radio direction finding

Where’s That Radio? A Brief History Of Direction Finding

We think of radio navigation and direction finding as something fairly modern. However, it might surprise you that direction finding is nearly as old as radio itself. In 1888, Heinrich Hertz noted that signals were strongest when in one orientation of a loop antenna and weakest 90 degrees rotated. By 1900, experimenters noted dipoles exhibit similar behavior and it wasn’t long before antennas were made to rotate to either maximize signal or locate the transmitter.

British radio direction finding truck from 1927; public domain
British radio direction finding truck from 1927; public domain

Of course, there is one problem. You can’t actually tell which side of the antenna is pointing to the signal with a loop or a dipole. So if the antenna is pointing north, the signal might be to the north but it could also be to the south. Still, in some cases that’s enough information.

John Stone patented a system like this in 1901. Well-known radio experimenter Lee De Forest also had a novel system in 1904. These systems all suffered from a variety of issues. At shortwave frequencies, multipath propagation can confuse the receiver and while longwave signals need very large antennas. Most of the antennas moved, but some — like one by Marconi — used multiple elements and a switch.

However, there are special cases where these limitations are acceptable. For example, when Pan Am needed to navigate airplanes over the ocean in the 1930s, Hugo Leuteritz who had worked at RCA before Pan Am, used a loop antenna at the airport to locate a transmitter on the plane. Since you knew which side of the antenna the airplane must be on, the bidirectional detection wasn’t a problem.

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