Acccording to a newspaper report by Randy Boswell published Dec. 19 in Canada, Quebec-born inventor Reginald Fessenden’s famous account of the world’s first radio broadcast on Christmas Eve 1906 — was “contrived.”
In the article, technology researcher James O’Neal argues Fessenden’s poignant program of Christmas carols and Bible readings — supposedly broadcast from his experimental transmission station at Brant Rock, Mass. — “didn’t happen.”
Reporter Boswell wrote: After scouring century-old newspapers, letters and a wealth of Fessenden papers held by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. archives, O’Neal concluded there is an “utter lack of contemporary documentation to justify Fessenden’s claim to history.” The fresh doubts about Fessenden’s purported triumph arise at the same time radio enthusiasts in Canada and Britain are conducting a four-month experiment with antique technology to test another key claim — also with a Canadian connection — from the early days of radio. That test is intended to show whether Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi could possibly have heard the world’s first transatlantic wireless message at his Signal Hill receiving station in St. John’s, N.L., in December 1901.
Although best-known for pioneering amplitude-modulation or AM radio, Fessenden is also credited with significant inventions related to oil exploration, sonar technology and even the light bulb, having worked in the late 1880s with its inventor, Thomas Edison. Widely known as “radio’s first voice,” Fessenden was a key rival of Marconi in the early 1900s and he was later embroiled in a long-running legal dispute over the control of his own radio-related patents, which were eventually acquired by RCA, the Radio Corporation of America.
But Fessenden’s place in the pantheon of telecommunications — alongside giants such as Marconi and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell — owes much to the story of his Christmas Eve broadcast, which is generally accepted as a seminal moment in radio history. Yet details of the event are documented mainly in a letter written by Fessenden in 1932, just a few months before his death at age 65.
In Radio World, a U.S.publication, O’Neal wrote: “That’s what the history books have proclaimed for decades,” Further, he states, his research unearthed no references to the 1906 broadcast prior.
“No press reports at the time, or for a quarter-century after. No mention for decades by an inventor who knew how to promote himself and wrote hundreds of articles about his work. No mention in a contemporary log and no known logs elsewhere, whether official naval logs or otherwise,” O’Neal notes. “Perhaps somewhere out there, locked in a trunk, is a diary kept by Fessenden or one of his associates. Perhaps the Brant Rock station log survives in a second-hand bookstore. I leave it to future historians to find such evidence.”
Excerpts from a Letter sent by Reginald A. Fessenden to Mr. S.M. Kintner, Vice President,Westinghouse Electric & Mfg. Co., East Pittsburg , Pa.
You will find the history of the invention of wireless telephony given in my article in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers for July 1908.
You will note that the continuously active receiver and the continuous wave producer were invented and patented by me in 1901 (see U.S. Patents 706,735, 796,742, and 706,741) and also that the hot wire barretter and liquid barretter were invented a little bit later. It was on these two elements, i.e., the continuous wave receptive receiver and the producer of continuous oscillations, that wireless telephony was based.
You will find in the report written by Prof. Austin in the Journal of the Bureau of Standards, some time about 1905 that he points out that my compressed air spark gap gives perfect continuous sine waves even down as low as about forty metres, and in fact we got them much lower.
By broadcasting I suppose that you do not mean the transmission of speech, music and singing to other stations of the same firm which is sending but to receiving stations operated by other firms than the sending station, and also programs advertised or notified in advance.
If you mean by broadcasting the transmission of speech, music and singing to other stations of the same ownership as the transmitter, then the program given to Dr, Kennelly, Prof, Elihu Thompson the engineers of the Western Electric and A.T.&T, and other companies, and the editors of several New York News papers at the exhibition (on 21 December 1906) which you will find described in the American Telephone Journal, Jan 26th and February 7th, 1907, would be a broadcast, as indeed would be the exhibitions of wireless telephony between Washington and Annapolis in 1903, and 1905.
If however you do not call this a broadcast, then the program sent out on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, 1906 would be the first broadcast. This broadcast was advertised and notified three days in advance of Christmas, this being telegraphed to ships of the U.S Navy and the United Fruit Co., which were equipped with our apparatus that we intended broadcasting speech, music and singing on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
The program on Christmas Eve was as follows: first a short speech by me saying what we were going to do, then some phonograph music. You will find a photograph showing the phonograph used in the article in the Transactions of the American Institute above referenced to and also in the American Telephone Journal, and the music on the phonograph being Handel’s “ Largo ”. Then came a violin solo by me, being a composition by Gonoud called “O, Holy Night”, and ending up with the words “Adore and be still” which I sang one verse of, in addition to playing the violin, thought the singing, of course, was not very good. Then came the Bible text, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will”, and finally we wound up by wishing them a Merry Christmas and saying that we proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.
The New Year’s Eve broadcast was the same as before, except that the music was changed and I got someone else to sing. I had not picked myself to do the singing, but on Christmas Eve I could not get any of the other to talk, sing or play and consequently had to do it all myself. On New Year’s Eve one man – I think it was Stein – agreed to sing and he did sing, but some of the others either same or talked.
We got word of reception of the Christmas Eve Program as far down as Norfolk , Va. and on the New Year’s Eve program we got word from some places in the West Indies . There should be some record of this broadcast in the logs of the U.S. Navy war vessels and United Fruit vessels for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, 1907.