In 1925 explorers attempted the "moon-shot" of the era, and using the most modern technology available, including shortwave radio and airplanes for the first time, penetrated the last uncharted corners of the High Arctic. The risks were daunting, and the public read the daily newspaper dispatches as avidly as we would follow space launches in the 60's. With their success, the adventurers ended the era of overland dog-sled treks and they demonstrated the effectiveness of aviation and radio-linked systems that would characterize exploration henceforth, and a generation later, the race to the moon. And 15 year-old Arthur Collins was in the thick of it.
The adventure was led by Donald B. MacMillan (1874-1970), famed since 1908 when he accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole. Lt. Cdr. Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957), U.S. Navy, ret. commanded the aviation wing of the expedition, consisting of three newly designed Loening Amphibian biplanes, plus pilots, mechanics and a bird keeper (yes, carrier pigeons were the USN back-up comm plan). Eugene F. McDonald (1886-1958), co-founder of Zenith Radio, oversaw communications aboard the two vessels that carried the party northward.
In the early days of radio, long-distance radio communication used long wave (LW) frequencies (15-300 kHz). The short wave (SW) frequencies above 1,500 kHz were thought useless for long-distance communication and were allocated to the "hams" for experimenting. Even LW frequencies were useless beyond the Arctic Circle due to magnetic storms. In 1923-24 MacMillan had tried using a medium wave (MW) radio in the AM band. It was useless in daylight, but in the long winter darkness, it became a life-line, relieving the men's isolation and keeping them in the public eye--vital for fund-raising. And it showed engineers the potential of SW.
MacMillan returned to the North in 1925, as America, England and Norway all raced to find a "lost" continent believed to be located near the Pole. He carried a SW radio operating in the 20 meter band. Few ham radio operators had experience operating there, but one of them was Arthur Collins. He had been in regular contact with John Reinartz, the expedition's chief radio operator, for about a year. Before Reinartz sailed they met and reviewed his transmission schedule. Throughout the summer and until MacMillan arrived home in Maine on Oct. 9, while the regular USN comm system faltered, Collins relayed messages from Reinartz to expedition headquarters in Washington. He made headlines all over the country as one of just a handful of radiomen communicating steadily with the explorers. He cemented his role as an authority in SW circuitry at age 15 with several publications in leading amateur radio magazines offering circuit diagrams and advice for "hams" eager to duplicate his feat.
The effect on the Navy was profound. Demonstrating the ability of the two vessels to communicate easily with each other over thousands of miles via SW was a breakthrough. Captains were freed from the delays of using LW telegraph signals and specialist radio operators. Now they could talk by voice, as easily as picking up the phone. The advantages were beyond measure when sailing through dangerous ice, in bad weather or war. Navy leaders decided to learn more about SW, and they looked to Art Collins for advice. Lt. Cdr. Richard Byrd needed no convincing--in a long exploring career that stretched for 40 years and earned him the title of "the greatest explorer of modern times," he never left home again without a Collins SW radio.
Almost everyone who participated in the exhibition came back to wild public acclaim. Donald MacMillan, seeking funds for a return trip, went on a national speaking tour. He came to Iowa in April 1926 and spoke to large crowds in several cities including at the UI on Apr. 6 and Coe College on Apr. 7. He was hosted here at a pre-lecture dinner by a committee of local dignitaries that included Arthur. But his long-suffering parents probably banned him from the after-lecture "smoker" in the Charles W. Bingham home--brandy and cigars after 10 PM, on a school night, was likely too much, even for them.
Learn more about the famous 1925 MacMillan expedition in the upcoming exhibit: The Collins Story: On the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, coming to the Marion Heritage Center in July, in collaboration with the Arthur A. Collins Legacy Association. Next Time: Collins with Admiral Byrd at the South Pole.
Photo Credit: 1925 expedition photos from Dangerous Crossings by John H.Bryant and Harold N. Cones (2000)
Amazing courage to fly an untried open-cockpit biplane in the Arctic and cold, especially when Byrd had to lean out to navigate and get his bearings. That's expedition leader MacMillan in the furry parka, MacDonald at the microphone during an earlier trip (1923), and Byrd with the aviators' glasses aboard ship.