Station Tuned in HistorySayville wireless towers
role in war now on exhibit.From NewsdayBy Thai Jones STAFF WRITER
The tower's saga ends in the cozy yellow house of a retired children's librarian in Sayville.
History piles up when you're its sole proprietor and for nearly a decade that's basically what Connie Currie, 66, has been. Flat surfaces in her dining room overflow with brittle documents containing the history of the Telefunken wireless station, a techno logical marvel of its day that became a German spy nest in World War I.
"Sayville was in the news over in En gland, France and Germany," Currie says proudly, flipping the jaundiced newspaper clippings to find the proof.
For years she has tried to transmit the history of Telefunken to an audience. Finally she has found a way:
This month the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville will open an exhibit of artifacts and art from this dramatic period of radio history.
The exhibit, open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sun days, noon to 4p.m., fills a room of the museum with the clicks and whirs of early radio. There is a recreation of the original Telefunken radio room and other hands-on displays.
"The station at Sayville was involved in tremendous intrigue in World War I," said Elliot Sivowipch, a radio history expert from the Smithsonian Institution in Washing ton, D.C. "It's a real wild spy story."
The Telefunken tower's saga start ed in 1911. As The Suffolk County News reported it, Stollwercke Bros., "a big New York corporation engaged in the manufacture of chocolate" had purchased 77 acres in West Sayville.
Instead, a 480-foot tall radio tower rose at the site. The chocolate wireless concern, whose name translates to "distant sparks," owned the land.
In 1912, the tower sent its first Morse code signal to Nauen, near Berlin, 3,600 miles away.
"Every corner of the broad Atlantic from the arctic circle to the equator and beyond is within reach of its powerful sending apparatus," said the New York Sun.
In January 1914, President Wood- row Wilson sent a message to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany through the Sayville wireless. "I congratulate Your Majesty on this additional tie of closer communication between the United States and Germany," Wilson wrote.
In the great war that was only seven months away, the Kaiser would take full advantage of this new means of communication. He'd have no choice.
When the war began in August, the English severed all of Germany's transatlantic cables. For the remaining four years of fighting, the open air waves between Sayville and Berlin would be the Kaiser's only way to reach his operatives in America. But the transmissions were vulnerable since England had secretly broken the German codes.
In 1915, Sayville played a part in a tragedy that remains enigmatic to this day. On May 1, the Lusitania, one of the world's largest ocean liners, steamed from New York Harbor with almost 2,000 passengers aboard. When a German submarine sank her a week later, almost 1,200 civilians, including more than 100 Americans, drowned.
Many historians believe the ship's sailing date was communicated to the German admiralty in Berlin from Sayville; one message over heard from the station in the days be fore the ship sank included the phrase, "Get Lucy," which some took as a coded reference to the doomed ship. But "there are some conflicting statements over this, and some controversy," Sivowipch said.
"I do not know for certain how the in formation got to Berlin, but strong suspicion did fall on the Sayville tower, which was kept under constant surveillance," Diana Preston, author of "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy," said in an e-mail message from her home in England.
So set on peace was Wilson that he allowed the German ambassador to transmit messages via Sayville even after the sinking, although he forbade the Germans from sending coded messages from the tower.
For three years the United States stayed neutral but, by early 1917, the public needed only a final nudge to jump into the fray with the Allies, and the pen of Germany's foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, provided it.
"We make Mexico a proposal of alliance," he wrote. In return for coming into the war on Germany's side, "Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona." The note was tapped out by the operators at Sayville and sent on to the Mexican ambassador. British code-breakers revealed the "Zimmermann Telegram" to Wilson, who agreed to enter the war.
The German operators at Sayville were expelled without time even to gather their belongings, and a few hours later U.S. naval radio men arrived to replace the Germans. Sayville's cameo on the world stage was over.
The U.S. Navy ran the station after the war and eventually turned it over to the Federal Aviation Administration. The original tower was dismantled in the 1930s. In 1995, the FAA decided to vacate the station itself. That's when Currie stepped in.
The dots and dashes of radio's early language had always figured in Curne's vocabulary. In high school she watched as her father repaired radios in an appliance store in Hicksville. Later she went to night school to earn a novice radio operator's license. Forty years later, after leaving her job running the children's room at the Sayville Library, she founded the Friends of Long Island Wireless History, which tried to save the station.
Currie and Sivowipch tried to have the station added to the national register of historic places. But before that could occur, the station was abandoned and began to deteriorate. Soon it was covered with graffiti and littered with beer bottles.
While at her hairdresser's in August 1996, Currie learned that a fire had burned at the station the night before. She arrived at the scene as bulldozers were knocking down what was left of the wreckage.
"This was the last decent piece of radio history," she
recalled thinking as she watched the charred walls being plowed
under. "There's nothing else that could have told the story the
way it did."