Needham History Center & Museum

Can You Hear Us Now?

The Cosmic-Terrestrial Research Lab had a more earth-bound mission, especially as War threatened. But if the Little Green Men did want to check in, no doubt the folks atop Birds Hill were ready to listen.

It sounds like a story out of a bad science fiction movie—scientists hunkered down on an isolated hilltop in the country, listening to signals from space. Were they hoping to make contact with aliens, or just to warn us of their approach?

Mostly, they just wanted to listen better, whoever was doing the talking.

The story begins in 1929, with the formation of the Press Wireless Corporation, known as “PreWi.” PreWi was formed as a public utility (to have access to the radio band) by a consortium of the big press companies of the day – the New York Times Company, the Chicago Daily News, AP, King Features, etc. Its purpose was to create a reliable channel for trans-oceanic radio communications for news gathering. They built their first receiver station in Needham, on Bird Street just past its intersection with Greendale Ave. The elevated location and clear reception field made the Birds Hill site ideal for its job of receiving transmissions from London, via Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Needham installation lasted for only a few years, and the operations moved elsewhere as PreWi expanded and built new transmission stations to handle nation-wide and trans-Pacific signals.

In 1935, MIT received grants from the American Philosophical Society, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the National Bureau of Standards for “investigations in cosmic-terrestrial relationships” – or, more precisely, “the diurnal, annual, and other periodic fluctuations in field-strengths of radio-wave propagation, the study of the distribution of ions at the earth’s surface, the study of solar effects on the transmission of time-signals propagated by radio, and variations in the quantity and quality of transmitted sunlight.” In English, their goal was to study the effects of atmospheric electricity and the actions of the sun, moon, and other elements on the transmission of radio waves.

The Cosmic-Terrestrial Research Laboratory at 31 Bird Street, circa 1942.
The Cosmic-Terrestrial Research Laboratory at 31 Bird Street, circa 1942. The small section in front is the former Press Wireless Corporation building, and the two story addition to the back housed the offices and labs. The ladders provided access to the roof-top equipment, and to the recreational sun deck.

MIT established The Cosmic-Terrestrial Research Laboratory to carry out this task, under the direction of astronomer and physicist Harlan True Stetson. The search for a location for the Lab led Stetson to the former Press Wireless facility on Birds Hill. Not only did it have the elevations and clear reception field that CTRL needed, but it had easy access to MIT, and was located to the southwest of Boston, where the prevailing winds would keep the air clear of the city’s pollutants. MIT bought about 5 acres of the surrounding land, in the angle between Greendale Avenue and Rybury Hillway. They built a house for Stetson, upgraded the PreWi building as the receiving station, and added on a substantial two-story addition to house the offices and labs. The facility was pretty spare – its style was described as “functional modern” – but small amenities were provided by a leather-chaired library and a sun deck on the PreWi roof.

Although long-distance radio communication had been possible since Marconi’s broadcast in 1902, there were numerous factors that could disrupt or degrade the signal. It was known, for example, that broadcast and medium-wave transmissions were clearer from sunset till dawn, but that short-wave transmissions were better during the day. The mission of the CTRL was to investigate and quantify these phenomena, and to find ways to improve transmission. Specifically, Stetson and his team were looking at the effect on radio waves by solar radiation and sun-spot activity; by tidal variations caused by the moon; interference caused by other transmission sources such as commercial airplane beacons; seismic activity; and geomagnetism. They also installed a special counter to collect cosmic rays in an attempt to determine their origins.

One of the more unusual aspects of CTRL’s research was on the effect of electric fields of varying intensity on lab-grown hydroponic plants, and its implications for biology (in general) and agriculture (in particular).

Stetson’s research was just beginning when World War II began, but as the war progressed, so did his work. The applications of CTRL’s research became urgent during the War, and in the years immediately after. For wartime communications, it was crucial to understand the effects of atmospheric conditions on the military’s long-distance radio reception in order to produce adequate equipment, compensate for interference, and upgrade the signal. This included not only weather and climate conditions, but the timing of daylight cycles, global position, and the longer-range factors of sunspot activity and lunar tides. Even small adjustments could create improvements in the reliability and effectiveness of the all-important communication lines.

After the war, CTRL’s research was used to improve the transmission of commercial radio, to assess the effects of weather and atmospheric conditions on civil aviation air beacons, and to evaluate conditions for the transmission of the new television signals.

The Cosmic-Terrestrial Research Lab ceased activity in 1950. In its ten-plus years of work, it incorporated methods and data from a wide array of disciplines, including astronomy, meteorology, geophysics, communications engineering, and biology. For their research to be productive, Stetson observed, “specialists must concern themselves with the synthesis of knowledge gleaned from the sky above to the earth below.”

To Stetson and his colleagues at CTRL, not only were the geophysics of Earth intertwined with the workings of the cosmic environment, but so also was life itself—“We are becoming increasingly aware that man himself is a highly articulated organism whose activities and even whose metabolic processes are quite dependent upon the quantity and quality of sunlight and the circumstances of his terrestrial environment.” And well beyond our terrestrial environment, out into the vast reaches of space, and to the distant stars. Are they listening?

The Birds Hill Observatory

Coincidentally, there was a second observation station on Birds Hill in the 1930s and 40s. The Birds Hill Observatory was located nearby at 100 Thornton Road. Amateur meteorologist Stephen G. Allen set up the Observatory to record detailed local weather information. The observatory was a 12 x 14’ room built atop the roof of his house – taking advantage of the same elevation and clear reception that attracted the Cosmic Terrestrial Research Lab. The office was filled with maps, charts, and sophisticated reading and recording equipment. A hatch in the ceiling led out to a roof desk with the weather vane and telescope (and some chairs, because sometimes you just wanna enjoy the stars without subjecting them to scientific scrutiny)

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum