The picture below was cut from my book, The Box (actually all the pictures were omitted, but, hell, that’s great for this blog). I’m not quite sure I understand the perspective of the shot, but let me tell you the story of the man who gave it to me. Ted Smith (for more on him, click his tag at the right) and his friend, Loren Jones were two of RCA’s earliest employees and most brilliant engineers. In 1990, I had started working on my TV book and the interviews, frankly, weren’t going that well. Then one day, I drove down to Philadelphia to meet Ted and Loren. Both men were then in their late 80s, but they were still so full of merriment and their stories about their work so vivid and exciting that as I drove home, I knew for the first time that I was going to have a book and that it would be a good one.
One of the stories they told me was that when RCA put it up its first antenna atop the Empire State Building in the early 1930s, the engineers formed a club called the Top Notchers. To be a member, you had to crawl through the trap door under the antenna, stand out there and fly a paper airplane to either Brooklyn or New Jersey. The paper airplane was the easy part. Getting the courage to stand out there wasn’t so easy. This is how Ted described it, “It was quite a feeling to go through that trapdoor and find yourself on top of the world. You couldn’t see the rest of the building because the sides sloped down. You were suspended in space on a six-foot-diameter surface of slippery stainless steel metal with four rickety iron posts and a chain around the kept you from going down.
This drawing of the Top Notchers’s first president will give you an idea of what it looked like:
Ok, here’s a real shot of it from below:
“There was a metal circle about six feet in diameter on the top. Going through it was a rod about half an inch in diameter with a cross on top. The Top Notchers had to cimb that rod and touch the weather vane atop that cross, which was about twelve feet up. I didn’t have the nerve.
“Joe Chambers was the engineer at WNW in Cincinnati. He had done a number of rash things as a flier and he wanted to try it. When he got to the top, he made one dive for the thin metal pole in the center, grabbed it and was too scared to even look around. He said later, ” ‘If you ever get back there, you’ll find my fingerprints in the iron.’ ”
Take a look at this great picture (click on it for the larger version), looking down from the antenna, and you’ll know why: