by Constance Gibson Currie

Telefunken Station, Sayville, NY

Telefunken Station, Sayville, NY

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was beginning to overtake Great Britain in trade and technology – much to the latter’s dismay. The wireless radio was one of the “high-tech” enterprises of the time, and it was a highly competitive and exciting field.

The new technology arrived in Suffolk County in disguise. The Stollwerke Brothers, a New York Chocolate Company, purchased seventy-nine acres bordering the railroad track in Sayville/West Sayville in 1911. The purchase aroused much excitement and curiosity. Local women and girls quickly pictured themselves working in a chocolate factory.

Frances Hoag, owner and editor of the Suffolk County News, set out to satisfy his curiosity about the new purchase, but encountered great resistance. Telephone calls to the buyer and trips to the site netted him little information. However, the onset of massive masonry construction ant the delivery of crates of iron work and letters at the Sayville Post Office addressed to the Telefunken Company soon revealed that Sayville was to have a wireless plant. Railroad travelers could look out train windows and see more and more construction taking place.

The social center of town was the Kensington Hotel run by Alfred Kennedy. Most transients and some single people lodged at the Kensington. Here, in the evenings, people met to dine, relax and share local news, rumors, hopes, dreams and complaints. A great deal of the news that was fit to print, and some that was questionable, was picked up after work at the Kensington. In that first week of May, 1911, the big story was the mysterious construction in West Sayville.

What exactly was going on in West Sayville? The workmen who stopped in at the Kensington were quizzed and they reported that they were digging a large, central hole 15 X 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep for a concrete pier with four additional piers surrounding it. Each was to be twelve feet square and five feet deep. But the source of information disappeared when the crew left in early October, 1911. They were replaced by a new foreman who spoke only German and who, when questioned, seemed to lack the ability, and apparently the inclination, to reveal much about the plans. He would only say that he was seeking a large crew of workmen and would employ all the local men he could get.

At this point, a very substantial central foundation of concrete had been erected with three pyramidal bases, evidently intended to support the framework for an iron tower. Stand apart from the foundation, 225 feet in three directions so as to from a sort of tripod, workers had erected immense, rectangular concrete bases about 15 feet square and 30 feet high. Iron work was embedded in these at such an angle as to converge over the central foundation at a point about 125 feet in the air.

A young Dutchman and his wife next appeared on the scene. They were the Van der Woudes, recently arrived from South Africa and Germany. The couple took lodgings with Mrs. William H. Hamilton on Handsome Avenue in Sayville, Van der Woude worked every day drawing blue prints. Hoag tried to interview him, but the man constantly pleaded his inability to speak English. However, he certainly seemed to understand the things he chose to understand. One of the first things he did was commission local architect Isaac H. Green to design a power station.

Each day brought new developments. A fence and watchman were placed at the installation. The plans for the power building were announced as ready and available for study to the interested contractors. The baymen on the water began to see the tower rise. By December, it had reached 300 feet. At first it stood on jack screws, but some heavy plates of glass eighteen inches in thickness were unloaded at the Sayville Railroad Station to be installed for insulating purposes. Word that the plans called for a 480 foot tower leaked its way to the news office.

Francis Hoag, on board the flag ship Connecticut in New York Harbor, described the Sayville operation to one of the ship’s wireless operators who informed him that the Telefunken Company was making a great effort to get a foothold in the United State. The young man added that their apparatus was among the best and most practical thus far invented. Many of the Telefunken Company’s products were used by the United Sates Navy with excellent results. The operator was a bright, young Brooklynite, who, when told of the mystery being created around the plant, replied that Sayville was witnessing typical Telefunken Company methods. He was willing to wager that time would prove that this great corporation was backing this new Long Island undertaking. He was right.

Telefunken, West Sayville

Towers of the Telefunken station at West Sayville.

By the end of December, William Bason & Son of West Sayville won the contract to erect a powerhouse 40 X 60 feet. The plan called for a frame with brick foundation and cement floors. There were originally plans for a second floor with living rooms, but this was eliminated before construction got underway. Living quarters would be erected separately. In the meantime, the iron workers left Sayville for the City, not to return until better weather. The company was having a hard time finding men willing to work on the tower in winter weather.

In early January, 1912, Sayvillians were referring to the wireless station as “ours.” They had learned that West Sayville had a sister station in Nauen, Germany, which possessed a 650 foot tower mounted on a fulcrum. This station had previously connected the German colony of Togoland, some 3,500 miles away, and planned to reach West Sayville. But in the first week of April, 1912, the Nauen tower was blown down by a windstorm. Rumors spread throughout Sayville that this meant the Sayville tower would be taken down and rebuilt. The Suffolk County News, hot on the trail of this news, sent a reporter to the Hamilton’s house to interview Von der Woude who greeted him amiably and assured him that the Sayville tower would not be dismantled. “No, the West Sayville tower is not the same as that in Nauen,” Von der Woude explained. As proof Von der Woude showed the reported photographs of both towers. He also showed him photographs of the other towers the Von der Woude continued, “We have built substantial power houses and other buildings. We are pushing forward as fast as possible.”

Ludwig Battermann, an electroradio engineer from Elze, near Hanover, Germany, joined the station manger in 1912. Sent by the Telefunken Company, he had been discharged from the German Navy in the fall of 1910. Battermann was in charge of the technical matters at the facility. He knew how to make the various devices utilized in the relatively new field of radio, including radio tubes.

On July 25, 1912, an American flag was flown from the very top of the Atlantic Communication Company-Telefunken Company wireless tower. Von der Woude proudly pointed out that the flag had forty-eight stars, the newest form. He dispelled the current rumor circulating through Sayville that the plant was receiving messages. “This is not true, and while the tower itself is now complete, there is considerable yet to do in the way of stringing wires and making connections and adjustments, which will require from four to six weeks yet before the real test can be applied and before messages can either be received or sent.” The Suffolk County News noted that the slender tower had become a landmark. It could be seen for long distances in clear weather, either from points on the bay or inland. According to the News, the construction of the tower had been beset with many difficulties, and its accomplishment marked an important engineering feat credited directly to Manager Von der Woude and his associates.

According to an October 18, 1912 report in the Suffolk County News, “Our Wireless Tower” planned to transmit messages a distance of 3,500 miles. The work of rebuilding the station at Nauen was still underway and the Sayville station was waiting for the go-ahead to contact them.

Telefunken’s tower was a masterpiece. The officers of the Atlantic Communications Company called the transmission tower at the West Sayville station a new departure in the construction of wireless plants. The base, instead of having a wide flare, came to what was practically a point at the bottom. The whole weight of the tower rested upon a ball and socket joint, which the engineers of the company declared would give it great flexibility and would enable it to resist the tremendous wind to which it would be subjected.

The electrical apparatus used in sending and receiving messages, they stated, contained the latest improvements in wireless instruments

“At the base of the tower,” said Alfred E. Seelig, manger for the company, is the Telefunken quenched spark gap consisting of a series of metallic plates placed in a row at minute distance from each other . This form of gap when used with high frequency alternating current produces in the telephone, in which the incoming signals are received, a high musical note instead of the regulation clicks. This has the great advantage of making the signals more easily distinguished from the clicking noises often heard in the telephone receiver due to electrical disturbances in the atmosphere, which are known among wireless operators as ‘static.’

Another instrument which we used is the sound intensifier. This is a system of relays,microphones and resonators which magnify the incoming current so that a signal that is barley audible in the ordinary telephone receiver can be heard all over the operator’s room in the Sayville plant.

At last, in early January, 1913, a few signals were exchanged with Nauen. But the official opening was celebrated at the end of January when the regular board of United States representatives of the Department of Commerce and Labor paid their first visit of inspection to the plant and were given a tour by Fritz von der Woude. Despite bad weather, they were witness of the first real message sent from Sayville to Nauen, Germany. Within an hour, a full message had been sent an answer received by the Sayville operator.

Besides the officials of the company, the party included Commander W.H.G. Bullard, U.S.N., of Washington, Lieutenant Commander W.W. Tod, U.S. Navy, Frederick A. Kolster of the Bureau of Standards at Washington, Guy Hill of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, W.D. Terrell, the radio inspector, A.E. Seeling of New York; and H. Boehme and R.H. Armstrong of San Francisco.

Several high-powered dynamos arrived in Sayville from Germany to furnish additional power to the wireless station. Officials of the custom house followed the machinery to Sayville to inspect and appraise it at the unpacking. Then the new equipment was placed in position to await United States Army and Navy inspection.

Sayville breathed a sigh of relief when a March gale which uprooted trees and blew an express wagon and horse over succeeded in snapping a few wires and taking the wooden mast off the wireless tower. In the meantime, two of the operators, Gary and Hodnet, celebrated their birthdays at their boarding house. These were duly noted by the Sayville community. The Van der Woudes left Sayville for Brooklyn, and in-plant experiments had succeeded in developing a 125 mile wireless telephone range. News surrounding the plant was very encouraging.

In March, 1913, the New Sun sent a reporter to describe the wireless station to their readers. Republished in the March 14, 1913, issue of the Suffolk County News, the article read like a poem in honor of the facility:

“The wireless station never sleeps. The long distance messages are sent out at regular hours or when special messages are ordered to be transmitted, but the receiving apparatus is always alert. The wireless operators work in three shifts of eight hours each. There are always two expert wireless men on duty, while a superior operator is within reach. Let a wireless message be flashed from any point of the broad Atlantic and it is sure to find an attentive listener at the base of the great tower.”

The article continued by explaining that a number of stations, U.S. Naval and amateur and the many ships at sea, were filling the air with messages. “The experienced operator identifies score of different messages as the first dot or dash reaches his ear. He can calculate with marvelous accuracy the distance of the sending.”

The report then included a lengthy explanation of the station’s operation:

“The Sayville station comprises in reality two distinct wireless station operated from the same mast. The greater part of the time a wave length of 600 meters is used, which keeps in touch with all vessels within a radius of 2,000 miles or more. For the extreme long distance work, the wave is lengthened to 2,800 meters and it may be increased to 3,500 meters. Additional apparatus is being installed to enable the station to work with a 5,000 meter wave. The Atlantic my be crossed with the shorter wave. The longer wave brings the continent of Europe in direct touch.”

“If a message is to be sent to a steamer 2,000 mile or more distant, the longer wave is used and the steamer is caught within a few seconds. One of the chief uses of the high power station is to send out daily news reports. Promptly at 9:15 PM the most powerful machinery of the station is set in operation for the wireless newspaper. The news of the day summarized in about 250 words, including Wall Street news, is then sent. There is no corner of the world from the equator to the arctic circle which the news does not penetrate.”

“The S O S is the most important message and everything stops to close in on this signal. At least one such call comes in each week. These are mostly from distress freighters or smaller vessels which have been disabled by some breakdown.”

“The greatest number of messages comes from ocean liners; they constantly report their positions. The also make the time of their arrivals known. There are also many private messages, sometimes up to 300 per ship. The loudest calls at Telefunken come from the Brooklyn Navy Yard or warships.”

July saw still another apparatus sent to Sayville from Germany, permitting transmission across even greater distance. These experiments were being carried on while Europe slid into war. Nations had formed military alliances, and if one were to declare war, a bloc of nations would be involved. Sayville watched and listened.

The wireless station played a big part in conveying news reports from the steamship Volturno disaster in early October. Otherwise daily newscasts made up most of the revenue for the station. As a result, the work force was cut. This led to a great deal of dissatisfaction. Soon, several of the operators left or were transferred.

At this point, the Electric Signaling Company filed for an injunction restraining the Atlantic Communication Company on the grounds that there was a patent infringement. However, Judge Mayer decided that the station might prove important in an emergency and should remain intact.

The smoldering storm broke in Europe on Sunday, June 28, 1914 when the New York Herald ran the following headline on the tenth page of their June 29, 1914 issue. “Assassins Kill Francis Ferdinand and His Wife Duchess of Hohenberg, in Bosnian Capital.”

When the war broke out in Europe in August, 1914, one of the first things President Woodrow Wilson did to ensure America’s neutrality was to censor messages sent out of the country, particularly those sent in code from the German-run wireless station at West Sayville. Ensign Grow of the battleship Utah, with Lieutenants Butler and Cousins, wireless men from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, remained on duty at Sayville as long as the war lasted. Their assignment was to prevent coded messages or war instructions from being sent.

In September, 1915, H.W. Segar wrote an article in the Electrical Experimenter. It explained how the United States government had begun to monitor the Sayville station’s operations. Charles E. Apgar of Westfield, New Jersey, who had invented an ingenious device for intercepting and recording wireless messages, recorded the West Sayville station’s messages for the month and sent them to the United States government. He was asked to continue recording on June 7, 1915. This he did on a nightly basis. Each morning, the messages were transcribed verbatim from the wax cylinders and were sent at once to W. J. Flynn, Chief of the Secret Service Bureau in Washington or New York. Based on the information in the secret coded messages transmitted, along with the regular censored messages from West Sayville, the Government ordered United States personnel to take over the station management by July, 1915.

By the end of April 1915, Great Britain had managed to cut the underwater cable to seal off Germany’s communication with the United States. Meanwhile, Telefunken had become the single source of information for the German news media and the German Embassy. Telefunken was still adding towers, one to be equal in height to the main 500 foot tower, and power boosters.

This additional equipment brought Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless, along with eighteen other notable people, to West Sayville. The electrical experts were accompanied by attorneys and Judge Veeder of the Federal District Court of Brooklyn, plus a clerk and stenographer. They came for a hearing in the suit brought by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company against the Atlantic Communication Company for alleged infringements of patents, Judge Veeder (who had become a student of wireless development since the beginning of the suit), came to study the equipment at first hand.

At about this time, Justice of the Peace Daniel D. White, a bachelor who resided at the Kensington Hotel, began to notice that Daniel Cozzens, one of the Unites States Navy men assigned to censor the messages sent from the local wireless station, was being wined and dined by the German wireless operators. Cozzens seemed to spend late hours enjoying himself and then sleeping until noon. White connected this lackadaisical performance with the recent loss of the Cunard liner Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk by Germans on May 7, 1915, with 1,198 lives lost, including 124 Americans. He visited the Suffolk County News building and told his friend, Francis Hoag, about what was taking place at the Kensington.

“From things I’ve seen and heard around the hotel, I believe that the two or three middle-aged, German wireless officials who live there have plenty of time to put things over,” he said.

They seem to be on the friendliest terms with the young Navy man and buy drinks for him, often late at night with the results that sometimes he doesn’t get around until nearly noon the next day and even then he has plenty of time to go out in automobiles and play tennis with the girls around town.

This story was a definite scoop, but not for Hoag. He was too well known, as was his staff, to follow it up. So he phoned a friend, the city editor of the New York Tribune, who sent a suave, young man of about thirty, well dressed with a cane and a Harvard accent, to investigate. Once in town, the young reporter visited the news office to be briefed on the situation. From there he went to the Kensington Hotel, rented a room and proceeded to pretend that he wanted to rent a summer cottage. A day of cottage hunting ended in failure, but in the meantime, he formed a friendship with Cozzens and his German friends. Three days later, he stopped back in the News office to say good-bye. The story appeared in the Tribune shortly afterward. By the second week in June, Cozzens was relived of his post and censorship was tightened. Two men were sent to replace him in assisting Lt. Francis Cogswell, who was already on duty.

Also arriving in June was Professor Jonathan Zeneck, a German wireless expert and an instructor at the Institute of Technology in Munich. He had been serving at the front in Belgium, but was rushed to America to answer a second patent infraction case brought about by the Marconi Company. A second man, a Mr. Behrendt, was an engineer in the German army, who was sent to help with the installation of the new towers. Still a third party arrived, a colonel, who in private life was Professor Braun of the University of Strassburg. When asked about these new people, Lt. C.N. Clark, one of the Navy censors, said that they were all scientists who did not know code or telegraphy and were harmless.

Rumors and speculation continued to run in the local newspapers regarding the Sayville station. President Wilson was publicly still trying to keep America neutral, but the submarine warfare was causing him great anxiety. Wilson sent messages to Berlin which were only partially answered. His struggle to keep the country out of war was becoming harder. Many Americans sided with the Allies. By March of 1916, a diplomatic break with Germany was looming.

On April 20, 1916, Secretary of the Navy Daniels issued a statement saying that it had been decided to strengthen the guard at the Sayville, Long Island, and Tuckerton, New Jersey, wireless facilities.

The April 21, 1916, issue of the Suffolk County News announced the arrival of a detachment of twenty-one Marines under Sergeant Smith, who had been sent to guard the wireless.

“They were husky, business-like looking lads in service uniform and heavy marching order, with cartridge belts filled with ammunition and toting all their hardware,” reported the News. Soon ninety packages were received for the Marines, including tents and necessary equipment.

By February, 1917, Germany-American relations had deteriorated so much that all Germans were ordered off the wireless grounds. The Atlantic Communications Company moved Batterman, Stoye, Schleenvolgth and Krebbs to positions in their New York City office. The station began to function on a steady basis with its United States Navy crew in place. By March, 1917, Telefunken had established a wireless station in Mexico. A number of the top flight German engineers who had been at West Sayville were now south of the border.

On January 19, 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann in Berlin sent a telegram to Von Eckhardt, the German Minister in Mexico City, that described an escalation in submarine warfare. It also suggested the possibility of an agreement with Mexico and Japan should they attack the United States. Sent in German diplomatic code over three routes, one that went through Sayville, the telegram was intercepted by British Intelligence and decoded. On February 24, 1917, the decoded telegram was finally given to Washington D.C. It was this news that significantly contributed to the United States declaration of war on April 6, 1917.

For the remainder of the war, the wire fence surrounding the radio field was charged with a deadly electric current, flood lights were placed at strategic points and the Marine guard stood tours of duty, patrolling the entire field every hour of the day and night. Barracks were built for the officers and men. The Unites States Navy improved the capabilities of the station.

After World War I, the Sayville Station came into the hands of the MacKay Radio and Telegraph Company and finally became a remote transmitting station for the Federal Aviation Administration. It is now decommissioned and awaiting its destiny. It may become part of a wildlife preserve or an antique wireless and World War I museum. It is the hope of the local people, German-Americans, and antique wireless hobbyists that the site will attain National Register status and will become a Wireless Radio Museum.

This article was published by the Long Island Forum, Winter 1996, Vol. XIX, No. 1