Amateur Radio And Admiral Byrd
The use of radio on dangerous missions of exploration is not just a safety issue. Explorers learned quickly that regular news reports created public interest in their expedition making it easier to raise funds for the future. This had been illustrated by one of the early expeditions to the Arctic, the Macmillan expedition.
In the mid 20's with the great depression looming, raising money for Arctic exploration wasn't easy, but the public imagination was captured when transmissions from the Macmillan expedition were received, not by a carefully setup ground station, but by Arthur Collins, a 15 year old radio amateur from Iowa who then relayed their information to Washington.
One participant in the McMillan expedition was Richard E Byrd who claimed (some have disputed his account) to have been one of first men to fly over the North Pole.
In 1928 Byrd set off on an expedition to the Antarctic and in 1929 became one of the first men to fly over the South Pole. His expedition was the first under the American flag since 1840 and was recognizably modern, making use of planes, cameras and snow mobiles as well as the all important radio communications equipment.
News of his polar flight and the discovery of Marie Byrd land (which he named after his wife) stimulated American interest; his regular (Morse code) broadcasts also made a genuine difference to Byrd's fund raising for his next expedition. Over $150,000 was raised, most in the form of gifts from thousands of donors all providing small amounts.
Byrd, a descendant of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, had first hand knowledge of the power of publicity so he sold newspaper and photographic rights as well as advertising on his newest initiative; weekly voice broadcasts broadcasts from 'Little America' the base he had established on the first expedition. His ability to organize was remarkable, his first two expeditions to Antarctica being completely funded and organized by him with no official government involvement.
The first voices from Antarctica were heard on 1st February 1934 and thereafter a weekly broadcast was sent out on the CBS network. On March 28th the final tractors left the site of the expedition's advanced base where the plan called for Admiral Byrd to remain alone throughout the Antarctic winter. The sun set on April 19th leaving the Admiral alone in the cold and the dark, the rest of his team over 123 deadly miles away, but securely connected to him by radio.
His schedule called for meteorological observations every day and three radio calls a week to Little America. Four months of darkness also provided an ideal opportunity for observations of the aurora, but things did not go well. The hut at advanced base was not properly ventilated and over time Byrd was affected by carbon-monoxide poisoning. He collapsed during the radio call of May 31st and remained extremely ill for more than a month. His radio transmissions deteriorated and became 'unusual' alerting Little America to the situation.
Attempts at rescue at the height of the Antarctic winter failed at first, however the doctor and two others finally reached advanced base on August 10th, by which time Byrd had been ill and alone for more than four months. He was too weak for the journey back to Little America and so his rescuers remained at Advanced camp until October 12th when the Antarctic Spring made it possible to fly the Admiral to safety.
It is likely that without rescue Admiral Byrd would have died at advanced camp. Despite the fact that his health never fully recovered from the ordeal, and his self-esteem took a severe blow he owed his life, as well as his now heroic reputation to radio.