14 January 2019

Nine Fathoms Down: the First Live Radiocast From the Ocean Floor

           Nearly a century ago, on July 31, 1924, at 3:00 in the afternoon and again at 8:00 that evening, history was made.  C.O. Johnson, an expert diver with the Philadelphia Derrick and Salvage Corporation, became the first man to talk over the radio from the bottom of the sea.

           Radio station WIP was responsible for the radiocast from Atlantic City.  Owned by the Gimbel Brothers of Philadelphia, they set up a glass enclosed broadcast control room and studio on Atlantic City’s famous Young’s Steel Pier.  Earlier that summer, they broadcast the sounds of the ocean.  By “placing a special duralumin type microphone in [a] waterproof rubber hood”, the radio engineers lowered it through a 12x12 inch trap door in the floor of the control room and hung it from the peer just above the water where it picked up the “call of the waves.”  For the first time, those living deep inland, far from the coast could hear the sounds of the ocean.

 Not satisfied with “the new and novel idea of radiocasting the surf noises of the mighty Atlantic,” WIP engineers came up with a new stunt – a broadcast from 50 feet below the Atlantic Ocean!
C.O. Johnson was taken out to sea by boat.  A special microphone was attached inside the old style brass diving helmet that was worn by diver Johnson.  The microphone, was secured inside the helmet by a special lead cable that was waterproof and flexible, was connected to the boat above.  “The boat, in turn, was connected by wire to the remote control station on the Steel Pier.  Here the voice from under the ocean was amplified many thousands of times, then transmitted over special telephone lines to the main station, located on the Gimbel Brothers’ store in Philadelphia, more than 60 miles away.”
            Radio Operator and program announcer Samuel Kale (known as “SK” by radio listeners and as “Granddad” by this author) sat at the control table “with a breast transmitter and earphone connected directly to the main [radio] station located in the Gimbel Brothers store in Philadelphia.”  A specially constructed speech input amplifier “of enormous power” was installed.  The engineers had spent months experimenting with the amplifier to ensure that any voice or music transmitted by wire to Philadelphia would be of the highest quality when it was broadcast over the airwaves.
            During the two dives, Johnson planned to broadcast a description of whatever he encountered “nine fathoms down”.  He told of seeing a ship wreck, strange fish, and other sea creatures.  He also described the appearance of “sub-sea foliage and mineral formations” in great detail.  Unfortunately, radio broadcasts from the 1920s were rarely recorded for posterity.  According to the Library of Congress, the recording equipment was bulky, expensive, and the recordings were of very poor quality.  “So much of the early broadcasts…just went into the ether.  They’re gone.”  The August 5, 1924 issue of the Daily Times of Wilson, North Carolina, however, provided a detailed description of the broadcast by announcer SK and diver Johnson:

At 3:11 PM after the announcer said Neptune was next on the program, listeners-in heard a swirling and swishing much like waves beating against a rocky shore.  That noise, it was explained later, came from the air currents in the diver’s helmet. 
           Just before the diver’s voice was heard, the WIP announcer explained that the microphone had been placed in the helmet of the diving outfit.  A small boat then took the diver out a short distance and he made his descent.  The sea-bottom broadcast lasted ten minutes.

At 3:12 came a voice:
“I’ mon my way to the bottom.”
It was a weak voice, but gradually it grew stronger.  This is the tale it told:
“On my left,” said the diver, “I see the wreck of an old boat.  It looks like a skeleton of a huge fish.  In it a school of little fish is playing.  The rays of the sun, which look green at this depth, shine on their backs.”
Then he made a great find.
“The Atlantic City bootleggers have been here!” he chuckled.  There was a pause.  “Oh, the dickens, the corks are pulled.”
He paraded around a second derelict nearby, and at 3:18 called it a day.
Today, it is easy to forget how novel and exciting this broadcast was.  So easy to forget that, if you were to search the internet today, you would be hard pressed to find anyone mentioning it, except for maybe one or two websites about the early history of radio.  Even the Wikipedia page about the history of radio station WIP fails to mention historic event.  But to the pioneers of radio – and their audience - this was a big deal. 
A century ago, the world was a much bigger place than it is now.  Unless you lived near the coast, you most likely never got to see or hear the roar of the surf.  Today, just half a century after hearing the first live broadcasts from the surface of the moon, we are living in a time when we can sit on our porch and talk to someone thousands of miles away; we can send a photograph or even a video of the sunset we are seeing to a friend on the other side of the world and have them instantaneously send a photo or video back of the sunrise they are seeing.  It is easy to forget and difficult to relate to how novel and exciting it was to hear someone speaking a mere 50 feet under the surface of the ocean. 
In the early 20th century, science fiction was just that: fiction.  It was something left to the imagination.  The August 2, 1924 issue of Radio Digest Illustrated, however, captured the excitement of the historic event: 

The marvelous tales of Jules Verne will not be nearly as thrilling as this Radiocast.  Think of it, sit in your own home, and listen to the voice of a man walking on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, telling you just what he sees.