Worldwide Net of Alternator Stations

The expansion of the worldwide network of alternator stations continued and General Electric built new stations, on RCA’s account, until the year 1924. Many colleagues wanted to encourage Alexanderson to develop the alternator for high frequency (short wave). Through his early experiments with radio tubes in cooperation with Langmuir he was, however, entirely certain that for short wave transmission, only completely tube transmitters were suitable. The alternators delivered nevertheless had a very long life in the world-wide communications service, which is clear from the table below.

An additional two stations were delivered to Pernambuco (now called Recife) in Brazil in 1924, but it took two years to find someone to take on the matter of building the antenna towers and station buildings. By that time, high frequency tubes for transmitters had become available, and the alternators were returned for storage at the Radio Central in Long Island.

During the Second World War the U.S. Navy moved two alternators, one from Bolinas and another from Marion to a newly-established station in Haiku, Hawaii. From “Radio Central” Marion got one of these alternators as a replacement. Haiku and Bolinas were in operation for the Navy from 1942-46, Marion and Tuckerton from 1942-48. In the years 1949-57 the U.S. Air Force took over Marion in order to transmit international weather reports via teletype to the Air Force bases on Greenland, Labrador, Iceland and other places in the Arctic, where short wave transmission was difficult.

The only remaining alternator in Bolinas was scrapped in 1946. Marion was sold in 1961, one alternator was scrapped and the other was moved to the US Bureau of Standards, the controlling organization for standards, weights and measures and responsible for testing and regulation in the USA.

As was previously mentioned, Alexanderson personally participated in the negotiations with the many customers. That the difficulties were not only technical or economic is evident from the following glimpse from the negotiations with Poland that Alexanderson gave the author in the interview of 1973:

“I remember the Polish representative coming over here in order to discuss various details and agree about the coming negotiations. One of our difficulties was that he could not speak English. I am sure he could speak fluent German, but he evidently had orders not to say a word in German. So we had to carry on our negotiations in French. I could speak a little French and he less than I. But we moved forward in French and quite soon we had a 200 kW-alternator which was sent to Poland and a good operational station was built there. One of my assistants went over to help with with the installation.”

During the First World War, Sweden had major problems in maintaining telegraph service with the surrounding world. In fact, some coastal popular music on the radio had already been built by the Navy for military purposes and a joint project between the telegraph board and the Navy took place to build a new station in Gothenburg.

The station was opened for general use on September 18, 1911 and was aimed at taking care of the radio traffic to and from trade ships operating on the route Gothenburg – Hull. This traffic was however very low, as only English ships were equipped with radio installations at the time of the station’s opening. During 1912, the Swedish Lloyd’s ships Saga and Thule, operating on the routes between Sweden and Great Britain, also gained radio telegraph equipment.

The station in Gothenburg had a power of 16 kW and was equipped with apparatus of the Telefunken “Tönende Funken” system. The wavelength was 1,650 meters.

The idea was that this station, for its time of relatively high power, should maintain telegraph traffic with Germany, France and Great Britain in case the telegraph cables to these countries might become broken for example through an act of war.

After the USA’s entrance into the First World War, a need for direct radio telegraph communication between Sweden and the USA arose. In 1916 the work on a central station in Karlsborg started, also operating with the “Tönende Funken” system. For several reasons, the station was delayed and could not be commissioned before the beginning of 1918. The transmitter power was ultimately 80 kW. The difficulties proved too great to allow contact between Sweden and the USA with the new transmitter. Only during favorable atmospheric conditions and winter time, could the signals be received in the United States.

The lack of direct transatlantic connection became still more obvious, when after the war it was desired to re-establish and if possible to increase trade with North America. Therefore it was natural that the Sweden-America Foundation contacted the Board of Telephones and Telegraphs in Sweden (Telegrafstyrelsen) and in a written proposal pointed out the need for a change. In the letter, attention was called to the lack of communication between Sweden and USA and how big an influence a transatlantic radio communication link could have, both politically and commercially.

A direct cable connection could scarcely be realized either for economic reasons or because of its vulnerability in wartime. Therefore, the foundation wanted to recommend the erection of a powerful radio station, as experience had shown that during the war, radio technology reached such a development that reliable communication over the Atlantic could be achieved. The Board of Telephone and Telegraph reacted positively to the proposal and endorsed the views expressed in a letter in March, 1920, to the Swedish government. An expansion of the transmitter in Karlsborg to achieve the necessary power would without any doubt be as costly as to build an entirely new station. It was therefore suggested to locate a new big station on the west coast, unlike the Karls-borgs station which lay inland. To promote the the best possible transfer of the radio waves, the station needed to be placed south of the point where the great circle from New York through Norway’s southern tip strikes the Swedish coast, which means south of, or at, Falkenberg.

The transmitter should, unlike earlier systems, be made for continuous waves. An estimate of cost was requested from Telefunken in Berlin, The Marconi Company in London, RCA in New York, Societe Francaise Radio-Electrique in Paris and the Poulsen Wireless Telegraph Co. in London.

The transmitter and receiver stations were to be established about 30 km from each other to make concurrent in- and outgoing traffic possible without interference. After receiving positive replies from expert opinion, the Swedish government allowed two million Swedish Kronor during 1921 in order to begin the construction.


Now began a busy time for Alexanderson as negotiator. An executive of the General Electric Company, representing General Electric in Sweden, wrote to Alexanderson in May 28, 1920. In the discussion with the Radio Division Manager of the Swedish Board of Telephones and Telegraphs, Mr Seth Ljungqvist, the letter-writer, a former classmate of Alexanderson in the school in Falun, discussed the plans of the new big station in Grimeton outside Varberg. The competitors of RCA evidently had given favorable quotes. It was in RCA’s favor that the company owned all the big stations on the east coast of USA and that their station equipment would meet the needs. Mr Ljungqvist replied by letter that he gladly would welcome Alexanderson in Sweden, in order for him to give further details about RCA’s proposal for the big station.

The Marconi Company of course tried to put a spoke in the wheels in order to get the order. Alexanderson had negotiations in New York with delegations from Sweden. In the summer of 1922 he traveled to Sweden with a contract he believed to be acceptable to the Swedish Government. According to Alexanderson, the Marconi Company, through their agreement with RCA, had a certain influence on the negotiations and succeeded in including some clauses in the contract which the Swedish government could not accept. The negotiations went on during the whole summer of 1922. Finally Alexanderson gave up and prepared to go home to the USA, as the negotiations seemed impossible. As he told the author in an interview in 1973:

“I cabled that I would take the next ship home, and the message reached Owen D. Young (Chairman of RCA), who immediately took action. He declared that the radio contract (without the previously mentioned clauses) was acceptable to RCA and signed. At that time I was already on my way to the ship in order to return to America. When I came on board, I met a representative of the Swedish Government. He had received the message from Young and brought the contract accepted by both sides, which I signed on board. That is how it was.”

Traffic began on December 1, 1924, but the official opening was conducted on July 2nd, 1925, by King Gustaf who sent a telegram to President Calvin Coolidge, hoping that the good relations between Sweden and USA would be further strengthened through the new connection.

The Vice President of RCA, David Sarnoff, and Ernst Alexanderson also attended the opening.
Sweden had in this way also been incorporated into RCA’s global network of long wave stations. The transmission from Grimeton radio started on 18,600 meters wavelength (16.1 kHz), but was finally lowered to 17,442 meters (17.2 kHz). The transmissions from different stations in America were performed on wavelengths between 11,500 and 17,000 meters (26.1-17.6 kHz).

The reliability of the long wave station in Grimeton and the unreliability of early Swedish experiments with short wave transatlantic communications resulted in Grimeton becoming responsible for the main part of telegraphic communications across the Atlantic, right to the end of the 1930’s. In the years 1938-39 however, effective short wave transmitters in Grimeton and Karlsborg and a new receiving station for short wave in Enköping were opened. Consequently, the long wave traffic from Grimeton fell drastically. However, during the Second World War, Alexanderson’s alternator was often in service in the winter, when less favorable conditions for short wave transmissions arose.
One alternator, still in working order, remains in Grimeton. The other was removed in order to make way for short wave transmitters. The impressive towers and the plant remains as a monument to a period of wireless communications across the Atlantic. In the year 1983 the station was re-started for the shooting of a film about the history of Grimeton, and to give a picture of the station in operation.

The station in Grimeton was equipped with two Alexanderson alternators, one as a spare. The outgoing power was 200 kW, however the units could be driven in parallel giving a total power of 400 kW.

The antenna system, 2.2 km long is supported by six 125 meter high steel towers designed by Professor Henrik Kreuger, who later also designed the radio towers in Motala and Spånga. The receiving station in Kungsbacka had a 13 km long antenna, supported by wooden posts, and the telegram office was located in the telegraph station of Gothenburg. A strike at the Swedish ironworks delayed the delivery of the towers by one year.