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Author Topic: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network  (Read 3758 times)

Fansome

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Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« on: July 11, 2017, 0341 UTC »
http://hackaday.com/2017/07/10/horns-across-america-the-att-long-lines-network/

Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
by: Dan Maloney

July 10, 2017

A bewildering amount of engineering was thrown at the various challenges presented to the United States by the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. From the Interstate Highway System to the population shift from cities to suburbs, infrastructure of all types was being constructed at a rapid pace, fueled by reasonable assessments of extant and future threats seasoned with a dash of paranoia, and funded by bulging federal coffers due to post-war prosperity and booming populations. No project seemed too big, and each pushed the bleeding edge of technology at the time.

Some of these critical infrastructure projects have gone the way of the dodo, supplanted by newer technologies that rendered them obsolete. Relics of these projects still dot the American landscape today, and are easy to find if you know where to look. One that always fascinated me was the network of microwave radio relay stations that once stitched the country together. From mountaintop to mountaintop, they stood silent and largely unattended, but they once buzzed with the business of a nation. Here’s how they came to be, and how they eventually made themselves relics.

Long Lines

Post-war America had a connection problem — huge populations on the coasts and around the Great Lakes, with scattered and smaller cities between. Stitching these population centers together with telephone cables had already largely been completed as part of the American Telephone and Telegraph Long Lines network. But the twisted pair and coax cables of the early voice network were ill-suited for the higher bandwidth needs that AT&T’s engineers knew were on the horizon.

Without being able to force more bandwidth down the installed cables, and with existing shortwave radio links suffering from similar bandwidth limits plus the vagaries of ionospheric propagation, AT&T engineers went up the spectrum — way up. Leveraging work from a 1944 trial system AT&T built to link Boston and New York, AT&T started to plan a coast-to-coast network of microwave relay stations in the C-band from 4 to 8 GHZ that would not only carry hundreds of simultaneous telephone calls, but would yield enough bandwidth to carry the newness of the day — television signals.

The Long Lines coast-to-coast microwave system was inaugurated in 1951 with a televised address by President Truman. The system continued to be built out over the 1950s and saw increasing use by the television networks as the profits from advertising on a national level started rolling in. The Long Lines network played a huge role in shaping the post-war American culture, which by and large was televised live and coast-to-coast.

A typical microwave relay station in the Long Lines system was located either on a mountaintop or on top of a tall building. On or adjacent to the equipment building was an extremely sturdy tower that held the most obvious calling card of the system — enormous “horn of plenty” style microwave antennas designed to provide plenty of gain and pinpoint directionality. Each station had a line-of-sight view of the next station in the network; they had sufficient range and were sited such that it only took 34 hops to cover the 840 miles route from New York to Chicago.

Planned and built during some of the chilliest days of the Cold War, these facilities were seen as vital parts of the national infrastructure, and were treated as such. Depending on the location, some of the structures were designed to withstand a 20-megaton nuclear blast 2.5 miles away. All of the sites had enormous backup generators with huge fuel tanks in case mains power was lost, which was a daily possibility due to the remoteness of many of the sites. Many of the facilities had large basements under the equipment room that were set up as bomb shelters, complete with Civil Defense supplies. That network engineers were expected to be at their post when World War III kicked off was never in question; AT&T even went so far as to post plaques in their facility with mission-centric messages like “Communications is the foundation of democracy,” presumably to inspire the staff as they rose from the ashes to rebuild civilization.
Done in by a Pin

In the end, AT&T Long Lines was a victim of its own success. With fat profits from telephone and television, a government-backed monopoly, and huge expensive installed base of equipment, AT&T  was too busy sitting on its laurels to notice looming threats in the 1970s. The political winds shifted and led to a different attitude toward the Bell System and a forced breakup of the giant. But it was research conducted by Bell Labs itself that led to the Long Lines network’s demise: fiber optics. Companies like Sprint seized the opportunity presented by the breakup to launch their “You can hear a pin drop” fiber networks, and coupled by improved satellite relays and the rise of digital communication modes, the end of the old analog microwave network was at hand.

Some towers at sites overlooking population centers have been stripped of their horns and now live a second life as cell phone sites, while some are so remote that they’re available for a song. But many of the sites remain largely intact on the outside, silent horns pointing off into the distance, serving now only as mountaintop monuments to a worthy national effort to stitch a continent together.

Offline clobdell

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #1 on: July 11, 2017, 1455 UTC »
Interesting article, thanks for sharing!
Interesting to note that AT&T Network Systems, which morphed into Lucent Technologies, built much of the coast to coast fiber optics network in the 90's and when it was done, they too met their demise as a company with no product left to sell!
« Last Edit: July 11, 2017, 1526 UTC by Chris Lobdell »
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Offline ChrisSmolinski

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #2 on: July 11, 2017, 1552 UTC »
One of these towers is nearby in Finksburg, MD. Locals have known for some time that it was much much more.  Not the tower itself, but what is under the tower.

Google words like: Finksburg NSA EKMS Central Facility Electronic Key Management System (EKMS)  ;D

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Offline Terry

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #3 on: July 12, 2017, 1913 UTC »
Good read, brings back some memories. Lots of technical information found here including the TD-2 equipment.
http://long-lines.net/tech-equip/index.html
Pieces of the TD-2 were plentiful after they started ripping them out. I had a couple of exciters for parts. Reminds me of the 416B planar triode which was used in the TD-2 as a low power amplifier in the transmitter chain. It also made a great low noise preamp at VHF and UHF. http://www.tubecollector.org/416b.htm  I still have one in the junk box.

Another interesting AT&T site is the old tropo scatter link from Florida City, FL to Cuba. It operated on four frequencies between 600 and 900 MHz. The antennas and buildings are still there on Card Sound Road south of town. Not much information on the web and no photos of the antennas but a good description here:
http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rd/pubs/reports/1959-21.pdf
The two antennas are really parabolic "sections" similar to these:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropospheric_scatter#/media/File:White_Alice_Site,_Tropospheric_Antennas_HAER_AK-21-A-2.jpg
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Terry

Offline Pigmeat

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #4 on: July 12, 2017, 2257 UTC »
Fair Radio had that stuff by the ton for years, Terry. It wouldn't surprise me if the still don't have pallets of it on the lot. They've probably got crates of MacArthur's pipe cleaners around that place somewhere.

Offline Josh

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #5 on: July 13, 2017, 1840 UTC »
There's one near here, still has the tower up and they've remodeled the place and kept it nice, no idear who owns it. Will have to see what antennae are installed next time I roll by.
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Offline ChrisSmolinski

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #6 on: July 13, 2017, 2148 UTC »
Fair Radio had that stuff by the ton for years, Terry. It wouldn't surprise me if the still don't have pallets of it on the lot. They've probably got crates of MacArthur's pipe cleaners around that place somewhere.

I was poking around the site, and I swear they still have stuff for sale that I remember from their catalogs back in the 80s.
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Offline redhat

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network
« Reply #7 on: July 13, 2017, 2335 UTC »
A friend of mine always talked about their store in Ohio.  He said they kept all the good stuff on the second floor.  I remember flipping through their catalogs in his shack when I was about 13 or so and he was trying to get me into amateur radio.

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Re: Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network. Oh yeah...
« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2017, 0218 UTC »
       One of the biggest, and highest sites of these old AT&T towers is in the old P.O. Box 452-land. You can see it for miles, and from hilltops more than 20 miles south of the PA border. It is said that either Lake Erie, or Ontario, can be be seen from there at the tower's top. (Don't know how true that is.) It would be a prime tower spot for FM, TV, or a repeater. What stops folks from setting up such a station on these AT&T towers? American Tower bought up a bunch of these towers and charge absolutely outrageous tower space prices, so they stand today bare and unused. Yep...
I was asked, yet another weird question, of how I would like to be buried, when I finally bite the big one. The answer was actually pretty easy. Face-down, like a certain historical figure in the late 1980's, (I will not mention who, but some of you will get it, and that's enough.) Why??? It would be a buial that will satify everyone: (1) My enemies will say that it will show me where to go. (2) On the same point, I can have my enemies kiss my butt. (3) It will temporarily give someone a place to park a bicycle. See??? A WIN / WIN for everyone.

 


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