the afternoon of Sept. 14, 1953, television viewers over a large area of England
supposedly saw on their screens the test pattern and call letters of KLEE – a
TV station located 4,860 miles away in Houston.|
The Bayou City’s first TV station, and only the nation’s 12th, KLEE hit the air
on Jan. 1, 1949. Its call letters came from the last name of its owner, hotelier
W. Albert Lee. Back then, most stations did not broadcast around the clock, and
when they went off the air for the night, they put up a weird-looking series of
circles and whirly images known as a test pattern.
Frank Edwards wrote in his 1962 book, “Strangest of All,” the KLEE signal came
in clearly over much of the British Isles. Indeed, he continued, the image was
“so strong that many viewers had ample time to photograph this remarkable long-range
television reception. British broadcast engineers were promptly informed of the
unusual circumstances and they too were able to pick up the signal without difficulty.”
|Back then, long before
satellites, cable systems or online TV via broadband internet, television broadcasts
were limited to VHF channels 2 to 13 and a station with more than 100 miles range
was rare. Still, anyone who knows even a little about the transmission of radio
waves knows of the “skip” phenomenon, in which a signal can bounce in the ionosphere
far beyond its normal range because of climatic conditions. |
authorities attached no real importance to this reception of the KLEE signal,”
Edwards went on, “at least not until they contacted KLEE on the matter.”
they learned was that KLEE had been off the air since mid-1950, three years prior
to the appearance of its call letters on numerous British TV sets. The Houston
station, broadcast on Channel 2, had been purchased by the Houston Post on June
1, 1950 and its call letters changed to KPRC a month later.
|According to Edwards,
the British then decided to get serious about investigating the incident. Unfortunately,
again as Edwards reported, the best brains in the UK could not explain the enigma.
To override British television signals, someone would need an extremely powerful
and expensive transmitter, likely a series of them. Since only a very bored multi-millionaire
could have done that, maybe the appearance of the Houston TV call sign had been
an experiment on the part of some government working to develop a way to take
over a nation’s communication channels. Were the Russians up to something? Maybe
the American CIA? And if so, why would they use the call letters of a defunct
Texas TV station? |
Then again, maybe an even more sinister force lay behind
“We are confronted in this instance with a set of circumstances
which are at variance with accepted knowledge of television transmission,” Edwards
quoted the chief engineer of the British Broadcasting Corp. “It is unthinkable
that these signals should have been circling the earth of the period of time since
that station last broadcast them. It is physically impossible that they could
have been reflected to us by chance from any celestial body at such a vast distance.”
Then the engineer delivered a “Twilight Zone”-esque punch line: “That
leaves us with but one possibility, however bizarre, that these signals were transmitted
to us purposefully and intelligently, from a source and for a purpose presently
In other words, perhaps space aliens bent on conquering Earth
had tested a system to take control of the world’s broadcast media. That, or maybe
their sense of humor was as sophisticated as their technology.
carried a story on the mystery in its April 30-May 5, 1954 issue. Four years later,
the venerable Reader’s Digest published an account of the incident. Edwards retold
it in his book, and other tellings would follow.
Alas, a story born of
technology finally died of technology. The power of the internet finally enabled
the truth to come out: It was all a hoax, albeit one based on a business model
rather than something perpetuated just for the fun of it.
it turned out, in a particularly clever marketing effort, a would-be British entrepreneur
had sent a form letter to all U.S. TV stations making the claim that their station’s
signal had recently been viewed in the UK. For proof, the sender included what
appeared to be a photo of that station’s test pattern on a TV screen. Hoping to
peddle a TV set he claimed could receive broadcasts from extreme distances, the
sender had been working from an old list that did not reflect the Houston station’s
change of hands.
All the other TV stations getting the letter tossed it.
But when the letter from England got forwarded to KPRC, someone thought it looked
like news and the station did a story on it. The Houston station soon figured
out what the sender of the letter had been up to, but by then it was too late
and yet another urban myth had been born. Like a radio wave moving ever deeper
into space, it continues to live on.
Cox - January 10, 2013 column
Related Topics: People
| Texas Towns | Texas
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|