The RPL Mobile Observatory
D.R. (Del) Hansen
During the latter part of World War Two, the Canadian government established the Canadian Radio Wave Propagation Committee (CRWPC) with representatives from the various armed forces. Three of these representatives were Mr. Frank Davies who was then Civilian Scientist with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), Squadron Leader J.C.W. (Jim) Scott who was the representative of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Lieutenant J.H. (Jack) Meek Ph.D., also with the RCN. The Defence Research Board (DRB) was formed in 1947. The Radio Propagation Laboratory (RPL) was established as a unit of DRB in 1947. These three individuals formed the first scientific staff. Frank Davies became Superintendent with Jim Scott his Deputy and Jack Meek as head of ionospheric research.
Jack Meek had trained and worked as a meteorologist. During the Second World War, he served as an RCN Intelligence Officer concerned with intercepting HF radio signals from German submarines in the North Atlantic and with the accuracy of High Frequency Direction Finder (HFDF) bearings on these submarines. (In this, he worked closely with Frank Davies). This work led him to shift his interests from the lower meteorological atmosphere to that region of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere.
Radio signals originating in the North Atlantic, as well as those from the northern part of Canada pass through the auroral zone, the region of the Auroral Borealis or Northern Lights. This region is noted for its often uncharitable treatment of high frequency (HF) radio signals. In the days before satellite communications, HF was used extensively to communicate over distances of a few hundred to a couple thousand miles. A better understanding of the behaviour of the ionosphere in the auroral zone was desirable to try to increase the usefulness of HF communications in that region.
To learn more about the vagaries of the ionosphere in this area of the world it was decided to conduct studies along a path crossing the auroral belt. It happens that the Hudson's Bay Railway which runs from The Pas to Churchill, Manitoba passes beneath the auroral zone where some of the most frequent and intense auroral displays occur. Furthermore, the rail line crosses the zone at a near right angle. This region was selected for a research study that was intended to continue for one year period beginning in August 1948. It would become the first major project undertaken by the newly established Radio Propagation Laboratory. The plan was to establish a mobile ionospheric observatory that would travel back and forth from The Pas to Churchill, stopping for a week at each of the end points and at four intermediate locations. These locations were Wabowden, Pikwitonei, Gillam and Herchmer. These points were selected because: a) they were located roughly equidistant from one another; b) all had railways spurs that permitted the Mobile to be placed some distance from the main rail; and c) all had Section Crews that were to provide the water and other required services. The unit was called the RPL Mobile Observatory, but was usually referred to as The Mobile.
Normally, there were two trains a week from The Pas to Churchill and back. One carried passengers and express and was known locally as The Fast Train. The other carried freight and was called The Slow Train. Plans were completed to have The Fast Train move the Mobile from place to place.
The Mobile was Jack Meek's 'baby' and he undertook all arrangements for it. At that time, The Hudson's Bay Railway operated with some independence but was responsible to the Canadian National Railway (CNR) Headquarters in Montreal. Jack approached the officials there and arranged to have an out-of-service Pullman car rebuilt to function as an ionospheric observatory. Space was provided for two diesel generators to provide power, for a sixteen foot operating room that housed a manually operated ionospheric sounder, a magnetometer, an auroral intensity photometer, a 500 watt commercial HF transmitter and various bits of electronic test equipment and components. In addition, the car provided a small galley (kitchen), a dining and living area, sleeping accommodation, and wash room facilities that could double as a photographic darkroom.
In addition, the CNR headquarters personnel had agreed to have the Section crews at each of the locations fill the overhead tanks with fresh drinking water and provide and empty receptacles which were to collect the waste from the washroom toilets. Subsequent experience showed, as sometimes happens, that headquarters personnel may have no real understanding of local conditions in the field. During the winter, fresh water was unavailable in some locations. Sometimes the crews brought ice to be melted, in some cases it became necessary for the Mobile staff to thaw snow to obtain the needed water. Similarly, the sanitary arrangements proved completely impracticable for much of the year.
The initial modification of the car was done in Montreal after which it was delivered to a railway siding that existed off the Prescott Highway near what was then the southern edge of Ottawa. A contractor installed the diesel generators and technical staff from RPL installed the transmitter, ionospheric sounder and ancillary equipment. When the installation work was completed, the car was moved to the Old Union Railway Station (now the Conference Centre) to begin its journey west, a trip it would make attached to the rear of the CNR Transcontinental train, behind the regular observation car. This location, at the rear of a train, is by far the most comfortable place to travel. It is a maximum distance from the noise of the locomotive. Also, any jiggling and joggling due to braking and slack in the couplings between cars tends to be smoothed out. This location behind the observation car did not disturb the crews of the Transcontinental. It was another matter, however, when we reached the Hudson's Bay Railway.
The evening of our departure was uneventful except for two incidents. One involved the CNR rail service crew, the other a member of the staff of the Mobile. As they were required to do prior to our departure, the CN crew filled the water tank that was attached below the ceiling of the Mobile. Unfortunately, they also topped up, with water, the fuel oil tanks that supplied the diesel generators! An Ottawa company, Mechron Power Systems had designed and installed the diesel generator arrangement. The chief engineer of that firm, George Asquith, was called to put things right. He had been at a social event of some sort . He arrived in party clothes and went about 'bleeding' the oil lines to eliminate the water and thus ensure that the diesels would start and run satisfactorily.
The second incident involved Jack Hogarth, then a university summer student who was to work on the Mobile until he had to return to school in the fall. He was very much in love. At the moment the Conductor shouted "All Aboard", he was passionately kissing his bride goodbye. The kiss extended longer than was discreet and those of us aboard the train, and any bystanders, were entertained with the sight of Jack racing down the tracks, between the rails, just managing to swing himself on board before the train reached a speed that would have made boarding impossible.
The RPL Mobile and its crew were taken by the CN Transcontinental to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba where we were uncoupled from the mainline and attached to a train whose normal run was to The Pas, Manitoba. On arrival at The Pas, the Mobile was shunted onto the tail of a "Y", an arrangement of track (three switches, two curved and one straight length) that permits a locomotive, a railway car, or even several cars to be turned end for end. In railway maintenance shops, turntables exist to enable locomotives to be turned. But turntables are costly and normally only accommodate a single locomotive - Y's can be designed to enable a fair number of cars to be reversed. It was possible to locate the Mobile at the end of a Y without restricting the use for which it was intended and so that is where the Mobile was located at each site.
After being positioned at the far end of the Y, the staff set about getting the equipment set up so that measurements could be started. Firstly, this involved erecting a three section, 60 foot high pipe mast that supported a delta type antenna used for ionospheric measurements. This mast was equipped with an erecting arrangement using a gin pole that fitted into a novel hardware device at the foot of the mast. It used sets of guy wires that were anchored at the zero, 90, 180 and 270 degree points. The mast and guying arrangement had been designed by Harold Serson who was one of the staff on board the Mobile. Harold, who had spent a good bit of time in the Arctic, also designed anchors suitable for use in the Northern terrain. At his suggestion, these were installed and left in position at each location - sensible course of action in view of the frozen condition that existed for much of the year. Open wire transmission line was used to connect the delta antenna to the Mobile.
Next, the field detector heads for the magnetometers were positioned and joined by multiple conductor cables to the magnetometer and Esterline-Angus recorders located in the operating room. Harold had designed and machined the supports for the magnetometer coils, had wound the coils and designed the electronics used in the system. (He had expert advice in this as his brother, Dr. Paul Serson, was in charge of earth magnetic field measurements at the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.)
Then, shorter poles were mounted on the roof of the Mobile and a communications antenna strung between them and connected to the 500 watt HF transmitter.
Finally, the auroral recorder was made ready for operation.
Initially, this whole process took a couple of hours. Eventually, with practice, it could be completed and measurements begun in less than thirty minutes after the Mobile had been dropped off at a site.
At each site, hourly ionospheric measurements were made around the clock and these, together with the magnetometer charts and charts from the auroral photometer were sent off to Ottawa for analysis.
During ionospheric storms, when the normal ionospheric layers were disturbed and the absorption of radio waves was high, it was normal to observe strong magnetic disturbances on the magnetometer charts. On one of the early trips, the magnetometers showed off-scale readings with no ionospheric disturbance. This seemed very strange indeed. Further investigation revealed that the problem was not caused by changes in the earth's magnetic field, but rather by rabbits. They seemed to be particularly fond of the red rubber covering on the multiconductor cables that ran from the mobile to the magnetometer heads located some distance away. During the night, they had chewed through and shorted the cable. A change of cable corrected that apparent ionospheric anomaly.
Another cable experience may be reported. Most of the available co-axial cables became very inflexible when exposed to below-zero temperatures. A firm in Montreal had produced a design they felt would correct that problem and sent us a roll of perhaps fifty feet of their new cable that had a grey rather than the usual black outer covering. It arrived via The Fast Train and was placed on the rear outside of the Mobile where it spent the night at temperatures of more than thirty-five degrees below zero (Celsius). The following morning, Harold Serson tossed the roll out onto the ground preparatory to testing its flexibility. On impact, the outer grey covering of the cable shattered like glass and we were left with a roll of completely naked braid-covered co-ax. So it was back to the drawing board for that designer!
The HF transmitter was used to communicate with Ottawa and with the Army Signal detachment in Winnipeg. Orders for food and supplies were radioed to Army Signals who relayed them to our suppliers, Western Grocers in Winnipeg.
In his initial arrangements with the CN, Jack Meek had arranged to hire, as cook for the Mobile, Bill O'Neil a retired CNR Chef, First Class, and a bachelor.
In those days, the responsibilities of the Senior Chef on a railway dining car included planning menus and meals, ordering supplies, overseeing the preparation and serving of the food and, of course, overseeing his staff. Indeed, he had overall responsibility and accountability for the entire operation of the diner. One way that accountability was checked was in the cost of operation. The chef was judged on the average cost of meals calculated over each monthly period. If memory serves me right the average cost per meal, in 1947, had to be kept at or below 52 cents. If the cost exceeded that benchmark, a brownie point (demerit mark) was placed on the chef's personnel record. The higher the amount exceeded the benchmark, the more brownie points he acquired. If the number of demerit marks reached a certain critical level, the chef could find himself looking for another job.
Bill O'Neil was so delighted to learn he could prepare menus and meals without worrying about the 52-cent benchmark that he tended to pull out all the stops, so to speak. After we had been underway for some months, Bill suggested, "Would you like to have steak and mushroom pie?" It sounded like a fine idea, so the next food order that was radioed to Western Grocers had, in addition to the usual items, a request for steak and a half dozen tins of mushrooms. When the order arrived, it included the steak (I think it was porterhouse). But there appeared to have been an error in radio transmission or reception. As a result, we received, not one-half dozen tins, but one-half case of fancy button mushrooms, packed in very small tins, and imported from Bordeaux, France (the invoice showed a cost of $86.00 per case). We sometimes ate very well on the mobile!
On our first trip up the Hudson Bay Railway, Jack Meek, in an attempt to save work for the Chef, made what proved to be a tactical error. Initially, Bill O'Neil had placed the food on the table in serving dishes from which we served our plates. Jack suggested that this made unnecessary work. Why didn't Bill just serve the plates in the kitchen instead? It would save washing extra dishes. That worked OK for most of us. But one of our number, Cam Baker, did not require much food. His metabolism seemed much different from the rest of the crew. When the twelve inch plate, loaded with food, was given to him, he was simply not able to eat it all. This annoyed the Chef, who 'steamed' silently about it for a while. Finally, his irritation surfaced. I came into the dining area one day after everyone but Cam had left the table. Chef Bill was standing with his arms on his hips, glaring at Cam and saying, "What's wrong with you Baker?" "Where's your appetite?" Why don't you eat it?" And then came the real question, "Is there something wrong with the food?"
Some of us had our first taste of venison while on the Mobile. Chef O'Neil had acquired fresh venison from some of the Cree Natives who lived near the rail line. Unfortunately, he also managed to acquire and smuggle aboard a bottle of some very intoxicating liquid, from staff on the diner of The Fast Train. We had stopped just before noon and set up the equipment. We entered the dining area to find Bill O'Neil, bleary eyed, his chef's cap on the side of his head, ready to serve our meal. It consisted of two items: charred venison and fried potatoes, badly burned fried potatoes. When proteins are overcooked they become very tough and hard to chew. We learned that venison is no exception!
Each time the Mobile was moved from one place to another it was necessary to buy twelve first-class tickets. These were purchased from the local Station Agent. We had come from Ottawa with a sense of mission and of our own importance in the overall scheme of things. Consequently, we expected to get prompt service from those we dealt with - including local Station Agents. We soon discovered that our expectations did not always match the views of the local residents. This was impressed on me the first time I visited the agent at Gillam to buy tickets for the next move. This gentleman was engaged in a game of bridge with three of his cronies. I had the mistaken idea that upon noting my arrival, he would lay down his cards and come to the wicket to satisfy my needs. Not so! He merely glanced over and then continued his bridge game. When he had finished playing that hand, and only then, did he condescend to come to the wicket to see what I might want. In the North, we had to get used to having things move at a slower pace than we were accustomed to!
As noted earlier, the Hudson Bay Railway was operated as a separate part of the Canadian National Railway System. The Superintendent of the HB railway was a gentleman named Major McLaughlin who had retained his military rank from the first World War. Major McLaughlin had a private railway car that he used when he travelled up and down to inspect the rail line. His car had a rear observation platform and was normally attached to the end of the train. Our arrival changed all that. Not long before, there had been a horrendous accident involving a train returning to Winnipeg from Winnipeg Beach. One of the cars on that train was an old passenger car built on a wooden frame and it had been in the middle of a train comprised of steel cars. In the crash, the wooden car was crushed. It had acted as a sort of shock absorber with resultant injury and death of many of its occupants. As a result of that crash, the Board of Transport Commissioners specified that any time a wooden car was part of any train, it had to be attached to the rear. The Mobile was such a car. Thus, when Major McLaughlin was on an inspection trip and we were being moved from one location to the next, his observation platform viewed, not the vistas to the rear of the train, but one end of the RPL Mobile. He was not amused and made sure that we knew it.
Jack Meek had come along on the first trip to Churchill and back to The Pas. Having assured himself that things were going as planned, he headed back to Ottawa leaving an Officer-In-Charge and a technical staff of four, plus the cook. I served as Officer-In-Charge until near Christmas when the car was berthed at Churchill for the holiday period and I returned to Ottawa. Clare McKerrow arrived in January to take over as OIC until May when I came back to enable him to return home. To reach the Mobile, which was then midway between The Pas and Churchill, I travelled on the Churchill bound train and transferred to the Mobile when it was picked up at Pikwitonei en route to its next stop at Gillam. The pickup occurred late in the evening and we sat in the living quarters talking until fairly late before we finally went to bed.
Next morning, about 4:00 a.m., I was awakened by Clare McKerrow shaking me and saying, "Del, better get up, the place is on fire!" On awakening, I could smell acrid smoke. The fire was in the galley just ahead of the living quarters. I noted that the train was not moving. It had stopped at Ilford, Manitoba to unload express and to service the locomotive and tender. Because this was not one of the normal Mobile stops, and because the train passed this location during the night, some of us were not familiar with it. We later learned that Ilford had one claim to fame - it was where the then Governor General used to come on fishing expeditions!
I hurriedly dressed and before heading for the rear exit, picked up what I believed was my suitcase. No point in losing one's possessions, I reasoned. (Later, when I retrieved the suitcase from the ground outside the car and carried it back in, I discovered that it was not mine but belonged to someone else. And it was empty!)
On leaving the car by the rear exit, I met a member of the Mobile staff, Earl MacDonald, who was still dressed in his pyjamas. Earl had asthma; the smoke prevented him from going back to get his clothes but he was too modest to leave the car and be seen dressed that way. (Although it was early in the morning, there were groups of people outside. In this part of the North, the arrival of the train is one of the few eventful happenings that occur each week, so folks come out for the occasion.)
As I ran from the rear of the car up the left side toward the galley, I could see Clare McKerrow running towards the car carrying a large soda-acid fire extinguisher in each hand. With great presence of mind he had retrieved them from the local hotel some few hundred yards away. While he was en route, Jim McLaughlin (another member of the Mobile staff) and I got a ladder we carried on the car and placed it against the side of the Mobile breaking the window into the galley. Just as we completed this move, Clare arrived and climbed the ladder to discharge the first extinguisher into the galley area. The flames died down briefly then began to flare up again. Jim passed up the second extinguisher and Clare repeated the former action with similar results. I then ran around to the other side of the car to see what was happening there. In passing around the end of the car, I met Earl MacDonald. Someone had retrieved his clothes and he was standing looking on. As I passed he commented wryly, "What that guy McKerrow will do to get a person up in the morning!"
Standing beside Earl was the train conductor, a man named Smith. He shouted the mournful prediction, "You can't save it, you can't save it." Later, we discovered that all passenger cars like ours carried a steam hose in a compartment below the car. It could have been attached to the steam line on the train and used to quickly extinguish the flames. In the panic of the moment, Conductor Smith had forgotten its existence.
I continued around to the right-hand side of the car to find that some of the locals had broken the low window across from the fire and, using a low pressure hose, were pouring water on the carpet opposite the galley door! They meant well, but their action was not very helpful!
About this time, someone realized that there was a large supply of water available in the water tower just ahead. Indeed, one reason the train had stopped at Ilford was to refill the tender with water. So McLaughlin and I got an axe, climbed up on top of the car and took turns chopping a hole in the roof directly over the galley. Meanwhile, Clare signalled the crew to move the train slowly ahead. By the time the Mobile, which was at the rear of the train, reached the water tower, Jim and I had succeeded in making a sizeable hole in the car roof into which I inserted the spout from the water tower and McLaughlin pulled the control rope. A solid stream of water, perhaps ten inches in diameter, poured into the galley. As it happened, our hole had been cut directly over the horizontally mounted overhead stainless steel water supply tank. The curved surface of this tank acted as a diffuser to spread the water around and to bring the fire under control in a relatively short while.
Leaving McLaughlin holding the rope, I got down off the car and travelled around the rear to note a stream of water, a sort of brook an inch or two deep, pouring out the rear door. So, contrary to Conductor Smith's gloomy prediction, the car had been saved, albeit with considerable fire and smoke and water damage.
In retrospect, we realized just how fortunate it was that the fire was discovered while the train was stopped at Ilford. Our living quarters were located to the rear of the galley and of the fire. Had it flared up while the train was in motion, we might all have been overcome by smoke. Even if we had awakened, the fire might well have burned through the signal cord, making it impossible to signal the train crew that an emergency existed. Indeed, even if we had been able to signal and stop the train, without a supply of water, Conductor Smith's dire prediction would almost certainly have come true. Only because we were stopped near a water tower had it been possible to save the car and, perhaps, our lives...
This incident caused a delay in the program. It was necessary to take the Mobile back to Winnipeg where the car was rebuilt in the CNR facilities (Car Barns) in Fort Garry, a process that took several weeks. Some staff stayed on. This was necessary because someone had to remain on the Mobile 24 hours a day to prevent pilfering . Those who were not on car duty were free to go into Winnipeg to see the sights. One such trip was taken by Keith Bedal, Earl MacDonald and me. As the three of us wandered down Portage Avenue, we encountered curious looks. That was probably not surprising: my height was six feet four inches and neither Keith nor Earl were much over five feet. But we felt that we were getting more attention than this height difference justified. The explanation soon came. We learned that the City of Winnipeg was holding an anniversary celebration, its 75th. As part of the festivities, they had brought in a circus and midway.
When the fire damage had been repaired, we returned to The Pas to continue the project. The Mobile finally completed its task and returned to Ottawa in August of 1949.
RPL Mobile Staff (at various times)
|Dr. J.H. Meek||Overall charge of the program|
|Del Hansen||O.I.C. Aug-Dec 1948 and May-Aug 1949|
|Clare McKerrow||O.I.C. Jan-May 1949|
|Jack Hogarth||(summer student)|
|Ken MacDonald||(summer student)|
|Jim McLaughlin||(summer student)|
|Bill Penn||Was present for a few days to set up the auroral recorder.|
The Canadian Army Signal Corps
Because of their interest in the nature of the study, the Canadian Army Signal Corps provided one staff member from the Prince Rupert Ionospheric Station. Cpl. Ted Lushington joined the Mobile for the first six months. He was succeeded by Sgt. Len Hagg for the remaining time. Len joined the staff of RPL shortly thereafter.
|Cpl. Ted Lushington||Aug 1948 - February 1949|
|Sgt. Len Hagg||Feb 1949 - August 1949|
Page created: 13 June 1997 by Cynthia Boyko
Last update: February 6, 2001 by Stu McCormick