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Thursday, December 23, 2010

World Trade Center Tops Out (and messes with everyone's TV)

Forty years ago today, at 11:30 a.m. on December 23, 1970, the north tower of the original World Trade Center "topped out" when its highest piece of structural steel was hauled into place. At 1,370 feet, this made the World Trade Center the world's tallest building -- a title it would hold until the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in Chicago topped out until May 1973.

map courtesy of New York magazine.
As the Twin Towers reached their final height, people in the Bronx and Westchester began to notice a problem: their television signals were becoming blurred or full of static. Late in the design phase of the World Trade Center, engineers had realized that VHF television signals beamed from the top of the Empire State Building would hit the Twin Towers and bounce back 35 millionths of second later; this may not seem like much, but it was enough of a delay that people in the path of the second signal -- see map, left -- ended up with interference. The problem was going to last until new television antennas could be affixed to the top of the World Trade Center; in the meantime, broadcasters came up with a stop-gap measure of broadcasting on a separate UHF frequency. The only problem? Many televisions in 1970 didn't have UHF built in, and a converter cost $25.

In September 1970, New York magazine ran a long story entitled "Is the World Trade Center Worth All the Problems It's Causing New York," detailing the television broadcasting woes, along with other complaints that were commonly leveled against the complex: it's too big; the Port Authority is wasting money on real estate; there will be too many people flooding into Lower Manhattan for the the subways to handle. Other interesting information from the piece (which you can read here):
  • There was talk of extending the soon-to-be-built Second Avenue subway south of 34th Street to accommodate the added Wall Street traffic.
  • Another subway proposal: build "people movers" from the WTC to the Lexington Avenue and Second Avenue lines.
  • It was estimated that only 2,000 people out of 150,000 a day were going to use the Hudson Tubes (aka the PATH train) to commute to the World Trade Center.
  • The Port Authority was asking WTC tenants to stagger their work schedules so as to ease the burden on the subways.
A portable Sony color TV in 1970 runs you $309.95
The money quote comes from then-Congressman Ed Koch: "Public funds ought to be used for better purposes, such as mass transit. This is antiseptic.... [David] Rockefeller is leveling everything and putting up clean towers that match the Chase Manhattan Bank. I place the blame for this on him."

Were you around in 1970 when the television signals went haywire? If so, let us know in the comments.

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Read more about the rise and fall of the World Trade Center in

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