‘The Three Sisters’ Ushered in
Era of Wireless Communication
By DAVID F. WINKLER
In 1912, at a site less than two miles from the current
headquarters of the Navy League of the United States,
the Navy began construction of the first of a series of
radio transmitters with the objective of establishing
transoceanic communications. At a location set aside at
Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., the Navy built three towers
at what became known as the Naval Radio Base.
During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the
Navy took advantage of the new wireless technology to
place radios at sea and, in 1905, established eight stations along the Atlantic coast with a maximum transmission range of 137 miles. The Navy completed a
West Coast chain of shore stations in 1908.
At the time they were built, the Arlington towers
included the second largest structure of its type in the
world, bested only by the Eiffel Tower. The tallest of the
three Arlington towers — which were dubbed “the Three
Sisters” — stood 45 feet higher than the Washington
Monument, which is just over 555 feet tall.
The Navy placed the high-power, long-wave station
into commission in 1913 with the call letters NAA.
Experiments began and communications were established that year with a French radio station using the
Eiffel Tower and the battleship USS Delaware, located
off the Azores in the Atlantic.
On Sept. 29, 1915, Secretary of the Navy Josephus
Daniels boastfully announced the successful transmission of a wireless telephone message from Arlington to
Mare Island in California — a distance of approximately 2,500 miles.
As reported the following day in the New York Times,
Daniels exclaimed: “I am pleased to announce the successful outcome of experiments which have been carried on for the last few months by the American
Telephone and Telegraph Co. and the Western Electric
Co. in cooperation with radio stations under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department by which long-distance
wireless telephony has been made possible.”
Daniels gave details of the conversations that were
conducted between the commander of the Arlington
facility, Capt. W.H.G. Bullard, and officers assigned to
the Mare Island Radio Station. He also described the
land line telephone conversations with AT&T officials
in New York that were transmitted from the surface
into the atmosphere via Arlington to the West Coast.
Later that day, after the successful transmission to
The Navy radio towers known as “the Three Sisters”
loom in the background as U.S. Army cavalry perform
drills at Fort Myer, Va.
the West Coast, Bullard and his AT&T and Western
Union technicians attempted to send a verbal message
beyond the West Coast — to Hawaii. They succeeded.
Lloyd Espenchied, an AT&T engineer who had been
sent to Hawaii to set up a receiving antenna, heard the
radio transmission. Because he did not have a transmitter, it was a one-way conversation, but he sent a
cablegram to Washington to announce that the 4,900-
mile transmission had been a success.
Given that war had broken out in Europe and the
Germans were using U-boats to interdict shipments to
the allies, the importance of the new technology was
apparent. Daniels took part in an experiment in 1916
when he conversed with the commanding officer of
USS New Hampshire from the phone in his office via
land line to the Three Sisters and out to the battleship
operating off New Jersey.
With America’s entry into the war, the Navy accelerated its long-range radio station construction program.
With new facilities such as the one established at
Annapolis in 1918, the Navy became less dependent
on the Arlington facility.
With the installation of vacuum tubes in 1924, the
Arlington facility would remain in operation during
the interwar period. However, with the opening of
National Airport in 1941, the Navy had to disassemble
the structures, as they were directly in the flight
approach from the north. Defense Communication
Agency facilities now occupy the site. ■
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical