Stand By for Weather Map

Charles Francis Jenkins and the Radio Facsimile

Descending on a flight to Portland, Maine, via Detroit, I see spotty islands and stacked heaps of stone blocks forming cliffs below. Boats slice through the butter sea, raising triangles of white foam in their wake. The plane banks sharply north, angling toward a half-round castle structure, secluded on its own island–a prison, a sanctuary, a quarantine bunker–or perhaps just an old garrison fort whose presence is rendered ominous by its utter inaccessibility. Fort Gorges, as I would later come to know it, was in fact part of a triangulated defense line active during the American Civil War, working alongside Fort Preble and Fort Scrammel, a sod-roofed sneak camouflaging itself as a hillside. These two stone guardians of Casco Bay likewise emerge into view as the commuter plane lurches through a patch of turbulence and aligns itself with the landing strip.

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Fort Gorges, Casco Bay, Maine (left, image courtesy of Library of Congress); The Jenkins Radiomovie Broadcast Station, W3XK (right).

The remote nature of these obsolete military strongholds summons to mind a photograph I recently found of the laboratory and home of Charles Francis Jenkins. An aerial view of Jenkins’s property, five miles north of Washington, DC, shows a flat sweeping field bisected by a dirt road. On one side of the lane, a domesticated gabled house; on the other, a simple building, built in 1921, house-like but clear in its utilitarian intent. The building is locked into its own kind of triangulation, solitary and yet an essential part of a whole, anchored between two soaring communications towers. This structure is the Jenkins Radiomovie Broadcast Station, the first station to be granted an experimental television license – a modest hub that had grand designs to broadcast outwards into the world.

With an especially vicious winter quickly (and thankfully) falling into the past, the onset of a rainy spring in the Midwest has me thinking a lot about Jenkins’s lesser known work on weather map technology; about radio waves and the sea; and the poetic systems that lay between all of these things, in Jenkins’s time and our own.

Charles Francis Jenkins is best known as an underdog pioneer in the development of motion picture and television technology. In 1890, he began to experiment with an apparatus that would become the Phantoscope motion picture projector. By 1894, Jenkins and his collaborator Thomas Armat began to publically demonstrate an improved model. Audiences were impressed, but bitter feuds broke out between the two inventors over ownership of the patent. When the dust settled, Jenkins was forced to walk away, and Armat sold his rights to Thomas Edison. The apparatus was rechristened as the Vitascope, and Jenkins was forced to find his feet again.

A foundational memory in his autobiography describes him on those “occasions when he ran out of the house at the noise of awesome honking, to watch the wild geese flying over, darkening the sky with their numbers.” Skies heavy with geese and migration from one coast to another pushed a young and mobile Jenkins to explore the North and Southwest. With this walkabout complete in 1890, Jenkins settled into a job in Washington, DC, working as a secretary to Sumner Increase Kimball and his United States Life Saving Service. As Jenkins transcribed reports on his typewriter at the USLSS, he was emotionally affected by their contents, describing the sea as conscious, and those who fought to calm its fury as heroic. He describes scenes of “lonely patrols in blizzard weather; of sailors lashed to the rigging and drenched with freezing spray, or snatched overboard by the angry sea; and which often later laid the dead body on the beach, gently and tenderly, as though in atonement for her ungovernable fury of the day before.”

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The “lone patrolman” of the US Life Saving Service.

Within a year, Jenkins left the USLSS in order to pursue his mechanical experiments with motion pictures as a full-time career, but the magical qualities of wet weather systems continued to haunt him, even in the desert. In a letter written to a friend, Jenkins spoke of his adventures camping in the “sandy waste” of Canyon Diabolo, near Santa Fe, in 1899. He relayed stories of distress caused by broken compasses, of silence while sleeping in a nest of sand. His travels led him to the Hopi Snake Dance ceremony, which he filmed using one of his experimental cameras. “The whole is an elaborate prayer for rain, and rain it did that night. It poured. A dry sink near the middle trading post was now a lake around which I must detour.”

By way of invitation in September 1923, Jenkins found himself among a party of naval officers aboard USS St. Mihiel to observe “the experiment of sinking a battleship by airplane bombs.” Several missed targets later, the 10,000 pound TNT bomb finally struck the mark, anchored a safe distance away. He and the crowd watched as the ship reduced to sinking cinders. He wrote his wife (who was not invited) back at home: “We steamed over her grave in a great oil slick which marked the spot. … Those of us who watched her go down were silent and rather awed, I think. […] It didn’t seem quite sportsmanlike. […] I had troubled dreams last night, dreams of again seeing the bombs strike.”

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10,000 pound bomb of TNT, dropped on battleship from plane flying two miles high; a miss (above) and a hit (below).

Jenkins found his second life in 1925 as the first American to demonstrate an invention that could transmit moving pictures by “radiovision.” This same year, he was awarded a patent for “Transmitting Pictures Over Wireless,” which we now more simply call television. Demonstrations were reported in the Washington Sunday Star in June, 1925: “…the image of a small cross revolving in a beam of light … while not clear-cut, was easily distinguishable.” The cross was in fact an image of a windmill spinning, a continuous four-foot loop of film that mimicked the motion of its contents, around and around, through the projector, for 10 minutes. The wavering image was relayed from the Jenkins Laboratory to the Navy’s Anacostia radio station on June 13, 1925; this was the foundational moment when objects at a distance were seen in this way.

The sea continued to find Jenkins. In July of 1926, the Navy, Weather Bureau, and a group of ship captains gathered in Jenkins’s laboratory to discuss the development of an experimental weather map service using radiofacsimile. Jenkins was a fast worker, and by August, a prototype was in hand and ready to test. The transmitter consisted of a motor-rotated glass cylinder, with a printed map wrapped around its circumference. The idea was that, hour by hour, on board the ship, “after the usual code announcement, the radio man would hear: ‘Stand by for a weather map’ […] In a few minutes a weather map in red ink on the brown printed based map would be ready to hand to the captain of the ship.” The first map was telecast in this way on August 18, 1926, and Jenkins became the father of marine facsimile.

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Jenkins Radio Weather Map Receiver. Used in daylight aboard Navy vessels by the radio operator; no dark room or photographer was required. Perfect registry was attained aboard a rolling ship 2000 miles at sea.”

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Jenkins Scanner Drum for a Facsimile Receiver, Circa 1927 (Object ID: 40.567.25).

A network of locations was outfitted with weather mapping instruments. Jenkins’s rural laboratory remained the central observation site, with three additional dispatching devices sent to operators at the Navy, the Weather Bureau, and one to Chicago. They were placed aboard the Atlantic fleet flagship, the USS Trenton, and USS Kittery. The ships cruised around hazardous sites in the Caribbean Sea known to cause major issues with static in on-deck communications devices.

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The USS Kittery, circa 1920s-early 1930s, possibly in a Caribbean port (image courtesy of Navy History and Heritage Command).

Jenkins converted radio and wireless into lifelines—beacons to keep the ship buoyant against the volatile dangers of storms and fog. The legibility of warning signals sent by way of the earlier technologies of the telegraph could be slow. And messages ran the risk of becoming unreadable if static garbled transmissions being received by the ship’s communication systems. Jenkins’s weather maps, however, could be read for their context, on the whole—weather data was transmitted as a picture, printed line by line over top of a standard map base. So even if interference stalled the map for a few lines, it could still be coaxed into becoming comprehensible. This was especially useful in static-producing storms at sea. In September of that same year, the USS Kittery, facing the blows of the Great Miami Hurricane, was able to use the weather map system to change its course and avoid the “maximum fury” of the storm.

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Jenkins Transmitting Scanning Device for Weather Map Facsimile Recorder, Circa 1927 (Object ID: 40.567.28).

From September 1926 until March 1927, the collaboration between Jenkins Laboratories, the Navy, and the Weather Bureau continued. This type of small-scale experimentation served as an ample proving ground, but there was no hope in competing with the improved systems being offered by major telecommunications powerhouses like RCA. Jenkins soon shifted focus to refine his efforts in mechanical scanning television. But the basic technology of his marine weather facsimile system remains a vital tool for anticipating the threat of sea-born storms, even today.

It is no stretch of imagination to believe that Jenkins would have encountered a slew of old sailor superstitions in his time working with the Navy and the Life Saving Service—and that he could have recognized truth in some of them. The mysterious hold of weather upon his life—as he worked to find a way to close the gap between the quality of weather forecasting on land and at sea—is fascinating. Perhaps even more so is the fact that he consequently rendered centuries of weatherlore obsolete, especially that old mariner saying: “What the sea wants, the sea will have.”

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication and Information Technology at The Henry Ford. Many artifacts from Jenkins Laboratories are currently being conserved and researched as part of a grant awarded to the museum by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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