Interview Date: June 19, 1986
Interview Location: Anchorage, AK
Interviewer: Richard Barton
Collection: Penn State Collection
BARTON: This is Tape 1, Side A with Ed Parsons in Anchorage, Alaska, June 19, 1986. This is Richard Barton.
Ed, I’d like to begin if we can by your telling us about the situation right before you got into cable, the Astoria broadcasting situation what was that organization like and what were you doing with broadcasting before the cable development there?
PARSONS: During the Second World War the newspaper-owned broadcast station, owned by The Astoria Budget, was losing money. They petitioned the FCC to suspend operations for the duration of the war. At KGW in Portland, where I was working extra shifts as an engineer, I heard about it and I drove down to Fairbanks. I was well known in Fairbanks because I had operated a refrigeration/engineering/ contracting service before the war. I had closed it because I couldn’t get civilian equipment, so I moved my operations to the Navy control plant in Portland. I went down and talked about purchasing the station from the newspaper. They hesitated selling it; they’d rather just shut it down. I went to the two banks in Astoria where I had done business with my refrigeration contracting company and suggested that I could run the station profitably. Went back to Portland, came down in a couple of weeks and I found that the newspaper was interested in selling the control at the station. I was able to leave my job as superintendent in the Navy station. I had it all running properly, so I was able to leave and buy myself a broadcast station in Astoria.
Within thirty days, I had the station in the black and had raised the prestige of the station tremendously by hiring more qualified personnel. Also the revenue shot up. Doing live newscasts was all it took to bring the station up to a profitable basis. So after the war, the broadcast station was doing so well that I got into other interests, including the flying school, the airport, and managing the airport.
At a broadcast convention in Chicago, my wife first saw a television demonstration in the basement of the convention hotel. She informed me on the way home that she wanted a television. I explained that the only television station was in Chicago; there was no station on the west coast. Television reception was physically impossible. Television stations started to develop across the United States and at the convention the following year, I think that was in Chicago, it was announced that there was to be a television station built in Seattle by KRSC. She said, “Now I can have television.”
By working with my friend Bob Priebe, manager of the Seattle station, I arranged to be notified when the station was planning to broadcast a carrier. Throughout the summer of ’48 I had pretty high phone bills in conversing with Bob Priebe. But I was able to establish the fact that there was a signal and able to search different areas for the signal. I found a usable signal up on the top of the Astoria Hotel. Got permission to use it to put an antenna up there. With the initial installation, I picked the signal up on Channel 5 and transferred it to Channel 2 for transmission across the street to my penthouse.
BARTON: Could you explain exactly how you found that signal? The way those fingers came through there and the equipment you used.
PARSONS: The first requirement, of course, was a signal-test generator. I took an FM receiver, changed its frequency range and put a meter on it and a pair of headphones, so I could listen and tune both the video and the audio. You could hear the blanking bars and so forth. And you could hear audio in the earphones which I had attached across the speaker leads of the set. And I put a field strength meter across the discriminator to show how much signal was being received. I built up a couple of these units from small FM sets that were on the market at that time. I installed one of the units in the company car and the second unit in my own airplane. I established that there was what would be termed a light effect, that signals coming over a rounded hill will focus to a point beyond the hill, several miles beyond the hill depending on the shape of the hill. If you were inside the signal, you could pick up many times the signal than what you would as a direct signal from the broadcast station. This produced a very usable signal. I was able to show off the signals to the public when KRSC started broadcasting the first program on Thanksgiving Day in 1948.
BARTON: The nature of these signals and the way you found them was a part of some testimony you gave, wasn’t it? You offered to share this information with the FCC; you thought it might be of some interest to them?
PARSONS: Yes. I had discovered this phenomenon while doing police work with the state of Oregon. I had found that on the Dalles California Highway, east of the Cascade Range, there were spots where you could pick up the master station in Salem. I was curious enough to feel that I could pick up a possible signal from Seattle on television with this phenomenon of signals being focused down in valley areas beyond the mountains.
BARTON: Did anyone ever approach you with an offer to discuss this information, this phenomenon? Did the FCC show any interest in it? Did they follow up?
PARSONS: Oh, the FCC. I have some correspondence that you will be interested in. I’ll show it to you when we get to Fairbanks. I did write a paper, which you will have a copy, entitled “The How of Long Distance Television Reception.” That you will find interesting.
BARTON: Describe for us, the community at the time. What did Astoria look like in terms of populations, its economic growth characteristics, and so forth.
PARSONS: It had a population of about 10,000. Its main economy was processing ocean-caught fish. It is very near the mouth of the Columbia River. There was quite a boost in the economy when tuna was discovered a few years before off the Oregon coast. Big fish processing plants were built to take advantage of this bonanza. Before that it was thought that the tuna didn’t come that far north. After the War, this was a big income in the Astoria area.
BARTON: So we had a community that was fairly well off economically or well enough off to take advantage of television if it came? They bought the sets?
PARSONS: They bought the sets, let’s put it that way. Anywhere I could get a cable, they had a television set. There were a lot of comments, pro and con, about television coming to town. People who could get it, people who couldn’t, and so forth.
BARTON: So you got the signal at the antenna on the hotel?
BARTON: Then what happened?
PARSONS: Well, I strung a cable from the top of the hotel roof over to the three-story building where my penthouse was, and we had the television set in our living room. By the way, going back, after we heard Priebe was going to build a television station, I ordered a television set from Chicago. It was only a 9-inch, black and white set, and I bought it primarily because it was a hi-fi set AM/FM and a record player. I told the wife that we were wasting our money with the television addition, but at least I would try to get her television. It was a Howard set. I ordered it from Chicago and had it flown out to Astoria. Told her it would be a great waste of money, but if you want it, you can have it. Use it for furniture if nothing else.
BARTON: Do you remember how much that cost?
PARSONS: It wasn’t under a $1,000, I’ll tell you. And we weren’t that flush. She had to do without other things to have the set.
BARTON: She was really determined to have television.
PARSONS: She had been a newspaper girl. In the first place the airplane was a magic carpet, but then she saw television. She figured I was an engineer, so there was no reason why she shouldn’t have television. You probably have found yourself in that same position.
BARTON: Oh, yes. Who was working with you at this time? Were you doing all this yourself or were you starting to put a staff together?
PARSONS: I had a full broadcast crew including technicians working for me. My chief engineer of the broadcast station was Jimmy Titus. He had studied electronics in a class I taught during the war, training electronics people for the military. In one class I had about fifty students and I trained them so they were eligible for the first-class radio license. Titus got his license in that class and I hired him as chief engineer of the broadcast station. I devoted myself primarily to the management and development of the technology of the station. I personally built the actual amplifiers, converts, and so forth.
BARTON: I wonder if you could tell us about the important components that you developed at this point. Again, in as much detail as you can, would be very useful.
PARSONS: The first requirement was a receiver for the station. I designed and built a two-stage I-F amplifier and a converter to Channel 2 and a three-stage amplifier on Channel 2 as a signal-receiving unit. That was the basis for the start of signal reception before I transmitted across the street. And the receiver in the penthouse was a standard receiver at that time. I didn’t need any other amplifiers, converters, or anything else. You tuned to Channel 2 and there was the signal. I might add at this time, when I bought the radio station, I found that at least half the receivers in town were inoperative. This was one reason that the station wasn’t making money, so many people couldn’t receive it.
BARTON: These are AM receivers?
PARSONS: AM. There was a ham radio operator in town who had been paralyzed from polio, but he could get around on crutches. Hano Ripola was his name. So in back of the studio I had set up a radio repair shop, and I bought all the radio repair parts that I could find around the country. And I kept Hano busy. When he would get caught up on repairs I would announce over the radio that the radioman was able to take more sets to repair. And he repaired, probably, thousands of sets. So I had facilities and parts to work with. But I personally designed and personally assembled the original amplifiers and so forth for the system.
BARTON: So you picked up on Channel 5 and relayed it on Channel 2 to avoid interference…
PARSONS: Yes, with the reception of the signal.
BARTON: What other components of that system did you design?
PARSONS: The first problem was too many people coming into our apartment or penthouse. We literally lost our home. People would drive for hundreds of miles to see television. We had gotten considerable publicity, as I will show you. And when people drove down from Portland or came from The Dalles or from Klamath Falls to see television, you couldn’t tell them no. So I approached the hotel manager and suggested that it would be a simple matter to drop a cable down the elevator shaft and put a set in the lobby of the hotel. He thought that was a wonderful idea. So we did. A short time later, he asked me to remove the set because the lobby was so full people couldn’t get in to register. So I approached Cliff Poole, who owned a music store the next street over, and suggested maybe he would like to have a set. Yes, he would and he would buy the set, figuring this was a good addition to a music store. So Cliff Poole was really the first customer for cable TV. I sold him the wire and the necessary equipment and the output of this amplifier/convert gave an acceptable signal. I built the first splitter to split the signal. So he had this set in the music store. The broadcast station was only on the air a few hours a day, usually starting in the evening for a few hours. When Cliff closed the music store, he would put the TV set in the window. People would group around to see the television picture.
BARTON: Was there a speaker rigged up for the outside?
PARSONS: I rigged a speaker for his TV set, yes. Put it out front. In fact, we added a p.a. amplifier to get additional volume. Years before the war, I had built a police radio system for Astoria, which, of course, was a tremendous help. When I got the broadcast station, I could broadcast on-the-spot news, police news, and that made the station more listenable. And I was still maintaining the police radio sets. I had built all of the master transmitter and all the mobiles for the police department. At the time there was no national manufacturer of police radios. Each city built its own in the early days. That was days before Motorola, General Electric, RCA got into the police radio work. So the police chief said, “Ed, you’ve got to do something about that set down there at Cliff Poole’s. People are blocking the street and we are just not going to stand for it. That’s all there is to it.” I asked him for a suggestion of what we should do. He suggested that we had a servitor for the telephone cables, the power cables set the whole length of the main downtown.
BARTON: This is underground channels?
PARSONS: Yes. He suggested, “Why don’t you go down in the servitor and put the sets in the bars.” Every bar owner was anxious to have a television set. He would pay for the cable. I designed additional amplifiers on Channel 2 and put the signal down. Every bar in town had a television set. That solved that problem. Then people began to put pressure on to have cables in their homes, for their television sets. So that was another problem.
BARTON: How did you solve that? You’d get to the end of the block and then you had to cross and then you required another piece of equipment?
PARSONS: Well, we did that. We started out stringing wires across the streets as I mentioned. The city council looked askance to this type of business. As the cable system expanded we installed one amplifier on one side of the street where we had the cable, put another amplifier across the street, put an antenna on each side of the street, and transmitted the signal across the street, then ran house to house and covered a whole block. The people had amplifiers in their attics and in their upstairs rooms. Each person supplied the power for the amplifier. We ended up covering practically the whole town with cable.
Then I found better sources of signal on the side of a hill. Tested everywhere. There was absolutely no signal on Coxcomb Hill, the highest spot in town. There’s a 100 foot column up there with stairs all the way to the top. I packed a test set clear to the top of that column. There was no sign of signal. Grace and I were out testing one night and went across a highway bridge up on the side of the hill. We picked up a signal, took the test unit and found the best signal that we’d ever found was underneath the highway bridge. It was the focus of signals there. So we moved the whole master station up there and fed the whole cable network from there. Then later over in the west part of town we found another finger of signal. So the west part of town was wired from that second source or the second master receiver. We ultimately ended up covering practically all of the town, still without a franchise. And the city council just plain refused to grant us that franchise unless I could get on the power and light poles. Ma Bell absolutely refused to let us on the poles.
BARTON: What was their reason?
PARSONS: The communications position on the poles was their property.
BARTON: Were they willing to rent?
PARSONS: No, absolutely refused. And throughout the west it was the same thing. Different towns took different approaches. Aberdeen/Hoquiam, the railroad, the Southern Pacific had a railroad track going clear through both Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Harry Spence and Lew Goddard got the right to go through the town on the railroad poles. That’s the way we installed that system.
BARTON: I wonder if you could describe exactly your master receiving antenna in the first system.
PARSONS: I’ve got pictures of that in trade journals. We manufactured the antennas and sold them with the instructions on how to assemble them. We found that the fingers of signals hail seasonal changes, movement. I ended up designing quite a large antenna system to take into account the shifting signals, the shifting locations, which were probably due to foliage on the mountains. I originally started with multiple yagi antennas. And I developed the antennas extensively to improve signal levels. The first signals were usable, but by today’s standards they would not be acceptable. Never had complaints on the quality of the signals.
Just to get television was something.
BARTON: So by the time you put the second antenna in the western part of town, had you changed its design much?
PARSONS: Oh, yes. Take Aberdeen and Centralia. There I used the ultimate antenna that I manufactured and sold. Realize before we had covered all of Astoria, we started making installations. I trained an installation crew, and almost every broadcast owner in the west wanted to get into cable television. I had been doing engineering work for a lot of the broadcast stations. If they approached me, I would take my test gear and see if there was a usable signal in their area. For example, for Aberdeen/Hoquiam, it was five miles out of town on the railroad track that I found on the hillside above the railroad track we could pick up the usable signal.
BARTON: By this time did you have a formula for finding the signal or was it still random?
PARSONS: No, I had formulas.
BARTON: So you could go into any new location and pretty much predict where you should start to look.
PARSONS: Yes. Sometimes I was wrong though. I ran some tests down in the Medford area and Roseburg area. Couldn’t find a usable signal there using an airplane. I came in over Bend at 14,OOO feet with the monitor on. I dropped down slowly scanning the area to 2,OOO feet, decided there wasn’t any signal, shut the gear off, called for landing instructions, and landed. The station owner with his chief engineer came out. He had hired me to run the test to see if there were any signals. He met me at the airport with his chief engineer, a beautiful day. I reported to him, and I think he sighed a sigh of relief that cable wasn’t coming in to compete with him. But he asked me, “Well, now that you’re here, how about taking my engineer up with you and showing him how you run the tests?” “Sure. Be glad to.”
He got in the plane. I was using a little aerocoupe for testing, I had rigged an extra antenna and field-strength meter in. Realize there were no field-strength meters on the market in those days, no commercial meters. So I taxied down to the airport and while the engine was warming up, I turned the set on and explained how I adjusted it and how I ran the tests and so forth. And left it on as I took off. A couple of hundred feet in the air, I saw the needle flicker. I put the earphones on and heard snatches of audio coming in. So we zigzagged around and we found where there were signals coming in and it looked like, traced them with the airplane, that they might be hitting Powell Butte, the side of Powell Butte. So I landed and we called Astoria and I had a young blonde girl, I taught her to service TV sets and to run mobile tests. We called for her to come over and we ran the tests and we found that the signal was hitting the side of Powell Butte. A usable signal. So I reported it to them and they went ahead and put a cable system in. They bought the supplies from me. As far as I know at that time I was the only manufacturer of the equipment. And I have a price list, the original price list which you can make a copy of.
BARTON: At the point where you found this signal at Powell that we fought the battle for pole rights and franchises.
End of Tape 1, Side A
PARSONS: We had a problem after I began to get so much publicity. ASCAP wanted their fee. SESAC thought they should be paid a fee for everything that went on the cable. ASCAP was the problem area. And because I had a broadcast station I had an agreement with BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. BMI and SESAC didn’t make much noise, but ASCAP! I canceled my broadcast license with ASCAP for a whole year. Didn’t play a single ASCAP-licensed record at the station.
BARTON: What did that leave you with? What kind of music did you play?
PARSONS: I had BMI and SESAC and because SESAC was mostly western hillbilly, I had no complaints from the public at all. Of course, they were fairly unaware of the problem, too. I requested a letter from the broadcast stations for rights to use their signals in experimental programming. I was not charging for the signal. Everybody paid for their own installation and paid the power that ran the amplifiers. It was strictly a cooperative operation.
BARTON: How much would it have cost me if I had been a user of your system?
PARSONS: It’d run about $125 for the hookup and that was the only charge.
BARTON: You had already fought some problems in your broadcast station. You had hung wires to help with your remote broadcasts. There was some concern from the phone company about radio interference?
PARSONS: Well, that was something else. I had a failure in the line from the downtown studio to the broadcast station. It was a leased line from the phone company, a legitimate line, and they had a failure. So I dialed the number on the phone, and I used it as a broadcast line, a regular phone line. The phone company took exception to that. It was their fault, so I didn’t feel badly about it. But now it’s permitted to tie up a regular telephone circuit for a broadcast. There are no objections to it. I did it for years for remotes without too many complaints from the phone companies.
BARTON: So by the time you began to install cable in other municipal areas, what other pieces of equipment had you developed?
PARSONS: I first developed a single-channel amplifier. Hadn’t thought of broadband amplifiers then. One of the FCC engineers who was assigned to keep track of me, suggested I design a broadband amplifier that could handle more than one channel. So I did. It was his idea; it wasn’t mine.
BARTON: Is this Mr. Smith?
PARSONS: Yes, I think it was Mr. Smith. When I saw the first commercial cable line, each channel was a separate strip amplifier. That was the Jerrold amplifier. I finally saw one of them in the early ’50s. It was designed for four channels. I understand it was developed for feeding television into apartment buildings back in the east somewhere.
BARTON: When did you start developing the ability to carry the power on the line?
PARSONS: Aberdeen/Hoquiam was the first problem where power was not available. I had seven miles to bring the signal in. So the question was how was I going to get that power to these amplifiers, approximately one amplifier per mile. To build a power system out there would cost more than the cable system, and I could not put the power on the communications poles because there was no power position. So I designed a system to put 22O volts AC up on the coaxial cable to power the amplifiers plus the headend. And the system worked beautifully. Soon it became common to put the power at low voltage over the coaxial cable. I figured at a lower voltage I’d take too much of a voltage drop with all these amplifiers. I used four tube amplifiers, in-line amplifiers, and, of course, a front end that took probably 2OO watts. To get enough power, I designed around a 22O-volt AC system.
BARTON: Could you describe in some detail, the way you did for me yesterday, just how this cable was set up with this power going? You mentioned the choke…
PARSONS: Oh, applying AC or DC power to a cable is nothing more or less than a choke coil feeding the voltage into the cable so that you don’t short out the signal at the same time. Power on the cable won’t interfere with the signal because it’s a different frequency.
BARTON: Did you have any maintenance problems with the tube systems at this time?
PARSONS: Basically, no. The basic problem was that each owner of the system, outside Astoria, was anxious to get people on his system. They were making it commercially, even without the franchises out the railroad track. They could reach a block either side with cable from the main cable. I don’t know exactly what they were doing so far as the charges or financing in the other towns. But I know there at Aberdeen/Hoquiam, they were charging the people a couple of hundred dollars to hook up to the cable, and anyone along the railroad track could hook up. Some of the broadcast station owners carried enough weight in the small towns, of course, to hook people up without going through the franchise process.
BARTON: So you weren’t plagued with a lot of maintenance problems?
PARSONS: No. Once I put a system in and turned it over, the chief engineers of the broadcast stations were supposed to carry it on and get new customers. That meant income that more than paid for the cost of the installation. Periodically they would add cable without knowing how to impedance match. These fellows carried first-class licenses. They had taken an FCC exam specifying impedance matching, but they would ignore this when they put drop ons. They’d wire them on like you’d add lights to an electric circuit. The reflectant rays would first gray the picture. They’d add a few more on and it would take the whole system down. I’d get called. Go up there. You’d have to start from the front end because they would put dropoffs all along, figure out what they did, and readjust the whole system. It had actually become quite a nightmare to undo the damage that these supposed-broadcast engineers were doing. And it was years after cable started before enough technicians could understand what they were doing.
BARTON: Did they send people to you for training from other systems? Did you take on that burden?
PARSONS: Aberdeen sent their chief engineer down and later he became a foremost cable engineer of the northwest. He came down and learned what we were doing. At the moment I can’t think of his name, but Rogan Jones up there. He played it smart. He sent the man down and he really learned. These other poor fellows had to learn on the job. When I’d go and get their system back in operation, they would learn something more each time.
BARTON: I want to be sure I understand the progression, now. After Astoria, you went to Aberdeen. Was that next, to develop that system?
PARSONS: We will have to refer to the newspaper stories because it was all over the northwest, the tri-cities Pasco-Kennewick stuff that was somewhere in the early stages of cable television. I don’t remember where Lewiston came in. I know an engineer from Bellingham came down and spent a couple of weeks with us to see what we were doing. I didn’t deny anyone access to all the knowledge because they were customers for what we were building.
BARTON: Had you given your company a name yet, the company that was producing these parts?
PARSONS: We organized several along with different people for different phases. The manufacturing of parts incorporated as Astoria Electronics. But I joined in a corporation with Leroy McCall and the attorney that represented us. I was in several corporations in the different set ups.
BARTON: So you were still doing a lot of the designing?
PARSONS: I was doing ALL of the designing.
BARTON: … all of the designing. And then you would contract people such as metal workers, sheet metal shops, and so forth …
PARSONS: Yes, I’d design the chassis and then they would turn them out by the hundreds.
BARTON: Now, were you aware of developing interest in cable beyond the northwest at that point?
PARSONS: I was not aware of any other developments until I heard of Jerrold in the 195Os. Of course by that time I had written stories in the trade press, as well as an article in Popular Mechanics that went worldwide. I was swamped with letters from thousands of people all over the world and in all languages.
BARTON: The first thing that occurs to me after I realize what you began to develop here is what kind of patent rights did you seek? Protection for the equipment that you were developing? Could we run through that?
PARSONS: I have some correspondence that you will find interesting. Without the correspondence I can’t recall the details, but basically I couldn’t find a patent attorney that could understand what I was doing. So I decided to drop it.
BARTON: They lacked the technical knowledge?
PARSONS: Well, the general theory. I wasn’t really developing anything new. The amplifier technology was common knowledge. Everything was available; the knowledge was available to engineers. It wasn’t any breakthrough to design a new piece of equipment. The Heterodyne principle had been patented years before and the patent had run out by Armstrong. So you wouldn’t know what to patent, actually. The biggest single problem was that everything was vacuum tubes; the transistor had not been invented yet. And the difficulty of powering things was a major problem.
BARTON: What about the problem of hanging stuff outside? Had past experience, past jobs, helped prepare you for how to protect these instruments?
PARSONS: Yes, there was no problem. The last time I was down in Raymond, Washington, I saw some of the boxes up on the poles yet. I don’t suppose they are using the old equipment, but it was still there a few years ago.
BARTON: Some of the literature that covers your work mentions a Mr. Sloane and Mr. Roman. I wonder if you could talk about your relationship with them.
PARSONS: Roman was the manager of the Firestone store, an advertiser on my broadcast station. Television got going in Astoria. He couldn’t talk Firestone into TV sales. Firestone sold all kinds of appliances, but he could not talk them into stocking television sets. So he quit them and came to me, said, “I’d like to start up an appliance store and promote television. Carry television.” So I said, “Go ahead. I’ll back you.” So I financed him into the appliance business. He sold televisions like mad. Gordon Sloane was the attorney for my broadcast station. He helped organize the different companies and corporations and tried to keep me out of legal trouble.
BARTON: Did he?
PARSONS: I never got sued. I would say that’s doing pretty good.
BARTON: Anyone else that was associated with you in the early stages of cable and not mentioned in the available literature that you think should be?
PARSONS: Well, Leroy McCall and different people that I built cable systems for. There was nobody else closely connected except Jimmy Titus, the chief engineer of the broadcast station. Then I hired my son-in-law and he helped on the pole work.
BARTON: What’s his name?
PARSONS: Davis. In fact, I have a Father’s Day card there from him.
BARTON: Where’s Mr. Titus now? Do you have any idea?
PARSONS: He’s in Astoria. After cable broadcast days, he went into the plywood business. And I think he’s retired from that.
BARTON: What about Mr. Sloane and Roman?
PARSONS: I have no idea where Sloane is. Roman died.
BARTON: Meanwhile your radio station was continuing along during all this development?
PARSONS: Well, I had a problem in the radio station. The owner of the newspaper wanted a chunk of the cable deal. I refused him and sold my stock in the broadcast station. Then I built another broadcast station in town, a competing broadcast station.
BARTON: The call letters of the first one was KAST.
BARTON: Then the second, what were the call letters?
PARSONS: KVAS. They are both in operation today.
BARTON: And the second one you built was both AM and FM?
PARSONS: No, it was strictly AM.
BARTON: Strictly AM. Was it daytime only operation or was it twenty-four hour?
PARSONS: No, it’s a twenty-four hour operation. There was room for a second broadcast station in town by the time I put it in.
BARTON: Was that fairly successful?
PARSONS: As long as I devoted time to it, yes.
BARTON: Let’s get into the whole issue of franchise and local government, and how that began to relate to your cable operation, and what kind of problems developed.
PARSONS: I decided that I wasn’t going to accept any more installation in Astoria or in any other town. I made up my mind. I’d put my energies in other directions. So six men came into my office in Astoria and wanted me to consider putting a cable system in at Kelso/Longview. I told them, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to make any more installations. It’s just too much hassle.” “Well, what’s the main hassle?” I said, “Poles, pole rights. Can’t get on the poles.” This is two or three years after cable’s started. So the leader of these men said, “I don’t think that would be a problem in our community.” I said, “How come?” “We’re the Board of Directors of the PUD (Public Utility District). We own every pole in town.” I said, “I still think you have a problem because I don’t think that you have the right to the communications position on your poles. AT&T has it.” “Well, we’ll go back and we’ll see.” I got a call the next day, said “You’re right. AT&T has a right on those poles according to our attorney, but we are going to ask AT&T for right to put coaxial cable on them.” Their attorney called me a few days later, “AT&T refused us the right to put the cables on our own poles, but in reviewing the contract there’s a thirty day cancellation clause. We are notifying AT&T to get every telephone wire off our poles in thirty days.”
I got a call from Washington, D.C., “Would you be agreeable to meet in Portland with representatives of all the power companies and telephone companies in the northwest to resolve this pole line problem?” We met three days in the Newhethben Hotel. We hammered out a pole line contract. And I agreed to it. I have a copy. Then Gordon Sloane applied for a franchise for Astoria.
BARTON: By then Astoria was out of your hands?
BARTON: Sloane representing you?
PARSONS: Sloane representing me. But after taking some hard knocks from Eric Hockey, one of the commissioners, we were granted a franchise. I have a copy of that. They should be museum pieces.
BARTON: It’s pretty clear to understand what AT&T’s concern was with poles. But what do you think is the problem with franchises consistently? Franchises were a recurring problem in cable television in the early days. I’m wonder what the sticky wicket was.
PARSONS: I think it was purely the pole line rights. Nothing else. But have you seen the new court opinion?
BARTON: Yes, I wanted to ask what you thought about that? It essentially suggests no exclusive franchise for municipalities.
PARSONS: That’s right. An interesting play. I don’t see how they can have viable multiple franchises. Although there are power franchises right here in Anchorage, half of the city is on Chugach Electric, and other parts of it are the municipal utilities. You might find one block on one outfit and one block on the other. There’s been a lot of talk about going to a single utility.
BARTON: Well, you know, in some of the larger cities it’s not just pole rights that are a concern on the franchise. It’s things like public access, promises by the cable system to provide a range of services and so forth.
PARSONS: That is a very interesting area. The different people applying for franchises for different areas of town. They promise a lot of give-away channels and everything else. I was mixed up with a group that was applying for a central area of Portland, and I’ll supply you some of the material on that. They didn’t get the franchise, but it was a minority-control deal. I did considerable engineering on it and I appeared at the public hearing. It was just an interesting experience. I didn’t make any money out of it. But it brought me up to date on the manipulations of the city franchise-givers.
BARTON: Why didn’t they get it?
PARSONS: I don’t know.
BARTON: If we bracket the years that you were involved in cable, what would they be? From the very first search for that signal down through the point where you moved on to other things.
PARSONS: Well, I would say early 1948. I don’t know when that cable convention was. Probably I can find the date of that cable convention.
BARTON: The Chicago convention?
BARTON: ’46-’47 is mentioned in the literature. You went to both of them.
PARSONS: Yes, I could check my pilot’s log book, too, probably verify the exact dates. From the time that we got back from that convention, I started rigging test gear to see if we could get a signal. I think the first test signals probably began in possibly February. And I started to test, design, and rebuild. And I think Jimmy and I spent every weekend building a new antenna or amplifier or something to be ready for the next time they were testing the transmitter. In those days they had to run a lot of tests because it was so new. Putting a broadcast station on the air was a slow and tedious process.
BARTON: So what was the last year you were involved in cable?
PARSONS: Last week.
BARTON: The last week. Oh, of course, cable in the larger sense. What about the community antenna type?
PARSONS: The last cable system was initially fed from a VTR, and that was a Point Barrow, Alaska.
BARTON: If we forecast in the future, consider some of the problems on pole rights and so forth. Do you see any technology that’s going to make that not an issue? Is there any way to get around the need for poles? Is there a technology on the horizon that you think will make cable television significantly different?
PARSONS: Well, around most of the cities it’s going to be buried. The cable that goes by here is right out in front along with the power wire and the phone wires. They are all compatible.
We have fiber optics coming into the picture both for telephone and for television. I think the most promising thing from cable right now is handling computer transmissions. The regular telephone wires will not handle the higher speed computers, and that’s a real handicap. The amount of time that you have to wait at an airport for the transmission signal to confirm a reservation is sizable. Cable systems could, along with satellites, make that instantly available. Saving a lot of time for both the customer and the airline.
BARTON: When did you begin to talk with people in other parts of the country who worked in cable? Begin to compare notes and ideas and experiences?
PARSONS: As a broadcaster, I attended the broadcast meetings and so forth. Cable television and television generally were pertinent issues at that time.
BARTON: So at those conferences it was a routine matter?
PARSONS: Yes. I was quite a person to attend business conferences or conventions.
BARTON: You flew to all of them?
PARSONS: Yes. Had my own airplane, so transportation was not a problem.
BARTON: And that’s when Grace saw that Coca Cola demonstration?
BARTON: And became fascinated with television?
BARTON: What do you think about the discussion of what was the first cable installation? In the literature there is a lot of confusion about whether John Walson’s in Pennsylvania was or whether yours was in Astoria? What’s your response?
PARSONS: I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. I didn’t hear of his work until somewhere in the later ’50s. So as far as I’m concerned he might have been years ahead of me. I have no way of knowing.
BARTON: Have you ever met him?
PARSONS: Oh, yes. Quite a few times at broadcast conventions and Pioneer meetings. But it’s nothing to me if he was first. Fine. I don’t make any claim to being first because the technology was there for anybody to get it. I did it simply because of a demanding wife.
BARTON: That seems to be your approach to things in general. The problem is there and you try to solve the problem.
PARSONS: When there’s a problem, there’s an answer. So it’s to solve it and get on to something else.
BARTON: I wonder if we could just go back to the first days of the Astoria cable operation, if you could talk about the peoples’ response to it in a little more detail. What did people think of the ability to receive television, and how did it affect their lives? What kind of feedback did you get?
PARSONS: I have a lot of newspaper stories that were printed in trade journals and so forth in Fairbanks, which I will show you. I think they will answer your question and be very interesting. The question about children, the effect on their schooling, things like that. Diverse opinions.
BARTON: I remember one surprising response. A teacher said she thought television was wonderful. That it helped students understand the world. That’s very different from what you hear now.
PARSONS: It had a tremendous effect of bringing the people of Barrow or Anaktuvuk Pass or Arctic Village into the present century. But pro and con articles on the effect of the people in Astoria were written for years.
BARTON: How did the other media respond to it in Astoria? Were they threatened by it? Did they see it stealing their audiences?
PARSONS: No, I wasn’t. I owned the broadcast station. You’ll find in the newspaper stories a lot of interesting things. I can remember the headlines, “Airplane Phones Newsmaker, Honest.” This is big headlines. I had the first telephone in an airplane. And it was big news when I was circling overhead and I decided to call the newspaper. It made headlines.
BARTON: What kind of costs were associated with getting this company started? Was it overwhelming? I know your approach is to use what’s available and to make things very cost efficient.
PARSONS: I had everything I needed to put the test gear together and everything else.
BARTON: That’s a good thing because there was no place you could send away for it at that point.
PARSONS: No, there wasn’t any gear available on the market, you could say that. The FM receivers, however, were available.
End of Tape 1, Side B
BARTON: Ed, as you know, we have contacted Fred Goddard and because of his recent illness, we can’t talk to him at any great length. He suggested to us that you knew a great deal about his work in cable and that you and he had worked together. And I wonder if you could begin about how you worked with Fred, what that led to, and then as much as you can recall about his own work in cable after your collaboration.
PARSONS: I was contacted by the owner of the station, Harry Spence. He and Fred contacted me and said they were interested in putting a cable system in Aberdeen/Hoquiam if there was a signal available. And I told them about the pole problem. They told me, “Well, there’s a railroad.” They had contacted a railroad, and they could see that there would be no problem with getting through the two towns. So I flew up and ran some preliminary tests. The road didn’t go near the railroad. It takes separate routes out of town. I found an acceptable signal about seven miles out on the railroad. So I informed them that this would be okay. They could put in a cable system and feed from this spot and they’d get satisfactory pictures.
There were no power lines within several miles of this site where the signal was, so a conventional front end that I had developed could not work unless there was a source of power. The problem was how to get power out to this site and to the amplifiers coming in. I designed the system because it was a one-channel system to reduce the frequency. It was the same as I was doing in Astoria except to reduce it to the lowest possible frequency to cut the line loss and to cut the number of amplifiers required. Then I redesigned my line amplifiers. I had installed previous line amplifiers in houses, but now I needed amplifiers that I could hang on the cable, on the messenger. So I redesigned that. We built a series of amplifiers. Lower frequency. Then I devised a method of feeding. We used 220 volts of AC to feed out the cable to run the line amplifiers and the headend. A very interesting installation and it worked fine.
In putting it in, we had to go through the town of Cosmopolis. There was a threat of a court action. Somebody in Cosmopolis was interested in putting in a cable system. First the police officer of Cosmopolis said that we couldn’t go through the town and that they were going to get a court order to keep us from it. So we quit that section of the cable. Then Saturday morning through Sunday night we took the whole crew in and ran the cable through the town of Cosmopolis. We knew the court would be closed and they could not get an injunction. The only mishap is that somebody forgot to put a splice where the cables come together in about the middle of the town. I went back after midnight and climbed the pole and spliced that cable. So we completed that installation and got it running into the first town Aberdeen. And then I turned the cable system over to them, and they ran it. I lost contact with them. After I built the systems, I turned them over. Once I was called back to Aberdeen/Hoquiam. I don’t remember the nature of the problem, probably the same old problem of not understanding the impedance matching.
While I was working on that, a call came in from the tri-cities. They needed me over there badly. There was a hell of a west coast storm. I took off to go to the tri-cities about ten o’clock at night, I think it was, in the dark, in the storm. The only navigational equipment I had was the aircraft radio. I had no automatic direction finder or anything else like that in those days. You used the AM signals from the beam. If you got an A-dot-dash, you were on one side of the leg of a beam and if you got an N-dash-dot, you were on the other side. If it was a steady tone, you were on the beam. So I took off directly east. I knew I had to go up high enough to get above Mt. Rainier, that was the highest obstruction. If I remember right, that was 14,000 feet. It was a tough bumpy ride and I had a 210 Stinson, it wasn’t a Voyager. Somewhere en route to the tri-cities, I must have passed out. I remember I was in a hell of a storm. I came to and the storm had disappeared. I listened over the different radio frequencies and I couldn’t find a beam of any kind to guide me. I thought I was on course toward the tri-cities, but I wasn’t. I finally spotted a rotating beacon, the green and white of an airport. So I headed for that. I landed. The engine sputtered when I landed. I was out of gas. It was about 1:00 in the morning. I walked over to the weather station and asked where I was. They told me I was in Redmond, Oregon. That’s over in the east of the mountains in Oregon. My airplane had probably flown south at least a hundred miles that I wasn’t conscious of.
So I was pulled into the gas pit and refueled. I took off then on a new course to Pasco, the tri-cities. Landed there about 8:00 in the morning. The cable people picked me up. I found their troubles, straightened them up. Probably was there for two days, something like that until I located their problems. Took off and headed back to Astoria. I ran into icing. The propeller iced up in the Columbia River Gorge. I made it on through, however, and got to the Astoria airport. Went in and ended up in the hospital. Complete physical break down. The doctor ordered no visitors because people would call me when they had trouble with their sets, all over the northwest. So he ordered the phones disconnected. No visitors. I spent a couple weeks in the hospital.
The doctor came in on Saturday while Grace was there. He said, “I’ll let him out of the hospital tomorrow if you’ll get him out of the country where he can’t be reached or bothered.” So Grace came to the hospital the next morning, Sunday morning, put me and a packed bag into the airplane and said, “You’re suppose to go to Vancouver now and stay with my mother for the next thirty days. Nobody’s going to know where you are.” I took off from Astoria. My next landing was Sidney. I was too weak to get out of the airplane, and the customs officers helped me out. They got a cab for me, and I went in a hotel at Victoria. I called up my mother-in-law and told her I loved her, but I wasn’t coming to spend thirty days with her. I found out that up the Canadian coast at that time there was no airport within the range of the airplane. I wasn’t about to turn around and go back. Had to figure out something. The next airport on the coast from Port Hardy is Annette Island, Alaska, and it was a good thirty minutes to an hour flying beyond the possible range of the airplane. Even if I had taken gas in the baggage compartment, I would have had to land somewhere. The only thing flying the coast was float planes. So I got out the maps and figured out that Sam Point was within the range of the airplane. That’s out on the Queen Charlotte Islands, about three and a half hours flying over water but it would be a possible route. You should realize that my mental capacity had deteriorated, mainly from overwork, strain from installing cable systems, and flying around and getting in trouble at night.
BARTON: Was part of that strain the hassle of franchise and …
PARSONS: The total deal. And realize I had gotten the city franchise, pole line rights. This Longview deal had broken the bottleneck with the phone companies and everything. So the pressure had been terrific. I had more possible customers than RCA or Ma Bell or anybody could have taken care of. Didn’t have sense enough to say no, I guess.
I had been up the Alaska Highway with an airplane group in 1946. So Grace figured out when her mother called her that I was headed for Alaska. But in those days nobody flew the coast route on wheels. It was all seaplanes. I took off from Port Hardy. Filed a flight plan to Sam Point and about every thirty minutes I’d get a call from Port Hardy, “Are you all right? Where are you?” Made it into Sam Point, I think, with twenty or thirty minutes of fuel to spare. Refueled and then it was a comparatively easy hop back from the islands to Annette.
Because of my connections with west coast airlines in Oregon and Washington, I was pretty well known in the aviation industry. And the only flyers were Pan American pilots. They were flying DC-4s up to Alaska, and this was a refueling stop and a pilot change location between Alaska and Seattle. I identified myself and they put me up in their pilot quarters. I spent the night there. They refueled me. Took off the next morning and I went to Juneau non-stop. I knew the broadcast manager in Juneau at the broadcast station. Checked in with him, and I spent three days there just recuperating before I decided to go on to Fairbanks. I landed in Fairbanks the sixth day of April 1953.
BARTON: At this time, what cable operations and broadcast operations had you left in Oregon? What did you own and what did you not own at that point?
PARSONS: Oh, I had the broadcast station and the cable system. Grace was down there. She was running the system then. As far as I was concerned I had thirty days to get back. So I landed and refueled at, I think, Northway and again at Fairbanks. And I flew to Circle Hot Springs. That’s a wonderful place. I got there about 3:00 in the morning. I couldn’t find a soul around. There was a davenport in the lobby of the hotel at Circle Hot Springs, so I laid down and fell asleep. They woke me in the morning for breakfast. I had been to Circle Hot Springs in 1946, so I knew what the facilities were. And I had talked to Grace about it–I was going to go back to Circle Hot Springs one of these days. So she pretty well figured out where I would end up.
While I was there recuperating, I found out that they had absolutely no communications and for over six months a year the road was closed, so you couldn’t drive up. The only way to get there in the winter was by plane or dog team. That hot springs and stuff was really what I needed. By the time my thirty days were up, I flew back into Fairbanks. When I was up here in 1946, I had gone to Wien Alaska Airlines. I was taking care of the radios on all the airplanes coming up here, fourteen planes. I needed some parts and needed facilities for repairs so I went to Wien’s and asked if they had a radio shop. Wien’s had a mechanic shop for their airplanes and I made some emergency radio repair there. So I knew a little about Wien’s when I visited them in 1953 and talked to them about the lack of communications. Yes, they desperately wanted communications, but they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t have radiomat anything.
I decided to fly around Alaska a little bit. Immediately I found out unless you had gas caches throughout Alaska, you’d quickly run out of fuel and couldn’t get back. I approached Wien’s with the idea: I’ll install radios around the villages; how about you supplying the gas for my airplane. I had discovered over at Circle Hot Springs a two-way radio. Before World War II, Pan American Airlines originated in Alaska and they did have a semblance of a radio network. Their old transmitters were still lying around all over Alaska, but none of them were operable. So by repairing these sets, I was able to get limited communications.
I found out that right after the war a subsidized airline, mail subsidy, was entitled to pick up, on a year’s permit, surplus radio equipment from the CAA which is now the FAA. So I came on down to Anchorage, went to the CAA, told them about this law, and I said, “I want some of your equipment.” Well, they were under the gun because here’s a scheduled airline flying without any radio gear, any communications. The CAA was under orders to help the airlines get the required communications. So they made equipment available to me to set up a network throughout Alaska.
I figured I’d go back to Astoria in the fall. But after a couple of months of installing this network, Wien’s offered me a job title, and that made me think twice. Noel Wien, who had originated the airline, had been in the states long enough to know what airline communications was all about. At the end of the work day, he would pick me up and drive me into town. I didn’t have a vehicle. We would stop and have a drink on the road. I finally realized he was just trying to stall me, keep me from leaving him. So winter came and I was still here. Wien’s gave me a vehicle, a pickup truck. And I kept delaying my departure until spring.
BARTON: Spring of what year?
PARSONS: ’54. And I’m still here. End of story.
BARTON: Well, how did you resolve all of your holdings in Oregon. When was that racked up?
PARSONS: Grace stayed down there two years before I talked her into coming to Alaska. She very reluctantly let loose of everything. I felt I let a lot of people down because it was a good two years before people were trained well enough to find their own troubles. One thing that convinced me to move up here, was that Wien Airlines had two C-46s, that’s a big freight plane. But they didn’t have maintenance facilities here and they had to fly to Seattle about every three months for scheduled maintenance. By using these planes, I was able to bring all my radio gear and other equipment up here free of charge on those planes.
BARTON: So by ’55 you pretty much wrapped up your holdings in Oregon?
BARTON: What happened to the cable system, specifically?
PARSONS: Cox Cable System bought the cable system. I don’t think I realized a nickel out of it.
BARTON: So, clearly, cable wasn’t a money-maker for you?
PARSONS: Never had been. After spending a month up here, I decided that I wouldn’t go back to the rat race. In fact, I actually felt that if I did go back, it would kill me. I couldn’t have kept up that pace any longer.
BARTON: Before we get into the fascinating story of the system for the polar flights, I wonder if we could talk about how you began to develop cable. Took all of your cable experience from Oregon and begin to work on the installation of cable systems in the villages and in the regions of Alaska and the Arctic. Could you begin to trace that history?
PARSONS: Wien’s was aware that I had started in the cable business and the director of operations for Wien’s Airlines, Bud Hagburg, approached me about putting a cable system in at Barrow, and the owner of the taxi in Nome approached me about putting a cable system in Nome.
BARTON: About when was this?
PARSONS: Both of them were about 1955. I supervised the installation of both of them. Later in Nome, the taxi operator sold the cable to the owner of the theater who dismantled the cable system because it was competition to the theater. In Barrow, the same cable system exists today. I taught two young Eskimo boys, young men, how to make up coax connectors and hook up coaxial systems. By this time transistorized amplifiers and stuff were available. Distributorships in Seattle were available and I could buy everything I needed for the cable systems. So we didn’t have to build amplifiers, splitters, or anything else. And both of them, Barrow and Nome, worked from video recorders.
BARTON: So your first systems used prerecorded materials?
BARTON: Did you have to develop anything at all for these systems?
BARTON: No design work?
PARSONS: No. The whole design work was in the communication networks.
BARTON: Who paid for the system at Barrow? Where did the money come from?
PARSONS: The commercial manager, traffic manager, Bud Hagburg and the owner of a restaurant and the theater in Barrow. One of the Hobson boys, I can’t remember his first name. The two of them financed the materials and I supervised the installation.
BARTON: Was this a profit-making system?
PARSONS: It was intended as a profit-making system and it’s still there today, so I assume that it hasn’t lost money. It has passed through several hands. It’s now owned by the native corporation.
BARTON: What kind of video content was in the early stages of the system?
PARSONS: There was a television station in Anchorage by that time and we recorded in the television station here, flew the tapes to Barrow, played them back over the cable.
BARTON: What was the scheduling like on that system? Just one part of the day you could use it or…
PARSONS: I didn’t follow very closely once it was in and operation.
BARTON: Did you have any problems there? Did they have any problems with it even though it was a taped system? Anybody complain about it?
BARTON: Any franchise problems?
PARSONS: No, there was no franchise problems. The power was generated up there by the VIA bureau in the affairs. You had the native hospital. Strictly a native Eskimo village.
BARTON: So this system and the one in Nome were pretaped systems.
BARTON: What’s happened to the one in Nome? You mentioned that the owner dismantled that because he owned the theater. When was that?
PARSONS: I don’t remember when they dismantled it, but there is another cable system in Nome now.
BARTON: And you didn’t have anything to do with that when they replaced it?
BARTON: What was the next step that you were involved in after these first pretaped systems?
BARTON: Yes, television, cable systems, and all that.
PARSONS: Oh, it was after the satellites came in. I installed several systems in the exploration camps and the remote oil camps.
BARTON: Could you describe the system that you developed in conjunction with satellites?
PARSONS: In the remote locations all the original communications were by HF radio, high frequency radio, and it was intermittent and sporadic at best. But it was the only source of communications. I first built a network for Wien Airlines. And we used that network for everything. It was characteristic of a statewide election not to have the election returns in from all the villages up to a month after the election. The mail planes flew to the villages and picked up the returns, and some of the villages had only one or two trips a month. Many times they did not know the results of an election for considerable periods of time. So, the Fairbanks News Monitor approached me with the idea of using the aeronautical net. Wien’s aeronautical net had received considerable publicity, and by this time I had a radio transmitter at every village. So it was a practical way to get the returns in. But because this was an aeronautical net, you couldn’t legally put the information over the air. So I petitioned the FCC for permission to gather election returns. And they granted it. Well, we got the election returns the same evening as the election. Everybody was impressed.
Then we petitioned the FCC to do kinds of communications over this aeronautical net because it was the only means of communications. They granted these permits one after another. I ran into the retired FCC administrator here a month ago. He’s retired in San Diego, but he comes up here every summer. And he said I made his job very interesting, handling all these requests to do things that weren’t in the book.
BARTON: Somewhere along the line I want to talk to you about translators. Is now a good time to do that, in your involvement with translators?
PARSONS: The real origination of the translators was radiating the signal across the street down in Astoria, Oregon. Then I was requested to build a pickup that would send signals from remote locations to groups of houses where a cable system wasn’t practical. We attempted to license these transmitters. The FCC rejected the licenses, but the people took the responsibility. I built the equipment and they were running all over the west. The FCC made some efforts to close some of them down. And, of course, if you take television away from a group of people, you’ve got a fight on your hands. After the first few attempts they quit trying to enforce the requirement, but took the position they didn’t have the authority to license them which is probably true. It took twenty years for Congress to authorize the licensing.
BARTON: So did you invent the translator?
PARSONS: I used the first ones.
BARTON: Was that patented?
BARTON: That was just picked up? That technology or that idea was just picked up by others and…
PARSONS: Well, that translator idea is nothing but a repeater. Repeaters have been used since the first days of radio.
BARTON: But you were the first to use it for television?
PARSONS: As far as I know.
BARTON: And then it was just picked up as kind of a general routine?
PARSONS: Yes. I have a memo from the owner of Northern Television that started the installation of translators up here saying that at the first translator meeting he attended the speaker introduced the meeting with a story about the real origination of translators, was rather unknown, but he understood that a man by the name of Ed Parsons had first used this in the west.
End of Tape 2, Side A
PARSONS: And Arty Aberck included a copy of that speech. In the letter to me he says, “I think you’d be interested in this.”
BARTON: Now, before we leave the “lower 48” and go back into your experiences in Alaska, is there anything that we’ve forgotten. Anything you developed, any people you worked with, any system that we’ve overlooked?
PARSONS: Until we go through those newspaper reports, I can’t say.
BARTON: Okay. I’d begun to ask you about satellite-assisted cable systems and you suggested that we were jumping the gun. Where should we pick up after you introduced the pretape systems?
PARSONS: The satellites didn’t come in for many years. It was many years of work up here before the satellite. And the first satellite receptions that I knew about in Alaska were over at the geophysical institute at the University of Alaska. They had rigged a series of antennas, not dishes, and were picking up the radiation from the satellites. I heard about it. I was not interested in the satellites or in the early days of satellites in Alaska. I was interested when I first inquired about getting satellite reception in Barrow. I was told emphatically, that it was impossible. That is if we installed a parabolic antenna 90 feet in diameter we might get some sporadic reception. So I devoted myself to the development of communications: radio beacons, navigational facilities, and so forth.
BARTON: So you temporarily took the advice of the memo and moved on to different things?
PARSONS: That’s right. So until the days of the exploration of the petroleum reserve, I didn’t bother myself at all with it. I followed the development, but I didn’t get involved.
BARTON: Approximately what year did you look at that antenna system at the University and began to think about this idea?
PARSONS: Well, I knew the people over at the geophysical institute and what they were doing. I can’t recall the names of the people right at the moment, but I will recall them. They were doing a lot of research on it.
BARTON: In the mid-’50s?
PARSONS: In the mid-’50s, yes.
PARSONS: Yes. I don’t think anybody realized that there were these possibilities.
BARTON: So after you started working on communication development, at what point did you come back to the satellite idea?
PARSONS: I didn’t come to the satellite idea until I started the Pet-4 Program.
BARTON: Could you pick that up and describe how you worked with that?
PARSONS: Well, we had a letter in ’76 from Washington, D.C., saying that it was impossible. But they hired me to get communications in the Pet-4. I explored the possibilities again and RCA had bought the Alaska Communications franchise from ACS, the Army Communications Corps. Previous to this, all of Alaska’s communications were through ACS. And that was a sporadic deal. I’ll show you the proposal that RCA put out to provide communications for the whole state. They called for bids. Many companies bid it, but the bid was never let. In the meantime, the state got into the act, decided to put satellite dishes in the villages that would theoretically pick up the satellites. And the state bought earth stations from RCA for most of the villages in central and southeast Alaska. This replaced the old single sideband HF networks that were providing communications around the state. One of the jobs that I contracted from U.S. Public Health was to install 125 single sideband HF transmitters in 125 villages in Alaska. That was strictly to handle medical communications, the whole network. I did apply to the FCC for a special emergency frequency for Alaska, and it was granted. This is the stuff that I want to show you in Fairbanks. When the FCC administrator says I made his life interesting, I have a hunch I did.
I put NAV-AIDs in practically all of the villages, non-directional radio beacons, so that instrument flying became possible throughout the northern half of Alaska.
BARTON: So where was the first use of the satellite dish to pick up video signals?
PARSONS: I don’t know. It wasn’t Fairbanks. But I think the first dishes were put in by RCA at these villages. Bought for and paid for. And one of the professors at the geophysics institute at the University of Alaska was hired as the engineer to design the statewide system which is still in operation today.
BARTON: And what’s the first one that you installed for video?
PARSONS: That was Camp Lonely.
BARTON: Could you describe that system?
PARSONS: This was for the oil exploration of the Pet-4 reserve and we put in a total of five earth stations. They were called transportable earth stations. They were put in strictly for telephone purposes. Then I added television reception simultaneous with the two-way telephone circuits over the earth stations.
BARTON: When did you work on the Camp Lonely installation?
PARSONS: I would have to look that up. I could come up with the contract. Give you the date.
BARTON: Did you have to design anything for this application?
PARSONS: Nothing but the foundations. The station was complete.
BARTON: So you had a dish being used both for telephone and for television?
PARSONS: We had six channels, six telephone circuits plus two television channels in each site.
BARTON: And what satellite was involved for that first?
PARSONS: We first were picking up a Canadian satellite. America didn’t have a satellite suitable for the area. Then RCA put up a Aurora I and all the dishes were switched over to Aurora I.
I haven’t been as involved in the satellite field as many other people in Alaska.
BARTON: So, the Camp Lonely system was used primarily by Americans?
PARSONS: Yes, strictly government, USGS.
BARTON: What was the first installation of live video pictures from satellites that served the native population?
PARSONS: I think that was the state network. It was designed, I think, almost entirely by the professor from the University. I can’t take any credit.
BARTON: Okay. But you have installed systems for natives that didn’t exist before.
PARSONS: Oh, yes, but that’s up north where it was supposed to be impossible.
BARTON: Yes. Could we talk about those systems for a few minutes? I’m interested in how you put those systems together? How the natives responded to them.
PARSONS: They’re primarily for oil installation and remote. Barrow’s the only one that was an existing system when satellites came in. I didn’t put the satellite in there. The native corporation contracted with an outside contractor to supply the dish and to put it up. So I wasn’t familiar with it whatsoever.
BARTON: I wonder if we could spend a few minutes talking about your feeling about the cable industry and what you think the current state of the cable is, given your involvement. What are its problems currently?
PARSONS: That’s a very big “if.”
BARTON: I’d like you to dive into that, wherever you think it’s important.
PARSONS: Well, the cable industry enjoyed a monopoly for many, many years and it’s been a generally profitable industry. I think the operators have taken advantage of the early technology, but I don’t think they have applied themselves to the research necessary for profitable industry in the future. I may be mistaken, but I think the cable industry is coming in for competition. There are so many other fields, that existing cables are going to have to upgrade service and lower the price to stay competitive. That’s my thinking.
Take fiber optics. When you put fiber optics around town, not only can it talk of doing what cable is doing, but the telephone service and everything else can be lumped into one, including computer service. I think cable should be aware of developments on the drawing board. Then going a step further, you’ve got direct satellite broadcast moving in the field. When we have the technology available, to build high-powered satellites, people won’t need a big satellite dish to pick up these satellite stations. This has been set back maybe two or three years by the Challenger accident and the other satellite launches around the world that have failed. But I think it is only a temporary setback. Maybe in one to three years direct satellite broadcasting will be here. I see the day of the handy talkie telephone being able to access a satellite. I believe that some of the technology that the Russians are using with polar orbit satellites, relaying between satellites, is not being done effectively by our country yet. So I think these are all potential competitors to cable. I don’t think that they will continue to enjoy a noncompetitive atmosphere as they have since the beginning of cable television.
BARTON: We’ve talked a little bit about the recent case that removes the exclusive franchise situation from municipalities. What do you think the implications from that ruling are for cable? Will it help cable over the long haul?
PARSONS: Well, it’s going to be the same as the telephone company. There will be competition. See, Bell enjoyed a monopoly for many, many years, and I thought that it was well that they did. But when the Bell monopoly was broken up, all kinds of problems have shown up. Now telephones are a highly competitive business. And this Supreme Court decision taking away the authority of the city to limit franchises, will, I think, be a blow to the existing cable systems because it opens up the area to competition.
We’ve seen an example in Alaska. RCA bought out the Armed Services Communication Network which was the only commercial network in Alaska of telephones, telephone long distance. RCA paid a pretty good price for that, made commitments. They sold that right and the network to Pacific Power and Light based in Oregon and Washington. And in the last few years competitors, particularly General Communications, Inc., are competing for the interstate long distance service. And offering fewer service and as good a service as Alascomm is serving. Alascomm being the Alaska branch of Pacific Power and Light. Now with the advent of KU band satellites, there are other companies coming into the picture of offering long distance service, tying into the multiple long distance services that are competing with Bell. So you no longer have that monopoly position.
And this new court decision that takes the authority away from the cities to limit franchises and the FCC rules that have also taken a lot of the authority away from the cities, the days the cable industry can sit back on its haunches and rake in the money, I think, are limited. They are going to have to be innovative, aggressive, and explore the new horizons particularly in the computer fields, the computer transmissions. It’s available to them and they are capable of handling it.
BARTON: I want to ask a final question for today. Would you have been able to do what you did in cable in the early years in Astoria ten years before you did it? Or did you need the experience of previous jobs to do what you did?
PARSONS: Yes, I think I was capable if there had been a signal available ten years earlier. I could have done the same thing. It would not have been a problem.
BARTON: You had the knowledge and expertise you needed at that point?
PARSONS: Oh, yes.
BARTON: Where did you get that expertise?
PARSONS: I don’t know.
BARTON: Do you think you were born with it? Just understood the need to solve problems? Or where did you pick up the technical problem solving expertise to do what you did in Astoria? Did you pick it up from your broadcast experience or did you have it before you got into broadcasting?
PARSONS: I think I had it back when I was an engineer in the sawmill.
BARTON: So as you look at it there are just different problems requiring you to use a certain kind of skill you have.
BARTON: … and available materials, putting them together.
PARSONS: In the first place, I was raised in an early garage. In my school days I had access to the availability of the electronic art as far as it had advanced at that time. An example might be that another youngster and myself in the sixth grade, because I had access to spark coils, we made things a little bit difficult for the teacher, shocking kids and so forth. And to divert us from the angles we were on, she presented us with a book, Marconi’s Experiments in Wireless. It was a hardback book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it again. I don’t know what happened to mine. But that changed our channels. His dad owned the telephone system, the old Magnetos system. My dad owned the garage which had access to the coils. He had access to handsets and so forth. So we built a wireless system between our places.
BARTON: How old were you then?
PARSONS: I was in the sixth grade. Then when they took the equipment away from us, we worked out a system using the telephone wires for our dots and dashes. But we used a balanced system so it couldn’t be heard on a telephone set against ground for sending the dot and dashes between our two places. And I even designed an interconnect so we could put it through the different party phone lines and could transfer the signal from one phone line to another.
BARTON: How many crystal sets did you build?
PARSONS: Oh, I played with them for years. But when vacuum tubes came in, I built vacuum tube sets. The last two years of high school I had a contract with the radio store in Portland to supply them with two radio receivers per week. They were three-tube receivers. They would pick them up and sell them in their radio store. This was in the days of the old regenerative receivers.
BARTON: Well, most people who have the range of experience that you have and have accomplished so much, usually have an inspiration, someone or some group of people who have inspired them. What’s your inspiration? Who’s your inspiration?
PARSONS: I don’t know.
BARTON: I know Grace was for the…
PARSONS: Yes, for the cable deal. I had a little setback in the early days during World War I. When the military came in and took my spark coils and coherers and stuff. Up until that time Dad was very cooperative. Even before he was in the garage, he taught me how to test a dry cell with a high resistance wire which we used to get on tags that shovels and stuff would be shipped to the railroad crew. If the battery was good, it would heat the wire. If it was no good, it wouldn’t heat the wire. Things like this. The difference between series and parallel hook up. When they electrified the railroad, Dad hooked a wire to the trolley wire and we had lights in our house, but it had to be five 11O-volt lights in a series because of the voltage on the trolley cable. Things like this. So I was exposed to it fairly young.
But Dad was very badly put out about this wireless. While I was building a radio set, I had a one-tube set, if he’d catch me playing with that, he had something in the garage for me to do. It was my second year of high school, I remember it was the initiation for the freshmen which was always done by the sophomores. And when I left the house, mother was listening on my headphones. She was becoming quite an avid listener. Dad wouldn’t put them on. Nothing doing. But, when I came home that night, here was Dad sitting with the earphones. Mother had gone to bed. He announced at breakfast, “I’m going to buy you a loud speaker for that set.” He was unaware that it would take two stages of audio amplifying to make it audible on a speaker.
But my brother and I had been saving our nickels and dimes. When a steam-operated automobile came up, we’d pack water for the steamer and things like that and got tips. I had saved all my tips and I had enough money to buy the parts to build one stage of amplification. I wouldn’t tell my dad that that set wouldn’t work. So I explained to my mother that I had enough money for one stage, but that it took two stages to drive a loudspeaker. So she made up the difference. A milk truck went to Portland every morning to haul the milk in from the dairies. I begged a ride on that milk truck. Bought the parts in Portland. Came back on that milk truck that evening.
When the speaker came, I was ready. The speaker was an overgrown headphone in the bottom of a horn. Not too good, but it worked. And I explained to Dad, he just bought too cheap a speaker. He sent the speaker back and ordered the highest-priced speaker on the market. It was a dynamic speaker. Made by Magnavox. It was the early days of Magnavox. We put the speaker out in the garage and we had dances every night from the radio.
BARTON: A very nice story.
End of Tape 2, Side B
PARSONS: When I came up here in ’53, we needed a dependable communications network. The next few years I built up a network including a real high power station in Point Barrow and one in Fairbanks. And being a Norwegian, Sid Greene was familiar with SAS, Scandinavian Airlines. So when they asked him about the art of communications, they found there wasn’t any excepting for the Wien’s network. There was no art of communications and no NAV-AIDs, except Wien’s NAV-AIDs. So he had the SAS engineer get together with me, and Wien literally loaned me to SAS for over a year. I worked first on the design of a communications set up. Their idea was to put an American station in at Barter Island which would be on a direct route from Anchorage to Copenhagen. It would be the great circle route. And I had had enough experience of working that close to the north magnetic pole that I knew that it was very difficult to communicate through the magnetic field of the North Pole. So I convinced them that we should put the international frequencies in at Point Barrow.
BARTON: What are some of the characteristics of the North Pole? What happens when you try normal routines of communicating? What kind of aberrations do you get?
PARSONS: If they put a station at Barter Island for the international flights and they came over the pole according to their flight plans, they would get very erratic communications. We had gained a tremendous amount of experience from our station at Point Barrow, and we were communicating with the Navy ice station, which I had established, in the Ice Islands clear to the North Pole. Over time we had six ice stations there. The Navy had them manned by the Arctic Research Lab under the University of Alaska. We pretty well knew the paths the signals took, but it wasn’t any problem convincing SAS the way to go. So over a year’s time I worked with SAS helping to develop their survival techniques and their flight plans, how they should be handled. To make their communications compatible with the Wien communications. Besides the Barrow beacon, we had a 3,OOO watt non-directional beacon at Barrow. They decided they needed another beacon farther inland and they had me install a beacon at Arctic Village, a very primitive Indian village up in the Brooks Range.
BARTON: Were they using the system yet?
PARSONS: No, it’s been superseded with high technology now.
BARTON: I mean after you had the first beacon in, were they using that system before you added a second component?
BARTON: They were already using that part?
PARSONS: Yes. The problem was when they come across the ice pack to have a suitable place to land, alternate places. And we traveled to Big Delta, all the different landing fields. Worked out the deal for the pilots if Anchorage was socked in, they could go to Fairbanks and if Fairbanks was socked in, they could go to Big Delta or some other. All the different possible alternates as safety measures. And I did the same thing later for all the other airlines that I helped set up. I think that was the most interesting of all my jobs. I built the original station at Barrow. We upgraded it to all the frequencies required. We had thirteen transmitters, all multiple frequencies. We carried all the international aeronautic frequencies. We carried all the Navy frequencies. And supplied communications for the weather flights. There used to be a weather flight to the North Pole every day. We relayed all that information to Anchorage and I designed the station so that we could throw the full power toward the North Pole or reverse the phasing of the antennas and throw the whole power to Anchorage. It was a very satisfactory operation to work as well as it did. And we operated that station for over ten years with women operators. We trained young Eskimo girls shortly out of high school, the boarding high school in Sitka, to operate the station. They were known as the Angels of the Arctic and they did a magnificent job.
BARTON: What were those ten years that this was in operation?
PARSONS: I’ll have to look at the files. The girls were credited with a lot of rescues. It’s all in newspaper stories. You might be interested in part of the philosophy. The owner of the newspaper, The News Miner in Fairbanks, thought there was too much free publicity by naming companies in stories, so he banned naming the source of information in a story. So I gave them my story. They carried it in the paper and they didn’t say that Wien was the source of it. Realize we had the only communications in the Arctic. The only. And I informed Mr. Steden, the newspaper owner and editor, that if he didn’t give Wien credit, he would get no more stories from the Arctic, period. They repeated the story three days in succession with Wien’s name saying that Wien had supplied the system.
BARTON: He had no alternative.
PARSONS: Well, it was his choice. It took an operator’s time, it took personnel time for them to have that news source. If you cut ninety villages off with no news, he wouldn’t have too much for his newspaper.
BARTON: So this system was the source for all news from that region and that news only went around the world about that region.
PARSONS: That’s true.
BARTON: Can you remember any incidents from those ten years? Any close calls that would have been disasters without the communications service that you established?
PARSONS: I would say that at least every third flight would have been a disaster without that. In fact, I don’t believe it could have been started without that communications. This was one of the most satisfying jobs I ever did.
BARTON: I understand from our discussions that this ranks very high in terms of your accomplishment.
PARSONS: It certainly does. And probably I got more personal gain out of it because I had a blanket, must-ride pass for me and my wife on five different airlines anywhere in the world. Very few people ever had that. And I took advantage of it.
BARTON: People around the world recognized the importance of this system?
PARSONS: Oh, yes.
BARTON: Was this system copied for any other use in any other parts of the world, as far as you know, during that time?
PARSONS: Well, I was taken all over the world to help design similar communications. It was probably the longest signal jump without intermediate communications or NAV-AIDs at the time. Later I went down to Johannesburg, helped set up a network through Africa. We had some long jumps there, but I think the Arctic across the whole was the greatest.
BARTON: Did you ever ride in one of the commercial jets and monitor the system in action?
PARSONS: Every flight I took, I monitored in the actions. Like when they run the probing flights, the JAL flight, the Pan American Airline flight. I went to Tokyo before the start of the flight, helped plan the flight plan, then I went on around to Copenhagen and monitored the flight en route. I was there when the probing flight landed. I did that with almost every prober, initiating many polar flights.
BARTON: So up to that time there was virtually nothing to help guide these people?
PARSONS: Well, the Navy was running what they called the Tarnegan Flights, they were weather flights. They were running research out of Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks and they were running a flight a day up in the north. And they were using our station and the Air Force station at Eielson to track the flights. So we had considerable international communications to and from the Air Force plus the Ice Islands that we had established for the Navy.
BARTON: Now, was Molly part of that system?
PARSONS: Ironing out our operating problems, we had Mr. Rex Ouvocanna, a full Eskimo, whom Sid Greene had trained as an aircraft mechanic. His sister Mollia Ouvocanna was going to the Indian boarding school in Sitka. She graduated from the eighth grade and high school. And when she came back to Barrow, we hired her and trained her for the radio station. Made her a chief operator of the radio station and had her train additional Eskimo girls to run the radio station. Molly was a very bright girl and she trained qualified operators. In fact, I heard many international pilots say that the Eskimo girls were the best communicators anywhere in the world. I had taken advantage of pass privileges to go to Europe, to the Orient, and practically all over the world … Sidney, Fiji, and all these places.
Grace and I decided to take a trip around the world with Air France visiting interesting places including the Taj Mahal. I had never heard of it, but Grace said she wanted to see the Taj Mahal. So we went to the Taj Mahal. When we were down in Sidney, Grace said, “I’d like to go back by way of Hong Kong.” I asked SAS if they’d take us to Hong Kong. Fine. When we got ready to leave Hong Kong the station manager came aboard and wanted to know what our schedule was and when we were going to get into Paris. I gave him the dates that I had planned on for each of our stops–Karachi and Bangkok and all these places and how long we expected to stay at each of them.
When we were to make the final hop into Paris, Paris was socked in, so we landed at Marseilles down on the Riviera. We had never been on the Riviera, so, we thought, “Let’s stay here.” So we notified Air France that we were going to stay on the Riviera. Fine. They assigned a guide to us, got us a hotel room. We stayed there two or three days before we decided to go on to Paris. I was unaware that Air France had planned a big party for us in Paris upon our arrival. That was the reason the Hong Kong manager had asked about our schedule. When we got to Paris, they still had the party. They appreciated my part in the polar communications.
BARTON: I’m still not clear, I remember the story you told me early about how Mollio was celebrated around the world.
PARSONS: Well, it was very interesting. Molly Ovuocanna, now Molly Peterson. As chief operator of the radio station, I thought it would be a nice gesture if she would go to Europe. She said yes, she would enjoy a trip to Europe. She thought it would be interesting to talk to all the international pilots. So I dropped a short note to Air France saying that Molly had been chief operator for seven years at the Barrow station. I thought it would be a nice gesture if they would take her to Paris. A letter came back immediately. Two first-class, round-trip tickets to Paris on Air France. Grace was pretty familiar with the international deal, and she realized that Molly was probably very naive, to say the least. So she had her come down to Fairbanks and spend probably a week with us, coaching her on continental customs since she was going alone to Paris. We took her to Anchorage and we met with the Air France people. They recognized they had a publicity jewel, so when Molly boarded the flight, the mayor of Anchorage gave her a bouquet of flowers and reporters told of the Eskimo girl going to Paris. Then across the Pole they had her up in the cockpit so that she could talk from the other end to her cohorts down at Point Barrow, and they took pictures of her there. She went on over to Paris. They were taking her to every capitol in Europe–London, Madrid. They took her to bull fights in Madrid. And KLM realized that they would bring her to Amsterdam for publicity. The operations manager of KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, had been to Barrow with me and had met Molly. That group flew to Paris and found out where Molly was staying. Told her that I had sent word that she was to go to Amsterdam with them. They got the publicity and got it in the papers in Europe and they beat Air France. It was quite a rivalry between international airlines. You’d almost call it kidnapping.
BARTON: So this incident must have changed her life or at least the way she thought about the world.
PARSONS: It sure did. Air France gave me the whole publicity file, copies of it. Several years later when Molly had children, I gave the whole file to her and it’s probably still available.
BARTON: So how many women were associated with the system overall would you say? How many women had been trained for it and been through it? If you were to have a reunion, how many names would surface, do you think?
PARSONS: I have an idea we’d have about ten Eskimo women.
BARTON: And why do you think they were such good communicators? Was it a part of their culture, a part of their training, or a combination of that?
PARSONS: Because they were dedicated.
BARTON: They felt a real responsibility to the people they were serving.
PARSONS: They felt the responsibility. They knew it, what the Arctic was, and it would take but one minor mishap to be a bad break.
BARTON: What kind of tragedies can occur through just one miscalculation?
PARSONS: Well, the percentage of weather deaths, I would say, in the Arctic is probably ten times more than those in the “lower 48”. It only takes a minor slip up to be too bad. You probably had some information from Max Brewer along these lines.
BARTON: Yes, and I wonder if you could fill that in. You mentioned earlier in our discussion that until quite recently people just assumed that if something went wrong in the Arctic it was just currents. Because of the communications system and because of your and Max Brewer’s concern for survival training those odds began to be challenged. Could you explain how you were involved in some of that survival information?
PARSONS: Even last week, at Endicott Island, there was a communications failure and it would take nothing but an Arctic storm. For example if you get a northwest wind when an ice pack moves in, the ice pack that covers the whole Arctic all starts to move. Slowly, but the wind will start the move. There is nothing on earth that can stop it because you’ve got billions of tons of ice moving as a solid unit. That’s a big worry with the ice islands that oil companies are establishing up there. They have tried to design the islands so that the ice would rise and fold back on itself and build its own barrier rather than destroy the island. We had a storm in the Arctic here quite a number of years ago. There was an oil barge there that had been taken up for oil for the exploration rigs. After the ice pack came in, the oil barge ended up five miles inland. It had been shoved back there by the ice. It hadn’t been damaged, by the way. They pulled it back to the water with Caterpillar tractors.
BARTON: You’ve mentioned a number of things in our discussions that I find amazing about the characteristics of signals and waves and the characteristics of communication patterns in the Arctic. It almost reminds me of devil’s trying the lore. And you mentioned that similar occurrences happen in parts off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Could you try to summarize some of the things you’ve learned about these bizarre patterns of electronic communication characteristics of the north?
PARSONS: Well, I have some theories of my own. They are unproven. I’ve heard many other theories. But without any question, the ionization of the atmosphere up there, the air currents, different densities tend to bend the waves as well as the magnetic field. And it’s hard to predict where a signal is going to show up. There is a section in that manual detailing radio paths and path reliability. To go into it any further would be rather difficult and technical.
BARTON: But you’ve had to compensate for that wide variability of electronic characteristics, to overcompensate much more than you would have to do in the “lower 48.”
PARSONS: Yes. When the government built the Distant Early Warning system, they connected the system with microwave sets, the same that’s used by telephone companies across the United States. The system turned out to be so unreliable that they tore the whole system out and installed a tropospheric scatter system at tremendous expense to replace the microwave system they couldn’t depend on. And they are having the same troubles up there today. They keep trying to reinvent the wheel, I think.
BARTON: Could you begin to talk about how you got involved with the Pet-4 project and explain some of the features of that installation that you designed? Could you start with the beginning and your involvement with that project?
PARSONS: Well, to explore the Petroleum Reserve #4, the Navy contracted with Communication Engineering Company of Anchorage for a communications network to support the drilling exploration in the reserve. They provided some communications for several years. I don’t recall–two, three, maybe four years. They had such poor communications that the Navy terminated the contract and had Husky Oil hire me as a consultant to solve the communications problem.
BARTON: Now, where was Husky Oil? Where were they based?
PARSONS: I’ll have to look that up.
BARTON: Okay. But they were an established company? They’d been around for awhile?
PARSONS: Oh, yes. Husky Oil is a big company, I think out of Texas. But they are a big concern. They got the Navy contract. So they asked me to go up and explore and write a report on what the difficulties were and the reason for them. I did that. About six months later they asked me to go up and re-evaluate, find out what was wrong. And I have those reports. When I came back from the second trip and before I wrote the report, I was asked by Max Brewer, USGS, what I was going to do to correct the situation. Told him it would be in the report. “Well”, he said, “you’re in charge.” I said, “Nobody told me I was in charge.” “Well, you are. You’ll be informed.” Which I was. I realized that it was such a big job that I decided to close my communications network. And I sold it and closed my engineering office. And worked full time to develop the communications necessary for the petroleum reserve.
BARTON: Roughly what year was that? When you decided …
PARSONS: I will have to look the contract up. It’s also in Fairbanks. But it was reasonably easy to establish the primary line of communications, but at every drill site I developed three different systems. One a primary system and two backups per every drill site. I had access to the DEW Line communications network, tropo systems, I had unlimited equipment and to form it all into a massive communications network was not too much of a job. Then I took care of the communications for several years. That we will have to look up, too.
BARTON: So we’re talking about the ability of anybody associated with that project to pick up a telephone and communicate with anybody, not only with anybody else in the project but outside the project?
PARSONS: Anywhere in the world. We made up a program a year ahead. On that program I would detail for every drill site, every type of communications installation. That’s what I gave you. And I could plan a whole year ahead. Actually it was simple. If they were going to drill a test, well, 100 or 2OO miles away, I sent a technician out with the necessary equipment. He set up a radio transmitter network. We would place a telephone on an empty oil drum, place a 12-volt battery under the oil drum and when the construction crew arrived, they could pick up that phone and they were in contact. When they got a site preparation far enough along, we put a complete communications module in there, down to a satellite earth station and everything.
BARTON: What did each one of these transmitters look like? What were the elements? When they decided that they were going to open another drilling site, what was that basic equipment for that transmitter?
PARSONS: Well, it was never the same. It would take a different combination. I developed six interconnect packages. One to work into a PBX; one to work into a dual line; one to work into an earth station, satellite station; one, I think, we called a subscriber station, it’s another end of the circuit; and I don’t remember the sixth one. It’s in the manual that you have.
BARTON: Could you briefly explain the difference between a microwave and a tropo scatter system?
PARSONS: Yes. They work on entirely separate principles. A microwave is a line of sight. It behaves exactly like a light wave. In fact, I think now a days you might use a light wave instead of a microwave. A tropo system depends upon the air molecules to transmit the signal to the next destination because of the scattering effect upon the electromagnetic waves of the molecules. There will be enough signal if you have a big enough dish. They use massive dishes, parabolics, and a reasonably low frequency, usually in the VHF or the UHF band, and extremely high power.
BARTON: So they are less efficient than the microwave system generally speaking?
PARSONS: Yes. They are very expensive.
BARTON: What did you learn from the whole Pet-4 project? Not only technically, but what did you learn about such things as the likelihood of future development of the north and the communication systems required? And the culture of just surviving up there with a certain kind of communications system?
PARSONS: I would say that most of what I learned was what not to do.
BARTON: Which is what?
PARSONS: Use certain systems under certain conditions that are not going to work. And they still keep trying it. And they keep having failures.
End of Tape 3, Side A
BARTON: Could you start with the very first basic system you used to bring television?
PARSONS: Well, among other things, I told the company of Wien that I had originated the cable television systems in the northwest. The commercial manager of Wien plus a theater owner at Point Barrow decided that they would like to put a cable system in at Point Barrow. We videotaped the programs in Anchorage off-the-air, flew them up to Barrow, and played them over a cable system. Bud Hagberg, the commercial manager for Wien, was in a position to do me a lot of favors in the Arctic. He was half Eskimo. A very agreeable young man with a very responsible position for the financial survival, you might say, of Wien as he dealt with the post office department and subsidies and so forth. When he approached me about Barrow, I could see no reason why they shouldn’t put one in. And he could videotape in Anchorage, or he could put a camera in and play movies over the cable system. They decided to go ahead with the videotape system.
I didn’t want to use any of the Wien radio personnel from our maintenance communications department, so I trained a couple of young Eskimo boys that were out of work at Barrow. And followed up on them, checked their mistakes, had them redo them. Ended up with a cable system in Barrow, and these young fellows went ahead with the system and operated it. And the system is still in operation today.
BARTON: Now that first system, how many screens were there? How many monitors?
PARSONS: I don’t have any idea. There were a lot of sets in Barrow. In fact, I think Max mentioned that many Eskimos bought sets when there was no source of programming.
BARTON: Well, can we jump from that to your most recent activity in getting television to this development now underway? What does that system look like and what are its objectives?
PARSONS: The first proposal using the satellites was for Point Barrow. They said it couldn’t be done. That the satellites would not be receivable at Barrow. When the Pet-4 started, they leased two satellite earth stations from RCA for telephone service. We put them in. After the first two, they leased three more that were transportable earth stations. We put an earth station in at each drill site. And the Arctic Research Lab at Barrow was able to secure a Navy-owned satellite dish from the Antarctic. Somehow or other, they got it up to Point Barrow. We installed it in the lab at Point Barrow and it’s still up there.
Then I took over the communications for the Frontier companies. They had a camp at Service City. And I told them since they were flying up videotapes, it would be quite a saving if they put an earth station in. They knew about the earth stations that I had put in throughout the Pet-4 program, so they asked me to get a figure on it. did. They said, “We’ll put it in.” So we installed the first satellite earth station for video at Service City. Now every camp up there has an earth station for video. Over in the Pet-4 project we used the earth station both for video and for two-way telephones.
BARTON: So how many channels does that get for video?
PARSONS: Twenty-four, some of which now are scrambled.
BARTON: So the project you are now working on for this island development will have a similar installation or will it be graded from that?
PARSONS: When the Frontier companies took the bid for building these buildings, one main question was who would supervise or approve the telephone, p.a. and the video systems in the buildings. It was announced at the bid conference that I would be the engineer and they would refer the problems to me. At the next bid conference, they asked me to go to Pasadena with them to meet with the Ralph M. PARSONS: Company, the engineers and designers. And they asked if I was going to see that the system was properly installed. I committed myself that I would. They asked me, “Well, what’s the experience?” I said, “As far as I know, I have been installing cable systems longer than any other man alive.” And sat down. That was the last question. They gave us the contract.
BARTON: So are you adding any new twists to the system?
PARSONS: No, this is strictly routine. I reviewed the plans, accepted them, and we subcontracted the contract, not even doing it with our own people.
BARTON: What do you foresee in this kind of installation as a technological breakthrough that’s going to require you to go back and rethink the kinds of systems you are now working with? What’s bound to hit next?
PARSONS: Well, I won’t be involved in any parts. They will keep on making their mistakes and ultimately they solve them. They have other people perfectly able to do it. I won’t be a bit critical of them. They have to learn, and they will learn. And there’s a whole new breed of technicians and engineers coming along. They will make the same mistakes that we made. They’ll solve them the same way.
End of Tape 3, Side B
BARTON: I see we begin around 1926 in your resume, and there are some childhood years missing. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your family, your childhood, your brothers and sisters. What’s your recollections of your family?
PARSONS: Dad was working as a railroad section hand when I was born, and we moved to Hillsboro, Oregon. He was working on the railroad there as a section foreman, and that’s where my first brother was born. Then we moved to Mayberry, Oregon, and Dad was section foreman on the Inter-Urban Line. It was a steam line then that went to Bull Run, east of Portland. My sister Mae was born there. And then we moved to Springdale, Oregon. My youngest brother and my sister were born there. Dad bought a garage and we lived next door to the garage.
BARTON: What did he do in this garage? Was that his new occupation?
PARSONS: Yes, it was a new occupation. He had taught himself to be a mechanic. In his early years, he had been a steamboat engineer up on Lake Chelan, Washington.
BARTON: So your dad was handy?
PARSONS: Very mechanically inclined, yes.
BARTON: So you come by that honestly.
BARTON: What do you recall about your mother?
PARSONS: She was a wonderful woman. Hard-working.
BARTON: And where was she from originally?
PARSONS: Dad, I think, was from Kansas and she was from Ohio.
BARTON: What was her maiden name?
PARSONS: Gosset. Her dad was a Charlie Gosset. He was section foreman, I think, most of his life and blacksmith, mechanic.
BARTON: Where are your brothers and sisters today?
PARSONS: Both of my brothers are dead. The sister who married a Navy commander, has retired with him at Port Orchard, Washington. And my other sister, now widowed, lives in Portland, Oregon.
BARTON: So your family, including you, tended to stay on the west coast?
PARSONS: Very definitely.
BARTON: You mentioned a little about this in a previous tape. Do you remember any projects you were involved in with your father? Did your father ask you to help in some of the mechanical work he was doing? I’m trying to understand how you picked up the knowledge of mechanics that you took into your first jobs.
PARSONS: I can go back further than that. When I was in about third or fourth grade, we took a railroad car to Gresham once a month to shop. And I saw a toy, a little electric engine. Had a little coil in it. Was made to look a lot like a little steam engine, a single-cylinder steam engine that you see now. But it was electric coil. I saw that and I bugged my mother until she finally bought it for me. We went back to Springdale after the trip, and I remember mixing cement to make a little pond. I rigged this up as a little donkey or winch to pull sticks out of that pond as a toy.
BARTON: What kind of jobs did you have as teenager?
PARSONS: Dad was section foreman and I think I was nine years old when he hired me. The company paid me a dollar a day to go with the section crew and pack water for them.
BARTON: Was that hard work?
PARSONS: He made a sling that fit over my shoulders and I could carry two buckets a trip. And let me tell you, section people could drink a lot of water.
BARTON: That wasn’t a job that took advantage of your brain power.
PARSONS: No, I don’t think so. (laughs) I did learn a lot about speeders and cars. Dad had a Model T by that time.
BARTON: Did you work on that car?
PARSONS: I even got my head cut open a couple of times when the thing backfired when we tried to crank it.
BARTON: Anything else that you recall that’s significant before you had that job at Bridal Veil? Before we go to that, is there anything in that period between your growing up?
PARSONS: In the garage, of course, we pumped gas, but my oldest brother and I, would rush to fill up the radiators and do the little chores including pumping gas. This was the day of the Stanley Steamers. There were a couple other makes besides Stanley. And they took a tremendous amount of water. We had a pitcher pump and had to pump water with it. We would get some pretty good tips. And I saved that money always to buy electronics parts.
BARTON: That’s when you started building radios and things?
PARSONS: Yes. I had to have the first crystal sets. Played with them. There was one low-powered broadcast station in Portland. I could pick it up on a crystal set.
BARTON: How did you come to get the job as chief engineer at Bridal Veil? That was in ’26, I think.
PARSONS: I was working for an electrical contractor who had a contract with AT&T to maintain the long distance lines from Portland to Hood River, a distance of about fifty miles. And he also owned the local Magneto telephone exchange. When we got a service call to trouble shoot these lines, which was frequently, he would trouble shoot them if he were available. If not, it was my job. And I remember some rather risky deals in ice storms. Climbing poles and repairing lines. AT&T put in two lines. These were open-wire lines in those days to Gresham. One line worked fine. Phantom across the two lines worked fine. But one line would not ring through one way. The construction crew, which I was not a part of fooled around. They worked for about a month trying to find the trouble. And Vern, the owner of the company, was called after the construction crews left. AT&T had adopted a policy. When they had a particularly troublesome line, they would send one man, and give him one day to find the trouble. Then they’d send a different man the next day, and so forth. They figured someone would solve the trouble. I remember that Vern called after he had worked all day and late into the evening.
The next day they called for me. The test set that AT&T supplied for the Magneto ringing was a broken-ring type deal. It didn’t have a short indicator in it. I took the local telephone set, which I was not supposed to do. I was supposed to use the Bell set for testing. I spent half the day on a pole with the test board while they were testing one line, measuring. In those days the measurements were all DC on the lines. They didn’t have an AC-type test. They would get on one line and I would splice it through and they would test. They’d tell me what they tested. Both lines tested the same. When they have one line that they were on, that meant that I was disconnecting the other line. I got my test set and hooked onto it. I found out that one line, 16 cycle, showed short, that was the ringing voltage. And it would indicate in at the test board. So I told them about this and got quite a lot of argument out of the test board. I was getting tired on this pole anyway. I said, “If you let me go on and trouble shoot it toward Gresham, I won’t charge you for either the time or the mileage.” They hesitated a little bit. “Well, go to the Fairview junction. We’ll test there again. So, okay, that was half way. I went to Fairview junction.
You always had to put our come alongs and cut the wire and test these. So there. They tested the same way. So they told me to go on to the Gresham exchange, and I went there. I opened the leads to the repeating coil. They had to have a repeating coil because they had a phantom on the circuit.
BARTON: What do you mean by phantom?
PARSONS: It’s where you use four wires, two pair, to get a third circuit. It was a way of multiplexing in those days. You took two phantom circuits and you got what they called a ghost circuit. This is going back in the history of the telephone industry. So I called and asked permission to rewire the circuit to where I put the repeating coil in the opposite circuit. Exchanged the two repeating coils to the other circuit and it showed up and was in the repeating coil. There was not a spare repeating coil, of course, there. They replaced the repeating coil, but that called attention to AT&T to me in trouble shooting. It was pure luck because I was using a test set that I wasn’t supposed to be using on their circuits, instead of their regular test set. But they sent me on another job up near Hood River, another trouble shooting job. I didn’t get back in time to change the coil. They sent a man up from Portland to change the coil. But they invited me into the test board and I was offered the chance to go to the new dial switching technical school. That opened the door for me to the telephone industry.
BARTON: And you were with them for ten years, is that right?
PARSONS: No. Bridal Veil Timber Company had their own PBX and they appealed to Bell for help. Bell sent me out to find the trouble. I worked about four months getting the phone system proper. They had some motors and electrical troubles. I repaired those and they made me chief electrician and directly chief engineer. I was 19 years old. I wasn’t gray-haired then, so they didn’t know how old I was.
BARTON: After you worked with Bridal Veil Timber, I believe you were a sales engineer for Harris Ice Machine Works.
PARSONS: Yes. I spent awhile in southern California, San Diego, before I went to work with Harris. Did radio/appliance repair in a little store in east San Diego. Then I was asked to go over to the Imperial Valley. Ended up working for Smith Electric. They had a contract to put in a border patrol radio network, the first two-way radio network, and they did the state police radio work, too. So I supervised that work until the heat got too unbearable and then I came back to Portland. Went to work first as an installation engineer and then sales engineer.
BARTON: Then you moved on to Dimick Parsons Company. How did that come about?
PARSONS: As sales engineer, I covered the whole west coast selling larger cold storage plants, fish freezing plants, locker plants, and so forth. I would design them and sell them. And Dimick owned a wholesale supply store in Portland.
BARTON: What was his full name?
PARSONS: Jerry Dimick. We decided to team up when the tuna showed up on the northwest coast and we realized that there was going to be a lot of business. Big plants being planned. So I resigned as sales engineer for Harris and formed Dimick and Parsons Company. And we were the Harris representatives. In other words, it was contracting in our own names with Harris supplying the manufacturing and the equipment.
BARTON: Was this Harris by any chance a company that eventually evolved into Harris Intertype later on?
PARSONS: No. The Harris had developed a line of ammonia compressors and large refrigeration machinery. It was a one-man company. Harris was an engineer who could take the old 1,OOO-horsepower steam engines, and convert them to ammonia compressors.
BARTON: Where does the domestic blue cheese story fit in? Which one of these jobs?
PARSONS: One of my customers on the west coast was the Langlois Cheese Company. It was located in Langlois, south of Bandon on the coast of Oregon. There was quite a number of cheese companies, including Tillamook Cheese Company, up and down the coast. And Hans Hanson was the owner of the Langlois Cheese Company. A man by the name of Thompson owned the Bandon Fish Company. They were somewhat associated. I would always know and recognize my customers. But one day Hans Hansen, owner of Langlois Cheese, walked into my office in Astoria and started talking about Roquefort cheese. I couldn’t place him. Finally I had to ask him where he was from. He told me, Langlois. Well, that rang a bell; he was just out of place. Because of the war, Roquefort cheese was no longer available and he hoped to develop a Roquefort cheese out of what would be known as Tillamook cheese. I explained the conditions as he knew them. I made an agreement that we would build a pilot plant, run it for one year, and then I would design a master plant for him. This was agreed.
So I took off and flew down to Langlois the next day. He agreed to keep a field right behind the cheese plant mowed so I could land my plane. Went ahead and built the pilot plant. First I flew down there at least once a week. Then it got down to a couple of times a month and we would check the process of the cheese. They made it in five-pound blocks and used a standard cream cheese formula. He knew that the University of Wisconsin was producing the culture of this blue mold cheese and he got it in sealed quart cans. Cans just about like those you get oil for a car now. And he made a press with long needles that just fit these five-pound blocks of cheese. You’d put this can on top of the press and these long needles would go down in the cheese. The culture was inserted into the cheese. Then the blocks were put up on racks and the cheese would sweat. They would have to be taken off the rack every day, washed in salt water, and placed back on the rack.
When the first batch came out of the pilot plant, we took a block of what was called Roquefort to a little tavern down the road. I had never tasted strong cheese, Limburger and stuff like that, but I had never eaten any strong cheese. And this Roquefort tasted pretty strong to me. And I sat there drinking 2 percent beer, and found I developed a fond taste for blue cheese. I still have it.
Might put a sequel to that. When Grace and I were married, I took her down the west coast to show her this blue mold cheese. We drove down this time to enjoy the coast and Hans loaded up that car with probably a hundred pounds of blue mold cheese. We took it home and put it in our freezer. He brought blue mold cheese for a year.
BARTON: Are they still making it?
PARSONS: The plant was bought out by Kraft Cheese Company after I came to Alaska. After the war, they were sued by the Blue Mold Cheese Company in France, the Roquefort company. So they changed the name to Blue Mold Cheese, Langlois’ Blue Mold Cheese. It’s on the market.
BARTON: After that period begins a very significant period for people interested in your history with broadcasting, and that is as manager as Astoria Broadcasting. That, of course, includes the period in which you developed cable. I wonder if you could represent the high points of that ’42 to ’53 period.
PARSONS: During my refrigeration business with Dimick, the United States got into the war. The building of cold storage plants and processing plants was not permissible. Equipment wasn’t available or anything. So I went back to work for Harris Ice, moved back to Portland. And Harris Ice Machine Works had been taken over by the Navy to make valves and fittings, specialty stuff for outfitting the baby flattops. I worked with them. Completed some of the cold storage work that was theoretically not permitted once we entered the war. While I was with Harris Ice, I worked nights and Sundays in the broadcast station in Portland. I had a first-class phone license and technicians were hard to come by. So besides holding down the job as superintendent for Harris Ice, I was also doing broadcasting.
I heard that the Astoria broadcast station had petitioned the FCC to shut down because they were losing money, but they wanted to retain their license until after the war. I went down to investigate it. It was owned by the newspaper. They decided that being in the broadcast business was not a viable business at this time. They wanted to be able to resume it later. So I made them an offer. Passed the word out around town. I was well known in town from my refrigeration business. The town wanted to keep the radio on because distant stations were not available to them. So two weeks later they said they would sell the station to me. I purchased it. Moved back to Astoria, and I was broadcasting when the war ended.
BARTON: That period was very busy for you. I know you consulted for other broadcast stations during that period. Can you summarize some of that other activity, up to the development of cable?
PARSONS: The broadcast station was losing money. Within thirty days I got it back in the black with special programs emphasizing primarily news coverage. I equipped a vehicle with a transmitter. Wherever there was news, the vehicle was there, too. And Astoria did make news. Besides the newscasts I broadcast nightly from each of the two night clubs in town. This was a military town by this time, and the commander at Tongue Point managed to get well-known musicians as draftees. It was his hobby. So he developed an outstanding orchestra. And after he had the orchestra, he had to have a use for it. So they’d provide a couple of broadcasts a week of excellent music. Then I developed a man-on-the-street program. With all of these innovations, the station became profitable.
BARTON: As far as you know, was that the first man-on-the-street set up?
PARSONS: As far as I know, it was, yes.
BARTON: About what year was that? Can you recall when you first started to do that man-on-the-street business? This is where you used the red wagon to carry …
PARSONS: … to carry the equipment. I think it’s in one of those newspaper stories. I’m pretty sure it is.
BARTON: During this period you began to work on cable after Grace’s insistence?
PARSONS: I was still operating the cable and I re-established the refrigeration business after the war. Leonard Washburn, who had been my assistant engineer in the saw mills, needed a job so we re-established the refrigeration business. I was still in that and the broadcasting long before I started developing the cable business. I also managed the airport for the Port Commission for a couple of years until we got it profitable.
BARTON: At what period did you begin to manufacture electronic components? That is, not refrigeration components but electronic broadcast or cable components? Did that begin before the cable business?
PARSONS: I had all of the fish boat maintenance there for years. When I was in business in Astoria, I operated that under the radio and electronics company and we sold transmitters for fish boats, depth finders. And I had quite a repair shop including a number of technicians working for me.
BARTON: So even at that point you were in the business of designing and putting together specialized equipment for specialized needs?
PARSONS: That’s right, yes.
BARTON: Well, we’ve pretty much covered the cable story in a previous tape. Is there anything, on second thought, that we’ve left out of that discussion that we might drop in on the cable?
PARSONS: No, as a broadcast station manager/owner, I was very much interested in getting into television broadcasting. And I did apply to the FCC for an experimental TV broadcast station. I designed and built the station.
BARTON: Do you remember any of the details of that design such as power or proposed frequency? Any of that?
PARSONS: Well, I remember it had two 8O7s in the output. The capability of around 50 watts of video.
BARTON: What did you see that television station carrying? What kind of programming that would service the needs of that area?
PARSONS: I never got up to that point because I was rejected for the license. The FCC took the attitude that I didn’t prove it experimental enough, that I was using the experimental license to go into the commercial broadcasting business.
End of Tape 4, Side A
BARTON: We are up to the point where you came to Alaska and the major component is your being assigned as assistant to the president of Wien Alaska Airlines and you’re also director of engineering. Could you tell us about that period? The major highlights of that period as you recall them, ’53 through ’68.
PARSONS: Well, I ended up in Circle Hot Springs. Got my health back. Found out that there was very, very little communications within Alaska. If you wanted to make a phone call to the “lower 48”, you lined up at the ACS office, waited four to twelve hours until it was your turn to talk. When you did succeed in getting a circuit, at least half the time you couldn’t hear the other person or they couldn’t hear you. I realized there was a real opportunity to do something about it, and I rigged up a short wave transmitter with my ham station. I could talk easily to the “lower 48” on it. Eighty meters talked through good. So there was no reason why communications shouldn’t be developed in Alaska. So I saw a challenge.
I approached Wien Airlines. Yes, they desperately would like to have some communications but they couldn’t afford it. So I made a deal. If they would buy the gas for my airplane, I would fly around the state and set up communications for them. And I did. I built a network including almost a hundred stations.
BARTON: Could you describe the basic components of those stations?
PARSONS: Because I had been building beacons and doing communications for West Coast Airlines out of Astoria, I was familiar with the law stating that a subsidized airline was entitled to request use on a use permit of surplus FAA or government equipment. And getting equipment was not too much of a problem. All I had to do was request it. The FAA, it was the CAA then, was anxious to get communications for safety purposes for the airlines. So I was able to get ample equipment. It was just a matter of modifying it and adapting it to the requirements. I got the best of equipment and installed it properly. It was a life-line to the Arctic.
BARTON: So if you were a pilot for Wien’s, how would you use this system? Just how did it function? How did the pilots of Wien’s use this system on a normal day? Could you explain how it worked in conjunction with their job?
PARSONS: According to regulations, the scheduled airline is supposed to file a flight plan with the FAA wherever it flies. And this was totally impossible. How would a plane fly at Point Barrow, file a flight plan with the FAA, when the closest FAA station was Fairbanks. So the first requirement was to have an air-to-ground system and then a point-to-point system. And that’s what we developed. We had enough stations so that airplanes flying down from Barrow, for instance, or from Kotzebue or Nome, were always in contact with a station.
BARTON: Is there a significant difference between the system you put in and the ones used today for aviation in Alaska?
BARTON: Are elements of your system still being used?
PARSONS: Oh, yes.
BARTON: So your association with Wien Airlines concluded when–’68 roughly? That’s what’s listed on your resume.
BARTON: What happened to Wien Airlines at that point? Did you leave them before they were sold?
PARSONS: Wien and Northern Consolidated decided to consolidate. I couldn’t see the consolidation absorbing the different top level deals. And I had exceeded my normal time in one occupation anyway. So as an airline official, I decided that it was time to resign and go into other activities. Communications was a natural because I already was in it. The network then belonged to Wien Airlines. Then following the resignation from Wien’s, I took the job as sales manager for Northern Radio Company in Seattle. As the sales manager and field engineer I made five trips to Vietnam and after completing those assignments, I came back to Fairbanks.
BARTON: Could you say just a few words about the nature of your work in Vietnam and what kind of installations you were making there?
PARSONS: I was first asked to go to Vietnam by Jack Bullick of BNR Tug and Barge, BNA unit of the Calley Companies, Calley Transportation. They had a contract for off-loading the ships with barges and putting the war supplies on the beaches of Vietnam and up the rivers. I had turned them down. Then after I lost my wife, I decided that was the best thing to do. So I went over to Vietnam for them. Contacts I made over there, experiences I gained, why, MSTS, Air America, Morrison-Canetson, Page Electronics. I did work for all of these companies. The MSTS, the Military Sea Transport, and Air America were for the government. Made a total of five trips, up to three months each over a two to three year period.
BARTON: Now, just so we don’t lose this in the chronology, we’ve talked about this in some detail, but exactly or roughly when did you develop the polar flight communications systems?
PARSONS: That was long before I went to Vietnam.
BARTON: You were still with Wien’s?
PARSONS: Yes. I was in the first year with Wien’s. I developed a high-power radio station at Point Barrow as a center of communications for the Arctic. And when SAS came to us, I recommended that we up-grade that station. We were already handling the Navy communications to the ice islands. They have five ice islands out there, so we had communications clear to the North Pole during the Navy’s exploration of the Arctic. It was just natural to add the additional frequencies necessary for the international flights.
BARTON: Given the significance of that development, it was really relatively cheap, wasn’t it?
PARSONS: Because of what we had. We had a full-fledged, high-power station there under Wien’s so we just added some more transmitters and antennas. I developed a unique antenna there that was directional on HF. We could throw the full power directly toward the North Pole or by throwing a switch which reversed relays, it would throw the whole signal directly toward Anchorage. So we would pick up the polar flights, report every thirty minutes while flying across the pole and relay the information to the flight center in Anchorage, directly from Barrow. We didn’t have to relay from Fairbanks at all.
BARTON: So included in the system as we’ve mentioned in the previous tape were the Eskimo girl operators. Who paid their salary?
PARSONS: They were on the Wien’s payroll. We were reimbursed by Air, Inc., which is the organization of international airlines.
BARTON: Well, let’s move to the period during which you owned Communications Supply, Inc.
PARSONS: When Wien’s went out of the communications business for the public in the Arctic, it left a big void. When they merged with Northern Consolidated, the management no longer wanted to be in the public communications business. So they proposed to shut down their network except for the aeronautical sections. And at that time, I set up my own station and transferred all the public licenses from Wien over to myself and supplied all of the communications for the oil explorations and so forth from then on.
BARTON: It was during this period that you established close work in relationship with Max Brewer?
PARSONS: It was in the early Wien’s days, Max Brewer helped set up the ice islands and the exploration of the Arctic for the Navy. Later he was with the USGS. I was handling communications for him back about 1956. Most of the time since I’d been in Alaska, since ’53.
BARTON: So you’d worked with Max Brewer for quite a period by that time. You established Communications Supply and you continued to work with him.
PARSONS: Yes. I established Communications Supply while I was working for Wien’s in order to buy transmitters wholesale. It took an agency for radios, both for our aircraft and for the ground stations.
BARTON: Could you give us an example of the kind of projects you were involved in when you were supplying telephone patches for oil exploration? What was it?
PARSONS: We had a high-power station and we had multiple frequencies. You’ll see in the newspaper clippings the stories of when we got higher power, 1,OOO watts, and extra frequencies and got a statewide emergency frequency. People could go on and we monitored this emergency frequency and it was a full-fledged commercial station. We connected directly to the phone lines, offered service to the general public, and, of course, we were the only station doing that.
BARTON: I wonder if you could review the establishment of the public radio station at Barrow.
PARSONS: All the politics involved?
BARTON: Yes, as much as you think is pertinent here.
PARSONS: The Alaska legislature set up funding for educational broadcast stations around the state. Barrow was included. The director of the public broadcast station in Bethel was appointed administrator of this program. He allocated the money to the different towns that didn’t have broadcast stations as directed by the legislature. Each village was suppose to appoint a board of directors to administer and build a radio station. Villages such as Kotzebue, Sitka, and Kodiak and other areas in the state.
With part of the money assigned to Barrow, the natives bought a house. They thought they’d have to get a manager, and the first thing they’d have to have was housing and housing was in short supply. The director of educational broadcasting took exception and withdrew further funding for the Barrow station. The natives at Barrow then approached me to see what I could do about getting that money returned. I was the only radio-minded person they’d had any experience with, so it was fairly natural that they would come to me. I was aware that the two-way communications station that the FAA had built at Barrow and tried to run remote from Anchorage had never been successful. And it was now surplus. So I went to the FAA. They didn’t know what to do with the station, of course, and I proposed that they could donate it to public broadcasting to be converted to a broadcast station for the natives at Barrow. They agreed. The only hitch was that the station was on Navy property at Barrow, Arctic Research Lab property, actually. Max Brewer was director of the lab. It wasn’t much of a problem to ask him to have the land dedicated to public broadcasting, one federal agency to another. So Max did it. We put in a 1O,OOO-watt broadcast station. The antenna wasn’t high enough for the frequency, so we designed and installed a pretty elaborate top-loading system for the broadcast station. The broadcast station has been very successful.
BARTON: And it’s still going?
PARSONS: Still operating, yes.
BARTON: When did you get rid of Communications Supply, Inc., and why?
PARSONS: Pet-4 contracted with me to design a communications network for the Pet-4 project.
BARTON: Pet-4 being?
PARSONS: Petroleum Reserve #4. It was a NARPL, Navy Arctic Research Laboratory before it was turned over to USGS. And I realized the magnitude of the job. I made two surveys on why the contractors could not develop the communications necessary and required for this program. When I wrote the second report, they said that the project was being turned over to me and I was to do what I had recommended. I realized that this was a big job. Too big to operate a business on the side. So I sold the whole network to the North Slope Borough because most of the area I was covering was within the Borough and they were very interested in getting into the business.
BARTON: If we look at your resume from ’75 on, you were involved in consulting with Husky Oil, USGS, ITT, and so forth. Could you mention the high points of that period and bring us up to date with where you are right now?
PARSONS: We programmed when each test well would be drilled, starting date, completion date. So I drew up a chart to show when each type of communications was to be installed and put in operation.
BARTON: Let’s look at that chart right now. I was going to do that later but this is an appropriate time. This is the chart that you are referring to.
PARSONS: This was for 198O. They programmed a well for Awhuna, drilling wells at Barrow gas fields, East Simpson, Eggpikpuc, Collectac, and Lisborn. And this chart shows two of those in May were stacked out to be finished the next year. Some of these wells went down as far as 2O,OOO feet and it took more than one season to do it. Most of the work in the Arctic, remote work, has to be done in the wintertime. It can’t be done in the summer.
The tundra is too fragile. So as you’ll see these programs where the areas are not soft tundra, could proceed through the summer, but the other areas have to be done strictly in the winter months. This one is ‘8Os, I think you also have an ’81 program.
BARTON: Yes. But this chart which is listed in our documents as exhibit #9 allowed you to coordinate all the communications installation according to the drilling job that was being done.
PARSONS: Yes. And the percentage of installations made by the date that they were required for the proper operation of the drilling.
BARTON: Ok, what else were you involved in during that period with either Husky or USGS or ITT?
PARSONS: During the Husky, USGS operation, I devoted myself strictly to this. I was always experimenting, of course, but basically all the work was for them. Developed computer readouts by satellite. Developed the computer system for the gas well in Barrow.
BARTON: It was at this time that you developed the method of literally monitoring the drilling by television?
PARSONS: Yes. Every drill site has a computer to show the drilling people exactly what’s going on down in that hole. And the computer reads the number of turns per minute that the drill is making, depth of the drill, the progress it’s making, the density of the drilling mud, gas pressures that might be developed in the well. All this information is on a computer. I developed a means of compressing this information into a transmittable form and then expanded it at the Anchorage office into its original configuration on the monitor scope of the computer.
BARTON: Would you tell us the story of the time you were dropped off in the middle of nowhere to meet a cat train? It was during this general period wasn’t it?
PARSONS: This was in the period when I was with Wien Airlines.
BARTON: Oh, it’s earlier, but would you tell that story anyway?
PARSONS: Well, this is during the building of the DEW line about 1956 to ’58, somewhere back there. The government decided to build these DEW line stations. They were very large stations. The problem of getting the supplies to the Arctic was the number one problem, and it still is at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and others. So one of the methods of supply was to take cat trains into the Arctic up to these sites in the middle of the winter. You can’t travel over the tundra in the summer. And for a short period they can use a sea-lift around Point Hope and supply the sites. So the cat trains were organized at the end of the road at Eagle. And they started across the Arctic entering Canada about fifty miles north of Eagle and continued on to places such as Great Slave Lake and the mouth of the Mackenzie.
BARTON: Can you describe what a cat train looks like? What its components are? How it moves?
PARSONS: The cat trains I used generally had two Caterpillar tractors followed by a fifty ton sled hauling a fuel tank plus a couple of other large sleds with buildings on them plus other supplies for the Arctic. And this first cat train going across that route was supported by an airplane flying between Eagle and the cat train, flying on skis. The plane disappeared, there was no radio communications. The communications radio transmitters had been installed on these cat trains but they were inoperative. They lost communications contact less than twenty miles out of Eagle.
So we organized a search to try to find the lost airplane. There were five planes of us, two men to a plane, that followed the cat trail out of Eagle. About every 2O0 miles we would set up a camp and search 100 miles each way from the camp looking for this airplane. We proceeded that way until we were up with the cat train. We called off the search. It was no use. The plane wasn’t found until approximately a year later when somebody spotted it.
But the owner of the Alaska freight lines who had organized the cat train operations, Al Gezese approached me about a viable communications system for the cat trains. So my first job was this first cat train. We had the transmitter here in Fairbanks and another at Eagle in my network. We found out that seventy miles north of Norman Wells, is a hell of a long way up in the Arctic. We knew that the cat train would need propane for cooking, so we took a large bush plane and loaded it besides the transmitter and my tools. We finished the plane load with propane cylinders. And we followed the cat train’s tracks up until we came to the cat train. This is winter and it’s dark. But there’s enough light to see cat tracks even just by starlight, moonlight.
When we found the cat train we buzzed it a few times so that they would know we were there. Then we flew onto a little lake a few miles ahead. Because of the fuel requirements and the cold, I got out with my transmitter and the propane cylinders on the lake and the airplane headed back to Norman Wells. They were going to wait for me to call when I got the transmitter working on the cat train. I don’t think I ever felt so lonesome and deserted in my life as out there on that lake.
Probably the lake didn’t even have a name. I worried about whether the cat train had spotted where the plane was going to land and if I could find them out there in the dark. I did have a flashlight. It must have taken at least an hour or an hour and a half before I got ready. I flashed my flashlight and got aboard the cat train. I got the transmitter working, tested, called Norman Wells, called Fairbanks. It worked fine. I stayed with the cat train three days to make sure that no bugs showed up. Then I called the ski plane to pick me up and bring me back to Fairbanks.
BARTON: Bring us up-to-date about what you’ve been doing since the consulting days with Husky.
PARSONS: The main construction contractor for Husky during the Pet-4 exploration was Arctic Slope/Alaska General. It was a joint venture between North Slope Natives and Alaska General Construction Company. They were supposed to pick up a telephone when they arrived at a designated site and call anywhere they wanted to. They knew the Pet-4 project was winding down. I was approached and asked if I would set up communications for them because they were getting involved in the Prudhoe Bay operations. So I agreed and I’m still doing it. The Arctic Slope/Alaska General was sold to Alaska General. Arctic Slope got out of the company. Then the parent companies bought Frontier Transportation and Frontier companies. And I’m still doing work for them. In the meantime, I’ve been called back by USGS to set up communications for contractors for USGS. I’ve done considerable work with FAA.
End of Tape 4, Side B
BARTON: Just to complete our thought that we had going, Ed. You are continuing to consult, but you are also continuing your work in experimentation and design. What are you working on now in that area?
PARSONS: I think there are some misconceptions on the behavior of the KU band satellite propagations. I have my own theories, and I’m in the process of putting up a dish to check them out. I fund my own research now, but I’ve been assured by both FAA and USGS that they would make surplus equipment available.
BARTON: A couple of random questions now relating to what we’ve talked about over the long haul. Of all the work you’ve done and all of the developments you’ve made in the field of communications, how do you rank them in terms of your own evaluation of their worth?
PARSONS: I think the Wien communications network I operated so many years saved more lives than anything else. On evaluation of personal satisfaction, I would say the transpolar communications that made possible the direct crossing of the North Pole would rate number one.
I would rate number two as the Pet-4 project. It is a thrill to be 2OO miles out in the tundra, no other person around and pick up a phone and talk anywhere in the world.
My number three in satisfaction is the development of cable television.
And I can go on down and name a dozen. Probably the development of the sky van and the Pilatus Porter bush planes. They were both built in Europe. The Pilatus Porter was built at Stodd, Switzerland, and the turbo prop was built at Bono, France, and the sky van was developed at Belfast, Ireland. They were interesting projects. That’s probably as far down as we need to go.
BARTON: Don’t forget your airplane heater.
PARSONS: The little airplane heater, I’m the only one that got any benefit out of it. But there’s a lot of interest. I think I built three of them. I sold the airplane, so one of them left, and I have the other two.
BARTON: Another project that could have made you a millionaire but you moved on to other things.
PARSONS: There was no challenge left.
BARTON: I wonder if you could spend a few minutes telling what kind of man Max Brewer is. Just give us a quick portrait of that man because I know he’s significant to a lot of your work up here.
PARSONS: I would say he’s a wonderful man. He has probably done more to develop the Arctic and still has been the prime protector of the Arctic. He is very concerned that the Arctic not be destroyed. He has survived in the Arctic, been rescued in the Arctic. I think he does a wonderful job with each position he holds in the Arctic including the present one.
BARTON: I know you don’t have much patience for environmentalists that just shoot their mouths off and don’t do much, but you seem to have a great appreciation for Max Brewer who protects the Arctic. He uses actions instead of words. Is that a way to put that?
PARSONS: I think the environmentalists don’t, as a rule, understand the Arctic. They are off on tangents, some good and some bad for the Arctic. It’s possible for development to exist in the Arctic to benefit all mankind and still not destroy the ecology of the Arctic.
I can remember the controversy raised about putting the pipeline down the Anaktuvuk Pass. They forced the oil people to put it over Atigan Pass. It not only increased the cost of the pipeline, but it increased the transportation because of having to cross a higher pass than down through Anaktuvuk. They thought the caribou would be disturbed coming down through Anaktuvuk Pass. However, the caribou graze around the pipeline. They travel down the pipeline, and it has not affected wildlife one iota in the Arctic. So I think that we are paying that extra price for oil simply because of that. I think they were plain misguided.
BARTON: Ed, you spent a lot of time talking with, and in fact, living with the Eskimos. Could you tell us something about those people? Most of us have absolutely no notion of the Eskimo culture, of their habits, of their character, their skills, their relationship to the Arctic. What do you consider the central features of the Eskimo culture?
PARSONS: Number one, they don’t think like the white man does. They’re shrewd. They’re adaptable. They make wonderful mechanics, airplane pilots. And they are just a wonderful people.
BARTON: Can you recall any specific examples of what an Eskimo did that you still think about and admire? Any incident in flying or helping you get through the natural landscape? Demonstrate some of the skills you recall them having?
PARSONS: We had an Eskimo pilot, shortly after I came up here, who was assigned to take a notable man up for a polar bear hunt. George Theo was the pilot. He’s still piloting commercially. He flew this man out, probably 2OO miles north of Point Barrow out of the ice pack. Spotted a polar bear. He landed. They scanned out the bear. In fact, it was two bears. And he headed back for Point Barrow. This fellow said, “George, you’re not going back towards Point Barrow.” “Oh, yes, I am.” “Well, look the needle on your compass still points north.” George says, “I know. It don’t work.” This concerned me. Flying without a compass. I know compasses are not dependable in the Arctic, but they are a necessity as far as I’m concerned.
So this warranted a checkup. Being George’s boss, I cornered him, told him I understood his compass wasn’t working, informed him that FAA regulations prohibit the flying of an airplane without a compass. Asked him how long it had been inoperative. “Oh,” he said, “about a month.” I said, “Well, how do you tell your directions?” He looked very surprised. “By looking at the snow drifts.” And I learned to pilot by the snow drifts because you have a prevailing wind and a very definite pattern in your snow drifts. And the Eskimos had learned that before the white man ever showed up.
BARTON: We are about to run through the documents and Ed’s comments about the documents will be put in the order of the numbers for the exhibits that I read on to the tape.
Ed, here are two clippings from the Astorian Budget that refer to your television hookup–December 2 and December 11. And there is one item in particular in this news story that I wanted to ask you about. It quotes you and suggests that you are planning to work on eliminating some of the noise that’s in the early signal that you got from your antenna. Let me read this, this is from exhibit 1, December 11, 1948.
“Parsons picked up the pictures broadcast by the station KRSC-TV, the Seattle television station, and showed them clearly on the screen of his television receiving set. He said he expects to improve the reception of both pictures and sound tremendously by screening out interference from automobiles, adding machines, neon signs and other sources that are found in the building below and on adjacent commercial street. ‘This is one of the poorest locations in town for television reception,’ Parsons said, ‘because of this interference.'”
And Ed, the question I want to ask you that relates to this news story is how did you eliminate this interference?
PARSONS: Found a better signal up under a highway bridge.
BARTON: Using the same antenna?
PARSONS: I designed a new, more efficient antenna.
BARTON: And found a different signal location.
BARTON: And that did it?
PARSONS: It was a continuous process of improving antennas and amplifier efficiencies and everything else. It wasn’t one simple little job. I had acceptable pictures and pictures that people would pay for, but it wasn’t good enough to suit me.
BARTON: A couple of names are mentioned in this article that I don’t recall your talking much about. “Stan Daniels and John Langum of Alladin Electric Company continue to experiment with television receivers the company recently bought and they hope to demonstrate acceptable reception soon.”
PARSONS: There was an appliance store at the west end of town that felt they were being let out and they did try and didn’t succeed in getting satisfactory reception. In fact, I don’t think they got any reception. They are two other radiomen in town with another appliance dealer.
BARTON: And they weren’t working with you at all?
BARTON: Exhibit 2A
Has to do with the constant continuing problem of poles and pole attachments. And I want to refer to this because it developed so early in your development of cable as an issue and as you know it continued to be an issue throughout cable’s history. It continues to be. And there is one clause in the contract that I find very interesting. That is in the contract with the user of the cable signal you specify that there would be no guarantee of a permanent connection if service was interrupted. I assume that’s because the uncertainty about the pole connections.
PARSONS: That was before the pole agreement was signed, isn’t it?
PARSONS: Yes, well, we weren’t using the poles but the problem of guarantee, we were taking power from individuals and everyone else. There were a lot of “ifs” in those days.
BARTON: Let me correct that, Ed. This was not before you were using poles, this is a ’52 document and let me read what I have in mind here. Section 5: “… that the set owner understands that radio and electronics is making use of poles owned by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph or the Pacific Power and Light Company or both and that the continued use of such poles is in no way guaranteed, so the set owner agrees he will not make any claim or undertake any action against either of them if the service to be proved by Radio and Electronics Company is interrupted or discontinued.”
So that’s the section that I’m especially interested in here. And the question that I want to ask you is did that ever happen?
PARSONS: No, it never happened.
BARTON: It never happened, but this was one way of protecting yourself against those claims?
PARSONS: That’s right.
BARTON: … that you had no control over.
Also part of Exhibit 2, which I’m calling 2B, is the installation schematic. It’s not really a schematic, but a diagram of the way you installed the system.
PARSONS: It was required, what poles we wanted to get on, we had to supply a schematic of the layout.
BARTON: Including the pole numbers?
BARTON: And this was standard practice?
PARSONS: Yes, and I think it is today. I don’t think there’s been any change.
BARTON: Exhibit 3
This is from Electrical West the article about you and TV reception.
PARSONS: There’s another. It was a double-page spread and I didn’t find the other one. I’ll have to look for it.
BARTON: I’m interested in what these two pictures represent? A type of dipole antenna used to serve fifty or so. And then I want to know the relationship between the antenna in the top picture to this antenna. Is this a series of antennas, and is this the first master antenna and these are components?
PARSONS: This was the early type of antenna I used. Because of the nature of the signal moving over due to the vegetation on the mountains that was focusing it, the signal would vary in its intensity. I later designed this type of antenna to solve the seasonal variance. We sold a lot of these antennas.
BARTON: So is it safe to say that this is the advanced design compared to with this one.
It’s a schematic and I’d like for you to tell me what it is.
PARSONS: This is a four tube in-line amplifier on the primary frequency, incoming frequency, using a 6AK5 gold-grid tube as the low-noise amplifier.
BARTON: So this would have been associated with the earlier system?
PARSONS: This was in all the systems.
BARTON: Exhibit 4B
In listening to the tapes we’ve made so far, I feel I haven’t asked you enough about your work with translators and if my memory is correct, I think this is a schematic of a translator.
PARSONS: No, this is actually a transmitter. It’s not a translator. It has no receiving function. A translator was a receiver and a transmitter. This is transmitter only.
BARTON: Okay, so what would be the application of this particular schematic be? What would you use it for?
PARSONS: As a second half of a repeater or translator. A translator or repeater are used synonymously.
BARTON: Exhibit 5
Is a letter from Cox Cablevision and it’s to you inviting you to participate in a ceremony at Coxcomb Hill, Astoria, Oregon. “Mr. Marcus Bartlett, Vice President of Cox Broadcasting Corporation, Atlanta, will present to the city a permanent monument commemorating Ed Parsons as the inventor and the city of Astoria as the birthplace of cable television. Fred Ford, President of the National Cable Television Association, Washington D.C., and former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission will be the dedication speaker.”
I use this letter as a way to ask you what you recall about that ceremony and ask you to fill in some of the details of that ceremony.
PARSONS: I got the letter. Went to Astoria for the ceremony and that History of Cable TV does have the speech and the information on the placement of the monument.
BARTON: You’d been away from Astoria for about fifteen years and then you came back for the ceremony. What was going through your head then? You were in a quite different environment. Did you feel this is something that you’d moved on from? Was it a happy occasion?
PARSONS: It was a very happy occasion. That was before I was remarried and I invited Bertha, the gal I married, and her daughter down for the ceremonies, probably to impress her.
BARTON: Did you talk with a lot of old friends?
PARSONS: Oh, yes. I was really welcomed back because there was a lot of publicity connected with the placing of the monument.
BARTON: And as part of your papers we’ll actually have a copy of the actual document that recalls that dedication.
This is a letter from you. Not a kind letter, but a letter that clearly represents your concern about how communications should be developed for the Bush and the people who are dependent on communications in the bush. It’s directed to Mr. Shirley A. Debenhem of Debenhem and Snow, 511 West 4th Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska. And just reading an excerpt from the letter.
“The present approach to the bush phone program is like installing an APBX in a town with a phone for every teenager. There would be no lines available for the people who pay the bill. The present expansion as now proposed would only lead to continual degradation of the meager long lines communications we now have due to increased congestion. The money being spent by industry and government agencies in their individual communications efforts channeled into a unified program could bring good communications to the bush of Alaska.”
Could you talk a little bit about this situation? What was the main problem that you were concerned with?
PARSONS: There was a proposal by RCA for providing bush phone service. I don’t recall the occasion when I wrote this.
BARTON: “I’m inclined to want to speak out,” if I can just quote from this maybe this will help you recall the incident. “I’m sure that the conditions of sale of the ACS to RCA will go down in history as an asinine boondoggle by eggheads in Washington perpetuated on the people of Alaska. The bush telephone deal completely ignores the legitimate needs of the people, the industry, and the government agencies and instead provides an entertainment toy for the natives which under the present concept can never be dependable for communications in any emergency.”
PARSONS: It was proposed as a VHF/UHF network with repeaters throughout the state. I think I have the manual they sent out requesting bids. It was a proposal by RCA to supply the bush telephone service. ACS and other people were supplying some service but it was pretty restricted. And what was proposed was just like a country telephone with no controls on it.
BARTON: So your concern was that it wasn’t a sophisticated enough, a comprehensive enough, plan to really serve the people?
PARSONS: That’s right, and it was never implemented. The satellite communications using Canadian satellites was the first bold bush system that provided the needs of Alaska.
BARTON: So, it sounds like your letter had an impact.
PARSONS: I’m not sure, but had my say anyway.
BARTON: After it’s all said and done, do you think the service the natives are getting is much better than what was proposed here?
PARSONS: Oh, yes. It’s a real good system. And it was implemented by the state and not by RCA.
BARTON: Exhibit 7
It’s a document that reads as follows. It has a picture of a polar bear and a walrus sitting on top of the world with the word Arctic underneath and the words are “Know ye that by order of the great command pilot, ruler of the frozen northland, custodian of the aurora borealis, guardian of the polar empire, Mr. L.E. Parsons, honorary royal prince on this 2Oth day of September in the year 1955 did cross the Arctic Circle venturing into the kingdom of Borealis Rex. He’s entitled henceforth to all rights and recognition of a prince of the Royal Arctic Realm.”
And Ed, I use this document to ask you to talk about one important element of your experience that we don’t have time to go into in great detail. Unfortunately, it would make a whole book in itself, and that is your experiences as a bush pilot. I wonder if you could just recall one story from the many you can tell that represent flying in the bush and its importance to you as a communications expert. Can you think of one example of that activity?
PARSONS: Well, I think the highlight of my Dad’s life was when I took him for a trip around the Arctic, the opportunities of fishing through the ice with the Eskimos, running into a blizzard at Point Lay and visiting Barrow. According to my mother, that’s all he could talk about for the rest of his life.
BARTON: So you showed him a side of your activities that …
PARSONS: Well, a sight of the world he’d heard about but never expected to see.
BARTON: Was he frightened at all or was he just …
PARSONS: He was frightened in the-blizzard at Point Lay, yes.
BARTON: But when it was all said and done he really cherished the experience?
PARSONS: That’s right.
BARTON: Exhibit 9
Is the Pet-4’s schedule which we already talked about earlier this morning.
Is an information booklet, a flyer really, about the relocatable shelters, the modules, which you developed that included the communication engineering field units, self-powered, field offices, and so forth. I wonder if you could talk briefly about your work in this area.
PARSONS: I developed portable airport control modules and sold them to the oil companies for exploration in the Arctic. They contained a radio beacon, radio teletype, power plants big enough to supply airfield lighting, living quarters for the operator. It is two modules connected together by cable. And I built and sold a lot of them throughout the Arctic, both directly and through other dealers.
BARTON: How were those delivered? How did they get to their destination?
PARSONS: They were designed to fit inside a Hercules aircraft and they could be flown in on the frozen lakes in the wintertime and then used in the summertime for geological exploration.
BARTON: You mentioned you sold a number of them. How many do you figure?
PARSONS: Oh, I would say twenty or twenty-five.
BARTON: Are they still in use?
PARSONS: Some are. I see them occasionally. Once in a while I recognize them.
BARTON: Exhibit 11
Is the last one. And it’s a 1984 memo from you and I turn to it because it represents some of your recent work. And it talks about the initial communications network installed by Communications Engineering Incorporated “was a repeater network from Barrow to Prudhoe with repeater installed at Cape Simpson, Olicktalk, connecting with stations at Barrow, Lonely, and Prudhoe. The system worked fine and provided all the long-haul communications needed to the drill sites on the coastal plain. The system continued to serve throughout the program and was transferred intact to the FAA as an operating network. When the exploration moved inland beyond the reach of the coastal network, the need for a second system was apparent. To get the communications needed, the TRN network was installed. It was a superbly designed and engineered system and would have been suitable anywhere except the North Slope. To explain, the repeaters were installed in the Hyde Bridges as is common practice. They were installed in a loop configuration which is also common practice. The problem they encountered is the repeaters were logistically non-supportable. The weather is such that the ridges are almost perpetually bathed in ice fog. Helicopters and bush planes can fly up the valley under the fog or above the fog avoiding the ice and conditions. But would ice up trying to get to the repeaters.”
Well, this sets up the situation and I wonder if you could talk about how you addressed that situation, how you solved this problem?
PARSONS: I relocated the repeaters, reconfigured the communications setup that originally was set up by Communications Engineering and redesigned the whole Arctic communications. They did have some communications up and down the coast, but it did not serve the purposes of the drilling and exploration program.
BARTON: So, this memo represents that point at which you began to work on the total redesign of the system?
PARSONS: Yes, that’s when I was hired to redesign it and make the system work. Provide the communications that were required for the safety of people and property throughout the Pet-4 project.
BARTON: And the end result of the work represented by this memo is the ability for anybody to pick up a phone at an oil drill and communicate with anyone in the world.
PARSONS: That’s right.
BARTON: If I recall in your ranking this is a significant accomplishment in your long list of accomplishments. You feel it’s one of the most important.
PARSONS: Yes. Besides, as the government says, I saved a million dollars a year.
BARTON: No small achievement.
Well, that represents the exhibits and this is right at the end of our tape. And what have I not asked you that we need to know about you? I know there are ten thousand things that we could uncover, but what do you think is significant for us to conclude with?
PARSONS: I don’t know of anything.
End of Tape 5, Side A