One of ham radio's most notable stations, located in Newington, Conn., is celebrating a diamond anniversary this month.
W1AW, the legendary station of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), has turned 75 years old.
Steeped in history and tradition, W1AW has been transmitting messages from the same unassuming brick building since September 1938 – a time when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and Nazi Germany was beginning its European conquest.
The ARRL was founded by radio operator, businessman and inventor Hiram Percy Maxim, who saw the need to establish relay stations to handle messages over great distances, due to the wide banded and inefficient transmitters of the day.
(As an aside, Maxim was also the inventor of gun silencers and mufflers for gasoline engines.)
Maxim himself held the call sign W1AW (initially “1AW,” before the advent of prefix letters “W” and “K.”)
“In 1928, responsive to membership demand, the board of directors authorized an official HQ station, located somewhere away from HQ, and the hiring of an operator to attend it full time,” wrote George Hart, a former league staffer, in his 1988 article “A Concise History of the ARRL Headquarters Station.”
That station, W1MK, was installed in a National Guard building at Brainard Field, Hartford, and operated until it was destroyed by severe flooding in 1936 - the same year that Hiram Percy Maxim died.
Soon, ARRL officials agreed to build a new station on rural Newington property purchased for $2200, and Maxim's distinctive call letters were used as a tribute.
W1AW's dedication ceremony on Friday afternoon, September 2, 1938 was considered a gala affair, complete with state and local dignitaries and a nationwide broadcast on the CBS Radio Network.
Three quarters of a century later, the Newington neighborhood has gone from rural to upscale, and the ARRL offices and station blend flawlessly with the sylvan setting, marked only by an small sign and a narrow driveway leading to “headquarters.”
W1AW, with letters carved over the front entrance, resembles both a house and a fortified bunker, typical of transmitter buildings of the pre-World War II era.
In his detailed history, George Hart writes that W1AW was knocked off the air for four days during the Hurricane of 1938, after which emergency generators were obtained; and went silent for four years during World War II, when the FCC shut down all ham radio operations for military use of the frequencies.
It's present day mission is to transmit Morse code practice and ham radio bulletins worldwide in different formats and on many different frequencies.
Renovated several times over the decades, W1AW also maintains three well appointed radio studios for licensed visitors, with equipment donated by major manufacturers like Kenwood, Yaesu and ICOM.
Four radio towers - three at 60 feet and one at 120 feet - fill the open space between the station and the ARRL offices at the rear of the Main Street property.
On any summer day, its not unusual to see cars from a half dozen states in the W1AW parking lot, as amateur radio buffs make Newington a part of their travel plans.
Station tours are available, and licensed hams are invited to operate on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and from 1 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Membership fees and donations help pay the bills, and a W1AW endowment fund has been created to help with maintenance and improvements.
For a video tour and other operating information, visit the W1AW information site.