You me and a tree

The man who made the trees talk and changed radio forever

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With his invention of the floraphone, Major General George Owen Squier, a prolific inventor and engineer, hoped to change radio beyond recognition.

There are dozens of good reasons to talk about Major General George Owen Squier. A man with 65 US patents to his name (by my count), he was a visionary engineer, the inventor of multiplexing, one of the earliest proponents of a US air force, the first passenger in a Wright brothers plane, and, perhaps less admirably, inventor of the term ‘Muzak’. Yet what caught my attention was the picture of the dashing signals officer on the July 1919 edition of the Electrical Experimenter entitled: ‘The Trees Now Talk’.

The story starts in 1904, when Squier was part of the Signals Corps at Camp Atascadero in the California district. Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, he was convinced that the secret to winning wars was radio-telegraphic communication. However, the Army buzzer telegraph and telephone sets around in the hot summer of 1904 were not going to win anything, as they barely functioned in parched ground in a dry season. Squier wondered if the answer lay in the trees. Sure enough, when the sets were connected to a copper nail driven into the trunk of a eucalyptus tree and earthed around the base, they worked.

However, radio was still in its infancy and needed a concerted jolt to move the tree telegraph – or ‘floraphone’ – forward. Then came the First World War. When the US government realised its submarine cable system might be compromised (it was tapped by its own allies) or severed, it established a chain of receiving stations across the US to copy and record all enemy and allied radio traffic from Europe.

In the oak woods on Grant Road just outside Washington DC, Squier set up a radio test unit. He laid a small wire netting on the ground beneath a tree and connected insulated wire to a nail in the trunk. He configured an army radio to use the tree as a huge antenna. The results were startling. After some initial static, messages began coming through from German communications – travelling some 4,000 miles (6,400km) from the Nauen Transmitter Station in Brandenburg. With some retuning (and a few changes of tree) they could also pick up allied communications from Lyon and Poldhu and even ship-to-shore radio messages.

After the war, a reporter from Scientific American was given a demonstration. He “heard a high-toned hum, which changed to a low growl, then skied to the upper reaches of the musical scale in a faint, very faint buzz, as if some microscopic mosquito had had his song made audible. The operator rapidly turning the knobs on his couplers and condensers, raised his hand: suddenly, through the changing radio signals which were clamouring for attention together in the receivers came his voice: ‘There – the loud, easily heard one is New Brunswick; the fainter, lower one is Nauen, in Germany’.”

The reporter was impressed, titling his article ‘With Trees for Ears’. He wrote enthusiastically about the messages that could be transmitted through trees (floragrams), the development of a network of tree telephones (floraphones) and a tree telegraph (floragraph). He summed up by imagining a world where “explorers, discoverers, engineers in far places, the forest service, the woodsman, all have use for the new development...the tree as an antenna offers unusual possibilities for the investigation of atmospheric phenomena and for what may be called the physics of botany (or the botany of physics) and perhaps is the road by which the unsolved puzzle of growth may be studied”.

Although we live in a highly connected world, it’s not the trees that are doing it, unless you count the mobile phone towers rather unconvincingly disguised as trees. So what went wrong?

Squier knew the answer. Long-range communication requiring large and expensive aerials prevented amateurs advancing the hobby. He hoped that his tree telegraph might solve this problem and allow brilliant amateur enthusiasts to change radio beyond recognition, which did indeed happen. One of the first things they achieved was removing the need for huge aerials and the trees fell silent once again.

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