Just Who Invented Radio


Which Was The First Station?


by B. Eric Rhoads

If you ask most people who invented Radio, the name Marconi comes to mind. Usually KDKA Pittsburgh is the response when you ask about the first Radio station. But are these really Radio's firsts? In the interest of curiosity and good journalism, we set out to determine if these were in fact Radio's firsts.

Of course, as with a rating book, almost anyone can find a place where they rank higher than someone else in something. Such is the case with the inventors of Radio and the first Radio stations. Was the inventor of Radio the person who discovered that electromagnetic waves could be sent through the air, or the person
who actually sent them? Was it the person who sent signals the farthest, or who sent the first with voice?  Was the first station the first one to be licensed, or was it the first licensed experimental station? The answers aren't easy.

Wireless itself is relatively broad. Within the wireless category are many subcategories and industries of which Radio broadcasting is just one, as is wireless telegraph, wireless ship-to-shore communication, and so on.

To go back to the development of wireless we must first track events leading up to the discovery of electricity. Though some documentation goes further back, electricity as a science began in 1600 when Dr. William Gilbert, who was Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, invented the electroscope which detected electromagnetic energy in the body. He coined the word electricity. From that point forward many people had their hand in the development of electricity.  Sir Thomas Browne, Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta and Georg Simon Ohm among others. For brevitys sake, we'll look at wireless after electricity was invented.

   Exploring Wireless

The real interest in wireless began with Samuel F. Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1837, which required wires (a very expensive proposition). In 1867 a Scottish mathematician, James Clerk Maxwell, conceived of the electromagnetic theory of light.  This theory holds that light, electric waves and magnetic waves, of varying frequency, travel through the same medium  ether. Maxwell was never able to prove the theory.

In 1865 a Washington, D.C. dentist, Dr. Mahlon Loomis, explored wireless. He developed a method of transmitting and receiving messages using the Earth's atmosphere as a conductor. Loomis sent up kites 18 miles apart from two West Virginia mountaintops. The kites were covered with a copper screen and were (1)connected to the ground with copper wires. The wire from each kite string was connected to one side of a galvanometer; the other side was held by Loomis, who was ready to make a connection to a coil buried in the Earth. The receiving station connection, between the meter and the coil buried in the Earth, was always  closed, and whenever the circuit was closed at the transmitting end, the galvanometer at the receiving station actually dipped. Congress then awarded Loomis a $50,000 research grant.

In 1879 David Edward Hughes discovered that when a stick of wood covered with powdered copper was placed in an electrical circuit, the copper would adhere when a spark was made. In 1885 Sir William H. Peerce and A.W. Heaviside sent signals to one another at a distance of 1,000 yards with two parallel telegraph lines and an unwired telephone receiver in the middle. This was the discovery of induction, or crosstalk.

The real experiments leading to Radios discovery started with Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Some call him the father of Radio because his experiments created interest by Marconi. Radio waves were commonly called Hertzian Waves in the early days. Hertz studied Maxwell's theories and in attempting to develop further data, actually set up the first spark transmitter and receiver. The transmitter consisted of a Leyden jar and a coil of wire, the ends of which were left open so that a small gap was formed. For the receiver he used a similar coil at the opposite end of the room. When the jar was charged, sparks flew across the gap and were received on the other end.  Hertz then measured the velocity of the waves and found they were the same as light, 186,000 miles per second.

In 1892 a French inventor, Edouard Branly, created a tube containing loose zinc and silver filings, with contact plugs on each end. The shavings would stick together after the first spark was received; a method of separating them for the next signal was necessary. Popov, a Russian, came up with the idea of using a vibrator and the hammer of an electric bell to strike the tube and cause the filings to separate.

Tesla, Marconi and Stubblefield

In 1893 a Serbian, Nikola Tesla, suggested a means of conduction using the Earth. He invented the Tesla coil which created high frequency oscillations. In 1895 Marconi experimented with Hertzian waves and was able to send and receive messages over a mile and a quarter. He made great strides when he created transmission between two ships 12 miles apart. He then solicited and secured investors for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph company, the first to commercialize wireless. He was 23. By 1899 he had covered distances of 74 miles. In 1899 he adopted Sir Oliver Lodge's principles of tuning circuits, perfecting them and obtaining a patent in 1900. In December 1901 when Marconi sent the first transatlantic signal, inventor H. Otis Pond told Tesla, "Looks like Marconi got the jump on you." Tesla replied, "Marconi is a good fellow, let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents." Tesla's attitude toward Marconi later changed after years of litigation between them. Tesla later referred to Marconi as "a donkey."

Tesla had come up with something different and superior to that of Hertz's original ideas. He developed a series of high frequency alternators producing frequencies up to 33,000 cycles per second (33,000 Hz). This, of course, was the forerunner to high frequency alternators used for continuous wave Radio communication. Tesla went on to build the Tesla coil, an air-core transformer with primary and secondary coils tuned to resonate a step-up transformer which converts low-voltage high current to high-voltage low current at high frequencies. It is used today in all Radios and televisions.

In 1892, a Kentucky farmer and inventor, Nathan Stubblefield, publicly demonstrated wireless. Not only did he broadcast signals, but he also was able to broadcast voice and music. He demonstrated wireless again in 1898 to a documented (by The St. Louis Dispatch) distance of 500 yards. He demonstrated a ship-to-shore broadcast on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 1902, and received patent number 887,357 for wireless telephone on May 12, 1908.  Stubblefield was so afraid that someone would steal his invention, he sheltered it from everyone. He had been offered $500,000 for his invention but turned it down because he felt it was worth more.  Stubblefield envisioned the device in motorcars (as shown on his patent). Following another demonstration in Washington his "secret box" with his apparatus inside was stolen (documented February 13, 1912) and he believed his invention was copied. Nathan B. Stubblefield died of starvation and a pauper in Murray, Kentucky, after going into seclusion because of his failed attempts for acceptance.

Fessenden, De Forest & Fleming

In 1900, Professor Reginald A. Fessenden realized that Marconi's work was limited to telegraphy and wanted to find a way to transmit and receive telephony (voice). He began experimenting with continuous wave transmissions which led to the perfection of the arc transmitter.  He also developed an alternator, similar to todays alternating current, with a higher frequency and thus eliminated the spark gaps which wasted energy. His work was to become a major milestone in the development of Radio. Simultaneously Lee De Forest built a wireless outfit, also less cumbersome than Marconi's. He used the electrolytic detector as did Fessenden, which later created legal conflicts between the two. (De Forest spent years in litigation with many other inventors and was often accused of taking credit for the inventions of others).

In 1904 J. Ambrose Fleming developed his two-element (diode) valve (The Fleming Valve) while working for Marconi. Though significant, the invention was short-lived due to De Forest's invention of a three-element (triode) valve, which later became the audion tube, said to be the most significant invention in Radio. Unfortunately DeForest could not interest the public in buying stock in his company and he was forced to sell the rights to the American Telephone and Telegraph company for $500,000. The decision made by AT&T was thought to be foolish at the time, but later proved to be the investment that made the company.

On Christmas Eve in 1906 Fessenden delighted listeners up and down the East Coast by broadcasting voice and music from his transmitter at Brant Park, Massachusetts, using a high frequency alternator based on Teslas designs and principles. The program consisted of music from phonograph records, a violin solo, and a speech by the inventor. Fessendens program did not prove to be a pioneering effort, however. For several years Radio remained a communications medium devoted to sending and receiving messages. It proved especially valuable to the armed forces during World War I. The broadcasting potential was not realized until after the war, though David Sarnoff in 1916 envisioned the possibility of a Radio receiver in every home. (He later became head of the Radio Corporation of America and the National Broadcasting Company.) In 1907 G.W. Pickard discovered that minerals made an excellent detector which led to the invention of the crystal detector. It was not only effective but inexpensive which made the availability of wireless receivers more widespread.

The Radio Act of 1912

In 1910 the government required all ships to have a wireless telegraph. In 1912 the Titanic hit an iceberg and sent the first SOS signal which was heard by a nearby ship that came to the rescue of many survivors. It was later learned that another ship was closer, which would have resulted in more lives being saved, but that ship only had one wireless operator on board who happened to be "off-watch" at the time the Titanic went down. That resulted in the Radio Act of 1912, requiring that two operators be employed on all ships with constant watch.     When the Titanic sunk, a young wireless operator was stationed at the Wanamaker Radio station in New York City to receive signals between the distressed ship and its rescuers, reports about the rescue work, and a list of the survivors so that the anxious world could be advised. This kid stayed at the telegraph for 72 hours. His name... David Sarnoff. It was this event that made the public aware of the importance of the wireless.

In 1913 Edwin H. Armstrong (who much later invented FM Radio) created a way to increase the sensitivity of receivers. This regeneration system ended up in litigation with De Forest who claimed he was the inventor. Ultimately De Forest prevailed. De Forest also continued to perfect the audion tube he had sold to AT&T. It now had the ability to function as an oscillator (generator of high frequencies). This led to the oscillator circuit created by W.E. Hartley. The result was improved long-distance transmission of speech, the forerunner of Radio broadcasting.

The First Stations

In 1916 an amateur operator and engineer for Westinghouse Electric began broadcasting programs from his garage on amateur station 8XK in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. The broadcasts were enthusiastically received by other Radio amateurs who liked hearing wireless music. The broadcasts resulted in a newspaper article which generated such interest, that Westinghouse decided to build a station for the purpose of broadcasting.  The station, KDKA, was rushed to launch its first broadcast for the election returns of the Harding-Cox presidential race. It was the first programming to reach a sizable audience (perhaps 1,000 persons mainly ham and amateur Radio operators). The returns were read by Leo Rosenberg, who later claimed to be the first professional Radio announcer. KDKA also hired the first full-time announcer Harold W. Arlin, who became the first sportscaster to do play-by-play football. The newspapers (2,000 across the country) having not yet realized that they were promoting a competitor, were so enamored with the medium that they printed daily broadcast schedules. KDKA broadcast the first remote, the first religious service, the first broadcast from a theater, and the first prizefight, all in 1921.

The first commercial was claimed to be sent out over WEAF in New York City in 1922, however that is disputed because in KDKAs initial broadcasts announcers mentioned a record store in exchange for records to play on the air, as did KQW announcers in San Jose, California.  (It's interesting to note that Westinghouse, which owned KDKA, was founded by George Westinghouse, the first owner of an electric company to employ the principles of alternating current. These principles were obtained through a relationship with Nikola Tesla who held the patent, and also had the patent on wireless transmission.)

But was KDKA the first station? Though its November 2, 1920 debut is considered the official start of Radio broadcasting, others were doing the same prior to KDKA. Earlier that same year, in Detroit, WWJ using call letters 8MK began regular broadcasts. And much earlier, in 1912, Charles David Herrold began regular, continuous broadcasts of music and information in San Jose. The amateur station was well-known around the Bay area. It eventually became KQW and then KCBS.

In 1913 the physics department at Iowa State University began wireless demonstrations and is documented by a newspaper article to have done one such demonstration at the Iowa State Fair in 1915. It became station 9YI and later WOI. With groundwork dating back to 1904, the University of Wisconsin in Madison experimented with voice and music transmission in 1917. Their calls were 9XM, and later WHA.

Radio's Father

So who was the father of Radio? We have credited Marconi traditionally, however there is much doubt that he is the true father of Radio. He was very industrious, highly inventive, and had the strongest and most successful entrepreneurial spirit of any of Radio's fathers. He made excellent commercial applications for wireless telegraphy. However our exhaustive research points to the father of Radio as Nikola Tesla who had disclosed wireless and the technology at a lecture in 1893, preceding Marconi's wireless inventions and practical demonstrations. In fact, a Supreme Court case in 1943 ruled that Tesla was the father of Radio. Marconi's first patent was issued in 1900 and Tesla's in 1898.

But what about Nathan Stubblefield who had demonstrated wireless in 1892? If you go to the town square in Murray, Kentucky, you'll find a statue of Stubblefield inscribed with the words "Murray, Kentucky, Birthplace of Radio" Could it be that a forward-thinking albeit eccentric farmer from Kentucky outwitted the intellects of Tesla, Marconi, Edison (who once worked on wireless experiments and also won a suit against Marconi for patent infringement) and others? You will recall that after being very protective of his proprietary knowledge, Stubblefield's apparatus was stolen following a demonstration in Washington, D.C. Could it have surfaced as someone else's invention? Documents prove his early demonstrations of an actual working wireless system to have occurred one year before Tesla's lectures about Radio which were prior to his working experiments. No one will ever know for sure.  The Supreme Court ruled that Tesla is the father of Radio ... and Marconi is not. The question remains whether the honor should really go to Stubblefield.

About the author...B. Eric Rhoads is the author of the new book,
(Streamline Press 1-800-226-7857).
Return to N7JY main page