The Pru

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I was at WBCN for one reason: to install a new transmitter at the Prudential Tower, and in the summer of 1971 I began going there more often. Jacques Tati probably did not use the Pru as a model for Playtime because he had Corbusier buildings to look at, but if you see that 1967 film you will get a very good idea of how the Pru was supposed to look.

I say “supposed” because the building’s sterile, cubical, glass enclosed forms had been compromised from the very beginning by the insidious Massachusetts weather, which produced several inhuman effects, some of which could presumably have been foreseen by the architects, some not. The winds channeling through the steel, glass and anodized aluminum porticoes and plazas around the base of the building often increased in a continuous wind tunnel like effect. Because the glass was arranged in such a way that one could see all the way through the expanses of glass from one side of the base to the other, birds were confused. They smashed into the glass and dropped dead in heaps in the plazas. Nets a hundred feet on a side had to be installed to try to catch the birds before they killed themselves.

Most humans had the strength to march stolidly against the Prudential winds. On the semi-enclosed escalators they could clutch at the handrails. In winter heads bowed, frozen little icicles at the end of their noses, they tried to push their way through the elegant, Modern experience as quickly as possible. In the years since these spaces have all been enclosed, and the open plazas, porticoes and walkways are gone.

Near the bottom of the long, semi-enclosed escalator leading up to the Pru Plaza from Boylston Street was the large Brigham’s Restaurant where I used to go for lunch. I ordered my tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat and paid 35 cents. I sat down at one of the clean, formica clad tables and noted the gaudy decor of the place, synchronized among the hundreds of Brigham’s Restaurants in the region. I looked around at the other patrons. Who were these mostly very young or very old, neatly polyester dressed, hatchet-faced people? The Boston Irish, of course. Anybody else could afford to eat someplace better.

Although I had expected Arnie Ginsburg, because of my inexperience, to bring in Randy Mayer, a radio manager and technician from WHCN in Hartford. (Hartford Concert Network – get it?) I was left to do the work myself. There was no possibility of delay. The circumstance beyond our control was the erection of the John Hancock tower. Its steel was within a hundred feet of the level of our old transmitter on top of the John Hancock Building next door when our new transmitter, antenna and transmission line pieces arrived at the Pru. Arnie called in electricians to do the 480 volt primary transmitter wiring. I supervised them and installed the control and audio equipment and lines. Don Prescott, a rigger buddy of Arnie’s, came in to assemble the transmission line pieces and climb the old television mast atop the Prudential to put in the new antenna. Arnie and I spent two days on the roof of the Pru watching Don at work on the highest point of the city and helping in small ways, passing the occasional tool. When Don was done, I went down to the new transmitter room and tested the new transmission line by pressurizing it with nitrogen. For a week or so I measured the pressure every day. No leaks.

The roof of the Pru was delightful, above the air pollution and noise, which melded into a general, distant roar. One calm late summer day followed another. There was no danger of harmful radio frequency effects in those days. Today, when, from a distance, the roof of the Pru appears to be forested with radio and television masts, push a piece of raw hamburger up through the hatch on the roof on a long stick and draw it back twenty minutes later, and it will be done medium rare. In 1971 we were the only high power operation up there, and our antenna was a hundred fifty feet up on the mast, eight hundred ninety-seven feet above street level. When the new transmitter was turned on we could stand directly below the antenna, in the null, not that I ever bothered to. Today, as the carrier based technology of radio and TV broadcasting begins to be replaced with processes 100 to 1000 times more efficient in energy use, digital broadcasting, the environment in transmitter-intensive locations (broadcast towers and the roofs of high buildings) will become habitable again, and technicians will be able to venture out in safety once more.

Drake’s equation contains a term for the length of time intelligent civilizations release detectable signals into space, during which, Drake supposed, intelligent beings on planets around other stars would be emitting radio-frequency energy, much in the way broadcasters were pouring out tens or hundreds of kilowatts each in 1961, when Drake first developed his SETI equation. Drake does not appear to have observed that during the lifetime of a civilization radio frequency technology would improve, becoming, from a frequency domain perspective, more and more like noise, and thus harder to detect. The television transmitters of 1961 emitted half or more of their energy at a single frequency. This monochromatic “carrier” contained no information in itself, but it always had to be on, and, because of its spectral purity, was the indication of human life most likely to be observed by hypothetical, alien radio astronomers at astronomical distances. Now broadcasting is better, the spectrum of the broadcasts has spread, powers are much lower, and the aliens will listen for us in vain.

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