A Voice Moving Over The Waters

[Image: The Jim Creek Naval Radio Station from Popular Mechanics].

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been looking at a variety of large terrestrial antenna sites built for communicating with submarines. This is the field of Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency radio transmission (the latter wonderfully abbreviated as ELF).

This is a topic already explored here several years ago, of course, with the Project Sanguine antenna field in Wisconsin, for example, and the Cutler array up on a peninsula in Maine. But a few other examples came up that I thought I’d post.

One is the example you see above: the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station in the woods of Washington State, as featured here in an old issue of Popular Mechanics. The Jim Creek facility is basically an entire valley in the Pacific Northwest, denuded of its trees and then strung with the harp-like cables of a mega-antenna. This antenna then broadcasts “the voice that crosses the Pacific,” as Popular Mechanics describes it, including U.S. military ships and submarines.

[Image: The antenna field at Jim Creek, via Wikipedia].

Briefly, although it’s technically irrelevant, it is nonetheless interesting in this context to read about the so-called “Hessdalen lights,” a phenomenon that appears to be caused by natural electrical currents moving through a remote Norwegian valley.

The scientific explanation for these “lights” is incredible.

Back in 2011, New Scientist reported, a scientific team “analyzed rock samples from Hessdalen and found that it is a valley of two halves: the rocks on one side of the Hesja river are rich in zinc and iron, those on the other are rich in copper. Then, during the 2012 mission someone mentioned an abandoned sulphur mine in the valley. ‘For me it was news,’ says [head scientist Jader Monari from the Institute of Radio Astronomy]. ‘We found zinc and iron on one side and copper on the other. If there is sulphur in the water in the middle, it makes a perfect battery.’”

By a weird fluke of geochemistry, the entire valley is a natural electrical cell! Now imagine a valley somewhere—in Washington State, say—acting as a giant natural radio transmitter: a geological radio station broadcasting signals out to sea.

In any case, here is the Jim Creek facility on Google Maps.

Two other quick things to mention: as a commenter pointed out here a few years ago, there is a spectacular naval-communications facility located on a peninsula in Western Australia called the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station.

[Image: Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station, via Google Maps].

As described by the Australian government, the facility “consists of one central tower surrounded by two concentric circles each of six smaller towers ranging from 304 to 387 meters in height and is 2.54 km in diameter. It communicates over immense distances with submerged submarines in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

According to this commenter, the station “has an eerie suggestion of sacred geometry[:] pentagons and symmetrical shapes, all concentric. It is said that under the array, light bulbs held in the hand will glow.” This is not impossible; recall the work of artist Richard Box.

Indeed, seen on Google Maps, the facility is breathtaking. Be sure to zoom out to get a sense of how isolated this place is. Here is a view of the antennas from the nearby beach.

Finally, there is something called ZEVS. ZEVS is a secretive, Soviet-era electromagnetic facility and submarine-communication antenna array that allegedly exists somewhere beneath the forests of the Kola Peninsula.

There’s not a ton of information about it online, but I’m also just lazily Googling things at the moment and have undoubtedly missed something; if you have more details, by all means please feel free to share.

Plasma Bombs and Sky Bridges

[Image: Via NOAA].

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a handful of small business grants for exploring the “controlled enhancement of the ionosphere.” The aim of the grants is to find new ways “to improve radio communication over long distances”—and one of these ways might be “detonating plasma bombs in the upper atmosphere using a fleet of micro satellites,” or cubesats, New Scientist reports.

As the initiating government contract describes it, in order to perform this new atmospheric role, the cubesats—or an equally viable competitor technology—will need to produce “highly exothermic condensed phase reactions yielding temperatures considerably higher than the boiling points of candidate metal elements with residual energy to maximize their vapor yield… Such hardware will provide for controlled release options such as conventional point release, as well as extended in time and space.”

They would be, in effect, small plasma ovens—the metaphoric “bombs” of the New Scientist article.

The resulting “vapor yield” from metallic elements boiling in space would then chemically interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to create the aforementioned plasma. While spreading locally through the ionosphere, the plasma would, in turn, generate small patches of electromagnetic reflectivity across which radio signals could be bounced or relayed.

By ricocheting along this sky bridge of temporary plasma patches—like tiny chemical mirrors in space—radio signals would be able to travel far beyond the curvature of the Earth, greatly increasing the distance and accuracy of specific transmissions.

This long-range transformation of the sky itself into a transmitting medium recalls the work of radio historian Douglas Kahn. Kahn’s book Earth Sound Earth Signal specifically looks at the role of terrestrial and atmospheric dynamics on radio transmission, including the deliberate incorporation of those seemingly unwanted side-effects—such as interference from sunspot activity—into electronic art projects.

Kahn’s work came up on BLDGBLOG several years ago, for example, in discussing a proposal from the 1960s for transforming an entire Antarctic island into a radio-transmitting apparatus. The topographic profile and geologic make-up of the island made it a great potential resonator, according to researcher Millett G. Morgan.

[Image: [Image: Deception Island, from Millett G. Morgan’s September 1960 paper An Island as a Natural Very-Low-Frequency Transmitting Antenna].

By taking advantage of these physical factors—and even subtly tweaking them in what we could also call “controlled enhancement”—the island would become part of a dispersed global infrastructure of electromagnetic relay points.

It’s worth mentioning that this would also make a fascinating landscape design project: sculpting a patch of terrain, from its exposed landforms and its subsurface mineralogy to the flora planted there, such as tree-antennas, so that the whole thing becomes a kind of radio-transmitting garden.

In any case, these tactical archipelagoes of plasma dispersed across the ionosphere by military cubesats would enable emergency wartime radio contact around the planet. By introducing patches of reflectivity, they would create a temporary extension of ground-based antenna infrastructure, stretching from one side of the Earth to another, an invisible bridge in the sky put to use for planet-wide communication.

Read the original contracting information over at the Small Business Innovation Research hub.

Briefly, it’s interesting to note another piece of recent tech news. Back in April, Swati Khandelwal reported that “a team of researchers from the University of Washington’s Sensor Lab and the Delft University of Technology has developed a new gadget that doesn’t need a battery or any external power source to keep it powered; rather it works on radio waves.”

She was referring to a device called WISP, “a small, battery-less computer that works on harvested radio waves,” in the words of project researcher Przemyslaw Pawelczak.*

[Image: Przemyslaw Pawelczak’s “small, battery-less computer that works on harvested radio waves”].

This is relevant for the possibility that this sort of thing could be scaled up to much larger pieces of equipment, such as uncrewed ground vehicles or other autonomous machines (including rovers on other planets); those devices could then be deployed in the field and simply wait there, essentially hidden in a powerless state.

You could then turn on these otherwise dormant computers, even from a great distance, using only pinpointed radio transmissions assisted on their way around the planet by localized plasma clouds; like electromagnetic Frankensteins, these sleeper-systems could thus be brought back to life by this strange, military wizardry of otherwise impossible radio transmissions.

Patches of plasma appear in the sky—and machines around the world begin to awaken.

[Note: When using the appropriate Polish lettering, Przemysław Pawełczak’s name renders oddly with this blog’s typeface; it is thus deliberately misspelled in the text, above; apologies to Pawełczak. Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for his thoughts on sleeper systems while I was writing this post. Very vaguely related: Operation Deep Sleep: or, dormant robots at the bottom of the sea].

Full-Spectrum Mandala

[Image: Via the Pacific Cold War Patrol Museum].

Somewhat randomly—though I suppose I have a thing for antennas—I came across a blog post looking at the layout of Circularly Disposed Antenna Arrays.

A Circularly Disposed Antenna Array, he explains, was “sometimes referred to as a Circularly Disposed Dipole Array (CDDA)” and was “used for radio direction finding. The military used these to triangulate radio signals for radio navigation, intelligence gathering and search and rescue.”

[Image: Via the Pacific Cold War Patrol Museum].

While discussing the now-overgrown landscapes found on old military sites in Hawaii, the post’s author points out the remains of old antenna set-ups still visible in the terrain.

A series of photos, that you can find over at the original post, show how these abandoned circular land forms—like electromagnetic stone circles—exist just below the surface of the Hawaiian landscape, thanks to the archipelago’s intense militarization over the course of the 20th century.

He then cleverly juxtaposes these madala-like technical diagrams with what he calls a “Polynesian guidance system for navigating the Pacific” (bringing to mind our earlier look at large-scale weather systems in the South Pacific and how they might have guided human settlement there).

[Image: Via the Pacific Cold War Patrol Museum].

The idea that Polynesian shell map geometries and the antenna designs of Cold War-era military radio sites might inadvertently echo one another is hugely evocative, albeit purely a poetic analogy.

Finally, I couldn’t resist this brief passage, describing many of these ruined antenna sites: “Their exact Cold War era use, frequencies and purpose isn’t yet known but were most likely for aircraft radio navigation, direction finding, intelligence gathering and for search and rescue.”

You can all but picture the opening shots of a film here, as concerned military radio operators, surrounded by the arcane, talismanic geometries of antenna structures in the fading light of a Pacific summer evening, pick up the sounds of something vast and strange moving at the bottom of the sea.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I’ve been dying to write about, but I’ll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a “Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation.” It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be “an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning” in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. “DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin,” but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, “undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection.” The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean’s surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you’ve got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book “presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems,” or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of “astronomical reference frames,” and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent “hubs” on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These “hubs” would be “unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks.” Hubs will be places where “unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way.”

“You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them… basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues,” a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: “The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land.” This would include, for example, the “upward falling payloads” program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn’t entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? “The Navy’s very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces,” a January 1998 white paper called “Technical Report 1761” explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler’s role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) “The robots are winning!” Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:

We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

Mendelsohn goes on to discuss “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil,” and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA’s now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot “moles”—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation’s pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use “a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads.” The company’s name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of “freight pipelines.”

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given “hubs” and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre “self-burying robot” from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous “secrecy of emerging weaponry” that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that “nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all.” On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia’s short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer’s excellent book Wired For War; that’s not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).

Project Sanguine and the Dead Hand

[Image: One of the stations of Project ELF, via Wikipedia].

Further exploring the radio-related theme of the last few posts, Rob Holmes—author and co-founder of mammoth—has pointed our attention to something called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that “would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin,” turning that state into a giant “antenna farm” capable of communicating with what Wikipedia calls “deeply-submerged submarines.”

Each individual antenna would have been “buried five feet deep” in the fertile soil of the Cheese State, the New York Times explains, creating a networked system with nearly 6,000 miles’ worth of cables and receiving stations.

The Navy was hoping, we read, for a system “that could transmit tactical orders one-way to U.S. nuclear submarines anywhere in the world, and survive a direct nuclear attack.” This would “normally… require an antenna many hundreds of miles in length,” according to the NYT, but Naval strategists soon “realized that a comparable effect could be achieved by using a large volume of the earth’s interior”—that is, “looping currents deep in the Earth”—”as part of the antenna.” The hard and ancient rock of the Laurentian Shield was apparently perfect for this.

[Image: From Roy Johnson, “Project Sanguine,” originally published in The Wisconsin Engineer (November 1969)].

In other words, the bedrock of the Earth itself—not a mere island in the Antarctic—could be turned into a colossal radio station.

A similar system, installed for preliminary tests in North Carolina and Virginia, “apparently flickered lightbulbs in the area and caused spurious ringing of telephones,” like some regional poltergeist or a technical outtake from Cabin in the Woods.

At least two things worth pointing out here are that a “scaled-down version” of Project Sanguine was, in fact, actually constructed, becoming operational in the northern forests of Michigan and Wisconsin from 1989-2004; called Project ELF (for Extremely Low Frequency), it arrived just in time for the Soviet Union to collapse…

[Image: Inside Project Sanguine; photo from Roy Johnson, The Wisconsin Engineer (November 1969)].

…which brings us to the second point worth mentioning: a strangely haunting program known as “The Dead Hand,” a doomsday device constructed by the Soviet Union.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of that title, historian David Hoffman writes about a (still active) weapon of retaliation. The “Dead Hand” was built such that, if nuclear field commanders ever lost touch with military leaders back in Moscow during a time of war, a constellation of cruise missiles would automatically launch. This would happen not in spite of a lack of living military leaders, but precisely because everyone had been killed. That is, a machine would take over—thus the name “dead hand.”

Each cruise missile, however, flying over the lands of the USSR, would emit launch commands to all of the missile silos it passed over. Missile after missile would soon soar—thousands of them—arcing toward the United States, which would soon be obliterated, along with the rest of the world, in a nuclear holocaust controlled and commanded by nothing but preprogrammed machines.

In any case, Project Sanguine was its own version of an end-times radio, an “immense subterranean grid” transmitting to distant submarines by way of the Earth itself, humans using an entire planet as an apocalyptic radio device.

Electromagnetic Escher Mazes

The previous two posts have led to a number of interesting links, including several comments over at Reddit that seem worth reproducing here.

There, a commenter named clicksnd “used to be in a special forces Signal Detachment (as a server guy) and got awesome cross training from our radio section. One cool thing they taught us is that if we ever needed to boost range, we could wire up to a fence or, in a pinch, knife a tree and wire to it!” When you need a radio, in other words, considering just sticking some metal in a tree.

To that, someone named pavel_lishin responds: “I remember hearing a story, possibly apocryphal, about a college radio station that used some nearby railroad tracks as their broadcasting antenna, and it worked well enough for the entire town to receive the signal clearly. In fact, it worked a little too well. Someone drove up from a town a couple of hundred miles away, and asked them to knock it off, since the signal was being broadcast all the way down there and interfering with a different radio station.” Perhaps you could broadcast a radio station via all the nails in the walls of an abandoned suburb.

Finally, replying to someone mocking the idea that antennas have ever been more complex than “just a piece of metal connected to a receiver,” someone named cuddlebadger says that, on the contrary, “the field has progressed a bit since 1919,” when those tree-antennas were first being proposed. Today, cuddlebadger writes, “we have fractal antennas that look like [an] MC Escher drawing and work incredibly well. Genetic algorithms that design alien-looking antennas that are barely visible yet outperform many all-human designs. Someone even draws nanometer-scale antennas out of gold on tiny glass hemispheres for that extra efficiency. Antennas exist that can literally capture the electromagnetic radiation of sunlight!”

Electromagnetic Escher mazes made of gold, picking up emanations from stars: technology as myth achieved by other means.

Antarctic Island Radio

[Image: Deception Island, from Millett G. Morgan’s September 1960 paper An Island as a Natural Very-Low-Frequency Transmitting Antenna].

Yesterday’s post reminded me of an interesting proposal from the 1960s, in which an entire Antarctic island would be transformed into a radio-conducting antenna. Signals of international (or military submarine) origin could thus be bounced, relayed, captured, and re-transmitted using the topographical features of the island itself, and naturally occurring ionospheric radio noise could be studied.

[Image: A map of Deception Island, taken from an otherwise unrelated paper called “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” published in Antarctic Science (2005)].

In the September 1960 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, radio theorist Millett G. Morgan, a “leading researcher in the field of ionospheric physics” based at Dartmouth, speculated that he could generate artificial “whistlers”—that is, audial electromagnetic effects that are usually caused by lightning—if only he could find the right island.

“In thinking about how to generate whistlers artificially,” Morgan’s proposal leisurely begins, “it has occurred to me that an island of suitable size and shape, extending through the conducting sea, may constitute a naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna of high quality.”

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

He looked far and wide for this “naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna,” eventually settling on a remote island in the Antarctic. “Following this line of reasoning,” he explains, “I thought first of the annular Pacific atolls, but knowing of the fresh-water lenses in them”—that is, aquatic features that would destructively interfere with radio transmissions—”[I] rejected them as being too pervious to water to be satisfactory insulators. Also, of course, they are not found in suitable latitudes for generating whistlers.”

Morgan’s reasoning continued: “The Pacific atolls are built upon submerged volcanic cones and this led me to think of Deception Island in the SubAntarctic, a remarkable, similarly shaped, volcanic island in which the volcanic rock extends above the surface; and which is located in the South Shetland Islands where the rate of occurrence of natural whistlers has been found to be very great.”

Perhaps the island could be the geologic radio antenna he was looking for.

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan points out in detail that mathematical ratios amongst the island’s naturally occurring landscape features, including its ring-shaped lagoon, are perfect for supporting radio transmissions (even the relationship between the length of the island and the radio wavelengths Morgan would be using seems to work out). And that’s before he looks at the material construction of the island itself, consisting of volcanic tuff, which would help the terrain act as an “insulator.”

There is even the fact that the island’s small lagoon is coincidentally but unrelatedly named “Telefon Bay” (alas, named after a ship called the Telefon, not for the island’s natural ability to make telephone calls).

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan’s “proposed island antenna” would thus be a wired-up matrix of transmission lines and natural landscape features, bouncing radio wavelengths at the perfect angle from one side to the other and concentrating broadcasts for human use and listening.

You could tune into the sky, huddling in the Antarctic cold and listening to the curling electromagnetic crackle of the ionosphere, or you could use your new radio-architectural set-up, all wires and insulators like some strange astronomical harp, “to generate whistlers artificially,” as Morgan’s initial speculation stated, bursting forth with planetary-scale arcs of noise over a frozen sea, a wizard of sound alone and self-deafened at the bottom of the world.

(Deception Island proposal discovered via Douglas Kahn, whose forthcoming book Arts of the Spectrum: In the nature of electromagnetism looks fantastic, and who also gave an interesting talk on “natural radio” a few years ago at UCLA).

Tree Receivers

[Image: “The Trees Now Talk” cover story in The Electrical Experimenter (July 1919); image via rexresearch].

Way back in 1919, in their July 14th issue, Scientific American published an article on the discovery that trees can act “as nature’s own wireless towers and antenna combined.”

General George Owen Squire, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer, made his “strange discovery,” as SciAm phrases it, while sitting in “a little portable house erected in thick woods near the edge of the District of Columbia,” listening to signals “received through an oak tree for an antenna.” This realization, that “trees—all trees, of all kinds and all heights, growing anywhere—are nature’s own wireless towers and antenna combined.”

He called this “talking through the trees.” Indeed, subsequent tests proved that, “[w]ith the remarkably sensitive amplifiers now available, it was not only possible to receive signals from all the principle [sic] European stations through a tree, but it has developed beyond a theory and to a fact that a tree is as good as any man-made aerial, regardless of the size or extent of the latter, and better in the respect that it brings to the operator’s ears far less static interference.”

Why build a radio station, in a sense, when you could simply plant a forest and wire up its trees?

[Images: From George Owen Squire’s British Patent Specification #149,917, via rexresearch].

So how does it work? Alas, you can’t just plug your headphones into a tree trunk—but it’s close. From Scientific American:

The method of getting the disturbances in potential from treetop to instrument is so simple as to be almost laughable. One climbs a tree to two-thirds of its height, drives a nail a couple of inches into the tree, hangs a wire therefrom, and attaches the wire to the receiving apparatus as if it were a regular lead-in from a lofty copper or aluminum aerial. Apparently some of the etheric disturbances passing from treetop to ground through the tree are diverted through the wire—and the thermionic tube most efficiently does the rest.

Although “40 nails apparently produce no clearer signals than half a dozen,” one tree can nonetheless “serve as a receiving station for several sets, either connected in series with the same material or from separate terminals.”

[Image: Researching the possibility that whole forests could be used as radio stations—broadcasting weather reports, news from the front lines of war, and much else besides—is described by Scientific American as performing “tree radio work.” Image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

In a patent filing called “British Patent Specification #149,917,” Squire goes on to explore the somewhat mind-bending possibilities offered by “radio transmission and reception through the use of living vegetable organisms such as trees, plants, and the like.” He writes:

I have recently discovered that living vegetable organisms generally are adapted for transmission and reception of radio or high frequency oscillations, whether damped or undamped, with the use of a suitable counterpoise. I have further discovered that such living organisms are adapted for respectively transmitting or receiving a plurality of separate trains of radio or high frequency oscillations simultaneously, in the communication of either or both telephonic or telegraphic messages.

This research—the field of “tree radio work”—has not disappeared or been forgotten.

[Image: A tree in the Panamanian rain forest wired up as a sending-receiving antenna; from IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

In the January 1975 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, we read the test results of several gentleman who went down to the rain forests of the Panama Canal Zone to test “the performance of conventional whip antennas… compared with the performance of trees utilized as antennas in conjunction with hybrid electromagnetic antenna couplers.”

The authors specifically cite Squire’s work and quote him directly: “‘It would seem that living vegetation may play a more important part in electrical phenomena than has been generally supposed… If, as indicated above in these experiments, the earth’s surface is already generously provided with efficient antennae, which we have but to utilize for communications…’ These words were written in 1904 by Major George 0. Squire, U.S. Army Signal Corps, in a report to the Department of War in connection with military maneuvers in the Pacific Division.”

The authors of the IEEE Transactions report thus establish up a jungle-radio “Test Area” in a remote corner of Panama, complete with trees wired-up as dual senders & receivers. There, they think they’ve figured out what’s occurring on a large scale, as signals propagate through the forest canopy, writing that we should consider “the jungle as a maze of aperture-coupled screen rooms. In the jungle case, the screens, in the form of vertical tree and fern trunks, and the horizontal forest canopy are of variable thickness, have variable shaped apertures, and are composed of diverse substances that contain mostly water.”

[Image: Inside the Panamanian jungle-radio Test Zone; image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

The design implication of all this is that an ideal radio-receiving forest could be planted and maintained, complete with spatially tuned “aperture-coupled screen rooms” (trees of specific branch-density planted at specific distances from one another) to allow for the successful broadcast of messages (and/or music) through the “living vegetable organisms” that Squire wrote about in his patent application.

What other creatures—such as birds, bats, wandering children, foxes, or owls—might make of such a landscape, planted not for aesthetic or even ecological reasons, but for the purpose of smoothly relaying foreign radio stations or encrypted spy communications, is bewildering to contemplate.

In any case, this truly alien vision of forests silently crackling inside with unexploited radio noise is incredible, implying the existence of undiscovered “broadcasts” of biological noise, humming trunk to trunk amongst groves of remote forests like arboreal whale song, inaudible to human ears, as well as suggesting a near-miraculous venue for future concerts, where music would be played not through wireless headsets or hidden speakers lodged in the woods but through the actual trees, music shimmering from root to canopy, filling trees branch and grain with symphonies, drones, rhythms, songs, sounds occasionally breaking through car radios as they speed past on roads nearby.

[All links found via an old message from Shawn Korgan posted to the Natural Radio VLF Discussion Group of which I am a non-participating member. Vaguely related: The Duplicative Forest and Pruned’s Graffiti as Tactical Urban Wireless Network. See also a follow-up post: Antarctic Island Radio].

Liquid Radio

Could temporary jets of seawater be used as functioning radio antennas? Apparently so: as PopSci reports, “communications are vital” for vessels at sea, but deck space for “all the large antennas necessary for long-range (and often encrypted) communications” can be hard to come by. “So U.S. Navy R&D lab SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific) engineered a clever scheme to turn the ocean’s most abundant resource into communications equipment, making antennas out of geysers of seawater.”

Using arcing vaultworks of oceanwater, like domesticated waves, to beam and receive encrypted telecommunications not only reduces the metal-load of ships—thus also reducing the radar profile of military vessels—it also offers a way to construct “a quick, temporary antenna that could just as easily be dismantled.”

What they [SPAWAR] came up with is little more than an electromagnetic ring and a water pump. The ring, called a current probe, creates a magnetic field through which the pump shoots a steam of seawater (the salt is a key ingredient, as the tech relies on the magnetic induction properties of sodium chloride). By controlling the height and width of the [stream], the operator can manipulate the frequency at which the antenna transmits and receives. An 80-foot-high stream can transmit and receive anywhere from 2 to 400 mHz, though much smaller streams can be used for varying other frequencies, ranging from HF through VHF to UHF.

Turning seawater into a temporary broadcast architecture is absolutely fascinating to me and has some extraordinary design implications for the future. Pirate radio stations made entirely from spiraling pinwheels of saltwater; cell-phone masts disguised as everyday displays spurting seasonally in public parks, from Moscow to Manhattan; TV towers replaced with Busby Berkeley-like aquatic extravaganzas, camouflaging the electromagnetic infrastructure of the city as a gigantic water garden.

[Image: A mountainous display of women closely choreographed with water by Busby Berkeley, via Alexander Trevi’s Pruned].

Given some salt, for instance, the Trevi Fountain could begin retransmitting mobile phone calls throughout the heat-rippling summer landscape of greater Rome. Ultra-refined specialty saltwaters offer dependable signal clarity in audio HD. La Machine de Marly becomes a buried industrial art project, beaming death metal salt hydrologies to garden visitors: a continuous fountain of thundering music on FM, headbanging to seawater hifi. Espionage conspiracies involving elaborate, deep-cover radio links hidden inside public fountains.

So how could this be further explored in the contexts of tidal river waters—Thames Radio!—rogue waves, and even tsunamis? The artistic, architectural, musical, and infrastructural misuse of this technology is something I very much look forward to hearing in the future.