A Tale of Three Towers

In 1912, Arlington was home to the world's most powerful wireless station.

Arlington’s “Three Sisters,” circa 1917. Photo courtesy of Sparks Journal with thanks to John Dilks and the Society of Wireless Pioneers

Before there were high-rise buildings, Arlington’s skyline was dominated by the “Three Sisters,” a trio of radio towers built in 1912 on the grounds of a new naval radio station near the corner of Columbia Pike and Courthouse Road. Rising 600 feet, the highest of the three was the second-tallest human-made structure in the world after the Eiffel Tower, topping the Washington Monument by 45 feet.

At the time, radio technology was in its infancy. A year earlier, inventor Lee De Forest had made history when he sent a “wireless” broadcast of Cavalleria Rusticana from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to rooftop receivers all across the Big Apple. The public saw the technology as little more than a novelty, but the U.S. Navy knew better.

Arlington’s first radio signal was sent out in early 1913 using the call letters NAA, and it was in Arlington that the term “radio” became the industry standard. Later that year the station began sending time signals to Navy ships to help them determine their longitude.

In September 1915, the towers sent a greeting to the Navy radio station on Mare Island, California, marking the first transcontinental broadcast of a human voice. Soon after, a short message was sent from Arlington to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, nearly 5,000 miles away—the farthest a radio message had ever traveled. A few weeks later, the world’s first transatlantic voice communication transmitted the voice of telephone engineer B.B. Webb from Arlington to the Eiffel Tower.

A symbol of immense local pride, the Three Sisters were featured on postcards. Their immediate neighborhood, streetcar stop and post office were renamed “Radio” as the towers beamed out time checks and weather reports, and served as the main radio station for the War Department. Radio Arlington broadcast the news when the U.S. officially entered World War I, and it was through this station that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept in contact with the nation while he was at sea.

Eventually the Sisters’ reign ended when they proved hazardous to another innovation of the day. By the 1930s, Washington-Hoover Airport was the busiest airport in the country. With dozens of flights in and out daily, there were numerous close calls with the towers, even after the Navy painted them orange in an attempt to prevent collisions. In 1941, upon the opening of the new Washington National Airport, the radio towers were dismantled.

Today the Sisters are no more, but their legacy lives on in every sports and morning-zoo radio talk show—and in one noteworthy artistic homage in Penrose Square on Columbia Pike. Just blocks from where the towers once stood is “Echo,” an interactive sculpture designed by artist Richard Deutsch and installed in 2012. Its granite monoliths are designed so that words spoken into one stone can be heard by listeners at the other.

Related Stories

Categories: Local History