Newsletter 2009

Early days in Hawai‘i

This item was prompted by John Pringle, EOS at Basildon, GEC Marconi in Atlanta, Georgia, and latterly with four other ex-Atlanta crew running their own engineering services company in a corner of the old Marconi building in Norcross. What follows comes from ‘Roads less traveled’, an article by Stu Dawrs in Hana Hou!, the Hawawiian Airlines magazine. Stu is a Pacific specialist librarian at University of Hawai‘i-Manoa Hamilton Library, and came across a construction engineer named Cedric (his surname is not known) and his partner in one of a collection of personal photo albums whilst researching Hawaiian history in the period shortly after the US’ annexation of Hawaii in the early 1900s. Curious about the lives of the two individuals, he delved further and came across the story of the construction and remains of the Marconi wireless telegraph station on O‘ahu. At the time of its inauguration in 1914 it was one of the world’s largest. Here we reproduce an extract – he has previously described at some length researches that led him to the project on which Cedric was engaged.

In these days of instantaneous communication, it’s hard to conjure the excitement generated when Marconi sent his first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission in 1901. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to grasp the enormity of the moment when the American Marconi Co set out to construct two wireless telegraph plants on O‘ahu – a receiver on the eastern shore at Koko Head and a transmitter to the north at Kahuku. But this was, both literally and figuratively, huge. In 1899, even before Marconi’s trans-Atlantic breakthrough, Hawai‘i had been among the first places in the world to contract for commercial wireless telegraph service, and by 1906 a somewhat unreliable inter-island wireless service had already been up and running for a few years. But when the Koko Head and Kahuku projects came online, their giant antennae – Kahuku alone had twenty-four masts ranging from 300 to 500 feet tall – would provide a strong, reliable communication link far beyond Hawai‘i’s shores.

When ground was broken on the million-dollar (that’s 1913 dollars) project, it generated a worldwide buzz. The local, national and international press breathlessly followed the construction, covering in minute detail the layout of each facility and the mechanics of wireless communication. For instance, in its April 19, 1913 edition, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reports, among much else, ‘In order to obtain an impression of the great power to be used at the Kahuku station in transmitting the messages to the coast and to the Orient, it may be said that the noise of the spark will be such that, were it not enclosed in a soundproof chamber, it could be heard for a distance of at least four miles.’

Opening day, Sept 25, 1914, was a gala affair, with a special train hired to take guests out to Kahuku, messages being sent by Gov. Lucius Pinkham to President Woodrow Wilson and the entire guest list for the day’s events printed in the Star- Bulletin. Beyond their practical application, the new Marconi plants further served to bind Hawai‘i to the American consciousness…

…Time slips past us all. The US entered World War I in 1917, and the wireless system played its part. But new technologies gradually emerged, and with them the players changed. In 1919, General Electric bought the American Marconi Co, and the Radio Corporation of America was created; in 1926 a merger between RCA, General Electric and Westinghouse gave rise to the National Broadcasting Co.; by the 1930s, shortwave radio had rendered the Kahuku plant’s huge antennae unnecessary.
But the traces remain. I don’t know how many times I’ve driven past Marconi Road without a second thought, except to notice the old-fashioned street sign and rough, two-lane road that veers into the farmland and scrub brush off Kamehameha Highway. It wasn’t until I saw these photographs that I thought to follow this road.

This being prime oceanfront property, I assumed that there would be no trace of the Marconi plant, but it’s still there, looking like the sort of derelict structure one occasionally stumbles upon in the Islands – if I hadn’t known better, from a distance I would have guessed it was a remnant of the sugar industry. But having seen the photos, I now have a sense of eerie recognition: in the album is a picture of Cedric at work, peering through a surveyor’s level. Cedric plumbing a wireless mast, Ms. X tells us. These masts were each plumbed twenty times during construction. (Photo right. Images courtesy of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Hawaiian Collection. Weblink – see below.)

Some of the concrete slabs that held these masts are still visible, roughly 10 feet in diameter and rising six or so feet off the ground. Thanks to the Star-Bulletin, I also know that these slabs of solid concrete are sunk some twelve feet into the ground … little wonder they have yet to be removed. The windows of the power plant are framed but missing their glass; everything looks unfinished. In other words, catch it in the right light, and it could be a building under construction rather than one in decline. “Cedric,” to paraphrase a standard bit of Island graffiti, “wuz hea.”

The full text can be found at in the December 2008 edition of Hana Hou!
At, amongst 700-odd images, are photos of the construction of the wireless telegraph station, Cedric, and his partner.