which was built literally on the installment plan, with numerous additions and renovations that turned it eventually into an academic building.

One of the most interesting physical aspects of AMRAD was the 300-foot lattice-steel transmission tower topped with an umbrella-type antenna erected next to the AMRAD building in the late summer of 1915.[12]  A dramatic episode temporarily delayed the completion of the tower. On the morning of September 26, 1915, the day before permanent guy wires were to have been installed to steady the tower, a sudden windstorm sent the structure crashing down the hill and across the street, and onto the Boston and Maine railroad tracks, just in time to derail the front trucks of the locomotive of the crack Montreal Limited inbound to Boston. The tower was soon rebuilt and was put to use in the early fall. Its sending range, originally about 100 miles, was much increased within a year as more powerful equipment was housed in an addition to the original AMRAD building. Power's pioneer work in controlling static electricity in radio transmission and his experimentation with



directional antennas as well as other contributions attracted national attention to his company and to the College.

Special quarters were provided in the AMRAD building for the Wireless Society, and special training opportunities were made available to furnish radio operators, many of whom served in vital military posts during the First World War. The Society was revived in 1923 under the leadership of Professor Raymond U. Fittz of the engineering school, who had been active in it as an undergraduate. Amateur radio communication was developed with a radius of several thousand miles and operated first as Station 1 DZ and in 1924 as 1 DZ-1XAW, with international contacts. After several moves about the campus, the Society died in the basement of West Hall in 1927 after having operated as WIKN (for the amateur) and W1XAW-W1XA1 (for the experimenter). Individual licensed students operated out of fraternity and dormitory rooms from time to time in the 1930's.[13]  An attempt was made in 1933 to revitalize what was then known as the Radio Society, but it failed because of inability to raise the money needed for equipment. After other brief revivals amateur radio reappeared in the mid-1950's as the Tufts Amateur Radio Society, operating as WIKN. A closed-circuit student-operated broadcast station, WTCR, operating out of the basement of a classroom building between 1956 and 1961, represented another type of radio communications.

The AMRAD Corporation remained on the Tufts campus until 1931, after which it merged with the Magnavox Company. In its fifteen years on the Hill, AMRAD engaged in a variety of manufacturing operations and conducted numerous experiments. During the First World War it rendered valuable services for the armed forces and continued its transmitting station in full operation. In addition, it gave exceptional laboratory facilities for the Tufts Electrical Engineering Department and unique training opportunities for the Wireless Society.[14]  Radio communications history was made on the Tufts campus on the evening of March 18,


1916, when AMRAD, working with the Wireless Society as Station 1XE, broadcast three hours of phonograph music, picked up in an area of over 100 miles, and interspersed with the customary code of ship-to-shore messages.[15]  The station continued to broadcast regularly, at first every two weeks and then once a week, until 1917. Programs were resumed in 1919, and in 1920 the station offered daily broadcasts. In May of the following year the experimental station (1 XE) became Station WGI and broadcast both daytime and evening programs.[16] 

The educational as well as the entertainment possibilities of radio by means of the speaking voice were soon realized by both AMRAD and the College. The "Tufts College Radiophone Lectures," delivered at scheduled times during the academic year 1921-22 by several members of the Tufts faculty, were the first such talks known to have been broadcast in the United States. Fifteen minutes in length, they were delivered from the AMRAD studios twice each week at eight in the evening to an audience estimated at l00,000. They were given advance newspaper notice arranged by the newly created Department of Publicity.[17]  Variety was added to the radio menu in 1924 when recitals were broadcast from the organ in Goddard Chapel and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was aired by the Masque, the Jackson College dramatic society.

Broadcasting activities under AMRAD sponsorship came to a halt in the spring of 1925 when the company extended its manufacturing operations and moved to a new location on the campus. Under the original agreement with the College, AMRAD agreed to give its building on Medford Hillside to the institution in exchange for occupancy and use of the land. After the leases expired,


AMRAD built in 1920 a new reinforced concrete structure across the Boston and Maine Railroad on property acquired by the College many years before from the Stearns family.[18]  The structure on the hillside vacated by AMRAD became the headquarters of the Electrical Engineering Department in 1925, and the radio tower was used briefly in the fall of 1927 as a transmitter for WBET, the station of the Boston Evening Transcript. There had been plans in 1925 to reduce the height of the radio tower by 100 feet in the interests of safety, but they were delayed until after WBET moved out. After the Electrical Engineering Department introduced instruction in radio engineering in 1927 and constructed a highvoltage laboratory in the building, the tower was replaced by two short steel poles, which were removed in 1931 when the Electrical Engineering Department moved to the manufacturing building constructed by AMRAD eleven years before. The stuccoed building on the hillside that had already seen so many occupants was designated the "Electro-Technical Building" and during much of the 1920's the Electrical Engineering Department shared it with an engineering firm organized by Frank C. Doble, of the Class of 1911, who leased space from the College. Between 1931 and 1947 the Doble Engineering Company occupied the entire building. The pressure for classroom and office space after the Second World War gave the old AMRAD building a new set of functions. It was renamed North Hall and became the headquarters for a wide variety of departments at one time or another, few bearing any relationship to the purposes for which it had been originally constructed.


[12] There was also to have been a 500-foot tower nearby, but it was never constructed.

[13] One such was Philip C. Noble, operating as Station W1JX8 out of the Theta Chi house.

[14] Among those connected with both the College and AMRAD for a time was Vannevar Bush, of the Class of 1913. One of the founders of the Raytheon Company invented the cold cathode rectifier tube while doing research at AMRAD. One of Power's most important inventions, a submarine detector, was in use in the North Sea at the time of the armistice in 1918.

[15] One of the persons with earphones clamped to his head was J. P. Morgan, who was then aboard the liner Philadelphia off Cape Cod inbound from Europe. He had been notified of the special broadcast in advance by Power.

[16] WGI began scheduled broadcasting approximately one month before the better-known Westinghouse station KDKA in Pittsburgh, although the latter had been airing test programs for several months, and WWJ, the station operated by the Detroit News, began broadcasting intermittently in August 1920.

[17] The lectures ranged from "Athletics" by Professor Clarence P. Houston, through "Dramatics" by Professor Albert H. Gilmer, to "Bridge Building" by Professor Edward H. Rockwell. During 1922 approximately thirty lectures were delivered.

[18] This building, which became a wing of Cousens Gymnasium in 1932, was originally to have been the first unit of a five-unit factory to manufacture radio and other electronic equipment.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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