Marking a Radio Centennial

Matt Largey profiles one of radio's unsung pioneers, marking the centennial of the first voice broadcast. On Dec. 24, 1906, Morse code gave way to the human voice and a Handel piece heard by sailors on the Atlantic.

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andréa Seabrook.

The signal should be reaching Ursa Major right about now, the crackly sounds of Earth's first voice broadcast. It was 100 years ago today, emanating from the village of Brant Rock in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

As Matt Largey reports, the man who made it possible has been mostly forgotten, except for a small group trying to revive his memory.

MATT LARGEY: When you ask people who invented the radio, the most common answer is probably Marconi. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian engineer, he's credited with developing the first wireless telegraphy system in the late 1800s. Marconi figured out a way to transmit little electrical pulses through the air and pick them up somewhere far away. Those signals were a series of dots and dashes, long and short beeps, or Morse code.

(Soundbite of Morse code)

LARGEY: But how we got from dots and dashes to my voice you're hearing on the radio right now has largely been forgotten.

On a little strip of land jetting into the Atlantic Ocean, the village of Brant Rock, Massachusetts, in the middle of a crowded trailer park, you can find the remnants of what some people say is the most significant step in the development of radio as we know it today.

Mr. DAVE RILEY (Radio Engineer): This is the tower base where Fessenden made his broadcasts and experiments from, 1905 to roughly 1911.

LARGEY: That's Dave Riley, a semi-retired radio engineer and ham radio operator who lives not too far from this spot, what used to be a huge radio tower. The base is little more than a cement block about the size of a dumpster, a weathered metal plaque reads...

Mr. RILEY: Site of first radio broadcast, December 24, 1906, by Reginald A. Fessenden.

LARGEY: Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, ring any bells? Probably not, even in Marshfield, most people don't recognize the name or know anything about his work. Bob Demers is a ham radio operator and self-styled Fessenden enthusiast who lives in Marshfield.

Mr. BOB DEMERS (Ham Radio Operator): He's greatly overshadowed by Marconi, probably because Marconi, I believe, was much more of a self-promoter. I don't think Fessenden was into that at all. He was into so many other things. In fact, after he left Marshfield in roughly 1911, he didn't do very much in radio after that.

Mr. ED PERRY (General Manager, WATD): It only makes sense that if you can celebrate it, you ought to. And of course it's a good excuse to have a drink.

LARGEY: Ed Perry is the general manager of WATD, a commercial radio station in Marshfield.

Mr. PERRY: You need to look at how things started, because if you don't look at how things started, you forget how to start things.

LARGEY: So here's how it started. Reginald Fessenden actually first made radio history in 1900 when he sent his voice from one weather service bureau to another. This is a recreation of that first transmission.

(Soundbite of transmission recreation)

Unidentified Man: One, two, three, four...

LARGEY: Though the original wasn't a broadcast, it was still a huge leap forward. Three years later, Fessenden started his own company, the National Electric Signaling Company, and started building the 420-foot tower at Brant Rock in Marshfield, Massachusetts, and an identical one in Machrihanish, Scotland. The goal was to show that transatlantic wireless telephony was possible. That is, communicating not just with dots and dashes, as Marconi had done, but with the voice.

Fessenden and his team worked through the summer of 1906 to make transatlantic voice contact, but they were only able to get the signal a few miles down the coast to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Then, as Dave Riley tells it, in November, Fessenden got some unexpected news in a telegram.

Mr. RILEY: It came from the underseas cable across the Atlantic.

LARGEY: The message was about Fessenden's chief engineer, Adam Stein.

Mr. RILEY: Fessenden called him into the offices - can you tell me what was happening at such and such a time, and what you were doing? Yeah, I was on with Plymouth and we were making adjustments. He said, well, read this. Stein read it and said, holy mackerel. I don't know if he said holy mackerel, but I would have.

LARGEY: The station in Scotland had overheard Stein talking to the Plymouth team from across the ocean. Fessenden had finally done what he set out to do - transmit a human voice over the Atlantic. With that, Fessenden decided it was time to show the world that it was possible to transmit voices over the ether. But a few days before the big event, he got another telegram. Bob Demers picks up the story.

Mr. DEMERS: On December 7th, actually, he got a disastrous message from Scotland that the day before the tower had crashed.

LARGEY: As in, there was no way to get a signal across the ocean so that someone would actually hear it. But Fessenden decided to go ahead anyway.

Mr. DEMERS: Fessenden also had sold equipment to a lot of the United Fruit ships, because they were using wireless to communicate between ships. And he contacted the ships and said they wanted them to be listening on Christmas Eve at nine o'clock for something different.

LARGEY: And something different is exactly what they heard.

(Soundbite of music)

LARGEY: Though no recordings of that original broadcast are known to exist, we do know that Fessenden gave a short speech and then played this music, "Largo," from Handel's opera "Xerxes," on an Edison phonogram. Dave Riley says Fessenden had asked some others to perform, but they apparently got stage fright.

Mr. RILEY: So he did the whole thing himself and it didn't last all that long, but it was copied down through the North Atlantic past Norfolk and the ships and out to sea.

Mr. ED PERRY(ph): He probably didn't fully understand the potential of what he'd done.

LARGEY: Again, Ed Perry.

Mr. PERRY: It was really to show that you could talk long distances, remembering that virtually all the communications at that point on radio was dots and dashes. Forget the fact that you had talked to a lot of people. Just to be able to talk was something.

(Soundbite of music)

LARGEY: That first broadcast didn't make much of an impact, especially since it wasn't even picked up on the other side of the ocean. Even Fessenden's financial backers didn't have much interest in putting voices and music on the air, and Fessenden was forced to shut down a few years later.

Back in Brant Rock, Dave Reilly and Bob Demers mill around in front of the tower base. The structure was torn down around 1915, but underground, spreading out in all directions, is the original copper screen that Fessenden used to ground his transmitter for those first broadcasts.

Mr. DEMERS: It causes one to think and reflect and have harmonic thoughts that might have been left from those days that are still floating around here today. How does it feel when somebody goes to the temple at Delphi? To us, this is the radio temple of Delphi.

LARGEY: On a nearby building, you can see a 10-foot copper rod sticking up from the roof. For the centennial year, Dave and his friends have rigged up their own transmitter at Brant Rock. Since January, they've been sending a signal out into the ether. It's the Morse code for B-O, or Bravo Ocean, very, very slowly. That's the code for Reginald Fessenden's original transmitter here, the same signal he sent out 100 years ago today to announce the first voice broadcast in history.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey.

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