Communications Aboard The USS George Washington in 1919.


Photo from the Internet

 President Wilson’s ship, the USS George Washington en route to France in 1919

The largest ship to sail the sea was President Wilson’s USS George Washington. Perhaps it was a bit of an overkill, using such a large vessel for the president and his staff and crew. But it was a symbol, having been captured from the German Navy two years earlier, during the Great War – World War One.

Obviously, it served America well, but communications was one glaring shortfall.

I plan to write several chapters concerning the year following the close of World War One, 1919. This segment will focus on communications problems, the installation and operation of a larger, more powerful wireless transmitter. While amateur radio operators were using a thousand watts to send a signal thirty miles, the USS George Washington were trying to communicate halfway across the Atlantic Ocean to the White House. The only transmitter capable of producing such power was an arc.

Don Wallace (W6AM (Don’s Amateur Radio Call Sign)), a United States Navy wireless operator happen, by chance, to meet a former commanding officer with whom he’d served during the war. The commander was searching for wireless operators to serve on the president’s ship. He stated that of the 400 radio stations, nationwide, he was unable to find a single operator who knew anything about arc transmitters. Don had the necessary experience and accepted the challenge.

The transmitter in question was a 40 kilowatt arc. Not only was it yet to be installed, Don would have locate a number of top-notch operators. After a time he chose 35 telegraphers and they began the task.

Normally, six weeks was allowed for the installation of a wireless system, but the president was sailing for Paris to take part in the Versailles Peace Conference. He was leaving in three days.

They were still fine tuning it when the USS George Washington set sail.


Photo credit to John H. Payne

Research Lab., General Electric Co.

Operation were scheduled in hour-long segments – one hour sending, one hour receiving. At first the transmitter was kept on low power. During the receiving hour they were able to resume preparation for the higher power. As the distance increased they were able to increase the power. Communications continued without a problem.

Because of the extreme voltage required, keying relays were required. This slowed the transmission rate to about 20-words-per-minute. This combined with the increased number of messages resulted in some being not yet sent before the hour was up.

Don approached the president’s chief-of-staff, asking if he would ask the president to shorten his messages. The Chief-of-staff was enraged that a 20-year-old-kid would suggest the president should shorten the messages.

Somewhere en route the president decided to talk personally to someone back in Washington, D.C.. A microphone had to be installed in the antenna feed line, and the current was so great it required water cooling.


Photo Credit to John H. Payne

Research Lab., General Electric Co.

Only then did they discover that President Wilson suffered from mic-fright. They had to clear everyone from the room before he could utter a word. After that they would camouflage the microphone.

All the challenge aboard the USS George Washington proved successful

2 thoughts on “Communications Aboard The USS George Washington in 1919.

  1. I’ve been on board the ship they have turned into a museum in New York, I can’t recall its name now. It’s a huge scary aircraft carrier, and when these things turn up off the coast of some unsuspecting country, it must scare them them to death!!


  2. Scott says:

    Thank you so much for your response, Trev. I’m very sorry to have created a bit of confusion.

    Since 1700 something there have been four ships christened USS George Washington ships. I should have clarified that. The one you’ve mentioned is number four. The one I’ve written about is number two.


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