Why radio towers have stripes

Ever wonder why some radio towers are painted in alternating bands of orange and white and others aren’t? The story behind the federally mandated paint scheme goes back to the earliest days of aviation and broadcasting.

WSB broadcast tower, Atlanta, Ga.

WSB broadcast tower, Atlanta, Ga.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controls radio spectrum and it regulates equipment standards. And, the agency also regulates broadcast and telecommunications tower sites throughout the United States.  The FCC does this by coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration. Both agencies began as licensing bureaus in the Department of Commerce.

Radio and commercial and private aviation came of age at the same time and broadcasting’s infrastructure – towers – early on were described as potential “obstructions to air navigation.”[1] Charged with protecting the public, the federal agencies embarked on ways to minimize the danger towers presented to airplanes. The earliest tower marking schemes introduced in the 1930s included beacon lights and painted tower segments: alternating bands of chrome yellow and black or bands of white and black.[2]

Proposed FCC tower marking standards, 1937. National Archives, Records of the FCC.

Proposed FCC tower marking standards, 1937. National Archives, Records of the FCC.

In 1936 new marking standards were recommended and these were adopted in the summer of 1937. The new standards included painting certain towers in alternating bands of “international orange” and white, the standard that persists into the twenty-first century.[3] Towers were to be lighted based on height and proximity to aeronautical facilities (i.e., airports, landing areas, or designated landing approaches).

For example, towers 200 feet or higher above the ground were required to be lighted and painted while lower towers were to be marked at the discretion of the FCC and Bureau of Air Commerce. The government wanted to ensure all broadcasters got the message. The FCC and the FAA’s precursor, Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce, embarked on a public relations campaign that included sending color chips illustrating the “international orange” standard to newspapers throughout the United States.[4] The campaign appears to have worked well. The Washington Post carried this headline September 14, 1937: “Attire of Orange and White Ordered for Radio Antennae.”[5]

The Post compared the new color scheme to barber poles and mocked the bureaucratic process leading to its adoption. “It took the best minds of the Bureau of Standards and the Bureau of Air Commerce to select the color scheme,” the paper wrote. “They believe it provides the best danger signal for airmen that can be devised for all sorts of weather conditions.”

 

NOTES


[1] United States Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission. Record Group 173, Box 477, 1 August, 1930, File: 130-3, “Regulations Governing Establishment and Certification of Aeronautical Lights and Instructions for Marking Obstructions to Air Navigation,” Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office.

[2] United States Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, RG 173, “Marking Obstructions to Air Navigation.”

[3] D. Fagg, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission. Record Group 173, Box 477, 1 June, 1937, File: 130-3, Letter to the Secretary of the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C., Department of Commerce; United States Federal Communications Commission, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission. Record Group 173, Box 477, 18 August, 1937, File: 130-3, Press Release. Subject: Antenna Tower Marking, Washington, D.C., Federal Communications Commission.

[4] R.S. Boutelle, National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Federal Communications Commission. Record Group 173, Box 477, 10 July 1937, File: 130-3, Letter to the Secretary of the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C.

[5] United Press, “Attire of Orange and White Ordered for Radio Antennae,” The Washington Post, 14 September 1937, 11.

© 2013 D.S. Rotenstein

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