As the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City opened this week to the public, visitors are encountering the remains of the World Trade Center’s broadcast antenna mast destroyed by terrorists in 2001.
Here is part two of the story of how that demolished antenna brought New York City broadcasting to its knees and knocked most stations off the air.
As Edwin Armstrong’s associates contemplated the historical implications brought on by the World Trade Center disaster in 2001, their memories raced back to happier times at Alpine — especially those of Armstrong’s daring penchant for climbing the great steel structure.
“He was utterly fearless on the tower,” remembered Renville McMann, who began his engineering career with Armstrong at age 14. “He used to climb the tower for exercise. But when it came time to come down, he would step into a bucket attached to a cable controlled by an electric winch and have himself lowered to the ground. He recognized that wench was very dangerous, but did it anyway. Ten thousand dollars wouldn’t have gotten me in that bucket. I was leaving my fingerprints in the steel.”
In 2001, the tower was and is still owned by Charles Sackerman and operated by the Alpine Tower Company of Woodcliff Lake, NJ. Before the disaster, it was home to a variety of communications services for government and industry and to WFDU, a radio station operated by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ.
Over time, most of the broadcasters eventually moved their main transmission antennas to either the Empire State Building or 4 Times Square. Whether they move to the new antenna mast at One World Trade Center is still unknown, pending the outcome of FCC’s spectrum auctions.
The Armstrong Tower, however, still services many broadcasters, mainly today with auxiliary antennas. Yet, it’s history is written. The tower saved New York City television broadcasting in a time of emergency and continues to have value more than 75 years after its construction.
“The site has ideal topography for VHF and UHF transmission. It’s high, doesn’t have close structures and there are no reflections. It has everything you’d like to have for a transmitter shack,” said John Turner, president of Turner Engineering Associates of Mountain Lakes, NJ, in an interview in 2001.
“The top of the tower is roughly the height of the Empire State Building. It favors the northern counties. People in New Jersey and Long Island won’t see much difference. They may even get better pictures.”
“WNBC’s move to the Alpine tower completes a full circle in broadcast history,” said Tom Lewis, author of Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, a 1991 history of radio broadcasting. “It’s a great irony that this magnificent tower that Armstrong built in 1937 is now saving the bacon of NBC and other New York broadcasters in 2001.”
McMann agreed. “Armstrong was technically brilliant. Many of his ideas were truly great. He came up with solutions that others of us would not have considered. He was head and shoulders above any other engineer I’ve ever known. I don’t think Sarnoff knew how to turn on and off the lights. He’d been a telegraph operator, but he was no engineer.”
For supporters of Edwin Armstrong, a man who died thinking he was a failure, the events of September, 2001 were another validation of his genius. “Not only the building of that tower, but every time you touch a television or radio you touch an invention of Edwin Howard Armstrong,” said Lewis in an interview after the attack.
“I bet you can find few people at NBC today who even know who Armstrong was. But the ultimate irony is they wouldn’t be getting a paycheck today had it not been for him.”