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Voice of America Museum is now broadcasting inspiration for tech developers

A timeless shrine of scientific innovation
Voice of America Museum is now broadcasting inspiration for tech developers
Posted at 7:59 AM, Jun 23, 2017

WEST CHESTER TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- There are forgotten business spaces that still resonate with a spirit for discovery. Walk Manhattan's High Line and you'll likely pass the former Bell Telephone Laboratories, a multi-building factory spread across West Street, home of tech inventions like phonograph records, talking movies, television and radar.

Travel to West Orange, New Jersey, and you'll see the Black Maria, a rotating, tar-paper-covered building where Thomas Edison and his engineers created America's first movie studio.

Closer to Cincinnati lies another timeless shrine of scientific innovation and invention.

Located on the edge of West Chester's Voice of America Park stands the Bethany Station, the former VOA hub for six 200,000-kilowatt shortwave transmitters, antennae and a switching station sharing American news, policies and thought to far-flung countries in Eastern Europe, North and South Africa and South America beginning on Sept. 23, 1944.

"It's a landmark of amazing, cool tech," says Todd Henderson, a growth strategist and business development leader for corporations and tech startups. "VOA is close to where I live. So I'm constantly reminded of our region's history around engineering, innovation, science and technology. It's a spirit of inspiration that I share with my startup clients."

John T. Dominic, executive director of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.

Decommissioned in 1994, the minimalist concrete building and five-story tower and guard station is currently home to the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.

Volunteers including Executive Director John T. Dominic, former VOA Transmitter Plant Supervisor David Snyder and Broadcast and Technology Consultant Jay Adrick continue working to build a state-of-the-art exhibition space in celebration of the VOA and the unique role of Cincinnati-engineered radio in World War II.

More importantly, Adrick and his fellow VOA volunteers talk with business leaders and tech entrepreneurs who find inspiration from the audio and broadcasting innovations developed by the Cincinnati engineers who built, designed and implemented the Bethany Station some 75 years ago.

"The key technology used for the Bethany Station had to be invented," Adrick told us while prepping for a museum visit by attendees of Dayton Hamvention, one of the world's largest amateur radio conferences. "Most of the components had never been built before. So they had to design, build and implement the necessary parts."

Adrick says he recently experienced the full impact of VOA's scientific legacy after wowing media leaders with a VOA presentation at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, the world's largest B2B Media and Entertainment conference. He also continues to see it onsite during group visits from techies like the amateur radio operators.

Inspiration for agile design

Asked what 21st-century startup founders and technologists can learn from the world's most powerful shortwave broadcast facility, Adrick answered quickly and without hesitation.

"The Crosley Corporation staffers and University of Cincinnati coop engineering students that Ronald "RJ" Rockwell, director of engineering for Crosley Radio, gathered to design and build the VOA some 74 years ago share much in common with developers launching startups today," Adrick said. "When you think of the rapid pace from government commission in 1942 to broadcast in 1944, Rockwell and his coop students delivered what I think today's software developers would call agile design."

Bethany Station transmitters at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.

Add the wartime reality of copper and aluminum shortages as well as other materials needed to build the broadcasting equipment. Suddenly, VOA becomes an established case study in White Space with Rockwell and his team needing to create new products like vacuum tubes, output circuits and antennas that weren't capable of providing the necessary power.

They also had to deliver the work on the tightest of wartime deadlines established by the Federal Communications Commission, the Office of War Information, Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and the Department of State.

Wooden telephone poles from Cincinnati Gas & Electric had to be spliced together to support the antenna switching gear. VOA is one of those rare engineering and scientific projects that would not have happened without "inventing on the fly."

"Some of broadcasting equipment was made at a former candy plant on Central Parkway," Dominic added. "Rockwell and his team also worked with a New Jersey company developing vacuum tubes. It was an open-source model of research and development in order to find the best solutions outside of the Crosley Corporation."

Describing the project in a 1944 issue of Communications Magazine, Rockwell emphasized the rapid pace maintained by his Crosley-led team including enginners J.L. Hollis, F.N. Lantzer and J.M. McDonald.

"This was the culmination of almost two years of planning, designing and building, of invention and adventure in the field of radio engineering," wrote R.J. Rockwell, director of broadcast engineering, Crosley Corp. "This was the end of a trail that started with an urgent war necessity and the beginning of another trail that leads forward to a new kind of air supremacy for the United States of America. This was the loudest voice in the world trying its young lungs."

Building a museum worthy of its innovative spirit

Visitors at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.

Visit the VOA Museum on one of its Saturday afternoon visiting hours and you'll see new exhibition space under construction. Former transmitter plant supervisor and VOA Museum volunteer David Snyde said the hard work has the goal of making the building an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Meanwhile, with the help of museum partners including The Gray History of Wireless Museum and Media Heritage and Cincinnati Media Heritage's Mark Megistrelli and Mike Martini, construction of a new entrance is also underway along with a new exhibition dedicated to Cincinnati entrepreneur, inventor and industrialist Powel Crosley Jr.

"It's amazing when you think how Rockwell and his engineers created these transmitters that go all the way up to 200 kilowatts and used distilled water to the cool the transmitters," Snyder said on a recent weekend afternoon. "Plus, this was not a widespread radio signal. Rockwell created a technology that was able to target these powerful signals to specific areas."

Longtime residents of the area remember how you could hear VOA broadcasts via your appliances because the shortwave signals were so powerful.

Although a VOA facility in Greenville, North Carolina, remains in operation, West Chester's VOA facility was decommissioned in 1994 and its towers razed in 1997. The 1,500-gallon tanks holding distilled water for cooling the vacuum tubes are gone along with the antenna service car that VOA staff used to travel among the clusters of antennae.

Bethany Station transmitters at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.

What is left are the Bethany Station building with its unique cellular steel floor, its transmitter room and unique switching station outside the building. More important, the VOA stories of Rockwell's scientific achievement and discovery continue to resonate with startup founders and technologists today.

"Voice of America plays such an important role in our nation's history," Henderson said. "It's about Cincinnati's role in World War II. It's also about our role in science. It's impressive how this landmark continues to inspire the technologists I work with and inspire them to make Cincinnati home to the startup companies they create. For me, the story of VOA is one of collaboration and innovation. That's key for the success of any tech company."

Visit the Voice of America Bethany Relay Station on the third Saturday of very month 1-4 p.m. Learn more online.