Last year, my theme was portmanteau words, words that are formed by mashing together parts of two other words to make a new word, such as “dramedy,” a combination of “drama” and “comedy.” Words like CONELRAD are also portmanteaus, and they are also acronyms. CONELRAD expands into CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation. It was a way of alerting the public in the event the Russkies were flying over here to drop an atomic bomb on us, AND it was a way to confuse said bomber if it tried to use radio transmissions to find the place to bomb.
The CONELRAD logo. Source: Wikipedia
After World War II, when the United States used the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union figured out how to create an atomic bomb, and the Cold War between the US and the USSR began. Obviously, the biggest concern was that the Russians would use their atomic bomb to carry out an attack on the Americans, and the race was on to come up with a way to let people know that the Russians were coming to blow us all to Kingdom Come, and to misdirect them if they tried to use radio signals to locate appropriate targets, as the Nazis had done.
The great minds of the government sat down and came up with a plan, which they initially called the “key station” system. The FCC chose certain AM radio stations in each geographic area as “key” stations, either “basic key stations” that were connected directly to the Air Defense Command Center or “relay key stations” that would be contacted by phone by the basic key stations. Every other AM, FM, and TV station would monitor one of those stations in case the ADCC sent out an attack warning.
Key stations would alert the rest of the stations by shutting off their transmitter for five seconds, turning it back on for five seconds, turning it off again for five seconds, then broadcasting a 1000 Hz tone for fifteen seconds. When stations received this message, they were instructed to inform their viewers or listeners that they were leaving the air and to tell them that they needed to turn on an AM radio and listen to either 640 kHz or 1240 kHz for “official news, information, and instructions.”
All AM radios sold between 1952 and 1963 had to have the CONELRAD frequencies (640 kHz and 1240 kHz) clearly marked, whether with a triangle, a triangle in a circle, the Civil Defense symbol, or some other symbol, so that people could find them easily. (Source: Wikipedia)
The stations that stayed on the air (usually the key stations) would then set their transmitters to either 640 or 1240 and start taking turns turning on their transmitter, broadcasting for several minutes, and shutting down. The idea was to keep shifting where the the broadcast was coming from, thus confusing Sergei and Ivan, who were flying an atomic bomb over from the USSR with the intention of dropping it on some city. Meanwhile, people sitting in their basements or bomb shelters could listen to an uninterrupted stream of news and information on their radios.
CONELRAD was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1951, and it turned out to have a number of problems with it.
- The shutting on and off of the transmitter put a lot of stress on it, and sometimes a station would shut off its transmitter and not be able to bring it back up. This was known as the EBS Stress Test.
- The advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which didn’t require a pilot or navigator or use radio waves to locate its target, made the whole system obsolete.
- When radio and TV stations saw it, they began asking if they could use CONELRAD to broadcast weather warnings and civil emergency warnings, and they were told that no, it was just for nuclear attack. This caused them to pout and demand that something similar be designed for those situations.
CONELRAD lasted until 1963, when it was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System. On the surface, the EBS looked just like CONELRAD, complete with the EBS Stress Test (at least until 1973, when the off-on-off-tone was replaced by a two-tone attention signal), but it could be used for other types of emergencies.
I’m interested in emergency broadcasting, mostly because I was scared half to death by the weekly Emergency Broadcast System tests as a kid (and I wasn’t alone, as it so happens). Ben Minnotte, who runs the Oddity Archive channel on YouTube, has a great video on emergency broadcasting, which I’ll include here.
And here is a public service annoncement about CONELRAD.
And thus ends our history lesson for today. There’ll be a quiz next week.
See you tomorrow!